Tag Archives: 1975

281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

Hugó, a Víziló

“If you accept a strange story told to you as true,

Then a certain enlightenment comes to you.”

Hugo the Hippo theme “It’s Really True” (as sung by Marie Osmond)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bill Feigenbaum, József Gémes

FEATURING: Voices of , Burl Ives, Ronnie Cox, Robert Morley

PLOT: The Sultan of Zanzibar kidnaps a herd of African hippopotami and relocates them to Arabia to defend his harbor from sharks. After the shark menace is ended and the city prospers, the citizens forget about the hippos, until one day the hungry herds’ excursion to eat local farmers’ crops leads the Sultan’s evil Vizier Aban-Khan to organize a slaughter of the beasts. Only the youngest, Hugo, escapes; he flees to Dar es Salaam and makes friends with the local children, but Aban-Khan continues to hunt him out of pure malice.

Still from Hugo the Hippo (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is inspired by an actual hippo nicknamed “Hugo”, who ate farmers’ crops before being adopted by the real Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam.
  • The film was a Hungarian/U.S. co-production. All of the animation was done on the cheap in Hungary. It was released dubbed into both languages.
  • Hugo the Hippo is co-writer/director Bill Feigenbaum’s only film credit. József Gémes went on to direct many Hungarian animated features.
  • Young Marie and Jimmy Osmond perform most of the songs on the soundtrack, along with two songs by Burl Ives and two numbers by jazz/funk session bands.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be something from the wild vegetable hallucination montage: the apple samurai? Jorma and Hugo climbing onto the space butterfly and sailing through the fruity cosmos? We selected the Dalí-esque shot of three massive monolith potatoes triangulating and transfixing our heroes with the magical beams that shoot from their literal eyes as our take-home image.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cigarette-smoking shark; cloud massacre; sliced apple ninja

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hugo the Hippo was released to widespread indifference. Contemporary reviewers were bored and strangely dismissive, failing to catch the undercurrent of weirdness here, but a generation of youngsters scarred by the hippopotamus massacre kept Hugo‘s underground legend alive. The combination of kitschy songs, psychedelic animation, bizarre plotting, tone shifts, hallucinatory episodes, and the inimitable Paul Lynde as an evil hippo-hating vizier blend to create a children’s film gone awry in all the most delightful ways.


Short clip from Hugo the Hippo

COMMENTS: We might adopt the lyrics from the opening Continue reading 281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

1975 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, AND SHIVERS

In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws defined the idea of blockbuster as we now know it. Despite the epic career that followed, the director has never surpassed this early work. It’s really a full-throttle horror adventure about the trio of shark hunters Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss; a fact that amazingly eluded MCA when they produced numerous sequels (without Spielberg) that reduced Bruce (the shark) to an underwater Jason Vorhees.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show defined “cult classic” like no other film before or since. Although it was relatively slow to take off, it became the staple for audience participating midnight showings and undeniably the number one cult film of all time. It was stupidly remade by Fox (imagine that) in 2016 and deservedly flopped with both critics and its TV audience.

Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom was the last and most notorious film of before he was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances, shortly after filming. The film itself is only for the strongest stomachs.

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (directed by Don Edmonds) is one of the most notorious of cult films and made a bonafide 70s grindhouse superstar out of former exotic dancer and softcore porn actress . The main role is loosely based on Ilse Koch—the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” The historical Ilse, wife of the camp’s commander, was known to have frequently flogged prisoners, including pregnant women. At one of her trials, witnesses were produced who testified that she chose Jews with unique tattoos for extermination so that she could keep their skin. After two trials, she was sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for crimes against foreigners, incitement to murder, and attempted murder. In the last few years of her life, she became paranoid that former camp prisoners were conspiring to kill her, and committed suicide in her cell in 1960.

