Quality Continues

I suppose, if you take a look at my works (ye mighty, and tremble), you might think that all I watch are bad movies. After all, I wrote for many years a site called The Bad Movie Report (hello, Web 1.0, if not.05). That part of my branding grew so ingrained that when I tried to write about something I thought was good, the e-mails would come in “How dare you even talk about [redacted] it’s not a bad movie!” Small wonder I eventually walked away. I’m claustrophobic; I don’t like being boxed in.

Just like everyone else, I enjoy a good movie. I just disagree at times about what constitutes a “good movie”.

This means there are holes in my education. Some -perhaps more than I would care to admit – are due to my pushing back against popular opinion. I don’t trust the masses. They can be kind of stupid. A lot more is due to availability. I can’t just turn on Netflix and watch Godard’s Breathless or Murnau’s The Last Laugh – I have to actively seek it out, find it, and probably pay for it, before I can even think of watching it.

So several years back, I started educating myself. I’m not getting any younger, and there are movies I heard about all my life, and have just never gotten around to seeing. I tried keeping lists of Movies I Will By God Be Watching This Year, and those didn’t really pan out. They’re still stuck on top of this page, if you want to see my failure. It’s just best for me to set aside a month and say, this month. The good stuff. I find Roger Ebert’s essays on The Great Movies a rock-solid starting place. Let us continue:

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

stmattI had been looking forward to this for some time, ever since experiencing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life movies (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights). Having then experienced Pasolini’s controversial Salo, It seemed proper to finally indulge that desire. As Sean Frost pointed out, it’s not every director that has the guts to handle De Sade and the New Testament.

Here’s the thing: I had been led to believe that this was a fairly politicized version of Jesus, and given Pasolini’s personal views, I really expected such. But there really isn’t that much of it in evidence here: there is a special emphasis on Jesus’ speeches to the masses between the triumphant procession of Palm Sunday and Passover, where he is really socking it to the Pharisees and generally sealing his eventual fate, and therefore, the redemption of Mankind. It seems a pretty traditional movie version of the accepted text.

But here’s the other thing: I’m not entirely sure I trust the print I saw.

1964 Il Vangelo Set shotThe version that was available to me was on Amazon’s video service, and as a Prime member I had access to the movie for free. There are two things about that version that marred my experience: the first was a transparent watermark in the corner for Film Chest, which I was eventually almost able to ignore. The other thing, far more damaging, was that it was dubbed in English.

Yes, I have been completely spoiled by the Criterion Collection.

My suspicious nature concludes that anything could have been substituted in the dubbing process. I also sort of doubt my own little paranoid conspiracy theory, but the dub job does the movie absolutely no favors. Flavorless, flat and rushed, it’s like listening to the English dub of Speed Racer, but without the charm.

03_top10jesusfilmsThere’s still a lot to like in the movie, however. Pasolini was able to do amazing things with a period piece on a limited budget, bits of Italy and Morocco standing in for the Holy Lands, embracing a low-level, unflashy aesthetic that adds significantly to the realism. He also has an eye for the most remarkable faces for the camera to dwell upon, sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful, always real and honest.

I really did want my political Jesus, though. I wanted a movie version of Baigent, Lee and Lincoln’s The Messianic Legacy. Frustrated Gnostic that I am, I still feel Judas is getting a raw deal. But possibly Pasolini, lapsed Catholic though he was, still could not bring himself to totally smash some icons.

Buy Gospel According to St. Matthew at Amazon

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Honeymoon KillersYou know what? It is suddenly a week since I wrote that last part. When I said I couldn’t possibly do a formal Movie Challenge, a movie a night for a month, I was being way more prophetic that I thought possible.

The next flick I watched was The Honeymoon Killers, which is not on Ebert’s list, but it is in the Criterion Collection. It was my turn to pick a movie for the Daily Grindhouse podcast, and after two incredibly mediocre movies, we were ready for something better. It was a calculated risk on my part, because I’d never seen Honeymoon Killers, but I did know my first exposure to it was via one of Danny Peary’s Cult Movie books, so that seemed a fair indicator.

