Tag Archives: 1969

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

BARRY MAHON DOUBLE FEATURE: THE WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ (1969) & THE BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN (1965)

is another 366 saint awaiting canonization.  His directing breakthrough was with the fiasco Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), which is essential bad film viewing. For another eleven years, Mahon made one godawful film after another until someone wised up and quit funding this hack (he died in 1999, never making another film after 1970). He was something of a for his time, although no one was stupid enough to give Mahon millions of dollars.

Most of Mahon’s films were  Z-grade nudies (International Smorgas-Broad, The Adventures of Busty BrownFanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico), but there are a few execrable standouts, with The Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969) and Thumbellina (bundled into  1972’s Certified Weird Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny) being among the most memorable.

Literally looking like garage filmmaking, The Wonderful Land of Oz opens with a warbled song and introduces us to hanging sheets, Glinda (still annoying, regardless of who plays her), a papier-mâché purple cow with blinking eyes, and badly costumed characters, including the Wogglebug: a man with antenna, bug eyes, and a walrus mustache.

Still from The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969)The Tin Man and Scarecrow are obligatory characters, but Pumpkinhead has replaced the Cowardly Lion. Someone forgot to give him a microphone under that oversized head because we can barely hear him. It hardy matters, because he seems to be struggling with his lines. His fellow cast members, who frequently talk to themselves, are no help, mumbling their cues as they move lethargically, seemingly having overdosed on tranquilizers.

Tip (Channy Mahon, Barry’s rugrat) replaces Dorothy. Tip is loaded with dull angst over his evil stepmother, the Wicked Witch Mombi ( played by someone named Ziska). She makes the boy go to bed on time, and when he attempts to rebel against such parental sadism, she vows to turn him into a statue. Comatose slapstick and phlegmatic sing-a-longs are visually accompanied by a cardboard fence (which we keep expecting to fall over) and half a gallon of straw on the soundstage floor to represent a stable. Tip flees with the aid of Pumpkinhead, who is brought to sort-of life via magic powder. The two run afoul of an obnoxious high school band (is there any other kind?) headed by teenaged brat General Jinjur. Tip and Pumpkinhead manage to make it to Emerald City (it’s a short walk around the garage), but rather than encountering a wizard behind the curtain, Tip gets magically transformed into a girl (he doesn’t put up much of protest) by Glinda, who confirms what we have always known: she is more Dolores Umbridge (the real villain of Harry Potter) than good witch (although she is called a fairy here). That sickening, bloated pink dress and K-Mart tiara fools no one. After that suburban porn reject Glinda forces a sex change on poor Tip, she does an exit stage left, cruelly depriving us yet again of the chance to see her die a horrible death.

Tip transitions from dull tyke to pouting queen. The eye blinks of our purple cow generate more life than poor Tip. Whatever hell Channy put Barry though off-screen, daddy has his humiliating revenge here.

The Wonderful Land of Oz is mind-numbing in its wretchedness. To think that kiddie cinema patrons actually had to shell out a dime to sit through this smacks of a prime example of yesteryear’s cruelties.

The Beast That Killed Women (1965) features a guy in a blue rubber gorilla suit terrorizing women in a nudist colony, which means lots of nudity, some bad 60s music, even worse dancing, and one actual kill. I just saved you an hour.

238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

AKA Sayat Nova

“Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein… cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until The Color of Pomegranates, not counting the generally unaccepted language of the Andalusian Dog by Buñuel.”–Mikhail Vartanov

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sofiko Chiaureli, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori, M. Alekyan, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze

PLOT: The Color of Pomegranates is essentially impressionistic and plotless, although the tableaux roughly follow the chronology of the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova. We first see the poet as a child in a village, introduced to the images that will follow him throughout his life: the lute, the iconographic texts of the Armenian Apostolic Church, farm animals. As he grows, he marries, becomes a widower and then a priest, leaves his monastic calling to travel the countryside as a bard, and is finally killed by Persians.

