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November 23, 2010

Baba Yaga

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Corrado Farina - 1973
Shameless Region 0 DVD

A review of the the Strangers on a Train inspired Italian film, Designated Victim, got me interested in checking out the Shameless DVD label. The films might be of varying artistic aspirations and achievements, but the existence of such a small niche company is a reminder that film restoration and preservation isn't exclusive to the Criterion Collection. Not that the guys at Shameless are totally academic in their love of film. While there are no commentary tracks, there is a special subtitle track which periodically calls attention to points of interest regarding the making of the film. Effort is made to present the films in as complete a state as possible, even if means inserting excerpts obviously from other sources.

Shameless worked with Corrado Farina on this version of Baba Yaga, billed as Farina's final cut. It's been several years since I have seen any other versions so I can not do any comparison. What makes this version of interest is that it includes two shorts by Farina that are comic book related, Freud and Fumetti and Fumettophobia. Fumetti is the Italian word for comics, derived from the small clouds that held the characters' speech. The first short discusses the expression of sexuality in the comics created for an adult audience, specifically in regards to comic artist Guido Crepax. The second short is an impassioned argument that comic book reading is healthy for children and helps the develop imagination, as well as interest in other reading. There is also an interview with Farina, discussing the making of the film, from the casting, with Carroll Baker coming in at the last minute when Anne Heywood dropped out, to the clashes with the producers who re-edited the film, destroying the original negative in the process.

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Farina's film was inspired by the comics by Guido Crepax and his character, Valentina. The basic outline is that a legendary Russian witch, Baba Yaga, pursues photographer and girl about town, Valentina. But the story is not the movie. Anyone looking for logic will be frustrated. The reason to watch the film is for the images. Even when the images are not meant to invoke dreams, they are often dream like simply due to the canted angles or strangeness, be it the use of color, be it a pastel blue suit or Valentina's orange Mini, or even lack of color. When Baba Yaga's huge black sedan shows up at Valentina's door, and Baba Yaga explains that it's fate that brought her there, that's really all the explanation that's needed.

The opening sequence of a movie surreptitiously shot in a graveyard accomplishes in a few minutes what Marco Ferreri took an entire feature to do in Don't Touch the White Woman. Not only did Farina restage Little Big Horn a couple of years earlier, with a scantily clad Indian maiden as the first person we see, but the protest against American presence in Viet-Nam is unmistakable when one of the Indians burn an American flag. Farina incorporates several moments on politically commentary, such as a scene with some protesters that Valentina photographs, and another scene where a black male and a white female pose together for a modeling shoot. In retrospect, Farina's clear political sentiments within the framework of a genre film probably contributed to his being unable to film another feature.

Why most people would watch Baba Yaga still is primarily to watch Carroll Baker attempt to seduce Isabelle De Funes. Farina's original choice, Elsa Martinelli, would have physically been more perfect as Valentina. De Funes comes close with her oversized eyes and full lips, and Louise Brooks hair style. If De Funes name seems familiar, she is the niece of French star Louis de Funes. There is also the considerable presence of Ely Galleani as Annette, the literal living doll in bondage gear to provide an overdose of eye candy. Even as an inanimate doll, albeit one that has exposed breasts between the leather straps, Annette might well be the sexiest character in the film. Among the reasons for the heavy editing of this original film were due to the suggestions of lesbianism as well as two shots of full frontal nudity. There seems to have been no problem with the sado-masochist content. And in his interview, Farina is right, the women in Baba Yaga would cause teenage boys (of all ages) sleepless nights. (Personal aside, Farina knows what he's talking about. Even clothed, Carroll Baker played on my adolescent imagination just watching the tailer for Station Six-Sahara as well as the suggestive poster that featured in very large letters, the word "hot".)

What raises the film above the more exploitive fare it could have been is the care Farina took to duplicate Crepax's imagery. Several times, Farina cuts to high contrast black and white photography, stills that virtually duplicate what Crepax created with his drawings. Sometimes these images are extreme close-ups of Isabelle De Funes' eyes or mouth, the most cartoonlike parts of her face. Some of the color sequences appear to have been informed by the pop art of the time. While not always clearly visible, its worth taking in some of the surrounding artwork, such as posters for classic horror films outside of a movie theater showing The Golem. Unfortunately, Corrado Farina's sometimes surreal visions did not translate into box office success, which explains why this was only his second of two commercial movies. At a time when Hollywood is plundering almost every comic book, er, graphic novel, for inspiration, Baba Yaga should be studied for its use of color and composition, and a reminder that there is more than dark nights and Dark Knights.

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And on a somewhat related note regarding film preservation, those who have neither a DVD label to call their own, or happen to be an A-list Hollywood director, can get in the game of saving a movie, or at least part of a movie. Shifting from a fantastic shade of yellow here to a more somber black, check out Marilyn Ferdinand and Farran Smith Nehme for the first details on rescuing a film noir classic.

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Posted by peter at November 23, 2010 06:14 AM