Crapfest: The Milestone

Due to the arc of my life’s pursuits, I don’t have normal nightmares. In high school you usually get the didn’t-study-for-the-test nightmare. Instead mine were about missing the bus for a speech tournament. I aged into the actor’s nightmare of here’s-the-script-show-starts-in-twenty-minutes. What about the blocking? We’ll get it to you, plenty of time Oops, places!

So it came to pass that I actually had a dream about showing up to a Crapfest, but forgetting my movies. That was understandable, since I had apparently spent most of the day driving hazardous cargo through some dangerous roads in a third world country (Sorcerer comes back to haunt you at the weirdest times). So I immediately left to get the movies, which is when the meteor struck a few blocks away.

I’m still kind of pissed that I didn’t go to investigate that meteorite, no, the movies were too important.

Me, trying to drum up excitement for our 200th movie

I have only myself to blame. I had noticed that on the Letterboxd page I use to keep track of Crapfest offerings, we were approaching our 200th flick, and started drumming up that event like Kroger Babb with a new movie showcasing the miracle of childbirth. In the interest of transparency: Dave does not like that I count short subjects. Letterboxd does not have a means of crediting us for viewing five out six episodes of Pink Lady & Jeff, the very first episode of Hee HawBattle of the Video Games or Movin’ With Nancy. Yes, a definite case can be made it was not our 200th movie, but screw it, I was having fun.

How much fun? The 200th movie was on a flash drive, and I had altered the file name to, simply “200th Movie” to keep its identity a secret. There is a bag of DVDs, full of lamentable movies, that I used to bring to every Crapfest before moving to the Flash Drive of Doom; I brought this once more to provide a Bag of Red Herrings. I had one of those clickers that are used to count crowds at sporting events and the like so there would never be any doubt what number movie we were on. That’s how much fun.

We had the band back together again: Myself, Host David, Rick, Erik, Alan, Paul, and my son Max. Dave’s friend Eric-with-a-C had been threatening promising to come for some time, was apparently going to actually make it this time, so the movie Dave had on for background noise while we arrived was allowed to play out, to give Eric-with-a-C time to arrive, and that is how The Great Gabbo became Movie #195.

The Wrong Eric arrived early.

This is a 1929 early talkie. Erich von Stroheim is the title character, a stage ventriloquist who “does the impossible” by drinking and smoking while his dummy, Otto, sings a song. (a version of “the impossible” which seems to be the standard of ventriloquism these days, eh?) Gabbo also has a serious problem in that the only way he can interact with other people is through the dummy. This severely messes up his relationship with his assistant Mary (Betty Compson), who eventually leaves Gabbo’s abuse to become a singer. She still works at the same theater with the increasingly famous Gabbo, until he finally manages to tell her of his love for her, but haha, in the intervening years she’s secretly married her dance partner, who was actually nice to her. Gabbo loses it and rants at his audience, gets fired, downer ending.

One of my many friends smarter than me, Mark Konecny, pointed out that the early movies’ relationship to Russian and Yiddish theater traditions was rarely stronger, and indeed, Gabbo seems more interested in presenting lavish musical production numbers than its tale of an insane ventriloquist. One of these production numbers, now lost to time, was done in a process called MultiColor. That still didn’t help its box office at the time, as the movie was not, shall we say, well-received.

Here, have a taste of what we did not realize was going to set the tone for the evening:

Eric-with-a-C had not yet arrived, so we started without him. Sort of.

