So Much for Spring Break

As is apparently The Way of Things, here I am, awake at 4am on a Monday morning. Another Spring Break is over, and good riddance.

I understand that Spring Break is important. Educators and students vitally need it. I am neither, but a lot of my work is intertwined with the two, and during that week, it all goes away – and I am not salaried. No work, no pay. I try to plan for this, but being a good American, I live on the edge, and this month the edge decided to move significantly in the wrong direction, thanks to a pricey car repair. If there is one good piece of news, it’s that my son got into the college he wanted. That, of course has ratcheted up my concerns about money exponentially.

My wife, who also had the week off, noticed my depression and urged me to “stop being a poopy-pants.” Remarkably, this didn’t help.

This is probably what other peoples' Spring Break looks like. Screw them.

This is probably what other peoples’ Spring Break looks like.

There was a much darker version of this post.  I erased it. You’re not here to hear about my problems, or my darker musings about life. We’ll talk about this someday, maybe. Doing so right now wouldn’t be terribly constructive for either of us.

I asked the Universe for money, and it sends me some at an hourly rate. I got an e-mail last night to ask me to work an oddly-scheduled School Board meeting, two weeks out from its usual slot. In a few hours I’ll be back at my desk, editing the stories I shot before the mandatory week off. I watched movies last week, but did no writing – my brain is only now finally starting again to tease out what I want to say about them. One of the most unpleasant things I’ve learned about myself is I require some sort of outside pressure to do what I do. So this week, when I’m earning some actual coin and have commitments aplenty, then I’ll start yearning after writing about movies.

And speaking of that pressure, I got an invitation via Twitter to engage in another blogathon. I thought about the tribulations of my last one, and how other things got shoved to the side while I worked on it, and worked, and worked. And then I realized what my subject on this next blogathon would be, and then, goddammit, I signed up for it. So if it’s anything like The Seven Samurai, be ready for what might be the only thing I post in May:


But that’s a whole two months away. Plenty of time.


Leaping Crap

Getting people together for anything not required by law is, as the cliché says, like herding cats. Ornery cats. Cats with agendas. Cats with agendas and thumbs. So it took a month of wrangling to get people together in order to punish them, and this all took place before that ultimate injustice, an extra Monday foisted upon us by Leap Year.

Artist's Representation

Artist’s Representation

In attendance: Rick, Paul, Alan (intermittently) Erik, Host Dave and myself. Rick had brought some pork tenderloins for dinner, and the grill was set up and flames climbed into the sky, while doubters predicted fiery disaster, burnt meat, horrible diseases and, for some reason, a sequel to Mortdecai. In an attempt to get things started, I put on Futuropolis, and it was roundly ignored in favor of fiery disaster, burnt meat, and etc.

futuropolis2Futuroplis is a short by Steve Segal (no relation) and Phil Trumbo (also no relation), started in the late 1970s and expanded to 30 minutes in 1984, when it was released on VHS by Expanded Entertainment, which is where I discovered it. I understand they expanded it once more in the 90s, but I’ve never seen that version. As far as I know, the only official release was that VHS, currently being sold on Amazon for as much as $150.  Both men went on to careers in animation and design.

vlcsnap-2016-03-09-20h12m22s192Futuropolis itself is a weird blend of traditional animation and what we used to call pixelation – stop-motion animation using real people. It features four Space Patrol members who eventually find themselves in conflict with the villainous Lord Egghead (Mike Cody) and his Mutation Ray. It all ends up in a Battle of the Minds between Egghead and ship’s Engineer Cosmo (Tom Campagnoli), which switches from locale to locale, time frame to time frame, eventually winding up as a Popeye cartoon. It’s silly and creative, and has the best starship-captain-playing-for-time-with-the-captain-of-an-alien-warship dialogue since “The Corbomite Maneuver”. The best because both captains are idiots.

As I said, roundly ignored by the attendees, usually dropping in to watch minute or two, then going back outside to insult Dave’s grill skills. I, at least, sat there and enjoyed it all over again.

Fucking kids.

After Futuropolis wrapped, Dave put on a 1983 oddity he had discovered, Battle of the Video Games. Because it involved Ms. Pac-Man, Burger Time and Frogger, naturally everybody sat down and gave it their undivided attention.

