Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I don't visit cinemas in my curmudgeonly middle age as much as I did in my curmudgeonly youth, but a new James Bond film will always find me, at least as long as I remain ambulatory, in a theatre seat on its U.S. opening day.  The next-to-last time I saw Daniel Craig as 007, alas, he was in drag, appearing in an asinine two-minute short commemorating the centenary of International Woman's Day.  (The last time I saw him, of course, his and Queen Elizabeth's stunt doubles were jumping out of a helicopter and parachuting into London's Olympic Stadium.)  Looking vaguely like the grotesque Linda Tripp of Monica Lewinsky infamy, the planet's most celebrated superspy stands dejectedly silent in the short as the current M, Dame Judith Olivia Dench, harangues him from offscreen about the Deplorable State of Women, what with all that income disparity (which, contravening gender feminist doctrine, has been thoroughly debunked; see, for example, here and here), domestic violence (reconsidered here), sexual abuse, and enforced illiteracy.  The last two problems in particular form an integral part of the savage way certain non-Western countries operate, although the multicultural mandarins behind this agitprop do not address that fact, doubtless for fear of upsetting the Diversity-at-all-costs applecart (of which a glaring example remains the "institutionalized political correctness" that facilitated the recent Rotherham atrocities).  This hysterical--in the archaic medical sense of the word--short was, to absolutely no one's surprise, written and directed by two aggrieved women (Jane Goldman and Sam Taylor Wood, respectively).  The invisible M informs Bond that "facing up to gender issues and the sometimes covert nature of sexism in the Twenty-First Century is something that we all have to recognize, confront, and challenge."  Tell it to the Taliban, ladies.  I find the mistreatment of women as abominable as the next fellow, but give me the machinations of Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld over this miserable misandry any day.

I frankly despair to see poor Bond in anything so aesthetically risible, but 007 has certainly proven himself resilient through the years.  That's why it's more than a little satisfying for me to see M get her belated comeuppance in Sam Mendes' magnificent Skyfall (2012).  Don't misunderstand, dear readers: I adore Dame Judith, and have generally enjoyed the gender conflict between Bond and his battleaxe boss since Pierce Brosnan assumed the role in Martin Campbell's Goldeneye (1995).  Bond may well be, in M's words, "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and "Cold War relic," but he's by far the best sexist, misogynist dinosaur and Cold War relic she and MI6 have, and she bloody well knows it.  (Ironically enough, in Skyfall's progressive Britain, M herself is considered a relic of "the golden age of espionage.")

Craig's first 007 outing, Campbell's Casino Royale (2006), energetically revised the long-running series while coming as close to a faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming thriller as we are likely ever to encounter.  Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace (2008), although less spectacular, picked up immediately after the previous picture ended (a franchise first), and was intensely gripping for its double revenge motif.  Continuing the theme, vengeance is what Skyfall's about, administered here by Tiago Rodriquez (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 hacker turned over by M to the Communist Chinese for "operating beyond his brief" just before the 1997 Hong Kong handover ("They were on to him," M shrugs, "so I gave him up.  I got six agents in return, and a peaceful transition"), and now doing business as the androgynously bleached blonde Raoul Silva.

If supervillain Silva's carrying a ton of spiritual baggage ("Life clung to me like a disease," he says of surviving his cyanide-assisted suicide attempt after being tortured by the Chinese), so is our old friend Bond, who's presumed dead after being accidentally shot in Istanbul by his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) while battling mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) atop a speeding train.  It's the second bullet for Bond, whom Patrice has earlier wounded.  The mercenary has stolen a computer hard drive containing the identities of NATO agents working undercover in terrorist cells, thus inciting the deaths of several operatives.  Shrapnel from Patrice's slug enables 007 to track him to Shanghai, where the two men--who seem to have wandered onto the futuristic set of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982)--battle to the death in a skyscraper after Patrice assassinates a man in an adjacent monstrosity who's attending a private viewing of what appears to be the Amadeo Modigliani painting La Femme a l'eventail (Woman with a Fan), which was stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

Before this battle, a bitter Bond has secretly retired to Turkey, where he spends most of his time brooding, cultivating stubble, and generally drinking himself senseless; the last activity entails entertaining the locals by draining the tequila from a shot glass while a scorpion is balanced precariously on the back of his hand.  One morning Bond is watching Wolf Blitzer on a bar television and learns that MI6's headquarters has been partially detonated, killing eight employees, by terrorists (the second time in the series the building has been bombed).  The blast is observed from outside by M, who's returning from a meeting with Intelligence and Security Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, looking fairly weatherbeaten) where he's urged her to retire in light of recent events as the political winds shift.  ("We can't keep living in the shadows," Mallory obliviously insists, apparently having never seen a Bond film.  "There are no more shadows.")  MI6 has also been hacked, causing the exposure and murder of additional NATO agents.  007 pulls himself together, more or less, and returns to duty, incidentally informing M that he found the obituary she wrote for him "appalling."  Believing him deceased, the agency has also unloaded Bond's childhood home in Scotland, Skyfall, as well as his London apartment.  007 fails MI6's mandatory physical and psychological retesting--M, however, deliberately conceals the results from him--and next he's in a Macau casino after discovering a gambling chip in the late Patrice's gear.

