Catholic Guilt Hits Hard In Larry Cohen’s 1976 Stylish Horror Classic “God Told Me To”

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Alien Abduction In Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To

Earlier this year my wife Lily and I got to meet director Larry Cohen between a double feature screening of his seldom seen 1984 film, Special Effects, and his uneven yet wildly entertaining 1990 thriller, Ambulance, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Sadly, there was only a small crowd for those Thursday night screenings at the cavernous theater on Sunset Blvd., a theater where anything less than a sellout always feels dramatically under attended.

I especially felt a bit badly about the low turnout as I have long admired Cohen’s films, an admiration that began after my friend Ron and I got our hands on a VHS copy of his 1974 newborn baby that rips up everyone classic, It’s Alive. That horror film that set our standard for “batshit crazy” which we would use for every phantasmagorical film that we saw afterwards during our teen years.  Besides ranking It’s Alive against other horror films of late 1970s and early 1980s, we also hunted down any movie that Cohen directed, with many being to our delight like Perfect Strangers in 1984 and Q in 1982. You remember Q don’t you? That was the one with giant flying lizard that had a thing for eating New Yorkers, which as young Philadelphians who hated the Mets and their fans was more enjoyable than perhaps originally intended, but of all of the films that Cohen had directed post-It’s Alive, we really loved his 1976 film, God Told Me To, a visually stunning science fiction horror film that centered on Catholic guilt, which we had seen not too long after Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which for us had set the gold standard of dealing with our own Catholic guilt.

Cohen wrote, produced, and directed God Told Me To, which is centered on Catholic NYC Police Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), a well intentioned, sad sack cop who is investigating a series of random murders where the only constant is that the killers’ last utterance, which is the title of this film. If this supposedly God-inspired bloodbath doesn’t play with his Catholic guilt enough, Peter is in a severely dysfunctional open relationship between his wife of many years, Martha (the always sullen, Sandy Dennis), and his younger girlfriend, Casey (Deborah Raffin). The setup is good for a classic Italian Roman Catholic meltdown, which brings up a point that I have wondered about for years and regretfully neglected to ask Cohen that night at the Egyptian: “Why would you cast Italian-American actor Tony Lo Bianco to play essentially an Italian-American archetype but named that character Peter Nicholas?” Nicholas’s self-tormenting persona is quite similar to Mean Streets’ Roman Catholic repressed Charlie (Harvey Keitel), but as Mean Streets was released only a few years earlier,  perhaps Cohen changed the character’s nationality to avoid comparison, which is almost unavoidable given the Catholic setup and its NYC location. It doesn’t change how much I appreciate this film in any way, but it does need mentioning if not for the one chance that I can face Cohen in the future without turning into a thirteen year old fan.

Through a bit of clever detective work, Peter finds out that all of the killers have been influenced by a religious cult leader named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), a Christ-like figure from space whose alien race convinces these white, earth men to turn their arms on other white people, who historically had more authority and voting power in New York City. This subplot is commonplace as issues of race and social status have always been a part of most of Larry Cohen’s films since his debut dark comedy Bone in 1972 and his subsequent blaxploitation films Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem. Peter fittingly meets Bernard in the hell-like basement of a slum apartment building, and it’s here that Cohen creates his contrasting image of God, a hermaphroditic figure who argues with Peter about a possible revolution of minorities to bring them to the level of ruling class while still preaching hate like a dictator. It is the contrasting nature of the film that becomes God Told Me To’s strongest mechanism as it fills the narrative with a state similar to that which is occurring inside of Peter, the Madonna/whore complex that rules not only his romantic relationships but his familial relationships as we find out that the many of Bernard’s disciples may have been born out of interstellar virgin birth to make the whole guilt thing more than any Catholic can handle. In fact, all of the extraterrestrial/religious/racial themes of God Told Me To only serve to stress the real erupting urban landscape of a desperate 1970s New York that was experiencing the latter stages of white flight-inspired urban decay. Perhaps Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, which would be released a few years later in 1981, defined Larry Cohen’s intentions with God Told Me To in a way that now makes complete sense: that this late 1970s New York was in fact some sort of sociological experiment or worse some sort of penal colony where the guards are actually the prisoners that never saw the kind of revolution that Bernard suggests, leaving the town in an unsatisfying malaise.

Considering the low budget of God Told Me To, Cohen leaves a lot of the money on the screen, as this may be the most visually striking piece of his career. Most impressive are the sessions between Bernard and Peter that take place in the gold-lit bathed boiler room of the apartment building. The schlock is at a minimum here as we not only feel the frenzy so present in Cohen’s work but also a state of awe that needed to be present so that the audience could empathize as to how Bernard could convince his disciples to go out and kill on his behalf. The scenes of the alien abduction of virgin brides also gets the first class sci-fi treatment here as does the score by Frank Cordell, who filled in for legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, who had scored Cohen’s It’s Alive and had agreed to score God Told Me To but passed away shortly after accepting the contract. Cordell’s score, much in the mold of Hermann’s music for It’s Alive, does a fantastic job in driving the overall creepiness of the narrative.

Original Trailer For God Told Me To

As messy as all of this sounds, God Told Me To’s science fiction/horror/sexual structure keeps the viewer off kilter for the entire ninety minutes while never losing its protagonist Peter Nicholas in the process in the same way that Scorsese’s Mean Streets‘ over the top realism and violence never loses its hero, Charlie. Both men looking to keep the peace but neither realizing that the only peace they need cannot come solely from saving those around them but by saving themselves. So, whether Cohen saw Mean Streets and decided to give it the Cohen touch or if it is a totally original concept, only Larry knows, but either way, it brings home the damage that years of getting smacked in the hand by rulers held by potentially alien women wearing capes can do to a good Catholic boy who is only trying to do the right thing.

 

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The Brutal Nature Of Rauni Mollberg’s 1973 Film, “The Earth Is A Sinful Song”

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Niiles-Jouni Aikio and Maritta Viitamäki

One can only imagine the unsettling rural environment that Timo Mukka, the author of the novel that would become the film, Maa On Syntinen Laulu (The Earth Is A Sinful Song), was raised in during his short life. Born in Sweden, Mukka’s family migrated to the village of Orajärvi in Northern Finland during the last months of the Lapland War, a rarely spoken of conflict that was separate from World War Two which was fought between Finland and Germany from September 1944 to April 1945 in Finland’s northernmost Lapland Province. After fascism had been defeated, Mukka’s village was divided between conservative Lutheran Laestadianist Christians and communists, and it is in that kind of Lapland village with its diametrically opposed social and political attitudes that would become the setting for The Earth Is A Sinful Song.

The film follows a sexually awakening young woman named Martta Viitamäki (Martta Mäkelä) who lives in a one room farmhouse with her grandfather (Aimo Saukkoin a small village in Lapland. Though they share the room, Martta sleeps in the nude, which is a source of duress for her grandfather, who scolds her in a shockingly vulgar fashion. Soon, Martta is up and about, tending to her farming chores. Given the simplicity of these moments, I am immediately reminded of Liv Ullman’s 1995 adaptation of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Norwegian historical novel about the travails of a farmer’s daughter who grows up during the 14th Century, except The Earth Is A Sinful Song is set shortly after The Lapland War, in 1947. There is nary a modern element in this village, and this adds to the timeless naturalism of the film. This very well could be the Scandinavian village from Kristin Lavransdatter, not only due to the homes, wagons, and sleds, which appear to be those of a different century, but also, as we will soon find out, the primordial ways that the inhabitants behave behave towards each other.