Shot on the same sets as “Hogan’s Heroes,” the film is thoroughly a product of its time. Under that lens of horror/sexploitation/torture porn, it’s less offensive than either a TV series that makes light of the Holocaust or torture porn dressing itself up as sacred Easter pageant theology (2004’s Passion of the Christ). Still, one can question the entertainment value of a buxom blonde Josef Mengele conducting monstrous experiments, but 70s audiences had no qualms, flocking to see it in grindhouse theaters and making it enough of a hit that three sequels followed. Ilsa’s motive for torture is to prove that women can endure more pain than men and should therefore be allowed to fight on the front lines, which is about as convincing as the movie’s opening statement from the producers defending its historical accuracy. It’s unlikely to inspire contemporary viewers to go to do research on Wikipedia. There’s not much in the way of plot, but purely as exploitation, it’s resoundingly successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.

Poster for Ilsa She Wolf of the SS (1975)With this subject matter, a solid performance is needed. Thorne, with tight, low-cut white blouse and swastika armband, delivers in spades, spitting dialogue out of thin, cruel lips. It must be a testament to her onscreen Continue reading 1975 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, AND SHIVERS

275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

“God gave him a calling in life, and that was to make pornography.”–George Kuchar on Curt McDowell

DIRECTED BY: Curt McDowell

FEATURING: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, Moira Benson, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle,

PLOT: On a dark and stormy night in the Nebraska hinterlands, several individuals on the road end up taking shelter at “Prairie Blossom”, an old dark house that is the dominion of alcoholic matron Gert Hammond (Eaton). Everyone present has secrets and obsessions that are brought to light, and pair off in various combinations for sexual liaisons. The group also finds itself trapped inside the house by a gorilla rampaging outside.

Still from Thundercrack! (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Producers John Thomas (who briefly appeared as country singer Simon Cassidy) and Charles Thomas were film students of Thundercrack! actor/writer George Kuchar, classmates of director Curt McDowell, and heirs to a fortune from the Burger Chef fast food chain, which they used to fund the movie. They also provided a rooms in their home for the shoot.
  • George Kuchar was a legend in the underground film industry, making hundred of short, campy avant-garde films together with his twin brother Mike. Noteworthy titles include Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I’m Naked (both from 1966).
  • Actress Melinda McDowell was director Curt McDowell’s sister.
  • Kuchar and McDowell were rumored to be lovers.
  • The movie was shot for $9,000 and $40,000 in deferred costs.
  • Buck Henry used his clout as a judge to set up a (scandalous) screening at the 1976 Los Angeles Film Festival.
  • The original negatives disappeared and only five 16mm prints of the film were struck. One print was seized by Canadian authorities and three had been edited in an ineffectual attempt to make the film more marketable. The badly-damaged but uncut fifth print was primarily utilized for the transfer of the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release by Synapse Films.
  • El Rob Hubbard’s[1] Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Among the various obvious (and mainly pornographic) images to choose from, the one that sums up the spirit of Thundercrack! is the publicity photo of Gert and Bing in a melodramatic clinch—Bing in a wedding dress, Gert staring off into the horizon. It’s iconic, yet subversive, and pretty much encapsulates the film’s mood.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Versatile cucumbers; pickled husbands; amorous bipeds

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The collision of several elements: the lurid melodramatics along with the hardcore action, the visual stylization and the complex wordplay, all combine to make a film much more engaging and—dare I say it—innocent than one would expect from a mid 1970s hardcore sex parody film. Or, is it a parody film with porno elements? You decide…


Brief scene from Thundercrack!

COMMENTS: “What the heck is going on here—some sort of communal therapy group? Is that what this is?!!”—Bing

That’s probably a fair assessment of Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell’s Continue reading 275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

  1. Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s. []

CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti

PLOT: Four Italian fascists kidnap dozens of young boys and girls and imprison them in an isolated villa to sexually torture them in bizarre rituals of sadism.

Still from Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Salo: disturbing, intense, perverse, depressing, extreme. “Weird” is pretty far down the list. (I did not find any critics who used the word “weird” in discussing Salo). So many of our readers have nominated it for review that I am forced to confess that it may be found lurking somewhere in the outermost penumbra of the weird—but if you want to see a truly weird treatment of the same source material, look at how ended L’Age d’Or with a Surrealist reference to the same novel adapted in Salo.[1] Casting Jesus Christ as Duc de Blangis is less obscene but far more provocative than anything Pasolini could depict in his literal rendition of the book.