Fucking kids.

Title-Card-e1337350755935Around this time, prime time shows like Battle of the Network Stars were quite popular, so producing one of those involving the video game craze was logical, but only KTLA in Los Angeles was up to the challenge, it seems. The template’s the same: stars compete in feats of skill to earn money for their favorite charities, and plug their current shows. KTLA managed a mixed bag there: the biggest names are Lou Ferrigno and Lynn Redgrave, both probably wondering what the hell they’re doing there, Heather Locklear (shilling for both TJ Hooker and Dynasty) and Scott Baio (he says reluctantly). After that you’re dredging through the ranks of young actors in sitcoms, like Mindy Cohn and Philip McKeon. Each stultifying round of other people playing video games is broken up by interview segments with the stars.

Heather-Pacman-e1337350129288The most hilarious thing about the whole enterprise is the perceived necessity of “color commentary” by future game show host Marty Cohen trying to keep our interest up (also his breathless explanations of how each game is played, so parents and grandparents being forced to watch this won’t be totally lost). Actually, the most hilarious thing was the screams from our personal home audience trying to figure out the scoring methodology; it actually seemed that longevity was the key, the winner of each round being the one still playing on his or her quarter. And poor Lou, who really sucked at Burger Time. No, no, wait, the most hilarious thing was Rick recognizing the incidental music from an industrial film break about the manufacture of an arcade table as being from the “Pac-Man Fever” album, and his resultant shunning by the rest of us.

I will amend myself further that the truly most hilarious thing was that the final competition at a Pac-Man table chased us all out of the room. Every single one of us was in the kitchen, hiding from Battle of the Video Games, a situation which had not happened since Strange Beings.

Fucking kids.

cobraSo I was out for blood at this point, which made me feel better about my choice. Upon watching Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, I had decided that Cobra was a prime candidate for Crapfest.

Stallone plays the Cobra (actually Marion Cobretti), a cop in the Loose Cannon Division of the LAPD (okay, he’s on something called “The Zombie Squad” but you get the picture).  There’s a serial killer called the Night Slasher terrorizing the city, but what the cops and media don’t know is the Slasher is actually a doomsday cult trying to bring about “The New Tomorrow”. When they’re not standing around in an abandoned factory banging axes together, that is.

Cobra’s the guy you call in on tough cases, like when one of the cultists takes to shooting up a supermarket with a shotgun, providing us with many product placement opportunities for Pepsi and Coors, not to mention giving Cobra a chance to say his catchphrases, “You’re a disease, and I’m the cure” and “Hey, dirtbag.” It’s an opening sequence virtually indistinguishable from many other Stallone flicks. Cobra does, however, put away his pearl-handled Colt .45 so he can throw a knife at the psycho, then pulls it again to shoot him several times. It’s not the multiple gun modes from Judge Dredd, but I guess it’s kinda unique. A little.

"Product placement? Don't know whatcha talkin' bout."

“Product placement? Don’t know whatcha talkin’ bout.”

Stallone’s then-current squeeze, Brigitte Nielsen, witnesses a Night Slasher murder and gets a good look at the face of the head cultist (Brian Thompson), and thanks to one of the cultists in the police department (Lee Garlington, and that ain’t no spoiler), they’re tracking her down. Cobra ain’t having none of that crap, resulting in a hospital murder spree, a highway chase, and a final showdown in a small California town whose population gets whittled down very damned quickly. As it must in all Cannon Films, the final showdown is in a factory, though not abandoned because there has to be a bunch of moving machinery and molten steel to kill off the bad guy.

"With this disguise, no one will ever suspect i am an evil cultist."

“With this disguise, no one will ever suspect I am an evil cultist.”

That chase scene does have one of the most remarkably insane and ridiculous bits: when Cobra gets tired of the cultists behind him taking potshots at his ’50 Mercury, he pulls a bootlegger turn and continues barrelling down the freeway in reverse, shooting the offending truck until it explodes. Then he bootlegs again and continues chasing the Head Cultist’s car (the cultist driving that car, who I assume to be an expert in such matters, says “He’s crazy!”)

