Monday, August 31, 2009

DEATHMASTER (1972): He Was a Hippie Vampire

"Deathmaster" is an epithet originally applied to Count Yorga, the bachelor pad vampire played by Robert Quarry in two popular films at the start of the 1970s; the term is used in the ballyhoo for both movies. So it was a natural next step by the logic of exploitation to put Quarry into another vampire movie with Deathmaster as the title. The logic occurred to Quarry himself, who was an associate producer of this film. And of course, the same exploitation logic dictates that if you put Quarry in a vampire film called Deathmaster, then it cannot be about Count Yorga.

Instead, Quarry and company, under the direction of Ray Danton, intensify the contemporary relevance that made the Yorga films stand out from the horror crowd. Deathmaster taps into post-Manson anxieties about youth culture and cults, making its vampire a more symbolic and thus (hopefully) scarier figure than Yorga was. But the production's striving for relevance ends up making Deathmaster a more dated film than the Yorgas, and a dull ear for youthful speech doesn't help matters. At the same time, that datedness gives the film a document-of-its-time quality that keeps it an item of interest for pop-culture historians as well as horror fans.

Quarry gets real star treatment here, probably for the only time in his career, his entrance delayed as much as possible and his voice heard in advance of his visage to build anticipation for the big reveal. At first, all we see is a coffin washing ashore on a California beach, as if summoned by some tall dude playing a flute. A surfer discovers the coffin on shore and decides to take a peek. Before he can end the film at its beginning, the flautist throttles him, hauls the coffin up on his shoulders and drags it away.

After the credits, we're introduced to factions of hippies and bikers, with one couple standing out in each group. Our head hippies are Pico and Rona, while the principle biker is Monk and Esslin is his consort. Monk is a thuggish lout and the nearest thing to a cynic in this generation, while Pico is a poor man's Billy Jack of a sort -- and Billy Jack was not a rich man. When Monk hassles a craft dealer played by a pseudo-hip John Fiedler (perhaps the least Angry Man of the famous Twelve), Pico puts him down with an unexpected display of martial arts. When he later explains that he was using kung fu, Monk asks if he's Chinese.

Bill Ewing as Pico

Both couples end up at a mansion which someone may be house-sitting, or else they may all be squatting. It's a typical hippie gathering. Some rube is playing a folk song (arranged by Ray Conniff) on his guitar, and some chick is painting in the nude. "Who's the chick?" Monk asks. "Wow..." an admiring hippie answers, "I don't know."

William Jordan as Monk may not know art, but he knows what he likes.

Monk stumbles outside to take a leak and slips a ways down the hillside. When he lands, he finds an empty coffin. Closing it, he finds the tall man poised to strike. Fortunately, Monk resumes slipping downhill and escapes harm for the moment, while the tall man joins another gentleman who appears to control the weather by displaying a ring. Lightning puts out the electricity and the hippies resort to candles. The storm is a downer. One fellow who looks more like a hick than a hippie asks, "Hey, what's happening? We're all hung up on some sort of gloom."

"We're hung up, all right," Pico confirms, "but always the same old thing. Looking for our damn head."

"His head, his head," Rona sings, "Pico can't find his head!"

If you don't find Rona's wit charming, I'm afraid I can't help you. She was introduced earlier informing Pico that it was already snowing at the end of summer. Pico saw no snow, but his girl explained that it was snowing potato chips, dumping a bagful on his head. With such company it's a wonder that someone would complain that life is "a goddamn mother loving bore," but Pico agrees. "That's my whole point, we ain't living!" he says. Do you sense a moral here?

During the discussion a silhouette has snuck into the room to listen and observe. Still shadowed, he starts offering opinions of his own. Then, with a flourish, he claps his hands and the lights come on, revealing Robert Quarry in all his vaguely Christlike, less vaguely Mansonian splendor.

His name is Khorda and his tall friend, whom some of the hippies know, is Barbado. Khorda gets right into the guru business, hectoring the hippies about their eating habits and hygiene. Contemplating their admittedly questionable meal, he asserts that "Such food defiles the blood, destroys that which is beyond price. You feast on filth in your house, yet you speak of life, love." And their house is filthy, too. They ought to clean it up and "Eat living food. Then you will come alive. Then you will be deserving of your purpose." But he clams up when Monk scoffs, and despite being urged to stay (Pico: "We groove on what you're saying.") he shuffles off and dematerializes in front of everybody. "Wow," someone comments, "that cat is something else!"

You can't deny that Khorda has a positive effect on the hippies. They actually do clean the house and commence buying organic food -- you know, no meat, animals presumably being made out of plastic. They are a tireless audience for Khorda's nattering advice, always excepting Monk, who annoys Khorda with his dangling Iron Cross. The guru orders him to conceal it, apparently having strong feelings about Prussian militarism, but Monk says it goes where he goes, which is outside in a huff.

As Monk goes off for a bike ride, Khorda starts making the moves on Esslin. In the bedroom, he dares her to notice something missing when she looks at them in the mirror. I like his aggressive, pre-emptive approach to the familiar problem mirrors pose for his kind.

Khorda: The glass reflects only what you expect to be, not what you can become. It cannot reflect the essence of the spirit, that ultimate sanctification that can never be seen by the human eye. It can only be experienced! Felt! Its power defies the mirror. Look, look!

When you think about it, Khorda's just being mean. Why such a line of buncombe when he's only going to bite her neck with his mouth full of fangs? The man must like the sound of his own voice, and if he's Robert Quarry, who can blame him? The actor's smooth delivery made him an ideal Seventies vampire and he really gets to work the voice on some rants in this show.

