Sunday, May 25, 2014

Drink Blood, or What Kind of Dumb Jerk Are You?

Kino Lorber and Raro Video keep pumping out DVDs and Blu-rays of the strange and the obscure.  Tuesday sees the release of four more, including two in Kino's ongoing re-issues of the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet. And so onward!
Blue Movie (d. Alberto Cavallone) - Speaking of ongoing re-issue projects, Raro Video continues to indulge their taste in Italian oddities, including this piece of fractured political, ahm, well I'll just say it, nonsense.  It's about a woman (Dirce Funari) who, after escaping from a gang of rapists, and possibly killing one of them, ends up in the home of a pretty much entirely hateful artist (Claude Maran), who collects empty soda cans and treats all the women who drift within his orbit like garbage.  In fairness, we're not meant to approve of this man, but it would be nice to find him somewhat interesting, or any of the things that happen inside his home compelling in some way.  But what you should probably understand about Blue Movie before heading in, is that it's the sort of movie that features an extended blowjob scene scored in part to Offenbach's "The Infernal Gallop," that universally recognized piece of can-can music (which, by the way, would seem to imply that at least the on-screen action at this moment had some energy to it, but no; a sleepier blowjob you'll not find), and then afterwards the guy slaps the woman and calls her stupid.  As far as "interesting things" go in Blue Movie, this will have to do.

Blue Movie came out in 1978, four years after Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie and three years after Pasolini's Salo, 120 Days of Sodom, the statement of which fact should indicate to wily readers that all three have something in common.  I'll maybe leave that for you to figure out in any case, but the thing worth pointing out here (okay, I'm talking about shit, as part of one of Claudio's art projects a woman smears shit all over herself in this movie) is that the shit scene is juxtaposed with real (though distorted by Cavallone) footage of a Buddhist monk self-immolating.  The shit, I'm willing to bet, was fake, which is perhaps neither here nor there, or even a source of relief, but nevertheless ends up highlighting how much of a pose Cavallone's imagery is, and if that monk knew anything about this sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-Godard "attack" on (I'm pretty sure) consumerism, boy I bet he'd probably be pretty embarrassed.

I have to say, though, that at the end Blue Movie takes a turn of a sort that would ordinarily drive me crazy but in this case actually up-ended things in a way that I thought worked rather well.  Cavallone can't quite let well enough alone and so casts this development (which has to do with the exact relationship between Silvia and Claudio, plus more) into some slight doubt, but the positive damage had already been done, and Blue Movie does become, very briefly, kind of worthwhile.  But worthwhile only if you've been obligated to sit through the thing up to that point.

Gang War in Milan (d. Umberto Lenzi) - Much more my speed is this 1973 crime picture from Umberto Lenzi, a filmmaker best known for his cannibal films Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive!  I haven't seen either of those, nor, I suspect, will I ever, but Gang War in Milan, at least, I'm grateful for.  It's a great, mean little piece of amorality starring Antonio Sabato as Salvatore Cangemi, a successful and powerful Milan crime boss.  As the film opens, Cangemi learns that someone wants to either start a war with him or force a partnership -- this someone turns out to be a dapper (reserved to offset Cangemi's passion) Frenchman played by Phillipe Leroy.  Cangemi makes his money by dominating the prostitution business, and the Frenchman wants to establish a heroin trade, and so anyway things go badly between the two sides.

The key to Gang War in Milan's success is that Lenzi never falls into that pandering trap of making Cangemi, the film's lead, heroic, or the "nice" crime boss.  He's as much of a scumbag as anyone else, abusing the hookers, plotting murders, actually carrying out murders, and being as morally ignorant (this suddenly strikes me as a key idea, not just here but in a lot of similar films, and also in, you know, life) as you'd expect someone like this to be.  What Lenzi has to guide us through this mess is not some manufactured rooting interest but rather pure propulsion, and a reliance on the knowledge that human beings eat this stuff up, when it's done well.  Plus, hero or not, Sabato is pretty terrific in his blind, cartoonish bluster, as a man who can never quite accept that it's actually possible for his empire to crumble, that nothing is guaranteed, and if no one loves you then it's probably true that when the chips are down no one's really going to help you, either.

Eden and After (d. Alain Robbe-Grillet) - Somewhat more difficult to get a handle on than the previous two films, though this is to be expected, is Eden and After, Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1970 film about a group of decadent French students who routinely gather in a café called Eden and play games that simulate violence and rape, all as empty as Claudio's soda cans in Blue Movie.  The difference being that while these students can't see that, Robbe-Grillet can, and so he introduces into their midst Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer), a sinister man with a supply of a drug he's brought over from African tribesmen, which he calls "fear powder," and which, indeed, within the mind of our protagonist Violette (Catherine Jourdan), a kind of terror does take hold.

Plus there's lots more.  I sometimes worry that I have a tendency to compare a film I've just watched, or book I've just read, to another film or book I'd enjoyed not long before -- the concern here being similar to not being able to see past one's own nose.  With that out of the way, thinking about Paul Bowles, whose great last novel Up Above the World I seriously just read, is kind of unavoidable when the whole mess of characters, having divided into factions and now driven by strange motives, pick up and head to Tunisia. Bowles made his home in Morocco, and Up Above the World isn't even set in Africa, but even so the hallucinatory sex and violence into which these fools eventually spiral is quite Bowlesian.  As imagined by Robbe-Grillet, of course, and indeed a more immediate comparison would be to Robbe-Grillet's own Successive Slidings of Pleasure for the structure (kind of), and L'Immortelle for the doom of it all.