Here Bond encounters the mysterious Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe, whose character's name recalls Catherine Deneuve's role in Luis Bunuel's classic Belle de Jour [1967]), a former sex slave employed by Silva and earlier glimpsed by Bond during Patrice's hit at the Modigliani viewing.  She agrees to help 007 if he will kill Silva.  After battling her bodyguards (one of whom winds up as a tasty meal for the casino's Komodo Dragons), Bond does the horizontal mambo with Severine as her yacht sets sail for an island Silva's requisitioned for global mischief.  The pair are taken prisoner aboard the boat by his henchmen.  Back on dry land and with a goon's pistol pointed at him, Bond is challenged by Silva to shoot a shot glass off the now-bound Severine's skull (a William Burroughs reference?--the ambiguously sexual Silva could easily be a member of the novelist's viral Nova Mob).  Bond's old aim, unfortunately, isn't what it was; the shaken 007 misses, hitting a broken statue behind Severine, and, in a truly chilling moment, Silva casually kills the woman, almost as an afterthought.  Bond finally springs into action, while the tracking device Q (Ben Wishaw) has earlier given him trails Silva to his lair as helicopters swoop down for the capture.

Silva is held in MI6's underground headquarters (which once served as Sir Winston Churchill's wartime bunker), assailing a phlegmatic M for betraying him.  "You're smaller than I remember you," he tells her, to which she retorts, "Whereas I barely remember you at all."  Assuring Silva that "soon your past will be as non-existent as your future," M departs to appear before a House of Commons subcommittee regarding the case of the stolen hard drive; there she is badgered by the female Prime Minister and responds by attempting to inform the silly creature what a dangerous place the planet has become.  (In Michael Apted's The World Is Not Enough [1999], the character openly lamented the end of the Cold War.)  Silva escapes from his glass cage--his capture was a deliberate attempt to get him close to M--and, disguised as a policeman, is pursued by Bond while wreaking havoc in the London Underground.  Silva and his henchmen emerge full-blown from Mallory's non-existent shadows, storming with guns ablaze into the subcommittee inquiry just after M has finished reciting the final stanza of Tennyson's "Ulysses."  Bond arrives rather late to protect his boss; he's assisted by Eve and Mallory, who is wounded in the shootout.  Silva and crew retreat, allowing Bond to go "back in time" by essentially kidnapping M and hiding her out at Skyfall.

If you have yet to see this marvelous picture, then I strongly suggest that you stop reading right now, as I intend to discuss the outcome of all this chaos.  Bond and his boss are greeted at Skyfall by estate gamekeeper Kincade (an almost-unrecognizable Albert Finney), who helps them prepare a lethal welcome for Silva and his men as the villains electronically track them.  (Amusingly, the only gun left in the house is Bond's father's old rifle; an American collector has snapped up all the other weapons.)  Silva arrives by helicopter, his plane's speakers blasting the Animals' classic "Boom Boom" much as Robert Duvall's choppers blared Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).  M is mortally wounded in the ensuing firefight, dying of her injuries in the family chapel after Bond dispatches Silva with a hunting knife in the back.  It's a devastating moment for the series--in truth, I can scarcely believe it myself--and 007 openly weeps for her, just as he did for his murdered wife Tracy in Peter R. Hunt's much-underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).  An era has ineradicably ended.

Stephen B. Tippens, Jr. has detected more than a trace of Ian Fleming's father, the World War One-killed Tory MP Major Valentine Fleming, in the novelist's legendary creation, noting that 007's "intangible virtues are Valentine's," virtues which "may not have been singular" in the Major's time, "but...are quite un-plural now."  If Bond is, in a very loose sense, Valentine reborn, M plainly functions in both Fleming's novels and the pre-Brosnan series as a sometimes distant father figure to the orphaned Bond, whose parents perished in a mountain climbing accident.  (Fleming's posthumous 1965 The Man With the Golden Gun goes all Oedipal as a Communist-brainwashed 007 attempts to assassinate M, though this surprising subplot was omitted from Guy Hamilton's 1974 film adaptation.)  In the Brosnan movies, Bond resents M's female leadership--he considers her a "an accountant, a bean counter, more interested in [her] numbers than [his] instincts" in Goldenye, while she warns him that "if you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong."  M assures him that his "boyish charms" are "wasted" on her, and even abandons him to the North Koreans in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day (2002), which got 007 through the atrocities of 9/11 by the expedient of having the secret agent held and tortured by the Communists for fourteen months.  The Craig Bonds, however, take their relationship in a different direction, with a more distinct maternal dynamic.  The three most recent pictures in fact form a trilogy of sorts for our post-9/11 age.

Bond is callow and violent, too-quick to emotion in Casino--eager, indeed, to quit his job for the (treacherous) woman he loves--and almost off-his-rocker ruthless in Quantum (at one point he prepares to kill himself and his fellow vengeance-seeker Camille when it looks as if they're going to be incinerated in a South American hotel), but by the time of Skyfall Bond's more than just physically broken; he's unexpectedly middle-aged--apparently several years have transpired since the previous picture--and facing burnout in a young man's field.  Yet still he must keep moving, demonstrating Nietzsche's dictum that "Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself."  It is Silva's vendetta which brings Bond back from the brink of despair.  Meanwhile, the new Q, a tousle-haired waif, seems to have wandered into MI6 from a shoegaze or emo band; Bond can scarcely believe his eyes when he encounters the lad, who's nearly young enough to be his son.  Time is marching relentlessly on for the scenario's key characters.

