Archive for Salo

A Portrait in Gold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by dcairns

A few weeks ago I had a couple of triumphs — I was able to procure for Chiseler scribe Jim Knipfel three films by his beloved W. Lee Wilder that he’s always yearned to see, and for David Melville Wingrove a copy of LA MESSE DOREE, a movie he’d been fantasising about since he was twelve. Read his report —

“We need to remember that we are still alive.”

Lucia Bosè, La Messe Dorée

The 70s were the decade that looked as if everything was about to change. For most of the much-mythologised 60s, a handful of rich and glamorous people hung out in exclusive nightclubs and talked about changing the world. By the dawn of the 70s, it seemed that people in increasingly large numbers were ready to do just that. Feminism, gay rights, Black Power, anti-war protests and burgeoning left-wing movements across the globe made it tempting to believe that bourgeois heterosexual patriarchy was well and truly done for. But what might the world look like once the end finally came? The cinema of the 70s made some bizarre attempts to imagine. The majority were less a case of Apocalypse Now and more a case of Apocalypse Yes, But Not Quite Yet.

Big commercial movies tried to reflect the anxieties of their audience with overblown epics of devastation and disaster – Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) – where the sheer wretched overacting made you wonder if The End Of Civilisation As We Know It was really such a tragedy after all. The art-house took a subtler but no less apocalyptic view. The single most radical and uncompromising film of the 70s – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stomach-churning yet wholly non-sensational Salò (1975) – showed the patriarchy fighting back against the threat of annihilation and doing so in increasingly perverse and brutal ways. It may be the one film routinely described as ‘pornographic’ that seems designed to put its viewers off sex for the rest of their lives.

Only one other film of the decade can rival Salò for sheer aesthetic and erotic boldness. It is a film so obscure and so difficult to see that it verges on being ‘lost’ for all time. It was made in France in 1974 by the Italian designer and artist Beni Montresor. Its title is La Messe Dorée. That title translates as ‘The Golden Mass’ and – as one might expect – it is lush, ritualistic and sensual, as mysterious and glowingly over-decorated as a Byzantine mosaic. Its star is the darkly glamorous Italian diva Lucia Bosè, who resembles Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in an unusually perverse mood. Watching from the shadows, in the subsidiary role of her husband, is the French actor Maurice Ronet – whose haunted face seems to hide wastes of depravity of which the Marquis de Sade could barely dream.

The action centres entirely on an orgy in their elegant Art Nouveau chateau outside Paris. Attractive young guests of both sexes are invited, there to indulge in various unspeakable acts. The parallels with Salò may seem too obvious to need pointing out. Yet the tone (and the ideological agenda) of the two films could not be more different. If Salò is the art of protest, La Messe Dorée is the art of seduction. In Salò we see a conservative patriarchal order (specifically, the Fascists of 1940s Italy) defending itself through acts of nauseating sexual savagery; in La Messe Dorée, we witness the defeat and dissolution of patriarchy itself. The father played by Ronet has become an irrelevance in his own house. Unwilling or unwelcome to make love to his wife, he gazes hungrily at the naked flesh of his teenage son and beds down at last (and, mercifully, off-screen) with his nubile 12-year-old daughter.

The real action is downstairs at the banquet. As the guests sit down to dinner, a glamorous lesbian (Stefania Casini) devours a chicken leg as if she were performing a full-on act of fellatio. Flouncing about in a voluminous red-and-gold kaftan, Bosè leads the company in a wild ritual dance. The women swoop and whirl about like Bacchantes while the men-folk, rather sheepishly, join in. Later on, the lesbian and her married girlfriend indulge in some surprisingly hardcore Sapphic action. The girlfriend’s strait-laced husband (François Dunoyer) watches them and masturbates helplessly in the doorway. His only way to join in is for the two women to tie him to the bed and torture him. As the S&M games grow more frantic, he screams out: “I want to die! I want to die!” When the two women leave the room, he is stretched out motionless on the bed. He does not appear at any point again.

Yet even this is not the climax. As the evening draws to a close, a young virgin (Eva Axen) is ceremonially robed and painted to resemble the Madonna. She is carried on a litter to the main hall, surrounded by guests with blazing torches, to the tune of Severino Gazzelloni’s incantatory score. There she is stretched out on the floor and ritually deflowered; as the whole company copulates around her, she penetrates herself with one finger. Orgiasts smear their faces with blood from her broken hymen. All of this proves too much for Bosè, who – as befits a star of a certain age – has presided with elegance over the kinky goings-on but, hitherto, has done nothing indecorous herself. Now, with a shriek of unbridled passion, she runs upstairs and becomes alarmingly intimate with her son. You may be glad the scene that follows is no more convincing than it is.