He also shows off his versatility with a leap attack to finally rid himself of the obnoxious Monk. The funny thing about this attack is that we'll later learn that the big tough biker died of shock. The rest of the kids are distracted from the sounds of mayhem by the sight of Esslin dancing to Barbado on the bongos. Soon, everyone but Pico and Rona gets into the rhythm and it ends up looking like the rehearsal dance from A Charlie Brown Christmas on pot in the house as everyone does his own thing to a really slow beat.

While our two lead kids seem immune from Khorda's charms, the rest of the cast succumb in short order and offscreen, the women acquiring appropriate slinky vampire-bride garb and one man sporting quite the sporty turban. They're all appetizers, however, as Khorda really covets Rona. He captures her, but Pico escapes through a network of tunnels to reach Pop, the elderly wannabe-hippie who finds himself pressed into the Van Helsing role for this picture.

Getting no cooperation from the cops, our vampire hunters invade the house in time to find Rona being prepared for a blood sacrifice that will keep Khorda going and make the rest of the gang immortal. As Khorda explains:

We do not seek to sustain ourselves on empty religious conceits. We abstain from them, in order that we may hold solely and always to the ever-enduring continuity of human life itself. We open our hearts to the unholy. We seize life, cherish it, maintain it forevermore. It is a mission of existence. To the huddled fools of this world God is but a word by which they would excuse all manner of vile behavior. We alone shall inherit existence, shall know foreverness. The hour is now, now.

So stunned are Pop and Pico by this oration that they stand stupefied as Khorda applies the fangs to Rona and catches her blood in a goblet. Weren't they there to stop that? Don't worry just yet, though. In their research (I think Pop had a paperback copy of The Book of the Vampires) they learned that there's always an incubation period after a bite, so Rona might yet be saved....

But this is a Seventies horror film, so I trust I don't spoil too much by saying don't bet on it. Indeed, Deathmaster has one of the most downbeat endings of a decade of downers. Not your normal evil-wins shock ending where the girl gets all fangy at the end and pounces on the hero, but one that expresses utter futility and hopelessness, which is only proper, since Bill Ewing proves a futile, hopeless actor. Actors and writers alike appear to have taken the Hippie Lingo as a Second Language course, their grades ensuring that this was the best work they could get, though Ewing would go on to re-emerge as the writer-producer of End of the Spear. Quarry is pretty much speaking his own language here, with dialogue to make Dudley Manlove's mouth water, but delivered with Criswellian authority. But as a whole it works, or at least he works in the part, even if he is somewhat too old to embody a Manson archetype, however supernaturalized. Nor is Quarry to blame for questionable aspects of the script, such as Khorda's habit of keeping a fishbowl full of leeches in his crypt (for what? finger food?), only to have them thrown into his face to debilitating effect by Pico at a desperate moment in the story.

Quarry is not well supported by the cast and crew of Deathmaster, but together they do manage to catch a fragment of an anxious zeitgeist. Although it was certainly designed for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd, it comes across as a film more about youth than for them. Understood that way, Deathmaster can still be appreciated for what it tries to express and, to a limited extent, succeeds in expressing.


The trailer for Deathmaster was uploaded to YouTube by DIOTD2008

The Marvelous World of Disney?

Nearly fifty years ago, Stan Lee was running a marginal comic book company on the brink of extinction, with one major asset: the rampant creativity of artist Jack Kirby. In the ultimate confirmation, by some standards, of Marvel Comics's elevation into the pop-culture canon, the company is going to be sold to Disney for four billion dollars. So the rich get richer and pop culture grows more homogenized. On the creative end, I suppose some Kingdom Hearts-style crossovers between the "universes" are inevitable if not compulsory. I doubt whether you'll see much difference in Marvel content, either in comics or movies, though you may end up seeing superheroes on ABC more often. Still, something distresses me about Disney's ongoing colonization of our shared culture. In my more dystopian (or maybe just dyspeptic) moods I can see a day coming when the Disney stamp will be a seal of cultural legitimacy and nothing will matter to most pop consumers unless it bears the mark of the Mouse. As long as Time Warner exists (and owns DC Comics) that day won't arrive, but between them the two rival colossi could form a kind of cultural "bipolarchy" of the sort I see functioning in American politics, in which the war of the gargantuas leaves nothing else standing, or drives the rest underground. Not everyone will be as pessimistic as I am sometimes, but I doubt whether anyone but a stockholder can say that this is a good thing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Sam Peckinpah's tour of duty in World War II is Inglourious Basterds' grandaddy, though the family resemblance isn't really that strong. But as Enzo G. Castellari explains to Quentin Tarantino in a DVD interview, his film The Inglorious Bastards was made to exploit a fresh wave of demand in Europe for war movies following the continental success of the Peckinpah film. Even there, the resemblance doesn't extend very far, though there is one scene in Cross of Iron that very likely inspired one in Castellari's film. We'll get to that later, though.

Peckinpah's film is a personal and class conflict played out on the Eastern Front in 1943, as the German retreat from their Russian conquests under growing Red Army pressure. As James Mason and David Warner preside over an accelerating withdrawal, Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) arrives from France, having volunteered to be transferred to combat duty in order to win an Iron Cross to satisfy family honor. The problem, as gradually becomes apparent, is that Stransky is a bit of a chicken, a fact he makes up for with domineering bluster and a talent for finding and manipulating other people's weaknesses. He's guaranteed not to get along with Cpl. Steiner (James Coburn), the unit's best soldier, who's a bit indifferent to the niceties of rank and its privileges. They first meet after Steiner has spared a Soviet boy soldier with a mind to make him his platoon's mascot. Stransky says that rules require the boy to be shot. A subordinate takes the boy away but hides him in the barracks, temporarily defusing the situation.

