Arabian Nights (1974)

Mille_Et_Une_Nuits_(1974)So we come at last to the third and final movie in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: Arabian Nights. For this outing, Pasolini has gone farther afield in medieval literature, if Arabian Nights can even truly be considered medieval. First instances of the collection date back to the 8th century, with more stories from various cultures being added over the years.  (I was more than a little surprised that two of the most famous of the tales – Aladdin and the Forty Thieves – didn’t enter the collection until the first French translation in 1704!)

True to the other movies in the Trilogy, Pasolini also jettisons the formal framing device of the traditional Arabian Nights, so say farewell to Scheherazade and familiarize yourself with our first tale, which will take its place: the arrival of a slave girl  Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini) at the market – unusually, she is allowed to choose her new master, and isn’t shy about insulting prospective buyers. She chooses a young man, Nur Ed-din (Franco Merli) as her new master, and hands him a bag of a thousand dinars to purchase her, and procure a home.

zumurrudThis is, as one might imagine, a pretty sweet deal, especially since Zumurrud takes special pains to make sure Nur is no longer a virgin, and then starts using her talents at embroidery to keep the money coming in. Alas, Nur is a bit of an idiot, and proceeds to allow Zumurrud to be kidnapped – twice – and will spend the rest of the movie looking for her. Zumurrud escapes her second captor (one of the forty thieves, no less), and crosses the desert dressed as a man. She comes to a rich kingdom, where, luck would have it, the king has just died and it is the city’s custom to proclaim the next man to come in from the desert as the new king. Again, a totally sweet deal.

The first stories are read from a book by Zumurrud while the two are still in the idyllic stage of their relationship and rather serve to set up Pasolini’s view of this world: in the first, a noted sage and his wife make a deal about who will fall in love first between a boy and a girl they’ve arranged to have drugged so each will awaken in the same tent, but at different times; but they discover they’ve both forgotten about hormones and declare it a draw when both immediately hump the other. In the second, a rich poet picks up three willing young men for an evening of sex and poetry. arabian embraceIf anything, Arabian Nights is even less inhibited than the first two movies, but no less playful or joyous in its couplings. It’s also the most open about same-sex relations between males. Pasolini possibly thought that a society with such strong segregation between the sexes would result in more openness about homosexuality, and as film scholar Tim Rayns points out in his excellent essay on the Criterion Blu-ray, a general exodus by gay Beat writers like Burroughs to the Arab world in the 40s and 50s bears that out.

(One particularly lovely bit that springs from this segregation regards Zumurrud’s wedding night, when the supposedly male king is forcibly married to a vizier’s daughter. Taking a chance, Zumurrud reveals her true nature to the daughter, and the girl responds in peals of laughter, delighted that a woman has put one over on the men running the city.)

At one point in Nur’s miserable wanderings, he is hired by a girl to act as porter for her day’s purchases at the market. She winds up buying quite a bit (Nur’s goggle-eyed response at the list she rattles off to a merchant is another splendid comic moment, ending with his staggering under a huge bag of goods), and Nur dines with her and her sisters (and bathes with them afterwards,as Nur has the devil’s luck with women). After the meal, the girl who hired him reads from a book, and so begins our next major round of stories. ninetto

This is the most adventurous part yet, as the story begins with a king’s son, Prince Tagi (Francesco Governale) finding a man weeping at an oasis over a painted cloth. This man tells the story of falling in love with another woman on his wedding day, and breaking the heart of his poor cousin, who nevertheless  helps him to meet and finally bed this woman, while she herself dies of a broken heart. The man telling the story is Ninetto Davoli, who we recall is the man who broke Pasolini’s heart back during the filming of The Canterbury Tales, and it is likely no accident that the director cast him as a thoughtless and selfish young man. Reading intention into the fact that the woman he’s bedding eventually castrates him… well, that might be going a bit far.

Tagi, however, is overjoyed, because the assignations took place in Princess Dunya’s garden, and the cloth is her work, and he is in love with her! So the two head to the city and he manages to finagle his way into Dunya’s garden, only to be told that the Princess is a man-hater of the first water, due to a dream she once had. Tagi decides to create a beautiful mosaic in the garden, which will show her an error in her dream. He hires two beggars to help him with the mosaic, who turn out to be traveling holy men, who each tell the tale of how they came to be so, as both were princes who ran afoul of mystic, even demonic forces (once again, Franco Citti providing the demonic role). Well, Tagi’s mosaic works, and as he consummates his love with the formerly man-hating Dunya, we come back to the dinner with the sisters. Stories nestled within stories! Impressive!

And because I know you’re wondering, Elisabetta Genovese, whom I was crooning over in Canterbury Tales, is the girl who hired Nur Ed-din. And yes, she did smile, so my evening was complete. Yes, she also got naked, but that is none of your business. Arabian-Nights-1080-12Nur Ed-din does eventually find the city, and Zumurrud cannot resist making him think that the King wants to bugger him (and as the soldiers carry the surprised boy to the King, men at the market are heard to say the Arabian Night version of “Yeah, I’d jump that”), but true love wins out, though I’d really love to see how much more complex that particular relationship was going to become. As it is, quantum mechanics would have been needed to map it out.