We were supposed to record last Wednesday, but Joe Cosby’s work had shifted into Hell Mode, so it was just going to be me and Jon Abrams. Then Jon’s workplace turned on him, and the podcast world doesn’t need an audio version of this blog. So it got delayed.

Les tueurs de la lune de mielThat is the shorthand version of last week. Crisis and exhaustion were the watchwords of the day, and when I managed to wind up in my easy chair, I didn’t have the energy for anything more involved than one of the many true crime shows on Netflix.

Speaking of true crime: The Honeymoon Killers is based on a true story – yeah, I know, we’ve heard that before – of a murder case from the late 40s to early 50s. TV show producer Warren Steibel and opera composer Leonard Kastle both hated the movie Bonnie & Clyde, feeling it was “too glamorous”, with even bloody violence given artistic merit. Steibel, wanting to branch out into movie production, managed to get $150,000 together – still peanuts, in 1969 – and convinced Kastle, the only writer he knew, to do the screenplay.

Kastle puts together a pretty good chronicle of the relationship between suave con man Ray Fernandez and overweight nurse Martha Beck, although all he had to go on was trial records and newspaper clippings. Kastle loved filmmakers like Goddard, Truffaut and Pasolini, and constructed the story like one of their neo-realist movies. The effect is a sort of documentary verisimilitude, a low-level reality, aided by the black-and-white photography (which also glosses over the fact that they could not afford to do a true period piece).

Sem7peli2The center of the story is the unlikely romance between Ray and Martha, and how Martha’s jealousy interferes with Ray’s studied predatory gigolo procedures, and eventually leads to murder. That build-up leads to pretty horrific murder scenes that would be considered fairly tame these days, but have an added punch thanks to the relatively staid events leading up to them. Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler are perfectly cast, and carry the movie effortlessly.

Kastle, who eventually took over direction after two others didn’t work out (and one was a young Martin Scorsese), may be taking his cues from European directors (and does a great job – his visual storytelling is efficient but elegant), but he also seems to derive some inspiration from the 1967 In Cold Blood, another piece of true-crime cinema with a black-and-white, documentary approach. Though in Kastle’s case, it was more a matter of financial necessity, which he then proceeded to exploit, and exploit very well. There are simply some things you can do with black-and-white that is impossible with color film.

Well, I had meant to save my babbling for the podcast, but I guess this is rehearsal, eh?

Buy The Honeymoon Killers at Amazon

My Darling Clementine (1946)

mcWqxj75qltyh85d4O7EJ6FYzsfOne thing I learned about The Honeymoon Killers was just how much Kastle shortened and in a lot of cases, actually whitewashed the story: Martha Beck’s backstory was particularly heartbreaking, and the two were accused of over twenty murders, not just the four we witnessed. Well, Hollywood, and all that. The necessities of fiction, of telling a good story.

Then how to address John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, the tale of the legendary Shootout at the OK Corral, where damned near nothing is true?

First of all, none of that is John Ford’s fault. The script is largely based on Stuart Lake’s posthumous biography of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which in true Shootist style, is a collection of bunkum. The 1939 movie of the same name gets it just as wrong, if not wronger. To be sure, there is still a deal of controversy among historians about what exactly went down at the OK Corral, but we can be pretty sure that whatever it actually was, it wasn’t very photogenic.

54.57-foxIn this particular alternate universe, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers are driving a herd of cattle west, and not doing a particularly good job of it. While the three oldest, Wyatt, Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tom Holt) head into Tombstone to get a shave and a beer, the Clanton gang, led by Walter Brennan, rustle the cattle and kill the youngest Earp, James (a baby-faced Don Garner). The Earps take jobs as lawmen in Tombstone, at least until they can track down their brother’s murderers. Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) runs a saloon in town, and he and Wyatt strike up an uneasy friendship, strained all the more when Doc’s old girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs) finally tracks Doc down, and Wyatt takes a liking to her.

Holliday, rather famously, is dying from consumption, and tries to send Clementine packing, egged on by his current girlfriend, a fiery saloon girl with the unlikely name of Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Chihuahua’s fecklessness will eventually provide Wyatt with the piece of evidence he needs that the Clantons were responsible for James’ death, but that also gets her a bullet in the back from Billy Clanton (John Ireland). After that, it’s only a matter of time until everybody winds up at the OK Corral slinging lead.