Stransky wants his Iron Cross whether he earns it or not. He hopes to get it after an engagement with the enemy during which he spent most of his time in a bunker shouting into a phone. He needs two witnesses to confirm that he led a successful counterattack, regardless of the truth. He has one in Lt. Triebig, whom he has under his thumb with a threat of exposing the officer's homosexual relationship with an orderly. He wants Steiner, who suffered a concussion in the battle, to provide the other testimony. Steiner scoffs at Stransky's coveting of a "worthless piece of metal," but decides that Stransky doesn't deserve it. Stransky now dedicates himself to destroying Steiner, even sacrificing an entire platoon to prevent the newly-made sergeant from joining the latest retreat. Stransky's men have to fight their way out from behind enemy lines to reach a likely hostile welcome from their own men with Stransky and Triebig in charge....

One odd thing that eventually sinks in about Cross of Iron is that it's a film about the German army in World War II that really isn't concerned with Nazism. Neither Steiner nor Stransky really cares for the Nazi leadership, though Stransky would never think of actually challenging his leaders. He looks down on Hitler and his ilk from the perspective of a Prussian aristocrat, and he regards Steiner the same way. Automatically, Steiner's irreverence toward authority in general and officers in particular irks Stransky, and the Prussian's yearning for a medal as if it were his natural right earns Steiner's contempt. This story could just as easily have played out in World War I as in the next war with the Nazi context absent.

What seems to interest Peckinpah about the script by Casablanca scribe Julius J. Epstein et al is the contrasting social dynamics of the enlisted men and officers, which are linked by a common element of homoeroticism. Among the grunts, this seems to be an almost natural extension of the intimate comradeship on which unit cohesion depends. In one scene, a soldier threatens to disrupt a birthday party with a sustained conniption fit, but it's defused when one of his buddies abruptly kisses him.

The party is intercut with a set of scenes in which Stransky gloms on to the relationship between Triebig and the orderly and later teases them about their time in the south of France and the fact that they transferred East together.

He raises a theoretical question about whether men can get along without women. The orderly says he can if ordered to do so, after admitting that he scored a few times in France, but when Triebig says he can go one way or the other, Stransky pounces and threatens to expose him as a homosexual, subject to hanging in the Wehrmacht. He's won himself a toady who will eventually order men to fire on Steiner's platoon at Stransky's instigation. At the level of officers and aristocrats, homosexual longing, or maybe even homosociability, is a guilty secret that leaves men vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. But in the rather idealized realm of the enlisted men, it's a spontaneous, basically innocent outgrowth of their mutual dependence for collective survival. That extends to Steiner, whose loyalty to his men outweighs a kindling romance with Senta Berger's nurse during his convalescence from the concussion.

Senta Berger tells James Coburn, "Don't get your fingers caught in the doorway on your way out!"

The concussion sequence is one of the unexpected highlights of the film. Steiner is helping a man back to his lines when a shell hits, inducing the wartime equivalent of an acid trip on film that convincingly conveys the long-term disorientation Steiner suffers, including unconsummated flash-forwards to him diving into a stream in hospital garb and encountering the Russian boy, who'd been killed by his own people after Steiner had sent him home. Throughout the convalescence, Coburn's consciousness lurches back and forth between present reality, the past, and a dream state of isolation, until it becomes uncertain what's really happening to him. Is a bit at the hospital where soldiers and nurses literally toss salads into the air with rabid glee real or not? I'm not sure, and I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to be sure.

Another highlight for film geeks is the scene I promised to discuss in the first paragraph. This takes place while Steiner's men are behind Soviet lines. After skulking about a while and killing Commies on a bridge, we discover a woman bathing in a wooden tub. There are other women in a barn attending to various tasks, and one of them is wounded; they are Red Army soldiers. Steiner's men overpower them easily, with only one of the Russkies getting a shot off.

The Germans rest here and confiscate arms and other supplies. A few of them attempt some forced fraternization with the enemy, forgetting that they're dealing with soldiers, and a couple of them pay a high price. Steiner himself doesn't approve of rape, and when he finds one of his men bloodied and a woman battered from a violent encounter, he allows the Russian women to have their way with the scumbag before the rest of the Germans depart. As those familiar with The Inglorious Bastards may have guessed, I'm proposing that this scene in Cross of Iron with its relatively minimal female nudity is a likely source of perhaps the most famous scene in Castellari's film, in which his protagonists encounter a unit of skinny-dipping blonds who chase them off with machine guns. Given Castellari's admission of Cross of Iron's influence, even if only in business terms, I don't think this is much of a reach, though Castellari's scene is Peckinpah's original distilled into purest exploitation.

Unfortunately, Cross of Iron doesn't really hold together. The film is beautifully photographed on Yugoslav locations, but Peckinpah's characteristic editing seems to be on auto-pilot. It lacks the snap and precision of the best Peckinpah's films, and it sometimes looks as if he just can't catch the scope of modern warfare with his style. Despite that, there are plenty of powerful individual images of violence. Worse, though, the ending is pretty much incoherent. A wrathful Steiner defers his revenge on Stransky so both can fight their way to a train to get out of the proverbial Dodge. Stransky wants to show how Prussians can fight, but he proves inept. He falls down, doesn't know how to reload his weapon and wears his helmet backwards. He's a sitting duck for some Russian child soldiers who apparently decide that he isn't worth killing. This fact, or the sole fact of Stransky's pathetic clumsiness, sparks a closing fit of Peckinpahvian laughter in Coburn. Is he even going to board the train? Is Stransky going to survive? Is James Mason going to get shot leading his men into the fray? You'll never know. Instead, there's a montage of photos interspersed among the closing credits to remind you that war sucks for most people, even in distant lands in later years.

Is the joke on him, or us?

