After a couple of shockingly original short features that were so odd that Disney Studios canned him as a storyboard artist, Burton’s career began in earnest with the out-there kid’s comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, an askew road movie starring an abrasively endearing man-child in a series of near-surreal adventures. He followed this unexpected hit with a series of comic-Gothic films featuring weirdo square-peg protagonists trying vainly to fit into society’s round holes. As a complete oeuvre, there’s no doubt that Burton has crafted an aesthetic that’s unique and auteurial. Stripes, organic spirals, Victorian costumes, and pallid pancake makeup serve as recurring visual signatures. Thematically, no one else whips the whimsical and the macabre into such a piquant froth. His late work, however, has unquestionably become both repetitive and qualitatively inferior (note that none of our contributors selected a Burton film made after 1999 as his best). At the same time, Burton has set new box office records with some of his lamest work, like his execrable Alice in Wonderland rehaul, reaping financial rewards that reinforce his worst habits and instincts. This has led to a well-deserved critical backlash against his films, and some on-point parodies:
But despite recent disappointments, there’s no doubt that Burton’s early work was among the most original and gruesomely lively Hollywood-backed product to appear throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties. The problem is that no single Burton film rises confidently above the rest, pronouncing itself as simultaneously his best and his weirdest work. This troublesome fact became even clearer when I solicited staff writers to pick the one Burton film that they thought should unquestionably make the List; I got five different responses, not all of them movies I personally would have considered. Our staff’s suggestions are listed below, in order of release.
With A Bay of Blood (1971, renamed from the better-titled Twitch of the Death Nerve), we again find a Mario Bava film serving as an influential blueprint for countless hacks to imitate. Here, Bava set down the bullet-point checklist of slasher conventions that Wes Craven outlined in his pedagogical parody Scream (1996). At an isolated estate, a greedy count slips a noose sound the neck of his wheelchair-bound wife for her fortune, but then is butchered himself himself by an unknown assailant who drags the body off to places unknown. Later, a group of thrill-seeking young adults visit the count’s property, camp out in his dilapidated estate, and engage in sins of the flesh, unaware that they are being watched by a mysterious killer. One by one, they become victims of a murder spree, each dispatched by unique weapons and methods, all filmed from the killer’s POV. Naturally, there’s a lake (no, its not Camp Crystal) and rest assured one young lady (Brigitte Skay) is doomed when she goes skinny dipping (nudity and/or sex equals death). One unfortunate couple even gets speared while doing the nasty. The red phone of death returns for a cameo, ringing us with a warning of the grisly carnage ahead. Thunderball Bond girl Claudine Auger stars.
Baron Blood (1972) is one of Bava’s most critically maligned, yet most financially successful works. Most of the complaints registered against it center around the director’s “narrative deficiencies,” although expecting the plot to be a priority in a Bava film borders on foolishness, since, for him, it is merely a single element of a compositional whole (and a diaphanous element at that). Working with architecture student Eva (Elke Sommer), Peter (Antonio Cantafora), a descendant of the evil Baron Blood (Joseph Cotten), resurrects his Vlad-the-Impaler-styled mass murderer ancestor and regrets it. In the parallel role of crippled alter ego Alfred Becker, Cotten seems to have an agitated attitude of slumming it. Sommer as an architect is as credible as Denise Richards as a scientist, but she makes a decorative scream queen when fleeing the stylish stalker in a shimmering micro-mini. Rafa Rassimov shines as the tragic clairvoyant. The end result is an unevenly acted, spirituous spectacle with Bava’s trademark tinted hazes, exquisite fetishistic set pieces, and a hair-raising scene of dogged pursuit.
With the surprising success of Baron Blood, Bava was essentially allowed to do whatever he wanted. 1973’sLisa and the Devil amounts to a personal dream project, and it’s not surprising that it was Bava’s favorite among his own films. It was shown at Cannes and predominantly met with critical success. However, as an idiosyncratic love story, it was declined by American distributors, and it’s failure reportedly crushed Bava’s spirit. Per the request of producer Alfred Leone, it was reedited in 1975 with new footage (shot mostly by Bava’s son, Lamberto) to capitalize on the success of The Exorcist and released in the U.S. under the title Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART THREE→
Mario Bava‘s first attempt at the western genre was 1964’s The Road to Fort Alamo, a derivative pastiche of countless cowboys vs. Indians “B” oaters. Apart from Bava’s impressive matte work and lensing, it has little to recommend it. Muscle man Ken Clark removes his shirt periodically, providing eye candy.