As you may recall last time, we started out with Who Killed Captain Alex?, a $200 action flick from Uganda that utterly gripped the Crapfest audience. VJ Emmie, who kept up amazing commentary during its hour length, plugged the sequel, Bad Black, about 45 minutes in. I haven’t been able to find Bad Black anywhere, even on Wakaliwood’s YouTube page, but I did find its opening sequence, promising a premiere at the 2016 Fantasia Fest. Here is movie #196, and thankfully, VJ Emmie is there:

Also thankfully, there are no production numbers. There were, however, plentiful production numbers to be had in some Beatles cartoons. There was still no Eric-with-a-C, you see. I try to stock the Flash Drive of Doom with some filler, and this was from the third season – 1967 – after Revolver had been released. Suddenly Saturday morning TV had a half hour where children could be exposed to dime-store psychedelia:

STILL NO ERIC-WITH-A-C so we moved on to #197, the truly horrific and embarrassing 1944 short, Eliza on the Ice, which showed even Mighty Mouse was not exempt from not-so-casual racism: (you’ve been warned)

Had I known the bent the evening was going to take, I would have made a special effort to track down one of the operetta-style Mighty Mouse cartoons, which were much better made, and ten (if not a hundred) times less offensive. But Eric-with-a-C finally arrived in the middle of this, and we proceeded to make him regret it.

We nipped into Erik (with a K)’s dinner offering, a spicy pork dish called (concentrates extra hard to get the spelling right) puerco pibil, served over coconut rice, and daaaaamn. Possibly the last good memory we would have of that evening. We moved on to #198, a movie which Erik had tried to get on the agenda several times, and on this night of nights, he finally succeeded: Birdemic: Shock & Terror.


As you all know, I watched Birdemic years ago. In fact, I think at least half, if not more, of the attendees had also already seen it. But here is the miraculous democracy of Crapfest: it meant each of these people got to experience the usually solitary pleasure I often derive from the event. It’s an experience honed from years of going to film festivals for the Cinema of Diminished Expectations like B-Fest and the late, lamented New Orleans Worst Film Festival. (edit: holy shit, apparently it’s back?) The joy of knowing what’s coming, and hearing the lamentations of the uninitiated around you. Paul was especially vocal in his dismay, and that was appreciated.

What’s that you say? There are no musical numbers in Birdemic? Pfft! You have apparently forgotten the singer who croons an entire fucking song to our young lovers in an empty Irish bar. So empty his band isn’t even there. Maybe it’s a sparsely attended Karaoke Night? Anyway, here’s the most entertaining version of it I could find:

Speaking of movies that hadn’t quite made it to the screen over the years, there was one Dave had been toying with showing many times, and by thunder, if I was going to hog the #200 slot, then #199 was going to be 1978’s Rabbit Test.

Yes, this was Joan Rivers’ first (and only) movie in the director’s chair, also Billy Crystal’s film debut. After his very first sexual encounter, he finds out he is pregnant (because the woman was on top, duh), and the twists that puts in his life. At first a celebrity, then excoriated as a devil (because male pregnancy will result in overpopulation), there’s material for a thoughtful flick there. In other hands.

What you get is a fairly chaotic, often wacky, and even occasionally funny movie where the biggest draw is picking out all the TV personalities who are onscreen (crossovers like that were fairly rare at the time). Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Imogene Coca, Alex Rocco, Norman Fell, George Gobel, Keene Curtis, Fanny Flagg, Richard Deacon (wearing a toupee!), Tom Poston, Peter Marshall (announcing The Hollywood Squares has gone bankrupt because Crystal’s pregnancy rendered a lot of wrong answers suddenly right), Michael Keaton in a tiny role, and I’m pretty sure I spotted Dick Sargent and William Smith as Secret Service agents. It’s the most amazing lineup of minor celebrities I’d seen since The Phynx.

Was there a production number? Why, of course! Crystal goes on a world tour, meets the Queen of England (Charles Pierce) and The Pope (Jack Fletcher). Try to hang on through this scene, as we meet “A. Touch of Darkness”:

Did you make it through Jimmy Walker’s parody of Willie Tyler and Lester, with Billy Barty in blackface?

Compare with Eliza on the Ice. In 34 years, we didn’t make it very far. If at all.