Still from The Color of Pomegrenates (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sayat Nova (the name translates as “King of Song”) was an 18th century Armenian priest, poet and ashik (a wandering troubadour who played a “saz,” a Central Asian lute). Nova was killed by Iranian invaders for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • Sergei Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of his major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolves around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) deals with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) covers the mythology of his native Georgia. His final movie, Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • First titled Sayat Nova, Parajanov’s film was immediately banned by the Soviet censors, then five minutes of religious imagery were removed and the film was briefly released under the title The Color of Pomegranates. The missing footage was restored in 1992.
  • Parajanov’s difficulty with USSR censors stemmed both from his rejection of the official aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism and from concerns that his films would revive nationalist sentiments in formerly independent states (Ukraine and Armenia). Parajanov, who was bisexual, was jailed from 1973-1977 on what are widely considered fabricated charges of homosexual rape, and was not allowed to make another film until 1984.
  • Actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays at least five roles in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Since actress Sofiko Chiaureli serves as Parajanov’s muse for this poetic odyssey, playing multiple roles (both male and female), it is only right that it is her face, reconfigured in dozens of guises, that we associate with the film. For our still, we selected her final appearance as the statuesque, granite-faced “Angel of Resurrection”—with a rooster perching on her shoulder.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Floating spinning lutes; Church of Sheep; shiny Mongol shoots a fresco

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all. Every carefully composed image in Pomegranates is coded to a meaning, but the key to interpreting them is missing. If you are a time-traveling Armenian from 1969 you will understand more of what is going on in Parajanov’s vast visual poem than the average viewer—but not a lot more. Don’t fight the movie, just allow yourself to drown in the mystery of its images.


Trailer for The Color of Pomegranates

COMMENTS: One of the earliest scenes in The Color of Pomegranates Continue reading 238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

Recommended

“Nobody ever got the point about what it was about. What we were trying to say through all this laughter and fun, was that if they dropped the bomb on a major civilisation, the moment the cloud had dispersed and sufficient people had died, the survivors would set up all over again and have Barclays Bank, Barclay cards, garages, hates, cinemas and all…just go right back to square one. I think man has no option but to continue his own stupidity.”–Spike Milligan

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rita Tushingham, Michael Hordern, , Richard Warwick, , Mona Washbourne, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore,

PLOT: After a nuclear bomb is dropped on Britain, about twenty survivors prowl the wreckage, including 17-months pregnant Penelope and her parents and lover, who live on a still-functioning subway car. Aboveground, Lord Fortnum seeks the opinion of a doctor, who confirms his suspicions that nuclear mutation will soon turn him into a bed sitting room. When the chocolates taken from vending machines run out, the family makes its way to the surface, where Penelope finds herself engaged to the doctor, the mother turns into a wardrobe, and the entire family moves into Lord Fortnum.

Still from The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Bed Sitting Room began its life as a one-act play, written by comedian Spike Milligan and John Antrobus in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Promoters acknowledged the film’s limited commercial prospects by issuing a poster with the tagline “we’ve got a BOMB* on our hands” and the footnote (“*BOMB – a motion picture so brilliantly funny it goes over most people’s heads”).
  • The film bombed so hard, in fact, that director Richard Lester could not find work for four years afterwards, and when he returned to movies he toned down the absurdism of his early films and worked in a mainstream idiom, returning with the action-comedy The Three Musketeers (1973) and going on to direct blockbusters like Superman II (1980).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The BBC, tidy tuxedo on top his top half, sackcloth on the bottom, squatting in an empty television frame on a blasted salt flat to deliver exposition.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: BBC post-bomb broadcasts; dad’s a parrot and mom’s a wardrobe; a doctor living inside his patient

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Twenty very British survivors of the apocalypse go about their business amidst the rubble, despite mutations that gradually change them into furniture or bargain housing. This absurd anxiety nightmare about the Bomb could only have come out of the Swinging Sixties; it’s one of the weirder relics of an era when filmmakers felt it was their patriotic duty to laugh in the face of the imminent apocalypse.


