Two Dollar Movie, Part 2
Alias Nick Beal (1949)
The Suicide Club (1988)
A Fork in the Road (2009)
Private Lessons: Another Story (1994)
A Double Life (1947)
Air Hostess (1959)
In/Flux – Mediatrips from the African World #2 (2013)
In Memoriam (1977)
The Late Late Late Show, Vol. 1 (undated)
Buio Omega (1979)
Not as a Stranger (1955)
Salty O’Rourke (1945)
The Phoenix (2014)
Rachel, Rachel (1968)
Of Horses and Men (2013)
At Florence’s Dischi Alberti, if you buy four DVDs, the fourth (and cheapest) is free. Not even two Euro. Which is where I think the copy of La Sconfitta di Satana (literally Satan’s Defeat or The Devil’s Defeat) that popped out from the section devoted to American cinema would have been placed when il conto was being tallied up. The original title was Alias Nick Beal (1949), but there’s no sign of that on the Italian DVD release. All the credits have been re-done into Italian.
Producer Endre Bohem emigrated to America from Hungary in his 20s and ended up in Hollywood. Over a long career he was a writer and producer of much that would be called hack stuff. His biographies especially mention his role as a producer on the TV series Rawhide over several years. Somehow or other though, while this journeyman life passed by, he produced two remarkable films at Paramount, Alias Nick Beal and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1949). Both were directed by John Farrow, and both should be included in any upper echelon of the noir canon.
Alias Nick Beal is set in the backrooms of American politics. Principled public prosecutor Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) is being tempted to enter politics but is determined not to make deal with the sleaze element of his party. They are represented by Franky Faulkner (Fred Clark), whom he tosses out of his office. Then, from out of the fogbound locale of the China Coast Cafe, there emerges Nick Beal (Ray Milland). He moves with effortless grace, appearing suddenly, disappearing easily, manipulating, putting temptation in Foster’s path. It brings down his marriage and his principled reputation; he is saved only by late, divine intervention when a character guesses that Beal has an aversion to the Bible.
Beal you see is a Devil. Lucifer in a business suit and a sleek brilliantined haircut. Not the Devil, mind, for his field of activity is far too limited to be the sole occupant of that chair, but a Devil; his malignant influence spreads like an evil spirit of noir out of his wharf dive right into the halls the power. Mesmerising stuff, and directed by Farrow with an economy that one might wish to see return today. One especially brilliant moment is the two-minute long shot wherein Foster and his local priest discuss what he needs to do to get Beal off his back. The movement within the frame, the sleek little camera dollies into close-up and out, are breathtaking.
Regrettably, the Italian version of the DVD, almost certainly a bootleg and certainly taken from inferior material, simply makes you long for a full scale restoration, at whatever the cost to the DVD punter might be. This would be most especially beneficial because it would almost certainly bring out the glories of Lionel Lindon’s noir photography, the dark interiors, the fog, the shadows, and especially the face of the emotionless, business-suited Lucifer embodied by Milland without a touch of movement. Perhaps someone might do the same for Night Has Thousand Eyes, and we would have a very nice tribute package to both Farrow and his two-time collaborator, Endre Bohem.
In 2003 I was travelling around Western Australia for a couple of months. Besides enjoying the scenery, I was also visiting all kinds of stores that sold books, old and new, looking for books by Australian authors. Once in Albany, where I inexplicably had decided to spend two days, I went to a charity shop. What few books, CDs and VHS tapes they had were on the same shelf; while I did not find any interesting books, there was a VHS tape that did catch my eye. Partly because it was a British VHS; so someone most have bought it somewhere in Britain, brought it here, to Albany, and then given it away. It appealed to me to bring it back to Europe. I didn’t know the film, called Driftwood (1947), and although I had heard of its director, Allan Dwan, I had never seen anything by him or had any idea as to whether he was any good. But it was short (87 minutes) and cheap ($1AUD) so I bought it without hesitation.
I couldn’t watch it then, being on the road and with no access to a VHS player, so that would have to wait for two more months until I got back home. It was so worth the wait; especially the first hour is quite exceptional. It begins with a young girl listening to an old man giving a sermon in the ruins of a church. After the sermon, the man (the girl’s grandfather) dies and she runs away, alone in the wood. She meets several wild animals and then is frightened by a plane crash. She is joined by a dog (a collie) and, the next day, is found by a local doctor and taken into a little town nearby, as an orphan. The whole set-up is visually bold (none other than John Alton was the cinematographer, his first collaboration with Dwan) and rather peculiar, a mixture of a fairy tale and a biblical horror story; something that might have inspired Charles Laughton when he was making The Night of the Hunter (1955).
The rest of the film is difficult to both describe and pinpoint, as there is so much going on simultaneously: a combination of small-town politics, domestic drama and comedy, with the additional theme of the differences between science and religion (the young child is taken in by the town’s doctor, a scientist, but she herself is steeped in religion). The acting is very good, too. Natalie Wood plays the little girl and Dean Jagger the doctor, and Walter Brennan and Charlotte Greenwood play other major roles.
Of late there has been something of a resurrection of Allan Dwan and his career. My personal favourite is Tennessee’s Partner (1955), but Driftwood is proof that Dwan, when he was inspired enough, could pull off almost anything. Not that I knew of any of these things back in Albany in 2003.
There is so much to like in this film, with its overwhelming psychosexual undertone and tension. Pin is a transparent medical training dummy who possibly functions as a ventriloquist doll for the domineering father who is a doctor. Pin (via the father) teaches the kids about sex (with the father looking on from a distance) the father is always referred to as ‘the doctor’, it seems! It gets weirder when the father/doctor asks the son if he would like to watch an abortion he will perform on his daughter, and when, in a later scene, a nurse uses Pin as a sex toy!