007 admirer Sir Kingsley Amis famously preferred the Fleming novels' "belief, however unreflecting, in the rightness of one's cause" to "the anguished cynicism and the torpid cynicism of Messrs [John] le Carre and [Len] Deighton,"  but the dark, dour world of George Smiley and Harry Palmer has been very much a part of Bond's cinematic universe for quite some time now, particularly since Craig assumed the role.  The key sequence in Skyfall is Silva's assault on M at her hearing.  Powerful cross-cutting has her quoting "Ulysses" as Bond races through the London streets to stop his nemesis.  Tennyson's lines symbolize England's faded glory, as well as the nation's fortitude:  "'Though much is taken, much abides," M intones to the inquiry board, "and though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"  This eloquently sums up 007 himself, a superman in a country which is no longer a superpower.  Bond endures in spite of everything, even the Spenglerian decline of the land he loves.

The film's family dynamic is amplified by the surrogate father figure of Kincade, who has known Bond since he was a child, and is further complicated by Silva, bloodily craving acknowledgement from the woman who abandoned him.  When Silva observes that M shows "no remorse" for turning him over to the Chinese, she responds that "regret is unprofessional." He's an agent sacrificed--stabbed in the back, literally and figuratively--for the sake of the British government, a man who despite torture "protected [its] secrets" until he finally realized that it was M, and M solely, "who betrayed me."  M not only represents motherhood, she's Mother England herself, repeatedly referred to by her MI6 underlings as "Mum."  Attempting suicide with his molar capsule--the same type of  cyanide implant which M chastises 007 for not swallowing in Die Another Day ("I threw it away years ago," Bond defiantly informs her)--the poison damaged Silva internally and left him with a mutilated mouth, but the terrorist ultimately comes to believe that he has survived in order to look into M's eyes "one last time."  He wants to hear her speak "my real name.  I know you remember it"; she, however, declares that she will have that name removed from "the memorial wall of the very building you attacked."  Silva mockingly tells his former brother in arms that "Mommy was very bad" in "[sending] you after me, knowing you're not ready, knowing you would likely die."  In the chapel climax, Silva embraces the dying M, giving her his pistol so she can shoot them both in order for them to be together in the grave.  She willingly pulls the trigger, but the weapon's out of ammunition, although Silva successfully joins his surrogate mother in oblivion, his mission accomplished.  This time, the villain has won.  Bond, once again, has been abandoned.

Skyfall is permeated by a surprising Christian religiosity, something one seldom encounters in the series.  M is hounded electronically by Silva, who urges her via computer to "think on your sins."  Skyfall (the manor) contains a priest hole, one of those hiding places which were prominent during the persecution of Catholics in Queen Elizabeth I's reign.  Kincade proudly tells M that the young Bond hid in the tunnel behind the priest hole after learning of his parents' deaths; when he emerged, Kincade says, "he was no longer a boy."  The hole later allows the surrogate family unit to escape from the manse's inevitable obliteration.  Earlier, when Silva inquires what Bond's hobby is, our hero replies, "Resurrection."  007 is violently baptized twice in the film, the first time emerging into a metaphorical afterlife spent "enjoying death"; the second, after a battle with Silva's last remaining henchman beneath the broken ice of a frozen lake, rebirths Bond into a post-maternal landscape.

Mendes' direction is muscular, with Skyfall fitting in surprisingly well amongst his other examinations of personal and social breakdown such as American Beauty (1999) and his splendid adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (2008).  The film's numerous action setpieces, from a motorcycle rooftop chase in the pre-titles sequence to the obliterating battle of Skyfall itself, are superbly staged.  The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan has a novelistic depth not often witnessed in today's megabudget behemoths.  Roger Deakins' cinematography is exquisite, impressionistically interpreting the bleak beauty of the Scottish Highlands, while Mendes' frequent composer, Thomas Newman, offers a score to rival the powerful work of earlier series masters John Barry and David Arnold.  Adele's sultry theme is one of the better Bond songs.  The performances are uniformly excellent, with Craig, Dench, and Bardem delivering Oscar-caliber performances.

All those novels, all those films.  Why does 007 so fascinate us?  It's not simply vicarious self-actualization.  Contrasting the age of Valentine Fleming with postmodern England's grave new world, Tippins observes that, "[w]here Valentine's contemporaries took to the trenches, the young men of today's Britain riot in the streets.  That's what a half-century of entitlement does to a society," he continues, "it takes the backbone out of people while simultaneously giving them notions of grandeur."  The appeal of Bond appears to be well-nigh eternal because he represents a masculine ideal in our increasingly demasculinized age.  007 still has his backbone, and by the gods, he knows how to use it.