“Trailers from Hell” annotated original trailer for The Bed Sitting Room

COMMENTS: The original play “The Bed Sitting Room” was written Continue reading 230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

CAPSULE: THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Jack Smight

FEATURING: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas

PLOT: A young hobo meets a man covered from head-to-toe in tattoos; each illustration tells a story of the future if you gaze it at long enough.

Still from The Illustrated Man (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has a few odd moments, but overall this collection of speculative fiction isn’t that strange. Maybe people were easier to wierd-out in 1969; after all, this movie comes from a time when the tattoos that cover from Steiger’s character from head to toe made him a freak only suitable for a job as a sideshow attraction at a carnival. Today, the Illustrated Man could just be any old barista at Starbucks.

COMMENTS: Structurally, The Illustrated Man‘s concept is simple. Rod Steiger is Carl, the title character, whose body is a canvas of tattoos (“illustrations!,” he insists) that move and tell stories if the viewer stares at them long enough. Neophyte hobo Willie (Drivas) does so, which is the excuse for the movie to launch into three mildly ironic science fiction short stories. Meanwhile, a lot of time is devoted the interplay between Carl, whose harsh experiences are etched on his very flesh, and the wide-eyed younger wanderer who can’t resist peeking at the bitter future promised by the illustrations. Carl also relates, in flashback, the story of how he met the “witch from the future” (Claire Bloom), who seduces him into becoming her canvas.

The three tattoo-inspired stories involve a virtual reality nursery and some very spoiled children, a group of soldiers trapped on a planet where it never stops raining, and the tale of the last night on Earth. The major roles in these insets are also played by Steiger, Bloom and Drivas, but the framing story (and its flashbacks) outshines each of them. Steiger digs into the role like a famished hobo digs into a steak, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. He is grizzled and dominant as the tattooed tramp wandering the Earth looking to take vengeance on his witch, but fresh-faced and easily led as the younger man who stumbles into her lair. A couple of fantastical, surreal elements also exist in the framing story: Carl’s highly portable dog, and his ability to silence crickets. These moments give the film a strange altered reality and a creepy texture that goes beyond the chills elicited by mere campfire tales. The Illustrated Man received generally poor reviews at the time of its release. It’s not quite as bad as its contemporary critics thought, but neither is it a lost cult classic. It’s a perfectly serviceable science fiction anthology that will probably satisfy the average “Twilight Zone” enthusiast, but it also leaves a lot on the table, since Steiger’s meaty Carl seems like he could carry a feature-length film.

Ray Bradbury’s short story collection “The Illustrated Man” was first published in 1951. The framing story there only consists of a few paragraphs, so the adaptation necessarily expands greatly on the Illustrated Man’s character. Bradbury later wrote a short story also titled “The Illustrated Man,” which shows up in print editions of the book starting in 1997; it’s a dark fairy tale that is thematically similar, but very different, plotwise, than the story that appears in the film. There are rumors of a remake (which would adapt some of the other 18 stories in the original collection), with to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[the] screenplay is unsharp, without focus, working into and out of the hallucinations with great awkwardness. It also is so thinly structured that it simply cannot contain Mr. Steiger’s baroque performance as the man whose very skin is haunted.“–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: CULT OF THE DAMNED [AKA ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO] (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Thom

FEATURING: , Holly Near, Jordan Christopher, Charles Aidman, Lou Rawls, Davey Davison, Roddy McDowell
PLOT:  The travails of Beverly Hills-born Tara Nicole Steele, whose mother is a famous film star still trying to remain in the spotlight and whose father (Charles Aidman) is a closeted homosexual. When she returns home for her debutante party, she falls under the influence of a charismatic rock singer and his band mates, and the influence spreads to the entire household.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the lesser known products of the culture clash of the Psychedelic 60’s with Old Hollywood, Angel is a sweaty Tennessee Williams fever dream/soap opera on acid, and would make a decent double bill with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—and give it a run for its money.