As I said, this is the most uninhibited of the three movies; perhaps by moving events to the middle east, Pasolini finally felt he was out from under the Church’s thumb, and finally free from Catholic guilt, could cut loose. There is quite a bit of sex on display here, but rarely is it explicit with a capital X – again, it is Pasolini yearning for a time before sex became another commodity, when it was a simple, loving act. If you want commercialization, you seek out the many rip-offs that followed the Trilogy of Life’s success, imitators that caused Pasolini to denounce his own work, to disavow them, and to settle back down to a trademark rage against politics and the world he found himself living in, with Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom.

As Rayns also points out, the Trilogy of Life is the rather unusual act of Pasolini being positive, after so many political movies, poems and treatises that were angry fist-shakes at the powers that be, the status quo. And it’s true: these movies contain much about the foibles and often hateful nature of human beings, but they’re more about the better things: trust, love, and, certainly in the case of Arabian Nights, sex. In it, the two are inseparable. arabiannightsblu00005I haven’t even mentioned the amazing locales Pasolini found, vistas that he could pan over without much in the way of obvious modernity. It’s a handsome picture, and I wish Pasolini had not been so brutalized by a carnivorous culture that fed upon the very thing he despised, commercialism. I wish this phase of his career had lasted longer. What could he have said with more time? As it is, we must be satisfied with what we have. Now I’m fascinated, and will be seeking out his earlier works. And I think now that I have context, I can finally see Salo and meet it on its own terms.

Here, have a trailer mostly obscured by vintage VHS noise, which is okay, because it gets pretty NSFW, anyway. And ponder that this most commercial of creatures, the movie trailer, casts Pasolini in a light he likely would have despised.

Reign of Assassins (2010)

reign-of-assassins-reviewI admit it: as a writer, I have a problem coming up with punchy titles. I’m the moron I always make fun of, the guy handing in a script with some all-purpose title like “Boiling Point”. So when a trend in using meta-style titles begins, I notice.

It’s hard to put a finger on where exactly it starts – 2007’s Shoot-Em-Up is a contender (and a favorite stupid movie of mine). 2011’s Wu Xia was the one that really made an impression on me, even though I think the movie hardly qualifies as true wuxia (never mind that, for Western audiences it was re-titled the even more generic Dragon). Dario Argento made a movie called Giallo, for pete’s sake.

(You can throw down all the Scary Movie and Superhero Movie titles you want. Yeah, they’re generic titles, and all share one thing: I despise them.)

Which brings us to tonight’s movie, entitled Jianghu (or pick your favorite romanization), titled after “the world of martial arts” you so often hear characters in Shaw Brothers movies ruling. The movie has a little better bearing on its title than Wuxia, and at least its Western title isn’t too generic – Reign of Assassins. (I’m still wondering where the hell Curse of the Black Scorpion came from when they re-titled The Feast, but that’s a grumble for another time)

wheelkingWhat we have with Reign is a sort of reverse Kill Bill. The movie starts with the Dark Stone clan of assassins slaughtering an entire royal family to get one mystical artifact – half the mummy of a revered monk. Studying the entire mummy will allow you to rule the world of martial blah blah blah, but one of the assassins – a woman with the unlikely name Drizzle (Kelly Lin) – takes off with the mummy half and spends the next three months in hiding with a wandering martial artist named Wisdom, who, through an act of self-sacrifice, puts her on the road to a new life as a normal, law-abiding person.

After some Ming Dynasty plastic surgery (it involves carnivorous insects and golden thread), Drizzle is transformed into Zing Jing (Michelle Yeoh) who loses herself in the capital city, setting up shop selling purses and the like in the streetside market. Thanks partially to her meddling landlady, Zing meets up with Ah-sheng (Jung Woo-sung, whom you might recognize from The Good, The Bad, The Weird), a new arrival in the city working as a courier-for-hire.

This portion of the movie takes it’s time, setting up their relationship and eventual marriage very well, with only occasional cutaways to the Dark Stone bad guys, still looking for that half a mummy, and recruiting Drizzle’s replacement. Eventually the two groups are going to intersect (as you knew they would), when yet another group of villains attempt to rob a bank where the mummy is rumored to be stored (and Ah-sheng is cashing a check).When the bandits start killing potential witnesses, Zing can hold back no longer, and unleashes Michelle Yeoh whoopass on them.

roa11That amounts to a tremor in the Force, and the Dark Stone’s head, The Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) recognizes Drizzle’s style even though she didn’t use her usual weapon, the flexible Water-Shedding Sword. The chief assassins of the Dark Stone descend on the city, and the fight is on.

There are some things that set Reign apart from the usual wuxia movie, besides the willingness to spend time developing Zing and Ah-sheng’s relationship (which pays off in the second half of the movie), the main one being  the characterization of the Dark Stone assassins. Writer/Director Su Chao-bin has given each of them a backstory, and their own set of goals and desires. They’re a bit more dimensional than your usual bad guys.

martial-arts-reign-assassins-video-art-521510If there is one complaint I have to make, it’s that some decent fight scenes – once more, to my joy, mostly practical wirework and very little discernible CGI, if any – is obscured by some frantic editing, possibly owed to the credited co-director, John Woo. Or possibly not. It’s not shot-through-a-telephoto-lens-what-the-hell-did-I-just-see bad, like too many Hollywood action scenes, but it does come close a couple of times. Luckily, the editing calms down in the second half, when those fight scenes start to really matter.

