Tag Archives: Biopic

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

240. EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015)

“And a curious use of side-stepping metaphor and associative poetry is involved and embraced – all of which I came later to understand as characteristics of montage, the cinema of comparison – film by association – an ‘only-connect’ – cinema, cinema at long last not a slave of prosaic narrative but hopping and skipping about with serious purpose to run like the human imagination runs, making everything associative till everything past, present and future, old and new, both sides of the wall – like Cubism – which so influenced the contemporary Russian avant-garde in painting – though Malevich said that Eisenstein could never join the Russian avant-garde, he was ‘too real’. Amazing! I had found my first cinema hero.”–Peter Greenaway on Sergei Eisenstein (from director’s notes to Eisenstein in Guanajuato)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti

PLOT: In 1931, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potempkin) is in Mexico, gathering material for a new movie. While there, Eisenstein, a closeted homosexual, falls in love with his Mexican guide. He becomes more interested in the romance than the movie, but when his American financiers back out and Stalin calls him home, the director must abandon his first true love.

Still from Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Eisenstein in Guanajuato begins from a real life episode. In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein made three film in Russia—Strike, Battleship Potempkin, and October [AKA Ten Days That Shook the World]—that were globally regarded as classics, especially for their revolutionary kinetic editing. In 1928, Eisenstein was allowed to leave the Soviet Union as a sort of artistic goodwill ambassador. He toured Europe and North America, lecturing on Soviet film while learning the techniques used in other countries (specifically, the new technology of synchronizing sound to film). While abroad, the writer Upton Sinclair and his wife Mary agreed to fund Eisenstein with $25,000 to make a film in Mexico. Stalin worried that Eisenstein might defect and called him home, while the director simultaneously quarreled with his American backers over his extravagant expenses. The feature film, which would have been titled ¡Que viva México!, was never completed, although the Sinclairs edited some of the reported 250 miles (!) of film Eisenstein shot into three shorts. Eisenstein was never able to obtain the footage to edit himself.
  • Based on diary entries and homoerotic sketches he made, Eisenstein is widely believed to have been gay, and his marriage to Pera Atasheva a platonic one. There is no hard evidence he ever acted on these inclinations—although of course if he did he would have taken pains to hide the evidence, since under Stalin homosexual activity was punishable by five to ten years of hard labor in a prison camp.
  • Peter Greenaway originally planned the film as a documentary.
  • Try as he might, Greenaway could not find a Russian actor of the right age and appearance who was able to speak English and Spanish convincingly and was willing to appear nude in a gay sex scene. Elmer Bäck is a Finnish actor previously seen only on Finnish television.
  • Greenaway has announced a prequel, Eisenstein in Hollywood, intended to be completed by 2017.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Probably, the image that sticks in your mind will come from the sex scene centerpiece—one of the most explicit gay romps in a mainstream film, and one in which the lovers discuss colonialism and syphilis as Eisenstein is anally deflowered. We don’t want to ruin the, er, unusual climax where Palomino storms Eisenstein’s Winter Palace for you, however.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Looming desperadoes; shower phone; animated angel porn

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This lurid and delirious biopic of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein plays like Peter Greenaway was possessed by the gay ghost of , desperate to come out and obsessed with a postmortem affection for split screens.

Original trailer for Eisenstein in Guanajuato

COMMENTS: It’s fair to say Eisenstein in Guanajuato is Peter Greenaway’s Ken Russell movie: an erotically charged imaginary biography of an artist in the throes of passion, and a salacious sneer at the Continue reading 240. EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015)

CAPSULE: THE DOORS (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , Meg Ryan, , Kathleen Quinlan

PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.

Still from The Doors (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.

COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of , perfectly cast in a cameo as ). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.

Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most peculiar about the film is Stone’s attitude toward his hero. He’s indulging in hagiography, but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was. But while on the one hand Stone acknowledges how basically pointless and destructive his excesses became, on the other, he keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process… Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

KLAUS KINSKI’S PAGANINI (1989)

Films about composers are rare, and probably for good reason. Few can forget Hollywood’s sickeningly sanitized version of Chopin’s life, A Song To Remember (1945) with Cornel Wilde’s Hallmark-style portrayal of the composer literally (and hammily) dying at the keyboard (of tuberculosis) after a grueling tour for “the song to remember.” It was Liberace’s favorite movie for good reason. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the 1970 composer biopics by . Russell being Russell, these were, naturally, highly irreverent and decidedly idiosyncratic takes on Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Then came Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film on Mozart, Amadeus (1984), which, though largely fictional, does capture the spirit, personality, and drive of the composer. If Forman’s triumph seemed to signal a new, respectable artistic trend in musical dramas, then along came Klaus Kinski with Paganini (1989) to prove that notion wrong. Script in hand, Kinski attempted to solicit  to direct the life story of the demonic 19th century virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Kinski had long felt a strong identification with the famed musician and repeatedly implored Herzog to direct. Upon reading Kinski’s treatment, Herzog deemed it an “unfilmable mess.” Not one to be dissuaded, Kinski, for the first and last time, took over the director’s reigns himself . The result is absolutely the weirdest musical biopic ever made, and that is no exaggeration. It has aptly been referred to as Kinski Paganini since it as much a self-portrait as it is the composer’s portrait. Picasso once said “every work of art, regardless of subject matter, is a self-portrait.” Kinski Paganini is the second of two highly personal self-portraits Kinski left behind before dying at the age of 56 in 1991. The first is an actual autobiography, titled “All I Need Is Love.” Both works sparked an outrage amongst the status quo. Kinski’s written manifesto has since come to be regarded as one of the great maniacal bios.

To call Paganini a biopic is a bit of a stretch. As Herzog predicted the film is a mess, and a repellent one at that; but it is such an individualistic mess that it demands attention. Kinski’s film is an unquestionably disturbing example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.

The film is available on DVD via Mya Communications in both the 84 minute theatrical cut, mandated by aghast producers, and Kinksi’s own, fourteen minute longer “versione originale.” With Kinski’s cut, there is no reason to watch the theatrical version, which was an impossible attempt to downsize the director’s monstrously egotistical vanity project.

Kinski’s version opens with two priests, racing towards the dying musician. They bicker back and forth over whether they should offer last rites to that vile seducer of young girls. To make his point of hypocrisy about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles, Kinski intercuts the carriage ride with shots of priests’ hands distributing the Eucharist to the awaiting, open mouths of nubile catechumens. The composer’s young son (played by Kinski’s own son, Nanhoi) greets the priests and, upon learning their intent of attempting to solicit repentance from the dying composer, Jr. sends them packing. Like Kinski, Paganini obsessively dotes on his son (Nanhoi repaid the affection in 1991, being the only person who attended Klaus’ funeral). Kinski’s Niccolò Paganini has almost no dialogue in the film but he does supply a judicious bit of voice-over: “I am neither young nor handsome. I’m sick and ugly. But when women hear the voice of my violin, they do not hesitate to betray their husbands with me.” To drive that point home, the rest of the film is, essentially, a series of montages: Paganini plays his violin with searing intensity, women masturbate to him, Paganini plays, horses have sex, Paganini plays, crowds throng to him, Paganini plays, upper class society types deem him the devil, Paganini plays, women succumb to orgasmic heights, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in carriages, Paganini plays, underage girls dance, Paganini walks through the streets-alone, silent, internally determined, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in a field of flowers, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex on an actual bed, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini has more uninhibited sex, Paganini composes, Paganini plays, Paganini has even more sex, Paganini helps aspiring young musicians, clerics deem Paganini a rapist of underage girls, Paganini gives to the poor, the ill Paganini comes to increasingly depend on his son, Paganini gets sick and dies. The End.