Bava tried his hand at science fiction with the oddly titled Planet of the Vampires (1965), which proved to be a cult hit and major influence on Ridley Scott‘s Alien. A group of astronauts, led by Barry Sullivan, crash-land on an unknown planet and discover a hostile, parasitic alien race. It’s narrative is thin and it’s occasionally silly when it succumbs to the obligatory sci-fi jargon, but it’s authoritatively brilliant nonetheless. As one might expect, it’s more of a horror, although there are no vampires per se. Visually, it’s astounding, with Bava dipping deep into purples and blacks, with green washes of mist. The new wave set design and chic costuming add to the film’s pronounced hallucinogenic texture.
Bava took over directing duties from the fired Antonio Roman for the spaghetti western A Gunman Called Nebraska (1966), again starring Ken Clark. The film, about a couple on a ranch fighting off a nasty landlord and his ruthless hombres, is a pedestrian effort with little style. Clark and actress Yvonne Bastien supply sex appeal on both sides. Still, Clark does have onscreen charisma, and it’s surprising that his career was short-lived. Bava was merely collecting a paycheck here and taking a “show must go on” attitude.
That same year, Bava teamed up with Cameron Mitchell for another Viking opus, Knives of the Avenger. It’s a stylized rehash of George Steven’s Shane (which wasn’t very good to begin with), although Mitchell, an underrated character actor, delivers a solid performance. It has the “Bava Beach,” a location he repeatedly used (last seen in Black Sabbath), typically lush cinematography, and little else. Bava again took over from a fired director, rewrote elements of the script, and shot it in a week. It’s an unmemorable also-ran in the director’s oeuvre.
Bava was back in his element with his third (of four) 1966 films, Kill, Baby Kill, which some insist is his most accomplished work. Painterly visuals give flesh to the supernatural narrative and render this one of the prominent examples of Gothic cinema. Doctor Eswai (an aptly bland Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is called to a small village to investigate a series of bizarre, inexplicable deaths. He solicits the aid of nurse Monica (Erika Blanc) to assist him with an autopsy and deal with superstitious villagers. Eswai soon hears the local legend of the eight-year-old Melissa Graps (Valeria Valeri) who was killed in the streets by drunken thugs during an 1887 festival. The townspeople believe Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART TWO→
An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.
It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).
Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on Georges Franjou’s Eyes Without a Face. Although crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost (1963), both with Barbara Steele. Freda walked out mid-production Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE→
A promenade through the oeuvre of animator Suzan Pitt is like taking part in a bohemian cavalcade disguised as a dollhouse, awash with luminous colors and energetic imagery, while grinding atonal music from a Holly Hobbie record player. She’s a balls-to-the-wall art school darling; unassuming, yet filled to the brim with edifying duplicity. Pitt inspires one to glean from life what one gleans from her art.
Her background is in painting and, as she explains in the aptly titled documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision (2006), Pitt explains that she realized that the figures of her canvases had an implied history and future and began processing the idea of “what would happen if this moved over here? And that moved up there? Then that would be a different thing. There would be a passage of time.” The end result of that process was a painter interning in animation. Pitt’s first credited short is Jefferson Circus Songs (1975). Already in this first effort, she emanates an idiosyncratic abjection that spikes into mystical farce. Inundating us with a smorgasbord of imagery (live action, stop motion, and willfully rudimentary animation that includes harlequins, Siamese twins, geishas, an adolescent nurse with mop hair, Christmas lights, Easter eggs, and mythological creatures), Pitt introduces us to a vision which repudiates rationality and judgment. The threat of an overwhelming seriousness is dissipated as the filmmaker unveils her sense of self-depreciating humor. Yale Marshall’s tinkly score compliments the chaos.