COMMENTS: There’s just no description for Angel, Angel, Down We Go, other than to call it another raw look into the (twisted) brain of Robert Thom, writer of Wild in the Streets, Death Race 2000, and The Witch Who Came from the Sea, among others. Angel is the one time that Thom was in the director’s chair, having direct control over his material.

Angel was soundly flogged by critics and ignored by the general public when first released in August 1969, but when the Manson Family made their debut at roughly the same time, the film was given a second go-around under a different title, Cult of the Damned, in hopes that audiences would flock to the carny show. Audiences didn’t, critics still flogged the film, and it fell into obscurity, not even getting a home video release until February 2015. There were some satellite-TV screenings in the 80’s and on Showtime, and it streamed on Netflix (often getting confused with Guyana: Cult of the Damned). The movie gained a small cult of devotees who managed to catch the rare screening or who saw it during its initial run. While the title Cult of the Damned hints at lurid Mansonesque goings-on in upscale Beverly Hills, there is no cathartic massacre of demented hippies tearing down the social order at the end of the film. The original Angel title is more in line with the film’s tone, which is violent, but is mainly emotional/intellectual violence.

Angel would seem to be part of that slew of films made in the late 60’s where Old Hollywood, trying to stay relevant to audiences, collided, J.G. Ballard-style, with the New Counterculture (Valley of the Dolls, The Big Cube, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckenridge). It also partakes of the subgenre where a charismatic individual wreaks havoc on a ‘normal’ family (Teorema). It even goes further by actively incorporating aspects of avant-garde/underground film and theater, further exaggerating the camp of Hollywood melodrama. Imagine if some studio had hired to do a narrative feature film.

According to Paul Green’s “Jennifer Jones: The Life and Films,” Angel originally derived from a 1961 play of Robert Thom’s, repurposed as “A far out version of The Green Hat kind of play about a wild girl heading for destruction… a present day type of F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine.” That fits with reading the film as a demented fever dream of its main character/unreliable narrator, Tara Steele (Holly Near): child of neglectful parents and victim of emotional (and quite possibly, sexual) abuse, whose psychology is visualized via a Robert Rauschenberg/Martha Colburn type of collage created by artist Shirley Kaplan.

One can go on about the flaws of this film—and many have—but the main flaw is oddly the thing which makes it fascinating. Angel is overstuffed with themes which occur throughout Thom’s work: the fascination/repulsion with Old Hollywood (The Legend of Lylah Clare, The Phantom of Hollywood), the jaundiced look at the youth culture (Wild in the Streets), the effects of emotional and sexual abuse (The Witch Who Came from the Sea). It’s as though he decided to put in as much as he possibly could, since he was finally directing. The film never registers as being out of control, however; Thom’s direction is very deliberate and he gets excellent performances from the cast.

Recently released on Blu-Ray by Scorpion Releasing/Kino-Lorber (under the Cult of the Damned title), the film has an excellent presentation for home video, including a very informative and insightful commentary by film historians Nathaniel Thompson (from Mondo Digital) and Tim Greer. One quibble is the lack of subtitles;  the film is very dialog-heavy, with a lot of melodramatic word play that you might miss the first time. Subs would definitely help follow the theatrical dialog.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Confusion reigns in this sick film about Hollywood decadence.”–TV Guide

FELLINI SATYRICON (1969): THE CRITERION COLLECTION ON BLU-RAY

“The quintessential Fellini film. There are orgies, murders, abductions, rituals, all presented coolly, without editorial comment—as might a Warren Commission Report from Mars.”—Vincent Canby

Although Fellini Satyricon (1969) has already made the List, its re-release as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray warrants additional coverage. The previous MGM DVD Edition was threadbare, and although it thankfully kept the film in circulation, you can now donate your copy to a  virgin (although making Satyricon your first would be unwise).