Typically, the superspy has his fair share of detractors.  The British/Indian writer Bidisha sniffs that "the Bond films are generally sexist....Ian Fleming hates women," asserts the angry authoress without supplying any evidence whatsoever.  Leicester University Professor James Chapman, author of a cultural history of the movie series, goes so far as to pronounce that "ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films"--speak for yourself, Professor--which flaunt "everything that is not politically correct."  This, however, is precisely one of the reasons why I, and I suspect many moviegoers, enjoy the pictures.  Bidisha propounds that "the Bond mythos is loved because it represents people's biggest bigot fantasies," but I believe that she, like others of her idealistic ilk, is dead wrong.  We love 007 not because we are bigots, but because we respect his intangible, non-plural, and out-of-fashion virtues.  We passionately long for a less sensitive age when men strove, sought, found, and did not yield--especially to the Universal Cult of the Victim and its attendant entitlements.  By Skyfall's end, the recuperating Mallory has become both the new M and another father figure to 007, Eve has become the new Moneypenny, and James Bond is ready for his next assignment, which I fervently hope will not entail facing up to gender issues and the sometimes covert nature of sexism in the Twenty-First Century.  Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The Nineteen Seventies were a fairly productive decade for spiders crawling across cinema screens.  Our eight-legged  friends emerged both normal and giant-sized from black holes that somehow found their way to Wisconsin (Bill Rebane's Volkswagen-propelled The Giant Spider Invasion [1975]), and covered an entire Arizona town with their sticky stuff in John "Bud" Cardos' Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), but it's Chris Munger's Georgia-lensed Kiss of the Tarantula (1976) that established a psychic link between the creepy critters and their master--or, in the case of this film, mistress.  The picture's obvious antecedents are Daniel Mann's Willard (1971), Phil Karlson's Ben sequel (1972), and William Grefe's same-year Stanley; like those rat and snake operas, the thematic shift here is from ecological to personal revenge.

Susan Bradley (Suzanna Ling in her sole film appearance) is the strange-but-lovely daughter of mortician John (Herman Wallner, a Victor French surrogate), whose police chief brother Walter (Eric Mason, apparently the only actor with other pictures to his credit) is planning a run for state Attorney General.  Uncle Walter, when he was a mere flatfoot, was the secret lover of John's shrewish wife Martha (Beverly Eddins), but the paramours' plans to murder John and move her out of the family mortuary she so despised were sabotaged by Susan's unleashing one of her colorful pet tarantulas on Mommy when Daddy's Girl discovered the plot.  Susan never said anything to anybody, however, so everyone accepted the story that Martha expired from a heart attack--the spiders, you see, crawl all over their victims but never bite them, although they certainly scare them into early graves.  Now Susan's in the flower of young womanhood, while Uncle Walter's incestuously licking his chops.  (Father John, of course, is oblivious to everything.)

Susan is considered peculiar by her peers because she lives in a mortuary--and a falling-apart one, at that; the house, which was also utilized for the climax of John Wayne and Ray Kellogg's The Green Berets (1968), sports several gaping cracks and holes in its ceilings and walls.  While her father's away one evening, several neighborhood goofballs break into the house to borrow a casket for Halloween hijinks.  Susan catches them, and the men decide to have a little fun with the fetching lass.  They drag her to the basement, accidentally killing one of her pets by dropping its glass cage.  This understandably spoils their erotic mood and the punks guiltily depart, while the distraught Susan plots vengeance, unleashing her arachnid familiars on two of the men and their girlfriends while the couples are necking in a car at a drive-in.  She simply cracks opens the passenger door--conveniently, no one else, either inside this particular vehicle or any other, notices her actions--and the mayhem begins.

Unfortunately for Susan, two of her friends, Tracy (Linda Spatz) and Joan (Rita French), are among the victims; sole survivor Joan is now a weepy basket case.  (The other three die from such ridiculous injuries as slicing their necks on broken window glass and being crushed between a car door and drive-in speakers.  Allow me to reiterate that none of this idiocy is observed by anyone until after Susan has regathered her pets and the theatre empties.)  A distraught Susan visits her bugged-out friend in the hospital, where she's overheard telling her "I never wanted to hurt you, but they made me do it" while being eavesdropped on by nosy Nancy Drury (Patricia Landon), who immediately informs Bo Richards (Jay Scott), the ringleader of the casket gang.  Bo apologizes to Susan for the men's mischief and asks her for a date, to which she surprisingly agrees.  She doesn't expect to be taken to the drive-in, however--especially to see a thriller ("Everything just seems so unhappy now.  Everything is just so down....That's why I like happy endings")--and, after Bo accuses her of killing his friends, she bolts from the vehicle.  The next day, Susan unleashes her spiders on him while he's caulking inside a ventilation duct at a building under construction.

People are dying right and left, but authorities are baffled--at least until Uncle Walter retrieves a tarantula leg from Bo's corpse.  Next he's approached by Nancy, who urges him to take action against Susan.  Walter confronts his niece, but assures her he can fix everything if he has her "cooperation," nudge-nudge-wink-wink.  He kisses the repulsed Susan, who kicks him out of her house.  The sorry scene is observed by Nancy, spying on the pair.  Walter chases and chokes Miss Nosy to death, then pretends to investigate the killing.  Nancy's corpse is now in a casket at the mortuary, whose business is definitely booming; when Walter returns to tell Susan what he's done and obtain from her more cooperation ("We have to look out for each other," he whispers lustily), she pushes him down the stairs, which paralyzes the fiend below the neck.  Finally, in a sequence so comically protracted that we forget all about tarantulas, Susan removes Nancy's body from the coffin with a special hoist, uses the same device to place her weakly protesting uncle in the casket, and puts Nancy back where she found her, sealing both the coffin and Uncle Walter's fate.  The picture ends as it began, with Susan smiling into the camera as she admires a spider.

