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November 29, 2007

Behold a Pale Horse

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Fred Zinnemann - 1964
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

In case you hadn't read it elsewhere, Justine of "Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles" is hosting a Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger Blog-a-thon starting December 16. And what does that have to do with Fred Zinnemann? Behold a Pale Horse is based on the novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday by the more literary half of "The Archers".

What was even more surprising for me is that Behold a Pale Horse is Fred Zinnemann's most visually accomplished film. Thematically, it is consistent with Zinnemann's other films in which the main character is forced to face challenges to his or her most deeply held beliefs. In this film, Gregory Peck's anti-Fascist exile is almost undone by holding to firmly to his set viewpoint. As a film about the Spanish Civil War, the characters are presented a bit too broadly, disallowing subtleties of difference. The Republicans are all strongly anti-clerical, while Franco and the Catholic Church are presented as having the same goals. Politics is almost besides the point in this film.

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Zinnemann is more interested in the iconography of the human face. I can not think of any of his other films being as full of close-ups. Not only is the screen filled with the more familiar visages of Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, but of the supporting actors as well. The shots are usually lit to emphasize shadows, as if Zinnemann was discovering the geography of the human face. Frederick Rossif may have influenced the look of the film. Rossif's documentary, To Die in Madrid, about the Spanish Civil War had been released in 1963. Rossif co-directed the montage sequence that opens Behold a Pale Horse. Additionally, Zinnemann may well have been inspired by the photographers who documented the Spanish Civil War, in particular, Robert Capa.

That the politics are expressed in broad strokes could possibly be attributed to Pressburger's novel. The basic story, with Peck and Quinn as two old enemies who try to outwit each other, with the goal of trapping the other, is not too distant from The 49th Parallel. A consistent part of several of the Powell-Pressburger films is that the characters often take on challenges that are considered suicidal, not to mention how frequently characters kill themselves. Robert Kesar's piece on Zinnemann in Senses of Cinema, while only discussing Behold a Pale Horse briefly, does help put the film in the context of Zinnemann's career, with the documentary footage which is integrated with documentary style filming when Peck is first seen onscreen, establishing some sense of realism, combined with Zinnemann's combined with a story about that character, like other's in Zinnemann's films, who continually move forward, in spite of the self-awareness that at best, there is only moral victory.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:38 PM

November 27, 2007

Black Emanuelle's Box, Volume 2

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Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle/Velluto Nero
Brunello Rondi - 1976
Severin Films Region 1 DVD

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Black Emanuelle 2/Emanuelle Nera No. 2
Bitto Albertini - 1976
Severin Films Region 0 DVD

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Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade/La Via della Prostituzione
Joe D'Amato - 1978
Severin Films Region 1 DVD

There's no beating around the bush, this set of DVDs is aimed at adolescent boys of all ages. That much is a given with the package title. And aside from the questionable racism of the English language titles, the name of the title character is inconsistent from film to film. But the real truth is, none of these films were intended to be examined seriously.

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I saw the original Emmanuelle and barely remember anything about it. The three films here are just part of the several films that in some cases were titled simply to cash in on the popularity of the first film. Velluto Nero doesn't even have a character named Emmanuelle, or a plot for that matter. Albertini's film is a sexed up version of Rashomon with several men in Emanuelle's life offering different versions of her memories. D'Amato has Emmanuelle as a crusading journalist, armed with only her cigarette lighter sized camera, investigating a prostitution ring. Basically the formula requires lots of nudity, hetero and lesbian twosomes, threesomes, and shower scenes. To give those unfamiliar an idea of how these films ended up cannibalizing each other, Laura Gemser played a supporting role in the sequel to the original Emmanuelle, and there are two films that share the Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle title. Most disturbingly, Susan Scott, who only a few years earlier had made a name for herself in gialli, would later star in Emanuelle e Lolita.