This is a poor village village where Martta begins to explore her options for a man, but it is also brutal beyond the butchering of animals that is commonplace on a farm (not for the faint of heart as the beatings of horses, dogs and killings of animals are all real in a way that makes the electric hammer in a slaughterhouse seem like a kiss on the forehead). At the end of one day when the village gathers for a dance by the water, a drifter who is dancing with some of the local women gets murdered, which receives the reaction that one would expect when finding roadkill: “What was he?” “Oh well.” and life goes on. When Martta’s grandfather works all night to only end up delivering a stillborn calf of a woman’s prize cow, there is only a small moment of pause before the cow’s owner offers a fuck to grandpa as a form of payment. In fact, most of the film is delivered in such an unsentimental way, creating a harsh documentary-like feeling, which also borders on nihilism.  You await the moment when someone becomes affected by the grotesqueness around them, but rest assured, that will be a long wait. Adding into the daily atrocities towards animals throughout the film is the hideous response to Martta’s growing desires as a woman, which is met with the occasional grope and rape from the boorish men in the town. As horrible as all of this sounds, none of it is sensationalized, which is an excellent show of restraint by first time feature director Rauni Mollberg. Though tough to watch at times, the almost absurd nature of the goings on play into the overwhelmingly realistic and somewhat claustrophobic feeling of this town.

Needless to say that at this point the romantic prospects for Martta seem slim; that is until Oula (Niiles-Jouni Aikio), a boyishly handsome and sweet reindeer herder and salesman, comes to town. Oula also has an eye for Martta, and after a quick scene in which a group of reindeer are corralled and stabbed repeatedly in a scene reminiscent to many a drunken Memorial Day picnic in Philly gone wrong from my youth, they talk of sex. In fact after the Caligulaesque bloodletting of the reindeer sale, the whole town starts in on a bit of a bone sucking-marrow guzzling Roman-era orgy with its ferocious pairing off, which goes so off the rails that the other faction in town evokes the power of everyone’s favorite party killers, the clergy. In fact, this is the hardcore, one-room-God-forbid-you-fall asleep-for-a-second kind of sermon that scares everyone straight for a moment with the threat of hell fire. I write “just for a moment,” as Martta, who is now pregnant with someone’s child, turns her attention to Hannes, a young naive boy in the village who Martta seems intent on schooling in her favorite pastime while she awaits the return of Oula. With all that is happening in Martta’s sexual explorations, you await her grandfather’s reaction, which ends up being fairly passive, despite a few rude comments. It is only when Juhani, Martta’s usually absent father, comes into the picture that you see a day of reckoning looming over Martta and her illegitimate child. Juhani carries a level of self-loathing and violence that goes well beyond any of the rogues we have seen so far in the film. This will get even uglier quickly.

The Earth Is A Sinful Song is one of those rare films that manages to juggle intense drama with a naturally flowing storytelling style that keeps the viewer engaged in a way that you feel that you are watching a perfectly constructed documentary. Much of the success can be attributed to Mollberg’s cinéma vérité approach to the characters created by Mutta that offers a snapshot of the politically bipolar community where the author was raised. The town reveled in its post war sexual freedoms as much as it was repelled by them due to the teachings of their organized faith, creating an antithetical, passively brutal yet hedonistic society.

Yoon Jeong-hee (Poetry) Is A Single Woman In “Night Journey” From 1977

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Yoon Jeong-hee In Yahaeng (Night Journey)

In 2010, legendary South Korean actress Yoon Jeong-hee came out of a sixteen year retirement to play Yang mi-ja, the protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s internationally acclaimed film, Poetry.   For Yoon’s textured performance as a grandmother who is steadily succumbing to Alzheimer’s while trying to keep her grandson, whom she is raising, out of prison for a rape charge earned her a much deserved Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress.  To most of us in the West, Poetry gave us our first exposure to Yoon Jeong-hee, a talented and occasionally controversial actress in the South Korean cinema of  the 1960s and 70s, an actress who was often referred to during her heyday as part of the “Troika” (three) along with Moon Hee and Nam Jeong-im as the most popular actresses of their generation and given Yoon’s performances in some of the more notorious titles from that period of South Korean cinema, she was a natural choice for the lead in “Poetry” as her character, Yang mi-ja, must resort to any means necessary to save her grandson, including sexual soliciting at the age of  sixty six.

One of more notorious titles that Yoon Jeong-hee starred in during her youth was in Yahaeng (Night Journey) a 1977 film by prolific director, Kim Soo-yong where Yoon plays Miss Lee, an unmarried bank clerk in an immense bank in downtown Seoul.  I mention that she is unmarried as that fact is bandied about her office along with the flippant use of the “old maid” tag which has been bestowed upon her and one other female co-worker, a woman that is Miss Lee’s last unwed colleague who is about to tie the knot, an occasion that Miss Lee is not at all that happy about, as that wedding will leave her as the only single woman in her office.

Seated slightly behind Miss Lee at the bank is Mr. Park, Miss Lee’s supervisor, who only occasionally throws a glance at our protagonist though it seems that she is interested in him. After her shift is over, Miss Lee takes a bus and gets off at a military cemetery, heads to the grocery store where she picks up a few things and goes home to her apartment where Miss Lee cooks herself dinner and falls asleep on the couch.  While still asleep the door opens and Miss Lee’s supervisor Mr. Park menacingly walks in and carries her off to the bedroom which is shot in a way that doesn’t look too consensual, and he proceeds to mount her for what seems like eight seconds, gratifies himself, and rolls off to sleep which which makes it abundantly clear that Mr. Park is not into sharing an orgasm with Miss Lee.   We then learn that the two have been living together but they have kept this fact a secret from their coworkers upon Mr. Park’s request in order to avoid gossip which in conjunction with his poor sexual performance, makes their relationship even more pathetic.

Given the impending marriage of her co-worker, Miss Lee also wants to go legit but Mr. Park describes marriage as “lame” and you understand quickly that this relationship isn’t going anywhere fast.  To add insult to injury, Miss Lee has to go stag to the wedding of co-worker so she takes a week’s vacation and decides to visit her hometown to explore her past where you learn that the one true love of her life was killed while serving in the Vietnam War, and that he is buried in the cemetery across the street from her Seoul apartment.  Miss Lee soon returns to the city, and she heads to the bars, not necessarily looking for love but more to test the potentially dangerous ramifications of being a single woman engaging a world full of singles, similar to the character of Theresa in Richard Brooks’ equally controversial film released the same year, Looking For Mr. Goodbar.

Night Journey remains as one of the highlights of Kim Soo-yong’s oeuvre, and it is adapted from a work by the acclaimed 20th-century novelist Kim Seung-ok.  Though it is based on Kim Seung-ok’s novel, Night Journey also shares a lot with Mr. Goodbar, the aforementioned film of Richard Brooks besides the central plot of a woman who is desperate to see a world beyond her past, using sexuality to compensate for loss which in the case of Miss Lee’s loss of her true love, whereas Theresa it is more an issue of lost time from her youth caused by illness and Catholic repression.  Kim soo-yong employs a similarly loose narrative structure and mixes daring cinematography and sound to create a modernist aesthetic that allows you into the mind of the film’s central character.   Actress Yoon Jeong-hee brings a beautifully righteous rebellion to Miss Lee in the same way that would do over thirty years later with her character in Poetry.   Both characters are trapped by their age and the customs of the society that they live in which assumes that they must be complacent, waiting for men to rescue them so that they can live out their lives.

Given the time period when most South Korean films were shot to give only the male perspective, Night Journey remains as a striking statement for a growing number of women of its era who wanted to free themselves from repression. As righteous as the film is though, there is one scene that possibly does go against the makeup of Miss Lee’s character and that is a scene in which Miss Lee, during one of her solo escapades into the city, is raped and appears to have enjoyed it so much that she goes to the same location the next night seemingly to have the moment happen again.  If the rape had occurred with Miss Lee’s outrage, I would’ve assumed that this was added to supply a punishment for her rebellion, serving as a precautionary tale in order for the film to make it past the censors but she clearly seems to enjoy it.