Another bit which could be interpreted as groundbreaking, is the intercutting of Cobra, his partner and Nielsen holed up in a motel in the aforementioned small California town, intercut with cultists on motorcycles racing through the night, obviously moving toward a nighttime siege and gun battle. Then it’s morning and Stallone’s asking his partner “Howdya sleep?” What a violation of audience expectations! Actually, the mosquitoes were just so miserable at night, they decided to shoot the climactic battle during the day.

"Put out an APB on Mick Jagger."

“Put out an APB on Mick Jagger.”

You know, I actually do like Stallone; but this was made at the height of his power in Hollywood, and also the height of his ego, apparently. Though it didn’t make the money that Rambo or Rocky IV did, possibly due to some last-minute misgivings on the part of Cannon. Violence was cut to avoid an X rating, and then the two-hour run time was cut down to 84 minutes. There is a reason I thought the movie was a tremendously stupid cliche-o-rama when I saw it back in the day; it doesn’t have time to be anything else.

Stallone had also decided the signature quirk for Cobra would be the matchstick permanently stuck in his mouth. This does his already murky diction absolutely no favors, and in every dialogue scene between him and Nielsen, we felt very sorry for the sound recording guy on this flick. No matter how good a job he managed to do, everybody was going to assume he sucked at his chosen profession. I have to admit, though, the Stallone impressions that filled those 84 minutes was one of the best things since the Burton impression marathon during Exorcist II: The Heretic.

phynxMy blood lust being sated, it was time for Dave to make people suffer. Still, in this, I will admit come complicity: Dave had found out about something from 1970 called The Phynx and was gung ho about showing it. I looked at a few screengrabs from his copy and realized it was taken from an old videotape. “You know, I have this on DVD, and I haven’t watched it yet,” I said. So, you know: conspiracy.

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to sneak into Albania (why they didn’t come up with an imaginary country, who knows), the Super Secret Agency desperately consults its supercomputer MOTHA (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans), whose solution is to form a successful rock group, because “Beatles don’t need passports” (I’m pretty sure they did, but never mind). The computer then picks four lads who are kidnapped and forced to become musicians in a rigorous three-month training session. Then they become mega-successful and are invited to play a concert in Albania.

MOTHAWhy the desperation to infiltrate Albania? It seems that someone has been abducting American “World Leaders”. The movie’s definition of “world leaders” runs to aging stars like Georgie Jessel, Xavier Cugat, Maureen O’Sullivan, Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Weismuller. Yes this bizarre rip-off of The Monkees’ main reason for existing is the numerous cameos of formerly beloved personalities. Good God, just take a look at the IMDb entry and be amazed. Most of the cameos are for one line, and they’re all playing themselves, or claim to be. Richard Pryor is there to teach them about “soul”. Trini Lopez demonstrates proper fingering on a guitar. James Brown makes an appearance as “The Ambassador of the Record Industry”.

So none of these people get to show much about what made them famous. Martha Raye does have a few lines that lets her shine a bit, but most of the movie’s “story” is fairly tedious. There is a major detour into a subplot about a map into the bad guy’s stronghold that is split into three pieces, each piece tattooed on the belly of one of Martha Raye’s daughters. The three photos that allow the Phynx to track them down have no faces, leading the group to perform concerts “For Redheads Only!” and the use of X-Ray Glasses (relax, horndogs, this is a family film and the specs stop at underwear). This helps the under-developed story reach feature-length.

colonel sanders noInformation about the making of this movie is deucedly hard to find, so we have to put on our deerstalker hats (like the head of the SSA when he’s in disguise in London) and start deducing. The fact that it’s an ironic attempt to cash-in on The Monkees is obvious. The main perps, director Lee Katzin, and producers/story writers Bob Booker and George Foster all have numerous TV credits (Booker and Foster, incidentally, were responsible for one of Dave’s favorite Crapfest entries, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special). Most of the larger roles are taken by TV actors – look at Lou Antonio, who gets billing just under The Phynx themselves, as the hapless SSA Agent Corrigan. Antonio’s mug shot on the IMDb is as Lokai in the classic Trek episode, Let That be Your Last Battlefield, but he has an even more impressive filmography as an episodic TV director.