For the more serious film scholar, the bigger value of Black Emanuelle's Box is to be found in the supplements. Black Emanuelle 2 features an interview with Dagmar Lassander, seen above with some bedside reading. Lassander discusses how she first became involved as an actress, and the highs and lows of a career primarily in Italian sex and horror films. Aristide Massaccesi, better known as Joe D'Amato, is filmed discussing his career over a few beers with some British guys in the supplement with Emanuelle and the While Slave Trade. D'Amato admits that in some of his films, craftsmanship takes a back seat on some of his many projects. Velluto Nero has interviews with Al Cliver, as well as Annie Belle and Laura Gemser who are both heard but not seen. Taking the long view of film history, it is important to document those who toiled in the less celebrated strata of what is the film industry.

While it's not obvious from looking at Velluto Nero, Brunello Rondi co-wrote a couple of films with Rossellini along with Federico Fellini, and collaborated on several other Fellini screenplays. Two other significant credits in Velluto Nero belong to writer Ferdinando Baldi, credited as Fred Baldi here, and the infamous Bruno Mattei, serving as editor, with his own Emmanuelle entries just a few years away. Perhaps the strangest twist to the whole Emmanuelle saga is what happened to the woman who most frequently played that role. Her background in fashion exploited by Joe D'Amato, Laura Gemser eventually shifted towards a career doing costume design for low budget films. Once famous for disrobing in front of the camera, Gemser closed her show business career by dressing others.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:12 AM

November 25, 2007

Coffee Break

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Jerzy Radziwilowicz and Emmanuelle Beart in The Story of Marie and Julien (Jacques Rivette - 2003)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:10 AM

November 24, 2007

Across the Universe (2007)

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Julie Taymor - 2007
Columbia Pictures 35mm Film

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I'm coming quite late to this particular party.

Having lived through some of the events chronicled in , as well as simply having my teen years pretty much coincide with the years that The Beatles ruled the world, I had many thought while watching Across the Universe. The film is more of a dream of the past rather than a document. For one thing, white kids never danced that well in real life. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Across the Universe is that in combination with the release of I'm Not There, that The Beatles and Bob Dylan still matter forty years after their best work.

Yes, in 1967 one could still hear singers taking pages from the Al Jolson songbook. The difference was that it was aimed almost strictly for an older audience. What Julie Taymor wants to accomplish is a bit more than an exercise in nostalgia. Still, as one who lived in Greenwich Village just a few blocks from where the Weather Underground had their mishap in bomb making, as well as the student protests in May of 1970, I couldn't help but think simultaneously of my own life at that time as well as where I was and what I was doing when the various Beatle songs were released.

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One hopes that the DVD will have detailed commentary by Taymor, and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The IMDb trivia section for Across the Universe pretty well tracks many of the references to The Beatles as well as other people and events used in the film. There may be other references that have been missed. Clement and La Frenais could well have their own Beatles stories to tell. In addition to writing the screenplay for Michael Winner's swinging Sixties comedy, The Jokers in that special year of 1967, they also wrote the George Harrison produced film, Water. Further evidence of Clement and La Frenais' rock and roll hearts can be found in Brian Gibson's under appreciated final film, Still Crazy.

I was caught off guard by the shift in "With a Little Help from My Friends" from a version still resembling that from the Sergeant Pepper album, to the stylized wailing as done by Joe Cocker. Even funnier was to discover that Joe Cocker makes an appearance. Also sort of clever was incorporating some characters dancing behind Eddie Izzard's Mr. Kite that looked like elongated versions of Yellow Submarine's Blue Meanies. Most surprising of all was the reading of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" by T.V. Carpio. What is striking about two of the older songs used, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Hold Me Tight" is that in looking back at the Beatles' history, the songs, reinforced in the context of the film, suggest a greater sense of anxiety about the world than met my teenage eyes at the time, a not fully articulated sense of feeling disconnected to other people, if not the world at large.