Warren Hamilton, Jr.'s screenplay, from a story by producer Daniel Cady (who also wrote and produced the prison zombie anti-classic Garden of the Dead [1972]), is absurd but adequate.  Spiders here symbolize the dark side of female sexuality, amply manifested by the creatures' lethal appearances in womblike car and ventilation duct.  Susan herself seems reasonably open to physical love--she even has a perfunctory boyfriend who quickly disappears, as if forgotten, from the movie--but sex in this picture is a veritable killing ground; Susan's deepest emotional connection is with her pets, anyway, and it's obviously all she really needs.  Munger's direction only truly comes alive during the drive-in and duct sequences, enhanced by Henning Schellerup's otherwise mundane cinematography, which viscerally communicates the claustrophobia of the enclosed spaces in which the various characters find themselves trapped.

VCI's anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 version of Kiss of the Tarantula is available singly, as half of a 70s Drive-In Horror Double Feature with Curtis Harrington's superior Ruby (1977), and as the first film in a three-disc Scream Pack (whose ungrammatical ballyhoo on the keepcase cover concludes "...If You Can Still Breath!").  As with a fair number of VCI titles--certainly the pictures in this collection--the label's print is in as rough a shape as the Bradleys' house, with spidery speckles aplenty.  The eighty-four minute film, which is copyrighted 1974, contains eighteen chapter stops, as well as trailers for the other two S.F. Brownrigg-directed  Scream Pack regional obscurities, Don't Look in the Basement (1972) and Don't Open the Door (1975), plus John Llewellyn Moxey's marvelous City of the Dead (1960, with video-generated titles replacing the original U.S. Horror Hotel retitling), and Arthur Crabtree and Herman Cohen's Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  The picture's amusing menu screen features several computer-generated tarantulas crawling across a web.  Sinister Cinema once offered Kiss of the Tarantula in its extensive catalog, but I've not seen this edition, which appears to be deleted.  Here's the film's original trailer.  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Jeffrey Hayden's The Vintage (1957) is the type of picture where the American and Italian players make no effort whatsoever at passing themselves off as convincing Italian, French, and Spanish characters, and the authentic French actress doesn't particularly seem all that Gallic.  It's the disintoxicating tale of two Italian brothers, on the lam from authorities, who cross into southern France looking to find work by harvesting grapes.  Hot-tempered, switchblade-wielding Ernesto Barandero (John Kerr) is wanted for killing a man who was beating a woman, while older Giancarlo (Mel Ferrer) is along to keep Ernesto out of further mischief.  The siblings, despite their conspicuous lack of hand calluses and work cards, are reluctantly employed by vineyard owner Louis Morel (Leif Erickson, Kerr's macho headmaster nemesis in Vincente Minelli's camp classic Tea and Sympathy [1955]) the morning after they safely deliver the dead drunk Morel to his farmhouse.  (He's passed out during a ferocious rainstorm after beseeching God not to destroy his crops.)  Ernesto and Morel's neglected wife Leone (Michele Morgan) are drawn to one another, with lovesick Ernesto even carving her portrait in a woodblock, while Leone's teenaged sister Lucienne (Pier Angeli), who's supposedly engaged to jealous Etienne (Jack Mullaney), is attracted to the more mature Giancarlo; this, of course, is the opposite of what we expect from the scenario, and it is, I fear, The Vintage's single surprise.

Morel spends most of his time worrying about hail damage and complaining about his grape pickers, while the fuzz, hindered by sympathetic guitar-wielding Spanish foreman Eduardo Uribari (Theodore Bikel) and his co-workers, search for the brothers.  Complications arise when Morel discovers the whittled head, which Giancarlo has accidentally dropped after taking it away from his brother in a near-fight.  Giancarlo is falsely accused of stealing chickens--yes, dear reader, chickens--and locked in a barn when he attempts to retrieve the sculpture; the real poultry snatcher, former family patriarch Uncle Ton Ton (Joe Verdi), has been trading the creatures for Eduardo's chocolate. Lucienne confesses her love to the imprisoned Giancarlo, Morel gets slapped by his wife after accusing her of infidelity--she's plainly delighted to be desired again--and Giancarlo is released in time to watch his brother get fatally shot in the back by the police when Ernesto runs from them. Morel finally begins to appreciate his long-suffering spouse; Giancarlo--about whom, apparently, the authorities no longer care--is free to begin a new life with Lucienne.  C'est tout.

The oddball cast's performances are generally indifferent, with the only amusing work coming from Erickson, from whom Kerr seemingly still cannot get away; in a ludicrous attempt to frencify the actor, the filmmakers hide his mug behind a bushy moustache.  The Vintage's primary interest is in its reunion of these Tea and Sympathy stars, and essentially functions as a footnote to the earlier film.  Morgan is beautiful, but hasn't here the charisma of (let's say) Deborah Kerr.  Former blacklistee Michael Blankfort's adaptation of Ursula Keir's novel lacks body, while television man Hayden's direction lacks finish.  The Vintage's only real flavor is furnished by four-time Oscar winner Joseph Rutenberg's cinematography, which exquisitely captures the natural beauty of the region, and David Raskin's exultant score.  The film isn't bad per se; it just isn't much of anything, and I could scarcely remember enough of it to write this post.  The presence of marauding zombies, a la Jean Rollin's marvelous Les Raisins de la Mort (1978), would at least have injected a little life into the proceedings, preferably with Brigitte Lahaie in the Leone role.