That out of the way: good performers, handsome camerawork, and a couple of plot twists I honestly didn’t expect puts Reign of Assassins on my plus list.  A bit of patience with the first half – and really, guys, the relationship stuff is well-done – pays some nice dividends in the second half. Not a game changer, but not a time-waster, either.

This trailer’s a bit small, but it’s one of the few I found that wasn’t interested in revealing any plot twists:

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Most_Dangerous_Game_posterThe Most Dangerous Game was a movie that kept cropping up as a mention in Famous Monsters of Filmland, not only for its horrific elements, but mainly due to its close kinship with King Kong. It was shot simultaneously with the giant ape epic, and shares sets, stars, sound effects, and to a degree (and to keep the ‘s’ motif going) a score.

Based on Richard Connell’s justly famous short story of the same name, Game is pretty much glorious pulp personified. In the story, big game hunter Sanger Rainsford falls off a yacht at night, but manages to swim to a nearby island, which turns out to be occupied by the suave Russian General Zaroff, who recognizes Rainsford immediately. An avid hunter himself, Zaroff has hunted every animal on Earth, until he felt there was nothing to challenge him anymore – until he hits upon the idea of hunting “the most dangerous game” – humans – on his deserted jungle island. When Rainsford refuses to join Zaroff in his hunt, he instead becomes the hunted – and Zaroff proclaims that he has, at last, found a worthy prey.

The-Most-Dangerous-Game-2Connell’s story is lean and mean, and the movie version – even at an abbreviated 63 minutes – seems almost bloated in comparison. Joel McCrea, at the very beginning of his days as a leading man, plays the rechristened Bob Rainsford. Instead of his accidental fall overboard, the movie gives an overt demonstration of Zaroff’s villainy only referred to in the story: Light buoys marking a clear channel that instead lead to ship-killing reefs, providing Zaroff with castaways for his hunt. Bob is the only one to make it through the sharks to shore.

Bob discovers Zaroff’s castle, and it’s there we find the other characters: Zaroff himself (now promoted to a Count), played by Leslie Banks in his screen debut; two other castaways, Fay Wray as Eve (providing the female character every producer has insisted upon, in every story, forever) and Eve’s drunken brother Martin played by Robert Armstrong – both appearing during off days on King Kong, probably when effects shots were being arranged. And Zaroff’s chief henchman, an enormous Cossack named Ivan, whom I kept staring at, knowing I recognized him, but not quite placing him. Finally checked IMDb and holy crap, it’s Noble Johnson, also in King Kong and a whole slew of other movies – in whiteface.

large_most_dangerous_game_blu-ray_04It’s during this sort of cocktail party – although it’s Martin doing all the drinking – that all the backstory is taken care of. Another of the subtleties of Connell’s story made overt here is Zaroff telling of the time he was injured by a charging cape buffalo, a head wound that nearly killed him – a very visible scar on his forehead that Zaroff rubs when stressed. Shortly after the injury is when Zaroff formulates his sick plan, and the movie plainly picks that injury as the cause. Leslie Banks had himself received a head injury in World War I that paralyzed one side of his face. It’s not something that you notice,  I’m sure that Banks worked for years to overcome and minimize it, but he and director Ernest B. Schoedsack make good use of it in fairly ingenious and subtle ways.

The presence of a woman in the story is not so tacked-on as one would first suspect. Eve proves herself to be a pretty savvy lady; all throughout the fake cocktail party she finds ways to warn Bob that things are not on the up-and-up. And since Zaroff is being very cagey about revealing his new, exciting sport, it’s enough for Bob and Eve to go prowling in the middle of the night and sneak into Zaroff’s trophy room, which is forbidden, unless you’re about to go hunting with him.  That’s where the horrorshow comes in, as they find a human head stuffed and mounted on the wall, and another pickling in an enormous jar. This is, of course, when Zaroff returns from hunting Martin.

mostdangerousThe Most Dangerous Game loses almost ten minutes of its running time here, apparently. Zaroff was to show off many of his more elaborate trophies, and relate how they died, which was a bit too much for the audiences of  ’32. What is left is Zaroff assuring  Bob and Eve that Martin was quite unintoxicated when the hunt began, as “Spending a couple of hours in this room has a most sobering effect.”  Rainsford, naturally, wants nothing to do with this, and thus winds up the next quarry. Eve demands to go with him, and Bob, figuring she’ll likely be as safe with him as with this bunch of villains, agrees to take her along.

Once at this point, the movie hits the ground running, much like our two heroes, and rarely pauses. The hunt is a pretty carefully considered, exciting sequence, and it’s here that you’re going to see a lot of familiar scenery, particularly that huge fallen log bridging a ravine. RKO was in dire financial straits in ’32, and Game‘s budget was slashed. Schoedsack and Cooper’s solution was to recycle and redress the jungle sets of King Kong. It got the movie made, and the monkey movie would pull RKO’s fat from the fire. So many major movie studios owed their continued existence to to genre movies, it’s amazing they still didn’t get any respect until the late ’70s.