Can I discuss Evan Rachel Wood without gushing? As soon as she appears singing "Hold Me Tight", the most exuberant number in the film, I felt like I was watching a new incarnation of the classic movie star. By this, I mean the kind of star who could sing, dance and act, back at a time when such "versatility" was ordered by the studios. For a few moments, between Wood's singing and dancing, Taymor's direction and Daniel Ezralow's choreography, I was hoping maybe they could get back together to do a really smart remake of Beach Blanket Bingo.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:31 AM | Comments (7)

November 22, 2007

The Flesh Eaters

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Jack Curtis - 1964
Dark Sky Films All Region DVD

Is there a better time than Thanksgiving to watch a film called The Flesh Eaters? This heart-warming tale of a Nazi experiment gone wrong is actually a better film than I had expected. Considering that it took about two years to actually find its way into movie theaters, The Flesh Eaters is hardly a cinematic turkey.

Of course there are plot points that make no sense. We are to believe that the story mostly takes place on an uninhabited island somewhere between New York City and Provincetown. That a Nazi scientist is alone with a huge solar generator on this island is almost plausible. On the plus side are great low tech special effects, especially the monster that appears at the end of the film that looks something like a combination of an octopus and a merengue pie on steroids.

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What helps make The Flesh Eaters more entertaining than some similar films of the era is the generosity of flesh. Starting with Barbara Wilson, who loses her bikini top before becoming the first on screen victim, the film pushed the limits for a relatively mainstream release. Barbara Wilkin selflessly removes her shirt to provide a makeshift bandage for Byron Sanders. Playing an alcoholic actress, Rita Morley faces the camera with an ample display of cleavage. Sanders provides a bit of beefcake as well. Keeping his clothes on is perennial Nazi Martin Kosleck.

Aside from Kosleck, the only person whose career survived The Flesh Eaters is Radley Metzger. Had the title not been used for this film, it's easy to imagine Metzger using the title for one his own films or for one the imports he use to pick up. Aside from the wonderfully ludicrous monster, The Flesh Eaters may remind some of Roger Corman's films with the gentle mocking of other films by Rita Morley's character. The actual depiction of horror is more graphic than what was done by William Castle, but mild compared to Herschell Gordon Lewis.

And on this day I give thanks that the Denver Public Library makes available such fine films The Flesh Eaters.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:31 AM | Comments (1)

November 20, 2007

Denver International Film Festival - Love Hurts


The Duchess of Langeais/Ne touchez pas la hache/Don't Touch the Axe
Jacques Rivette - 2007
IFC Films 35mm Film


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days/4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile
Cristian Mungiu - 2007
IFC Films 35mm Film

Seeing The Duchess of Langeais mostly made me nostalgic for both Jacques Rivette's earlier films and the theater where I saw them, Alice Tully Hall, the venue for the New York Film Festival. Part of this is due to the Starz Film Center auditoriums having the ambience of a small, dark warehouse. This was coupled with problems with a projector at the very beginning, causing the audience to be herded from one auditorium to another.

Although shorter than some of Rivette's other films, The Duchess of Langeais was for me less interesting or rewarding than the epic length Out One:Spectre or Celine and Julie go Boating. It's not that I have a problem with Rivette doing another exploration of love gone wrong. What perhaps wrongly bothered me was that The Duchess resembled the kinds of films that the Cahiers du Cinema crowd objected to fifty years ago - too well mannered, too dependent on dialogue, and no surprises of any kind. What The Duchess of Langeais needed above all was Out One's Jean-Pierre Leaud rudely showing up to badly blow on his harmonica and make a general nuisance of himself.

Better was 4 Days, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, although I was not prepared for how frank the film would be in depicting an abortion. Taking place in the Romania of 1987, Mungiu positions his camera for one shot that virtually positions the audience from the point of view of the young woman preparing to under the procedure. The effect is unsettling. That this was the top prize winner at Cannes is no surprise considering the somewhat contrarian choices made by the juries in recent years. Like last year's winner, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, 4 3 2 can be seen as being more than a look at the past.