COMMENTS: “Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites… and the events portrayed, have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes… We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.”

Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom may seem stranger to someone who comes to the movie with no foreknowledge of the source material, the Marquis De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom,” than it does to someone who knows the backstory. De Sade, of course, is the 18th century writer whose name inspired the now commonplace words “sadism” and “sadist.” He was an aristocrat devoted to literature, philosophy, and pornography (not in that order), and he produced some genuinely accomplished works. His most powerful books, such as “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and “Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue,” mix shocking depictions of sexual cruelty with virile intellectual monologues wherein the characters philosophically justify their depravity and smash moralist objections.

“The 120 Days of Sodom” was not one of those books. It was De Sade’s first major work, written while was imprisoned in the Bastille (for a string of crimes including the beating of a prostitute and consensual homosexual sodomy). “Sodom” is an obsessive catalog of perversions, with almost none of the philosophical speeches that would add meaning and value to De Sade’s later work,[2] arranged according to a mathematical progression: 30 days of orgies in each set of four escalating perversions, moving from “simple” passions (such as urine drinking) to “murderous” ones. The novel was probably intended for De Sade’s own sexual gratification. The result is the Continue reading CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

  1. Henri Xhonneux and also make far stranger references to the book in their twisted De Sade biopic, Marquis. []
  2. “The 120 Days of Sodom”  was unfinished and the ending only sketched, so it is conceivable De Sade would eventually have inserted philosophical reflections later. []

CAPSULE: L’ IMPORTANT C’EST D’AIMER (1975) [THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE]

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Fabio Testi, Jacques Dutronc, Roger Blin, Claude Dauphin,

PLOT: Nadine Chevalier (Schneider) is an actress on the verge of being ‘over the hill’ and acting in films far beneath her talent. Servais Mont (Testi) is a freelance photographer who also shoots pornography for a local crime lord (Dauphin), paying off a debt. They meet on a film set and a definite connection is established and acknowledged; however, Nadine is married to Jacques (Dutronc), a film buff and dreamer, and is still devoted to him.

In love, Servais helps her by anonymously backing a play with a part for her, borrowing the money from a crime lord. But things do not work out as hoped, ending with violence and suicide—and a glimmer of hope at the end.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compared to Zulawski’s previous two films and the two to follow, this would probably be considered his first “normal” film, a romantic melodrama. However, no Zulawski film could be considered “normal”—the intensity is still there, but it stays within the confines of the real world the film establishes, rather than spinning off into its own universe. Plus, it has Klaus Kinski. The Important Thing Is to Love may not be full-on “weird,” but it’s worth a look on its own terms.

COMMENTS:  After the Polish Government effectively banned Diabel and kicked Zulawski out of Poland, he went back to France where he had studied and worked earlier before becoming a director. He worked as a script doctor and appeared in some films before being approached with this project, based on a novel by Christopher Frank, “La Nuit Americaine.”

At heart, the movie is a love story—well, a love triangle—but there’s plenty of room for some of Zulawski’s usual concerns: the cause of Art over Commercialism; the corruption and loss of innocence; friendship and betrayal. Also present is the use of doubling (note the open and close of the film); references to classical works (Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in this case); and, of course, staircases.

The best available release is Mondo Vision’s DVD, which comes in a special and a limited edition (the limited edition including an expanded booklet and a CD of the acclaimed score by Georges Delerue). The DVD also features a commentary by Zulawski and Daniel Bird, along with an interview with Zulawski. Audio is in the original French language, along with English and German dubs and English subtitles.

L’ Important C’est D’aimer was the second Zulawski film to get exposure in the West when it was featured on L.A.’s Z-Channel (as can be seen in Xan Cassavetes’ documentary Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession).