The DVD cover exclaims the film is ‘A Plastic Nightmare’ which clearly refers to Pin, as a non-human plastic entity, but is also echoed in the plastic/artificial family, right down to the plastic-covered protection on their lounge chairs. Also adding to the weirdness in Pin is the notion of a medical dummy instructing the children of the family how to be ‘normal’. This normal/abnormal binary runs all through the film.
It features a great range of characters, including a preppy, anal-retentive, paranoid-schizophrenic brother (David Hewlett), a sexually promiscuous sister (Cynthia Preston), and domineering father (Terry O’Quinn, elsewhere ‘the stepfather’) – plus, of course, the unblinking presence of Pin (voiced by Jonathan Banks). Unlike your standard ‘possessed doll’ horror movie, Pin is a far more mysterious and ambiguous affair. In its time, the film probably fell through the cracks a little, as it is so difficult to categorise – always a good thing for any movie.
Adding to the strangeness here is the fact it’s a Canadian production (There exists a genre of Canadian exploitation films: Canuxploitation, of which clearly Pin is a part). In the same way that many David Cronenberg movies feature Canadian locations that seem to be strangely devoid of traffic or street noise, somehow contributing to their weird un-ease. The same can be said for Pin: there is a Canadian weirdness here! Something not quite right which contributes to the whole creepy experience unfolding on screen.
Finding a cheap copy a few years ago in a second-hand store, it was a curious experience revisiting it. With its title taken from the Robert Louis Stevenson 1878 collection of the same name, it is a very loose updating of the first tale, ‘The Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts’. But here its highbrow heritage ends. There are, on the production side at least, no real names to speak of: writer Matthew Gaddis was credited as a production assistant on Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre (1981), and director James Bruce stuck mostly to forgettable television work and tacky straight-to-video fare like Headless Body in Topless Bar (1995).
The Suicide Club was never released on DVD and has very little online presence; not even a trailer on YouTube. This is not by any means an undiscovered gem awaiting cult canonisation. What drew me to it then and what draws me to it now, however, is its star and co-producer, Mariel Hemingway. On first viewing I had not seen her film debut Lipstick (Lamont Johnson, 1976), in which she stared alongside her sister Margaux, or Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) where she plays Woody’s young lover. Nor did I know much about her family’s history with mental health issues: the 1961 suicide of her grandfather, Ernest, the anniversary of which was bleakly marked in 1996 by the suicide of Margaux herself.
The film follows a group of spoilt, rich trust fund kids in the Hamptons who – crazed by the boredom of their privilege – turn to a card-game based party scene where the ‘winner’ is ritualistically murdered. Caught in an incestuous love triangle with the event organisers Cam (Lenny Henry) and his adopted sister Nancy (Madeline Potter), Hemingway’s Sasha is lured into their world, and irresistibly drawn to the idea of her own death. Watching the film today, I love how it looks: it stylistically feels like a cross between Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) and Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978), albeit through the filter of an orthodox TV movie.
But knowing about Mariel’s active role in the production of the film and the circumstances surrounding both Ernest and Margaux’s death, The Suicide Club interextually offers, despite itself, one of the most powerful depictions of depression I can think of, next to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Mariel’s performance is not exactly award winning – nothing about this film is – but with the single, long take of her glazed, unmoving face that opens and closes the film, the very pain of being alive is rendered real in a way I’ve seldom seen in a movie. As a piece of cinema, The Suicide Club may not be worthy of chest-pounding remembrance but, in it, the cold, dull pain of having your life destroyed by mental illness has rarely been captured more profoundly.
This month I won A Fork in the Road (2009), a straight-to-DVD release directed by Jim Kouf. Ever heard of the man? The film promises ‘great performances, laughs and lots of fun’ according to a Variety quote printed on the cover, which is flanked by an all-caps statement that it’s from the makers of Rush Hour (1998) and National Treasure (2007). Interestingly, this quote from Variety is unverifiable, nowhere to be found online or in its archives. These are signs that would make any cinephile steer away. But actually, I had a great laugh and I learned something.
A Fork in the Road is a production that can teach you a lot about where producers/makers come from. Why don’t we ever have a good look at how producers influence film culture by studying their failed attempts at filmmaking? A Fork in the Road reveals that Kouf has good taste, but not the patience to craft a seductive film language. The film gives us Will (Josh Cooke), an escaped convict who is freed by the sheer coincidence that there is a fork on the road that punctures the tyre of his police escort. Everything that happens after that is of similar, externally motivated randomness: Will runs into the wild, finds a barn to hide in. While resting, he hears a gunshot outside and leaves the barn to check up on what’s happening. April (Jaime King) has accidently murdered her blackmailer and tries to get his body into her car. Because the police have cut off all highways searching for Will, April can’t get rid of the body. Hence, Will becomes an accomplice when she discovers he has been a witness to her crime.
The film follows this logic throughout: April and Will somehow find a way to dump the body after all, but then discover that April left her purse in the car. In the meantime, her husband thinks she is cheating on him when he finds the blackmailer’s photographs – with April in compromising positions. On top of that, the police misread the same scene in April’s house completely differently, making an absurd conclusion that her husband set it all up to flee his crimes as a wife beater.
Kouf genuinely tried to direct tongue-in-cheek comedy within a somewhat suspenseful arc that offers you constant twists in the fates of these two very likeable characters who have to deal with heinous and bloody solutions. This dynamic references both the kinetic humour of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Little Rascals, and the nifty scenario-bending of the Coen or Farrelly brothers. Kouf clearly tried to position the story somewhere on this spectrum. However, he is very clumsy in creating the right set-up for the audiovisual language to have a believable atmosphere. The cinematic language he uses is inconsistent, the humour not well timed or edited, and the plot twists not written tightly enough. Of course, it starts with the opening scene: the fork in the road. The film is actually not quite about forks, or forks in roads. But rather, role reversals: Will is a convict but is actually innocent, April is a victim forced into a criminal act.