So we can blame this all on TV.

But – and here’s the thing – it’s easy to dismiss this as a clueless attempt by Hollywood oldsters trying to cash in on the lucrative Youth Culture market, but The Phynx actually has some genuinely subversive elements. The SSA meeting at the beginning has its various departments in attendance, from fake guerillas in “Castro’s Counterfeits” to riot cops in the “Education Division”. The head of the SSA, “Number One” is introduced, and he is in disguise, a box over his head with a face drawn on it – but the voice is Richard Nixon’s (the film debut of Rich Little). (Number One will later visit the Phynx in disguise, a beard being drawn on the box) The Phynx are debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, just like The Beatles, except with Ed at gunpoint, and the reason the Phynx get their gold record is agents of the SSA (led by Corrigan), wearing gangster outfits from the 30s, attack record stores and smash all the other albums. This is a nasty satire on how the record industry was/is run – now consider that this movie is the sole screenplay credit of one Stan Cornyn, an editor and director at Warner Brothers Records. He won two Grammys for Best Liner Notes.


“I am Number One… and I am not a crook.”

So there’s something under all the bumbling, latching onto youth trends and sad nostalgia. Not enough to save The Phynx from obscurity and derision, but enough to make it my favorite movie of the night. Rick was surprised early on when he recognized one scene: this was a movie that he had seen on TV in his youth in Hong Kong. He had wondered ever since what the hell that was he had watched, unable to get an answer… until Crapfest. “God, that I had to come here to find out,” he moaned. “And took the rest of us down with you,” was the reply.

The other sweetness was the opening animated credits lulling everyone into a sense of false security, especially when the music buffs saw the credit, “Songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller”. Now, Leiber and Stoller are in the Songwriter Hall of Fame for songs like “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me”. Then the songs came out in the movie, one by one, and the music buffs moaned in disappointment. There is one thing I have found about my compatriots in Crap – they have no appreciation for psych-tinged pop from the late 60s- early 70s. The songs are actually okay, but not at all memorable.

Fucking kids.

That's Simon Yuen on the cover. Simon Yuen does not appear anywhere in this movie.

That’s Simon Yuen on the cover. Simon Yuen does not appear anywhere in this movie.

Erik had brought a copy of The World of Drunken Master, and it had been a while since we’d played a kung fu flick. This wouldn’t have been my choice, but as London Correspondent Dave Thomas put it, “It’s not the worst of the not-Drunken Master movies”.

Two scalawags have been stealing grapes from a vineyard to sell in the market, and this is a major mistake, as these are the grapes that go into making “sweet premium” wine, the favored brand of drunken masters everywhere. The two are apprehended by the Manager of the Vineyard, who forces them to work off their larcenous debt. They try to intercede when the usual villainous Tartars start grinding the faces of the poor in the marketplace, and get their butts handed to them, Eagle Claw style. The manager, seeing there is some righteousness in them, teaches them Drunken Boxing, which involves chaining bowling balls to your wrists. Eagle Claw steps up the grinding and eventually everybody fights everyone else, and most of them wind up dead.

Ah, but this is all a flashback, as the two students – now aged Drunken Boxing masters themselves – reminisce about old times. The movie’s still only 70 minutes long at this point, though, so a surprise adversary shows up, and when he doesn’t last long enough, another surprise adversary shows up – his motivation is “I’m gonna kill you!” “Wait, you’re not my enemy…” “I’m gonna kill you! LET’S FIGHT!” So they fight. Then the movie ends.

"Ow! My liver!"

“Ow! My liver!”

All the credits indicate that this is a Hong Kong production, but it’s directed by Joseph Kuo, so it feels Taiwanese. My basic problem with Taiwanese martial arts films is what should be a strength – they really are almost non-stop fighting, but there is a resulting lack in the story area. Shaw Brothers movies might be ridiculously rococo in the plotting department, but there is a story and usually a generous helping of different styles to give the fights an individual feel. We get a lot of Eagle Claw vs Drunken Style here, and as British Dave promised, some of it is pretty good. And then the story ends and the movie goes on for another twenty minutes.

But you know, it’s an okay way to breeze through 90 minutes.