If director Kim’s goal was to make a point that Miss Lee’s desire to willingly be a victim of rape due to the fact that her current sex life is a collection of unsatisfying moments, that would be very bold condemnation of that era’s men but what I actually feel is the purpose of that rape is that Miss Lee’s perception of sexuality has been augmented based on her first sexual experiences being derived from a teacher who molested her as a teen that we see in flashbacks early in the Night Journey.  If the latter rationale is the case, then one has to wonder as to what is the overarching statement of sexual freedom and repression that director Kim is making with Night Journey.  Is that statement that all women in society have been punished by men for so long that the line between the sexual act of love and the brutality of rape has been blurred?

 Night Journey Full Movie

Incredibly, given the film’s salacious content in a country that is even more sexually repressed than the United States, the production of Night Journey actually predates Mr. Goodbar by four years as it wrapped in 1973 but was attacked by censors and was shelved for years before being released in an edited version in 1977.  Rumors persist that two cuts of the film exist, but director Kim maintains that this is not true though I personally would love to have seen his true vision for the film.   Regardless, of the cuts that one imagines were made, Night Journey is an intelligently made film depicting one woman’s impossible struggle to free herself from past tragedies, violence, and contemporary repression.  As for actress Yoon Jeong-hee, given her performance here and in such magnificent films like 1967’s Mist, I am thrilled that she ended her career with 2010’s Poetry, forever solidifying Yoon as an actress who never strayed away from controversial and important roles for women.

 

 

Mario Bava Scares You One More Time With His Final Theatrical Film “Shock” From 1977

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John Steiner and Daria Nicolodi in Bava’s Shock

Sometime during the late spring of 2007, my friend Michelle and I hoofed it over to the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square to check out some of their Grindhouse series that they had programmed following the popularity of the recent Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature film experience that revived interest in the exploitation films of the late 1960s and 70s. The day we decided to head over to Cambridge was a way too pretty Saturday afternoon to see a nasty giallo, but such things like a clear sky rarely matter to horror fans, even fans who had just spent the last few months buried under New England snow and grey skies. Also, what helped me convince Michelle to head to the theater that day was the opportunity see a 35mm print of  Shock, the last feature film directed by the father of giallo genre, Mario Bava.

Before he became a pioneer in Italian horror, Bava started his film career assisting his father Eugenio at the special effects department at Benito Mussolini’s film factory, the Istituto LUCE, before becoming a cinematographer himself. Bava had lensed over twenty films before getting his first opportunity to co-direct when director Mario Camerini needed an AD for his sword and sandal film, Ulysses, an Italian production that starred Kirk Douglas. The next year, during production of Riccardo Freda’s 1956 film, Beatrice Tenci, Freda and his friend Bava discussed the possibility of making a horror film, which would be the first Italian horror film of the sound era, as the genre had been banned in Italy throughout the 30s and 40s. The pair negotiated a production deal with Studio Titanus, provided that they could write a script in a few days and have the film done in two weeks to which they agreed, and I Vampiri was born, a nasty low budget film centered around the murders of young women who are found drained of their blood. Though I Vampiri did not perform well at the box office, it wasn’t met with huge opposition either, despite the film’s carnality, so the door was now opened for the horror genre again in Italy.

For a few more years, Bava would shoot several more gladiator films, but in 1960,  he would have the chance to direct a loose adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1865 horror story “Viy” into a feature film, the outrageously gory La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday), a film so visceral that it it would be banned in England for most of the decade but would help launch Bava as a relevant director of the horror genre internationally. After Black Sunday, Bava would occasionally direct a sword and sandal and even a few spaghetti westerns (Roy Colt And Winchester Jack is a favorite), but it was the giallos that he would master such as Black Sabbath, Kill, Baby, Kill and Bay Of Blood.  

Fueled by the success of the Bava giallos, the genre began to flourish, so by the mid-1970s, there were many directors such as Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci challenging Bava for the giallo crown, and even though Mario would always be regarded as the master, the theaters were packed with competing Italian horror films from younger directors. Jumping genres again, in 1974 Bava would direct the nihilistic poliziotteschi, Rabid Dogs, which had been plagued with production issues that were further exasperated when the film’s producer went bankrupt after the main investor died in a car crash. Bava would take two years off from directing after the headaches provided by Rabid Dogs, but he would return in 1977 with Shock, a smart, small horror film that would prove that the master still possessed a bevy of technical tricks from all of his years as a cinematographer to scare you senseless.

Shock stars Daria Nicolodi as Dora Baldini and John Steiner as her husband Bruno, who begin the film by moving back into Dora’s family home. Bruno is Dora’s second husband as her first, Carlo, died several years prior, and the house has been locked up ever since. Given the circumstances of her first husband’s death and the fact that his dead body had never been located, Dora is not too happy about moving back into the home, and her head is not all together there, since years of drugs and electroshock therapy received during her institutionalization after her husband’s death have left her quite the mess. Adding to her daily dilemma is that Dora had a son with her first husband, the waifish-looking Marco (David Colin Jr.), who gets along with his stepfather Bruno, but he is still not one hundred percent accepting of this new man who amorously embraces his gorgeous and slightly catatonic mom. Coming to Marco’s rescue, as the forces of evil always seem to be there to fiendishly assist with the sadness of youngsters, a new friend in the house, an imaginary one, enters Marco’s life, and given that his stepdad is an airline pilot and frequently away, little Bruno spends lots of time talking to his new “friend” and spends much time in the basement where some evil mojo is boiling up in the Baldini home.

Original Trailer for Mario Bava’s Shock

What really bumps Shock’s creepiness up to eleven are the incestuous actions that little Marco (or perhaps Carlo living inside of him) begin to take towards his mother. Marco begins by spying on his mom in the shower, slicing up her panties, jumping on top of her and sexually thrusting, and even romantically touching his sleeping mother’s face and neck with a hand that suddenly transforms into that of a rotting corpse, which all perhaps suggest that maybe Carlo is looking for love from beyond the grave? It is these moments where Marco begins to morph into his dead father that provide the greatest jolts in Shock, including one scene that I will not give away that occurs when Marco runs towards his mother that sent both Michelle and me leaping from our seats. It is the kind of scare that only a master director could imagine, so basic in its visual construction, relying on no special effects, and yet it still scares you silly. Although the scene that I just described may be the best of the film, Shock is loaded with a ton of smart, visual inventions that make you believe that during the two years that Bava was “retired,” he was compiling his terror filled ideas into a notebook for later use, and I, for one, am so glad that he had enough inspiration to make a giallo, one that despite its modest structure and a surface that looks like another post-Exorcist era possession film, comes off with so many jolts to make it a captivating, haunting watch. Shock’s overall dark tone, a killer fusion score from the Italian/Motown signed band I Libra, and low budget but affecting visual elements make it a fitting final theatrical release for the brilliant Bava, who sadly died of a sudden heart attack in 1980 at the age of 65.

I found out shortly after that afternoon screening that Shock was my friend Michelle’s first Bava film, and she was very impressed. In the seconds after the film, I thought that I should’ve started her out with one of the director’s earlier, more accomplished films, but I soon was confronted with the reality that a giallo from a then 62 year old Bava affected Michelle, who was then a young filmmaker herself, making Shock just as qualified as Bava’s other works. I have always said that if a comedy without an audience can make you laugh out loud, then it is very successful, and I guess a similar type of success exists for a horror film that terrorizes you on a pretty day.