Is it time? Is it the 200th movie? It is? Does it have production numbers? Of course! Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you…

Yes, The Apple. It had been repeatedly requested by Alan and Rick, and I thought it was time. Eric-with-a-C was unimpressed. Eric-with-a-C was however, impressed that when we named it Crapfest, we were serious about it. Too bad he hadn’t come all the times I had brought an actual good movie. Also, Eric-with-a-C was the one who recommended Teen Witch, so some payback might have been involved.

If you are unfamiliar with The Apple (I guess that’s possible), it is a notorious rock musical produced by Golan & Globus early in their career – the poor bastards thought this was actually going to be their ticket to Hollywood, not something like Enter the Ninja. In the far-flung future of 1994, the devilish Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) actually controls the world through his Boogalow International Music (BIM). Everyone loves his acts, and everyone has to wear the BIM mark at all times, in the most naked Mark of the Beast metaphor outside a christian scare movie. Dudes, when I said devilish, I meant it. He is almost foiled by a folk-singing young duo from Moose Jaw, Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), so of course he has to corrupt them and bring them to the Dark Side. However, on the signing day, Alphie can see what is really going on:

…and doesn’t sign with BIM. The rest of the movie is a musical struggle for Bibi’s soul, until, at the end, God flies down in a golden Rolls Royce and takes all the nice people away, the Disco Rapture. The end.

To say that The Apple bombed would be understatement worthy of a saint. It was hated and reviled, driving Menahem Golan to almost commit suicide. Check out the movie’s Wikipedia page – the story of its genesis as a too-expensive-to-produce stage show, about the musical business itself as a 1984 dystopia, until the Go-Go boys got their hands on it. It’s actually pretty interesting stuff. The entire opening number, “Paradise Day”, which cost $1 million to produce, was dropped, supposedly because Golan wanted to “not get too extreme with the religious overtones” (which is laughable when you see the movie as released), most certainly not because it was legendarily dreadful. I believe I first heard of The Apple through one of the Golden Turkey books, and saw the videotape once in the Sound Warehouse rental department. Was tempted, but probably rented Shogun Assassin again instead.

Then came B-Fest 2005, where a group of fans sponsored its showing. This was the ideal venue for my first viewing – in a reasonably packed house, with a bunch of people who loved movies (especially that kind), buzzed on caffeine and their own creativity. There was dancing in the aisles. Lyric sheets were handed out for singalongs. Everybody did the BIM. I bought the DVD on Amazon upon my return. That was the source for the Crapfest showing.

And this is where it gets weird, because honestly, I had never watched it again. And at Crapfest, it seemed kind of… streamlined. I recalled a Phantom of the Paradise-style subplot where one of Boogalow’s other clients sang a version of “Speed” and that song was BIM-ed up and given to Bibi (That’s right, we got to hear “Speed” twice). Those were missing. Sure enough, there at the bottom of the Wikipedia page, there was an original preview print floating around, with those scenes and longer cuts for other songs. It’s been played at places like Alamo Drafthouse. So hey there, all you cool cats from 13 years ago: we got to see something special.

And remember: all this is coming from a guy who hates musicals.

So there we had it. Our 200th movie. It was time to pack up and go home, right?

Oh, hell no. It was still relatively early.

As is traditional, every poster for this movie is ten times more awesome than the movie itself.

So Dave put on 1985’s Warriors of the Apocalypse, also known as Searchers of the Voodoo Mountain, because I swear to God he is on a mission to make us watch every Italian post-apocalyptic Road Warrior rip-off ever made. At least this time it was a Filipino post-apocalyptic Road Warrior rip-off, so that was theoretically refreshing.

This post-apocalypse couldn’t afford any dune buggies though, so our plucky band of warriors just walk around the rocky landscape in order to find other, supposedly less-savory bands of warriors to attack. In the skirmish that opens the film, a badass Filipino comes to their aid. They find out their new friend has fresh food to eat, and that he comes from the Valley of Life, just past Voodoo Mountain, and oh yeah, he’s 130 years old. Why, of course he’ll take them there!

