Archive for Mario Bava

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Pink Desert

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2022 by dcairns

IF YOU MEET SARTANA, PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (Gianfranco Parolini [Frank Kramer] 1968)

I like colour-coded genres: the American noir, the Japanese pinku and the Italian giallo. I think all genres ought to be colour-coded, in which case the Italian western would be the arancia, or orange. I think that sounds pretty good, and avoids the cultural sneering involved in using pasta as a put-down.

So, after Klaus Kinski and his henchmen have killed off a nice old couple in a carriage, Sartana shows up, as a hero for the first time. Gianni Garko had played someone called “General Sartana Liston” in $1000 ON THE BLACK in 1966, but that Sartana was a baddie. This one is a death-dealing “hero” in the spaghetti tradition. Speaking about the genre on TV, Alex Cox rather exaggerated when he said the Italian western hero wasn’t interested in honour, justice, women or money, just killing. He CAN be vaguely interested in all of those things, especially money, but it’s mainly a pretext to motivate the killing. Burt Kennedy astonished John Ford by telling him the Italians made westerns, but mischaracterised them as “No story, no scenes, just killing.” In fact, with their multiple betrayals, Italian westerns often deliver more plot than many American ones, but one can understand Kennedy getting distracted by all the mayhem. When Cronenberg’s CRASH was accused of being just a bunch of sex scenes, Cronenberg asked, reasonably, why you couldn’t tell a story composed that way. So with the Italian western: the best ones often seem like compendiums of set-pieces, all killer no thriller.

Anyway, Sartana: “You look just like a scarecrow!” sneers a henchman after the black-clad gunslinger shows up, in the middle of nowhere (an Italian quarry, faded to a strange pink hue) without anyone seeing him coming. “I am your pallbearer,” he replies, and kills them all (save Kinski). He does it a couple of ways: with a gimmick tiny pistol (of the kind Sabato would also enjoy) and with a shotgun. But he never bears their palls, that was just a figure of speech I guess. These guys’ bones are gonna bleach in the sun.

The pithy quip in the western does have some antecedents in John Wayne (“That’ll be the day!” “Fill your hand you sunnovabitch!”) but it becomes a thing in Italian westerns via Leone’s transposition of the “Cooper, prepare three coffins,” bit in YOJIMBO from Mifune to Eastwood in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. At the same time or slightly earlier actually, Sean Connery’s James Bond had started quipping after a kill (“Shocking!”). The Italians led the world in cheap Bond knock-offs, many of them made by people who also made westerns — Michele Lupo, Sergio Sollima, Duccio Tessri, Gianfranco Parolini (who gives us Sartana, here, and then Sabata), Mario Bava, and writers like Ernesto Gastaldi, Sergio Donati, Fernando Di Leo… It seems to be a matter of temperament whether you went from gladiator movies to spy films or to westerns or to Gothic horror or to gialli or to polizioteschi or soft porn. With only Bava having a go at virtually every genre on the list, sometimes two at a time.

Gianfranco Parolini, directing under the name “Frank Kramer,” plays a small supporting role in this, credited under an anglicised version of his name — it comes out as “J. Francis Littlewords,” which is the most darling thing ever. Like a lovable donkey in a child’s storybook.

Sartana’s gadgetry is another import from the Bond films. Alex Cox heartily dislikes these “circus westerns” (anything with a lot of gadgets, comedy and acrobatics) and dislikes Parolini’s playfulness. “Sergio Leone wasn’t playful,” he protests, and here I have to disagree. Leone cuts from his villain laighing maniacally to a wanted poster of the same villain, also laughing maniacally (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE); he has his credits dodge bullets or get blown up by cannonfire, appear letter by letter when the telegraph chatters, or descend like a level crossing in front of a train (at the same time imitating the action of a clapperboard); he has James Coburn turn into a poster with a glowing banner over his head as Rod Steiger looks at him — an appropriation of cartoon grammar. Leone is absolutely playful. I think I responded to spaghetti westerns as a kid, far more than I did to regular westerns, because they were black comedies with a lot of slapstick.