Actually, my MGM DVD has proven quite handy over the last decade, being one of my most coveted films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on. More than once it has been useful in ridding myself of unwanted guests, or those who have overstayed their welcome. Rather than repeatedly looking at the Seiko on my wrist, all I had to do was slap Satyricon into the player and within a half hour I would, without fail, find myself alone enjoying the company of my dear, beloved, beautiful late Siamese cat, Betty.

The last time I pulled it out was possibly the most beneficial to me: a family member, for some reason, decided to drop by; which would have been fine, except that he brought with him his hopelessly constipated Bible-beating fundamentalist girlfriend, who proceeded to “enlighten” and “warn” me about the upcoming rapture, lest I be “left behind.” I neither argued nor even looked at my watch. I merely smiled, popped in Satyricon and—bam—in a record time of seventeen minutes, sister So-and-So was outta my door. I gave Betty her trout and lay back, thanking both St. Federico and MGM. Although Betty broke my heart by suddenly, and without warning, flying off this mortal coil, she can now join Federico and my wife and I (in spirit), looking down from trout heaven at a crystal clear Criterion Satyricon. I am willing to bet that, with this release, I can beat my seventeen-minute record the next time an uptight cinematic illiterate or artless boob darkens my door.

Of course, the film was loosely based on Petronius’ ancient satire, and all that history is covered here. As with Roma (1972) Fellini includes his name as part of the title, not out of ego, but to inform the view that this is Fellini’s personal interpretation of the satire, not Petronius. Conventional wisdom says that with Satyricon Fellini entered a whole new plane of eccentric (some would say excessive) personal filmmaking, daring to produce a work which does not strive to be populist. Fellini counted this, with 1976’s tragically unavailable Casanova, as his most perfectly realized film.

Director of Photography Giuseppe Rotunno supervised Criterion’s digital restoration, which renders the viewing experience an entirely new film. The difference is almost akin to seeing a painting in the flesh as opposed to looking at in an art history reference book. From the rich pigments of the clothing to the caked face paint of the extras, the vivid background colors, reddened skies, bluish serpentine caverns, and even the subtitles (a new and improved English translation), this is a radical improvement over MGM’s release. As a product of the late 60s, Satyricon is mesmerizingly psychedelic. The fabric of Fellini’s hellish milieu never looked so sumptuous and inviting. Additionally, its absurd dialogue, spoken in multifarious languages, and the Nino Rota score are at their most cacophonous.

Starting with the audio commentary track, the extras are aptly idiosyncratic. Not recorded directly for the Blu-ray release, it is instead an expansively informative “Behind the Scenes Diary,” recorded in 1971 by Eileen Lanouette Hughes. She covers Fellini’s original vision for the film, how that vision evolved during production, provides behind the scenes descriptions, the history of the film’s funding, explains Fellini’s processes and casting decisions, and compares Petronious’ satire to Fellini’s finished adaptation.

“Ciao Federico,” is an hour-long documentary produced by Gideon Bachmann in 1970. Showing the behind the scenes interaction between director and cast, it reveals Fellini as something of a taskmaster, albeit one who quickly apologizes for belittling his actors. Among the visitors to the set, we see  and his doomed wife, Sharon Tate.

The director discusses everything from the latent morality of the film (aka godless violence) to Gene Shalit’s waxed mustache in a series of interviews. An interview with DP Rotunno reveals the director’s aversion to creating a realistic ancient Roman world; he desired instead a mythical, artificial look.

Classical scholars, film consultants Joanna Paul and Luca Canali expand on Hughes’ commentary in the “Fellini and Petronious” supplement. On set photographer Mary Ellen Mark amusingly recounts anecdotes of working with Fellini (and the director’s sycophants).