Werner Schroeter’s Playful and Dreamlike 1972 Low Budget Film “Willow Springs”

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“Werner Schroeter will one day have a place in the history of film that I would describe in literature as somewhere between Novalis, Lautréamont, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline; he was an ‘underground’ director for ten years, and they didn’t want to let him slip out of this role.” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I start this review of the 1972 film, “Willow Springs,” with the above quote from Schroeter’s friend and admirer Fassbinder as it is purely the uncompromising and “underground” nature of Schroeter’s work that made him so respected and in turn kept him from being as well known as the other directors of the German film wave that included Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders. A mostly self-taught filmmaker who began his career making short 8mm experimental films, he would soon meet fellow experimental film-maker, Rosa von Praunheim, and this introduction turned into a partnership resulting in their co-direction of “Grotesk-Burlesk-Pittoresk” in 1968. For his first full-length film, 1969’s “Eika Katappa,” Schroeter began to showcase the idiosyncratic techniques that would mark much of his later work. The experimental visuals, mixed minimalism, drama and the incorporation of twentieth century songs to contrast these elements created a film that blurred the line between art and satire. Because of his ambiguous and modernist approach to filmmaking, Schroeter films would rarely be screened outside of his native Germany and would remain virtually unseen in the States until his passing in 2010, which sparked an interest in his work.

“Willow Springs,” Schroeter’s 1972 film, and his only film that was shot in the United States, sets the scene in a lonely, dilapidated house with a bar on the edge of the Mojave desert; the house, like the place in which it is located, is called “Willow Springs.” Like his 1970s film, “Der Bomberpilot,” the focus is on three women, except that in “Willow Springs,” these women are not passive and waiting for the men in their lives to make all of their decisions; no, this trio of women rob and kill the men who dare to visit their roadside shack. The women are lead by the severe Magdalena (Magdalena Montezuma, the star of many of Schroeter’s films) who dominates the ethereal Christine (Christine Kaufmann), an angelically sad woman who seems content with the middle. And finally at the bottom of the totem pole is the frumpy Ila (Ila von Hasberg), who serves as maid to Magdalena and Christine but is quickly growing unhappy with the situation and voices her displeasure. To unify them in their gender, Magdalena leads them in a Amazonian-like ritual, and in her movements, she has as her soundtrack a mix between the Andrew Sisters “Rum and Coca Cola” and opera, clearly indicating the immortality of her character, while Ila and Christine get free rocking Doobie Brothers to affix them to the early 1970s .

Soon, a drifter named Michael (Michael O’Daniels), a beautiful pure embodiment of the American west, enters “Willow Springs” and falls is love with Ila, who is more than glad to leave, but will Magdalena allow them to do so? What transpires is a sequence that plays into all of Schroeter’s strengths as a director, incorporating dream logic and surrealistic imagery as Magdalena’s attempts to create a unified feminist front in her deserted family home starts to quickly unravel. Shot in California, the film’s location, Willow Springs, plays an important role: One is clearly reminded of the Spahn Movie Ranch where the Manson family congregated and mapped out their plans of Helter Skelter prior to making their ugliness real. There, music in the form of the Beach Boys and Beatles was also used in the same manic way that juxtaposed the eventual violence that would ensue the lives of all involved. Like the music utilized in the film, Schroeter’s cinematography is in constant conflict between the gorgeous still pieces and haunting contempt held within Magdalena’s gazes. As it was the topic of many of the post-1968 directors, “Willow Spring” eludes to a passing of of the flower generation and its conflict with the uglier undercurrents that seemed to circle under all of the love they hoped to make real.

Scene From “Willow Tree” 1972

Though it was made in the States, “Willow Springs” was only seen here through festivals and never found adequate distribution. Receiving steady funding from German television, Schroeter continued to work with Magdalena Montezuma on several films until her until her untimely death in 1984 at the age of 41. Schroeter then worked with the French actress Isabelle Huppert on two fiction films, “Malina” in 1990 and “Deux” in 2001, but increasingly devoted his time to the theater and documentaries. In 1982,  Schroeter was destroyed when his friend Fassbinder, who seemed to admire Schroeter’s underground spirit, was able to get funding and purchased the rights to direct a version of Jean Genet’s novel “Querelle de Brest,” which Schroeter had declared that he was trying to do himself. This effectively ended their friendship, and Schroeter publicly trashed Fassbinder’s film, “Querelle,” which was to be his last as Fassbinder died shortly afterwards at the age of 38.

As for Schroeter, he continued to work for the rest of his life and directed his final feature, “Tonight,” just two years before his death in 2010 at the age of 65. A flamboyant and interesting talent, who, despite not reaching the level of success of his contemporaries, was a defiantly nonconformist director who refused to make film in any other way than in his own idiosyncratic style.

“Dusty And Sweets McGee” from 1971: Think American Graffiti With A Lot Of Heroin

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Floyd Mutrux’s Dusty and Sweets McGee

A few months back on this blog, I reviewed American Hot Wax, Floyd Mutrux’s failed 1978 biopic on legendary Cleveland disc jockey, Alan Freed. Though Mutrux’ film contained real life rock and roll pioneers, Chuck Berry,  Jerry Lee Lewis, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as well as an excellent performance from Tim McIntyre as Freed, the film’s too loose narrative structure and poorly drawn characters, mixed with flat TV movie visuals killed the film’s energy, making for a pretty mess of a film. I must admit that part of my dismissive review of American Hot Wax was fueled by the film’s release during the 1950-early 1960s nostalgia craze that engulfed American theaters in the mid to late 1970s. After the runaway success of George Lucas’ 1973 music-filled sentimental car romp through Downey, California, American Graffiti, Hollywood seemed like they couldn’t get enough slicked backed haircuts, cute teenage boys and girls, and classic rock and roll blared through car stereos, so they set out to produce as many stories from that era as they could, but what didn’t come along for the ride was the neo-realist style of Lucas’ film, which is its finest quality. The subsequent nostalgic films after American Graffiti relied heavy on cheese and tunes but were mostly rigidly structured narratives for ABC Sunday Night Movie of the Week releases that played out like long episodes of Happy Days. As for Lucas, I often wondered: why would this gadget-obsessed USC graduate, whose feature film career began with the clean Kubrickesque science fiction visuals of THX 1138, follow up his debut with the neo-realism of American Graffiti?  The answer may lie with Floyd Mutrux’s notorious American new wave film released the same year as THX 1138: Dusty And Sweets McGee.

I write “notorious” in describing Dusty and Sweets McGee because the film’s legend has long preceded it because of Warner Brothers’ stark action of pulling it out of theaters a week after its release. As Mutrux’s film was not given the chance to succeed and was also packed with enough doo-wop and rock hits that would incur massive clearance rights issues, the film would remain in the vaults for over twenty years until successful retro screenings in the mid-1990s created a demand that encouraged the studio to strike a few prints. It is rumored that Warner Brothers objected the non-judgmental treatment of the heroin use that the main characters in the film participate in throughout the film, and yes, there is a lot, and it is out there for all to see. Dusty and Sweets McGee, shot in a faux-documentary style, follows an group of unrelated Los Angeles heroin junkies, dealers, and hustlers (mostly non-professional actors) through a weekend where they talk about their love of horse and the problems that have beset them, which doesn’t play out entirely as a cautionary tale.