Speaking of slapstick, along with genre icons Garko, Kinski, William Berger and Fernando Sancho, this movie features Sydney Chaplin. Charlie’s son, not his half-brother, though the cannibal rapist in the family would arguably have fit neatly into an Italian western, especially one by Fulci (whose only spy films were comedies with gormless double act Franco & Ciccio). So I had to watch this one — can’t resist two of my series joining up, more or less.

What about Bond villains? They’re always criminal masterminds, sometimes though not usually attached to a world government. Often they’re businessmen — as with the spaghettis. Well, you need someone who can afford an inexhaustible stream of henchmen for the hero to effortlessly off. Chaplin here plays such a businessman, ludicrously named “Jeff Stewal.” It’s a tribute to the hierarchical, departmentalized nature of film production that Chaplin couldn’t or anyway didn’t get them to give him a name that makes some kind of linguistic sense, rather than a collection of vaguely anglo-saxon sounds.

But the businessmen in these films are not REAL men — the syphilitic Morton in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST typifies the breed. Lack of a pistol equals emasculation. Chaplin is humiliated and extorted by his own hired gun.

William Berger, an Austrian Dan Duryea, snorts from a snuffbox and also rubs the contents on his gums, which suggests to me it might not be snuff. Lanky of figure and lank of hair, orange dye-jobbed Berger is almost as visually arresting as Kinski, and as blue-eyed. He’s irretrievably associated with this genre, never really fitting in elsewhere, which imposed an unfortunately short shelf-life on his stardom.

Title sequences: well, the Lardini company had a set of acid-pop art techniques they would apply to any film, regardless of genre, but their colour washes and (very) limited animation was applied to oaters and espionage with explosive abandon. But only Leone seemed able to get the images to match the music, rhythmically. In the average western, they’re all over the place.

The inter-genre connections seem so strong it’s odd to me that Parolini’s spy films are humourless dogshit and his westerns are fun.

The biggest difference, besides locations and design, between the Italian western and spy film seems to me to be sex, which is largely downplayed/absent in the westerns. Clint’s strangely asexual protagonists lead the way in this: shooting men seems to take the place of coition. Instead of lingering on women’s live bodies, the cameras of Leone, Corbucci and their followers lavish attention on male corpses, usually with perforated foreheads.

The plot in this SARTANA revolves around stolen gold, as usual. This MacGuffin motivates three massacres within the first ten minutes. What’smore impressive is that the film manages to introduce a bunch of characters who are NOT summarily slaughtered.

Piero Piccioni provides music inhabiting the space between “jaunty” and “wildly disoriented.” The musical watch from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is shamelessly pilfered in both non-diegetic and diegetic ways (stolen both from Leone and from characters in the film).

Bond-spaghetti confluence… I’d say there are musical connections — influenced presumably by Masaru Satô’s jaunty jazz score for YOJIMBO, Ennio Morricone abandoned the traditional approach (orchestra with a few olde west stylings and the occasional ballad) for a pop/experimental madness. After FISTFUL, you get a lot of straight rip-offs of the whistling theme and twangy guitars, but you also get all kinds of inventive craziness. I feel like the twangy guitars and vamping horns of John Barry’s Bond scores are an influence.

Everybody in SARTANA sounds like they recorded their lines at the bottom of a bloody well, along with Piccioni’s piano.

Despite his lethal array of dad jokes, Bond’s catchphrase is just a lame introductory statement: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And likewise the spaghettis seem obsessed with naming their heroes: MY NAME IS NOBODY, THEY CALL ME TRINITY, MY NAME IS PECOS, MY NAME IS SHANGHAI JOE, MY NAME IS MALLORY… M MEANS DEATH!, THEY CALL ME HALLELUJAH, I AM SARTANA YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH and, a bit desperately, TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME. Plus numerous Joes, Johnnies, people with Colt or the name of a state in their name…

The Bond films, though, were directed by British traditionalists who shot things in fairly staid ways, but then had Peter Hunt pick the pace right up in the cutting. No crash zooms, zip pans, bizarro POV shots or gratuitous camera movements for Eon Productions. It took Sid Furie’s compositional eccentricity on THE IPCRESS FILE to bring the spy flick closer to Leone’s exuberance.