The ninety-two minute melodrama is, not surprisingly, unavailable on home video, but Turner Classic Movies occasionally airs a lovely print of this picture in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  The Cinemascope colors are positively vibrant.  Here's the theatrical trailer.  Emotions naked as the earth, indeed!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


     I was deeply saddened to learn this morning of the death yesterday of Gore Vidal at age 86.  He was the great rebel angel of American literature.  At some point down the road, I want to write more about Vidal and his relationship--both good and bad--with cinema.  However, my wife and I have, after much searching, just bought a house and are in the process of moving in, so I'll be occupied with other things for a while.  For now, I will merely state that Vidal is the artistic and political figure who has had the single greatest influence on my life, though plainly I lack even one-millionth of his astounding abilities.  Reading his 1978 dystopia Kalki at the age of thirteen was an electrifying experience for me, and soon I was devouring anything by the writer that I could get my hands on.  (Here's a lovely 2008 review by Bill Kauffman of the author's final essay collection.) Vidal was, quite simply, my hero, and I wouldn't be who I am today without having encountered his work so many years ago.  Hail and farewell to an American patriot!

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Vittorio De Sica's A Place for Lovers ("Amanti," 1968) is perhaps best remembered today, if at all, for its inclusion in Harry Medved and Randy Lowell's snarkily amusing 1978 guide to The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). Roger Ebert proclaimed the picture "the most godawful piece of pseudo-romantic slop" he ever had the misfortune to experience. Must-see viewing, in other words, for the masochistic Mr. Pagan. Once, at any rate. The picture has, understandably, never secured a home video release; however, Turner Classic Movies recently broadcast De Sica's messterpiece, and I'm pleased to report that, if A Place for Lovers is perhaps not precisely one of the Fifty Worst Films--offhand, I can think of other, more deserving celluloid atrocities, especially anything released by the execrable John Hughes--it's definitely the director's worst.

Fashion designer and hospital escapee Julia (Faye Dunaway) is rapidly succumbing to the Nameless Disease That Afflicts So Many Movie Heroines (the vapors?), though you'd never know to look at her that she has precisely ten days of life left; she merely alternates between striking poutily introspective poses and grinning like a jackass chewing briars. Julia has earlier briefly encountered unhappily married engineer Valerion (Marcello Mastroianni) at an airport, where the immediately smitten man hands her his card. She gets in touch when she recognizes him on television. The pair holiday at her friend's Italian villa, which midway through the movie hosts an erotic art slideshow and an orgy that we never glimpse because the incensed Valerion storms out before all the swinging-flinging-and-ring-a-ding-dinging begins. The villa, incidentally, is simply a convenient excuse to exhibit gliding camerawork a la Sacha Vierny's superb visuals for Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad [1961], another film adjudged one of the Fifty Worst by Medved and Lowell. (For the record, I have seen, and even enjoyed, twenty-nine of the authors' selections.)

Julia accosts the engineer the next day at an autodrome where he's testing crash safety water bags; they reconcile, travel to the Alps, and make-a de love. Unfortunately, Julia's frantic friend Maggie (Caroline Mortimer) spoils everything by telephoning the couple's chalet and informing Valerion of the designer's failing health, insisting that she should be rehospitalized. The mortified Julia motors off to commit suicide, but Valerion catches up with her in the film's climax, trusting her not to kill them both by driving their Jeep off a mountain in a truly ridiculous sequence. They do not perish, to this viewer's considerable displeasure.

As my Italian language professor undoubtedly exclaimed from time to time when grading my pitiful papers, "Dio mio!" One would never suspect, watching A Place for Lovers, that De Sica was formerly a master of anything, much less neorealism--indeed, John Simon memorably compared the late director, who after all gave the world such classics as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1951), to "a once-famous operatic tenor turned pop singer and grown old, trying to sing one of the arias from his youthful repertoire, and left wrecked and wheezing on the high C's." It's also difficult to believe that five--five, I say--scenarists toiled fruitlessly on the screenplay, including Brunello Rondi, who co-wrote with Renaldo Cabieri the play upon which the picture is based. (Ebert suggests the writers were "possibly locked into separate rooms and forbidden to communicate," which I can easily believe.) The theme of a dying woman plunging headlong into hedonism has dramatic potential, if not exactly originality, but there's utterly no sense of depth or any appreciable tension here. The dialogue includes such daffy lines as "I see you like experiments. How would you like to experiment by staying with me for two days?" The entire film is an experiment, in tedium.

Dunaway's bloodless performance obliterates the memory of her accomplished turn in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). (Fans of the actress may be interested to know that she appears in another of Medved and Lowell's Fifty Worst, Otto Preminger's hilarious Hurry Sundown [also '67]). Mastroianni, for his part, is pure, unadulterated ham; in the film's funniest moment, he ecstatically tells Dunaway "I love you, I love you, I love you!" as if he's about to spontaneously combust. The performers were a genuine item for a brief while; alas, any electricity these two thespians generated in their private lives is conspicuously absent onscreen. Pasquale De Santis, who later lensed Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971), contributes his usual fine cinematography, which remains, together with De Sica's son Manuel's opulent orchestrations, the film's most redeeming quality. Particularly striking is De Santis' composition of Dunaway contemplating a leap to her death as the camera swivels ninety degrees to capture the austere beauty of the high altitude. It's a splendid shot, rendering the foreground player completely irrelevant. A Place for Lovers is an empty shell of a film, but at least it's a beautifully polished one.