Eve’s demand to go with Bob and, in fact, her tagging along with him is an oh-come-on moment (especially since we’re not sure how she got out of her room), but an earlier exchange in the cocktail party, where the drunken Martin promises Zaroff a good time when they get home, wine women, and then some hunting, oh boy, provides a chilling undercurrent for the rest of the movie. Zaroff proclaims – and Bob agrees – that Martin has it backwards. First, the hunt, then, in the ecstasy of triumph, it is time for love. Given that Fay Wray – and she has rarely looked lovelier – is clad in the most diaphanous gowns Pre-Code would allow, there is a nasty sexual subtext to Zaroff’s stalking the pair. He’s made it pretty plain what will happen to her if he wins.

most_dangerous_game560One of the major reasons Most Dangerous Game still feels exciting and almost modern is the Max Steiner score. A fully scored movie was pretty rare in those days – look at the previous year’s Dracula and you find a movie with music only at the beginning and the end. The rules of talkies were being created even as the movies were shot, and it was felt that music with no obvious onscreen source would only confuse the audience. I try to imagine Game without Steiner’s accompaniment and it is a much less exciting movie. Legend has it the original score for Kong was pulled and Steiner asked to create another quickly, so it’s possible to hear some of the DNA of the Kong score in the hunt music.

Anyway, The Most Dangerous Game is great pulp. With its beautiful and righteous Western protagonists, gang of sketchy Eastern types, and wonderful production values, it would make an excellent, if xenophobic, double feature with The Mask of Fu Manchu.

No trailer, but here’s a colorized clip, featuring Noble:

Wu Dang (2012)

Wu Dang (2012)There’s something about Asian action movies that call to me; the wuxia tales of righteous men and women in jianghu, the world of martial arts – these are my westerns. A mythic landscape for mythic figures to glide and fight through. If the corrupt life-or-death world of the Spaghetti Western is familiar to me yet exotic, how much more so is the jianghu, where in its most extreme forms, people can fly and magic is real? I first started watching kung fu films in the 70s, when I realized they were the best celluloid realization of a comic book world, superheroes battling supervillains. The marvelous resurgence in the early 90s with movies like Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain and Chinese Ghost Story provided fantasy realms that Hollywood seemed to be fumbling about, shallow but pretty movies like Legend or Tolkien pastiches like Willow.

With the handover in 1999, as Hong Kong once more became a part of Mainland China, the tenor of the movies changed, for a while. Propaganda took over, and though there are examples that still manage to thrill and excite, like Hero, Red Cliff,  the first Ip Man and Jet Li’s Fearless, you can’t make a steady diet of it. There was a point at which I feared the “honorable-Chinese-fighter-faces-foreign-devil” trope would become the Chinese equivalent of the zombie movie glut.

prof tangSo this is how I approached Wu Dang, knowing nothing of it: with an open mind, but some apprehension. And my open mind was rewarded.

Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo is professor Tang, a scholarly type operating in the early 30s (or, as the video box puts it, “the early days of Republican China”, but the box has as slippery a grip on history as it does the movie’s story). As the movie opens, he identifies a legendary sword from the equally legendary Wu Dang mountain as a fake, but finds a  non-fake treasure map in the sword’s carrying case, revealing that there are seven treasures on Wu Dang. Tang then fulfills his Indiana Jones requirement by fighting his way out through the gang that offered the fake sword for sale.

wu dang xu jiaoTang’s daughter (Josie Xu Jiao) is something of a martial arts prodigy, and he enters her in the Wu Dang Martial Arts Tournament, which occurs only every 500 years, intending – of course – to seek out the treasures during the competition. But there is also – equally of course – a sexy female fighter (Mini Yang) who has an identical treasure map, and seems to have a legitimate claim over that same sword that started this whole process. If you suspect that the two of them will join forces and then fall in love, congratulations! You’ve seen more than one movie, and are wise to this sort of thing.. Besides the various monkish factions guarding the treasures – often unbeknownst, even to themselves – there’s also the small matter of the treasure-robbing gang showing up, and guess what they want.

wu-dang4There’s also a sub-plot about a fairly simple, honest man (Siu-Wong Fan, who crops up all over the place, more recently in the Donnie Yen Ip Man movies, and who I last saw in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate), who moved to the mountain to seek treatment for his ailing mom, and who the Wise Old Master has been training in Sleeping Kung Fu, which sounds like something I might be good at. This guy meets cute with Tang’s daughter and falls in love with her.

It isn’t until the middle of the movie that we find out exactly why Tang is seeking the treasures: supposedly, somehow, when all the treasures come together, they can magically cure his daughter of an unspecified congenital defect that killed both her mother and her grandmother while still young. Tang also has a growing suspicion: why are there two identical treasure maps, and why do they look so new?

tang yangNow what intrigues me about Wu Dang is – beyond the fact that I really enjoyed it – is that everyone else seems to dismiss or outright hate it. (I’ve had this experience before – ask me about Robocop 2 and Star Trek V sometime). I am going to admit to you that it is flawed. Exactly why, when most of the story takes place on magical, timeless Wu Dang mountain, a location that is surely of the jianghu, it was felt necessary to set the story in the 30s is a puzzler – unless you absolutely must have the Indiana Jones connection. Exactly what the hell the disease might be that’s killing Josie is maddeningly oblique, and why the hell she is fighting in the competition when that seems to be speeding her decline is questionable. The plot goes to great pains to show she is hiding this from her father, but… jeez, girl. Seek some help.