While in the Gothic spaghettis, the main character comes and goes like a ghost, and in regular ones this occasionally happens with really cool characters (Eastwood vanishing from a noose in TGTB&TU), here, everyone defeats spacetime, turning up in the middle of the desert without being seen, running into a building and then appearing outside it to shoot some dynamite and blow it up, or watching from a high promontory, on horseback, in plain view, without being spotted.

There’s a lack of scale in this one — Parolini has no enthusiasm for Leone-style giant ECUs where pancake-clogged pores become tangerine moonscapes, and he can’t shoot epic wide shots because his quarry location only extends so far. He keeps things moving with pans and zooms but doesn’t have the wild skill with tracking shots that so many of his countrymen displayed.

There’s more business with sexy saloon girls than usual (the same occurs in SABATA) — a little teasing is allowed, but Sartana keeps his black duds on and only retires to the boudoir to trap a couple of assassins. The girl mockingly tells him that Chaplin’s fat business partner (played by Parolini fave Gianni Rizzo, his character ironically named “Alman”) pays her to talk, and doesn’t “do” anything — but Sartana is the same — having spent a couple of bullets, he tosses her out.

His real flirtation is reserved for Berger and Kinski. He could, it seems, kill the bad guys at any point, but he likes to draw things out. If psychology were in play at all here, that would make him a man with a death wish, which could be interesting, but Parolini and his writers aren’t concerned with anything but plot mechanics and shoot-em-ups. (Have I mentioned how Bava’s ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK dispenses with pretence and has the two heroes express their homosexual passion via punch-ups?)

The action is frequent but repetitive. Garko plays hide-and-seek with Kinski in the barn-like undertakers, a routine repeated in one of Parolini’s SABATA films (I forget which). Kinski wears little bells on his spurs — dainty! — and clogs them with shaving foam when he wants to get stealthy. In YOJIMBO and then FISTFUL and also DJANGO, the supercool hero is exposed, caught, and severely beaten, a vital moment to raise the stakes. It’s boring watching a cool hero win all the time.

Here, it’s Berger who gets the elaborate drubbing at the one-hour mark, so Garko can stay clean and ublemished. This, along with Sartana humiliating him at every turn, robs Berger of dramatic menace, and Fernando Sancho, who administers the beat-down, is a fat caricature Mexican, an unsuitable replacement as head honcho or Sancho. There ought to be somebody set up as deadly with a gun, since, like a John Woo hero, Sartana can effortlessly execute normal gunmen in any number. So the question of who will be the final boss is the main active one, but it’s rather uninvolving. There’s also a femme fatale, Heidi Fischer, which is nice to see. For all the genre’s misogyny, there are maybe more strong female characters than in America westerns, even if they’re villainesses.

Cox complains that the film looks cheap compared to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, made the same year, an unusually naive statement from a filmmaker. Obviously, the film IS cheap, especially compared to Leone’s super-epic. Parolini has some minor Euro-stars and he has some big sets, but spacious rooms are not all that costly if you have the studio space and flats.

The bad guys’ HQ is no Ken Adam control room but appropriately enough, Mussolini’s Villa Carpena, a frequent Italian western location and one also recycled for the SABATA series. That architectural resonance is as close as the film gets to political consciousness.

