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August 28, 2018

A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die

MinuteToPray Italian poster.jpg

Un minuto per pregare, un istante per morire
Franco Giraldi - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

While I am an admitted auteurist in my approach to writing about film, I also recognize that the director is not always the dominant personality in the making of the film. Prior to seeing A Minute to Pray . . . , I was able to see two earlier westerns by Franco Giraldi out of the four directorial credits. His first, Sugar Colt is lightly serious, with several comic moments. Seven Guns for the MacGregors, about a Scottish clan out west is quite playful, as is presumably its sequel. The tone of A Minute to Pray is more serious than those earlier films. In this case, the film's author, literarily and thematically, is producer and co-writer Albert Band.

The story centers on an outlaw, Clay McCord, known for his way with a pistol. McCord is also suffering from uncontrollable pain and spasms in his right arm. His biggest fear is of dying in the streets from epilepsy like his father. We have shots of extreme close-ups of McCord's eyes dissolving into shots of McCord as a boy, helpless as his father is lying in a muddy street of some frontier town. In frustration, the teenage McCord picks up a nearby gun and shoots the townspeople laughing at him and his father. As an adult, the right arm becomes virtually paralyzed in moments of stress.

With his physical limitations, McCord contemplates accepting amnesty in a small New Mexico town, offered by the marshal on orders from the governor. Getting in the way are bounty hunters hoping to cash in on the reward for McCord, and McCord's decision to temporarily hide out in an isolated town taken over by a bandit gang.

Albert Band wrote the screenplay with his usual writing partner, Louis Garfinkle, and their Italian writing collaborator, Ugo Liberatore. Without giving to much away, there is some similarity to be found with Band and Garfinkle's first wok together, the psychological horror film, I Bury the Living. In the earlier film, the head of a large cemetery believes he has caused the death of several people due to his placing black pins on the map of burial spaces, teetering on madness as the film progresses. What seems uncanny is given a more mundane explanation. In A Minute to Pray . . ., the reveal near the end provides a simple explanation freeing McCord of his psychological torture.

Sergio Corbucci was originally scheduled to direct. There is none of the stylish cinematography found in the Corbucci-Band The Hellbenders, especially with that film's cemetery scene. There is one shot of McCord seen in the distance with a trio of outlaws sitting by a fire in the foreground. The camera pulls back to reveal that there are several more men than the initially seen three. Otherwise, as film historian Alex Cox notes in his commentary, visually A Minute to Pray . . . could almost pass for a Hollywood western.

It is also worth noting that while the financing came from Hollywood, hoping to cash in on the recent popularity of Italian westerns in the the United States, Albert Band should be credited for development of the genre. After a handful of low budget independent films in Hollywood, Band and Garfinkle set up shop in Italy. Their first western, like most of these films, an Italian-Spanish co-production, was Gunfight at Red Sands (1963). The star was American expatriate Richard Harrison, remembered as the guy who suggested that Sergio Leone offer a starring part to a TV actor when everyone else had turned him down. The music was the first western with music by Ennio Morricone.

With Hollywood money and a bigger budget than often found on these films, Band was able to now cast bigger names. The late Sixties was the time when the usually morose Alex Cord was accorded big screen stardom. His Long Island accent almost makes me wish he was dubbed along with the Spanish and Italian actors. Faring better in supporting roles are veterans Arthur Kennedy as the marshal, and Robert Ryan as the two-fisted governor. Ryan appears to be having fun with his role, a glint in his eye and the hint of a smile as he takes on all challengers. One of the highlights is seeing these two in action during the big gunfight near the end. The film score was by Carlo Rustichelli, with music that veers from hints of foreboding similar to his music for Mario Bava's horror films, to romantic Spanish guitar themes, to the full orchestra swelling to melodies that might remind one of Mahler or Wagner. Hollywood influence definitely had a hand in how the film was presented in the United States.

