Then Came the Dark of the Black Snakes

Let’s see how many of these I can spit out without going 1000 words for each.

Dark of the Sun (1968) had been getting some good notices at revival screenings around this time last year; it was pointed to as a forgotten gem of manly 60s cinema. Warner Archive put it out as one of their MOD (Made On Demand) discs, and I bit, mainly because The Wild Geese is one of the movies I keep returning to every couple of years.

Rod Taylor, you see, is a mercenary working the Congo Crisis in the late 50s. Along with his partner, Jim Brown (playing an American college-educated native), he is given the task of journeying into unfriendly territory and extracting a bunch of mining employees before the Simbas arrive and slaughter them all – and, oh yeah, also bring along the 50 million or so in diamonds they have in their vault. Things are made more complicated by a wannabe Nazi German merc in charge of the native forces, Yvette Mimieux, who survived a Simba massacre and is gathered up along the way, and the fact that the head of the mining operation set his time release vault way too far in the future, meaning everyone must escape under fire by the Simbas.

That seems complicated, but believe me, the movie itself gets even more complicated. I read through the Wikipedia article on the Congo Crisis, and I’m still pretty much at sea about the backstory. I’m more than a little suspicious of the way the Simbas are portrayed, in their savagery as they overrun the mining outpost; I’m reminded of John Wayne’s The Green Berets, when the Viet Cong overrun the firebase, and are dubbed with war whoops from one of Wayne’s earlier westerns, complete with an Injun motif on the score.

Our main players are solid and professional, and this may be one of Brown’s best roles. I wonder what happened with Peter Carsten’s lines, as Paul Frees winds up overdubbing a lot of them, which gets distracting when you’re a Paul Frees fan. I guess I bought into the hype a little too wholeheartedly, as I rarely felt caught up in the story or the characters. There’s a bit too much “Oh come on” action here, as events spiral out of control, stay out of control, and then proceed to get out of control. I have no idea how Rod Taylor’s merc gets so much work, because he has the worst damned luck.

After that less-than-salutary experience, I decided it was time to swing back to the Quality Portion of The List and watch – finally – Black Orpheus.

I had owned the soundtrack to Black Orpheus for years – overheard it in a back room at a cast party, and I fell immediately in love with it (Same guy also played the score to The Egyptian, and I really hope to have enough bread to buy that Twilight Time blu-ray before it sells out). My Criterion disc tells me this is the movie that “brought the infectious bossa nova beat to the United States.” And infectious it is, there is little wonder that whenever it breaks out, everyone on the screen begins dancing with wild abandon.

It’s hard to know anything about movies and not know the central concept here: director Marcel Camus re-tells the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, against the backdrop of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. It all starts out normally enough, and gets more fantastic as the story progresses. Eurydice is a country girl who comes to visit her cousin in Rio because she’s convinced a man is stalking her with the purpose of killing her; she meets neighbor Orpheus, a singer local children are convinced makes the sun rise with his songs. They fall in love, of course, much to the dismay of Orpheus’ vain and faintly psychotic fiancée. Then this fellow in a Death costume starts following Eurydice through the Carnival…

It’s amusing that the movie likes to mess with your head; when Orpheus and Mira (the aforementioned fiancée) get a marriage license at the beginning of the movie, and the clerk is informed his name is Orpheus, the clerk brightly exclaims, “Then you must be Eurydice!” to the predictably pissed-off Mira. The legend is common knowledge, what must happen as Orpheus finds himself falling in love with Eurydice is inevitable.

Using the modern Bacchanal of Carnival is so logical and perfect it also seems inevitable. The scene of Death in the parade crowd, ensnaring Eurydice with paper streamers is beautiful and memorable, and Eurydice’s death – though we know it is coming – still manages to be almost entirely unexpected, coming at the end of a cat-and-mouse chase worthy of any horror movie or giallo.

I had wondered how Camus was going to handle Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld to find his deceased lover, and once again, I was surprised and amazed. Orpheus, unwilling to believe Eurydice is dead, searches for her in the aftermath of Carnival; he arrives at the chaotic police building and is told to check with Missing Persons, which is a room full of stacks of paper in a labyrinth of halls where sheets of paper blow in an eerie wind. “People are lost in paper,” advises a janitor, filling in for Charon, He takes Orpheus to a voodoo ceremony where the spirit of Eurydice possesses a woman behind Orpheus to speak to him one last time, and despite her cautions, he turns around, losing her forever. Unexpected yet completely logical, given the setting.

As I say, this is a fairy tale wrapped in the trappings of the real world, a trick Camus managed magnificently. I can see now why it was recommended to me for years, if not why I didn’t watch it for years.

It’s a pity that a little of that magic couldn’t have hung around for my next movie, Then Came Bronson.