Cox likes James Bond films, because they (in his view) dispensed with the retrograde good-versus-evil paradigm and merely showcased a can-do Brit doing his job with fancy toys. Why he can’t get behind Sartana, then, is mysterious. Both Bond and Sartana are cool but kind of boring. Alan Moore summarised their ubermensch appeal by invoking a Leonard Cohen poem: “When I am with you / I want to be / The perfect man who kills.” Again, this inherently sinister aspect is something Parolini can’t be bothered exploring. His problem isn’t that he’s playful, it’s that his toys don’t seem to stand for anything richer.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Michael J. Pollard’s ass is a dish best served cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2022 by dcairns

This piece contains spoilers and in fact they’ve already started.

The Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel identifies the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Sword, famine, Wild Beasts and Pestilence but in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations their names are given as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But here’s Lucio Fulci to settle the debate: they are Stubby, Bunny, Clem and Bud. As played by Fabio Testi, Lynn Frederick, Michael J. Pollard and Harry Baird. The judge’s decision shall be final.

We really enjoyed FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… (1974). It’s unusual. Alex Cox is fairly dismissive of it, as he is of all post-1970 spaghettis. He points out that with its pop music soundtrack and soft-focus, backlit, long lens cinematography, it strongly resembles a TV commercial of the period. I’d Like to Buy the World a Gun. This is true, and the songs are fairly diabolical, though they do add to the weirdness which is one of the film’s key virtues, and Fulci’s love of diffusion is evident in his horror movies too. Giving a romantic gloss to hardcore prosthetic gore is agreeably perverse.

The violence has a point, which coincides with what I take to be the point of Fulci’s horror films, which aren’t scary but deal with a disturbing idea — human beings are composed of meat. Fulci being a doctor (!), like George Miller (!), he seems to have had a sense of mission in teaching us this valuable if depressing truth. (The sadism in Fulci is clinical and lacks joi de vivre, it’s more squalid and abject.)

The colour-supplement beauty may have a point too, but at any rate for those who don’t enjoy the Leone aesthetic — orange makeup, clogged pores in massive close-up, dust — here’s an alternative. Scenic beauty and spouting rubber appliances.

As with his previous (1966) western, MASSACRE TIME (haven’t seen it yet, but going by Cox’s report), Fulci stages a lot of squib-splatter effects, not otherwise seen much in the Italian west. If he was doing that in ’66 he was really ahead of the curve — ahead of Penn and Peckinpah. I’ll check that one out and report back.

Fiona christened these guys “the notorious Elephant Man Gang.”

This one begins with multiple “explosive bullet hits” spurting red, red vino in an opening massacre largely unconnected to whatever plot the film has (arguably, it has none). While it’s going on, our main characters are spending a night in the jail, which introduces them. Fabio Testi (literally “Fabulous Balls”) is a smooth gambler, Lynn Frederick, soon to marry Peter Sellers, is a pregnant hooker, Michael J Pollard is passed-out drunk (and, in reality, apparently high as a kite) and Harry Baird is a gravedigger who sees dead people. While the town’s other undesirables are being slaughtered by white-hooded vigilantes, and the sheriff stuffs his ears with bread, Fulci crash-zooms in on Baird’s frightened face…

Run out of town on a cart, our ill-matched quartet head for the next town — and never get there. That’s the closest thing to a plot. Also, they meet up with outlaw Tomas Milian, who carves inverted crosses carved under his eyes and is basically a wild west Charles Manson, an idea I suppose someone was bound to explore at some point. Manson’s actually living on a wild west movie set makes it inevitable.

Milian, much less appealing than in DJANGO, KILL! (a Christlike Yojimbo) or THE BIG GUNDOWN (a scrappy underdog), is a horrific villain. His arrival triggers a spate of actual animal killing, in the Italian cannibal movie vein: he’s a one-man REGLE DE JEU hunting party. Getting the foursome high on some ill-defined peyote or something, he stakes them out in the desert and rapes the stoned Frederick. This is staged in a very spaghetti western manner — a lingering build-up with a startlingly sudden conclusion. It’s at once highly exploitative and slightly squeamish, as if Fulci wanted to get the sadists aroused and then leave them high and dry.

