Monday, May 9, 2011

The Best Years of Our Lives

Of the many statements uttered in the course of 20 Years for Murder, a documentary that takes a fond look back to the heady days when the interview subjects collaborated to make Avere Vent'anni (hereafter referred to as To Be Twenty, as that's the title by which I first learned of the film), that seem designed to make the viewer raise his or her eyebrow in incredulity, the topper must be producer Gianluca Curti's "We tried to make the ending funny, too, so I took out the rape scene." I mean, it's not as if that's not a good start or anything. Curti's statement, by the way, is in reference to the controversy sparked by To Be Twenty's notorious ending -- an ending that left critics and audiences "disappointed", according to the Raro Video DVD liner notes -- and the subsequent attempt to force people to like To Be Twenty by rejiggering and rearranging (and re-, or rather mis-translating) it so that it went from being mostly a sex comedy to entirely a sex comedy. But of course in director/writer Fernando di Leo's original cut, it's what's missing from that "mostly" that really counts.

Di Leo appears in 20 Years for Murder as well, and he says lots of things that indicate to me that he is, perhaps, a little bit deluded. The most alarming evidence comes when he blames To Be Twenty's commercial failure -- this failure coming in its first run, with his original cut -- on the film maybe being "too frivolous". Part of the problem with writing about To Be Twenty is deciding how blunt or how cagey to be about what actually goes on during the film's ending, and I'm leaning hard towards cagey right now, but suffice it to say if frivolity was di Leo's intent throughout, including what happens to the "young, hot and pissed off" girls, played by Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati, in the final minutes, then I'd say he has yet to grapple with issues of tone, not to mention audience expectation, so no wonder they were "disappointed".

Up to that point, of course, the film is pretty frivolous, as befits a sex comedy which is, remember, what To Be Twenty mainly is, or pretends to be. There's really nothing in terms of plot, other than the fact that two unebelievably beautiful girls of the titular age, Lia (Guida) and Tina (Carati) meet one day, agree that they are each about as hot and pissed off as the other, and decide to travel to Rome, to a commune run by Nazariota (Vittorio Caprioli) where they hope -- mainly Tina hopes this, but Lia's game, too -- to get laid a lot and not have to pay for anything. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be much of a sex commune, but rather one of the ones where everbody would rather be stoned all the time, and plus it turns out Lia and Tina will be expected to pay their own way. So a career as hookers disguised as encyclopedia salespeople awaits, and sort of provides the meat, if you'll pardon that, of the sex comedy. There's also lots of dumbshit counterculture politics involving oppressive cops and Communism and feminism (at one point, excerpts from Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto are read out loud for the benefit of a Lefty documentary filmmaker, which should maybe count as some sort of tip off), but it's all so threadbare and confused that it can hardly be said to be what To Be Twenty is actually about.

No, what it's about is the ending. It exists now and is remembered only because of what happens when Lia and Tina are forced out of the commune and go back to hitchhiking. The only reason I know about To Be Twenty at all is because every so often Glenn Kenny will mention it as the kind of film critics and audiences who are fainting dead away at the very idea of Saw or Hostel should probably see if they want some idea of how good they actually have it. In terms of the grotesquerie of its sadism and the left turn of it tone and story, To Be Twenty is sort of like Cannibal Holocaust mixed with Electra Glide in Blue -- that's why the film is remembered (barely) and available on DVD (in Italy).

All of this makes To Be Twenty a sort-of-interesting companion with Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, which I watched as a sort of preparation for di Leo’s film. But The New York Ripper is not an unusual film – it’s very graphic, more graphic than To Be Twenty, though less horribly inventive in what it’s being graphic about; it’s very skeevy and gross even when blood isn’t being spilled, and the need to shower after watching it is very strong. But, then again, that’s our Fulci! The New York Ripper is the kind of movie he made, though maybe pushed beyond what had been unconsciously set as the limit for such sexualized gore, but most other Italian slasher hallmarks are there, such as eye wounds, intense sexual violence, and a plot and set of characters so meaningless that something or someone might count as a red herring if they’re lucky.
It looks good, though, which is hard to say about To Be Twenty. The classics of Italian sadism cinema (or giallo, I guess) tend to have a visual splendor to them that makes, or can make, all the incoherence and goofiness and, also, let us not forget, deep moral ambivalence over just watching something like The New York Ripper, go down a good deal easier. Watching The New York Ripper can make you feel like a terrible human being, but images like this:
…can help you deal with it better. To Be Twenty is rather lacking in visual splendor, unless you count Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati, which is the moment in this post that would make di Leo, if he ever read it, go “Aha! That was totally my point and I got you!” Well maybe he did. Guida and Carati are strikingly beautiful, as I think I’ve said, and frequently nude. And I knew what kind of movie I was getting (never mind that Two Be Twenty is the only movie of its particular messy, messed up kind I’ve ever seen) long before I – and here’s the kicker – bought it with my own money. So I have that to deal with, but at least I never called the film “frivolous”, nor did it escape my notice that neither Guida nor Carati appeared in Twenty Years for Murder.
But I don’t know, who exactly am I trying to pick a fight with here? I certainly don’t believe di Leo endorses the real world version of what goes on at the end of his film, nor does he decapitate monkeys for the pleasure of his audience, which is why I can’t bring myself to watch Cannibal Holocaust. In the end, To Be Twenty is just sort of this thing that exists that not many people have seen and fewer think is very good. It’s a lunatic footnote at this point, though I’ll tell you, if you want to have yourself a good old belly laugh, watch the recut version of To Be Twenty, the one that supplies a happy ending by taking a chunk from di Leo's original climax, the part where the girls are being roughly stripped by a gang of men in preparation for something unspeakable, moving it to the beginning and looping in the sound of police sirens, freezing the image, and cutting to Guida and Carati back at the side of the road, ready to hitchhike again, one of them saying “Thank goodness the police arrived!” Sister, you don’t know the half of it.


John said...

I'm sure you were being facetious, but I take exception to the idea that a viewer should ever feel bad about enjoying any movie, no matter how loathsome, even something like Salo (which makes Fulci's entire oeuvre look Sesame Street-innocent). Of course, that doesn't include "movies" which involve actual crime or outright coercion to produce, like child porn or "snuff movies" (if only in theory and urban legend).

As for the real animal cruelty in Cannibal Holocaust, I can see good arguments being made for and against its criminality, but I don't think you should let it prevent you from checking the movie out and making your own mind up about it. Much as I hated the pointless, pretty inexcusable animal abuse, the rest of the movie is undeniably powerful and highly disturbing. And surely even worse fates befall masses of animals every day in the service of far more "legitimate" purposes.

bill r. said...

I was being somewhat facetious. Hell, I watch these movies myself, don't I? But I do feel a bit grimy after something like THE NEW YORK RIPPER.

As for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I just don't want to see it. The documentary footage of seal-clubbing from THE DEVIL, PROBABLY has never left my head, much as I wish it would, and I don't feel especially compelled to add to that.