Somehow these brainiacs had managed to miss that there were some mountains nearby with a jungle inside them, which has to be one of the nicest post-apocalyptic settings ever. There is the problem that they keep running into natives who want to run them through with spears, but fortunately our heroes have explosive bullets. Those don’t help them too much with the dwarves who keep coming back from the dead, though.

The guy in the center is Captain Hat, my & Max’s personal hero.

They are eventually led to a lost village of scantily-clad white women, but they have to wait until the full moon before the fertility gods will allow them to do what comes naturally. I’ll save you a lot of time and pain and reveal that there is still an atomic reactor under the village, which is why they have nice things like immortal dwarves and a queen with laser eye beams pew pew pew. Also, any men that our Filipino pal brings in from the outside world will get press-ganged into working the reactor (after they get the women pregnant to continue the tribe), resulting in a bunch of radiation-burned sorta mutants to rise up at the end. The Queen decides to raze the entire village and kill everybody with her eye blasts pew pew pew. Which seems only reasonable.

There was almost certainly a production number in there somewhere, as all lost civilizations made up of mostly women have to do one sometime. Frankly, this movie put certain parts of my brain to sleep, so that may have been wishful thinking or an hallucination.

But come on! Pew pew pew!

Surely that would be enough for everybody, you would think, Surely. Ha! You do not know this crowd! It was time for a movie with no production numbers whatsoever! It was time for… Gary Busey: Action Hero!

Bulletproof was made the year after Lethal Weapon, and the year before the motorcycle accident that arguably turned Busey into a non-superpowered Incredible Hulk. It’s produced by Fred Olen Ray, and directed by Steve Carver, who among other action flicks, gave us Big Bad Mama, two guys who are okay in my book.

As you noticed, Busey is the original McBain, a loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules (you probably also noticed a cleaned-up Danny Trejo in that clip). After the utterance of his catchphrase, above, he had our audience in the palm of his hand, by which I mean everybody finally shut up and actually stayed awake for the whole thing.

(The movie is called Bulletproof because that’s McBain’s nickname. Everytime he’s shot, he digs the bullets out himself and saves them in a mason jar)

I’m positive that is actually Busey.

Another thing we will find out is that McBain is ex-CIA. You see, there is a gathering of insurgents in Mexico, some of them Cuban and even (gasp!) Arab. And the magnificent plan cooked up by the spooks is to task Colonel L.Q. Jones to command a convoy delivering an experimental supertank code-named “Thunderblast” to “accidentally” stray into Mexico, and get captured. Since the Army captain in charge of the Thunderblast team is Darlanne Fluegel, McBain’s old flame (plus he also accidentally shot her husband in a dust-up with some mobsters), they will convince McBain to sneak into Mexico and, being McBain, kill everybody. Problem solved!

Yes, this is a remarkably stupid plan. I’m kind of pissed that it actually works. Eventually.

Good cast. Didn’t mention R.G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Rene Enriquez, William Smith (again!) and Thalmus Rasulala as McBain’s cop partner who actually does not get killed! (Radical!) Yes, this movie is stupid as hell, but it’s also entertaining as hell.

Don’t get used to that, Eric-with-a-C.

Look, I know what you folks are here for:

Who the hell wears a fur hat in Mexico? EVIL SOVIET BASTARDS, THAT’S WHO!

So we are now officially at 202. Only 98 movies to go to 300!

Sleep well. Butthorns.

Playing Catch-Up

Well here we are at the end of the year. I have three more work-related obligations to get nailed down, and then I am an indolent layabout through the rest of the year (alright, more of an indolent layabout. Fine.). Trust me, if I could, I would knock out those three things bang bang bang, but – as you know – such things are dependent on time-space coordinates and other people. So here I am, in between bursts of housekeeping and letter writing, biding my time.

