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January 30, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Crystal Swan

crystal swan.jpg

Darya Zhuk - 2018
Unfound Content

I have an acquaintance who has been part of the committee responsible for the Foreign Language section of the Oscars. He has a theory that the least interesting film among the final five is usually the film that gets the award. My own feeling is that often the films that fall outside the shortlist or final five are the more challenging films for a stateside viewer because they are more specific to the country of origin, and in their stories more intimate.

Crystal Swan is too bittersweet to be described as a screwball comedy, but it is about the misadventures of a young woman from Minsk, and the few days where everything goes wrong. The film takes place in 1996. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but for many, no functioning infrastructure is in its place. Velya works in a museum dedicated to Belarusian military efforts during World War II, but would rather be a DJ playing "house music" in Chicago. In an effort to gain a visa for travel to the U.S., she obtains letterhead stationary on the black market, typing in a fake work history that would be deemed more financially stable. The only problem is that the phone number for the company is not completely legible, and Velya is in a panic once its confirmed that the U.S. Embassy is going to call for verification. The phone number belongs to a family in a small town called Crystal, where Velya goes to intercept the expected phone call.

Maybe it's not deliberate, but the set-up of Crystal Swan reminds me of the screwball comedies of the 1930s with the main character running away from home for whatever reason, and finding themselves involved in unexpected situations with an eccentric group of strangers. Velya finds herself involved with a family preparing for a wedding, in a town named after its only industry, crystal artifacts. For those that live in Crystal, Minsk is as foreign as Los Angeles or Chicago. Even vaguer is Velya's notion freedom to be found in America. For Velya's mother and the people of Crystal, there's a sense of security in holding onto Soviet style thoughts and traditions. For all of her troubles, Velya does inspire one of the son's of the family that reluctantly hosts her.

Some of my favorite visual moments - a small group of Russian soldiers high stepping in a subway station, a house party in a warehouse filled with statues of Soviet heroes, a tracking shot of the Crystal family setting up tables for the backyard wedding reception, and a group of school children joyfully abandoning their chairs as soon as the VHS tape of Belarusian history malfunctions. With her round face and mop of blonde hair, lead actress Alina Nasibullina reminded me somewhat of a younger version of R. W. Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla. Crystal Swan is Darya Zhuk's first feature after several short films. This was also the first film from Belarus in over twenty years to be submitted for Oscar consideration.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:20 AM

January 29, 2019

Slamdance 2019: The Dons of Disco


Jonathan Sutak - 2018
Discotheque Studio

While watching the opening minutes of The Dons of Disco, I was remembering a conversation I had with my mother around twenty years ago or so. She had moved to Jerusalem and was talking about some singer who had been the big Eurovision or San Remo winner. I had no idea who she was talking about. But that very brief conversation pointed to the gaps that exist in popular culture between Europe and the U.S.

The Dons of Disco is about the legacy of a very popular singer in the genre called Italo Disco, who was revealed to have mimed his hit records, and the studio musician who cowrote the songs and provided the voice on most of the records. And if you're old enough to think to yourself, "Hey, this reminds me of Milli Vanilli", as it turns out, Rob and Fab were basically the tip of that particular iceberg.

Even though I find the music occasionally catchy, but ultimately forgettable, Jonathan Sutak's documentary is still fascinating in its portrait of the machinations of the music industry thirty years ago. The disco star, Den Harrow (say his name quickly with a silent H, sounds like De Niro), was invented as the face of a group of studio musicians and songwriters, a young man who could sing in perfect English. Spotted on the floor of a disco, blond and pretty Stefano Zandri was enlisted to mime in front of an audience as Den Harrow. The fiction extended to making him an Italian-American from Boston, which meant that publicly Zandri had to limit his speaking to badly accented Italian, and disguise that he did not know more than a few words of English.

The real voice on most of the records, Tom Hooker is shown trying to establish that he was the real voice of Den Harrow, and should be credited as such. Hooker even goes on tour briefly in several U.S. cities as the opening act for Boney M. What makes the rivalry between the voice and the face a bit odd is that both men have had overcome any setbacks to live quite comfortable lives. Hooker changed his last name to Barbey, and is now a very successful photographer based in Las Vegas. Zandri, living in Milan, continued as an actor and television celebrity.