Still from Paganini (1989)Kinski’s cut of the film is excessively graphic (bordering on pornographic), contemplative, and rapturous. The film itself, like both Paganini and Kinski, is deranged, coarse, impassioned, libidinous, and artfully arresting. Unfortunately, Mya Communications’ very good transfer work is solely reserved for the theatrical cut. Kinski’s versione originale is merely an extra, and that print remains unretouched, leaving the darkly lit interior scenes almost unwatchable. Pier Luigi Santi’s lush cinematography compliments the film’s excellent score of Paganini caprices. In addition to cutting the graphic sex scenes, the theatrical version omits the entire opening sequence with the priests, making an already disjointed film feel even more fragmentary. The dubbing is poor in both versions.The extras are a mixed bag. There is an indispensable, hour-long making of the film documentary, deleted scenes (from both cuts), the original trailer, and a bizarre Cannes press conference. Unfortunately, the cost of the set may require a second mortgage.

It was the theatrical version I saw in a dingy theater upon its release. I was one of ten patrons present. By the time the credits rolled, there were only two of us remaining. I was not sure whether the film was an adventurous masterpiece and/or an “unfilmable mess,” but I do think that any film that inspires eight out of ten people to walk out has to have something going for it.

CAPSULE: FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Shainberg

FEATURING: , , Ty Burrell

PLOT: Diane Arbus is an artistically repressed housewife whose creativity is stirred when a circus freak moves upstairs.

Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although I hesitate to rule any movie that includes Nicole Kidman shaving a wolfman off the list of the weirdest movies ever made, the fact is that the disappointing Fur never really flies.

COMMENTS: While I admire the chutzpah behind the concept of an “imaginary portrait” that, as the prologue explains, seeks to convey the “inner experience” of the artist, I’m afraid Fur doesn’t deliver the goods. Fur never really delves into Diane Arbus’ inner experience, instead choosing to metaphorize it as a Beauty and the Beast romantic fantasy that ends up feeling surprisingly conventional, given the (deliberately) ridiculous premise. That premise involves the future famous photographer (a wan and lovely Nicole Kidman) as a frustrated housewife who becomes obsessed with her new upstairs neighbor who always wears a mask in public and clogs her drains with wads of hair. The stranger is soon revealed to be Lionel, played by an extra-downy Robert Downey, Jr., and he serves as a White Rabbit that leads Diane/Alice down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland of carnivalesque visions. (The “Alice in Wonderland” references are heavy during the first Platonic night Arbus spends in his lair, including a tiny door, a note instructing her to drink a cup of tea, and even actual shots of a white rabbit). Fur gets its surrealistic impulses out of the way in that initial meeting between Diane and Lionel, which segues into Arbus’ dreams, broken up by establishing conversations with the always-in-control Lionel. Diane plans to shoot a portrait of her neighbor as her first artistic venture into photography, but rather than setting up a tripod, she spends more and more time gadding about Manhattan with Lionel, who introduces her to his glamorous cadre of freaks and outsiders that includes an armless woman, a prostitute, an undertaker, a transvestite, and, naturally, dwarfs, dwarfs, dwarfs! Her long-suffering and very devoted husband Allan understandably grows jealous at her absorption into Lionel’s world—I laughed out loud when, late in the film, he grows a thick beard to try to compete with Lionel’s locks! Although Downey’s “sensitive” performance received praise in some quarters, I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the character. For someone who had been shunned due to his looks for his entire life, Lionel comes across as too confident a seducer of the submissive Diane. He’s far too cocky for a guy who looks like a cocker spaniel. The movie builds to a truly unsatisfying consummation that senselessly defangs—er, defurs—Lionel’s deformity, which is ironically the opposite of what Arbus’ photographs did to their subjects. Even accepting Lionel not as a real character but as the personification of the allure of the grotesque, Fur doesn’t give us much insight into Diane’s passion. Creativity it is simply analogized to romance, and left at that. We never get any sense of the fire Arbus must have had for her work, only her ardor for a symbol. Although I’m no fan of biopics and their enslavement to historical fact, I think that in Arbus’ case a more traditional, non-imaginary portrait may have served its subject better. Or, maybe just a portrait with more imagination.