Last call.

LOVE BUTCHER 1Dave started up The Love Butcher, which someone online had assured him was a terrible movie.

People online lie.

There have been a series of murders committed with “uncommon weapons”, and what the audience realizes much more quickly than the cops or even the crusading young reporter is that they’re all gardening implements, like the pitchfork that opens the movie. The audience is also cheating, as we have been watching the neighborhood gardener, the simple-minded and disabled Caleb (Erik Stern), who, in his hovel, has conversations with his brother Lester. Except Lester doesn’t really exist until Caleb takes off his glasses, puts on a wig, and straightens out his withered left arm. Then he becomes Lester, a handsome ladykiller in every sense of that word.



We watch Lester ply his murderous trade, and Stern employ a number of different wigs and foreign accents to get into homes, have his way with the women who don’t give him a second glance as Caleb, and kill them. If you’re rubbing your head and thinking this all sounds rather familiar, it’s essentially the plot of 1968’s No Way to Treat a Lady with Rod Steiger, except now it has more naked breasts, blood and bad 70s wallpaper.

...and Caleb

…and Caleb

Erik Stern had an okay career in TV, and he rarely embarrasses himself as Caleb/Lester. Really, the most fascinating thing about The Love Butcher is the evidence that the filmmakers (who between them have credits for movies like Sweater Girls, Schoolgirls in Chains, The Black 6 and The Forest on their resumés) were trying for a prestige product. The opening credits are done by the same house who did the titles for numerous TV movies. The script goes out of its way for character moments that would be expected in a much more serious movie. In fact, I would almost bet money that this is a TV movie that tossed in enough blood and nudity to get an R rating and theatrical release.

Not terrible, but not particularly good, either: just more evidence that most people who declare a movie “beyond bad” simply have not seen enough movies.

Fucking kids.

I’d had another surprise for the attendees, but it was close to Midnight, and high time to head home. Next time, suckers… next time.

And lest we suspect that these outings are harmless fun, and no damage is done to anybody, here is my Letterboxd “Recently Viewed” before Crapfest…


…and after:


Fucking kids.





Russians, Germans, and A Certain Amount of Doom

I Am Cuba (1964)

51dkKQ4LeYL._SY445_There are two things – Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey and Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, that should both ditch their existing subtitles and substitute Why Haven’t You Watched These Movies Yet, You Asshole. I’m not kidding about this; I honestly think my late-in-life drive to catch up with essential cinema was jumpstarted by Cassavetes, and Cousins just widened my horizons exponentially.

Cousins is the one who convinced me to seek out Russian Ark, both a good and a bad thing – but I think the only scene quoted in his series that dropped my jaw as hard as Ark‘s final scene was a sequence from a movie I had never even heard of – I Am Cuba.

Any section of that scene would be pointed to with pride by any filmmaker, but as you can see, it just. Keeps. Going. It’s a sequence designed to astonish the viewer and make them wonder just how the hell that was accomplished. It is toward the end of the movie, certainly (and in fact should probably be the end), but I am here to tell you that I Am Cuba is full of such wonders.

tumblr_n62lwpBWdy1qcoaf4o1_500After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent break-off of relations with the US, aid began pouring into the country from Soviet Russia, and one of those pieces of aid took the form of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to make a movie about the Revolution with the nascent Cuban film ministry. Developed and shot over an astonishing 14 months – during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even – the result was I Am Cuba. Kalatazov was given a tremendous amount of leeway and support from both governments. At one point he requested 1000 soldiers for a scene, and he got them (even though radio announcements and speakers from trucks had to be employed to reassure the citizens that the sudden mobilization was not another revolution).

Untitled1One scene involves student revolutionaries throwing molotov cocktails at a drive-in movie screen showing footage of Batista giving a speech; not only is the image of the dictator giving his speech wreathed in flames particularly potent, but the following footage, with the students escaping in the chaos, is done in a long shot and we still see the burning screen in the background – that is a real structure in real flames with a ton of people. Urushevsky requisitioned infrared movie stock from the military, resulting in eerily beautiful footage of white and silver palm trees and sugar cane against a black sky.