The original Italian release of A Minute to Pray . . . is reported at 118 minutes. What is available here is the U.S. release version, short by about twenty minutes. Most of what has been cut was a subplot regarding the outlaw town where McCord is in hiding. What Kino Lorber has made available is the original ending of the film, which looks like it was recorded off of a Japanese television broadcast. That original ending is nihilistic, but also a more fitting conclusion.

a minute poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

August 26, 2018

Coffee Break

Jack Carson and Doris Day in Romance on the High Seas (Michael Curtiz - 1948)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

August 21, 2018

The Style of Sleaze - The American Exploitation Film, 1959-1977

style of sleaze  book cover.jpg

Calum Waddell - 2018
Edinburgh University Press

What do I know about sleaze? Way back in the Spring of 1973, I was associated with what was then known as the Northwest Film Study Center in Portland, Oregon. A few days before it opened, I was invited to a private, daytime screening of Deep Throat. I found out later that day that most of the audience was made up of lawyers, and my own invitation was as a potential "expert witness" regarding the cinematic value should the exhibition of Deep Throat be closed due to charges of obscenity. This was my first encounter with hardcore pornography in any format. The film's premise was silly, the humor juvenile at best, and the spectacle of Linda Lovelace's talent was of mild interest. I felt ambivalent about the value of Deep Throat. This was well before I was aware of certain aspects regarding the making of the film and the treatment of the star performer. But the point here is that there was something called "porno chic" back in the mid-1970s, and sleaze, then as now, is arguably in the eye of the beholder.

A little more than twenty years later, I came across the book, The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking by John McCarty. Had I known that in the future, I would be reading and writing about Calum Waddell's book, I would have held on to my copy of McCarty's book. I bring this up because the two books share key words that are virtually guaranteed to make someone take a look at the cover, and maybe take a peak inside. Some of the same filmmakers are discussed, though in differing degrees. What I remember best about McCarty's book is the dismissive attitude taken towards Jesus Franco, primarily for his apparent lack of taste and questionable craftsmanship. This was before I was able to see Franco films for myself, available on DVD, and see that in his own way Franco could make make films that fit the conventional norms of conventional filmmaking but chose to work in lower budgets that allowed him the freedom to be transgressive and ignore traditional narrative structures. The overall effect of McCarty's book was that the films in question might be fun to watch, but the viewer is superior to the filmmakers with their preposterous plots, threadbare budgets, and questionable talent.

Calum Waddell has gone out of his way to make sure that his definition of what constitutes the exploitation film is so rigid, so bloodless, so strict, that if it were a horror movie, it would be a mummy, and not the kind that comes back to life. The films cited have rough, almost newsreel style visuals, unknown actors, and set new standards in presenting on screen something at best only hinted at in Hollywood films, making explicit sex and violence. It seems less than coincidental that several of the films discussed - The Devil in Miss Jones, Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song are equally humorless. Basically, this is a book about exploitation films for people who consider themselves too intellectual to see any of the films mentioned for their own sake, but only out of duty for the sake of film scholarship.

There are a couple of points of interest. Certainly having the end date of 1977 makes sense as it was around that time that the consumption of hardcore movies moved from the theater to home video formats. At about the same time, the bottom fell out on low budget genre films, shoved out of multiplexes to become straight to video productions. Waddell notes the similarity in the posters for Russ Meyer's Lorna and Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt with emphasis on the cleavage of respective stars Lorna Maitland and Brigitte Bardot on the films' posters. What Waddell does not mention is that the box office for European films declined after the introduction of the now current production code as Hollywood could now show as much nudity as was seen in films by Ingmar Bergman and Louis Malle. Waddell also discusses how the allegorical aspects to Night of the Living Dead were embraced by George Romero well after the initial release of the film.

While Waddell stresses how some of the actors in exploitation films may not have fit Hollywood's conventional standard of attractiveness, he's ignoring that in the late Sixties such standards were challenged with the stardom of the more obviously ethnic Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, among others. Waddell seems unnecessarily cruel in describing former Broadway dancer Georgina Spelvin, who at the late ago of 37 became a porn star with The Devil in Miss Jones, as "middle-aged". A statement that black actresses prior to Pam Grier were not allowed to sell movies might come as news to Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge.