After the buildup, the tournament itself is sadly underdeveloped; Jimmy Wang Yu would have devoted a half hour to it, at least. Some conflicts don’t get a proper resolution: Mini Yang has to steal an invitation to the tournament, by apparently beating up a bunch of people on an airplane – we kind of have to take the movie’s word on that.

There is also at least one unearned happy ending. But that’s just me being a jerk.

yang-mi-wudang-pub-a2These things were obviously not enough to kill my enjoyment of the movie. I found it a pleasant throwback to the martial arts movies I enjoyed in the 90s. Corey Yuen’s fight choreography is old-school wirework, with only occasional CGI work intruding to cover that Mini Yang isn’t a fighter. Lots of spinning and old school kick-the-bad-guy-through-a-wall action. I dug it. There is one especially nice scene where Zhao and Yang are facing impossible odds, and as their fighting styles begin to merge and play off each other, the film slows down and a romantic tango begins to play while they kick bad guys in the face. It’s a nice, cinematic moment.

Other people aren’t so lucky as I, or, as they would be more prone to point out, are simply smarter than me. They use phrases like “moronic screenplay”, “sub-par movie” and “don’t waste your life”. My criteria for movies are, I suspect, a bit more liberal than most. All I ask is to be entertained. And in that light, I enjoyed Wu Dang. Some didn’t. I shrug.

bad guyTo return to the last paragraph, I will amend it to say that yes, I am the lucky one. So often these days I will hear a conversation about a movie that is basically a litany of complaints that finishes up with a version of “And that’s why it sucked.” I have a news flash: Not every movie sucks. Moreover, not every movie sucks or rules. A lot of movies are just mediocre, a fact that many people seem unwilling to accept. A polarized view that a movie must either be orgasmic or lower than worm dung is not a very happy outlook; you’re going to miss out on a lot of fun that way.

Considering how I began my Internet career, reviewing movies on a website called (with a complete lack of cleverness) The Bad Movie Report, I find this sort of thought process amazing. I dealt with a subgenre of film that was disposable, and most times knew it was disposable, yet most often resulted in something that could not be labeled mediocre, but were memorable or entertaining in surprising ways.

wu-dang-movie-images-111126-12To put it another way: I’m a musical omnivore. I like and collect a lot of different types of music. In one of my many attempts to earn a living, I perform every week with a murder mystery dinner theater that has operated out of a number of different hotels over the years. Hotels have a lot of different events. Once there was an Indian wedding being held in a large atrium, and Bollywood-type music was echoing all over the hotel as we were loading out. One of the other members of the group (one I didn’t like, anyway), sneered “God, I hate that shit!”

My response was “Really? It’s music, for pete’s sake. How can you not like music?” It’s all the same pieces, just put together in different forms.

I really don’t get it. Maybe it’s just me.

So Wu Dang: not perfect by any degree, but enough fun that I found it above-average, and I don’t feel bad saying so. I will, however, go ahead and say that the trailer isn’t very good, at all:

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

CANTERBURY TALES IT 2XAfter being pleasantly surprised by Pasolini’s The Decameron, I was really looking forward to the second movie in his Trilogy of Life, The Canterbury Tales which I also greatly enjoyed, and found it, if anything, funnier than its predecessor. Then I start doing my research, and find out that Pasolini was badly depressed during the shoot, and that everyone feels it is obsessed with death.

This is one of those things that make you doubt what little critical acumen you might actually possess.

Now The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, like Boccaccio’s Decameron, is considered one of the cornerstones of medieval literature, significant to its native language because it is written in its native language, not Latin or high-falutin’ French. Chaucer undoubtedly came across The Decameron during his travels in Italy – a scene in the movie has him reading the book and laughing, then concealing it under other books – and doubtless drew some inspiration from it. And the rest is English Lit major history.

pasolini7bigAs with The Decameron, a group of people are traveling – in the Italian classic, to escape the Plague, in Chaucer’s, a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury, all telling each other stories to pass the time. Pasolini once again disposes of tales concerning kings, queens and knights and sticks with stories of more common folk – except when he can poke fun at wealthy merchants or, like Chaucer, ridicule clergy.  Pasolini’s hatred of consumerism and yearning for a time when sex was not an exploitable commercial commodity is still very much in strength.

My first inclination to like Canterbury even more probably derives from Pasolini filming almost entirely in England and using a lot of familiar faces, which provide a welcoming warmth even when dubbed into Italian. The first “The Merchant’s Tale”, features Hugh Griffith chewing the scenery magnificently as a wealthy man who decides late in life that a young woman should be his wife – Josephine Chaplin. Most of the tale concerns his sudden blindness and the conniving of the young woman to meet her swain right under his blind nose – or above it, as it takes place in an elderberry tree, in his private garden.