Diane’s husband Allan Arbus, played here by Ty Burrell, is the same Allan Arbus who starred in Greaser’s Palace and other movies. He did not take up acting until after Diane left him to follow the photography muse. He even appeared in two films with the young Robert Downey, Jr.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…far too impressed with its own weirdness.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

FEATURING: Graham Chapman, , Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,

PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).

Still from A Liar's Autiobiography (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.

COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.

The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.”–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (contemporaneous)

134. LISZTOMANIA (1975)

“A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”-Heinrich Heine on “Lisztomania” (1844)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Nicholas, Veronica Quilligan, Sara Kestelman, ,

PLOT: Composer/pianist Franz Liszt hosts concerts before screaming throngs of 19th century women, and enjoys as many groupies and mistresses as he can fit in on the side. Young composer Richard Wagner gives Liszt a piece to perform, thinking it will make his career, but is outraged when the star transforms the composition into his hit “Chopsticks” on stage. Wagner takes it upon himself to wreck Liszt’s life and career, eventually seducing the older musician’s illegitimate daughter into joining his fascist cult while simultaneously building an Aryan monster with which he hopes to conquer the world.

Still from Lisztomania (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • There really was a phenomenon known as Lisztomania (the term was coined by the poet Heinrich Heine). Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a virtuoso concert pianist as well as a composer, and as a young man his concerts would induce fits of hysteria in (especially female) concertgoers; fans would fight over the performer’s discarded gloves or broken piano strings. This condition of ecstatic fandom, now familiar to anyone who has ever attended an arena rock concert, was unheard of at the time, and authorities were seriously concerned about it, considering it a psychological disorder.
  • Portions of the movie were adapted from the book “Nélida” by Countess Marie d’Agoult (played in the film by Fiona Lewis). The novel was a thinly-disguised description of her love affair with Liszt (with whom she had three illegitimate children).
  • Lisztomania was made by Russell back-to-back and released in the same year as the hit rock opera Tommy, which also starred Daltrey.
  • Lisztomania was the first movie recorded in Dolby sound.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The musical number at the Russian palace where Liszt pulls out his giant inflatable, um, instrument, and the scantily clad female dancers treat it as an, um, maypole.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At times, it’s the biography of Franz Liszt if it were directed by Benny Hill working from a script by . With Nazi golems, Richard Wagner as a vampire, a climax aboard a heavenly spaceship, and a giant phallic musical number, this phantasmagorical biopic is Ken Russell at his ebullient silliest.

Clip from Lisztomania

COMMENTS: In his melodramatically excessive movies like The Devils or Altered States, it’s sometimes hard to tell when Ken Russell is being Continue reading 134. LISZTOMANIA (1975)

CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová, Franco Nero

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated Continue reading CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

CAPSULE: GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE (2010)

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joann Sfar

FEATURING: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Anna Mouglalis,

PLOT: Recounts the life of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, from his formative days as a

Still from Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

young Jewish boy in occupied France through his relationships with Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin—and also his relationship with his spindly, scary puppet alter-ego.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A brave biopic that’s true to Serge Gainsbourg’s rebel spirit, but in terms of weirdness, it only goes about halfway.