Zandri makes the assertion that the audience responds to the face and not the voice in his claim to be recognized as the real Den Harrow. His example is Robert De Niro and the actor who provides his voice in dubbed films for Italian audiences. While it is mildly amusing to see De Niro's famous "You talkin' to me" scene from Taxi Driver with the voice of Ferruccio Amendola, I don't think this is the best analogy. The illusion of some record companies that an audience will accept that the singer on stage is voiced by someone else is difficult to sustain. The film does not touch on the controversy of singers who lip-synch to their own voices in live performances.

Unknown as he was on this side of the Atlantic, Den Harrow's popularity was such that he topped the likes of Michael Jackson and Falco (hey, even I have a soft-spot for "Der Kommissar"). Several of the other behind the scenes talent in the creation of Den Harrow, fans and discophiles also appear in this film. Perhaps the best point of The Dons of Disco is the reminder that while we may see one face on the record cover, there is often a sizable, and unseen, team providing support.

For a humorous overview of Italo Disco and its influence, there is this article from Pitchfork.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM

January 28, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Impetus


Jennifer Alleyn - 2019
La Distributrice de Films

While checking on the credits for Impetus, I noticed that the Internet Movie Database wrongly categorized the film as a documentary. Jennifer Alleyn makes it clear in the closing credits that her film is a work of fiction. It is easy to see why there might be some confusion because of the way Alleyn has constructed her film.

The work might be best summarized as a meditation on love and loss. There is no conventional structure here. Partially first person documentary, partially dramatic narrative, partially abstract montages of nature, an intuitive kind of filmmaking. Just as Alleyn plays with notions of visual language, the film is bilingual switching between French and English. Alleyn herself appears as a filmmaker attempting to complete a film, dealing with her own personal loss of a loved one, followed by the loss of an actor who leaves in mid-production for a more lucrative gig.

One of the sources of inspiration of Alleyn was Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault. Now something of a visual cliche, but Brault was a pioneer in the use of hand-held cinematography, part of what was a new style of documentary introduced in the late 1950s as Direct Cinema. Alleyn does her own version, on the streets and subways of New York City. Alleyn appears to have a particular joy in filming the various street performers, a Sinatra style chanteur in a small park, people spontaneously dancing to a musician in a subway station, a young man using a subway pole for a performance.

There are also more formally composed moments. The film opens with the overwhelming whiteness of winter in Montreal. It is as if there is nothing but ice and snow. There are a series of renaissance era portraits and paintings. Alleyn frequently makes use of reflected surfaces within a shot. One of my favorite moments is of actress Pascale Bussieres performing a solo dance, a response to a boogie by John Reissner. Bussieres is effectively doubled as the camera observes her from a distance so that she is also seen on the glass surface of a wall on the right side of the frame.

It may be fitting that I saw Impetus a day after the death of Jonas Mekas. Above all, Mekas championed what could be described as personal filmmaking. I would hardly expect that those who watch Impetus will respond to the film in whole or in part in quite the same way. Just as the film is a hybrid of narrative and non-narrative filmmaking, it is by turns disorienting, comic, frustrating, and beautiful.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:57 AM

January 27, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Boni Bonita

boni bonita.jpg

Daniel Barosa - 2019

Boni Bonita follows the relationship between Beatriz and Rogerio over the course of nine years, from 2007 through 2016, in four chapters. The film is divided into periods of a day or two when they are together. Beatriz is first seen as a high school girl, reportedly expelled for being caught having sex with another student, and kicked out of her house. The heavy-set Rogerio is a rock musician who hasn't quite realized that his best days are behind him. Most of the film takes place in and around Rogerio's family home by a reservoir outside of Rio de Janeiro.

The relationship is not clearly defined for the viewer, by turns romantic, sexual, and even paternal on Rogerio's part. For most of the film, Daniel Barosa keeps the camera immobile and at a distance. Beatriz and Rogerio are usually framed in full, and sometimes from a distance, with their actions and dialogue quietly observed. There are no explanations or judgments regarding Beatriz' self-inflicted cuttings and cigarette burns. Meanwhile, Rogerio's fading celebrity is based less on his own musicianship than on being the grandson of a still revered singer from an earlier generation.