So let me waste some of yours.

I watched some movies, when I wasn’t working or madly re-writing my post on The Seven Samurai. Let’s talk about those.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

lastposterThere are Bucket List movies, and then there are… I guess you could call them Pail List movies? Movies you don’t have to see before you die, but you’ve heard some halfway decent things about them, and maybe you might want to look them up sometime? I honestly don’t remember this having much of a theatrical release, but I do remember it being reviewed in Creem magazine, of all places, which is probably what placed it on the… Pail List. Anyway, during one of Warner Archive’s sales, I picked it up.

James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, was a victim of a hit-and-run homicide a year previous. Green invites several of his colleagues – all of whom were at the party leading up to the incident – on a week-long voyage on his yacht, during which they will play a devious scavenger-hunt game of his own devising. The yacht, incidentally, is named Sheila.

All of the participants are variously down on their luck in the star-maker machinery, and the cast is pretty amazing – Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and Ian McShane. Green is an exceptionally clever, but sadistic asshole, and his guests must play along to curry his favor, with the hope of some payout or work at the end, even if they are unsure as to what the ultimate purpose of his game may be… but that ultimate purpose is put into question when Green himself winds up dead.

The-Last-of-Sheila-Cast-Herbert-Ross-1973The Last of Sheila feels like an NBC Mystery Movie of the same vintage, without a continuing detective character. The dialogue is lot more sardonic and the twists and turns a bit more clever, thanks to a script by… Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins?!?! The plot becomes pretty byzantine, and I think at least one ball is dropped, but the script is so agile I can’t be sure unless I watch the movie again, and therein lies a problem.

For the first time in my fairly long relationship with Warner Archive, I got a lemon of a disc. My blu-ray player choked on the layer change (which occurs just at the point that Green’s murder is discovered) and I had to use the chapter stop to get to the scene afterwards. I don’t think I missed that much, as there are several flashbacks when the surviving party members make with the detectin’, but I can’t be sure.

Also, the spoiler in the box back copy wasn’t cool, guys. It wasn’t subtle at all.

The Green Pastures (1936)

green pasturesWarner Archive, though, remains one of my favorite boutique labels, because without them, I would never have the opportunity to see cultural oddities like this. The Green Pastures was based on a highly successful play by Marc Connelly (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930!), which was in turn based on a short story collection called “Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun”. The framing story takes place in a black Sunday School in the Depression South, where a parson discusses the Bible with the children – the vast majority of the movie is a recreation of the high points of the Old Testament in the children’s minds.

Despite Warner’s disclaimer at the very beginning that The Green Pastures is “a product of its time”, there are a lot of folk who would turn their back on this movie almost immediately. The very first of the biblical scenes, taking place in a heaven presented as an eternal fish fry with endless ten-cent cigars is going to provoke a lot of eye-rolling and face-palming. But then Rex Ingram shows up as “De Lawd” and the proceedings suddenly become less childlike and more reverent.

The Green Pastures takes us from the creation of Man (appropriately, Adam is also played by Ingram), through Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the Flight from Egypt, ending up at last with the Crucifixion – and the theology gets surprisingly complex. The simplistic, childlike approach will continue throughout, as Noah (a marvelous pre-Rochester turn by Eddie Anderson) is beleaguered by dice-throwing gangsters; Moses is given the power of “a trickster” by De Lawd to confront a Pharaoh surrounded by secret societies and lodges straight out of  the more cartoonish Laurel and Hardy movies. It’s the Porgy and Bess version of the Scriptures, and it is quite something to see.

