Tag Archives: Circus

FELLINI’S LA STRADA (1954)

Most film historians and critics credit La Strada (1954) as the first Felliniesque film. A major success which won the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film, La Strada moved into the top tier of world film directors.

Like most romantic spiritual mythology, the appeal and accessibility of La Strada is found in its simplistic symbolism. Yet, the simplicity is also deceptive. My painting professor from art school once advised us that “obsession is often a good thing.” Here, we see the Fellini we have since come to know emerge with his obsessive themes of circuses and seasides in compositions populated by what would become archetypical figures. Fellini’s wife Giuletta Masina is cast as the eternally naïve gamin Gelsomina. Masina clearly patterned her character after . Fellini had used Masina, albeit briefly, in their first collaboration, The White Sheik (1952), and would extend that characterization in what is possibly their best work together, The Nights Of Cabiria (1957). Cast opposite Masina is her counterpart, Anthony Quinn, as the strongman Zampano. Quinn could be likened to Arthur Thalasso’s Zandow from Langdon’s The Strong Man (1927), or Eric Campbell’s “Goliath” from a number of ’s films. or even Pablo Picasso’s Minotaur. Rounding out the surrealistic trilogy is Richard Basehart’s high wire act as The Fool.

Zampano needs to replace his previous assistant Rosa and purchases the young, slow-witted Gelsomina from her mother. Zampano is cruel and brutish to his charge, but like Langdon’s waif, an inexplicable higher force seems to protecting her. Her pantomime act endears her to the circus crowd and she becomes the main draw.

Still from La Strada (1954)Although the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is abusive, somehow it works, according to the divine plan, until the serpent enters Eden. Being Fellini, the symbolism is not as Biblically simpleminded as that, and we are introduced to The Fool through pagan entertainment fused with the symbolism of religious fiesta. He appears elevated, adorned in cherub wings, but angels fall in myths, and on the ground the Fool  proves to be no angel. Although his concern for Gelsomina initially seems to be genuine, he is apt to manipulate her. The Fool’s relationship with Zampano is more clearly combative. He mercilessly taunts the strongman and Fellini injects a hint of a previous, cruel ménage a trois with Rosa (a substitute for Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam).

Long-suffering, Gelsomina’s virtue is a channel to the enigmatic infinite. She mourns Zampano’s treatment of others instead of her own sufferings under his hand (sexual abuse is hinted at, but wisely avoided). Gelsomina’s status as a model of feminine submissiveness is revealingly emphasized in a convent vignette.

We are privy to Zampano’s lack of self-awareness and empathy that stems from his own past abuse. It is not his continuance of the cycle, but abandonment of Gelsomina, which finally severs her allegiance to him. The gripping, catastrophic finale echoed Tyrone Power’s shattered geek in Nightmare Alley (1947).

The Marxists, among others, saw Fellini’s break from neorealism here as a betrayal and, despite all the accolades gifted to La Strada, the film and its creator provoked a sea of controversy. Like Chaplin, Fellini celebrates the derelict. To the subscribers of ideological pragmatism in art, the ultimate blasphemy was Fellini’s portrayal of post-war Italy filtered through the dual lenses of naturalism and fantastic parable. The director’s legion of early admirers would brand him nothing less than a heretic after his later forays into opulent surrealism.

Nino Rota’s haunting score and Otello Martelli’s ethereal, nuanced cinematography add considerably to La Strada‘s seductive quality. Rota’s theme music proved to be a resounding popular success on European radio for decades following.

 helped finance the film’s restoration and introduces a Criterion Collection release that predictably is loaded with a wealth of extras. Among the supplements is an audio essay by film scholar Peter Bondanella, the documentary Federico Fellini’s Autobiography (which originally played on Italian television), and a second, charming documentary focusing on Masina and her off-screen, on-screen collaboration with Fellini.

CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)

‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.

Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin’s that was recognized for a “special” Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.

The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin’s autobiography is interesting primarily as a career record. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin’s sex life were exposed to the public. According to ‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.

Often, assessment of Chaplin’s films include the biographical. A good example of this is Roger Ebert’s review of The CircusEbert takes the often-traveled road of comparing Chaplin to Buster Keaton:

Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there’s an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin’s untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.

Still from The Circus (1928)The problem with Ebert’s assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin’s enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin’s post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin’s films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin’s art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.

To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton’s Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin’s Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin’s level. The Tramp’s poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin’s contemporaries, only  emerged with a comparable persona.

Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin’s celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people’s priest. Keaton’s character, while more  intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)

VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director ,  who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of  Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film).  Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon.  He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on .  After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg  for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).

After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg  recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned.  Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg.  He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev.  The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.

It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice.  Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world.  Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool.  Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott).  Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.