Cross of Iron is neither a great war film nor one of Peckinpah's better efforts. Schell is good (and I think I see a hint of him now in Christoph Waltz) but Coburn careens through an inconsistent characterization as a war-hating supersoldier, a man who dismisses medals in one sentence and makes a big deal about denying one to Stransky in the next, whose hints of some sort of accent emerge with almost involuntary randomness. James Mason and David Warner are good actors but just wrong as German officers, especially Mason at his advanced age. The film's flaws are deep, but it remains of obvious interest to war-film buffs, Peckinpah fans and historians of the wild world of cinema.

The trailer, uploaded by StefanCichlidoShodan, is an auteurist's wet dream, selling Peckinpah as a bigger attraction than any of the actors. One upon a time, he probably was.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Who Won the War?

(Spoiler Warning: plot details of the movie Inglourious Basterds and the history of World War II are mentioned in this article)

Who won World War II in Europe? That's easy: the Allies. But who really won the war? You know, who made the most important contribution? Who deserves the most credit? Who was the most valuable player? Bring the question to this level and the answer may differ depending on whom you ask. There are several answers to choose from.

1. The U.S. America's money, material and manpower overwhelmed Germany while the money, in particular, kept Britain and Russia in the game when Hitler may have otherwise overwhelmed them.

2. The U.S.S.R. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the worst Nazi attacks, took more casualties, and killed more German soldiers. Their engagement of the largest part of the Wehrmacht made it easy for the Americans to invade late in the game and surge eastward, but if not for Russia the U.S. might never had made it into Europe.

3. The U.K. By holding out alone against Hitler for a crucial year Britain bought time for both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and their persistence made it impossible for Hitler to apply his full force against Russia in the summer of 1941, when the country might well have cracked under greater pressure.

Some students, scholars and history buffs will take the arguments further, claiming credit for specific generals or political leaders while downplaying the role of others. Russians often minimize the American and English contribution, for instance, while Americans of my father's generation had special contempt for Field Marshall Montgomery-- and my dad wasn't even in the European theater. As well, people in France and the former Yugoslavia might credit "the Resistance," those countries in particular preferring to claim as much as possible that they liberated themselves from Nazi rule. Within each resistance, of course, the credit due to different factions and leaders continues to be debated.

War is a collective endeavor, but since it isn't exactly a spontaneous phenomenon each war bears the stamp of strong individuals. There's a temptation, irresistible for many people, to see personal agency at work in clashes of nations. We want to be able to say that World War II, for instance, was won, for all intents and purposes, at this time and this place, and to credit the people who were there. Many people believe in decisive moments as well as decisive personalities, and their belief influences their perception of warfare.

In Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino imagines perhaps as decisive a moment as can be imagined. Quite to the surprise of first-time viewers, Hans "Jew Hunter" Landa and Aldo "the Apache" Raine find themselves negotiating the effective end of the war in Western Europe, if not the entire European conflict. Raine has been captured, but two of his men remain inside a movie theater, poised to blow up the Nazi leadership. Landa thinks he can thwart them with one phone call, but taking the long view he thinks his postwar chances are better if he cuts a deal with the American to be in on the victory by turning traitor. He proves to be very demanding, but both Raine and his superiors think his asking price a small one to pay to pull off a decapitation strike against Hitler. Neither man knows that another plot is playing out in the same theater, where the proprietor, Shoshanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux, has barred the exits and arranged for nitrate film reels to be set ablaze, turning the cinema into a deathtrap. Both plots succeed.

So who has won the war? As in history, it's a matter of perception.

1. The Allies. Tarantino's account is not as completely counterfactual as it could be, after all.

2. The Basterds. Their improbable infiltration of the movie theater makes a decapitation strike possible independent of Shoshanna's plot, but because of Raine's capture the remaining Basterds are vulnerable to Landa's phone call. But the mere fact of their infiltration makes Landa realize that he has multiple options, the best one being to play along with the plot. Even if Landa remains loyal to Hitler, however, the Basterds can still blow up the place if they see things getting hot. In such a scenario, Aldo Raine himself probably ends up a dead man, but he could still receive posthumous credit for the decisive stroke of the war.

3. Shoshanna. Her arson plot is likely to succeed regardless of the negotiations between Raine and Landa. It isn't dependent upon the Basterds, though the confusion sown once they take the offensive only helps fulfill her desire that no one escape the theater.

4. Landa. He has the power to thwart the Basterds, either by having the two men in the theater taken out (at admitted risk to everyone inside), or more reasonably by getting word to security to arrange a discreet exit for Hitler and Co. without the Basterds noticing their departure, the rest of the audience being left to take their chances. It's also possible that in the process of closing a trap on the Basterds, the men tipped off by Landa might discover Shoshanna's plot and thwart that as well. His treason at the least allows the Basterds freedom of movement, and is arguably the absolutely essential act before anything else can happen. The Medal of Honor may be a bit much for him to ask (not to mention the money, property, immunity, etc.) but the Allies definitely owe him something -- perhaps plastic surgery, at least.

The easiest answer would be "All of the Above," but my point has been that some people aren't satisfied with that kind of explanation. I think it partly suits Tarantino's purposes to leave audiences asking just the question I've asked and debating it through future viewings of his film. The intriguing thing about his achievement is that, despite his blatant fictionalization of a too-decisive-to-be-true moment in history, Inglourious Basterds insists that we recognize the role of contingency and coincidence in the film's fantastic victory. Basterds is no "one man army" story; no one wins the war singlehandedly, and no one's role is purely autonomous. After all, Shoshanna is in a position to strike a deathblow against Hitler only because of Landa's perverse decision to let her run back in 1941. Tarantino has presented a comic-book representation of the actual complexity of war, including the fact that some of the people who get credit for victories are hardly heroes, while some of the people most deserving of credit aren't around to receive it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


One more post and I should have this strange film out of my system, to the likely relief of readers everywhere. The big question about Jacopetti & Prosperi's American epic, of course, is whether the film designed to prove that they weren't racists was, in fact, racist. For many viewers, its salacious gaze at the collective humiliation of a race can't help but be racist; it fails all conventional sensitivity tests, after all, and the objects of the filmmakers' solicitous concern can be excused for feeling that the film rather rubs their noses in it. Nevertheless, J&P say that they wanted to make a different impression, though they also admit failing at it. Taking them at their word, can we figure out what they thought they were saying?