On its release in 1975, La Messe Dorée managed to shock the few people who saw it – in those few brave countries where it did not get itself banned. I myself first read about the film in a magazine when I was twelve years old. (Yes, I was that sort of child.) It has taken me the ensuing forty years just to track down a copy. That is not too long to wait for a dark and dreamlike fantasy on the breakdown of the heterosexual bourgeois order and the triumph of all things a therapist might label ‘polymorphously perverse’. The look and tone of the film suggest Beni Montresor was a homosexual aesthete in the High Decadent tradition of Oscar Wilde and Barbey d’Aurevilly. Yet, oddly, there is little if any sexual activity between men. La Messe Dorée is defiantly queer rather than gay. Complex and hard to pin down, it may never be reclaimed as a cult movie by one particular audience.

Beni Montresor, a lot like Oscar Wilde, may have lived in sheer terror of not being misunderstood. So we do La Messe Dorée a supreme honour if we do not understand a thing.

David Melville

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YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM (and only Bergman holds the key)

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2014 by dcairns

Our first guest Shadowplayer, filmmaker Matthew Wilder, looks at a late-ish Bergman — Bergman spent more of his career making late movies than anyone before or since — I think he first announced his retirement with FANNY AND ALEXANDER but then kept writing and directing up until his death, and has authored several post-mortem works.

Polish Poster

***

In a moment fraught with resonances at once Freudian and Kafkaesque, Ingmar Bergman was arrested at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in the midst of a rehearsal of August Strindberg’s DANCE OF DEATH for income tax evasion. The subsequent stress—though all charges were dropped against Bergman and he was entirely exonerated—drove him to a nervous breakdown and hospitalization. There is an irony here that no doubt Bergman appreciated most of all: the great auteur, known for woman problems in his own life, attempts to “exorcise” them through staging the notorious misogynist Strindberg’s folie a deux on the subject of marriage…and in the process gets pinched by two plainclothes Superego Cops, putting the cuffs on him for a crime he didn’t commit…but perhaps he did commit it: the crime of being Ingmar Bergman.

Let’s remember that this act—the act of being put under arrest—caused Bergman to crack. And let’s view this crack-up as the bridge between Bergman’s two superb crack-up movies, FACE TO FACE (1976), where ill-treated-by-Ingmar Liv Ullmann is the cracker-upper; and FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1980), where Peter, a male who may or may not be an Ingmar stand-in, is he-who-cracks.

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The subject of FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is inexplicable trauma. And as analysts of the traumatic event that is FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, we must, like the dislikable, Simon Oakland in PSYCHO style shrink in MARIONETTES itself, look at the facts. Yes, Bergman was arrested for tax evasion; yes, he “broke down” and went into a mental asylum; and yes, he transformed that crack-up into the coolly objective (feeling) “dossier on a crack-up” FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES. However, Bergman had no problem finding money for projects outside of Sweden (AUTUMN SONATA and MARIONETTES were British/German coproductions); he easily re-routed himself to Munich; and his problems were solved in the homeland in time for him to slide into home and create FANNY AND ALEXANDER, perhaps the most cannily devised farewell-tour, wasn’t-I-great-folks? Swan song in the history of cinema.

I would venture to say that what was traumatic to Bergman had nothing to do with his finances, or his auditors’ view of them. It was the sheer trauma of that act of arrest. Its concomitant air of persecution and its presumption of guilt were what snapped the string in Bergman’s head. Hitchcock spoke of his lifelong fair of getting pinched by the cops; and to be sure, we read that into that traffic cop with mirrored sunglasses knocking on the window of the sleeping Marion Crane’s car in PSYCHO. Bergman (like Fritz Lang, who saw the actual inside of a Gestapo questioning room) actually experienced it.

The effect of this trauma was transfiguring. From it came one of Bergman’s strangest but most mature works. There are earlier Bergman films that seem entirely carved out of self-pity born out of some jarring events in Bergman’s life. The almost unbelievably preposterous NOW ABOUT ALL THESE WOMEN (1964) derives from Bergman’s agony at the hands of critics, and of the many women in his life; THE RITE (1969) is a free-floating fantasia of persecution, staged in the manner of a Living Theatre bacchanal merged with a movie—it’s about every kind of Establishment force cracking down on a troupe of sensitive artistes.