TCM's eighty-eight minute print is letterboxed at 1.75:1. Here's the original Italian trailer, which showcases Ella Fitzgerald's theme song. Most appropriately, the YouTube title is misspelled. Arrivederci, baby.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Citizens for Decent Literature, Inc.'s 1965 Perversion for Profit is Christian anti-pornography propaganda of the most exploitative and entertaining kind. Narrated by "outstanding reporter" and talk show host George Putnam, this endlessly quotable short film was financed by George "Mr. Clean" Keating, a Roman Catholic censorship advocate best remembered today for his criminal mischief in the Savings and Loan Crisis, as well as for the extensive smut collection he maintained in his law offices, ostensibly to educate skeptics about the corrupting influence of "dirt for dirt's sake." (A pre-jailbird Keating was memorably portrayed in Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt [1996] by actor James Cromwell.)

Over the course of a thirty-one minute harangue, the stentorian Putnam--an acknowledged inspiration for The Mary Tyler Moore Show's asinine newsman Ted Baxter--stands before a map of the United States while alerting us to the "floodtide of filth...engulfing our country in the form of newsstand obscenity and...threatening to pervert an entire generation of our American children."  Perversion for Profit is a mouthwatering time capsule of Swinging Sixties filth, ranging far and wide from such forgotten girlie magazines as Nightcap and Rapture to the dreaded physique publications (one of which, Male Classics, sports muscleman Steve Reeves as Hercules on its cover), whose "homosexual viewpoint and poses are often not understood by many youngsters who take them as instructions of body development."  All models have their eyes blacked out, presumably to save the poor creatures from embarrassment; their naughty parts, however, are barely concealed.

The film completely degenerates into paranoid lunacy when Putnam warns us that "moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the Communist masters of deceit"--the very same scoundrels who were attempting to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids during the Cold War, and for all I know are still trying. This same decay, we are gloomily instructed, "caused sixteen of the nineteen major civilizations to vanish from the Earth." As Gore Vidal pointedly observed in a 1966 essay on pornography, "This simplistic view of history is a popular one, particularly among those who do not read history." "Oh, God," Putnam piously intones at the conclusion of this camp masterpiece, "deliver us, Americans, from evil." Amen.

A highlight of Perversion for Profit is Putnam's dramatic recitation, as an example of indecent literature, of a passage from Sex Jungle (1960), a pseudonymous novel by none other than award-winning science fiction author Robert Silverberg, laboring mightily to pay off his new house. Silverberg later modestly described his "Don Elliott" oeuvre as "outstanding"; it certainly delivers a shock to Putnam's system. "'Dirt,'" Camille Paglia explains, "is contamination to the Christian but fertile loam to the pagan. Far from poisoning the mind, pornography shows the deepest truth about sexuality, stripped of romantic veneer." Indeed, despite the perpetual protestations of concerned citizens, gender feminists, and other foes of the First Amendment, "pornography is art, sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant. Its glut and glitter are a Babylonian excess."

Perversion occasionally materializes as wee hours filler on Turner Classic Movies, usually after the network's Underground series, and is the source for Zombie Popcorn's YouTube presentation.  The fullscreen print is in rough, faded condition, which actually enhances the film's loopy allure. Settle back, dear reader, fire up a colortini, and watch these dirty pictures as they fly through the air.


Paglia, Camille. Vamps and Tramps. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Vidal, Gore. United States: Essays 1952-1992.  New York: Random House, 1993.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


"The locus of pastoral," scholar Edward L. Ruhe observed, "is at the margin of civilization." Bernard Hirschenson's Florida-lensed Pick-Up (1975) may not be precisely situated at that liberatory margin, but it's certainly marginal, and surprisingly magical, enough in all its grindhouse mini-grandeur. The Crown International release is an awkwardly dreamy/dreamily awkward exploration and exploitation of the deep human desire for pastoral, as well as the more sensational joys of going completely skyclad. Paul Fussell once asked, "What could more conveniently constitute an antidote to civilization and a celebration of Golden Age honesty, freedom, and simplicity than casting off your dearest disguises?" What, indeed, especially when there's money to be made at the nearest drive-in?

The film opens ostentatiously enough with a close-up of male lead Alan Long's belt buckle as he slowly undoes the band to render his water by the side of a mobile bus home which, in real life, was the vehicle for Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign in the Sunshine State. The audience is, however, denied an appreciation of his, and his character Chuck's, mighty member until later in the picture, but of course that's not really why anyone's watching the film. Female pulchritude is the name of this game, herein represented in the shapely forms of two hippie women, Carol (Jill Senter) and Maureen (Gini Eastwood, a onetime recording artist for Columbia Record's Tower subsidiary), observing Chuck from their vantage point in a wheat field. The lustful and childlike Carol, who's traveling with a stuffed cat, wants to hitch a ride with the feather-haired stud, who's delivering the bus to Tallahassee, but moody Maureen isn't so sure--Chuck's an Aries and, man, something just doesn't feel right. Carol urges her to come along on this "bad trip," anyway; Maureen assents and soon the trio are tooling down the highway while Carol does a suggestive dance for some good old boys in the pickup truck in front of them.

She and Chuck immediately hit it off while Maureen reads the Tarot; whenever Mo does this, the final card she selects is invariably Death. Maureen, as you've doubtless discerned, is a real downer whose emotional problems stem from her molestation, even though she doesn't remotely resemble a boy, by a Catholic priest (writer/producer Jack Winter, who stepped in when a real padre suddenly "couldn't make it") in an unintentionally comical flashback, and she seeks to "avoid animal passions." Animal passions, of course, are what Pick-Up's all about. Chuck is forced to detour through the Everglades when a hurricane roars in, and soon the imbecile's mired the bus in the mud. Cue naked romps through the swamp for Carol and Chuck, while Maureen remains behind to encounter, out of the blue, Pythia, a black priestess of Apollo (Bess Douglas, the picture's makeup artist) who presents her with a phallic staff to defend the Olympian deity against the Assyrian and Babylonian demon god Pazuzu (which, along with Swamp Lord, also served as a working title for the film). Maureen next discovers a stone altar to writhe nude upon, and the picture's pace improves considerably.