Barosa produced his film over the course of three years. Film formats used were 16mm, Super 16 and digital. The 16mm footage is full of scratches as if the film had been run through too many projectors with careless use. The aspect ratio changes from wide screen to square with some of the images around the reservoir, resembling postcard nature photography. The time difference is most visible with the last scene of Beatriz, actress Ailin Salas. Barosa has stated that his initial inspiration came from following the indie rock scene of Sao Paulo, Brazil, both as a young enthusiast and amateur musician, and than looking back over a decade later. Among stated cinematic influences are Eric Rohmer and John Cassavetes - what is most similar is the sometimes affectionate look at characters who are allowed to be impulsive and sometimes foolish in their choices and relationships.

I had forgotten that I had seen Ailin Salas previously. The Argentinian actress also appears in two early films by Lucia Puenzo, XXY and The Fish Child. Salas is like Beatriz, an Argentinian in Brazil. One might also equate the visual distance in the cinematography of Boni Bonita as that of the outsider or foreigner. Barosa own background is of having been born in Maryland, moving with his family to Brazil, and studying film in Argentina. A personal history as that would lend itself to a story about two people, one of whom is always at home, while for the other, home is something transient.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:13 AM

January 26, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Beats


Brian Welsh - 2018
Attitude Films

I don't know how many of us on this side of the Atlantic were aware of a law that was put in place in the United Kingdom in 1994. Part of a much bigger package of new laws, some of which were progressive, Section 63 proved that even politicians who grew up with rock and roll could grow to be the moral arbiters regarding youth culture. Basically a law that outlawed rave parties, some of the wording is certain to raise an eyebrow in describing the music - "wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats". To quote the title of a play, "No sex please, we're British".

Based on a play by Kiran Hurley, the film takes place in central Scotland. Johnno, a teenager with the look of perpetual disappointment can't even listen to the electronic dance music at home. His best friend is Spanner, lanky kid with a bowl haircut, considered "scum" by Johnno's mother, Allison. Also in the household is Robert, a cop, who tries to look the other way when enforcing the draconian law that essentially criminalizes young people hanging out together, listening to music on a boom box. As a protest against the anti-rave law, a large, secret rave is being planned.

The film is mostly in black and white with a very selective use of color. There is music, but most of the narrative portions of Beats are closer in spirit to the "kitchen sink" British films that appeared primarily at the end of the Fifties and early Sixties, films that centered on working class characters. Allison and Robert are planning to move out of the cramped row house they currently live in, to a newer development the signals aspirations of upward mobility. For Johnno, Spanner and their friends, there is only interest in getting through the day with music, beer and the occasional tab of Ecstasy. The use of color, or lack of it, reflects a life of narrow options.

The rave scene is virtually a compendium of what use to be called "underground movies", primarily from the Sixties. While there are bits that were inspired by other filmmakers, there is the influence of Stan Brakhage. The trip, for lack of a better word, is a series of fragment, some of which are superimposed over shots of the crowd at the outdoor rave. Some of these fragments resemble Brakhage's hand painted works, his attempts at creating films that resembled hypnogogic vision. Other fragments use bits of film that have been altered by natural elements.

That Steven Soderbergh is listed as the executive producer is less surprising given that the film was produced by Ken Loach's company, Sixteen Films. Soderbergh incorporated scenes from Loach's Poor Cow, a working class tale, as part of The Limey. While the film takes aim a criticizing Section 63, and its over-zealous enforcement, Welsh has enough comic moments to avoid being entirely polemical. Music from the era includes Prodigy, Orbital and Lee "Scratch" Perry. Beats concludes with a coda, where the main characters are since 1994. I was reminded of the ending of George Lucas' film about high school kids in 1962, enough that Brian Welsh might well have titled the film "Scottish Graffiti".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:16 AM

January 25, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture


Nicole Brending - 2018
Missing & Exploited Films

The title suggests a possible #metoo lecture, followed by some high minded hectoring until the audience is sufficiently woke. There is a serious message here, but hopefully it won't be lost in this highly satirical look at the machinery of celebrity. And while celebrity culture in general is poked at, it's the selling and sexualization of young females that is at the heart of Brending's film. Working with puppets, the path has been set by Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Parker and Stone's South Park series as well as their features. Brending fearlessly goes further, some of the most tasteless bits are also the funniest.