*sigh*

*sigh*

There have been two naked gods – Pluto and Persephone – walking about in the garden. Pluto will restore the old lecher’s sight, and Persephone will give the girl the words she needs to defend herself. I bring up this part of the story simply to point out that Persephone (or Prosperine, to get ideally Italian about it) is played by Elisabetta Genovese, who also appeared in The Decameron,  the tale of the two  young lovers meeting on a rooftop, which I called “sweet”. Yes, obviously, here she is, naked again. But no, I bring this up because this lady has the most glorious, sweetest smile I have  seen in quite some time; dear sweet Lord, I melted.  She will also crop up in Arabian Nights, which will make this old lecher happy, especially if she smiles again.

The English Lit majors will note that this is the wrong spot for the Merchant’s Tale, and then it will be like the time I had to discuss the difference between movies and books with my rather angry son after a viewing of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Pasolini also filmed transitional scenes of the pilgrims on their way to buffer the Tales, but they were eventually cut in favor of time, and, as Pasolini pointed out, the bits about the pilgrims constitute a book of its own.

S1007813_08.tifIn fact, when we finally get to the tale of the Wife of Bath, probably the most famous and well-developed character in the Tales, we are not given her actual tale, which was a knightly tale usually found intertwined with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, particularly Gawain. Now, what we have here is something apparently drawn from one of her prologues – she has two – and is appropriately salacious, given her reputation. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: Naked Tom Baker.

I also wonder what Chaucer purists think of “The Cook’s Tale”, which the drunken cook can’t finish, but Pasolini does – and, moreover, realizes it as a medieval Chaplin movie, featuring Ninetto Davoli as Perkin the Reveler, complete with leather derby, bamboo cane (but not abbreviated moustache) and two cops that chase after him in sped-up motion. He also has his own wordless theme song, which he belts out at appropriate moments.

Davoli, who, like Geneovese, was also in The Decameron and Arabian Nights – hell, go back further, he was even in The Gospel According to St. Matthew – appears to be the crux of the underlying problem here. Oh, not with the movie, he’s great. But it was during the filming that Ninetto left Pasolini for, reportedly, a woman. Every writing and interview studiously avoid the word “lover” but he lived with Pasolini for ten years, and the director was devastated.

Once you know it’s there, you can find it in Pasolini’s portrayal as Chaucer, a melancholy barely visible, but there. In an entire section that was cut for time considerations, the story that Chaucer himself told in the Tales, the melancholy gave way to self-loathing. In the book, Chaucer is stopped because he’s boring the other pilgrims to death, and tells another. In the movie, he is stopped, told he has no talent, and to sit down and let someone who’s good take a turn. Ouch.

bfi-canterbury-tales-blu6Other stories are great adaptations – “The Friar’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” are both proto-Twilight Zone plots; in the first, a corrupt Summoner makes a deal with the wrong person, a truly delicious Franco Citti as The Devil; in the latter, three boys set out to kill Death, with the expected results.

“The Friar’s Tale” has an addition that supports the claim of the movie’s death obsession. The Summoner finds two men engaged in two separate acts of homosexual sex. One is rich and bribes the Summoner, the other is poor and winds up being burned at the stake. Pasolini actually shows the execution, with a bunch of richly-garbed, uncaring clergymen and an audience of commoners craning to get a good look.  The Devil is in the back of the mob, selling fritters from a tray. Given Pasolini’s own open homosexuality and state of mind during the shoot, it’s a very chilling addition, indeed.

Two more things to point out, then I need to wrap this up: “The Miller’s Tale” is the first Canterbury Tale I ever encountered, waaaay back in eighth grade, I believe, being handed around because omigawd you guys is this ever dirty. It is, indeed, a tale of conniving lovers, gullible husbands, large tubs suspended from a ceiling, and red hot pokers up the cat flap. Pasolini’s dramatization is everything one could want, with a nude Jenny Runacre thrown in for good measure.

"Busted by the cops? TIME FOR MY THEME SONG!"

“Busted by the cops? TIME FOR MY THEME SONG!”

Finally: “The Summoner’s Tale” is but a fragment, dutifully presented, but then continued as a greedy Friar (Nicholas Smith!)  is shown Hell by an angel. It is here that Pasolini returns to Mount Aetna for his vista of hell, including an enormous devil’s ass farting out friars. It’s quite something to behold.

Canterbury Tales has the reputation of being the weakest of the Trilogy of Life. Having not yet seen Arabian Nights, I can’t really give a definitive opinion – but I liked Canterbury. For the most part, Pasolini’s version of the Tales is remarkably faithful; some have said that after viewing the movie, they’ve gone to Chaucer’s original to find that yes, all that stuff – fanciful devil butts aside – were actually there. I’m reminded of when I was in an Accelerated curriculum in high school. I was a junior, but the seniors were studying Macbeth, so they brought in a movie version – and it was Polanski’s version. I’m sure that was a couple of very interesting afternoons.

Unfortunately, they were a little wiser than that when I became a senior. At least there’s always DVD.

Sorry, couldn’t find a trailer! – But the entire Trilogy of Life is currently on Netflix Instant!