For myself, if exploitation films are to be the subject of serious investigation, the best balance is found in Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' Immoral Tale:: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984. The films and filmmakers are placed in cultural contexts regarding the art and politics at the time of production. At the same time, the authors always make the reader feel that watching these films, no matter that some may find them disreputable, is fun.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

August 19, 2018

Coffee Break

Tang Wei in Blackhat (Michael Mann - 2015)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:27 AM

August 14, 2018

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami


Sophie Fiennes - 2017
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Bloodlight is a word attributed to the Jamaican musician/production team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare referring to the red light indicating that the recording session is in progress. Bami is a kind of grain used for meals that has a particular kind of versatility in the ways it can be prepared and served. The title is an indication of the structure of Sophie Fiennes documentary that switches between primarily between specially staged performances in Dublin, Ireland, and Jones visiting her family and recording in Jamaica.

Fiennes first gets the viewers' attention with footage of Jones performing "Slave to the Rhythm". Jones is wearing a stylized skull mask and a loose blue blouse of sorts that extends to a billowing cape, over her form fitting corset. This is cut to alternate with footage of Jones performing the song, with a cat-like mask and corset, while spinning a hula hoop at the same time. With her thin, imposing frame and energetic stage act, Jones looks no different that she did at the time that her celebrity made its initial impact in the early Eighties. I wouldn't be surprised if someone like Beyonce was taking notes as Grace Jones hardly looks like someone who just turned 70.

As someone who was only marginally familiar with Jones' music, what is most striking is learning about the autobiographical elements of some of her songs. The family gatherings are in part discussions of the family history, of the prominence of the Jones family in Spanish Town on her father's side, and the notoriety of the Williams family, with Jones' mother considered by her paternal grandfather to be unworthy of Jones' father. There is also much discussion of the impact that Jones' maternal grandfather, known as "Mas P" had on the family.

The structure of the film is not linear. Fiennes cuts from one location to another without titles indicating time or place. As Fiennes explains, primarily in the second of two commentary tracks, the film takes place in a continuous present tense. The viewer fills in some of the details through observation and listening. The shape of the film is in some ways similar to Fiennes' earlier Over your Cities Grass will Grow, about environmental artist Anselm Kiefer which similarly observes Kiefer at work, alternating with footage of his buildings and tunnels, letting the work speak for itself. It was Fiennes documentary on Jones brother, Noel Jones, and his church, Hoover Street Revival (2002) that brought Grace Jones in contact with Sophie Fiennes. That Jones was asked previously to be the subject of a documentary, but would only do so on her terms, was the impetus for this collaboration.

One of the clearest examples of Jones demanding to be taken seriously and perform on her own terms is in a sequence in Paris. She rehearses her disco version of Edith Piaf's "La Vie in Rose" while surrounded by young female dancers, all dressed in white baby doll lingerie. To describe the staging of the musical number as "tacky" would be too kind. Fiennes manages to find in the audience two young girls, clearly bored with the expression of students waiting for a lecture to be over, surrounded by an enthusiastic audience moving in rhythm to the song. Afterwards, Jones expresses her frustration that someone thought that the use of the dancers was an appropriate idea.

Of the two commentary tracks, the first, with Jones, Fiennes and moderator Judith Casselberry, primarily is of interest in amplifying some of Jones' family history. For myself, the second track with Fiennes discussing her working methods with critic Ian Smith was of greater interest. There is also the appearance of Jones and Fiennes at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from last April, with the star even more uninhibited and bawdy than the woman we see on the screen.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:35 AM

August 12, 2018

Coffee Break

Ahlam Canaan and Sana Jammelieh in In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud - 2017)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:49 AM

August 08, 2018

Street Mobster

Street Mobster poster.jpg

Gendai Yakuza: Hitokiri Yota
Kinji Fukasaku - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The title roughly translates as "Modern Yakuza: Murderous Hoodlum". The title character as played by Bunta Sugawara, is undoubtedly a hoodlum, but arguably is not yakuza, at least not in the classic sense. His character, Okita Isamu, and by extension, Fukasaku, expresses disdain for the ritualized aspects of yakuza life. Unlike the more classic films, no one extends an empty palm as a form of greeting. The viewer sees bandaged hands, but the only moment of cutting a pinkie finger as a sign of contrition is Isamu's impromptu and ultimately futile gesture. There is no honor among thieves here.