Without giving to much away, the story is about Junie Spoon, pushed by her stage mother into show business. Junie starts off as a child actor before evolving into a pop star. The song lyrics can barely be described as double entendres. Junie is not in control of her life, taken advantage of financially and sexually. As if to emphasize the point, the strings controlling Junie are always visible. Junie's life totally becomes awry due to a fan's total identification with Junie.

With the exception of a certain President of the United States and Diane Sawyer, everyone named here is fictional. Biographical elements used for Junie and others may be familiar in association with several pop stars from the Nineties. The stars spout out the expected cliches in interviews, professing innocence regarding song lyrics, and publicly declaring their religious convictions. There are parodies of music videos and that cable television staple centered on purchases of rare items. I'm not going to name anyone who gets trashed, literally or figuratively. And I'm not going to give away any details because I don't want to spoil anyone's shock, surprise or guilty laughter.

Not quite a one woman show here, but Brending created all the puppets and animated them over the course of a year. She also provided most of the voices, and wrote the song lyrics. The puppet are rough hewn, and much of the humor is as subtle as a brick tossed through a window. This issues brought not only about the exploitation of women in entertainment, but also female agency and identification will inspire debate. I may be showing my age here, but while I'm use to a long history of transgressive humor from male artists, there are moments in Dollhouse that make Trey Parker and Matt Stone look almost refined. I can't wait to see what Ms. Brending has for the future.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:23 AM

January 24, 2019

Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion

forbidden photos poster.jpg

Le foto proibite di una signora per bene
Luciano Ercoli - 1970
Arrow Video BD Region A

I don't know if Luciano Ercoli had ever seen Sam Fuller's China Gate. Fuller's film is in part notable for introducing the character played by Angie Dickinson with her legs stretching across the CinemaScope screen. Ercoli does something similar with Dagmar Lassander, the titular lady, with three shots of her legs dominating the wide screen. The playfulness of some of the visual choices is echoed in the opening credits music by Ennio Morricone - unusually peppy and poppy, almost like an instrumental from Burt Bacharach.

I viewed the film in the Italian dubbed version with English subtitles, so the names of the characters are as they appear in that version. With Lassander as Minou first seen taking a bath, she is introduced with a first-person voiceover, making the vow that as of that morning she will no longer self-medicate with pills and alcohol. Barely out of the tub and those vows are forgotten. Taking a walk at night wearing the mini-est of mini-dresses, Minou is followed by a motorcyclist. Threatened with the cyclist's stick with a retractable blade, Minou is told that her husband is a murderer. Threatened with blackmail, and trying to protect her industrialist husband, Minou finds herself stalked by a man she is unable to prove exists.

Ercoli is more interested teasing the audience, which may disappoint those looking for giallo that is more violent or erotic. While the audience knows that Minou is not imagining her encounters with her blackmailer, it's not clear until the end if her husband, Pier, had indeed committed a murder that passed for death by natural causes. There is also a scene when Minou's best friend, Dominque, is on the phone. Dominque is in bed with a lover, the camera pans slightly to the right stopping short of revealing the lover's identity. While not explored within the story, there is visual twinning of the main characters, with Minou and Dominque (Nieves Navarro billed as Susan Scott) both similarly fashionably dressed, with similar shades of red hair with the occasional donning of wigs. Also the three main male actors are somewhat alike physically. Ercoli keeps the mystery going with lights suddenly going out, and characters moving in spaces with oversized shadows. Also notable is the recurring use of red throughout the set design.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Kat Ellinger that is best at discussing how many giallo films are linked, as this one, with a screenplay by the prolific Ernest Gastaldi. There are interviews with Navarro and Ercoli from 2012 that are edited with an interview with Gastaldi. Say what you may about plot holes or other bits of illogic in his screenplays, but for me it's always a treat listening to Gastaldi humorously discuss the life of Italian genre filmmakers from the 1970s. Another extra reviews the music by Ennio Morricone and his main collaborators. A question and answer session from 2016 with Dagmar Lassander is an overview of her still active career. There is also a booklet with notes by critic Michael Mackenzie which helps place Ercoli's film within the history of giallo.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:25 PM

January 15, 2019

Citizen Kane


Orson Welles - 1941
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Is the cinema more important than life? - Francois Truffaut

Admittedly, I don't know the context of this quote. Would Truffaut have had an answer had he known that he would die at a relatively young age? Would he have traded making movies if it meant living longer? My own feelings about film, writing about those that have been sent to me to review or may have piqued my interest, even the act of watching another movie, have become more ambivalent since I was made aware of my own mortality.