That Most Important... 1

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the films of Andrzej Zulawski are known for their boisterous energy and feverish excesses of sex, violence and the bizarre, his third film L’important c’est d’aimer (The Important Thing Is to Love) is tempered by a richly humanistic story and a shattering performance by Romy Schneider, which she considered to be (and many critics agree) her career zenith.”–Tim Lucas, Sight & Sound (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: GET MEAN (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Ferdinando Baldi

FEATURING: Tony Anthony, , Lloyd Battista

PLOT: An abandoned town, a gypsy family, a very Spanish princess: enter, the Stranger. Offered $50,000 to ferry the displaced sovereign back home, before she can be reinstated there’s a question of reclaiming an ancient treasure. Alas, standing in the way of our Hero is a sadistic fop, a hot-tempered Mongol chieftain, and a Shakespeare-quoting hunchback.

Still from Get Mean (1976)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By setting the bulk of his Spaghetti Western somewhere along the coast of Spain, Ferdinando Baldi’s Get Mean elicits an initial reaction of “oh realllly…,” then cranks things up to all the way to bizarre with its visionary combination of temporally and geographically misplaced clashing adversaries. Tony Anthony adds to this movie’s peculiar brand of “magic” with his gristly voice and an unceasingly sardonic grin in lieu of a stoic Clint Eastwood imitation. Toss in no fewer than three main villains, chin-stroking xenophobia, and a string of food motifs, and you’ve got yourself a Western.

COMMENTS: This breezy little movie starts off with weirdness hanging off its sleeve. A man (Tony Anthony) is being dragged through a desolate countryside past a mysterious reflective orb nestled among bedraggled plants. Pulled into an empty town, he stumbles into one of the buildings. Inside, of course, is a family of gypsies. The eldest woman of the group says, ominously, “We have been expecting you.” The Stranger accepts their task of bringing a Spanish princess back to her home country. After a quick brawl with some local toughs, one dressed in Mongol garb, the Stranger heads off on a burning-map travel montage. Starting from somewhere in the Great Lakes region and heading across the sea, within minutes we find the escort and his ward on the beaches of Spain, staring down two hostile armies.

By this time, things have not gone well for the stranger. Nor have things gone well for those who prefer a little historical accuracy, even in their Spaghetti Westerns. The rival bands are Moors, who in this world seem to be soldiers of the Spanish monarchy, and a clutch of barbarians, which explains the outfit of the baddie in the opening fight. I’m not certain how many Central Asian warriors are named Diego, but Get Mean taught me there’s at least one. Aiding the Mongol antagonist are a refined, bordering-on-maniacal hunchback (Lloyd Battista) and one of those caricatured homosexuals only found in ’70s movies. These three are keen on the power that can only be unlocked through the discovery of the ancient “Treasure of Rodrigo” (!).

Quips, beatings, explosions, and large firearms are scattered throughout the movie. These are to be expected in a low budget Western. Less expected is the Stranger’s trial in a quasi-Land of the Dead. Conniving with the hunchback, the Stranger infiltrates an ancient mosque that has teamed up with Christian clergy. He squares off against the psychic attacks of unhappy undead in a chapel, travels through some chintzy-looking caves, and dispatches perhaps the least effective treasure guardian ever encountered in cinema. Enough? Heavens no — an explosion renders him black(face)ened for a stretch, during which he matches wits with a wild bull in the middle of nowhere. Get Mean‘s writer and director have cheerily decided to throw believability to the wind in pursuit of a movie that looks like what might’ve happened had ever tried his hand at the Western genre.

Tony Anthony’s performance is reminiscent of something by Clint Eastwood’s illegitimate half-brother. We know he’s either in for travel or trouble whenever a very jaunty, very Spaghetti tune gears up—perhaps the only note of consistency to be found in the movie. The combined elements of this Western set over 4,000 miles East of the Mississippi were enough to make me wonder what the heck would happen next. Sadly, Get Mean was ignored upon release and didn’t find a cult following in the intervening four decades. Thankfully, that did not stop the good people at Blue Underground from resurrecting it. Perhaps over the next forty years Get Mean might find the fringe adoration that eluded it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the strangest and most obscure spaghetti westerns ever to come out of Italy…”–TV Guide

RUSS MEYER’S SUPERVIXENS (1975)

had seemingly put low budget independent film permanently behind him when he made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970, co-written with ) and The Seven Minutes (1971) for super-studio 20th Century Fox. The first film made an unprecedented nine million dollars, but the latter was a commercial and critical failure. The axiom “you are only as big as your last film” held true, and Meyer was back on an independent path with the Caribbean-filmed period drama Black Snake (1973). Unfortunately, that was also a commercial failure. Some advocated it as an attempted change-of-pace for Meyer, but many felt the director had lost his footing.