* * *

I probably could evaluate this 30th version of the Denver Film Festival had I had the opportunity to see more films. While I am glad that some films that may never otherwise played here were screened, I still wonder about certain films that played other festivals but were not shown here. I am especially concerned with the new rules regarding films in Thailand that opportunities were lost to present Ploy and Syndrome and a Century as intended by their respective filmmakers, or to allow them to be seen at all. That Thailand was represented by the horror comedy Sick Nurses at a recent San Francisco film festival may indicate that the military government has already decided what is worthy for Thais, and by extension, worthy for audiences outside of Thailand.

While I could not make the panel held last Friday on film bloggers, it seemed that Walter Chaw was not considered worthy of inclusion either. To me it seems almost typical of the Denver International Film Festival that the organizers give short shrift to local talent.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:49 AM | Comments (4)

November 18, 2007

Coffee Break

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Hope Lange in The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk - 1958)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:44 AM

November 16, 2007

South Sea Woman

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Arthur Lubin - 1953
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

When it comes to the films of Burt Lancaster, South Sea Woman is rarely, if ever, discussed. Released just two months before From Here to Eternity, this World War II comedy is more dumb and silly, as mildly amusing as an Abbott and Costello movie. Seeing this film on DVD for the first time in about forty years, I was struck at how much South Sea Woman plays like one of Arthur Lubin's films with Burt and Chuck subbing for Bud and Lou. Take, for example when Chuck Conner's, under interrogation by a police inspector, states that he's on his honeymoon. Says Burt, "I'm on his honeymoon, too."

The verbal humor includes Burt Lancaster mangling French, and Virginia Mayo pointedly addressing the proprietor of the hotel as "Madame", pronounced as one who runs a brothel rather than as a proper French woman. While South Sea Woman aims for an audience a bit more adult than that for Abbott and Costello, the film's sense of wit seems also rooted in old vaudeville and burlesque. What may be the funniest aspect to South Sea Woman is that even though it came before From Here to Eternity, in some ways the film plays as a spoof of the better known classic.

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Had Joan Crawford not walked out on Fred Zinneman, we would have had two films with Burt Lancaster as a Marine romancing two Warner Brothers stars in the same year. Pearl Harbor is a significant plot point in both films, with Burt as the by-the-book Sargeant chasing after the AWOL Chuck Conners who wants to leave military life to be with Virginia Mayo. While no one is going to confuse this with Monty Clift chasing after Donna Reed, the coincidences seem more than accidental.

My own discovery of South Sea Woman was accidental, channel surfing on late night in the Sixties, back when there were no more than five channels to choose from. A couple of years later, I was able to see this film from the beginning. Even though South Sea Woman is probably the stupidest film Burt Lancaster allowed himself to be associated with, there is something fascinating about a film in which Chuck Connors single-handedly blows up a Japanese ship with a bag full of TNT. If South Sea Woman is the most easily forgotten film of Burt Lancaster's career, it may be due at least in part to the star's ability to leap from studio bound fare to controlling his own career the following year.

South Sea Woman was Chuck Connors' first big role. To what extent Lancaster was an influence on Connors I don't know. One of Lancaster's more questionable choices was to star as a Native American in Apache. Had Lancaster not made that film, would we have been spared the sight of Chuck Connors as Geronimo?

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:42 AM

November 14, 2007

Denver International Film Festival - Teeth


Mitchell Lichtenstein - 2007
Roadside Attractions 35mm Film

Even if the narrative for Teeth did not evolve into a horror comedy, it would still be worth seeing for its portrayal of a young woman attempting to navigate her way through conflicting peer and family pressures. The film is noteworthy in how sympathetic the character of Dawn is presented. First introduced making a presentation at a purity pledge, what writer-director Lichtenstein gets right is the simulataneous sincerity and confusion of his main character. It's the kind of part that could have been written for easy laughs. Dawn is shown as caught between two extremes, finding that total abstinence is a challenge, but finding nothing of value in an alternative presented of sex without love, or a culture that objectifies women.