In a gentle way, the film confronts me with my snobbery, showing that Kouf understands good cinema, but that he is a better enabler than a ‘maker’. A Fork in the Road is a paradox, as it does not give us exactly what it promises (it’s not as good as it claims) but, at the same time, it shows us exactly what it is: a movie made by a cinephile who knows what ingredients are needed for an acceptable piece of entertainment. Let’s analyse these brilliant failures more often: they offer a good laugh, and reveal where the other half of the Hollywood system is born – the producers! – before any auteurship happens. For me, as a cinephile, the serendipitous encounter with this film comes at a pivotal moment in my life, too, as I have started to work more with creatives than critiquing them. A Fork in the Road made me embrace role reversals.
And there was, hidden between other shops on the two messy floors of the Arcade, one DVD sanctuary, stocked with every conceivable title, shipped here from who-knows-where. I could stay in that place for the duration of my visit to Hong Kong, prone to seemingly endless surprises – early French and Italian titles, rare Korean war films, Thai ghost horrors and Albanian dramas. Each DVD was priced at $10HK (= €1). I left with a purchase of about 20 DVDs that day, mainly rare East European films in the original language with Chinese subtitles.
Of all these, one is still a cherished item in my collection: Verdreba (Mol’ba/The Plea, 1968), a Georgia-film production by director Tengiz Abuladze. A visual symphony in black and white, an incantation of the mountain balladry of the Caucasus, raising out of the aesthetics of Mikhail Kalatozishvili's Salt of Svanetia (1930) and based on texts by Georgia’s national poet, Vazha Pshavela. I could not help noticing that Verdreba is made a year prior to Sergo Paradjanov’s Colour of Pomegranates (1969), an Armenfilm production based on the poetry of Sayat Nova.
Over the years, I have come across scores of international friends who have praised Paradjanov’s film; I also have had many moments when I would note to myself that some filmmaker has been influenced, for certain scenes, by Paradjanov’s gem. But it had not occurred to me, until the moment I saw Verdreba, to acknowledge that Paradjanov himself may have been influenced for the rhythm and imagery of his film.
So, if you want to see one of the sources of Colour of Pomegranates, watch Verderba, the film that I bought that day for 1 Euro in the DVD shop in the Golden Computer Arcade in Sham Shui Po.
Amir Naderi’s Waiting (1974) has never been publicly screened in Iran, and is not available on DVD, VHS or the Internet. It was a sheer coincidence that I managed to watch it with some other short films from Kanoon (Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) in a free cinematheque event some months ago in 2016. The copy that I watched was of low quality and its sound was distorted, yet it was powerful, ambitious and extremely modern even after 40 years. Waiting is Naderi’s most personal film, both in thematic and formal aspects, and it anticipates his The Runner (1985).
This forgotten, dialogue-free short film deeply affected me: a mesmerising, bewitching experience which plunges the viewer into an intense yearning. Waiting tells no story, having an extremely simple, basic situation: a teenage boy, living in a small, southern village with his old guardians, regularly takes a shining, glass bowl to a large, mysterious house, to be filled with ice. The film contains intriguing symbolism which tricks us into a fascinating game of thematic interpretation; however, what really lingers in our minds is the cinematic image, its mood and atmosphere.
Waiting starts with the boy as he is running barefoot along the sea and in the dusty, tiny alleys of the village; he is nameless but we can call him Amiro (same as the protagonist of The Runner) – he is a runner with a burning desire to touch a young woman’s hand. Whenever he takes the glass bowl to the door of the unknown house, a young woman’s hand comes out, takes the bowl and fills it with ice. Amiro drinks the icy water but it does not satisfy his thirst; he wants to touch the woman’s hand and to see her face. There exists an erotic tension between the hands, in the recurring image of the boy’s hand stretching towards the woman’s. However, his craving should not be reduced to a merely erotic interpretation. There is an enigmatic desire reflected in his face, his restless eyes and open mouth, in his pervasive running, and his never-ending distress. What is his object of desire? The film complicates this question. It seems that he wants to break free – but from what, exactly?
Amiro is surrounded by old people, ancient traditions and trite rituals; he is surrounded by the sight of death which is reflected in the shot of dead fishes, in a woman’s grave, in the Ashura ritual and the sacrificial lamb. When he encounters five women completely hidden beneath black chadors, a similar hand attracts his attention; petrified by the sight of those fishes, Amiro runs after the woman as if her youth is the only sign of hope, a promise of escape. In the film’s climax (if such a thing even exists here), the boy enters the mysterious house which seems as old and ruined as his guardian’s small home. It is a dream-like sequence: pigeons are fluttering everywhere, making a distressing sound intensified by a woman’s singing.
In the basement, he finds three young women who are performing a strange mourning ritual in an unconscious state, as if controlled by the two older women sitting there. As Amiro gets close to the young women, the oldest woman attacks him and forces him out. Then he runs to the graveyard and stares at an unknown woman’s tomb; it may belong to his mother. Next morning, he takes the glass bowl to the house again; however, this time an old hand comes out, and the boy is shocked. But what sticks in our mind is the terror in his eyes, an unforgettably haunting gaze.