Depravity: A slave is about to be castrated for the unauthorized deflowering of virgins. The American cut enhances this scene by having the kid with the tool chant, "Cut! Cut! Cut!"

Bearing in mind that the Director's Cut has a present-day political agenda of explaining the failures of Black Power uprisings in the late 1960s, both that and the American cut, which is stripped of most present-day context, also have something to say about slavery itself. The scenes at the slavery processing plant at Fort Bastille implicitly equate slavery with the modern assembly line, with the slave as the end product instead of a Model T Ford. Slaves are rushed from station to station for cleaning, grooming and feeding. At one point they're sent down a slide in the most obvious assembly-line metaphor. J&P are never explicit about this, but they appear to be saying that the industrialization of slave-processing contributed to a dehumanizing of the enslaved, their metamorphosis into parts on a conveyor belt. Throughout the film, this implicit thesis that the institution of slavery degraded Africans comes up against imagery that (perhaps) unintentionally encourages a belief that Africans were innately degraded, and hence easily adaptable to slavery.

In the second half of the film, the "traveling photographers" visit Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a racist scientist determined to prove that Africans are a separate species from humans. Among his caged slaves are a handful of American Indians who sit or stand in sullen silence. Cartwright explains that Indians are useless for slavery and can't be made to breed in captivity. The difference between blacks and Indians, he says, is like the difference between a dog and a coyote. You can beat a dog all the time, he elaborates, but he'll still lick your shoes, while the coyote, like the Indian, would rather die than live in captivity.

The words are put in the mouth of an odious crank, but as is consistent with the strategy of Addio Zio Tom they go unrefuted, and they leave a question hanging in the air. Were blacks incapable of even the passive resistance of willing themselves to die rather than endure slavery? Were they all too ready to adapt to their degraded condition by making themselves even more abject? Jacopetti and Prosperi took a risk in expecting that the historic racists would damn themselves with commentary that should have been obviously wrong to the modern movie audience. They felt no need to have someone in the film, even themselves as the time travellers, actively challenge the racist assertions of the 19th century. The only time they really go after a character in the film is when (in the American cut) they meet an educated slave who considers himself better off than the working-class poor. They express no comparable indignation to their white hosts. Since I get their point, I can agree with the idea that the shouldn't have had to go constantly through the film yelling, "this is wrong!" But something is unmistakably missing from either version of Tom that could have grounded the audience in a way that might have assured the correct response to the racist opinions expressed in the film. Simply put, while the Italian version is very much concerned with the "after" side of the story that plays out in the modern day, neither version is concerned with "before." In other words, Tom doesn't tell us what Africans were like before they were enslaved, and thus forces viewers to grapple with the either-way-loaded question of whether blacks were depraved by slavery or inherently depraved. There is no default state shown of free Africans in their native culture, and this is a fatal omission for the film's documentary ambitions. If J&P wanted to argue that American blacks were somehow changed for the worse by slavery, they needed to give us some idea of what they might have changed from. By their omission they left themselves vulnerable to the charge of racism since their cinematic argument had not effectively excluded the possibility of innate depravity as an explanation for the sordid spectacles presented.

Part of the problem may have been conceptual and tied to the "Addio" theme that links the film with Africa Addio, the movie for which Tom is allegedly an apology. "Africa Addio" refers both to the European imperialists' farewell to Africa and the disappearance of a certain European idea of Africa as Africans attempted to enter the modern world on their own terms. "Addio Zio Tom," in turn, refers as much to the extinction of the "Uncle Tom" archetype as it does to the end of slavery and its consequences. This is made clear in the prologue to the Director's Cut, in which Black Power radicals use "Uncle Tom" as a pejorative accommodationist blacks, while an elderly Southern matron retains a chauffeur who bears the infamous name. Wandering amid plantation ruins on her property, she babbles on about how much has remained the same while much has changed, as Tom smokes contemptuously nearby.

The literary Uncle Tom, as some may recall, was a character who resisted evil but refused violence, preferring to die rather than compromise his Christian principles. Sixties radicals rejected this proto-Gandhian archetype, preferring to fight, kill and live. Jacopetti and Prosperi's judgment seems to be that the radical stance was a surrender to hate, a tit-for-tat form of racism, and a fantasy of revenge.

All of this is embodied in the anonymous, clerical-looking man we find in the present day struggling to concentrate on the more violent chapters of William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. A controversial best-seller and prize-winner in its day, Confessions anticipated the scandal of Goodbye Uncle Tom by a few years as black and leftist critics questioned a white novelist's ability and right to get inside the head of a rebel slave, especially when Styron gave Turner's rebellion a sexual context. In all likelihood Jacopetti & Prosperi were aware of the controversy. For all I know they may have wanted to do a full-scale adaptation of Styron at some point. I do know from the Godfathers of Mondo documentary that one of their inspirations for Tom was, of all things, the novel Mandingo, which awaited adaptation by other hands a few years later.

The Confessions of Nat Turner seems to have influenced Tom's thesis that the intimate, perhaps inevitably sexualized milieu of slavery provoked thwarted desires in black men that played out, on rare occasions, in violent outbreaks of revenge against masters. The reader in Tom translates scenes from Turner into wild fantasies of modern murder raids on white families that segue into assaults on consumer goods possibly modeled on the explosive finale of Zabriskie Point. This is J&P's somewhat unsubtle way of saying that Black Power is no different from Nat Turner's purported pathology. Consciously associating themselves with Styron (whether Styron might have liked the idea or not) was only asking for trouble from an audience already inclined to conclude that any white men who imagined black men having violent thoughts had to be racists. Maybe this was the cynicism so often attributed to Jacopetti coming through, since the controversy surrounding Styron probably sold more books and may have seemed like a model for marketing a successfully controversial film. But whether the filmmakers' motivations were cynical or sincere, releasing Tom when they did was a catastrophic miscalculation.