Samsara (2011)

Honest to God, I did not care for the 80s. That was a decade of tough lessons and truths for yours truly, a bona fide  horror show. But a decade is ten years long, and surely some good has to come from a period that long, right? I liked narrow ties. I liked the music. I liked the movies. There’s one in particular that I knew I was going to want to see, even though it was so far away from what I normally watched, my friends treated me like I had asked to see a film from Mars. It was playing limited engagements at art houses, and luckily I had access to a couple in Houston, back in those days. It was playing at the River Oaks Theater and that movie was Koyaanisqatsi.

koyaanisqatsi_teaserKoyaanisqatsi is a “narrative-less documentary” which is to say a movie engineered to knock your eyeballs out with awesome in every scene. The title is a Hopi word meaning “Life Out of Balance” and the movie starts with epic shots of national grandeur gradually segueing into man screwing this natural beauty up. It was stunning in 1982, and remains so today.

The cinematographer and a credited writer on Koyaanisqatsi is Ron Fricke, and I really have to fall to my knees and worship him like a graven image. He’s made three movies since: Chronos which is a shorter movie – around 45 minutes – which really showcases the camera systems he invented for time-lapse photography. If you’ve ever seen one of those nature shots where the time passes from day to night and back again and at the same time, the camera moves, that’s Fricke’s system. He probably made the shot himself. There’s some of that in his next movie, Baraka, which is another personal favorite. It travels all over the world, provides breathtaking footage of things light and incredibly dark in the human world, and always – most impressively for me – comes back to prayer, in all its many forms, in all its many cultures.

I started watching a movie after midnight every New Year’s, and I want that to be something beautiful and edifying, transcendent. The first time I did this, it was Baraka.

Samsara-695x1024It takes Fricke years to make these movies; Baraka came out in 1992, and it was almost twenty years before Samsara was ready to be seen. Like Baraka, it was shot in 70mm, then transferred to a 4K file for digital projection, then an 8K transfer for Blu-ray.

My God, just at the frickin’ menu I was saying “Wow!” and picking my jaw off the floor.

Look, I’m not a good enough writer to convey to you just how incredibly gorgeous the photography is in Samsara. I don’t have the Adjective Treasury rich enough. It is frequently stunning, mind-boggling, and very often prompts the question “Where is that?”

I think the flow here is better than it was in Baraka, and as I say, I consider Baraka a near-flawless movie. This may be due to an inversion between how the two movies were edited: Baraka was cut to an existing soundtrack, and Samsara was cut silently, and the soundtrack written later. This probably enhances the flow aesthetic I was referring to, but it also pushes the music way to the background. That has its pros and cons – I’m in the against camp, but obviously Fricke and the other filmmakers disagree, and it’s their movie, after all.

SAMSARA_1000-Hands-DanceWatching Samsara also allowed me to put fingers on a couple of things that bug me about Fricke; that they were evident in both Baraka and Samsara cemented it.

1) Fricke’s juxtaposition of imagery can get too cute, too obvious; in Baraka it was footage of chicks moving through processing, whirled into funnels and eventually winding up battery hens, intercut with sped-up footage of people in subway stations. In Samsara it moves from animals in a factory farm to meat processing plants to check-out counters at warehouse clubs to obese people eating several burgers each at a fast food joint.

One man’s meat, et cetera. What I find obvious and jejune, someone else may find profound. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saying.

2) Odd intrusions of performance art. There are several in Baraka, and only one in Samsara. I also recognize this is a fundamentally stupid complaint on my part. That I, of all people, should grumble that art is being presented is… well, ridiculous. And selfish, because I just want more pretty pictures.

And if those are the worst things I can say about something – I even forgive the one obviously staged shot, so powerful is the image – then we are truly dealing with something special.

Sand-mandala-still-from-SAMSARAIf I had to choose a favorite in this gorgeous field, I’m still going to give the nod to the Fricke-less Powaqqatsi, the sequel to Koyaanisqatsi, for glorious photography married to an astounding Phillip Glass soundtrack – again, the movie cut to the music, Glass collaborating with Godfrey Reggio.

But that’s me playing favorites in a purely nostalgic manner, I think. All the while I was writing this, I have had an insane urge to watch Samsara again, to take that trip, to marvel and be struck speechless again. Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Baraka and Samsara are the movies we should send into space to show what Earth is like, both good and bad. The past year has given me the opportunity to own them all on breathtaking Blu-ray transfers, and if I ask for anything else from life, I am just being plain greedy.

The Decameron (71)

Pier Paolo Pasolini haunts me.

decameron_ver2As a Texas boy I didn’t know much about him, contemporaneously. His murder in 1975, and of course the infamous Salo provided buzz that even pierced the beefsteak curtain that surrounded the conservative towns of my youth. Going to a liberal college didn’t help too much in that direction. Moving to Houston could have helped, with bit of effort on my part; then again, in 1982 Houston Vice Officers raided the classy rep house River Oaks Theater because they were showing Salo. In 19 – fucking -82. Then again, looking over the headlines for ’82 proves that was a pretty dire year, anyway, so forget that line of outrage I was pursuing.

