Having just spent the last two days at Long Beach Comic Con, attending panels, wading through a sea of cosplayers (both sensual and non), and speaking with a multitude of comic book writers and artists for our soon to be published Forces Of Geek piece, the inevitable concern of what the final goal of their art might be does come to mind. There are the comic creators who are clearly delving into the world of zombies, solely for the purposes of being pitched a film or television deal as “The Walking Dead” has made the shambolic undead the hottest commodity around. There are also cosplayers who dream of being in the circles of the more famous in their craft like Alodia Gosiengfiao who collects in millions in endorsements or those who simply create because of the reason we all hope for: The need of artistic expression with the final goal of making people laugh, cry, understanding a political leaning of some sort, or to just turn them on via overt eroticism.
Sadly, as far as erotic expression in comic books in the United States is concerned, there has not been a great deal of respect thrown that way, and a lot of what is produced that is sexually themed here is relegated to a niche market, and imports of such material (outside of manga) are currently incredibly difficult to locate in the US much less in the late 1960s. Such was the case with the work of Italian comic book writer, Guido Crepax whose important erotic series “Valentina” barely saw the light of day here in America despite its immense popularity in Europe.
Valentina was originally a character in an earlier science fiction based Crepax series called “Neutron,” who eventually became the protagonist of her own series in 1967 due to the popularity of the issues of “Neutron” in which her character was featured. This is not surprising as Valentina Rosselli was exceptionally illustrated and written as a gorgeous and intelligently opinionated Milanese fashion photographer and left leaning journalist who progressively abandons the more science fiction facets of her persona in “Neutron” for a more enticing and stark mix of promiscuity, sadomasochism, and just about any other kink that you could imagine. Though outrageously explicit, it is clear that Crepax did not want Valentina to be seen as only a sexual being but more as a fully rounded heroine to be admired. Unlike Theresa, the protagonist from “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” (my review from last week) who is an American single Roman Catholic woman who engages in sexual escapades that end with guilt, condemnation, and death, Valentina’s stylistic fused sexuality is a celebration of her freedom as a woman who during her time could explore sexuality however she wants. I mean she is living in Italy, after all.
After achieving an almost cult status in Italy, Valentina was given a film adaptation by young director Corrado Farina who seemed like a solid choice as he had given Bram Stroker’s “Dracula” a truly bizarre giallo treatment in his 1971 film, “Hanno Cambiato Faccia, (They Have Changed Their Face). Isabelle de Funes (the niece of famed French actor, Louis de Funes) was selected to play Valentina as she bore a striking resemblance to the character that was illustrated in Crepax’s series. And playing the role of the older witchy dominatrix Baba Yaga is the luminous American actress Carrol Baker of “Baby Face” fame, who like many Hollywood stars had moved to Italy a few years before when her career in the States began to wane. So you may be wondering then: If this is the first film adaptation of the “Valentina” series then why is the title “Baba Yaga” and not “Valentina,” the latter title being the obvious choice for an American comic book adaptation. My theory is that given the state of sadomasochism that was depicted in giallos during the early seventies, producers must’ve been thrilled when “Baba Yaga” the 1971 issue of the then popular “Valentina” series was issued, as it was the first in that popular series to introduce the protagonist to the world of B&D.
The film opens with an occultist political theater production that is being staged by hippies in a cemetery (that resembles the graveyard scenes in Bob Clarke’s “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”), where we first see Valentina taking shots of the scene, which suddenly disbands once the police arrive and gets us to the opening credits and one of the true stars of this film, the jazz/prog score by Piero Umiliani. Soon after Valentina rejects her part time lover, a commercial director named Arno (George Eastman), she defiantly walks home alone and nearly dies while trying to rescue a dog about to be run over by a Bentley-driving society woman named Baba Yaga. Baba takes a more than subtle sexual interest in Valentina, even going as far as stealing a piece of Valentina’s stockings as a keepsake. Baba takes Valentina home but insists that Valentina visit her the following day. The next day Valentina is back behind the Hasselblad snapping picks of a ravenously gorgeous model in the comfort of her modern giallo set designed swanky Italian apartment, which is complete with animal skins on the walls, a blood red tiled kitchen, and glowing orbs for lamps. She discusses her left leaning politics with her clearly fascist model friend before going off to visit Arno on set at a slum where he fishes out a rodent that he films some hot rat action for the sake of symbolically shaming politicians.
Then its off to Baba’s home, a large gothic setting equipped with an old movie spookiness that Norman Bates would feel more than a bit comfortable wheeling around in if not for the scattered bondage gear, fetish footwear, and bullwhips. Valentina spears somewhat concerned and soon she finds a bottomless pit hidden under a Persian rug in the study that somehow doesn’t seem to freak out Valentina enough to leave the apartment screaming in terror. Finally, to make matters over the top creepy, Baba gifts Valentina a fetish doll named “Annette” who will “protect her (Valentina) from danger” because nothing scares away evil more than a sexed up cupie/voodoo doll. Valentina’s luck starts to turn very bad after she begins to photograph (after some incredibly politically incorrect motivational speech) a black man and white woman engaged in some aggressively naughty hand-holding to make a political statement about racial unity. After the shoot, the white model is felled by a puncture wound to the leg that no one can account for. Valentina also takes down a protesting hippy with the lens of her camera after taking his picture. It seems that these people are paying for Valentina’s leftist ways, but why would Baba curse her in that way? When more things go wrong, Valentina is off to return Annette to Baba at her home where we then have a scene of voluntary domination and discipline that is inflicted on Valentina by Baba. It is indeed an erotic turn of events, but Valentina never seems to be the victim, and although she is strapped in for the ride, she never loses control of her sexuality.
Original Trailer For Baba Yaga
I am completely onboard with the style of this film, as I am with many giallos of the early 1970s. It is a slickly shot film that is matched with a hip soundtrack and gorgeous actors, and the sexuality is provocative enough to keep one’s attention during the gaps, but I must admit that the politics of this film are a tad confusing. It seems that Baba Yaga is trying to use her sexuality to tame Valentina of the free sexuality that Valentina exhibits throughout the film, but if that is the case and Baba is some remnant of the right wing, then why would she use deviant sexuality to dominate her? There are a few scenes in the films where Arno knocks Valentina’s politics as well, leading me to believe that this film is a slam against the left wing, but you just cannot be sure as there is evidence to prove the opposite as well. You cannot escape the feeling that Farina’s intention of this adaptation is that politics is just the fodder of the well off, and you should just shut up and watch the sexual fireworks in all its eternal coolness.
There is a key scene early on when Valentina’s intellectual friends argue at a party about the value within the low budget film work of Godard to which Valentina replies, “I prefer Chaplin films, because at least you laugh.” Perhaps that message is the one we must follow when watching “Baba Yaga,” the message being that for the rich, the discussion of politics and art is just conversation for effect that has no real impact and that sometimes your best intention for creating art should what I stated earlier, to make someone laugh, or to cry, or in the this case to turn them on, but perhaps to leave the politics behind for the politicians.