The provenance of the two dollar videotape on which I first saw the film is a mystery. The beginning of the film was missing; it began, I think, in the midst of a protracted Miami nightclub sequence that plays out like a music video directed by someone who has watched a lot of Dario Argento. Inside the club, frustrated New York fashion photographer Lauren Hamilton looks up at the club’s stacked television screens to see the euphoric expression of a woman gyrating feverously on the dance floor. It’s raining that hot Miami night when Lauren follows this stranger up the stairs and onto the roof of the club, to take pictures of her taunting some guy she met on the dance floor. Peering from behind a tangle of pipes through a hellfire of red neon and the alchemy produced by an off-screen smoke machine, Lauren watches them perform a choreographed dance-fuck of dripping sweat and penetrating tongues. This is softcore. Her excuse is her camera, but I don’t know what mine is. I keep thinking of these lines in Guy Talese’s 2016 story for The New Yorker, ‘The Voyeur’s Motel’: ‘I wondered if voyeurs crave escape from their prolonged solitude by unburdening themselves to other people’.
The part that was missing, I found years later on a German-issued DVD: a dream sequence in which Lauren, after disembarking from her Miami-bound flight, seduces her Latino chauffeur, Raoul. Lauren wakes up on a Miami-bound flight and you realise that Private Lessons: Another Story is haunted by everything that it is not: a De Palma film, a love story, a music video, a porno. And this lack is compelling and kind of gross.
The curtain rises. Theatre faces life, and life sees itself in theatre – while, in the stalls, these gazes multiply. The ground might be shared: a board with figures and long shadows attached. The show and the dance of masks begin. A renowned actor accepts to place himself on the razor’s edge once more – knowing his own tendency to dramatic splitting – and he morbidly begins another risky dance: incarnating the hero of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
George Cukor, the Hungarian who liked to approach his work as if he had European ancestry, takes advantage of the added gunshot of cinema – complexifying, with a noir aroma, this game of mirrors called A Double Life (1947). Ronald Colman, the British film actor who began in theatre and here plays Othello, forgets to take off the mask when he leaves the stage; and when he is on stage, the mask is so attached to his skin that he forgets the limit between life and death.
We, privileged cinema spectators, spectators of the theatre inside cinema and spectators of life, witness this passionate, dark parade of light and shadow, under which lies the conscious, lucid gaze of Cukor upon individual identity and its fragility.
There is a dazzling moment during the ‘Oh Calypso’ number in Air Hostess (1959) – directed by Wen Yi and starring Grace Chang – in which an intriguing mise en scène of music and mirror, camera movement and dance move, is staged and showcased.
The film cuts to what seems to be a reaction shot of the spectators amid the song: an editing staple of the film musical, particularly in those in which Chang appears (where close-ups of her euphoric singing and endearing smile are constantly punctuated by, as though rewarded with, admiring looks). At the centre of the shot, poised between two onlookers, sits a mirror (which is also a door). Suddenly, Chang glides into and across the frame, looking to screen-right but travelling towards screen-left. Shaking and swaying, she then quickly swirls upon exiting – barely at the edge of the frame – and turns into facing the opposite direction.
Then something marvellous happens. Chang promptly re-enters the shot (again!) from screen-right, returned in the frame-within-the-frame that is the mirror, as if she has magically leaped into it. The border of the frame is also the frontier between realms (one thinks of a comparable moment in Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, 1932). The camera now commences a protracted pan to the left, gradually mapping the details and design of the set. What we see are the many mirrors that surround the dance floor and, in between each, a group of interested bystanders. Chang’s act is repeatedly caught in these many, silvery surfaces. At one point, the navigating camera even catches up with, and stays close to, her movement. The two are engaged in a game of hide-and-seek, with the camera chasing, hence capturing, both Chang the performer and her multiple manifestations. The modernity of Chang’s character in the film – her flight from a fixed female identity through the vocational choice of air hostess – is here suggested by the multiplication of her image, portraying her as a parade of entities.
If this shot in Air Hostess can be likened to an unscrolling painting, the imagery successively unfolded here, nevertheless, is only revealed to be curiously similar, if not exactly more of the same. In fact, the onscreen alternation of the spectacle and the spectator gives the impression of a series of action/reaction shots condensed into a single continuous take. The director finds an innovative way to appropriate part of the effects of an overused, if not overtired, editing trope in Hong Kong musicals from the period. The result is, at the same time, mesmerising and revealing of the film’s meaning and feeling.
An observation: it seems that the ‘Oh Calypso’ number in The Hole (Tsai Ming-liang, 1998) not only inherits the song from Air Hostess but also its re-imagination of place, of the rapport between performer and space – registered and rendered by expressive camera placement and movement. A proposition: The subject, style and scope of the film musical has undoubtedly, as Adrian Martin points out, mutated. But from Busby Berkeley to Air Hostess to The Hole, camera movement persists as one of the most powerful means to express the genre’s utopian impulse – which is the creation of a place that never was and probably never will be, a presence that is palpably close yet yearningly distant. This paradox recalls our relationship with the camera when watching a film: it is simultaneously with us and not with us, a reverie we hold dear and a stranger we keep near … a fugitive confidant.
In/Flux – Mediatrips from the African World #2 (2013): I can’t even remember how I got it. It has been lying on my bookshelf for quite some time now. It is blood red. The disc has a PAL and a NTSC side. It contains eight films. One could say that what brought them together was exactly what we investigated for the 100th edition of Adrian’s World Wide Angle (that for at least 70% of the time I have misspelled World Wide Angel in the production schedule of de Filmkrant, but that’s a side note …). These eight films will never be canonised, because they come from the ‘other side’ of where the canons are made. A quick Internet search shows that none of them was selected for the Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen or the shorts section of the Rotterdam Film Festival. Produced between 2002 and 2011, it was a time in which even we, in our safe little spot of western Europe, started to realise that if cinema (amongst many other things) dealt with issues of representation, then perhaps we, as spectators, even in our most passive of roles as bystanders, were accomplices to that what was being (under-/mis-) ‘represented’ and happening on the screen. Even then, we were already media-wise enough to understand that as film audiences we wilfully, voluntarily switched to that ‘involuntary’ mode in which we hope to believe that cinemas, even the most fictitious ones, give us an unmediated Real.