These days, you can listen to podcasts about Salo, you can buy it on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, for pete’s sake. The point I think I’m trying to make is that Pasolini has always been a dangerous filmmaker, because he was overwhelmingly a political filmmaker – so what, then, are we supposed to make of his Trilogy of Life, given a wonderful Blu-ray box set release in December from (once again) Criterion?

PasoliniCatholic, openly gay, Marxist, Pasolini seems to have lived a life of eternal controversy. He probably astounded a lot of people during the student uprisings of 1969 when, unlike every other Leftist, he sided with the policemen against the students. That’s an important distinction: not “The Police”, but “policemen”, who he felt were underpaid servants doing a tough job, facing pampered rich kids who could afford to go to college and study. Look over Pasolini’s earlier movies, and his novels and poetry: he was fascinated by, and allied himself to, the underclasses.

It’s been pointed out that what Pasolini ardently decried was consumerism, and taking that into consideration, along with his disillusionment with what the left-leaning parties in Italy were becoming, it’s no wonder he turned to medieval writings as the basis of his next few movies.

Decamerone-Il_1The Decameron itself is probably in the Top Ten of medieval books. Written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1350s, it has ten young people telling ten tales to each over the course of ten nights for a total of 100 stories. Besides the sheer volume of stories contained therein, The Decameron is most notable – or infamous, depending on your viewpoint – for being written in Italian, not Latin, as all good intellectuals wrote at the time. Thus it forms a very important cornerstone of Italian culture.

Pasolini carries on the thumb-nosing spirit of that by abandoning the dominant Tuscan dialect used by Boccaccio and instead using the Southern dialect, Neapolitan, a “language without prestige”. Pasolini drops the tales of Kings, Queens and Knights and concentrates on stories concerning people of lower classes, or turns the occasional knight into a merchant. And above all, he does not shy away from the earthier aspects of the stories. In fact, the word “earthy”, had it not already existed, would have been coined for The Decameron.

tumblr_mdnjivLIti1qzh8m2o1_500The first complete story, after all, concerns a young merchant who falls for a complicated robbery scenario that involves him stepping into a booby-trapped privy and falling into a cesspool, resulting in many comedic cries of “Aaah! I’ve fallen into the shit!” Subsequent stories include a young man pretending to be a deaf-mute to get a job in a convent so he can service all those horny nuns, and a woman who convinces her none-too-bright husband to scrape out an enormous urn while her lover finishes the assignation interrupted by the husband’s early return. Right there, just outside the urn.

All these events are performed pretty matter-of-factly, but the perfect example of what I’m trying to get across comes in the second half, in the tale of a young woman who convinces her parents that she is stifling in the heat of their bedroom, and is allowed to sleep on the roof; this so her young swain can climb the garden wall so they can have a night of sex. This is the story that has the knightly father changed into a merchant, but the result is the same: he connives to have the young man marry his daughter on the spot, so two rich families become even richer, and everyone is happy.

qFBFiHere’s the thing: the nudity and sex here is so unsophisticated, so uncluttered with eroticism that it becomes strangely sweet, given the scandalous circumstances (the fact that a bikini tanline is visible on the actress’s bare back notwithstanding). This is true of all the segments, and illustrates a lot of what Pasolini was working toward: stripping away the commercial intent that had been layered over the imagery through the years, particularly in film in the 20th century. There is no shame assigned to human functions. And he had to consciously revert to medievalism to achieve this.

Of course, you get a good idea, it will immediately get ripped off for all the wrong reasons, especially in this era in the Italian movie industry. There followed a bunch of prurient Decameron rip-offs, and you could almost hear Jon Lovitz in fop gear complaining about how “my delicious tales of ribaldry have been turned into simple smut!!!” Pasolini was disappointed, of course – this wasn’t the reason he made the movie, at all. His was a stand against commercializing sex, and having found himself actually stimulating pornography, he would disown the Trilogy of Life before his death in ’75.

the-decameron-007How sad, then, that Pasolini himself enters the movie in the second half’s framing device, as a painter hired to paint a triptych fresco in a church in Naples. He is seen haunting the marketplace, memorizing faces and creating frames with his fingers. Throughout the movie, Pasolini has done a wonderful job of recreating medieval life, especially in the scenes of rustic markets and country partying. He recreates several paintings of the period splendidly (and Bruegel winds up looking just as strange in three dimensions as you would have guessed), and cast non-actors, looking specifically for interesting Southern faces (with eccentric dentistry apparently a plus – again, presenting a world in which the human body, in all its variations, was nothing to be ashamed of).

article00It’s significant, then, that the movie ends with the painter, his crew, and the clergy quaffing celebratory wine when the fresco is declared finished, although it is obviously only two panels of the triptych. Pasolini, with a mug of wine, looks at his work  bittersweetly, musing “Why complete a work when it’s much more beautiful to dream it?” That’s something in which Pasolini himself had more than a little experience.

If nothing else, The Decameron has served well to whet my appetite for Pasolini. I look forward to the next two movies in the Trilogy, and am intrigued that he made a version of Oedipus Rex… hell, I might even finally watch Salo! I am especially eager to see his Gospel According to St. Matthew, made during his more political period, nominated for three Oscars, and hailed by theologians. A cursory search reveals it to be on Amazon Streaming, so there you go. Miracles do happen.