Supervixens (1975) marked a return to Meyer’s zanier sexploitation style. It also finds him trying to catch up with his earlier self and with the indie school he influenced, which had already surpassed Meyer in its sex and violence quotas. Fortunately, he succeeded, and Supervixens‘ unexpected financial success (especially for an independent film) paved a path for the larger budgets of Up! (1976) and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979; his second and final collaboration with Ebert as co-writer).

Still from Supervixens (1975)Square-jawed full-service gas attendant Clint (Charles Pitts) is married to super jealous Super Angel (Shari Eubank). She is convinced his “Super Service” includes more than washing the windows of well-endowed Super Lorna (Christy Hartbug). Angel calls Clint’s former Nazi boss (!?!) Martin Bormann (Henry Rowland) and informs the hayseed that hubby better get home right now (for sex) or she will burn down the house. After beating the hell outta Clint, Super Angel plays victim and gets copper Harry Sledge () to arrest her philandering hubby.

Clint’s drowns his sorrows with bartender Super Haji (). While the cat’s away, Super Angel plays with not-so-super Harry. Alas, Harry is no Dirk Diggler, and after she mocks his libido, he sadistically beats, stabs, stomps, strangles, drowns and electrocutes her in the most violent scene from any Meyer film (it is disconcertingly brutal, even by contemporary standards), before burning down the house for real.

After turning down Haji’s “come hither” advances, Clint’s alibi goes bonkers, making him the most likely suspect in his wife’s murder. Clint hits the road in a Chuck Jones-styled desert rendition of a Homerian odyssey. He hitches a ride with swinging couple Cal (John Lazar) and Super Cherry (Colleen Brennan). Poor unfortunate soul Clint is a magnet to super-sized udders, and after turning down ménage a trois action with the duo, he gets beaten up, robbed, and dumped in the desert.

A good Samaritan picks Clint up and takes him home to his new mail-order bride: Super Soul (), who also tries to rape our hero. Soul is persistent and runs round the farm naked an awful lot, but again, Clint resists temptation, and barely escapes a flying pitchfork.

Clint’s next stop is at a motel, whose proprietor has an amorous daughter in Super Eulah (Deborah McGuire). Another attempted seduction leads to another exit stage left through the sand dunes in a scene akin to an X-rated comic book version of a Road Runner chase.

Clint encounters true love at Super Vixen’s Oasis. Super Vixen (Eubank) is the virtuous reincarnation of Angel (she wears a white dress, sports white shoes, drives a white car, and has painted her diner white).

Harry comes to spoil the lovers’ bliss, bringing out his whole arsenal, direct from Acme. Like a certain coyote named Wile E., Harry has bought some defective weaponry and blows himself up. For any viewer that may doubt Meyer’s conscientious homage to Looney Tunes, the director even includes a “beep, beep,” coming from nowhere in the desert as our villain gets blown to smithereens. Topping that is Super Vixen, perched naked atop a phallic rock, shouting “that’s all folks!” like Porky (thankfully) never did.

Indeed, Supervixens is a Russ Meyer ramped up spectacle of surreal caricatures paying homage to… Russ Meyer. The best approach is to chew slowly and digest.