While Chuck and Carol are casting off their dearest disguises, the new priestess is visited by Pazuzu in the person of the satanic Senator Max (comedian Don Penny, who by the time of filming was writing speeches and gags for Nixon and Gerald Ford), who's stumping for re-election in some rather out-of-the-way places. When Maureen informs him that she's not from Florida, but from California, the senator (who's "1,000%" on either side of any conceivable issue) departs with an absurd line about big avocados. Her next visitor is a sinister clown who offers her one of his colored balloons. When Maureen gets a look at the face behind the clown's mask--we subliminally glimpse a red-painted visage and glowing green eyes--she shrieks and retreats to the bus.

Meanwhile, it's getting to be dinnertime, so young Featherhair kills a boar with his bow and arrow. The women aren't exactly thrilled at his actions, but food is food in this particular civilizational margin. Maureen finds herself inexorably drawn to Chuck; while the two are finally off making the beast with two backs, Carol wanders around by herself, only to be assaulted by the yahoos from earlier. Chuck and Maureen return to discover her dead arm--still clutching that stuffed cat--protruding from the swamp, and suddenly we're back at the beginning of the picture. Everything we've witnessed is the premonitory erotic rebirth of Maureen, for which Carol must be immolated. "Aries--a beautiful Aries!" Maureen exclaims to her companion, and the story begins for real as the bus pulls away, while the creepy clown's balloons ascend to the heavens.

Winter states in a recent interview on the film's MySpace page that he was "fascinated with the myth of Dolph and the Apollo oracle. What better setting than the Everglades to capture the mythical theme in an ominous setting?" The sun god brings not only light but order to the Dionysian world while rescuing Maureen from the repressed and hypocritical trappings of Judeo-Christianity, especially the Catholic brand. The daemonic demands a ritual sacrifice, however, before all that Golden Age honesty, freedom, and simplicity can be regained. Pazuzu, fresh from his mischievous turn tormenting Linda Blair in William Friedkin's blockbusting adaptation of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1973), really seemed to get around in the Me Decade.

In its employment of erotic dreamscaping, the film unexpectedly incorporates some of French auteur Jean Rollin's artful obsessions, minus the director's vampiric lesbian interludes. Greek and Mesopotamian myths are rather haphazardly tossed together in this neopagan salad, but then so is Pick-Up itself, originally envisioned as it was by its creators as "Easy Rider meets Fellini." At one point Chuck Mangione was interested in scoring the picture (a task ultimately accomplished by Patrick Adams and Michael Rod; tabla man Badal Roy's main theme, incidentally, is most impressive), but the flugelhornist's agent quickly put the kibosh on that. According to Winter, the attack of the yahoos--recruited from attendants at a high school football match--was so energetic that it resulted in actress Senter's fearful retreat to the magic bus, where "she sat trembling for some time." Eastwood reports that her altar performance was accidentally witnessed by "three or four poachers"; the film crew also encountered "Cuban commandos" preparing for a "counter revolution" which never materialized. "That kind of thing was going on in the Glades in those days," the actress remembers of this unsettling event.

Pick-Up (the generic title was imposed by the distributor) has appeared on several BCI compilations; it's the first film in the label's 2007 Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 1, which Mill Creek Entertainment subsequently reissued when BCI went belly-up. The seventy-seven minute feature appears in its original 1.78:1 ratio and looks fine; it's paired with Hikmet Avedis' 1974 melodrama The Teacher. Crown International's little antidote to civilization is presented with eight chapter stops and zero bonus features. Mill Creek's keep case incorrectly lists the picture's release date as 1980, a year it was undoubtedly still playing drive-ins.  Here's the trailer.


Sunday, January 8, 2012


It's hard to believe, but rock chameleon David Bowie turns sixty-five today. In honor of the occasion, here's a clip of his September 5, 1980 live performances of "Life on Mars?" and "Ashes to Ashes" on the final ninety-minute episode of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Between songs, the James Dean-channeling artist says, "Richard, it's great to have you back, man." He was addressing his fellow guest Richard Pryor, who was making one of his first public appearances after recovering from severe burns sustained in a horrific freebasing tragedy on June 9 of that year. Happy Birthday to the Thin White Duke!

Thursday, January 5, 2012


It was a year ago yesterday that musician Mick Karn (1958-2011) lost his battle with cancer. In memory of this remarkable artist, here's a live rendition of his old band Japan's classic instrumental "Canton." This performance, documenting part of a superb November 1982 concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon (now the Apollo), is drawn from the group's posthumous 1983 live album and video release Oil on Canvas. Karn's acrobatic fretless basswork made this composition a highlight of the band's 1981 studio album Tin Drum, and the live version is even better. (When I was a college deejay, I always began my show with a twelve-inch single of this concert classic.) Also featured are Japan's David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, and adjunct member Masami Tsuchiya. Oil on Canvas was directed by Tony Lawson. Enjoy!