Teeth can be seen as the hybrid of David Cronenberg's earlier films of sexual horror, and Todd Haynes' suburban horror stories. The two towering smokestacks may be too obvious an indication that there is something in the air. The unidentified community is one where the high school that teenage Dawn attends has classes influenced by moral guardians who make sure that evolution is mentioned as one of several theories, and that the sex education classes keep the young women unaware of their own bodies. There is no clear explanation regarding Dawn's mutation, or as she puts it, adaptation. What is presented is a story of a young woman who initially regards her body with a sense of shame and horror, before developing a sense of self-acceptance followed by using her body for her own self-advantage.

Much of the credit for Teeth should go to Jess Weixler for keeping Dawn sympathetic. While there is some over the top humor when Dawn gets her first examination from a gynocologist, there is also poignancy, especially with the scenes of Dawn and her mysteriously ill mother. Teeth is often quite funny, but it also has some serious thoughts behind the laughs.

Hopefully the film will be released intact in its theatrical run. Teeth is graphic enough to show the results of Dawn's "adaptation" without dwelling too long on the bloody details. There are also a few jokes, both visual and verbal, at the expense of the guys who have gotten too close to Dawn. The biggest horror might be if Teeth fails to get the size of audience it deserves. Then again, smart films are not always popular films, and the audience that flocks to Hostel or Saw might feel that Teeth cuts too close to home.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:22 PM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2007

Denver International Film Festival - Art, Design and Color

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Faces of a Fig Tree/Ichijiku no Kao
Kaori Momoi - 2006
Agora 35 mm Film

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The Cool School
Morgan Neville -2007
Arthouse Pictures 35mm Film

Sometimes it happens that you can see a couple of films more or less at random, and in some ways they compliment each other. While The Cool School was specifically about painting and the visual arts in Los Angeles, Faces of a Fig Tree was very much film as visual art. One could argue that Momoi, like the L.A. artists have looked towards ways of expressing themselves that are not based on traditional narrative devices.

Momoi demonstrates with a debut film she both wrote and directed that she can be as stylized as relative youngsters like Katsuhito Ishii or an old vet like Seijun Suzuki. Art director Takeo Kimura worked several times with Suzuki, and may have had a hand in the intense use of color throughout the film. Some of the images, such as an overhead shot of a dinner table, become interesting simply as abstract compositions. What Momoi's film is actually about I can't say because all I remember are a string of strange images, more of a dream of family life more disorderly than presented in a film by Ozu.

The Cool School is a documentary primarily about the artists assocatiated with the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. The film is part of a planned trilogy about Los Angeles. Some of Neville's stylistic tacts include photographing much of the film in black and white with the lit edge of a cigarette glowing red, or having colored streaks swish in and out of the frame. Older footage from home movies is mixed in with the artists, critics and collectors sitting around talking. One of the most startling, and hilarious, bits of older footage is that of the funeral for Ed Kienholz. There are some funny and sad stories about these artists, working and living in a town that had little appreciation for what was going on until it was almost too late.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:03 AM

November 11, 2007

Denver International Film Festival - Hell on Wheels

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Bob Ray - 2007
CrashCam Films 35mm Film

Even if one feels no passion for the sport of Roller Derby, it's the women of Hell on Wheels that give multiple reasons for seeing this documentary. These women are attractive in a way that Hollywood often does not seem to comprehend or convey, because they are also smart, fierce and funny. Even how this true life story plays out is truly surprising.

Even the creation of the original teams that took place several years ago in Austin might strike some as another Texas tall tale. A stranger comes to town with promises for young women interested in reviving Roller Derby. Four of the young women are made team captains, more by chance than design. The stranger blows out of town with a cloud of suspicion, but the four women decide to invest their time and energy into an unlikely dream. After several false starts over the course of a couple of years, the dream is manifest, if modestly at first. Hell on Wheels eventually becomes a study of sports as a business, with the original team captains pitted against many of the skaters.

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I should admit that while I have yet to see a live Roller Derby, I did have an affection for films about Roller Derby that came out in the early Seventies. Robert Kaylor's documentary, Derby, from 1971 inspired me to see Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber. I would have seen also seen Unholly Rollers had it played in a theater near me.