One more difference between versions: In the Director's Cut, this scene comes when the traveling photographers leave the Old South in their helicopter. In the American cut, it plays during the pre-credits sequence as they arrive.

For some people, the only way for Jacopetti & Prosperi to absolve themselves of racism would have been to show blacks in a constant state of heroic resistance to slavery. That would have gone against their apparent conviction that slavery was as they showed it in Tom, and their rule was to call things as they saw them. Is it possible that a refusal to indulge in idealization is a form of racism, or that a willingness to idealize humanity as a whole is a prerequisite for democracy itself? I suppose those aren't questions for a movie blog, but it's a way of getting to the point that, due to sins of omission and commission, despite their best intentions, Goodbye Uncle Tom will never fully shake the charge of racism. And if the filmmakers' intent was to be positively provocative, maybe that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is definitely a testimony to the enduring visionary and emotional power of one of history's most provocative films.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sexploitation and Slavery in GOODBYE UNCLE TOM

When the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi visited a Southern plantation sometime in the early 1850s, their plan to conduct an inquiry into the peculiar institution of slavery was met with polite skepticism from their hosts and various other guests. While an envious Harriet Beecher Stowe decided on the spot to write Uncle Tom's Cabin in order to scoop the strangers from the flying machine, others at the dinner table questioned the researchers' motives. Noting that they were Italian and Catholic, one man opined that the visitors were slaves of a sort themselves -- "slaves to the fascination of sin."

Of course, this was but a hint of self-awareness if not self-criticism on the part of the infamous duo, not to mention a warning of their methodology in the making of Goodbye Uncle Tom. Tom is meant to be an anti-racist film in order to make up for misinterpretations of their African documentary. As Quentin Tarantino might put it, their way of answering critics amounted to putting out fires with gasoline. Their challenge was complicated by a more persistent charge against them: that their affectations of seriousness only masked a sleazy cynicism that approached its subject matter in a spirit of exploitation. Their films from Mondo Cane forward were called "shockumentaries," not documentaries, as if sensationalism belied any claims of serious purpose on the part of J&P.

In The Godfathers of Mondo Franco Prosperi says that "violence is another form of objectivity." You can see what he means: violence is a necessary component of showing the world as it is, or at least as he and Jacopetti see it. But can violence be viewed as objectively as Prosperi wants? In their own script for Tom, that crack about "the fascination of sin" hints at how the choice to show violence or other sins might betray a lack of objectivity on the part of the filmmakers. And if the fascination of sin influences their pictorial and editorial choices, what will the audience make of it all? I've described Tom as an attempt to show compassion toward the victims of slavery. But someone might well question whether it's compassionate to stare at someone's absolute subjugation and humiliation -- or to have people re-enact the subjugation and humiliation of their ancestors. After all, as some racists believe, the Bible relates that Noah cursed Ham and his son Canaan, turning their descendants black, because Ham stared at Noah's drunken nakedness. Jacopetti & Prosperi's reading of scripture raises the stakes even further. They have a white preacher state that Ham and Canaan were cursed for castrating Noah. This may have been another, even more subconscious warning to the audience about the implications of what they would see in Tom.

The American cut of Goodbye Uncle Tom is supposed to be toned down from the Italian original (or its modern incarnation as the 2003 Director's Cut), but that toning down turns out to be no more than a dumbing down of the film's present-day political context. The American cut is at several points more violent than the Director's Cut, for instance, and it retains most of the Italian version's sex scenes. The one exception is significant, as is the fact that the scenes that stayed are rape scenes. One has a gang of four poor white "Crackers" invading a slave compound and raping several women. The other has a teenage "mare" delivered to Jason, the imbecilic prize stud of a slave-breeding farm.

Both scenes are brutally filmed but scored to disturbing counterpunctual effect by Riz Ortolani with soaringly romantic yet more insistently percussive variations on the movie's theme song. Ortolani is a master of this kind of counterpoint, as he'd show again with the pastoral lyricism of Cannibal Holocaust. The intent of composer and filmmakers alike is to convey idealism under physical assault, but the effect is not necessarily unlike a more conventional sex scene scored to build toward a climax. It's understandable if critics wonder whether J&P want to have it both ways, outraging and infuriating some viewers but titillating and arousing others. But I doubt whether anyone has ever admitted being aroused by these scenes from Tom. However, if they presume that others will be titillated, isn't their only evidence their own feelings? Beware "the fascination with sin"...

More problematic yet is the sex scene left out of the American cut. In the Director's Cut, a wax museum proprietor relates the legend of Madame La Laurie and her companion Caesar, who purchased slaves for the purpose of stocking a unisex harem of opium addicts upon whom the devious pair could play out all their perverse whims. Caesar tends to go overboard with them sometimes the way Lennie does with mice, while the Madame practices a more refined sensuality. Here she is almost literally swimming in an undulating pool of black flesh, in a scene more insistently, indisputably erotic than the rape scenes.

But look out! All of a sudden it's Bathory time, and out come the pliers. I don't know if this legendary personage made as much use of precious bodily fluids as her Euro counterparts, but what we see is bad enough. It's as if this time J&P dared you to be aroused by the waves of nudity they present, only to throw the pliers at your head. There's an evil sensuality on display in Tom, not so much because sensuality is evil but because evil has a sensuality of its own.