Fellini Satyricon Poster“Felliniana” is a hi-res slideshow from Dan Young’s epic Satyricon memorabilia, including a collection of provocative posters.

An extensive essay booklet by film scholar Michael Wood accompanies the original theatrical trailer, closing this release. It is enough for several nights’ worth of cozy, entertaining, academic foreplay before consummating with the film itself. A wholeheartedly recommended, essential release.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A billionaire adopts a bum, then uses his fortune to pull outrageous pranks designed to show how far people will debase themselves for money.

Still from The Magic Christian (1969)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The spirit of 1969 lives on in this wild and wicked kitchen sink satire that owes a lot to easy access to fine Moroccan hashish. While it’s uneven and at times repetitive, when it’s at its best it’s got a reckless, swinging psychedelic sensibility that’s intoxicating.

COMMENTS: You may notice that there are five different writers listed in the credits of The Magic Christian, including director McGrath,  (who write the original novel), star Peter Sellers, and and  of (which was just kicking off its first year on television in 1969—both actors also play small roles in the film). This may help explain why the ramshackle satire on display here has a little bit of a “too-many-cooks”/revue show feel. The story arc is flat; it’s a series of pranks/sketches that don’t build on each other. They could be reshuffled in almost any order. In the first segment, billionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) adopts a hobo hippie (Starr), but Starr has no real character; he’s only there to lend an ear so that Sellers doesn’t have to explain his bizarre behavior via monologues. The sketches are sometimes satirical, but just as often, they’re plain goofy, as when Grand takes a tank brigade with him on a pheasant hunt. It’s not clear whether we should admire Grand for exposing the hypocrisy of money-grubbing society, or revile him for exploiting people’s weaknesses for his own amusement. “Some days it’s not enough merely to teach,” he muses, “you must punish as well.” That sounds fine when he’s trolling the upper-crust, using a suitcase full of money to fix the Oxford/Cambridge rowing race, but when he abuses a hotdog vendor or bribes a lowly beat cop to eat a parking ticket, he’s acting like a bully. And when he destroys a Rembrandt, he’s a straight-up sadistic Philistine. The first hour is uneven, but things get manic in the last half hour, when Grand pitches a cruise aboard the “Magic Christian” as the event of the season for the stiff-upper-lip crowd. Once aboard, the dandies find the trip a bourgeois nightmare populated by male exotic dancers, pot-puffing ship physicians, transvestites, a galley full of slave girls, a guy running around in a monkey suit, and a vampire. The Badfinger soundtrack, featuring the Beatlesesque hit “Come and Get It” (composed by Paul McCartney), is a major asset, and cameos by Raquel Welch, , and Yul Brynner (among others) liven things up considerably. Christian arrives as a little bit of a disappointment, partially because this prodigious an assembly of talent—seriously, Terry Southern, Peter Sellers, and a third of Monty Python working together on one project?—promises more comedy goodness than any single movie could possibly deliver. But it’s still a time capsule of psychedelic gags from an age in which satirists viewed restraint and good taste as the enemy, but without making stupidity and vulgarity their allies.

Much of the cast and crew of The Magic Christian overlaps with that of 1967’s Casino Royale: director McGraff, writer Southern, and star Sellers all worked together on the shambolic 60s spy spoof. In a further similarity, where Frankenstein’s monster made an appearance in Royale, Dracula shows up in Christian.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.”–Mark Bourne, DVD Journal (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kengo, who suggested it’s “not really that weird a movie by late sixties/early seventies standards, with all the disjointed dreamlike narrative, broad satire and surreal imagery that seemed to be standard at the time, but has some good bits.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ZETA ONE (1969)

Beware

AKA The Love Factor

DIRECTED BY: Michael Cort

FEATURING: Robin Hawdon, Yutte Stensgaard, James Robertson Justice, Dawn Addams

PLOT: While in bed with a blonde, a secret agent flashes back to his last mission, when he was in bed with a blonde while he was supposed to be out investigating a gang of female aliens abducting girls in miniskirts.