But as I said, the theology gets complex. De Lawd is constantly disappointed and puzzled by his creation, especially after wiping nearly all of them out once, and they still insist on going bad; eventually De Lawd turns his back on Man and falls into depression, much to the dismay of the assembled angels. The biggest surprise (to me) is that Jesus does crop up at the very end, but not as the Son of God; instead, in God’s darkest hour of despair, he appears as a sign that Man is capable of Getting It Right, and De Lawd returns to his previous, beatific happiness.

the-green-pasturesSay what you will, this is one of the very, very few studio films with an all-black cast, and a lot of actors get to shine in something beside Stepin Fetchit comic relief roles. Rex Ingram, in particular, only got to shine a few times – here, and in the 1938 Huckleberry Finn as Jim, and The Thief of Bagdad as the sardonic genie. Apparently, the original plan was to have Al Jolson play the role in blackface, which is as wrong-headed and idiotic an idea as I can possibly imagine. This movie would have actually deserved all the opprobrium leveled against it for the wrong reasons (Paul Robeson was also offered the role, which would have been amazing, but he turned it down). Ingram is a winning blend of serenity, gravitas, and quiet power – one literally cannot conceive of the movie without his presence.

But the most telling thing in Warner Archive’s package is the trailer: nearly four minutes of Dick Powell and Marc Connelly telling us how great and important a movie it is. No blacks are ever shown except in a long shot., at a safe remove from the audience.

The Swimmer (1968)

the swimmerSo how best to follow that up than with the whitest movie I have ever seen?

Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man who decides that he will get home by swimming through a man-made river of swimming pools in a suburban enclave of wealth and privilege. Where exactly Merrill is coming from as he dives into the first pool is never revealed, another piece in the puzzle that is The Swimmer – we only know that the people are delighted to see him, and he has been away for a while.

As I said, this is a puzzle, and we are going to be given more pieces as the picture progresses. Merrill has been gone for at least a year, yes, and we find out that he was fired unceremoniously from his high-powered job at an “agency”. As he gets closer to his destination, he journeys from the land of the truly rich to the nouveau riche and finally into the land of the working schlubs (his last pool is the local municipal pool, with many rules and too much chlorine); resentment at his presence at scorn at his fallen status grows, even as his constant references to his happy marriage and loving children begin to take on the flavor of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This leads to a gut-punch of a surprise – though not entirely unexpected – ending.

film-aspect-ratio-levelsThis is the Death of The American Dream as Twilight Zone episode, though Rod Serling would have put more of a keener edge on it, more of a stark moral. In the (as usual) exhaustive and informative extras on the Grindhouse Releasing blu-ray, we find that the production was a troubled one, and star Lancaster, who apparently felt this was one of his best roles, later said that the movie really needed a Fellini (or more likely, his pal Visconti) to actually pull it off well. This is a possibility – there is a level of grotesquerie that is lacking a sense of commitment in this story.

Director Frank Perry’s previous success was his first movie, the equally oddball love story David and Lisa. He would go on to more successful pictures like Diary of a Mad HousewifeRancho Deluxe and Mommie Dearest, but his doom was probably ensured when producer Sam Spiegel got Burt Lancaster for the lead (after being turned down by William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott). Lancaster was eager for the role, learning to swim from Olympic coach Bob Horn (reportedly, Lancaster was afraid of water before this movie), and undergoing a strenuous physical regimen that slimmed him down while still producing twenty pounds of muscle. Critics may not have liked the movie, but they all praised the star’s physique.

He also started directing the movie behind Perry’s back.

The-Swimmer-1968-Movie-2The most famous instance of this is in Joan River’s debut scene, as a woman who encounters Merrill during the aforementioned nouveau riche Binswanger’s pool party (where no one is using the pool for swimming except Merrill). The scene lasts perhaps three minutes, and took seven days to film, Rivers attempting to follow both men’s direction. Eventually, Perry was fired from the director’s chair, and Lancaster prevailed upon his friend, Sydney Pollack, to re-shoot one sequence completely, and to add several more scenes.