My Darling Clementine (1946)This is Fonda and Ford’s first movie together after their tours of duty in World War II, and there is a tinge of melancholy and loss over the proceedings not evident in their pre-War work. Ford still works the atmosphere and period textures like few other directors ever managed, and some of the lighting effects in the nighttime scenes are spectacular – easily the best being the scene in which Holliday must operate on the wounded Chihuahua in the empty saloon, the improvised operating table illuminated by every oil lamp in the joint, surrounded by the deep black forms of people standing by, unable to help.

That’s also a bit indicative of the post-War Ford spinning his wheels a bit, though; the scene is directly lifted from his earlier Stagecoach, right down to the drunken doctor calling upon nearly forgotten skills for emergency surgery, assisted by his patient’s hated rival. An earlier scene with Fonda delivering a monologue over James’ grave is also reminiscent of a similar scene in Young Mr. Lincoln.

martinsYou really sort of expect Tombstone to have been mysteriously relocated to Monument Valley – this is a John Ford Western, after all. The liberties taken with history only get more fanciful from there. Virgil was the Marshal in Tombstone, with Morgan, James and Wyatt occasionally pitching in to help. James, Virgil and, yes, Wyatt, were all married when they moved to boomtown Tombstone – dreadful sorry, Clementine. Holliday’s friendship with Wyatt went back several years before Tombstone, and unlike here and Frontier Marshal, he survived the Shootout. There were two Clantons present, and four other suspected rustlers, and only Billy Clanton and two brothers, the McLaurys, died.

Hell, these days we’re told the Shootout actually happened down the street from the OK Corral.

The lead-up to the Shootout is a great deal more complex than Clementine would have us believe, but the messy details of reality would only get in the way of a good story. It’s intriguing to consider that the version we’ve had on TV and in theaters for the past 65 years was trimmed of nearly 30 minutes by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, according to his own sensibilities and some preview audiences that necessitated retakes months after the movie wrapped. A nearly complete version of Ford’s version was actually discovered at UCLA in ’94. It’s not necessarily better, either, just… different.

Anyway, I think I now really need to watch something in color.

Buy My Darling Clementine at Amazon

The ABCs of March, Part Four

Previously, on Yes, I Know:  A through E   F through J   K through O

P: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

the-phantom-carriage-movie-poster-1921-1020683962I always like to slip in a silent movie or two in these exercises, so why not an acclaimed one? Charlie Chaplin claimed it was the best movie ever made, and Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan. Based on a popular novel of the time by Selma Langerlöf, the basis of the story is a legend that whoever dies last on New Year’s Eve must drive Death’s carriage for the next year, picking up recently deceased souls and delivering them… well, that’s left unsaid, but for this unfortunate Designated Driver, “each day is like a hundred years.”

This story is told to professional wastrel David Holm (played by director Victor Shölström), who nonetheless is spending New Years Eve drinking with his pals, leaving his destitute wife and two children in their hovel, and worst of all, ignoring entreaties to come to the death bed of Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who, for some reason, loves Holm (even though he unwittingly gave her the tuberculosis which is killing her). It’s this last bit of heartlessness that gets him into a fight with his two drunken pals, one of whom crashes a jug over his head, and leaves him for dead, as the titular carriage drives up and comes to gather his soul.

vlc000092To no one’s surprise, the driver is the older reprobate who first told David about the Phantom Carriage, and who blames himself for the younger man’s life going so disastrously off the rails. David is to be the new driver, he is told, but first he has to relive every twist and turn of his wasted existence, a life spent mainly visiting misery on whoever dared try to love and improve him.

The story relies on a lot of heavy melodrama, but it is remarkably compelling and well-presented melodrama; Shölström manages to make Holm a man worth redeeming, even though he spends most of the picture being an unrepentant dickweed. His final realization that he has been one of the most worthless, hateful men alive is truly heartbreaking, and if the denouement seems a little too sugary, a bit too Spielberg – well, as with Spielberg, the emotion is there, too, and only the most cynical or bored viewer will not find themselves transported along.

Best movie ever made? I may disagree, but damn, is it a good one.