The sensuality and sexuality is an important part of the story of slavery as told by Jacopetti & Prosperi. Slavery as practiced on the plantations had an inevitably sexual aspect because of the intimacy shared by slaves and masters. Tom makes the controversial and perhaps unacceptable suggestion that sex was not only a way for masters to dominate slaves, but also a way for slaves to negotiate their standing with masters. We see a heavy-footed Mammy castigating a girl for going to bed with Massa while still a virgin, and a supposed 13 year old girl urging the man behind the camera (in the Director's Cut this is supposed to be a historical person relating an actual experience, but in the American version it may be one of our time-travelling narrators) to take her maidenhead. She helpfully offers the man a whip in case he needs that to get into the right frame of mind.

At the slave market the diminutive General, whip in hand like a ringmaster, takes us on a tour of the seamier side of human commerce. In separate compartments slave girls learn to dance sensuously, a flaming white man body-paints twin pairs of boys for the trade that dare not speak its name, and the piece de resistance stands stoically like a cartoon ghost under a sheet. What's so special about this guy? "He's got three!" the General explains gleefully, "One, two, three!" The thrice-endowed individual himself has the self-respect to put his hands in front of the camera before the "three what?" question is answered.

Do you see a problem here? J&P claim that they want us to sympathize with the plight of the slaves, but our initial assumption of sympathy often depends on a further assumption that the slaves desire freedom. But what we see more often than not is accommodation, behaviors that begin to look like self-degradation rather than survival strategies. Think about it a little and you may realize that the filmmakers are trying to say that all of this is forced on the slaves, that it's a consequence of slavery rather than proof of their suitability for slavery, as the whites take it to be. But Tom's argument that slavery degraded blacks while fueling a simmering shame-based hatred for whites that limited their political imagination is itself, however well-intended, unacceptable for many American viewers. We want to believe in an unassailable dignity and perseverance that could only have been expressed in the sort of perpetual resistance that J&P do not show. If the filmmakers don't give these traits to the slaves, it makes people think that J&P do think slaves are subhuman. Worse yet, there's one scene that I haven't discussed yet that does seem, in some way, to blame blacks for their own degradation, but I want to save that for the next post, in which I try to determine whether Tom is, in fact, a racist film.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Two Versions of GOODBYE UNCLE TOM

In my last post on the subject I equated Jacopetti & Prosperi's Mondo apocalypse on American themes with The Birth of A Nation. As far as they were concerned, however, it was their Intolerance, an answer to critics of their previous documentary, Africa Addio. When that film was released in 1966, the filmmakers were accused of having executions staged for their cameras, but what really stung was the charge of racism against Africans. Africa Addio is a survey of the changes underway in the title continent, with too much emphasis on civil war and atrocities for many people's tastes. The argument was that Europe had withdrawn from Africa too soon, leaving Africans unprepared for self-rule. Critics interpreted this as if J&P had said Africans were incapable of self-rule, and no more than savages. Jacopetti resented the charge, and thought that a compassionate account of the ordeal of slavery suffered by Africans would prove the critics wrong. How naive.

In the Godfathers of Mondo documentary included with Blue Underground's historic Mondo Cane Collection, Jacopetti deems Goodbye Uncle Tom a failure, since it left many viewers only more convinced that he and Prosperi were racists. If the viewers didn't get the point, he concludes, that's his fault, not theirs. This is an unusually generous attitude for a controversial filmmaker, but it begs a question: what didn't audiences get? Is the argument of Goodbye Uncle Tom nothing more than "We're not racists?" There are more economical ways to make that point, but when you consider the actual film you realize that J&P are trying to say something else -- and what that is depends on the version of the film you watch.

As Blue Underground puts it, the original version of Addio Zio Tom "was an experience so incendiary that distributors forced the filmmakers to completely re-cut the film and radically re-write its extreme narration, removing more than 13 minutes of race-war politics and inserting alternate scenes -- creating what would become an entirely different film -- before it could be released!"

Today, we have at least two versions of the film: the American cut and what Blue Underground bills as a "Director's Cut" restored by Jacopetti, "presented uncut and uncensored for the first time anywhere in the world." This implies that the version that played in Europe, which we might otherwise deem the original release version, is not the same as the Director's Cut. How it differs from the final Jacopetti version and the American version remains a mystery. But we can compare the Director's Cut (hereafter Zio) and the American cut (hereafter Uncle), the latter being the version I saw on videotape a decade ago, but spruced up for DVD by Blue Underground. They are profoundly different from one another, but I wouldn't exactly define the American cut as toned down. Dumbed down, maybe, but it's still an incendiary film.

Zio is 136 minutes long, Uncle 123. The difference is accounted for only partly by subtraction. What's subtracted is almost all present-day footage, which in Zio is spread throughout the film. Uncle preserves only the most controversial and inflammatory part of this footage, the fantasy sequence inspired by William Styron's controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I'll discuss further in a later post. In one instance, Uncle presents some of the present-day footage, shots of Civil War re-enacters, as if it were actually portraying the Civil War. The other major footage from Zio missing from Uncle is the sleazyrotic Madame La Laurie sequence, which we'll examine more closely in a post on the (s)exploitation aspects of both films.

Uncle shows men playing at war, but Zio shows them picking up their toys and going home.

Zio is structured more like a mondo movie than Uncle. The American cut drops us right into the phantasmagoric premise of the film, that Jacopetti & Prosperi are able to travel back in time in a helicopter to the Old South and see for themselves how slavery worked. Zio actually attempts, in a joking way, to explain this at the end of a prologue that establishes what else they intend to explain. Zio opens with footage of Martin Luther King's funeral, perhaps filmed by J&P's own team given the great picture quality compared to news footage that appears later. They include an unusually moving shot of automobiles going about their business in complete indifference to the massive procession going on behind them, as if to assert an ultimate insignificance of the mournful demonstration.