At the blurred center of the film is Mitch and Beverly (“Dusty and Sweets”) who lie around various LA motels, jamming each other with needles loaded with opiates in long deliberately harsh scenes as they berate one another in a way that would make Sid and Nancy wink with approval years later in the Chelsea Hotel. A few years younger than Mitch and Beverly are an angelically sweet looking couple, named Larry and Pam who also have a love for the needle. Nancy is also strung out but alone in a room with nothing but four walls and a bed. We also hear from Tip, a low level criminal who professes his love for heroin and crime directly into the camera, and Kit, a confident hustler from NYC. Their lives play out over a weekend while famed LA radio DJ, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg plays the golden oldies ranging from The Marcels to Gene Chandler to Del Shannon…gleeful songs that play over the muted conversations of broken young people, which given the dire situations of the lives, darkly delineate the era they live in from the era that those songs originally played in that brought joy to the boomers who were looking at a very bright post World War Two America. Also cleverly added into the soundtrack at key moments in the film are contemporary songs such as Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and  Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Leave Me Baby,” which immediately bring the viewer back into the characters’ reality. Much has been made about the soundtrack construction of American Graffiti in that songs were laid out prior to the screenplay and that scenes were created in the timeline using the soundtrack structure. Likewise, the soundtrack of Dusty and Sweets McGee is as integral to the storytelling as it is inLucas’ film, except that instead of using the sentimentality of the older rock and roll cuts that Lucas employs to create empathy for his characters in American Graffitti, Mutrux uses the same sentimentality here to create distance and, even at times, pity. It is an excellent technique, one that produces a intensive subliminal surrounding that goes beyond the drone of most of Dusty and Sweets’ dialog, which feels completely free form but at times too repetitive. The soundtrack also serves to link the characters in a way that goes beyond their lifestyles and addictions, which, again, could become tedious despite the harrowing nature of their problems.

What also separates this work from the rest of Mutrux’s later films is the impeccable visual style he achieved through an astonishing amount of talent behind the camera that was allowed to work on this low budget film. I imagine that the executives at Warner Brothers most likely greenlit this avant-garde project out of desperation to make any film that related to young people; thus they were willing to give Mutrux some serious talent in the form of cinematographer William A. Fraker, who had just lensed the massive hits, Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby, and photographers of note, Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács. Together, this visual team created an halcyon like aesthetic for Dusty And Sweets McGee that would rival any film released in the States that year. Like the soundtrack, this almost Malick-esque visual style adds a pathos to the small conversations of the characters within this film, giving their words greater significance as the film maintains an almost playful attitude in the face of all the horrific goings on with its characters.

Overall, Dusty And Sweets McGee leaves you with a constant feeling of lost desperation, the same despair our protagonists experience. After the six or seventh time you see Nancy, Mitch, Larry, or Pam slowly stick a needle in their arms, legs, or ankles, you wring your hands with realization that the only way their situations will change is through an overdose, which you know will befall one of these kids before the credits roll. This is hardly Scared Straight, but I can’t imagine that anyone at Warner Brothers thought that this film would encourage the use of narcotics in any way, despite its claim that all of the characters are real. As Dusty And Sweets McGee in no way glamorizes the use of drugs, I theorize that execs at Warner Brothers were just not prepared when they saw the faces of their own kids when looking at Nancy, Mitch, or Pam. Like Richard Pryor once said, “They call it an epidemic now. That means white folks are doing it.”

Clip From Dusty and Sweets McGee

Though Dusty And Sweets McGee was yanked after only a few days in theaters, it now remains, after its re-release, as a strong document that looks at a lost generation of kids at the tail end of the hippie movement and as a well crafted film that perhaps inspired more than a few young directors like Lucas to work within that same exciting neo-realistic style until the blockbusters took over and made selling a soundtrack more important than creating a soundtrack that builds a world.

Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, And Jack Palance Ride The Fading Western: “Monte Walsh” From 1970

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Monte Walsh Image

Jeanne Moreau and Lee Marvin In “Monte Walsh”

By the time that veteran cinematographer William Fraker directed his first film, “Monte Walsh” in 1970, the Western genre had undergone a complete overhaul. While Italy’s Sergios (Leone and Corbucci) were adding a never before seen silent but muddy ugliness to the genre, Sam Peckinpah brought a level of violence that was unmatched in most action films of its time, much less the hallowed epic Western.

Throughout the 1960s, Hollywood had been trying to resuscitate the cowboy film, even going as far as to create a screen version of the 1951 Lerner and Loewe Western comedy musical, “Paint Your Wagon” in 1969. With the studio system failing, Paramount threw everything they had at “Paint Your Wagon” in the hopes that it would succeed in the way that other musicals of the era had and many Western had not. The studio spared no expense in getting Academy Award winner Paddy Chayefsky to adapt the musical for the screen, which was an odd choice given that Chayefsky was best known for writing inner city characters like the ones found in Delbert Mann’s “Marty” and Richard Brooks’ “The Catered Affair.” For its stars, “Paint Your Wagon” casted the white hot Clint Eastwood, fresh from the Leone “man with no name” films, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg: none of whom could actually sing. They also tabbed William Fraker for their cinematographer. Paramount was banking on Fraker, who had just lensed the hugely successful urban-based hits, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Bullitt” in 1968, to have the eye for such a lavish musical western that was primarily set in the outdoors. As we all know now, “Paint Your Wagon” for the aforementioned reasons, was a notorious flop, both critically and commercially. The only good thing to come out of the “Paint Your Wagon” debacle was the forging of a relationship between actor Lee Marvin and cinematographer William Fraker, which resulted in them creating the beautifully non-epic Western, “Monte Walsh.”

The production company for “Monte Walsh” would be the then recently formed (in 1967) Cinema Center Films, the motion picture subsidiary of CBS television. Early on, CCF’s output and agenda focused on creating lighter fare that would eventually run on television, which was clear when they signed Doris Day to a multi-picture deal for their first few productions like “With Six You Get Eggroll.” By the end of 1969, CCF studio chief, Gordon T. Stulberg, made the decision to get with the times and to shed the studio’s “fluffy” image, so he recommended that his company produce a film version of Mart Crowley’s controversial gay-themed off Broadway play “Boys In The Band,” which was a commercial flop but a critical success, and an adaptation of the satirical Thomas Berger novel about the Little Big Horn massacre, “Little Big Man,” which proved to be a box office hit. While serving as cinematographer on “Paint Your Wagon,” Fraker had learned from the mistakes of director Joshua Logan and felt ready to try directing his own western, and, as Cinema Center Films was more than ready to take risks where the big studios seemed afraid to do so, Fraker got the job of directing the film version of the 1963 Jack Schaefer novel “Monte Walsh.” Schaefer, in 1949, wrote the original novel “Shane,” which was made into the highly successful George Stevens’ film of the same name. In “Shane,” the titular character is a gunfighter who wants to settle down and start a family but is dragged back into his gunslinger ways when a range war erupts where he wants to raise a family. The elements of “Shane” that depict a fading west are also present in “Monte Walsh,” but the cinematic approach that Fraker would take substantially differed from that of Stevens.

From the beginning of “Monte Walsh,” it is clear that you are not watching a golden age Western as Mama Cass sings “The Good Times Are Coming,” a somewhat strange and cheerful pop song for a Western that rolls during an opening montage of reverse-color spaghetti western images. You then get the rugged pair of Lee Marvin and Jack Palance in full cowboy regalia as they joke while bearing down on a wolf to pick up an extra five bucks. Jack Palance is “Chet,” and Lee Marvin is “Monte,” and they are old cowboys who know that their time is coming to an end as Chet says: “Do you realize how many cowpunchers there were out here 10 years ago? Well there’s a hell of a lot less now. And no jobs for them.” Regardless, the boys are still working for now, and after some roughhousing in the bunkhouse, Monte is off to visit Martine (Jeanne Moreau), one of the town’s working girls who is very much fond of Monte. She is also aware that her time in the oldest profession is coming to an end, as she says that hers is a profession of diminishing returns, and she has to move to a railroad town nearby in order to survive. The bosses back east are consolidating all of the ranches out west, and that means less of a need for cowboys, and thus, her client base is going away too. Perhaps everyone is in need of a change?