The movie takes an anthology approach to the build-up to the Revolution; a girl eking out a living as a prostitute to the venal Western tourists has her life shattered when one of her customers insists on coming home with her, because he thinks finding out how “these women” live would be interesting; a sugar cane sharecropper has his life similarly destroyed when his landlord sells his farm out from under him – the farmer gives his son and daughter his last peso to go to town, then torches his fields and house and literally lies down and dies; a student revolutionary plots to kill a corrupt Police Chief but can’t pull the trigger when he sees the man eating breakfast with his loving children – the same Chief will kill both his friends and the revolutionary himself, resulting in the above funeral scene; and finally, a simple farmer who just wants to be left alone is radicalized when the government indiscriminately bombs his farm in search of rebels, destroying his home and killing his son.

iamcuba-splsh2I Am Cuba begins with a continuous shot every bit as startling as that funeral scene, and continues to dazzle with its camerawork. I had thought there was no way it could possibly keep that up, and to my surprise and delight, it did. I even find that these bravura shots (easily found on YouTube) are not my favorite. That falls to the opening of the second story, as the farmer, while his children sleep, prays for rain to save his crop. Rain it does, and as water flows down the camera lens, the image blurs, and successive waves down the camera reveal the farmer’s life, the birth of his children, the death of his wife – his life on that little farm. It is a remarkable sequence, purely visual, and as close to poetry as anything I have ever seen onscreen.

Well, we all know how this goes, as we have seen it repeatedly in the life of great films: the premiere of I Am Cuba in 1964 was a disaster; the Soviets declared that Kalatozov had made an art film, not the propaganda that was intended, and Cubans found it far too Slavic in its portrayal of its people, going so far as to call it I Am Not Cuba. And thus it was quietly stored away, a copy in the USSR, a copy in Cuba, forgotten, ignored out of existence.

Until the USSR dissolved in the early 90s, anyway. Blurry VHS copies began to circulate, and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola discovered it and sang its praises. I Am Cuba was rescued from the dustbin of history, and we are all the richer for it.

There is a documentary in Milestone Film’s Ultimate Edition, The Siberian Mammoth, which fails on the front I wanted – there is no revelation how Urushevsky accomplished those remarkable shots, where tales persist of special vests that served as Steadicam prototypes, with eyes and carabiniers that allowed the camera operator to be hooked into systems of pulleys and wires. There is instead a lot of reminiscing, and the most significant thing, for me, is that all the Cubans who participated in the production had, over the years, allowed themselves to believe what they were told: that the movie is a massive failure, something to be ashamed of. The change that comes over them when they are given newly-minted tapes of the movie, and read the praise that is now lavished on it, is telling, and very, very satisfying.

37020_2Honestly, highest possible recommendation.

Buy I Am Cuba on Amazon.

Letter Never Sent (1960)

letterneverNow, on the shelf of Criterion blu-rays I have amassed over the last couple of years in my travels through used movie and book stores, I discovered I had another, earlier collaboration between Kalatazov and Urushevsky, Letter Never Sent. It’s the second of their three movies together, the first being The Cranes Are Flying (as usual, I seem to be accessing filmographies in reverse).

Letter Never Sent is much simpler in concept than I Am Cuba, if not in execution. The very first shot lets us know that these are the same filmmakers, as four geologists (Vasiliy Livanov, Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Evgeniy Urbanskiy and Cranes’ Tatyana Samoylova) are dropped by a river in Siberia, the camera holding on them as their helicopter flies away, and they become part of the environment.

It has been theorized that the geology of Siberia is similar to the parts of Africa where the richest deposits of diamonds have been found. Ergo, the geologist’s mission is to find those diamonds. The leader is on his seventh such mission; the guide, his tenth. There are two lovers fresh from university. They dig and analyze, moving deeper into the interior, through the summer and into the fall – and they finally find diamonds.

fireThe sequence showing their efforts is going to be familiar if you’ve seen I Am Cuba: swirling and magical, artistic and amazing, it truly feels like months of exhausting labor packed into a few minutes. The four finish off a bottle of cognac they had reserved for celebration; then, in the morning, they are completely screwed.