These films challenge that; they rebel against truth, taste and representation. They shift identities; they flow into one another, like the different stages of a journey by foot through a forgotten continent. Oh, how the colours of the soil slowly change! They all deal with territoriality and memory, the most shape-shifting and unreliable of human faculties. They ferociously juxtapose image and sound. Their floating images may be deceptively poetic, their strobe-light editing may be irresistibly funky, and no matter how many trees and houses were burned to ashen the land (Black Smoke Rising Trilogy) and besmirch the image, the sound designs and music compilations rap and rant and moan and groan like the pains and the unsung partisan songs of the thousands whose blood has flown into these grounds. These films REFUSE to be categorised and canonised, in the best political and Third Cinema traditions, these films by directors, artists, collectives from Angola, Ethiopia, Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa.
They defy time. Space. They live forwards in backwards times like the young man who slowly walks against the currents in Le sens de la marche. But they are all deeply rooted in their geographies and geologies. All films claim bodily presence in urban(ised) spaces, deal with the absence of objects (like the obelisk of Axum in Lightning Strikes and the dancer bending his limbs through the desolate mining architecture in Mémoire), objects that carry the histories of postcolonial strategies and economies. These films are not about the representation of the Other – and yet they are. But they are foremost about the representation of the self. A deceptive and violent process of deconstruction and destabilisation: every form of narrative would be a form of framing. And thus they talk to us through newspaper ads and pictures and photographs, and Tintin cartoons, and posters for The African Queen: ‘That is how we became they / They became those / Those became it / That’s how a race was born’ (My African Mind).
Let me do something unusual and say that my sample was not found in a VHS shop, nor in a street stand with cheap DVDs. My story belongs to an earlier time, a time in which you found the bargains within actual cinema theatres. Why disobey Comrade Martin like this, and go back to the shadowy caverns where we saw cinema 30 or 40 years ago? No, it is not a matter of nostalgia. You should not mistake me for one of those guys who shed daily tears for the cinemas in which they wasted their teen years, sometimes with the sole result of a feverish night’s insomnia incited by Debra Paget or Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston or Robert Redford. I did this too, but I thought I was cleverer than that.
That’s why, one day at the end of the 1970s, while the street was burning with riots and demonstrations of that historic Transition which also never happened, I entered a theatre that doesn’t exist anymore, and saw a movie that I’ve never encountered since. Its title was – very appropriately, as I think now – In Memoriam (1977), and it was directed by Enrique Brasó, who I knew for his book on Carlos Saura that I had carried to classrooms and along streets for months, and who, after this film, shot only an episode of a collective project.
You’re getting the idea. I was, I pretended to be, an intellectual. In fact, In Memoriam was based on a story by Adolfo Bioy Casares that I had read in a book called Fantastic Tales, that also dragged its days, coming apart, in my room. And all this relates to what I want to say, and also the fact that we were in the middle of an especially dark Holy Week, and cinema theatres (as was the habit during the Franco era) had changed their program to show movies that were not happy comedies, nor erotic epics, nor even morbid melodramas: literary origin, time of ashes, a phantasmagoric space, a routine afternoon, a coin of 25 pesetas that I deposited at the box office …
Everything is conjured to incite memory, and to change it, and to build from the present a time that back then maybe didn’t even exist. I remember the first scene: José Luis Gómez is in a prison cell, accused of a murder, scraping an object that I now cannot materialise, with a kitchen knife or a street knife. Afterward, there’s a flashback and Geraldine Chaplin appears, and with her Eusebio Poncela: the movie’s strange triangle is thus formed, a triangle that walks its melancholic, dead time through a wintry and dark city, especially through the door of a house that emanates a strange, yellowy light that I immediately associated with The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973) and later with Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972). Long shots, elaborate dialogues and, above all, a tracking shot that starts with one of these characters and ends with another, after an interminable meandering, filming only lights and neutral spaces – or what then seemed to me then lights and neutral spaces, a mixture of dark chromatism and shiny abstraction as I have never seen again since.
Now I cannot analyse this film, not even describe it, but only evoke it and, from there, mix it with what today I imagine it was. What if I saw the movie again tomorrow? Would it be the same? Surely not. Films sometimes are not just what they are, but also the way in which they happen in a given moment. The way in which their time is mixed with another time, the time in which somebody sees them, to later remember them. That’s why I have never dared recommend this movie to anybody, and I haven’t re-watched it either, not on television, not on VHS, not on DVD, nor in any other form. Because I have been lying to you. Because, for me, In Memoriam does not begin with the shot of José Luis Gómez but with another shot in which I myself appear, watching the film in that time, a shot that captures my memory of that day, sitting in front of the images of a movie that perhaps I have merely imagined …
Sometime in the homestretch of the 20th century, when DVDs were becoming familiar and dubbing to disc was becoming the coin of the movie-swapping realm, a friend sent me a DVD-R bearing the mysterious Sharpie squiggle ‘Euro Spies, Krimis and Kowboys’. I watched it right away, utterly unprepared for what became one of the most delirious screening experiences of my life.