Despite some teasing from the other cowboys in the bunkhouse, Chet starts to get wedding eyes for the widow who owns the town hardware store and suggests to Monte that perhaps he and Martine should also tie the knot to which Monte responds, “cowboys do not get married.” But once Chet does marry, Monte begins to think that it might be his time to settle down as well and asks Martine who is more than happy to oblige. Still, Monte has to get the cowboy out of his system, so, when he sees the one mustang that even his bronco busting pal Shorty (Mitchell Ryan) cannot tame, Monte saddles the wild animal and takes the beast on a wild ride that destroys half the town in one of the most visually entertaining moments of the film. This turns out to be a good thing, though, as a Wild West show promoter eyes Monte’s rodeo talent on horseback and offers him a weekly salary to be part of the troupe to entertain folks back east. Monte sees this as an opportunity to get out of the cowboy business for good and with enough money, he can marry Martine and get her out too. Sadly, all of these cowboy retirement sentiments change when Shorty guns down a Marshall who is hunting down a member of Monte’s posse, setting off a chain of events that will make Monte use his gun again.

Sure, “Monte Walsh” is packed with enough action to make any Western movie watching fan happy, but what sets it apart are the moments of real passion and tenderness, which were absent in that genre during that time. Kudos to Fraker for believing in Lee Marvin and allowing him to act, whereas most directors of this time reduced our tough guy to a morass of hard facial gestures and catch phrases. Marvin’s scenes with the beautiful Jeanne Moreau are warmly performed and provide the viewer with as much heartfelt emotion as the action scenes provide thrills. Palance as well breaks out of his typecasting as a screen villain and is an excellent foil to Marvin in their scenes together. You feel their friendship, and in turn you have great empathy for their struggle against age and their roles in the dying west. Veteran cinematographer William Fraker does an excellent job in his debut as a director and deserves extra appreciation for hiring cinematographer David M. Walsh for his first time as director of cinematography. In the first hour of the film, Walsh avoids the wide angles utilized in epic Westerns and keeps everything tight in frame while small conversations occur to keep the mood intimate like the more relatable, conversation heavy, European influenced films of the late 60s and early 70s.  Eventually, Fraker opens up the frame once the more classic elements of a Western take place in the second half. And as a result, these visual ideas keep “Monte Walsh” very modern while still adhering to the core elements of the genre, which is an interesting technique. Fraker would have a long a distinguished Hollywood career as a DP for huge box office hits, including “The Goodbye Girl,” “Murder By Death,” and “Private Benjamin.”

“Monte Walsh” Full Movie

Sadly, “Monte Walsh,” though a critical success, did not do well at the box office, so William Fraker would only be given a couple of more opportunities to direct feature films that never seemed to work as well as his debut, and after a few more flops at the box office, Cinema Center Films also closed its doors in 1972. For the rest of his career, Fraker worked as a director of photography in over forty feature films and was nominated for five Academy Awards, most notably, 1978’s “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” and 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance.” History will remember Fraker as a talented cinematographer, but I, for one, feel that some accolades should have been given for his debut, a sweet and tough modern western that remains as one of the finest of its generation; one that would looking for a bit more than just a quick gun and silence in its western heroes

“What Have You Done to Solange?” Leone Cinematographer, Massimo Dallamano’s Clever 1972 Giallo

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Fabio Testi As The Well Groomed Prof. Rosseni

Well, here I am….Another weekend where I am writing a piece for my lost films of the 1970s blog, and yes, another review of a Fabio Testi film! Before I delve deep into this week’s Testi film, the exceptional 1972 giallo, “What Have You Done To Solange,” I must confess that over the last few years, since talking my wife to see Monte Hellman’s 1978 western, “China 9 Liberty 37” at the Harvard film Archive’s 2011 Hellman retrospective, I have watched more than my fair share of Mr. Testi’s work. To be frank, I had seen “China 9” back in the 1980s, and it pales in comparison to the rest Hellman’s output for that decade, but it does provide you with two of the most attractive actors of that era, Fabio Testi and the stunning Jenny Agutter. I also wanted to view the film again, and I did so for the few minutes that Sam Peckinpah takes the screen in addition to Warren Oates, who is a cut above most American actors of his generation. Given the talent in the film, I thought it was worth another look and brought Lily with me for a second opinion. Let’s just say that Lily also felt so-so on the film but was very impressed with Mr. Testi…Very impressed she was. Past some minor jealousy, I have no problem here because Fabio always brings something special to each par,t and Lily’s fascination with him has forced us to look at many smaller Fabio Testi films that we may have never seen. Such is the case when we recently saw a 35mm print of the 1972 Massimo Dallamano directed giallo, “What Have You Done To Solange.”

Born in Milan in 1917, Massimo Dallamano got his start as a camera operator for documentaries and was actually the cameraman who filmed Mussolini’s bullet ridden body after El Duce was murdered by partisans in 1945. Before making the jump to directing with his underrated 1967 spaghetti western, “Bandido,” Dallamano spent 1946-1966 working consistently and at times exemplarily as a cinematographer for films such as Dino Risi’s 1960 comedy,”Love and Larceny,” and Sergio Leone’s first two westerns, “A Fistful Of Dollars,” and “For A Few Dollars More.” I have always loved Dallamano’s timeless visual style behind the camera, so that along with my adoration of his aforementioned film, “Bandido,” and my general love of giallos made my desire to see “What Have You Done To Solange” increase immensely, and it does not disappoint.

Dallamano’s film, based on a novel by Edgar Wallace entitled, “The Curse Of The New Pin,” blissfully begins with a very coiffed professor named Enrico (Fabio Testi) on a rowboat wooing a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth (Cristina Galbó). While in their halcyon state, they witness something happening on land. They see someone running and the shine of a knife, but they aren’t sure of what exactly they are seeing. Cut to a later scene when Enrico hears that there has been a murder at the lake on the radio, so he returns to the scene of the crime to see what has happened. When Enrico returns to the lake where a murder has indeed happened, a press photographer snaps and publishes his picture, so when it is revealed that the girl who was murdered was also a student at the Catholic school where he and his dutiful but gruff wife Herta (Karin Baal) are teaching, Enrico becomes implicated in a string of murders of young women who all attended the same school, and it is up to Enrico and Herta to find the killer before his career is destroyed.

Herta is aware of Enrico’s tryst with Elizabeth as well as other girls at the school, which hurts Herta, but that does not falter her desire to defend here husband, if not for anything but to avoid a scandal. We know where Enrico was when the killing at the lake occurs, so he is not the killer, so is it possible that Herta is the culprit because of her jealousy? Our titular character Solange (Camille Keaton) was also connected to all of the murdered girls and appears not too well, but is she damaged enough to have conspired to kill all of these students? Bit by bit as the movie unfolds, we come to realize that the students at this school were not squeaky clean; drugs, booze, and abortions seem to be the standard at this Catholic school, so could the killer be the snobbish Professor Bascomb (Günther Stoll) or the judgmental headmaster, Mr. Leach (Rainer Penkert), who are so inclined as to resort to murder so that they can keep the escapades of our freewheeling students out of the press? Given that “What Have You Done To Solange” is a giallo, I will spare you the answer because that spoils the mystery and horror of the ride.

One of the more interesting transformations of the film is how Dallamano changes the physical appearance of Herta from a harsh and stern “Helga Of The SS,” non-nonsense looking woman to one that becomes ever so softer and more beautiful as she works harder to clear her husband’s name and thus rekindling their fondness for one another. It is an interesting and subtle choice for our director to make: By making Herta kinder as the plot progresses, Dallamano subliminally encourages the viewer to strike her name off of the list of suspects as the movie progresses. In fact, at one point, when Dallamano includes excerpts from Enrico’s dreams where he questions his own innocence, we as the audience are more likely to suspect Enrico than Herta, even though Herta appears to have the strongest motivation to kill the girls. The reduction of Herta’s harshness is an interesting technique that works well in shuffling the deck of suspects while keeping her character from just being a downtrodden wife that begs for your pity.