Well, you expected this in a movie titled Letter Never Sent. They awaken to find themselves in a massive forest fire, losing the guide almost immediately, giving up his life to rescue supplies so the others have a chance. Then, having lost their guide, the other three try to find their way back to “The River”. Their radio is broken, and they can receive but not transmit; the heavy smoke prevents them from being seen from above. The geologist injured during the fire slowly weakens, eventually wandering off in the night so his comrades don’t have to carry him anymore. Then winter comes with its snow and ice, and The River is still nowhere in sight.

Russians really, really love their doomed characters, don’t they?

current_800_086_largeKalatozov’s long, choreographed takes are an obvious influence on Andrei Tarkovsky; Urushevsky’s camera is much more restless, but it’s quite possible to see the influence from this through Andrei Rublev. and with Kalatozov’s insistence on using real environments whenever possible. God only knows where he shot the forest fire scenes, or how dangerous it was, because that shit is real. You can tell when the filming switched to Mosfilm’s studios because the camera stands still.

Letter Never Sent was a large hit in Russia and in fact led to a boom in the number of students studying geology. It’s a great examination of the human will to survive – as the last survivor continues to write his wife with frozen fingers, he says, “My life is no longer my own.” He has to survive, to get that map to civilization, or his friends will have died in vain. This movie is doubtless the reason Kalatozov got the nod to direct I Am Cuba, and the only other movie he got to direct after its disastrous premiere: the Soviet/Italian co-production The Red Tent (1969), about the failed 1928 Arctic expedition of the airship Italia. I’ve not seen it, but I remember asking friends who had what they thought of it, and they just got a strange, faraway look in their eyes and moaned, “They all died…”

You know. Doomed.

Buy Letter Never Sent on Amazon

 Die Nibelungen (1925)

nibelungenliedHey, speaking of doomed…

I am finding that I have a deep abiding affection for Weimar Republic cinema. Much magic produced in such a troubled time. Kino-Lorber has been doing a great job of putting out, on blu-ray, the wonderful restoration work of the F.W. Murnau Foundation, not only the work of its namesake (which I have come to love) but of the prolific Fritz Lang, who supplanted Murnau as a guiding force of world cinema, for better or worse. Lang made 16 movies from 1919 to 1933, while Murnau made 17.  But Lang undeniably had his finger on the pulse of his audience –  he knew where what they wanted intersected with what he wanted to make, and he was able to deliver that with unmistakable artistry.

After the success of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Lang undertook the massive project of making a film version of the Nibelungenlied or The Song of the Nibelungen, an epic poem dating back to the 12th or 13th century. That’s going to be familiar to opera fans, because Richard Wagner used it as an inspiration for the Ring Cycle of operas, adding about a thousand times more gods and magic. Lang broke the poem down into two lengthy movies, Sigfried (2 hours 30 minutes) and Kriemhild’s Revenge (2 hours 12 minutes). If you come to these movies expecting the opera or even What’s Opera, Doc?, you are going to be severely confused and disappointed.

What does that matter, though? It’s an epic poem, and those inevitably end in tragedy. In short, everybody you’re about to meet is doomed.

A rough knowledge of the operas or, at least, Germanic legend is going to keep you in good stead, however, because the first movie depends on such familiarity to get things moving.  Siegfried (Paul Richter) finishes his apprenticeship to the swordmaker Mime (Georg John) and hearing of the court of Burgundy, decides to journey there and woo the beautiful Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), sight unseen. On the way, he encounters a dragon. Now the dragon is just minding his own business, getting a drink of water, and then this blonde asshole with a sword comes along and kills him. As there is no justice, a drop of the dragon’s blood falls on Siegfried, allowing him to understand the language of birds. A nearby bird tells him to bathe in the blood of the dragon, so he’ll be invulnerable. However, a leaf from “the mischievous Linden tree” falls on him, so he has the required vulnerable spot.

Yep, this photo.

Yep, this photo.

We’ve all seen at least one picture of that dragon; whenever Siegfried is ever mentioned in print, there is almost inevitably a picture of Siegfried bathing in its blood. It’s pretty amazing to see the thing actually moving – it’s a life-sized puppet that required six men to operate and even more to move its body back and forth.