The four, having briefly become five, are now reduced to three, two, one. Pollard, a veteran of the European western, having played romantic lead (!) in LES PETROLEUSES/THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING, dies (too soon!) from a gunshot wound. Baird goes fully schizo and serves Pollard’s severed buttock to his friends as a meal, then capers off. ALWAYS ask what the “large animal” your crazy friend found and butchered actually is.

Frederick gives birth, and dies. Her baby, born in an all-male town of eccentric outlaws, is adopted by the whole community, and christened “Lucky.”

“What’s the surname?” wondered Fiona.

“Bastard,” I suggest.

The slender thread of plot running through the latter half has been a revenge quest — Testi gets his revenge, in a messy and unpleasant manner, and walks off, crying.

W.H. Auden said that works of art are not divided into the good and bad (and ugly), but the interesting and boring. This movie is, I submit, interesting. Lots of implausible, childish stuff, but Fulci for once seems to actually care about and like his characters, or at least made us do so. Everyone is post-synched but apart from Testi, their real voices have been used — Frederick’s combination of wild west saloon gal and stage school brat is rather adorable, and Baird just plays it with his Guyanan accent. Revenge is an imperative, but it’s main value is, it seems, to allow the hero to grieve.

The acting is, as Cox might say, “a certain kind of acting.” Or certain kinds. Frederick strives to condense as many facial expressions into as short a space of time as possible. It’s strange to see such a porcelain doll countenance moves so much. Her line readings are frequently incomprehensible, even though she has perfect elocution — it’s that opera singer thing, where everything is enounced beautifully but has no relation to natural speech and so the brain stumbles over it. The protean features, however, are the natural uncontrolled expressiveness of a child, something Frederick never offers in any other performance. Pollard is just out of his face, agreeably so. Baird is given a lot of conflicting stereotypes to contend with (singing spirituals AND cannibalism) but his character’s craziness is benign, and atypical. Rather than being afraid of spooks, he likes them. Testi’s character arc is, on one level, the retrieval of his shaving kit, on another it’s the classic revenge motive, but on some other unstated level it’s an attempt to become involved with humanity. It’s not at all clear if this is a good idea for him.

Maybe the film’s unusual sentiment and humanity comes from the Bret Harte stories it purports to adapt; maybe from Ennio de Concini, co-writer, whose varied credits include DIVORCE: ITALIAN STYLE and Bava’s likeable THE EVIL EYE/THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Maybe Fulci was in an unusually sympathetic mood: perhaps DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING had a brief purgative effect on his toxic sensibility.

There is, as usual with Dr. Fulci, a lot of unpleasant imagery, and the prosthetics are as usual gloated over until the seams show. But there is very attractive imagery too. The sense of the west as a nightmarish world of anarchic violence, in which our protagonists are defenceless innocents, is touching and scary and unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s like if you digitally erased Clint from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and left the weak and the bad to get on with it. The title is hard to parse, since these four are not powerful destructive forces, and do the 1880s count as an apocalypse? One is forced to conclude that, in Fulci’s universe, the apocalypse is happening ALL THE TIME.

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… stars Zorro; Tatiana Romanoff; C.W. Moss; Big William; Provvidenza; Tatum, the killer; Agente della Pinkerton; and Dr. Butcher.

Claude

Posted in FILM with tags , on May 20, 2022 by dcairns

Three jobs on the go now, and it’s marking time at college. I quite like being busy, though, and the marking is a short, intense burst (or it better be, otherwise it won’t happen on time). The projects are a documentary on a British filmmaker, a video essay on a silent film, and a text essay on a Hollywood classic. I can say no more.

Might be able to blog something this evening, but in case I don’t, here is an amusing photo of Claude Chabrol. Claude usually pulled a funny face when being photographed, but this one seems fairly natural. But still funny. Maybe the funny faces were a reaction against the fact that he tended to look funny even when he wasn’t trying.

The other funny face guy, of course, is camera-shy Mario Bava.