“What Have You Done To Solange” 1972 Trailer

Truth be told, I haven’t read the Wallace novel, but this film plays out like a English detective story mixed with a slasher film rather than an eerie Argentoesque supernatural horror film, which I found very compelling. Also missing is the intense viscera that normally coincides with most giallos, making “What Have You Done To Solange” feel more like a murder mystery, which was a refreshing change of pace. As for Testi, he is his usual stunning self (this is Lily speaking, not me), and he is very good in the lead as he commands each scene with that same sorrowful face and desperation that he has in the 1973 Sergio Sollima film that I reviewed last month, “Revolver,” which is also a cut above the average poliziotteschi. As far as the other actors are concerned, Karin Baal really brings a lot to her small role as Herta and is an actress that I will keep an eye out for when I review other films that she starred in during that era. As for the cinematography, it is the strongest point of this film, and much of that credit goes to Dallamano, who I am sure had a say in the shot selection and his young cinematographer, Aristide Massaccesi, who would soon be known as Joe D’Amato, who, like Dallamano, would become a very successful director in his own right.

Sadly, unlike his protege D’Amato, Massimo Dallamano would only make a handful of films after “What Have You Done To Solange,” for he was killed in a car accident in 1976 after finishing shooting the crime film, “Colt 38 Special Squad.” Given his smaller volume of output, Dallamano receives less attention than his peers, but he is a visually smart and sharp director who deserves a great deal of respect for his work in Italian genre cinema.

 

Isabelle Huppert Quietly Triumphs In Claude Goretta’s 1977 Masterpiece “The Lacemaker”

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Yves Beneyton, Isabelle Huppert

Actors Yves Beneyton and Isabelle Huppert


He will have passed by her, right by her without really noticing her, because she was one who gives no clues, who has to be questioned patiently, one of those difficult to fathom. Long ago, a painter would have made her the subject of a genre painting…

Seamstress

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Lacemaker

The lines above roll up screen at the end of Claude Goretta’s 1977 film, “The Lacemaker” and are there to sum up Beatrice, a naturally beautiful and shy young woman in a Parisian hair salon where she works as the shampoo girl and occasionally sweeps up the clipped hair. Beatrice lives with her mother, a lovely middle-aged woman who, like her daughter, lives a quiet, unassuming life without apparent joy or anger. Though Beatrice’s dad left them both when Beatrice was still a small child, both mother and daughter go through their days appearing content and relatively unfazed by everyone and everything around them. This setup is similar to that of his previous film from 1974, “The Wonderful Crook,” where Goretta creates an almost too peaceful environment before showing the small cracks in the armor of his characters and their surroundings. With “The Lacemaker,” Goretta has shifted from the pastoral French countryside to an almost overly serene Paris where our protagonist will soon be faced with options for her life, which to this point could be the life of a thirteen year old and not a young woman.

In an early scene, we see Beatrice at the apartment of the comely Marylene (Florence Giorgetti), Beatrice’s closest friend at the salon. Beatrice watches Marylene’s world come apart as she achingly ends her three year relationship with a married man over the phone. Marylene, overwhelmed with grief, threatens suicide via her apartment window, but, instead, she opts to toss out the over sized teddy bear gifted to her from her lover, serving as a comedic sacrifice that establishes Marylene’s flighty character. Still sour over getting dumped, Marylene drags Beatrice for company to the French coastal town of Calbourg during the off season to help get over her ex lover. Once in the sleepy town, the women immediately go to their hotel room, where they listen to the couple next door in mid-coitus, which seems to only mildly embarrass Beatrice and somewhat turn Marylene on to the point that she asks Beatrice to turn down the radio. Goretta leaves Marylene’s sexuality as somewhat ambiguous as she seems to have a somewhat romantic bend towards her friend, but it becomes very clear that the chaste Beatrice has no desire to be outwardly amorous with anyone. After a couple of trips to the local discotheque where Beatrice refuses to dance with male suitors, Marylene hooks up with an American man and abandons Beatrice for the remainder of their vacation, which again does not effect Beatrice in the slightest. Here, one begins to wonder, if anything will make Beatrice finally react positively or negatively. The only pleasure that Beatrice indulges in is chocolate ice cream, which she eats alone until she meets Francois (Yves Beneyton), an awkward, scrawny and slightly older literature student who awkwardly engages Beatrice in conversation. The pair do not exchange contact information, but in one of the best scenes in the early part of the film, they each spend the entire next afternoon trying hard to casually meet again, which they do. With Marylene nowhere to be found, Beatrice and Francois spend every day together, and after Francois proposes they spend the night together, Beatrice, as she does with everything proposed to her, goes along with it, and they becomes a couple.

Once back in Paris, Beatrice and Francois find an apartment together, and after a brief conversation with Beatrice’s mother which ends with “as long as she is happy,” the young couple are off to start a life together in a modest (tiny) Parisian apartment. I need to establish something that I think is key before this world comes crashing down: Director Goretta shows in more than a few scenes that the couple are actually in love; although it is never said, Francois is at times overwhelmed with affection for his woman. I believe that this moment is key as the conflict that will soon arise from Francois’ rapid growth as a budding pseudo-intellectual university student will cause doubt in his mind as to the adaptability of his new found love. When a colleague of Francois’ arrives before Beatrice gets home from work, Francois begins to describe her to his friend in the same way that a teacher would talk about a elementary school student rather than a fully formed adult in regards to potential. You begin to believe at this point that Goretta may begin to make an overarching statement about the anti-humanist tendencies of academics, but it doesn’t go in that direction as Francois’ intellectual friends appreciate Beatrice for who she is and believe that she is good for Francois, who seems to be regarded by them as emotionally closed. You might also believe that this is a setup for demonizing the character of Francois, but that is not Goretta’s intention either, nor is it his intention to paint Beatrice as a dolt. They are both portrayed sympathetically, but their conflict as a couple becomes more a question of being content with one’s own persona. Simply put… Beatrice is content with her passive existence, and Francois, who clearly loves Beatrice, is not content with any of his roles of his own life, as a son, a boyfriend, or as an academic and projects his insecurities onto Beatrice.

As I stated in an earlier review of Goretta’s “The Wonderful Thief,” the Swiss-born Goretta does not simply attack class as Luis Buñuel would in “Diary Of A Chambermaid,” for example. Though Goretta and his writing partner Pascal Lainé on “The Lacemaker” initially create characters who have simple desires, they also create an environment that exposes the smallest discrepancies in those characters, which allows their transformations to occur naturally if you notice their faults. Such is the case when Francois invites Beatrice for dinner at his parents home. Goretta takes painstaking efforts setting this scene up for the viewer. Francois’ family home, once stately, is now rundown. His parents have a servant, as any good upper middle class family would, but she acts more familiar with her employers, further indicating that the days of their historically held wealth are most likely in the past. Francois’ fear (or perhaps hope) that his parents will reject Beatrice are unfounded as his father takes an immediate liking to Beatrice, whereas Francois’ mother is colder but not condemning of his relationship in any way. Again, there is not a class war happening here, since the only person who is unhappy with Beatrice, is Francois, because he is not happy with anything about himself.

Original Trailer (no English subtitles, sorry!)