221. THE BEAST (1975)

La Bête

“There was nothing in his previous output—a respectable career that stretched back to the late 1940s—to prepare the viewer for this terrible outrage. Or perhaps, if you looked hard enough, there was. For the exotic and the erotic—and the downright weird—had always been part of Borowczyk’s cinematic universe.”–Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs, “Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984

DIRECTED BY: Walerian Borowczyk

FEATURING: Guy Tréjan, Lisbeth Hummel, Pierre Benedetti, Sirpa Lane

PLOT: Lucy, an impressionable young heiress, comes to France for an arranged marriage with Mathurin de l’Esperance, the socially awkward scion of an aristocratic family. The de l’Esperance family harbors many secrets, including the story of an ancestor from centuries ago who went missing and whose corset was discovered covered in claw marks. The first night she stays in the de l’Esperance chateau, Lucy has a erotic dream about a Victorian lady ravished in the forest by a beast.

Still from The Beast [La bete] (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Walerian Borowczyk began his career making highly regarded surreal animated short films. He moved on to live action art house features like Goto, Island of Love (1969) and Blanche (1972), which  were respectable and well-received.
  • After 1972 Borowczyk’s career took a turn towards the explicitly erotic/pornographic when he began work on Immoral Tales, a portmanteau of erotic shorts based on literary sources or historical personages (Erzsebet Bathory and Lucrezia Borgia).
  • The Beast was originally intended as a segment of Immoral Tales, but Borowczyk decided to expand it to feature length. The “original” Beast is the segment that now appears as Lucy’s dream. Screened as an 18-minute short entitled “La Véritable Histoire de la bête du Gévaudan,” it understandably caused quite a scandal at the 1973 London Film Festival.
  • The Beast in Space (1980) was a totally unauthorized Italian “sequel” that also starred sex siren Sirpa Lane.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Beast‘s indelible image is too obscene to be mentioned in polite company. Being as circumspect and polite as possible, we’ll simply say that it has to do with the titular creature’s, ahem, “equipment.” Scrub your eyes though you may, you can’t unsee these things, so beware. If you can make it through the equine porn scene that opens the film, you should be fine. (Not surprisingly, most of The Beast‘s promotional material has focused on Sirpa Lane’s stunned face, framed by a powdered wig, as she gazes in shock at the same images that will be indelibly stained in your memory).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse porn cold open; eternally spurting beast; clerical bestiality lecture

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Some movies are designed to be weird. Some movies become weird because of certain confluences of incompetencies. And then there are movies like The Beast—a nugget of explicit (if simulated) bestiality porn wrapped in a nuptial drawing room drama, made by a director on the cusp of art house stardom who seems intent on throwing it all away as dramatically as possible—that are weird simply because, if not for the evidence of your own eyes, you could not believe that they exist.


Re-release trailer for The Beast

COMMENTS: No one can accuse Walerian Borowcyzk of sandbagging. After a quote from Voltaire (“worried dreams are but a passing Continue reading 221. THE BEAST (1975)

209. BLACK MOON (1975)

“I see it as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium, or maybe my own limits.”–Louis Malle on Black Moon

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cathryn Harrison, Therese Giehse, , Alexandra Stewart

PLOT: A young woman is driving a car during a shooting war between the sexes. Escaping from a checkpoint where male soldiers are executing females, she finds refuge at an old farmhouse inhabited by a batty old woman, a mute brother and sister, a band of nude animal-herding children, and a unicorn. Initially rejected by the chateau’s residents, she gradually finds herself becoming part of this strange alternate society.