Imagine yourself plunged into an hour of stylish, enticing, often silly trailers for films that have fallen off the face of the earth, that might just as easily have come from another planet if the occasional familiar face didn't sometimes flash amid the detritus: Jean Marais, Pierre Brasseur, Curd Jürgens, Eddie Constantine, Barbara Laage, Christian Marquand, Gérard Blain, Dany Robin, Michel Piccoli. One after another, they galloped or ricocheted off the screen in a riot of teasing obscurity and hyperbole: Danger In the Middle East (‘a newcomer among great motion picture directors, Michel Clément, has created for you the most unusual and exciting of the new French films!’) featuring ‘Claude Cerval, the revelation of the modern French cinema!’... To Catch A Spy (‘Each scene is more gripping than the last!’) ... the genre-bending Lost Treasure of the Aztecs (starring musclebound Sergio Ciani/Alan Steel as Samson, dressed in cowboy garb and leading an expedition to a lost civilisation!) ... Duel of Fire (‘Will the love of this woman cool the violence of his hatred?’) ... Messalina (‘Now you can witness, in thrilling spectacle, the havoc that a beautiful woman can cause!’) ... Musketeers of the Sea (‘A film that sheds new light on the world of pirating!’) ... and – my favorite boast of the entire package – Stranger From Hong-Kong (‘No city but Hong Kong could be the setting for this breathtaking picture!’), to name but a few. A trailer for Operation Gold Ingot (which I’ve since learned was Georges Lautner's now-hard-to-see En plein cirage, 1962) consists of a series of still images, interrupted by a single motion image of Martine Carol – a curious coincidence, as Chris Marker’s La jetée was released that same year. Making the overall spectacle even sweeter: in nearly every trailer, the lead male actor is dubbed by the same voice. And the dialogue! ‘Don't you find this series of murders strange?’, he asks in X-Ray For A Killer.
I later found out that the disc was a copy of a Something Weird Video trailer compilation entitled The Late Late Late Show, Vol. 1, which the company continues to sell from its website as a download and DVD-R. Watching it remains the closest waking experience I've ever had to dreaming of films that do not exist. In many cases, the English-dubbed versions represented here no longer do, as the rights holders to these films either consider them an offensive distortion of the original performances, or a legalistic nightmare to navigate and negotiate.
Concluding the program is a ten-minute short, The
Gentleman in Room 6 (1952), directed by Alexander Hammid – a dramatic shocker filmed entirely subjectively from the perspective of a
protagonist who is revealed, just before the events of the story compel
him to commit suicide, to be Adolf Hitler!
One of these said manchildren gave me a box of his video nasties when he ‘grew out of them’. I had seen and owned most, so gave them back – but one tape with a biro scribble saying ‘Beyond the Darkness’, in actuality Buio Omega (Italy, 1979), I kept – as I had only ever heard apocryphal stories of ‘real corpse usage’ and ‘dreadful misogyny’ and ‘depraved nihilism’ and, of course, the name Joe D’Amato which I met with a mingled bemused endearment and tedium.
Then I watched it. Then … I … witnessed … it … In its endlessly redubbed state, it was like watching my very libidinal soul under a microscope, the cells writhing around as seething, teeming, blurred pixels. The film was GLORIOUS. The gore was glorious – specular, vindicated violence intermingled with loving, sumptuous embalming. The man was glorious: Kieran Canter*, like Udo Kier’s younger Aryan brother with a kind of witness-to-the-other-side gaze. Both women were glorious – Anna Stoppi and Cinzia Monreale (whom I already had tattooed on my arm). The music was glorious (post-Simonetti Goblin). And the topic was the most glorious – non-aggressive necrophilia, an albeit limited, but my favourite, genre.
In a baroque manifestation of necrophilic love, the layers of flesh and psychosis unfurled, and I entered into a rapturous cinesexual ecstasy with the film, both of us actually and figuratively becoming bodies without organs. Immediately I purchased a DVD copy so I could actually see the film. And I watched it on repeat while marking essays that summer. I must have watched it at least 200 times. Still never enough.
Since then I have raised it to a noble status in various writings (likely noble only in my head). But we all have our dirty pleasures.
*I discovered his only other films were porn films. I then became the manchild collectormaniac who tracked them all down on many-generation VHS. All I can say is, be careful what you wish for from beautiful actors, because you may see them buttfucking Cicciolina and not know you actually didn’t ever want to see that.
Usually, the DVD section of Woolworths wasn’t too enticing but, one fine day in 2015, close to my departure from Frankfurt, I spied large tables set up on the pavement out front, containing hundreds of cheap discs. I snapped up recognisable items by Claude Faraldo and Abel Ferrara, but also could not go past a mysterious item titled … und nichts als ein Fremder, starring Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame, Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford and Charles Bickford! Oh, and directed by Stanley Kramer. Hang on! Doesn’t every precocious cinephile dutifully teach himself or herself to hate Kramer, almost sight unseen? I remember viewing Inherit the Wind (1960) on TV when I was 15 and, with Sarris’ The American Cinema (1968) open before me, scribbling with distaste in my Film Diary (which I still possess) about how ‘uncinematic’, how ‘liberal’, how unbearably boring it all was!
But I did dare watch Not as a Stranger (US, 1955), Kramer’s directorial debut hiding under that German translation – and what a peculiar, remarkable film it is. Although it no doubt helped create a ‘young doctors in love’ genre that subsequently became wildly prevalent in both cinema and TV as both (melo)drama and comedy, the uncomfortable tone of proceedings here is closer to Eyes Wide Shut (1998) or The Knick (2015- ) territory: the bodies of its heroes and heroines, in neurosis, in lust, in addiction, even in death, mingle weirdly with all those unconscious or writhing patients lying waiting on stretchers and on operating tables … The dramaturgy is modern in its unusual emphases and temps morts, much more like Nicholas Ray or John Cassavetes (inner cinephile voice: hey, didn’t SK as producer butcher A Child is Waiting in 1963?) than anything I would today consider Stodgy Old Hollywood Classicism – whatever that really is, if it even exists.