What makes Hell on Wheels a bit different is that while there are scenes that discuss the athleticism required to be a skater, what the film is mostly about is the business of show business. While the analogy may be a bit skewed here, Roller Derby is to organized sports what early punk rock was to the music industry. This has less to do with the celebration of trashiness, the tatoos, or any exterior trappings. What the women share is an impressive do-it-yourself ethos, much like the punk pioneers who recorded for an audience they trusted was out there. And while being a Roller Derby star may not be everyones dream, it is alway inpiring to see that for some people, even a seemingly improbable dream can come true.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:49 AM

November 10, 2007

Coffee Break

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Parker Posey and Drea De Matteo in Broken English (Zoe Cassavetes - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:21 AM

November 09, 2007

Faith + Film Blog-a-thon: What's Love Got to do with It?

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Brian Gibson - 1993
Touchstone Region 1 DVD

More meditations on Film + Faith are to be found at Strange Culture.

As a Buddhist for over thirty years, I have as a matter of course been interested in how Buddhism has been portrayed in film. As the practicioner of a particular kind of Buddhism esstablished by Nichiren Daishonin, I have had to consider some films that have attempted to convey this form of Buddhism on film. There have been a few Japanese films that have made Nichiren and Nichiren's Buddhism the central subject. Brian Gibson's film is not about Buddhism per se as much it is about Tina Turner's life before and after Buddhism, yet Gibson has made a more serious attempt at seeking a way to visually convey Buddhism in a way that even the Japanese films do not.

Putting this essay in some context, let me first explain that all references to Buddhism will be specifically to Nichiren's Buddhism. For those unfamiliar, this is the one where people chant, "Nam-Myhoho-Renge-Kyo". This practice was established by a 13th Century Japanese priest who held that the true essence of Buddhism was to be found in the Lotus Sutra, and that the essence of the Lotus Sutra was to be found in the title. The words translate somewhat roughly to, "I devote myself to the mystic law of simultaneous cause and effect through sound". Mystic in this case means beyond normal human understanding. Unlike other forms of Buddhism which involve prayer towards statues of Buddha, the object of worship is a scroll with "Nam-Myhoho-Renge-Kyo" written with other calligraphy denoting states of existence. As the scroll is not to be reproduced, except my Buddhist priests, photography of the scroll, known as the Gohonzon, is prohibited. It is for this reason that films about this particular form of Buddhism show that practitioners chanting towards an alter, but the contents of the alter are never seen.

In his book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader discusses how many narrative films used what he terms "overabundant means" in conveying enlightenment or a dramatic form of religious experience. While in no way unique to him, the template of overabundant means is mostly associated with Cecil B. De Mille and The Ten Commandments. The religious experience is given its filmic equivalent with the swelling chorus on the soundtrack, and the main character dramatically lit, basking in white or yellow light. Curiously, as if to indicate that overabundant means is suitable for all religious experiences, a similar tact has been used by the Japanese filmmakers of those films I have seen either about Nichiren or in the story of the lay orgination, Soka Gakkai. Kunio Watanabe's Nichiren to moko daishurai, made in 1958, is especially under the influence of De Mille. Noboru Nakamura's Nichiren, from 1979, is more restrained, but still overly reliant on special effects. Toshio Masuda's two films based on the novelized autobiography of Buddhist lay leader Daisaku Ikeda, The Human Revolution, filmed in 1973 and 1974 are no different. Imprisoned by the military government during World War II, Soka Gakkai leader Josei Toda experiences his enlightment filmed in a way that would be no different than that had it been De Mille or Wyler filming Charlton Heston. To the best of my knowledge, none of the Japanese filmmakers cited practiced this form of Buddhism. It should also be noted that in keeping with a form of Buddhism that is more engaged with present day realities, Soka Gakkei leader Daisaku Ikeda has written essays on two favorite films, Ikiru and High and Low. As is the case with Akira Kurosawa's contemporary films, these are works reflecting social consciousness. In one of his other writings during the making of The Human Revolution films, Ikeda wrote about the films' screenwriter, Kurosawa collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto.