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FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, on the contrary, does not depict its melting-down protagonist as a righteous character violated by an unjust society. Its attempts to decrypt an abominable act of violence are entirely equivocal.

The genre MARIONETTES belongs to, I would insist, is the giallo. This Italian pulp form features many narrative shapes: some are Agatha Christie-like whodunits, some are cop sagas, others are in the vein of Gothic dark-old-house yarns. But what yokes them all together is fetishized images of highly sexualized, then highly vandalized, female bodies.

To break it down: they all feature a bare-breasted hooker, strangled with her eyes bugged out, or perhaps slashed, a bloody gout zigzagging her torso, also with her eyes bugged out.

Sometimes (more often than not) this image is eroticized; other times it is sheerly horror-ized; in all cases it is wildly fetishized.

FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES does not quite give us that precise form of visual satisfaction. The protagonist, Peter, kills a prostitute at the outset. In the seconds counting down to that murder, we are very much on the side of the hooker, Ka, as the runs about a tiny, windowless, foul-smelling strip joint and tries to find a place to hide before Peter can kill her. And, unlike the equally sober Bob Fosse film STAR 80, MARIONETTES tells us that Peter anally rapes the corpse, but does not show us the goods.

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What I would suggest is that FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is a deconstruction of the giallo. (Is the giallo really derived from Hitchcock’s FRENZY? If so, there is an interesting family tree revealed here. MARIONETTES seems in many ways an oblique commentary on, or at least wink at, PSYCHO; FRENZY was Hitch’s attempt to steroid up, to make a contemporary, R-rated PSYCHO, and it would seem the giallo form was in large part spun off from FRENZY—with the most famous topless, strangled-tongued, bulgy-eyed victim in the history of cinema.) Where the conventional giallo gives us garish, lurid repetitions of the primal scene of bulgy-eyed-hooker, MARIONETTES takes that eroticized image away and gives us a geyser of potential explanation, psychologizing, motivation. And Bergman never lands on one satisfying “Rosebud” password that opens the door to Peter’s psyche.

Before killing Ka (Rita Russek), Peter (Robert Atzorn) fights with his sexy, proud, self-possessed wife (Christine Buchegger), with whom he has a relationship that is described as more sibling-y than conjugal. “We have good sex,” he says, “we do it without emotions.” He has a seemingly dismal job in business—in one virtuoso sequence, Bergman has him dictate a business letter in its entirety, its bean-counting prose a dazzling feat of imaginative writing—but he seems quite happy with it, and with the status it affords him. His mother (Lola Muthel) is a one-time big-shot actress who still thinks a great deal of herself though the spotlight has moved on; we see how this could be destructive, though it doesn’t seem to land with Peter very strongly. The strangest element, the one likeliest to contribute to his psychopathology, is his relationship with the rather sinister shrink, Professor Mogens Jensen (Martin Benrath). This character is reminiscent of all those cold-blooded, quietly sadistic men of science in Bergman movies who go by the name of “Vergerus.” Peter visits him and tells him of the thoughts that dog him about killing his wife. Jensen callously tells him to “take a long walk, then have a coffee and some cognacs,” and is generally smugly dismissive of the younger, more attractive man. Peter pretends to leave, but hides near one of Jensen’s bookshelves. A moment later, his wife arrives…kisses Jensen…and they talk about Peter. Jensen wants to bed her at last; she says no, she is too devoted to her husband, as irritating as he may be. They are, she says, permanently joined. We see Peter hearing this—seeing her step away from infidelity with the doctor—and it would seem this moment of loyalty saves her life.

Or is the whole scene a fantasy? It is one thing for Scorsese to stage Travis Bickle’s final encounter with dream girl Betsy in TAXI DRIVER; or Rupert Pupkin’s triumphant return to late-night TV at the end of THE KING OF COMEDY, as maybe-it’s-all-a-dream-or-maybe-not. Those are the closers to the movie…and the movie has said its piece, made its points, longer before that INCEPTION-like pivot of ambiguity arrives in the last inning. Here, Bergman plants this crucial scene—maybe the one that comes the closest to “explaining this whole thing”—somewhere around the one-third point. All the other possible reasons ping off this critical moment…and we don’t even know if it’s real.