In her second film, Asparagus (1979, available on DVD and on Fandor.com), Pitt again displays a shrewd awareness in juxtaposing music with imagery. Her composer of choice here is Richard Teitelbaum, who studied under one of the 20th century’s most vital composers: Luigi Nono. Asparagus also features the music of prolific and prominent free jazz artist Steve Lacy (who has worked with too many artists of note to name, including Carla Bley). Together, the aural language of Teitelbaum and Lacy create an ideal dialogue with Pitt’s imaged world of a phallic asparagus. Pitt describes her work as “a rich pastiche of imagery that folds together and becomes a running image.” The imagery, once internalized (from the way we manipulate and arrange images from childhood) is put together and connected to a “world of sense-making.” It follows Jung’s idea of pregnant imagery and she describes it as a “daydream that you can come into at any point,” being a “complex circle.” Pitt, leading an exquisite assemblage of artists, produces a provocative, erotically charged short that beams and steams absurdity with septic glitter in the most edifying way. Although as personal as a poem, Asparagus rightly resonated strongly with both critics and audiences, winning festivals the world over. Of all Pitt’s films, it is Asparagus that invites the most commentary, a rare example of a wholly successful independent film, which is covered in detail here already as a List Candidate.
In addition to her animated film work, Pitt is a professor who has done work in murals and theater design, along with actively showing her paintings and wood constructions in gallery showings, which explains the almost twenty year gap between films. Compared to the first two films, Joy Street (1995, on DVD and Fandor) is almost rhapsodic and narrative. Opening with imagery which conjures up visions from silent film, Joy Street wistfully flows into ecstatic, bonbon-hued colors, burning with ravenous anecdotes and music by Roy Nathanson from the Jazz Passengers. Although Pitt is often referred to as a woman animator, one would be hard-pressed to locate a male counterpart, which nullifies such categories. Her acerbic candor is probably never more accessible than here.
El Doctor (2006, on DVD and Fandor), written by Blue Kraning, is the first Pitt film with dialogue. It is the story of an alcoholic doctor, along with a gargoyle and south of the border art, inspired by Pitt’s own trip to the doctor. In her fourth film, Pitt captures the flavor of (what is to us) an eroticized, dissonant Catholicism, the Hispanic culture it influences, and outsider artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Commendably, Pitt doesn’t subscribe to the usual bathos associated with naive art.
The half hour, self-coiling documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence Of Vision is directed by Blue Kraning and Laura Kraning. I’m glad it exists as a proclamation reflecting on Pitt’s past, film techniques, and artistic worldview. Loving someone like Pitt goes beyond perception. The world needs her, and this primer is highly recommended viewing.
Pitt can also be seen as one of the smokers in James Benning’s 20 Cigarettes (2010) (sadly, they never called me).
Inspired by an ashtray and H.P. Lovecraft, Visitation (2012, also on Fandor) is cartoonish erudition, gestural and unforgettably hand painted. Juxtaposed to the music of Jules Massenet, Visitation is a monochromatic vision. Christ have mercy! It crosses every border and makes you fall in love with Pitt’s artistic voice all over again: configuring , transforming, reminding us that her first ventures into film were in 8mm. Archaic, postmodern, jazzy, operatic, with images ranging from the Spanish inquisition to the witch of the forest, it’s the kind of film one imagines film should be like.
At seven minutes, Pinball (2013) is the briefest Pitt film to date and one of the most startling. Juxtaposed to the preexisting 1952 revision of “Ballet Mecanique” by the bad boy of music, George Antheil (a beloved Surrealist), Pinball is a art film connoisseur’s orgasm. I was immediately reminded of John Zorn, Roy Lichtenstein, and Phillip Guston (he of the Morton Feldman tribute). Upon seeing it, my wife said, “I see you found another soul companion” (the other being Todd M. Coe). Pinball shows exactly the mental images I conjured up on first reading of Antheil’s premiere of “Ballet Mecanique,” with Andre Breton, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel on the stage pistol-whipping protestors.
This is the world of Suzan Pitt, and we are the better for her.
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