Still from Zeta One (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s camp value, and lovely birds in and out of teeny tiny miniskirts, in this soft porn parody of Barbarella and the Bond movies, but you have to sit through a ridiculous amount of padding to get to the “good” (and to the “weird”) stuff.

COMMENTS: When there are no naked women on the screen, you may try to entertain yourself during Zeta One by musing about Robin Hawdon’s mustache and its role in the plot. You see, in the flashbacks, alleged superspy John Word sports dashing soup strainer, but in the present time, he’s clean-shaven. But it’s not that the director simply forgot that he had a mustache in earlier scenes. The first time we see Word he’s wearing a fake mustache, which conspicuously falls off when he’s startled by Ann Owen, the sexy secretary from his secret agent office, who has snuck into his kitchen to pump him for information about the mission he just completed. To divert her questions, and to fill up time, the couple play a real-time game of strip poker: we watch them shuffle the cards, deal them out, consider their hands, draw, exchange bets and double entendres, lay down their hands, and then—the loser takes off her shoes! On to the next hand. This procedure burns up ten minutes of screen time, before they fall into bed and pillow talk turns into potential treason as Word flashes back to his last mission. It’s twenty minutes into the film, and the plot is just starting. That plot involves a race of all-female topless aliens who are kidnapping leggy young Earth women and training them to be the next generation of girlnapping topless aliens (for reasons I never quite puzzled out), while a portly supervillain-type is trying to horn in on the alien action (again, I have no idea why), and so hires a volunteer stripper to be abducted so she can scope out the alien civilization of “Angvia.” Once Her Majesty’s Service (or whomever) gets an earful of this scheme they call in Word, who, manly stache intact, just happens to be rolling around in bed with two naked blondes when he gets the call to action. But the plot continues without Word, who procrastinates by bedding another swinging chick, until he finally finds the time to go to central headquarters (where he encounters the film’s only funny joke, a wisecracking elevator). At no time does putative protagonist Word actually appear in the same scene with the villains, the aliens or the abducted stripper. His parts all appear to have been cheap padding added later. Which is a shame, because the few scenes the filmmakers managed to shoot for the sexy sci-fi parody they were making before the money ran out weren’t bad, and might have made a decently campy 45-minute film. That movie had geometric futurist sets decorated in bold primary colors, lots of those lava lamp/kaleidoscope freakout psychedelic effects (often incorporating nude women into the hallucinatory tableaux), and an army of kung-fu alien babes in bikini bottoms, pasties and pageboy wigs. The wraparound movie just has a smarmy would-be Bond lying in bed with naked women reminiscing about exploits he was not involved in in any way. But what about his fake mustache? My proposed solution to the facial hairpiece conundrum is to speculate that Robin Hawdon was called in for two separate rounds of padding: once when he was sporting a hearty lip bush, and a second time after he had shaved it off for another role. To explain the follicular discrepancy, they filmed a scene where he takes off a fake mustache, but they couldn’t think up any way to go back and insert dialogue in the earlier part of the film to explain why he needed a lip toupee to entertain Swedish stewardesses in his bachelor pad in the first place. But, why not just keep the fake mustache on for the new scenes? I have no good answer for that—maybe starlet Yutte Stensgaard refused to kiss a mustachioed man.

According to Nick Gillies at Den of Geek, the continuity director of Zeta One petitioned IMDB to have her credit on this film removed from the movie database!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…encapsulates everything that was weird and not-so-wonderful about the [swinging London] era.”–Gordon Sullivan, DVD Verdict (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Arnold Johnson, Robert Downey, Sr. (voice), , Antonio Fargas

PLOT: Putney Swope, the token African American on the board of a Madison Avenue

Still from Putney Swope (1969)

advertising firm, is accidentally elected Chairman of the Board on a secret ballot; he renames the agency “Truth and Soul Advertising,” fires most of the whites and replaces them with Black Panthers, and catapults the firm into a major force in American life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Putney Swope retains a razor-like satirical focus while simultaneously dealing in jokes that, for the most part, are so nonsensical that Monty Python would have rejected them for being too oblique and absurd.