Of the four narrative filmmakers I know to be Buddhist, Peter Werner and Linda Thornburg have not made any films that directly discuss Buddhism in any way. Alan Mak uses a more generic reference to Buddhism, especially the Buddhist concept of Hell, in setting up Infernal Affairs. while the Buddhist practice of the gang leader portrayed by Eric Tsang does not appear to be that of a specific sect. That a Buddhist film director made a film about one of America's most famous Buddhists almost did not happen.

According to an essay by Gibson published in the American Buddhist newspaper, "World Tribune", Gibson was set to direct another music based film in 1992. There seems to be some kind of comic irony that Gibson traded The Thing called Love with Sandra Bullock for What's Love Got to do with It? and the former Anna Mae Bullock.

What's Love . . . announces that the film is about faith from the beginning. Titles on the screen read, "The lotus is a flower that grows in the mud. The thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus blooms. This thought is expressed in the Buddhist chant: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo." During the opening, chanting is heard on the soundtrack, with the camera tilting down from the sky to a church. The chanting fades out to be replaced by the sound of a chorus practicing the spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine". The elementary school aged Anna Mae Bullock is heard conspicuously over the others in the chorus. This opening simultaneously introduces the character of the future Tina Turner, primarily known for her singing talent, and letting the audience know that as much as the film is biographical, it is also about one person's experience with faith.

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What needs to be noted about What's Love . . is the use of mirrors as a visual motif at each point in the evolution of Tina Turner. The first such seen is when Ike convinces Tina to spend the night in the guest bedroom. Tina's sleep is interupted by Ike's first wife, Lorraine, who first threatens Tina with a gun before shooting herself. The scene works as a forecast of parts of Tina's future with Ike. The second mirror scene takes place when Ike and Tina Turner have become a nationally popular recording act, with Tina more confident in speaking for herself. Following that scene is one of Ike beating Tina. The third mirror scene is when Phil Spector appears, wanting to record Tina as a solo act. In looking in the mirror, Tina sees a possible future without Ike. A fourth mirror image is of Tina looking at herself following what would be the last of Ike's beatings. The final mirror image is of Ike in Tina's dressing room prior to one of Tina's showcase performances as a solo act, confident in the face of Ike's threats with a gun.

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The use of mirrors is put in context during the scene when Tina is introduced to Buddhism by her friend, Jackie, a fictionalized composite created for the film. Jackie likens Buddhism to a mirror that allows one to see one's self. The concept of the practice of Buddhism as a mirror is used frequently in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. This concept is further extended in contemporary writings on Buddhism such as the book, The Buddha in Your Mirror.

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What is interesting about What's Love . . . is that the visual motif of the mirror gave Gibson a way of relaying an idea about religious experience in a form that is integrated within the narrative. This is neither the over-abundant means of the traditional religious film from the De Mille template, nor is this the stylized vision of faith employed by the filmmakers cited by Schrader - Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. At least in this one film was a visual metaphor used in such a way that most people would not be aware of just how much What's Love Got to do with It? was as much about Buddhism as it was about the life of Tina Turner.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:44 AM | Comments (1)

November 07, 2007

A Handful of Fulci

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The Eroticist/The Senator likes Women/All'onorevole piacciono le donne (Nonostante le apparenze... e purche la nazione non lo sappia)
Lucio Fulci - 1972
Severin Films Region 0 DVD

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The Psychic/Seven Notes in Black/Sette Note in Nero
Lucio Fulci - 1977
Severin Films Region 1 DVD

I know that there are some who will disagree with me, but the more films I see by Lucio Fulci, the less I feel enthused about his work. As Andrew Sarris would say about another director, the debits outweigh the credits. I admit to enjoying Perversion Story and Lizard in a Woman's Skin and though Fulci's version of The Black Cat was pretty good. What little appreciation I have for Fulci does not go much beyond those entries.