I've have stomach trouble before, including a major operation back in 1975. But last May I was sick enough that it seemed that I had no choice but to check in at a nearby hospital. Had I not been hospitalized, I might have never known that there was a mass discovered in my left kidney. As it was, I had already by diagnosed with only partial function. A couple of doctors, independently of each other came to the same conclusion that I had cancer. My choice was to keep both kidneys and my partial kidney function, or remove the kidney, go on dialysis, and have even less kidney function, though theoretically extending my life. One of my doctors is blonde, attractive, and sometimes has a noticeable Oklahoma twang. She looks a bit like a backup dancer in a "Beach Party" movie from the mid-Sixties. Being told you have about two years to live doesn't sound so horrible when you get the news from a doctor who looks like she could have been a high school cheerleader.


So what does any of this have to do with Citizen Kane? It's the image of the sled that stuck in my mind. It's the idea that people have possessions that are meaningful to them, but without that same kind of importance to others. For the workmen in Xanadu, the sled was just junk to be disposed of, tossed into the fire. For Charles Kane, it's a reminder of the day his life changed when he was eight years old. For myself, it meant giving away some of my possessions, mostly books and movies, to friends who would appreciate them, rather than having them get tossed out of ignorance of any value, or put in an estate sale. If I remember correctly, Welles described the revealing of "Rosebud" as "dime store Freud". And it simultaneously does and does not answer questions. But having spent most of my life in Colorado, I did feel motivated to seen Citizen Kane, paying more attention to the scene of Charlie Kane's childhood.

First, there is no Little Salem, Colorado. Second, the mining towns are all along the Rocky Mountains, and there is no mining town that would have been three miles from the any part of the Colorado state line, as indicated in one brief shot. Nothing is stated regarding the kind of mineral or minerals were in the mine owned by Charlie Kane's mother, what was thought to have been a worthless deed left as boarding house payment, though it could have been most likely silver. Colorado was still not a state in 1871, and Denver was still considered a frontier town, so sending Charlie to Chicago for his education is not implausible. As for catching the train to go "back East", in reality it would be a treacherous trip by stagecoach in the snow to travel to Denver, which had only completed a rail connection to Kansas City the year before. What is undeniable is that Charlie Kane doesn't want to leave his parents, appearing to love both his strong-willed mother and powerless father equally. That Charlie's sled has great personal significance is shown when he gets a new sled from Mr. Thatcher on Christmas, and immediately tosses it aside.

The last time we see the parents, they are to receive $50,000.00 per year from Mr. Thatcher. Aside from a mention by Charles Kane that his mother had died, there is no indication of what they had done with their newly acquired money, or if there was any kind of family reunion. There is what might be regarded as an indirect closure as Buddy Swan, the child actor who portrayed Charlie Kane, died in Colorado Springs.

I am planning to make this the last full year I write about films. What this means is hopefully rambling about more films of personal interest, as well as being a bit more discriminating about the films I watch. I've seen eighty-eight of ninety Oscar Best Pictures. If a film is considered part of "the canon", I've probably seen it at least once. That includes every theatrical film directed officially and unofficially by Orson Welles. I just need to get around to watching that DVD of The Green Room, the only feature I haven't seen by Francois Truffaut.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:40 AM

January 11, 2019

Buffalo Boys


Mike Wiluan - 2018
Samuel Goldwyn Films

While the release of two Indonesian "westerns" in 2018 is coincidental, it is less of a novelty when one considers how the genre has truly become transnational, especially after the advent of Italian westerns. One might even argue that Asian westerns have been around since at least the time of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Curiously, both Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and Buffalo Boys were up for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Marlina was Indonesia's submission, while Buffalo Boys was entered as a Singaporean film, based on that country being Mike Wiluan's base of operations. As a producer, Wiluan had a hand in Crazy Rich Asians. Buffalo Boys is Wiluan's debut as a director, as well as screenplay cowriter.

Taking place around 1860, the story is about two brothers and their uncle who return to the country known at that time as Java, from the United States. Java was a Dutch colony. Their goal is to seek revenge for the death of the brothers' father, murdered by a Dutch government official who as essentially enslaved the peasants within his region, and controls a small town and fort.