Above all, the film boasts a sex scene that is out of this world – and takes us right into a sublime confusion of human and animal realms. It arrives almost 100 minutes in (it’s a long movie), as the good doctor Mitchum observes two horses, safely inside their separate, gated barns and fences, hurling out their mating cries of longing for each other. Sultry Gloria Grahame emerges from her house, waiting for Bob. These human creatures exchange deep looks. Then Bob walks over to open the gate for the eager guy-horse (which immediately, appreciatively bolts) before grabbing Gloria and pulling her into a delirious close-up frame that is shaky, a bit off-centre and out-of-focus all at once. Dissolve. As the song says: wild horses couldn’t drag me away from this 2 Euro DVD.
Self-critique: do I need to rewatch Inherit the Wind now, and explore the entire, unsung oeuvre of Stanley Kramer? Maybe …
I encountered Suspense (Frank Tuttle, US, 1946) in the sales section of the old Video Instan, the most veteran of the Spanish video clubs, begun in Barcelona in 1980. At that time, I didn’t know anything about the director of this curious noir (who betrayed some comrades of the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and had some success with This Gun for Hire in 1942), nor the small studio Monogram Pictures that invested a bigger budget than usual (usually specialising in B Westerns) in the production of this film starring the British Olympic skater, Belita Jepson-Turner. The response of the American audience to the film was discreet, and Suspense was soon semi-forgotten.
The back cover of the DVD that I had in my hands reproduced, however, a frame that was disquieting enough to force me to give the movie a chance; an image in which, between two men and one woman, there protruded a circus ring lined by a handful of sharp daggers. The desire to see Belita jump through this kind of contraption was promising; but Suspense offers greater satisfactions, if you are ready to forgive a script that is full of clichés, poor chemistry between the two leads (the famous skater shares scenes with a rogue played by Barry Sullivan), and a kitsch musical number on the skating rink to the Cuban rhythm of Miguelito Valdés.
The most pleasurable aspects of the film derive from the chiaroscuro of the black-and-white cinematography of the great Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927), whose expressionistic echoes are indicated by the long shadows on the walls, the shafts of light crossing the curtains and marking the characters, and in the presence/absence of a ghostly character who is never visible in the dark. Without becoming strident, several of Suspense’s compositions are, in a modest fashion, extremely suggestive: tragedy is not just foreshadowed by a shadow visible for just a few seconds (the dagger-ring already mentioned), but also two lethargic lions in their cage in the background of the shot, transmitting a subterranean, fatalistic tension. The appeal of the movie includes even its artificial, unreal sets that seem to announce a sumptuousness that is totally opposed to the austerity of the narrative.
Suspense is a paradoxical film that never completely gives the viewer the intrigue that its title promises – but it immerses us in the grey, heavy atmosphere of the time in which it was shot.
I put up with all of this for one reason: Salty O’Rourke is a Raoul Walsh film and I have never seen it before. Is it a masterpiece, overdue for recognition? I don’t know and I really don’t care. Leos Carax claims to have stolen some story elements of this film for his Mauvais sang (1986). If so, I fail to notice.
Whatever Salty O’Rourke is, I can’t take my eyes off of it. This is a film about con artists, gangsters and jockeys, a now-lost world of defensive swagger. And because the world it is showing is now effectively lost (if it ever existed beyond the cinema), there is a certain poetry in straining to observe it through this technically compromised source. In Walsh (as in Hawks), so many things are conveyed by the way that you light a cigarette, throw away the match, hold the cigarette in your hand, and walk down the street as you smoke and talk. But there is also something specifically of interest in relation to gesture in Salty O’Rourke.
Early in the film, Alan Ladd’s Salty, in need of money, takes off his cufflinks in preparation for his ritualistic journey to a pawnbroker. Walsh handles the moment simply, in a dialogue two-shot with Ladd and William Demarest, our attention continually being directed to Ladd’s gestures by the way that both he and Demarest look down at Ladd’s wrists, look away, then look back again. It is one of many moments in the film in which not simply hands are used in an expressive fashion, but where forms of wrist action are employed: rolling dice, aggressively grabbing someone by the wrist, pulling someone’s wrist towards you in order to look at their watch, or rubbing a sore wrist after having written forty-nine times on a blackboard, ‘All the world loves a gentleman’.
Gestures in this ‘minor’ Walsh film are light, fast, dexterous, a quick flip of the wrist. One negotiates one’s way through this violent, uncertain world of lies and appearances with a minimal amount of fuss, barely leaving a mark behind, until a saviour arrives in the form of Gail Russell’s schoolteacher. With her arrival, we gradually pass out of this world of bachelors and B-girls and street smarts to a world of marriage, clean living and education acquired through textbooks. Is this second world preferable to the first? It doesn’t matter. As always in Walsh, the sentimental can be accepted or rejected without it negatively affecting our response to the film. Salty O’Rourke is over before you know it.
In the tradition of many recent films that mix documentary with fiction, The Phoenix combines the truth of Farid’s exile from Iran to Australia and the current policy on asylum seekers, with the fiction of Farid sneaking his students out in order to screen his old films. As you may have just gathered, beneath this gently moving film lies a traditional storyline: the unorthodox teacher who pushes students beyond their comfort zone. But The Phoenix is not a rousing story of rebellion against the status quo. It is about finding humour and expression in the existence of life in detention.
In this gentle, minimal short, Niasari deftly mixes in so much: the pathos of Farid re-watching his old films on VHS; the suspense surrounding sneaking one of the refugees out; and the physical comedy of their rehearsing and performing in theatrical masks. As well, Niasari is not overtly moralistic in her presentation of this aspect of Australian politics. It is simply there, with all the dread that comes with it. All of these elements are summarised in the film’s most potent moment: Farid’s students are being checked as they leave on their excursion, and one of the students is not allowed to go, but still tries to sneak through, wearing his mask. He gets through when the girl in front of him flirts with and distracts the guard.