The actual best scene – well, my favorite, anyway – involves Merrill hitching a ride in a limo to one exceptionally rich mansion, and finding to his surprise that the chauffeur is not “Steve”, and manages to have a complete conversation with the replacement without once asking his name. Bernie Hamilton is the replacement, only the second black we will see in the movie – the first being a bartender at a party – and his terse, restrained and resigned scene with Lancaster speaks volumes about how he feels about his place in this world. That one scene calls bullshit on the rest of the movie most effectively and efficiently.

the-swimmer-1968-790x587Still, the most effective condemnation of all this is in the extras – and I must admit that this may only be due to my jaundiced eye. There are many, many interviews, of course, but the ones I am concentrating on are with Joan Rivers and Janet Landgard, who plays Julie, a young girl who confesses to a childhood crush on Merrill that the man proceeds to totally misinterpret, giving us an early glimpse into his mental problems. Landgard had a continuing role(s) on The Donna Reed Show and this was her theatrical debut, an absolutely perfect avatar of a young blonde suburban girl, just entering into womanhood. She had since left Hollywood and was working at something awesome like managing scientific bases in the Antarctic (so numerous are the extras I don’t have time to scan back and verify that, but it was impressive enough to make me say, “Good on you!”). Rivers, of course, went on and became quite the enduring presence in Lala Land.

Both ladies’ interview segments are interspersed with clips from the movie. Both women have changed significantly in the intervening years, of course. The difference is that Landgard allowed herself to age, while Rivers, ever mindful of Hollywood, has had her face plasticized and botoxed to near-immobility – probably the best indictment of the lifestyle The Swimmer was trying, however unsuccessful ultimately, to condemn.

The Magic Flute (1975)

magic fluteOkay, one more before I put this to bed.

This is Ingmar Bergman’s TV adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera. I am going to freely admit that opera is one of those art forms I just do not get, but if there is one thing I have developed in these last few years of cinematic horizon-broadening, it is a deep love for Bergman, and the trust this engendered. This was a dream project for him, so I surrendered myself to Bergman’s dream, and did not regret it one bit.

The Magic Flute isn’t pure opera, it’s a form of it called Songspiele, which incorporates spoken dialogue. Bergman attempted to duplicate the theatrical experience, right down to having a facsimile of the original 1791 theater built in a studio of the Swedish Film Institute. The overture is illustrated with the expectant faces of the audience.

My lack of operatic knowledge worked soundly in my favor. I went into this knowing nothing about the opera, so every plot twist, every character beat and nuance was completely new to me. Tamino, a handsome prince lost in a strange land, if tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter,  Pamina, from the evil sorcerer, Sarastro. He will be assisted by the fowler, Papageno, who wants nothing more than a girlfriend. The Queen gives Tamino the Magic Flute of the title, and Papageno a set of magic bells.

Film_71w_MagicFlute_originalThe major twist (spoilers for an 18th century opera, dude) is that Sarastro is actually Pamina’s father, and he is no sorcerer, but a respected holy man hoping to not only free Pamina from the evil influence of her mother, but also deliver all mankind from evil. Tamino, he feels, will prove to the active agent of this change, but only if he can survive the ordeals suffered by every member of Sarastro’s priesthood, and an ultimate test that he will face along with Pamina and the power of the Flute.

Bergman’s staging is magical – there are occasional glimpses of backstage activities, and the sets fluidly expand to impossible vistas as the story progresses, moving back and forth between the physical confines of an actual theater and the larger expanses of the imagination. The Magic Flute also gives me something I had not been aware I craved in the few operas I have attended: intimacy, in the form of canny close-ups and camera moves.

The Magic Flute has some notoriously difficult passages; Mozart wrote these for singers he knew and their particular strengths. The singers here – some of the best Sweden had to offer – tackle the music with relish, and as the first TV movie recorded in stereo sound, the presentation is quite luscious.

Here’s an example of the playful staging, with Papageno’s entrance and first song:

That’s a high point to leave you on, here. Hopefully, back soon with more blathering, because I’ve certainly watched more movies.