The basic narrative outline is familiar, following a gangster's rise and fall. Announcing itself as being a fictionalized account of true events was part of a new trend at the time for yakuza films. Fukasaku, who rewrote the screenplay to help set it apart from similar films, mixes hand-held documentary style filmmaking with dutch angles, freeze frames, and a few highly stylized visual moments. The "true story" aspect is anchored with Isamu's off-screen narration, introducing himself as having been born on August 15, 1945, the same day that Japan officially surrendered on World War II.

Isamu is shown having a difficult childhood, in extreme poverty, with an uncaring mother who primarily earned money as a prostitute in the margins of Tokyo. This is followed by leading a street gang, and imprisonment for killing the member of an established yakuza gang. Isamu could belong to one of the gangs that use legitimate business fronts, with members dressed in uniform black business suits. What keeps him as a perpetual outsider is his attraction to getting into fights with other gang members, especially those he perceives of as arrogant.

The yakuza films in general are about masculine societies. Isamu steps into contemporary Tokyo of 1972 after several years in prison, noting the influence of "hippie culture" with men with long hair looking similar to girls. One might argue that the yakuza films, and the existence of the yakuza, are a reflection of crisis of masculinity following Japan's defeat, a sense of humiliation that was previously unknown to the country. Isamu chooses to live in a way that he is always physically asserting himself, and his sense of being a man. His one relationship with a woman is with a prostitute that he raped and sold to a brothel prior to his imprisonment. His sense of entitlement to be with other women conflicts with his pained sense of loyalty to her. Isamu's uncompromising sense of self ultimately leads to his inevitable violent death.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Tom Mes, helping to position Street Mobster within the careers of Kinji Fukusaku and Bunta Sugawara. Mes also talks about actor Noboru Ando's early life in crime, with his acting career taking place following six years in prison. Close-ups of Ando show a knife scar on his left cheek. Mes also discusses how Street Mobster marked a change in yakuza films from the "romantic chivalry" series that frequently starred Ken Takakura, the type that Paul Schrader cited when introducing the genre to U.S. cinephiles. There is also a booklet with notes by Jasper Sharp that is of interest for going into more detail on Sugawara's life and early acting career.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:02 PM

August 05, 2018

Coffee Break

Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey in Irrational Man (Woody Allen - 2015)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:43 AM

August 02, 2018

The Great Game


Le Grand Jeu
Nicolas Pariser. - 2015
Icarus Films / Distrib Films

Everything about The Great Game is muted. Not only the blues and oranges that dominate the images, but also the unheard bits of dialogue, and the action. A politician is murdered, hit by a car. What we see is a partial view of the politician walking out of the frame, followed by the car. But the viewer only hears the thud of the car, followed by the sight of loose newspaper pages fluttering in the aftermath.

The central character, Pierre Blum, is a failed novelist, described as distant, remote in his relationships. Whether the film is intended to reflect Blum's view of the world as seen by others, I can not say. There are some intriguing ideas here, although I suspect Pariser's debut film may be too cerebral even for those who have immersed themselves the films of Eric Rohmer, or more recently, Eugene Green.

Blum has been enlisted by power broker to anonymously write a book designed to provoke political discourse in France, as well as affect the career of a political rival. The publication turns out to not only be provocative, but life threatening for Blum, his patron, and various people in Blum's life. Maybe its very well hidden from the public, but it was hard for me to imagine similar kind of machinations among such firebrands as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza.

This is one of the films I wish I could have liked better, primarily because of the cast. Those who follow French cinema would be more than familiar with Melvil Poupard, here as Blum, and Andre Dussollier as Paskin, the power broker. Clemente Poesy appears as the possible romantic interest for Blum who finds herself emotionally and politically compromised. Nicolas Pariser won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best First Film in 2015. After festival screenings, this film is now getting a U.S. release on home video formats.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:11 AM