Goretta leaves nothing to chance with “The Lacemaker” in selecting every facet of his character’s world, and just as he did with The Wonderful Crook”, Goretta formulates early pleasant scenes to allow you to calmly gather your feelings towards his protagonists before leading you to a tragic ending when you suffer with all involved. Once the screen fades to black and the statement that I posted at the beginning of this article appears in front of you, it is painfully clear that the beauty that Francois wants to posses in Beatrice has always been in demand for many generations and that perhaps the beauty comes with a passivity that you must allow to continue for the beauty to stay intact.

The Second Of Kim Ki-young’s “Housemaid” Trilogy, 1971’s “Woman Of Fire,” Is A Colorfully Perverse Remake

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Woman Of Fire Still

The Grim Truth Within 1971’s “Woman Of Fire”

Just how much had Korea changed during the eleven years between the Kim Ki-young’s wildly successful Buñuelesque 1960 film about fading societal roles, “The Housemaid,” and the frenetic remake Kim directed in 1971, “Woman Of Fire?” Korea was neither politically nor economically stable in the decade between the two films and this constant upheaval seriously threatened the urban middle classes, who like every class, dreamed of economic growth. As was the case with most 20th century post-war economies, rapid production and a rebuilding of the infrastructure meant that the social order was going to be affected, and both men and women laborers from the countryside became a human resource for industry or servants in urban middle-class families. This economic situation was clearly present when Kim directed the original “Housemaid,” but it is clear from the earliest scenes in the “Woman Of Fire” that the nuances to the story were primarily intended to reflect the roles that women were now playing in contemporary early 1970s Korean society, which like America, had seen a change in attitudes from women resulting from the liberation movement.

Kim Ki-young cleverly acknowledges the impact of his original film by opening “Woman Of Fire” at a police station where Jeong-suk, the matriarch of a doomed middle class family, is being interrogated about the murder of her husband and the family’s housemaid. A deranged young man has confessed to the murders, but also in the interrogation room is a close friend of our murdered housemaid who is there with a letter from her dead friend that points to the matriarch as the actual killer. The ending is un fait accompli as, again, we are keeping the progression of the story fairly close to the original of the 1960 film, which was massively successful, so there seemed to be no need to build suspense and progressively unfold the tragedy, and by doing so, the viewer can spend time watching the entire narrative reacting to the nuances made to the characters which brings out Kim’s clear comments about the changing roles of women.

As with the original, we have a middle class family in trouble. This traditional middle class family has a mother, father, and two children, a boy and girl. They own a home where the father Dong-sik is a piano-playing songwriter who primarily lives off the labor of his wife, but unlike its 1960 counterpart, in “Woman Of Fire,” the wife, Jeong-suk, isn’t just a seamstress who is pregnant and is having issues maintaining the home and her layabout husband. The matriarch of the family in the 1971 version owns a large chicken ranch, which is profitable but not profitable enough for her to afford a housemaid for the family, which is essential in keeping up the false appearance of a successful middle class family living in Seoul. Still, Jeong-suk is off to a placement service broker to find a suitable housemaid and soon meets Myeong-ja, a country girl who runs away to the city with her friend after killing the two men who tried to rape them in the countryside, who has arrived in Seoul with different agenda than her companion. Myeong-ja’s friend wants to become a barmaid (polite term for prostitute), but Myeong-ja wants to be a housemaid in a wealthy home where she could “learn valuable things” and eventually find a husband. Jeong-suk is quick to tell Myeong-ja that she has financial issues, which suits Myeong-ja fine as she only asks that her new boss find her a suitable husband as payment, which becomes their agreement for her employment. This scene and an earlier scene in which the investigating officer expresses his loathing for “country girls who come to Seoul for illicit purposes” quickly bear out the fragile economic situation in South Korea of the early 1970s.

The sexuality is another area in which the differences between the two films become readily apparent. Though not visually graphic, the situations and dialog force to the surface an attitude where women are beginning to take a more demonstrative role in the urban family. Such is the scene where Jeong-suk, after a tryst, playfully jokes with her husband and freely discusses their need for innovation and “role playing” with their love making to which Dong-sik satirically responds by condemning the “things that women write these days about sex.” This frank discussion occurs while Myeong-ja is in her bedroom, but what is not clear is whether Kim Ki-young wants us to believe that Myeong-ja has overheard this conversation. Regardless, something motivates Myeong-ja to creep towards her employer’s bedroom where she definitively sees them having intercourse and responds by falling to the floor while having a fit.

I find this scene somewhat problematic as it sets up Myeong-ja’s eventual psychotic over-sexual behavior and possessiveness as being more of a result of either Myeong-ja’s attempts to emulate the fairly healthy attitudes she overheard about sexuality or as a PSTD response to seeing sexuality after her rape in the countryside, as opposed to the point of the original film, where there is no doubt that Myeong-ja is a victim of a fraudulent class imperative that is enforced on her after she must miscarriage (here it is an abortion) when she becomes pregnant from a rape by Dong-sik which leads to her subsequent sexual and violent actions. The original class elements of the 1960 original film are in place with the remake, but the focus here in the 1971 remake is on Kim Ki-young’s sexual message, where Myeong-ja’s friend from the country, who now works a prostitute, is applauded by the director for being honest about her intentions with money and men, which conflicts with the then current attitude where a middle class woman lives a lie by prostituting herself for a husband in order to maintain the social order. The final shot of the film, where Myeong-ja’s seductively dressed friend carries a fallen, shoeless, all-in-white Jeong-suk through the rain, is a grim final statement about a fading society where the modern promiscuous yet honest woman is seen as stronger than the middle class family woman.

Two things that Kim ki-young does greatly improve on in his 1971 entry into the “Housemaid” trilogy is the use of sound and visuals. The original 1960 film is shot in grim black and white, and Kim uses shadows and dimly lit rooms to express the middle class failure in the home of the main characters. The way characters enter each scene and from what direction are good visual tools that help us subliminally understand their intentions. In “Woman Of Fire” the black and white is gone and replaced with two primary colors, blue and red, that aggressively add to the mood of certain scenes. The scenes where either the married couple make love or Myeong-ja is raped have the same red filter to indicate that there is the same negative connotation to the sexuality in those vastly different interactions. In a scene where Myeong-ja eavesdrops on a conversation between Dong-sik and Jeong-suk where they discuss getting rid of their housemaid, Myeong is bathed in a tragic blue light. Alternatively, the off-kilter music that is used when the children are playing to express unrest in the home is also played when Myeong-ja kills a rat under her foot shortly afterwards. These choices add to the mood of “Woman Of Fire” and match the scenes of complete insanity that will soon follow as things spiral out of control in a louder, uglier way that its predecessor perhaps couldn’t do in 1960.

The Full “Woman Of Fire” With English Subs

I have in the past questioned a director’s desire to remake a successful film which they have already created. Such was the case with Michael Haneke’s superb 1997 film,”Funny Games,” which seems to have been remade with Hollywood actors in 2007 if only to further mock the”Hollywood/happy ending” where the good guys always win. Even with that intention, I found the shot by shot remake to be a waste of that talented director’s skills, and after hearing Haneke speak at the Harvard Film Archive in the same year the Naomi Watts/Tim Roth version was released, it seemed clear that the request to remake the film came as an edict from Haneke’s US representation. As for Kim ki-young’s 1971 remake of “The Housemaid,” despite some needlessly harsh comments the director makes in the film regarding the divisive use of sexuality by women in early 1970s South Korea, “Woman Of Fire,” remains as an important document that sometimes brutally stresses the reality of a ever fading middle class, with its impossible to maintain social imperatives that were still hanging around in a economically ravaged South Korea that wasn’t improving even after a decade. Whereas the original took its family’s decline in a slow. but ultimately shocking conclusion, Kim ki-young directs “Woman Of Fire” in a dizzying and even borderline nightmarish way that amplified the need for an immediate change in social attitudes that were harming both the rich and the poor for no other purpose but preserving pride.