In terms of the story, all the familiar tropes are there. This is the classic template of the stranger(s) in town who, following an awkward entrance, a couple setbacks, encounters with nasty henchmen, deaths of friends and relatives, a final shootout, find love and bring justice to the community. If you've seen a western with Audie Murphy, nothing in the story will come as a surprise. But the pleasure in this film is in part the familiarity with the story, and how Wiluan reworks it within a different context.

Wiluan doesn't directly quote any older films but those who have followed the genre through its various cycles will recognize most of the sources of inspiration. Certainly the moment when the brothers step into town, ready for the final showdown, echoes a similar moment in The Wild Bunch. And John Ford is virtually paraphrased here with his line, "print the legend", regarding frontier mythology. The portrayal of racism by the Dutch recalls the revisionist westerns of the 1970s. And the influence of Sergio Leone seems inescapable, with a couple of extreme close-ups of eyes, and musical themes reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone.

That final showdown is a hoot, with four-barrel shotguns, cannons, arrows, knives, axes and hatchets among the various implements of death and destruction. Imagine that finale in The Wild Bunch, with fewer people, but bigger explosions and bloodier deaths. There's also some Southeast Asian kickboxing in the mix, but seeing a couple of unlucky guys blown backwards a hundred yards or so from the force of a powerful blast through a thick wooden barricade offers greater visceral pleasure. In something like the same way one can enjoy a familiar Shakespeare play done with a different kind of setting outside of Elizabethan England, so is the fun of seeing the cowboy movie cliches transplanted to another time and country.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:36 AM

January 08, 2019

Let the Corpses Tan


Laissez bronzer les cadavres
Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani - 2017
Kino Lorber BD Region A

One of the details I had forgotten about Let the Corpses Tan is that the robbers are wearing Frankenstein masks during the heist. More precisely, masks modeled after Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. One might even describe the films of Cattet and Forzani as being similar to the Frankenstein monster as they are created from the eclectic parts of other movies as their sources of inspiration. As the Australian pair of film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and historian John Edmond explain in the commentary track, what Cattet and Forzani do is not the same as the kind of cinematic quotations from Quentin Tarantino or Jean-Luc Godard. And the filmmakers themselves also allow for the viewer to create their own reading of their films, equally as valid as whatever Cattet and Forzani may have intended.

Unlike the previous two films, Let the Corpses Tan also has a literary source, the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid. While not (yet) translated to English, John Edmond has read the novel and makes some reference to it in both its use in the construction of the film's narrative, and how the filmmakers created visual equivalents to literary passages. For myself, prior to seeing Let the Corpses Tan theatrically last Fall, I read one of the few novels by Manchette in English, Fatale. The short novel is about a female assassin who decides to take some time off in a small, provincial French town. After getting to know who the most influential townspeople are, she sets off previously suppressed rivalries. The basic set-up appears to be inspired by the novel, Red Harvest, and its better known film offspring, Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. So Cattet and Forzani, who make films inspired by genre filmmaking and the expectations that it brings have made a film from a writer who also plays with genre and its expectations.

The film opens with film shots matching gun shots through a painting. Heller-Nicholas mentions the stated influence of sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, who created assemblages that were marked by gunshots. Saint Phalle's influence can also be seen in the use of the film's setting, a remote, crumbling monastery and cottage with bizarre assemblages inside and outside. The use of primary colors, first seen in the painting in the opening shots, and then used to create monochromatic images of the characters would echo the colors Saint Phalle uses in her work. Saint Phalle created a series of abstract sculptures called "Nanas", shaped like big, curvy women. Actress Elina Lowensohn plays the artist whose home is site of most of the film's action. But Lowensohn is also arguably presented as the film's Nana, allowed to be seen nude, proudly showing off a mature and fleshy body. Each photographic shot is framed and lit with such care that a casual observer would note the influence of abstract expressionism and action painting.

The visual aspects of Let the Corpses Tan are such that narrative concerns almost seem besides the point. The basic story of the robbery of some gold bars, the attempt to outwit the cops on the trail, and the robbers betrayal of each other, is familiar territory. Things get more complicated when unplanned for guests show up a the artist's home. Cattet and Forzani play with the narrative structure by showing what occurred during a specific time period from the viewpoint of different characters. Unlike the first two films that took place in urban settings, sunbaked Corsica, a bright combination of brown and yellow, dominates the daytime exteriors.