Still from Black Moon (1975)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although Louis Malle had dabbled in light surrealism before with the whimsical Zazie dans le Metro (1960), there was nothing in the respected director’s then-recent oeuvre (mostly documentaries and historical pieces like 1974’s Vichy drama Lacombe, Lucien) to prepare his audience for the bizarreness of Black Moon. Sven Nykvist won a Caesar for his cinematography, but the film was mainly a commercial and critical failure, and quickly lapsed from circulation.
  • Black Moon was a transitional work in Malle’s move from France to the USA. He shot the film in France, at his own estate near Cahors, but in the English language, with a British, American and Canadian actor in the cast. After this movie, the director went to America where he scored a series of critical successes with Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre.
  • Joyce Buñuel, Malle’s co-writer, was ‘s daughter-in-law.
  • Therese Giehse, who plays the bedridden woman, died before the movie was released, and Black Moon is dedicated to her. Malle credited her with partly inspiring the idea for Black Moon by suggesting he make a movie without dialogue (although the eventual script did have dialogue, it is sparse and often nonsensical).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Appropriately for a dream-movie, the indelible image is an imaginary one; it’s the transgressive event you see transpiring in your mind’s eye the minute after the film officially ends on a provocative freeze-frame.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Gender genocide; portly unicorn; resurrection by breast milk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Black Moon concerns a young girl’s flight from an absurd world—where camo-clad men line up female prisoners of war and execute them, while the gas mask-wearing ladies returning the favor to their male captives—into a totally insane one. The movie is an unexpected assay of the irrational from nouvelle vague auteur Louis Malle, and although it’s congenitally uneven, it makes you wonder how wonderful it would have been if every master director had indulged himself by unleashing one unabashedly surreal film on the world.


Original trailer for Black Moon

COMMENTS: A frayed fairy tale set in no time or place in particular, Continue reading 209. BLACK MOON (1975)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and ‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

While none of the aforementioned productions entirely short shift the composer’s context, ‘s 1975 The Magic Flute remains the proverbial yardstick by which all other film versions are measured. This is due to the director’s spiritually sagacious cinematic and musical aesthetics (he was an accomplished organist and musicologist, which super-conductor Herbert von Karajan sensed when he enviously wrote Bergman on seeing the film: “You direct as if you were a musician. You have a feeling for the rhythm, the musicality and pitch.”)

Bergman had unsuccessfully tried for years to mount a production of “The Magic Flute,” finally getting his chance in 1975 with a  television offer. He later said that making this film was the best experience of his career. His enthusiasm is contagious. Bergman worked with conductor Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the film fully gives the appearance of an actual live performance. It isn’t, and although the singers lip sync to their own prerecorded voices, few have complained about it in forty years. It is sung in Swedish instead of the usual German, but only the most constipated opera buffs (who may be among the bitchiest inhabitants of Earth) have objected.

“Real” movies of operas (the aforementioned Branagh production) employ actors to lip synch for the singers, which rarely works, because in opera, the drama is in the arias. From the outset, Bergman wanted young singers, as opposed to established opera stars or actors, feeling that this would convey a sensuous warmth and energy. His instincts proved astute. Heading the cast is Hakan Hagegard as the charming bird catcher Papageno. Josef Kostlinger is an ideal, square-jawed Tamino, and the aptly named Ulrik Cold exudes the right amount of perfected menace as the sorcerer Sarastro. Irma Uriila as Tamino’s object of affection, Pamina, alongside Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding as the Queen’s three ladies all capture the winsome quality of the composer’s characters. Elisabeth Erikson is the consummate Papagena (be prepared to utilize the repeat button for her duet with Papageno) and Birgit Nordin is a beautifully manipulative Queen of the Night.

Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist open on the “audience,” fluidly gliding over a sea of captivated faces, including Bergman’s young, cherubic daughter. Throughout the opera, Bergman repeatedly cuts away to her reaction (a few times too many). Still, rather than being a visual cue, prompting us to react likewise; we sense instead that she is participating in the dream with us.

Still from The Magic Flute (1978)With production design by Henny Normak (who also assisted Karen Erskine in costume design) and sets by Anna Lee-Hansen and Emilio Moliner, Bergman solves most of the problems with filmed opera. He emphasizes “The Magic Flute”‘s artificiality, wittily elevating us past the banality of hyperrealism. By utilizing the malleability of film as a medium, Bergman avoids the traps of limited action in the opera’s “real time,” employing inviting close-ups which, for once, are not gimmicky.

Admittedly, Shikaneder’s libretto is occasionally wayward. Bergman actually tightens the plot and quickens the pacing with his script, which parallels those Bergmanesque themes of human love as the authentic antidote to spiritual loneliness.

The result was overwhelming critical praise, which the late Pauline Kael summed up: “It is a blissful present, a model of how opera can be filmed.”