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There is something a little subjective in my fascination with MARIONETTES: there is a certain way of speaking, of being, that I think of as signifying “Bergman’s people.” The pinnacle of it is in the 1974 SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, to which MARIONETTES is supposedly a sequel or an offshoot. (Peter and his wife are meant to be doubles of the unhappy couple who visit Johan and Marianne in SCENES.) There is a certain kind of dialogue Bergman wrote in that largely noble string of movies extending from PERSONA to MARIONETTES, which sometimes cries out in terror and pain, and oftentimes lacerates another character in language so acid and indelibly cruel, the scenes are almost intolerable to watch. The characters in MARIONETTES…they are not really these people. They are not as self-assured, self-regarding, self-aware. They seem harbingers of a newer, post-self-conscious society…closer to today’s society of people who constantly speak and tweet of themselves, yet seem to have no particular deep awareness of themselves. Katarina, Peter’s wife, stages fashion runway shows; Peter works in some form of sales that is opaque. The characters know they have feelings but don’t seem to know where they come from—possibly a first for Bergman.

There is a shock to some of these scenes that recalls opening Andy Warhol’s Diaries for the first time and discovering that his telling of “Cab Ride–$13” and “Drugstore Pickups–$23” were entirely unironic. Bergman seems to be trying to speak in the voice of, and perhaps analyze, a new, different kind of person. (This is certainly borne out by his ending the movie with a blast of disco music from the strip joint—as if he thought that were what we, like the strip-joint habitués, wanted.) It has always struck me, from my first viewing of MARIONETTES, that Bergman was, for the one time in his career, influenced by the work of someone working at the same time as he: in this case, making MARIONETTES at Munich’s Bavaria Film Studios, it is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was just down the hallway making BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ at the same time. The film seems an attempt to step up to what Bergman considers Fassbinder’s level of coolness or indifference—there is even a character who screams in German of her terrible “fear of fear”: the title (Angst vor der angst) of a particularly baroquely cruel late Fassbinder movie.

Though the vignettes are laid out in cool, objective, pseudo-journalistic fashion, MARIONETTES is as nakedly the artist’s attempt to put himself on the examining table as any late work by Lars Von Trier. For instance, Bergman reveals more about himself than the character in a strange vignette in which Katarina hangs out with a co-worker, an aging homosexual who is almost literally an encyclopedia of all the clichéd traits associated with “aging homosexual.” At one point, half preening, half self-loathing, he delivers an entire speech with his face smooshed against a mirror. Childless, afraid of aging, pathetically vain, he confesses to Peter’s now rather cop-like shrink that he planned to weasel his way into Katarina’s marriage and steal hot young Peter away from her. One wonders whether this toxic portrait is a legitimate snapshot of Bergman’s own loathsome homophobia, or a deliberately jacked-up grotesque character that Bergman plunked down in this story to thumb his nose at the PC types in the audience—or, perhaps, in Munich. (Could it be a va fongu to the BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ guy down the hall?)

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If nothing else, FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is a giallo with all the misogynistic pleasure taken out. The hero’s dreams, that swirl around violence toward his wife, are more empathetic and cringe-inducing than sadistic and aestheticizing a la set pieces of DePalma. Even the black and white seems superegoic punitive. For all intents and purposes, FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES spelled the end of “Ingmar Bergman” the filmmaker. The work that followed—FANNY AND ALEXANDER, AFTER THE REHEARSAL, SARABAND, and other odds and ends—were more part of Valedictory Tour, Inc., than part of the main body of Bergman’s work. No, this trauma finished him—and he ended in a far-off land, the land of Vergerus, the Nazi doctor in THE SERPENT’S EGG, doing an eighties take on something like Oskar Kokoschka’s MURDERER HOPE OF WOMEN: a German Expressionist saga of Liebestod with many a grimacing dead hooker’s face. MARIONETTES is as complete a testament to the unknowability of human evil as David Fincher’s ZODIAC. It is a truly terminal work, like Pasolini’s SALO, an edge past which there is nowhere to go.

So it makes sense that Bergman would, as Pauline Kael so succinctly put it, “go sprinting back to Victorian health” with the widely beloved FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Like many other film artists who hit a wall at the end of the seventies, Bergman gave the people what they wanted in the eighties. And he had a long string of no-really-this-is-it finales. But as a last gasp of the monster he was, FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is Ingmar Bergman’s real testament movie.