This is another oddity from my youth: this was the pilot for a TV show on NBC, and it ran a full season. 1969-70. I vaguely recall the series, and I seem to recall really wanting to watch it, but it was always on opposite something else my parents wanted to watch. Ah, the days of single TV sets and three networks! Warner Archive made the pilot available, allowing me to re-discover that Michael Parks was Bronson. I really dig Parks’ work, so I got the disc.

Well, now.

The pilot gives us the set up, Jim Bronson is a reporter who witnesses the suicide of his best friend, a biker named Nick, played by none other than Martin Sheen. When Bronson’s boss at the paper tells him he’s about to lose his job for writing a full story about “some greaser who offed himself”, Bronson tells him to take this job and shove it, buys Nick’s bike, and sets off on the road to find himself, because that is what you did in 1969. Along the way he picks up a literal runaway bride (played by a 21 year-old Bonnie Bedelia) and on the way to New Orleans, they manage to fall in love.

There seems to be a lot of French New Wave in this movie – now, I may be wrong about that, because frankly I’m more than a bit of an idiot about labels like those, and there’s likely a better one for this movie. There’s no plot, per se, Bronson and his passenger – she spends a lot of the movie not telling Bronson her name – ride around and have… well, not adventures, but stuff kinda happens, and… hm. Bonnie eventually winds up realizing that she needs to go back West and pick up her life, and Bronson rides off into the sunset. That was apparently the thing about Bronson in the series: he always changed people through his simple decency and coolness, but he never changed himself. Makes you think, don’t it?

Anyway, the quality of the disc is wonderful. Then Came Bronson apparently had a theatrical release, as the print bears a “GP” rating. It’s also possible that Warner Archive is giving us the European release, as in our first encounter with Bedelia’s character, when she takes off her bridal gown and throws it in the surf, we are given a very good view of 21 year-old Bonnie Bedelia breasts, and we are going to get flashes of this same scene throughout the movie (in that 1969-70 rapid-cuts-to-induce-epilepsy style). Then again, I seem to recall in this period you could get away with a surprising amount in a “GP” – Parental Guidance Suggested – movie.

It’s tempting to paint this as an Easy Rider wannabe, but the two movies are pretty contemporaneous – If anything, Bronson debuted a few months before the more famous movie. Easy Rider is similarly light on plot but has the power of a lot of pretension going for it; it tries to say something, whereas Bronson…  just seems to exist.

(As quoted by Mystery Science Theater 3000)

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I suppose, because the next movie – and likely the last I’ll try to cram in this entry, was Snakes on a Plane, the movie the Internet wrote.

Well, to a degree anyway. There are lots of rumors about this: it has its origins in a bunch of suits boozing it up and deciding to see who could come up with the worst movie pitch. That the working title “Snakes On A Plane” was going to be changed to something more generic like “Boiling Point” or something but A) Samuel L. Jackson said hell no,  I agreed to do it because of that title, or B) The Internet as a whole said, no, it’s awesome, keep it that way. One thing is certain, however: the Jackson line “I am sick of these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane” came from the Internet. I was also looking forward to hearing Jackson yell into a radio microphone “We got motherfuckin’ SNAKES!” but I suppose cooler heads prevailed and someone decided that “Leaving them wanting more” would be good in this case.

And that is about the last time we can accuse Snakes on a Plane of subtlety. The central concept is goofy enough: Jackson is escorting an eyewitness from Hawaii to LA to testify against a big drug boss. Since the drug boss can’t kill the guy in any traceable fashion, he instead stocks the plane with a staggering variety of venomous snakes – and, for some reason, a python – and sets up a way to release them mid-flight. To cover up the fact that snakes would normally either attack each other or just hide until the plane landed, there is a macguffin about leis that are treated with some pheromone to make them go berserk. And turn into CGI snakes because real snakes don’t take direction worth a damn.

After spending a lot of time establishing our cannon fodder in the seats, once the snakes get loose, I have to admit the movie squeezes every bit of possibility out of the situation. Snake attacks come from all angles – how the hell that one got in an airsick bag is beyond me – and things keep getting worse and worse in a somewhat believable fashion. I totally get why you wouldn’t want all the vital parts of the plane’s systems in the same place, but why the hell they’re also so inaccessible is puzzling. And dammit, the movie proves it has its heart in right place when a desperate flight attendant, encountering a snake in the galley, tosses it in a microwave and hits the SNAKE button.

I respect that sort of gumption.

So yeah, I admit I went into Snakes with expectations extremely low, but I enjoyed it beyond the level the lowered expectations should have granted. Not bad for Venom on a plane, and that python did eventually pay off.

1 Comment

  1. […] an odd and interesting trip, so very different from the TV version, Then Came Bronson, just one of the many attempts to cash in Easy Rider‘s commercial success.I’m intrigued […]

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