It's difficult, or anyway I find it to be so, and also you may have already noticed this anyhow, to sum up not just what Eden and After is, but what I think of it, besides "It is good."  If I had to boil it down, I'd say it's a film about people who pursue nothing until death.  I'm okay with that, actually -- there's a good deal more, obviously, but still, that's a lot of it.

The Man Who Lies (d. Alain Robbe-Grillet) - Robbe-Grillet's third film was this sort of cock-eyed mix between a French Occupation thriller and the Martin Guerre story.  Among the many, many things that make this thing cock-eyed are the fact that it takes place many years after World War II, and therefore the Occupation, ended, and also in this particular situation instead of Martin Guerre it would be his friend, and his friend could only be considered a villain, not the hero Guerre would have wanted him to be. If they even knew each other in the first place.

This "friend," Boris, is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who it somehow just now occurs to me resembled in his youth a cross between Frank Sinatra and John Cassavetes.  In this film, Sinatra from Von Ryan's Express specifically, but why? Other than an extremely tenuous World War II connection, the two films couldn't be more different, and Sinatra's heroic Col. Ryan would have been thoroughly disgusted by the venal, cowardly, awful Boris Varissa.  But I thought of Mark Robson's rousing adventure all the same, possibly because, as is usually the case with Robbe-Grillet, the movie-ness of everything is not intended to go unnoticed by the audience.  There's a part late in the movie, when Boris is telling another of his  many different stories about the fate of Jean Robin, the disappeared Resistance hero of the small village Boris has fled to (though we see them, from whom, exactly?) at the beginning of the film, and we're shown the story Boris is telling.  A woman is seen conspiring with German soldiers to give up the whereabouts of Boris and Jean, and the actors exaggerate their behavior almost to the point of pantomime.  That's because this is a lie, we know it's a lie, it's possible Boris doesn't care if anyone believes him as long as he can stall them, and anyway as far as these lies at 24 frames per second go, we're all in this together.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is utterly superb in this, by the way, in a way that might have brought the whole John Cassavetes side of him to the forefront.  It's a comic performance at times, the kind of comedy that comes from watching a bastard be a bastard to everyone, and the comedy of a con man spreading horseshit.  It's a very naturalistic performance, actually, which Trintignant has plopped down in the middle of Robbe-Grillet's madness.  I haven't mentioned the three women -- Robin's widow, his sister, and their servant -- who Boris seduces and lives with for a time, or the completely, wonderfully bonkers and dialogue-free sequence showing these women -- who incidentally when Boris isn't around comprise a sort of Gothic lesbian coven -- moving, or as the case might be not moving, depending on circumstance, and posing like...they're models in a photo shoot, I want to say, except that's not quite it.  In any case, it's all scored to Michel Fano's almost literally industrial (it's not the drums so much as the creaking doors and sometimes I think he's throwing things on the floor) score.  What's this scene doing here?  I don't know, but run it again.


John said...

...Umberto Lenzi, a filmmaker best known for his cannibal films Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive! I haven't seen either of those, nor, I suspect, will I ever...

Really? I don't think they're that hard to find these days. Let me know if you're having trouble, I can...

...oh, wait a second, I get ya: you're one of those snooty "I'm TOO GOOD for this kind of thing" folks, is that it? Well, fine. More for the rest of us, then.

bill r. said...

Both feature real animal slaughter, don't they? I saw CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and the film that surrounded the animal deaths didn't come within shrieking distance of justifying it. That's my one major taboo, and if the movie doesn't seem worthwhile then forget it.

John said...

Can't recall now, exactly, but it's probably a safe bet that they do. Still, I doubt it's any worse than the sort of thing you're liable to see in a Haneke movie every now and then. Or the ritual slaughter in certain cuts of Apocalypse Now (and claims that that's somehow different because it "would've happened anyway" don't mean much to me, since it was probably also going to happen anyway to at least some of the animals slaughtered in the cannibal movies, sooner or later). Or even something relatively innocuous like the casual picking-off of a crow scavenging in a farmer's field, in one of those boring bullshit epics by Jodorowsky.

Our disagreement with regard to the merits of Cannibal Holocaust aside, I do largely share your feelings on this. Real animal cruelty is the only thing in movies that can genuinely bother me anymore, although I wouldn't dream of considering it taboo. I still love Hitchcock's The Birds as much as ever, even after learning of the mistreatment of the animals involved, and then of course there's the question of how many other movies I regard highly may have involved some degree of animal abuse in their production that isn't public knowledge, and doesn't appear onscreen?

bill r. said...

If I had any reason to believe CANNIBAL FEROX was a good movie, I'd see it. That's why I saw CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and slaughtered animals or no, in my opinion that movie's a piece of garbage.

I watched WAKE IN FRIGHT knowing what I was getting into because I thought it would be a good movie (it was), but I'm not going to watch animal cruelty just so I can see a movie that's not even supposed to be as good as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

John said...

Well, it's good to hear you got through Wake in Fright at least, possibly the best Australian movie of all time, for my money, but one of the last titles I would've recommended you see, for obvious reasons.

Ferox I would probably rate more as merely entertaining rather than actually good; a few nice nasty moments and probably a few more unintended laughs, but overall a step down from Holocaust. I can tell you right now that you'd hate it, though, so I'm not about to try making a case for it here.