The Phantom Carriage on Amazon

Q: Quest for Fire (1981)

quest_for_fireThe letter Q is always a tough one. I’ve seen most of the obvious ones (Q the Winged Serpent, The Quick and the Dead) but you know what! Here’s one I haven’t seen!

1981 was seemingly the year of the cinematic caveman, though this was the only serious offering (the others being Ringo Starr’s Caveman and the first portion of History of the World, Part One). I recall everybody talking about it. It just wasn’t my thing, as it were.

In case you’re like me: This takes place 80,000 years ago, on the cusp between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man, when fire was a valuable, essential commodity, and tribes kept firepits going constantly, to keep the valuable element at hand. One tribe loses their home cave – and their fire – in a turf war, and three of the tribesmen (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nicolas Kadi) strike out to find some more. They eventually steal some from a tribe of nomad cannibals, and in doing so, pick up Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a member of a much more advanced tribe who was being kept in the larder. Ika develops a sweet spot for McGill’s Naoh, who does seem to have a bit more on the ball than his fellows. When Ika runs off to her village, Naoh follows, to be perplexed and amazed as he is initiated into their ways… for one thing, they know how to make fire, at will.

MPW-56175A hell of a lot of effort went into this movie – three years of pre-production and funding, one year of shooting – and I really feel like a heel for not liking it more. The different tribes are cleverly designed, the makeup is superb (Oscar-winning, in fact), and there are a lot of nice little touches, my favorite being the fact that Ika knows how to laugh whereas her more brutal traveling companions do not (they do learn, however). But no, not even naked Rae Dawn Chong could get me totally into its camp. I do, however, like that this is Ron Perlman’s first movie, and even as a caveman, all his Ron Perlman-isms are fully formed and intact.

The different caveman languages were created by no less than Anthony Burgess. It seems that on my DVD there is an option for turning on subtitles, but come on. That would be cheating. Even if I do wonder what the hell Ika is chattering about practically the whole movie.

Quest for Fire on Amazon

R: The Rules of the Game (1939)

Rules-of-the-gameIt seems you can’t be a film buff without seeing The Rules of the Game. It somehow became a touchstone, the item with which all film educations begin, or something. Imagine my surprise, when I finally saw it, that it is basically a sex farce.

Most of Rules of the Game takes place during a getaway at a chateau, with the rich gunning down a lot of innocent animals as the proles beat the bushes and finishing up with a grand masquerade and talent show. Every man on the rich side of the line seems to love an Austrian woman, Christine (Nora Gregor) married to the host, the Marquis de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). This includes a freshly-minted hero aviator, his friend Octave (director Jean Renoir himself) – who is also the childhood friend of Christine (and who loves her). The Marquis, realizing how much he loves his wife, attempts to disentangle himself from his mistress. Christine, finding out about this long-standing affair, decides to have an affair of her own. All this is mirrored on the domestic side by a roguish new manservant (and former poacher) flirting with Christine’s saucy maid, who is married to the estate’s gameskeeper. It all comes to a climax during the masquerade ball, with blows being exchanged and gun-wielding husbands chasing lovers through the bemused bourgeoisie. 

I’m not quite sure if Renoir is attempting a scathing satire of the idle rich in Pre-World War II France, as the form of the sex farce necessitates a certain level of caricature in all the roles. There is drollery aplenty, to be sure, and I certainly enjoyed it; I’m just unsure as to why its position is so elevated.

rulesofthegamegTo be sure, it came that close to being a Lost Movie. A terrible flop at the box office, Renoir kept trimming it down. It was banned in France a month after its release (bad for morale, it seems) and then the Nazis invaded, and they hated it even more, burning all the prints that could be found. Then Allied bombers destroyed the original negatives. Renoir fans managed to find enough pieces of the film to reconstruct it in the 1950s, and Renoir confirms that at present, only one scene is missing, a minor one of his character gossiping. Perhaps the fact that it was unavailable and presumed lost added to its prestige.

Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy it, and would recommend it. I’m just not sure precisely why this is considered one of the greatest movies ever made.

The Rules of the Game on Amazon

S: Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom

saloI knew I was going to have to deal with this movie eventually.