COMMENTS: Growing up as a precocious Jewish boy in Nazi occupied France, young Lucien Ginsburg (later to reinvent himself as Serge Gainsbourg) amuses himself by drawing a flipbook fable.  A pianist (like the boy’s father) is constantly rejected because of his “ugly mug.”  The despised musician perversely embraces his detractors’ insults and wills his head to swell larger and larger until it finally bursts and the suavely deformed “Professor Flipus” emerges.  The Flipus character (also referred to as “my mug”) shows up later in life as Gainsbourg’s artistic daemon, a spirit materialized as a puppet with glowing eyes and grotesque, oversized features (the sharp-nosed homunculus looks like a debonair version of the Brainiac).  Flipus’ parents would seem to be Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity—his puppet ancestor is a six-legged, moon-faced anti-Semitic propaganda poster who comes down off a wall to dance with Lucien in the alleyways of Paris—and his insecurity about his own “ugly mug.”  Flipus spurs the budding composer to switch from painting to songwriting by “accidentally” burning up Lucien’s canvases, prods him to seduce various glamorous actresses, and grows jealous and vengeful at the appearance of a healthier muse.  Surreal moments are scattered randomly throughout the movie (an inexplicable cat butler, four costumed men who trade breakfast for a song, and visual puns referencing Serge’s albums “Melody Nelson” and ” Tête de Chou”), but it’s Flipus who provides most of Gainsbourg‘s underlying weird texture, and lifts the proceedings above the ordinary.  As an introduction for those uninitiated in Gainsbourg’s discography and biography, the movie isn’t wholly successful.  If you don’t already know who Boris Vian, Django Reinhardt and France Gall are, you may become confused when they suddenly show up or are referenced.  Gainsbourg’s scandalous music, which begins as witty, ribald chanson and develops through the 1960s into lounge-rock psychedelia, is sampled in fast-moving snippets that make it hard to see the lines of development.  The movie also suffers from the usual drawback of biographical movies: real life produces great characters, but not necessarily great stories (which is why fiction supplanted biography, after all).  Life stories tend to turn into a series of vignettes; fortunately for us, Gainsbourg’s vignettes involve him bedding Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin.  A trio of actresses—Anna Mouglalis, Laetitia Casta, and Lucy Gordon—simmer as Gainsbourg’s succession of sexy muses.  Gordon’s role is most important, but slinky Casta leaves the biggest impression as a spot-on Bardot, first seen walking a dog in thigh-high black leather boots and a leopardskin miniskirt, and later memorably dancing with a sheer bedsheet tantalizingly wrapped around her voluptuous frame.  Constantly shrouded in his own personal nicotine cloud (since the MPAA has started handing out “R” ratings for tobacco use, the chain-smoking Gainsbourg should probably earn a XXX rating), Eric Elmosnino holds his own against his eye-candy co-stars, conveying awkwardness and suavity at the same time.  Unfortunately, historical accuracy requires him to metamorphose from a charming rake into a drunken lout, so our sympathies for the protagonist sag at the end: not the take-home note you really want in a “heroic” portrait.  Still, given the limitations imposed by real life, Gainsbourg is as a successfully hallucinatory hagiography that will please fans, and make newcomers at least curious to sample Serge’s suave discography.

Director Joann Sfar adapted this, his first film, from his own graphic novel.  To his dismay, producers insisted that early versions of the trailer contain no shots of Professor Flipus (though variations have been released since that do show the creation, without hinting at his prominence).  One source reports that Serge’s daughter, weird favorite Charlotte Gainsbourg, was at one time considered for the role of her father.  On a sad note, model/actress Lucy Gordon, who played a convincing Jane Birkin, committed suicide in 2009 before the film’s release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s a bold splash of the surreal in this inspired portrait of a man whose life really is too big for one film.”–Annette Basile, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

The life of Elvis Presley is “the” perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get. He grew up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.

Elvis, the dirt poor mama’s boy, filled his flights of fancy with whipped cream dreams of being a movie star more than anything else; but it was his voice, his extrovert sexual chemistry, and being in the right place at the right time, coupled with his insatiable, singular drive, and securing shrewd management, that catapulted him into the status of an American icon.

Still from Elvis (1979)One element that is sorely missing from all of the films and documentaries on him was Elvis’ early sense of perfection in the recording studios. He often demanded up to forty takes on one song.

Elvis was one of the first and certainly the biggest artist whose career was built on eclecticism. The Elvis Presley persona was birthed from what he knew and what he wanted to be in his Walter Mitty-like romantic fantasies. Elvis was part Mahalia Jackson (his gospel recordings are second only to hers), part Dean Martin, part James Dean, part Marlon Brando, and part Rudolph Valentino. Later, both Sammy Davis and Liberace would be added to the mix.

As archaic as the myth and screen presence of silent screen Valentino seems now, its Continue reading ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)