Still from He Who Gets Slapped (1924)The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy.  Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont.  Beaumont is belittled  by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face.  It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night.  On the Continue reading VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY

FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: THE LAST CIRCUS [BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA] (2010)/RAINBOWS END (2010)

Your faithful correspondent has returned from the field with reports on two offbeat festival films…

Still from The Last Circus (2010)Alex de la Iglesia bolsters his already fine cult film résumé (Acción Mutante, The Day of the Beast) with this b-movie styled action/melodrama that’s also an allegory for the Spanish Civil War. The movie’s best sequence is the prologue, where the Republican army conscripts a circus troupe into emergency action (“a clown with a machete—you’ll scare the s**t out of them”!) Flash forward to 1973, when the embittered son of one of the Shanghaied carnies embarks upon a career as a “Sad Clown,” but is immediately smitten by a beautiful trapeze artist. Unfortunately for him, the acrobat Natalia is the personal property of the “Happy Clown,” a psychotic, drunken woman-beater who just happens to be great with kids. The two mountebanks’ working relationship quickly turns sour as they take turns beating the greasepaint off each other in a brutal rivalry that eventually leaves both of them mutilated and insane. Which mad harlequin will Natalia choose? The Spanish Civil War angle is simplistic and neither adds nor subtracts from the narrative, which starts as a tawdry carnival melodrama and morphs into an action movie with a high-flying, clown-mauling showdown atop a giant cross. A few Sad Clown dream sequences–he keeps seeing his dead father and archival footage of Spanish pop singer Raphael singing a vintage ballad in clownface—add nominal weirdness, but these touches aren’t pervasive enough to raise the film above the level of aggressively offbeat. Still, there are those who are going to want to check out any film where an insane jester uses lye, an iron, and some clerical vestments to improvise his own clown costume, then steals a cache of automatic weapons and walks the streets of Madrid armed to the teeth with homicidal gleam in his eye. One final note: my movie-going companion was disappointed in the lack of variety in the clown-on-clown violence; he had been hoping to see a wide variety of Bozos brutalizing each other in an all-out melee. So be forewarned—if you consider two killer clowns too few, this Circus is not for you.

THE LAST CIRCUS [Balada Triste de Trompeta] (2010). Dir. Álex de la Iglesia, Featuring Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, .

Rainbows EndIf The Last Circus is edgy, Rainbows End occupies the opposite end of the offbeat spectrum—it’s whimsical. Ostensibly a documentary about six east Texas eccentrics on a road trip to California to pursue a motley assortment of dreams, it’s also one of the funniest movies yours truly has had the privilege of checking out in 2011. It’s the characters who drive the bus in this episodic feature—and in this case that bus needs a push start, leaks radiator fluid, and at times is literally held together with duct tape. Continue reading FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: THE LAST CIRCUS [BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA] (2010)/RAINBOWS END (2010)

52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)

AKA Holy Blood (literal translation)

“My mother is dead.  I had a terrible relationship with her.  She had many problems with my father, and she never caressed me.  So I didn’t have a mother who touched me.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in La Constellation Jodorowsky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky

FEATURING: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, , Sabrina Dennison, Guy Stockwell

PLOT:  Fenix, a young carnival boy is understandably traumatized when he sees his knife-thrower father cut off his mother’s arms in a domestic melee.  Years later, he lives an animalistic existence in a mental asylum, until one day he escapes when his armless mother calls to him from outside his cell window.  The two perform a stage act where the son serves as the arms of his mother; she dominates his every move offstage, makes him serve as her arms, and orders him to kill, repeatedly.

Still from Santa Sangre (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • After completing The Holy Mountain in 1973, Jodorowsky planned to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel “Dune,” which fell through.  He did not direct again until 1980’s poorly regarded Tusk, a film over which he had little creative control and which he has since disowned.
  • Santa Sangre is supposedly inspired by the story of a real life Mexican serial killer (whose name is variously given as Gregorio Cárdenas or Gojo Cardinas).
  • Young Fenix and adult Fenix are played by Adan and Axel, Jodorowsky’s sons.
  • The MPAA originally rated Santa Sangre R for “bizarre, graphic violence;” when the NC-17 designation began in 1990, the film was reclassified to the more restictive rating for “extremely explicit violence.”
  • Empire Magazine’s combined readers/critics poll voted Santa Sangre the 476th best movie of all time.
  • Before making this film Jodorowsky had founded an unofficial school of psychotherapy called “psycho-magic”; one of the basic tenets of the theory is a belief in a “family unconscious.”
  • The mother’s given name—“Concha”—is slang for “vagina” in many Latin American countries, including Jodorowsky’s native Chile.
  • The movie is an Italian/Mexican co-production, and was co-written and co-produced by Claudio (brother of horror maestro Dario) Argento.
  • OBSCURE CONNECTION: Producer Rene Cardona, Jr., himself a prolific B-movie director, was the son of the Rene Cardona who directed El Santo movies and appeared in Brainiac.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The most representative images are any of the moments where Fenix stands behind his mother and acts as her hands, especially when he is wearing his long red plastic nails.  The most affecting sight, however, may be a dying elephant with blood trickling out of his trunk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  You could argue that Santa Sangre isn’t that weird, but that


Original trailer for Santa Sangre (German)

would only be in comparison to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous films.  Although he does deliver Felliniesque carnivals, an elephant funeral, a cult that worships an armless girl, a hermaphrodite wrestler, and graveside hallucinations featuring zombie brides, the obscure auteur actually scales back his mystical obtuseness a tad in this psychedelic slasher movie.  The result is his most popular and accessible film—if anything by Jodorowsky can be considered accessible.

COMMENTS: In a way, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky lite.  Compared to his hippie-era Continue reading 52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)