Contained within this moment is the delicate passion in the look from the girl – but any sweetness is undercut by the subtle reminder of the sex-related abuse that happens in detention. This politically charged moment serves as the high point of a tightly wrought piece of filmmaking that stimulates anticipation for Niarsari’s next work.
The title of the first film directed by Paul Newman, which I watched for the first time on a DVD that was a bargain, repeats the name of the main character as if it were an echo: Rachel, Rachel (1968). The name said twice suggests, on the one hand, repetition; and on the other, division.
Repetition as emphasis. The film is consumed by the gestures, movements and thoughts of its protagonist, played by Paul Newman’s lifetime partner – both in real life and in cinema: Joanne Woodward. Rachel is a primary school teacher in her 30s who lives with her mother in the same house where she grew up, a house reminding her of her childhood, marked by the smell of chloroform and coffins from the funeral home run by her father. This journey to the inside of Rachel is not only a journey to her childhood memories, but also a journey to her way of experiencing the present, which is visually suggested by delirious expressions of repressed desires. Before Francis Ford Coppola (The Rain People, 1969), Barbara Loden (Wanda, 1970), John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence, 1974) and Martin Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1975), Newman thus confronted the viewer with the condition of women in American society during the 1960s and 1970s.
Rachel does not have – no one does – only one face. That is, whereas present-time Rachel divides herself between what she is and what she could be, she also lives in a disturbing proximity to the past, to her sombre childhood. By accessing that hazy side of her life – which was not, in fact, buried – Newman wants us to see the world as perceived by little Rachel. It is no coincidence that this character is played by Newman and Woodward’s daughter, Nell Potts, who appears in another work of his, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972). Likewise, in this film the family house also works as a cocoon, just as the action unfolds in close proximity to death.
Rachel, Rachel tells us a story about the loss of innocence and, therefore, of the end of a world. We remain in the field of divisions. We realise where Newman wants to take us in that final dialogue between mother and daughter, which, as Michel Delahaye wrote in his review for Cahiers du cinéma (no. 214, July/August 1969, pp. 61-62), reflects the game of tensions suggested by the film’s title: ‘revolt and resignation’. The Rachel who finds out she isn’t pregnant is a woman who can no longer go back and continue living in and off the past. The Rachel who now confronts her mother with the decision to leave home, no matter what, is a new Rachel. A distant echo of what she used to be.
Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, Norway, 2013) is actor-director Benedikt Erlingsson’s debut feature. Prior to Of Horses and Men, he directed two shorts and starred in a range of movies including Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All (2006). Of Horses and Men won the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize and, while it was generally well received, it was far from a box office success. I found the film at a Danish electronics and DVD store’s bankruptcy sale. The point is not only that amazing films are sometimes hidden in plain sight, but also that my purchase of the film happened at the end of an era of stores with piles of DVDs in stock. This begs the questions: where are we cinephiles going to find our hidden gems when the films no longer exist as objects that we can touch? And wherein lies the tangible material sensation that plays such an important role in drawing us to a film?
Of Horses and Men is a darkly humorous film about nature and seduction. Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) and Solveig (Charlotte Bøving) are attracted to one another, but Kolbeinn takes too much pride in his beautiful Icelandic mare, Graná. Thus, when Solveig’s stallion, Brúnn, is mating Graná while Kolbeinn is astride her, Kolbeinn’s masculine gender performance is challenged, and he kills Graná for the sin of seduction. Referencing the controversy stirred by the stallion’s erection in Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), the queering of Kolbeinn’s gender performance is enlarged by its intense mediation. Kolbeinn and Solveig, Graná and Brúnn, are the objects of the local community’s gaze. The gaze is reflected in the curious glimpses of light from multiple binoculars. As such, the film reveals the ways in which we mediate seduction.
Of Horses and Men successfully combines its dark humour with a reflection on the changing nature of seduction and film. This is mirrored in the shifting relationships between horses and men. Vernhardur (Steinn Ármann Magnússon), a drunk, makes his horse, Jarpur, swim out to a Russian trawler, where he buys what he thinks is vodka, but is in fact treated alcohol that kills him. This might appear a simple, tragic, comic narrative about the preservation of Icelandic nature and horses, but it is a more complex reflection of global connectivity. The film captures the sensory energy of the horses. Even more so, it is through the eyes of the horses that the Icelandic landscape becomes available for external inspection. Thus, while the global impulse (such as treated Russian alcohol) has devastating consequences for both horses and men, they merely saturate and amplify the gaze already reflected by the local, binocular inspection of seduction.
But global connectedness is not the doom of Icelandic horses and men; a particular scene highlights this. A Spanish tourist, Juan Camillo (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), and his horse Ole Piebald, fall behind and get lost in a storm. Juan Camillo ends up hiding inside the horse’s carcass. I remember seeing Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) and thinking that there was no need for Leo to sleep inside a horse carcass, except for the obvious references to novels such as John Irving’s The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) and films like Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). In The Revenant, the scene appears as an exorbitant justification of a tacky plotline prone to cultural appropriation. In Of Horses and Men, however, the scene is embedded in an amusing play with notions of authentic Icelandic nature.
Furthermore, the horse carcass does not serve as a rebirth for Juan Camillo. It is simply a way for him to survive and thus continue his pursuit to seduce the Icelandic horse trainer. The film is not a romantic depiction of an authentic Icelandic nature in which horses and men coexist. Rather, it utilises dark humour to scrutinise the nature of seduction and the sensory experiences of horses and men.
© the authors, 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.