After that despicable act, Siegfried gets a magic helmet (it looks like a piece of net to me, but whatever) from the murderous Albrecht (still Georg John), who still tries to kill Siegfried again, gets murdered back, and curses his treasure just to make sure we know Siegfried is doomed. Siegfried then conquers twelve kingdoms on his way to Burgundy, so he has quite the entourage when he finally presents himself at court. Kriemhild’s brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos) is reluctant to let his sister see this sudden Adonis, until his right hand man Hagen Tronje (Hans Edelbart Schettlow) points out that Siegfried can help Gunther conquer the women he loves – the barbarian queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), who has a tendency to kill suitors who can’t beat her in three competitions.

You know instinctively that Hagen is going to be trouble, He has a beard, after all. And he never takes off his chainmail suit. Though he does sometimes take off his outrageous winged helmet.

siegfrieddeathOne look at Kriemhild, and Siegfried agrees. Using the magic helmet’s power of invisibility, he helps Gunther beat the three trials of Brunhild, and later has to use the same helmet’s power of illusion to beat the uncowed Brunhild in the bedchamber while pretending to be Gunther. Things like this never turn out well, as Brunhild will eventually find out, and insist that Siegfried be killed, even lying to Gunther that Siegfried raped her that fateful night. Hagen, who has been spoiling for just such a chance, volunteers to do the deed and tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried’s vulnerable spot, killing him with a javelin in the back during a hunting trip.

Kriemhild, distraught, demands justice but Gunther and the rest of the royal family closes ranks around Hagen, denying her this. Brunhild, wracked by guilt, kills herself at Siegfried’s bier, and thus are we set up for movie two, Kriemhild’s Revenge.

kriemhildsrevengeOf course, Kriemhild hasn’t gotten any revenge since the first movie, and Hagen twists the knife by stealing Siegfried’s cursed treasure and dumping it in the Rhine so she can’t use it to raise an army against him. Who should crop up but Rudiger (Rudolf Rittner) an emissary from the court of Attila (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge) “The Lord of the Earth”, who wishes to marry Kriemhild (what is with these kings falling in love with women they have never seen?). Kriemhild agrees, and begins her revenge plot in earnest, giving Attila a son and supplanting the Huns loyalty from him to herself. She convinces Attila to invite Gunther and his court to the Huns’ Great Hall to celebrate the child’s birth, only to discover Attila’s Code of the Desert will not allow him to attack a guest. Her loyal Huns attack, and in this first attack, the ever-predictable Hagen kills the child in reprisal, removing Attila’s protection from the Burgundians, who will hole up in the Great Hall, repelling attack after attack, until Kriemhild orders the Hall torched.

attilaSpoiler alert: damn near everybody dies. In fact, each movie is composed of Seven Cantos, each with its own title card, and each Canto should really be called a Spoiler Alert, especially in the first movies, which has titles like “How Siegfried Slayed the Dragon” “How Siegfried Beat Brunhild” and “How Siegfried Got Killed By A Putz in Chainmail Stabbing Him In The Back While He Got A Drink of Water”. It always seems to me when studying these old epics/tragedies that we’re not so much dealing with the Age of Legends or the Age of Heroes as The Age of Jerks. What’s impressive about Die Nibelungenlied is that the women get to be just as big jerks as the menfolk.

There is no denying that Die Nibelungen is a technical triumph. Siegfried was a worldwide hit, and Kriemhild less so, perhaps because the second film is much more Greek tragedy than the first. Schön is icily magnificent in her role, magnetic and powerful – one can actually believe that she can inspire and control the Hordes, exhorting them to suicidal attack after attack, only to be repeatedly beaten, of course, by the exceedingly white Burgundians.

The restoration must have been a very hard row to hoe; the movies had been shortened many times through the years, most notoriously for use as Nazi propaganda; endless use was made of the blonde Richter, riding his white horse through massive forests that were man-made and fated to be torn down so a Hun village could be built. Like the restored Metropolis, this version is as complete as possible, with scenes dropped in from lesser sources made obvious by the clarity of the negatives the Foundation was able to unearth. Die Nibelungen is definitely a long haul, and your enjoyment is going to be directly linked to how much you enjoy ancient poems, silent cinema, and jerks with swords.

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