Riot footage follows, along with quotes from radical Black Power leaders calling for violence. The filmmakers argue that the proposed or hoped-for uprising was a dismal failure, with whites suffering little damage from black rage. It becomes clear that Zio is meant, in part, to explain by reference to the slavery experience why the black uprisings failed and how the heritage of slavery remains a handicap for American blacks. The prologue closes with a protest at Cape Canaveral during a moon shot, as the narrator invokes Einstein's relativity theory to suggest that a journey into the future can actually take us back to the past, and the film proper begins.

Zio returns to the present frequently for mondo-style actualities (i.e., very possibly staged) showing different aspects of modern race relations, ranging from a hippie repentance ritual on top of a Manhattan skyscraper to rampant race and gender mixing during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The narrators return often to the concept of "Negro-ness" (the subtitle substitute for what used to be called negritude) as a wrong direction for blacks to take. As if pre-empting criticism of their own humiliating treatment of black extras, the filmmakers show Old South re-enactment tours in which blacks are paid to pretend to be slaves.

The final present-day scenes, apart from the Nat Turner fantasy, show an anonymous black leader riding through a ghetto in a police car, telling the hood that repaying race hatred with race hatred (the filmmakers' reading of "Negro-ness") is not the way for blacks to solve the race problem. In retrospect, the slavery footage in Zio seems intended to establish a purely racial grudge that explains a lack of genuine radicalism on the part of the Black Power movement. That footage also allows for a different explanation of ineffective protests, but I'll defer that discussion to another post.

Uncle leaves the Nat Turner fantasy as the only present-day response to the slavery experience. Let me stress again against charges that Uncle is toned down that the Turner footage is the most inflammatory part of the film because (in Uncle especially) it portrays the random slaughter of white families as the black response to slavery. In fact, the American cut of the Turner section goes further than Jacopetti now wants to. In his Director's Cut, he cuts at the last possible moment from the scene of a black radical about to dash a baby against a bedroom wall to a shot of a live baby at the beach. The American cut lets the baby-bashing scene last a few seconds longer.

Uncle (below) boldly goes forward where Zio hesitates at the brink of infanticide.

In at least one counter-instance, Uncle tones down a scene from Zio. A violent action sequence portraying a hunt for fugitive slaves ends in the Director's Cut with the slave hunters posing for a photo beside a mound of dead bodies. Uncle lets the scene run a few moments longer for a comic coda: the slaves in the photo are only playing dead so the hunters can get a good picture. The shot made, they're ordered to scatter.

These are two small instances in which Uncle has footage missing from Zio. There are many more substantial additions to the American cut. I'll close this installment out by listing the most important bits unique to Uncle.

The "flashback" Civil War footage (i.e. the present-day re-enactment footage from Zio) is followed by a scene of slaves burying the dead, followed by an aerial shot of a cemetery, while the Italian-accented narrator explains that "for every negro brought from Africa, a white man fell in battle." The commentary that follows is the part of the American script most clearly designed to exculpate the U.S. from special moral responsibility for slavery, as the narrator states that the nation went on to liberate most of the world from slavery, "an institution America had not invented, but had inherited and endured."

To the assembly-line footage of slavery processing at Fort Bastille is added a visit to the "Veterinary" office, where the bizarrely bandaged Doc White presides over inspections for genital infections and mass enemas.

A nearly idyllic stop by a river during the inland slave march is made more sinister by the burial of a dead baby, the convulsions of sick slaves, and the abrupt murder of fellow slave trader Charlie Wilson by the "benevolent" Mr. Schultz, who warns the narrators off with his pistol to end the scene.

Harriet Beecher Stowe makes a cameo appearance at the plantation first visited by the narrators, announcing her belief in black inferiority but crediting them with "embryonic intelligence" and condemning slavery while declaring her plan to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The narrators arrive at the big slave market scene in a wagon decorated with a "Jacopetti & Prosperi Travelling Photographers" sign that for some reason is one of my most vivid memories of my first viewing of the American cut. The filmmakers are more modest in the Director's Cut, cutting their self-advertisement out of the film.

At the slave market, there are three extra scenes. In the first, a white instructor teaches the slaves proper deportment in the presence of whites; they are not to look whites in the eye. "Look at me!" he demands of one of his students, who is slapped for doing so. "Thank you, master," he says. The second is a visit to a dusty insurance office where the narrators learn that individual body parts of slaves can be insured and give the clerk a ballpoint pen. Finally, the narrators encounter an educated slave who gives a speech out of Southern pro-slavery propaganda favorably comparing his situation with that of working-class whites who have no job security and no paternal authorities to look after them. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" the narrators tell him, "You're a dishonor to your race!"

The visit with the racist pseudo-scientist Dr. Cartwright is extended with a demonstration of one of his inventions, an anti-masturbation device consisting of a big board the slave can't get his arms around.

Overall, Uncle comes across as something more like Fellini's Satyricon (to the point of Riz Ortolani seeming to ape Nino Rota in some more decadent scenes) than an all-out mondo movie, dropping us in an utterly strange world that's even more alien than we thought it would be. It's less overtly political than Zio but is inescapably political because of its subject matter, though its only contemporary relevance, in its own imagination, is its ability to provoke murderous thoughts in certain black people. Whether blacks come off better in Uncle than in Zio, or whether one version is more or less "racist" than another, is a topic for another post. It's enough for now to say that both films pack a visionary wallop with potentially oppressive force, as Jacopetti & Prosperi dare you to look or look away. The American cut is slightly more violent and gory than the Director's Cut, but the sheer conceptual violence of slavery is so omnipresent and overwhelming that the relative use of special effects seems trivial. Choose your poison, some might say, but either way Tom is a one-of-a-kind viewing experience that film buffs can add to their memories like a badge of courage.