It’s Turkey Time

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by dcairns

The Late Show Blogathon is, and is not, over! We’re in extra time, where I run late-filmed-posts I couldn’t cram into the official week, and maybe a few guest blogs will still turn up. It’s the after-party, and it doesn’t stop until we say so!

The Blogathon master-post is no longer pinned to the top of the blog (using science), but it’s here. It links to every single post, here and elsewhere, that appeared in the blogathon. Or you can use the Late Show tag on the right of the main page to see all the posts from all four years of the blogathon. Some good stuff there! I’ll attempt to take stock and say something summative about this year’s jamboree soon.

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REINDEER GAMES was called DECEPTION in the UK because they’d figured out that their original title confused people. It always sounded like a thriller to me, but Fiona reckons that name only would work for a comedy. But it kind of IS a comedy. Anyway, I was browsing a charity shop and saw a Polish DVD of this going for £1 so of course I bought it…

John Frankenheimer’s last theatrical feature stars Ben Affleck and was made for Dimension Films — there are a few hints of the kind of obsessive quest to hammer plot points home that distinguishes the Weinstein aesthetic — “Did you get it? DID YOU?” Frankenheimer’s late career renaissance — I think he saw it in those terms — is an odd beast. You have THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU which is fabulously terrible in ever-changing ways, like looking into a kaleidoscope of shit. I love it dearly. Then you have RONIN which allows Frankenheimer to exercise his action movie chops in a film literally about nothing — chasing a suitcase, the most abstract MacGuffin imaginable. Then somebody decided to make it literal and boring and dub on a radio voice saying it was all about state secrets vital to the Northern Ireland peace process, which struck me as ridiculous and offensive, as if any cause could make all the cold-blooded mayhem we’ve just enjoyed in any way justifiable.

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And then REINDEER GAMES, a Christmas-set wrong man heist movie tarnished by a clever-clever ending that’s really stupid-stupid, but which is a pretty agreeable time-waster and a summation of Frankenheimer’s cynical, empty, hardbitten and hardboiled worldview. There’s even a great Frankenheimer substitute in it, Dennis Farina’s blunt, world-weary casino manager, a washed-up pro with no patience for politicking, last seen riddled with bullets in the ruins of his trashed gambling den. “I can’t go back to Vegas,” is his recurrent lament. There’s a melancholy under Frankenheimer’s post-sixties nihilism, and however happily the stories turn out, what you remember is a dying fall.

Lots of Christmas imagery, starting with a bunch of dead Santas reddening the snow. This preps one for a bracing, nasty take on the festive season, but there’s a big mushy ending being cued up by Bob Weinstein somewhere in a back room at Dimension, so watch out! It’s a horrible betrayal of the film’s noir attitude. The movie works better when it’s contrasting the tough thriller angle with corny Xmas pop songs, and has Affleck singing The Little Drummer Boy to himself. I think he should have his own lyrics.

I have no gift to bring

Parump-a-pum-pum

Can barely lift this chin

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Fun bad guys, less-skeezy variants on the gang in 52 PICK-UP — here we have Gary Sinise and Danny Trejo, who has “become a serious pain in the ass” since he “went to night school.” Charlize Theron sporting one of her early-career bad hairdos (see also THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE) — maybe it’s necessary to make us believe she might be the kind of woman who writes romantic letters to convicts.

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Here’s the plot set-up — Affleck and James Frain are due for release from prison. Frain can’t wait to meet his sexy penpal, but he gets shivved before the big day. Affleck comes out and recognizes Charlize from Frain’s photos and kind of feels sorry for her, waiting in the snow for the convict who’s never going to come. And also, she’s rather attractive (she has a hat on so he can’t see the hairdo). So he pretends he’s the deceased Frain…

I would submit that, for all the film’s flaws, anybody who likes stories would kind of have to stick around after this point to see what’s going to happen…

Here’s one of Frankenheimer’s even-later works — an eight minute car commercial from the screenwriter of SE7EN, Andrew Kevin Walker. It’s rather fine.

Wait, there’s a director’s cut? Now I’ll have to see that — maybe next year.  Reindeer Games (The Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]

More Blogathon!

Chandler Swain revisits Losey’s STEAMING. Here.

Scout Tafoya’s second blogathon post explored the last film to end them all, PP Pasolini’s positively final SALO, as well as taking in the last essay films of Lindsay Anderson and Dusan Makavejev. It’s quite a feast, if you can get past Signor Pasolini’s unappetizing entreesHere.