The Eroticist seems to have lost some of its impact as an import. The DVD interviews help put the film in context as a political comedy with quite recognizable satire, at least for the Italian audience. Between Bill Clinton and Larry Craig, the story of a senator and potential President, who has trouble keeping his hands off women's posteriors, may seem quite trivial. Even worse, when watching the film, it is hard to imagine that Fulci actually began his career with comedy.

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I almost wished there was an English dubbed version of The Eroticist, only to listen to the inimitable croaking of Lionel Stander. Stander portrays a Cardinal with more than a little interest in Italian politics. Lando Buzzanca was cast in part because of his resemblance to a top politician of the day. He is much funnier in the DVD interview. Fulci's anti-Church feelings get a more humorous play with Stander's occassionally profane cleric and the semi-nude nuns that appear in the fantasy scene. The fantasy is somewhat reminiscent of Fellini, but cruder. Laura Antonelli and Agostina Belli provide the eye candy. And speaking of Belli, why isn't Dino Risi's original Scent of a Woman out on DVD? View image

The Psychic is in turn an even greater disappointment because the expectations were much higher. Quentin Tarantino has championed this Fulci film which should have made me immediately suspicious. The craftsmanship makes this one of Fulci's better films, and Jennifer O'Neill is beautifully photographed. The story of a woman who misreads her visions of murder should have been more engrossing than the dialogue heavy film at hand. The use of red is particularly interesting as the dominant color within the room where at least one murder has taken place. Fulci may have been too tasteful as there is no nudity and little blood. There were times when I actually wished for one of Fulci's eye gouging zombies to appear to goose the film from its its lumbering pace. Based on how The Psychic ends, it appears that Fulci even had The Black Cat on his brain well before he made his version of Poe's story.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:22 AM | Comments (1)

November 05, 2007

The Curse of the Crying Woman

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La Maldicion de la Llorona
Rafael Baledon - 1961
CasaNegra Region 1 DVD

Hola! You may think that I shouldn't be bothering writing about horror films on November 5. After all, Holloween was last week. I was planning to tie my review with El Dia de Los Muertos. I live in the heavily Chicano neighborhood currently known as The Santa Fe Arts District. Maybe I'm responding to very distant Ladino roots. This particular review would have been done in a more timely manner but some goblins disrupted my usually routine flow of DVDs.

Rafael Baledon's story of La Llorona is closer to the traditions found in the better known horror films from America and Europe than any folk tales. The scariest part of the film is to be found in seeing some very large rats roam though a cobwebbed cellar where where Aunt Selma keeps the decomposed remains of La Llorona on display. Given the limited budget he had to work with, Baledon's film is for the most part an effective transposition of gothic horror taking place primarily in a crumbling hacienda.

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Some credit should go to producer-star Abel Salazar for stepping back and allowing the film to primarily showcase Rita Macedo and Rosa Arenas as the villainous Aunt Selma and her neice, respectively. The film is something of a family affair as Arenas and Salazar married at about the time the film was made, and Macedo's daughter appears as one of Aunt Selma's first victim's, run over by a stagecoach in the film's first scene.

Baledon takes advantage of the sparse interiors in so that they serve to function on behalf of the story. The exteriors use some strategically placed twigs and fog to create a forest that seems deeper and darker. Even the use of negative film is effective when Macedo tells Salazar the story of La Llorona. At a few moments, Baledon becomes too reliant on the zoom lens with a few too many close-ups of eyes to express shock. That Baledon's abilities as a director have been overlooked speaks more about genre and cultural prejudices. Curse of the Crying Woman has some technical flaws that could have been resolved with a few more dollars on special effects, but for the most part is as good as anything produced at this time from Corman, Fisher or Bava.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:19 AM

November 04, 2007

Coffee Break

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Rosalind Cash and Randy Brooks in The Monkey Hustle (Arthur Marks - 1976)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:34 AM