Some of the discussion of Let the Corpses Tan referring to Italian westerns for some context shortchanges the other films and filmmakers whose influence is worth noting. The opening with the extreme close-ups of eyes and lips will indeed make most viewers think of Sergio Leone, as would virtually any musical queue from Ennio Morricone, whether from a Leone film or not. Cattet and Forzani have mentioned Andrea Bianchi's Cry of a Prostitute as inspiring the move to a sunny, rural location. The repeated use of shooting someone by placing the barrel of the pistol in the mouth echoes Lucio Fulci's Contraband, although in one scene, instead of blood spurting out of the back of the victim's head, we see a spray of gold. Certainly, an advantage to having the new blu-ray is the ability to enjoy the film for its visual pleasures by removing the English language subtitles.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:18 AM

January 01, 2019

El Paso


Lewis R. Foster - 1949
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Especially knowing that writer-director Lewis Foster won the Academy Award his part in writing Mr. Smith goes to Washington, I wish that a little more care had been put in the writing of El Paso. Taking place immediately after the Civil War, the basic plot is of a Confederate veteran who shows up in town for business with an old family friend from Charleston, South Carolina. The town is run by a corrupt strong man with the sheriff and deputies doing his bidding. Operations are from the back of the bar. Former soldiers are losing their homes in the name of unpaid taxes that built up during the war years. The lawyer realizes that his skills as a lawyer are needed, but he also learns how to best be effective with a gun.

Had more attention been paid to history, El Paso might have been more interesting. Most of the film takes place at the western set of the Iverson Ranch, making the cinematic El Paso look like a generic western town. The real El Paso was a bit more developed during the Civil War era, and an active center of activity on behalf of the Confederate army. Most Texans supported the secession from the United States. The basic plot premise is also faulty as there is no explanation as to what the bad guys were doing during the war years. Essentially, a vaguely historical set-up is ignored once John Payne and the rest of the cast steps off the stagecoach in that town that looks like it is part of almost any random Western.

Foster is stronger visually, with a penchant for tracking shots within the length of the bar where several scenes take place, as well as following along on the street where the final gun battle takes place. There is also some nice second unit work with stunt doubles seen from the distance, camera aiming up with the riders against some very imposing rocks or sky. Best is the final gun battle, filmed during a wind storm, with the dust and sand creating a very hazy effect, blurring the details in shades of brown, and providing an abstract quality to that scene.

The film was produced by William Pine and Willam Thomas, who previously provided low or modestly budgeted action movies for Paramount. This was the team's first million dollar production, though several cost cutting measures are apparent. The film played at New York City's Paramount Theater, and received quite a harsh review from the New York Time's Bosley Crowther: "It is billed as a top-flight production-by William C. Thomas and William H. Pine. Well, the boys may now be billed as Williams and they may have hit the Paramount, but El Paso is still Pine and Thomas in the same old low-budget groove. Indeed, if our memory serves us, it isn't even them at their best, but is rather a third or fourth rate rehash of a standard Western plot. And Mr. Payne's performance as a young lawyer who finally puts to rout a gang of frontier villains is way below their grade."

El Paso will probably be of most interest for those devoted to older Hollywood Westerns. The film was shot in an inexpensive color process called Cinecolor, a two-color process favored by some of the poverty row studios. Maybe I needed to do some fine-tuning on the color, but reds appeared as Halloween orange. It's fairly easy to why Cinecolor was a short-lived process.

Gail Russell is on hand as the obligatory love interest. Considering that she seems to have less screen time than bad guys Sterling Hayden and Dick Foran, I had to wonder if the role was taken simply as part of Russell's contractual obligations with Paramount, or if her alcoholism had in any way affected her performance. Gabby Hayes provides what passes for comedy as "Pesky", the worst entrepreneur in the West, who begins with a suit and top hat, and ends wearing nothing but a blanket. Film historian Toby Roan's commentary track for the blu-ray covers the history of Pine-Thomas productions, the production of El Paso, and brief biographies several cast members. The film will probably be most appreciated by hardcore Western aficionados. For others, El Paso serves as an example of genre filmmaking at a time when the studio system was coming apart, and two former studio publicists proved prescient in the ways that film production would eventually evolve.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:50 AM