COMMENTS: After Putney Swope becomes chairman of a major advertising firm, he’s approached by Mark Focus, a freelance photographer looking for work. Focus shows Swope his portfolio; Swope says that he’s the best he’s ever seen and that he has a job for him, and asks how much he costs. Focus responds with a high figure, but Swope keeps talking him down: “it’s going in the New York Times, not an art gallery.” Finally, Focus agrees to do the job for free. “I can get anybody for nothing,” Swope says. “Take a walk.” The exchange is funny, but it’s not at all clear why. Did Putney just negotiate himself out of a deal by convincing himself that anyone willing to work for free was not worth hiring, despite the fact that he knew Focus was immensely talented? Or was the entire dialogue a set-up, a way for a bitter Swope to turn the tables and humiliate a white guy who’s at his mercy? Is Swope a genius, an idiot, or a just a shaggy dog? I’ll go with the last option. Consider the fact that Focus returns to the movie, this time while Swope is in bed with his fiancée, and delivers the exact same pitch; then, he shows up yet again and repeats the same spiel, only this time to the President of the United States (who, we should point out, is a pot-smoking German dwarf)! Neither Putney Swope, the character, or Putney Swope, the movie, ever makes too much sense. The movie makes its point about the absurdities of power structures—whether corporate, political, social or racial–by presenting their players as absolute lunatics out of touch with reality. Swope was a giant leap forward for Downey in terms of technical quality, but when it was released, critics panned it, expecting to see a conventional satire and nonplussed by Downey’s bizarre sense of humor. Still, Downey could do straightforward comedy when he wanted to: the ad parodies, the only parts of the film that are in color, are often classic, especially the ad for “Face Off” pimple cream. An interracial couple sing a sweet and slightly obscene love song as they stroll hand and hand through a park in autumn; they gaze into each others eyes and croon touching lines like “A pimple is simple, if you treat it right; my man uses Face Off, he’s really out of sight—and so are his pimples.” There is a vague plot, as the power Swope inherits threatens to corrupt him (he begins his career by promising not to pimp cigarettes, liquor or war toys, but he agrees to use a rhythm and blues singer to sell window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto). There’s also a Muslim brother who dresses like a sheik and plans to betray Swope, a President pressuring Putney to drop all his ad campaigns and push defective cars instead, and an assassination attempt, but none of these storylines are treated with much seriousness; the movie prefers to move from punchline to punchline rather than from plot point to plot point. Besides the unapologetically stereotyped racial humor, the one potentially divisive point is Downey’s decision to dub all of Arnold Johnson’s dialogue himself, so that Putney Swope speaks like a Brooklyn Jew while everyone around him is talking in Harlem soul brother jive. The effect is surreal, but I found it more distracting than funny. Although Downey claims he did it because Johnson couldn’t read his lines properly, the dubbing comes off as a narcissistic stunt (couldn’t a black actor who wasn’t also the director have dubbed Johnson?) Still, Putney Swope hits the funny bone more often than it misses—it may not be Downey’s weirdest movie, but it is his funniest and most beloved.

Perhaps the most interesting footnote to Putney Swope concerns the curious case of Pepi Hermine, the German dwarf actor who plays the President here. The First Lady is played by Ruth Hermine, Pepi’s sister, which gives their bedroom scenes together a little bit of incestuous spice. Pepi’s only other movie credit came the very next year, when he played the Director in Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. By retiring after making Swope and Dwarfs back to back, Hermine managed to keep his brief résumé 100% weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Robert Downey’s sense of the ridiculous is employed in a spotty, punchline kind of comic usage… less revealingly witty then merely clever.”–Variety (contemporaneous)