Last year, I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights. I loved them. Pasolini yearned for a time before commercialism, before even love and sex were made mere commodities. Though frequently shocking in their content, they were also just as frequently sweet, sentimental, and honestly earthy. In one of those perverse twists of fortune, they inspired a spate of soft-and-not-so-softcore porn movies dressed up as classic literature; Pasolini’s non-commercialism made commercial.

So it’s small wonder, really, that he then made one of the most angry, confrontational movies of all time.

I really have no truck with movies that only serve as a catalog of atrocities. Likely, the closest I’ve come is Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs, which was enough to convince me that I didn’t need to see any of the others. A Serbian Film, Philosophy of a Knife, any number of low-budget horror movies that revel in sickness, the Guinea Pig movies… hell I’m not even interested in any of the Human Centipede flicks, and I have people swearing by them.

And yet, here I am watching Salo.

Salo_ou_les_120_normalThe story is taken from the Marquis deSade’s infamous tract of the subtitle’s name, transported to the final days of the fascist regime in Italy (Salo is a town where the fascists had their last stronghold. Pasolini’s own brother was killed there). Four men, representing the power elite, the “Men Who Got Us Into This Mess”: The Duke, The Judge, The Bishop and The President, abduct nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls, and hole up in a villa, determined that there will be no limits to what they can do in their final days. One boy is shot trying to escape; one girl commits suicide the first day. They will be the lucky ones.

Much is made of the rampant nudity, and the frequent sex acts, but those are never seen in any explicit detail. Every agency that has condemned Salo as pornography is missing the point entirely; this movie is not about sex, it is about power, and the horrific misuse of it (“Fascists are the only real anarchists,” The Duke says. “Our power allows us the freedom to do anything.”). Anyone who feels Salo is a turn-on, well… don’t turn your back on them.

Facts never stopped anyone, though. I recall back in the 80s, the local repertory art house, The River Oaks Theater, showed it and was shut down for showing pornography, the management arrested. Yes, a good old-fashioned raid, cheese it the cops, everything. Oh, Texas, I love you, but you will probably never stop embarrassing me.

Pier_Paolo_Pasolini_SaloPasolini drops some surprises in as we navigate the circles of the movie, inspired by Dante; odd moments of levity, fleeting, very fleeting, moments of beauty… and a whole bunch of horror, unredeemed by any justice or retribution. There is also this: I attempted to read deSade’s book back in college, and there is one thing Pasolini gets absolutely right: after a while deSade just becomes cartoonish and tedious. Supposedly it was a pretty jocular shoot, with the numerous teens having a grand time in their first movie, playing pranks on each other. It wasn’t until the finished movie came out of the editing room that they realized how grim was Salo, how bleak and grueling.

I have now seen enough shit-eating to last me two lifetimes. I can’t recommend it. You’ll know if you’re ready for it or not.

(Also intriguingly: although nobody ever uses the Amazon links I’ve been putting up – still, I’m determined to keep up the experiment – the Associates site will not let me make a link to the Criterion Collection blu-ray disc I viewed. Hm.)

T: Thor – The Dark World

Until I get my Volstagg movie, this will have to do.

Until I get my Volstagg movie, this will have to do.

I knew I was going to need something fairly uncomplicated and hopefully ridiculously fun after Salo, and thankfully, for the sake of my mental well-being, The Dark World delivered.

I wasn’t wild about the first Thor – for a movie that took place in three different universes, it still somehow felt very small. Dark World is determined to be epic as hell – starting in pre-Odin Asgardian history, as Odin’s dad fights Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his Dark Elves, who are trying to snuff out all light in all worlds. Malekith loses, and goes into hiding until his Ultimate Weapon can be recovered. Which it is, by Thor’s mortal girlfriend, Jane Foster. Of course.

All our old faves are back, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki gets more and better screen time; the doomed bond between Thor and Loki is given its best treatment yet, and Jane Foster is elevated above mere damsel in distress status. I still want more Volstagg, but I am always going to want more Volstagg. The thing that both of the Thor movies have excelled at is presenting super science that is indistinguishable from magic – probably to sidestep the thorny concept that the Asgardians are actual gods, and prevent picket lines from sullying a Disney product.

Best of all, Dark World  wraps its plot up quite nicely and still has me wanting to see what happens next.

Thor: The Dark World on Amazon

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.

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!

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.