Screen Sorcery: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

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Belladonna of Sadness (1973) begins with a joyful wedding. We first meet the lovely Jeanne, our guide through this strange fairy tale, and her beau Jim as they exchange marriage vows. When the couple returns to their humble abode, their wedded bliss is interrupted by the arrival of the reigning king and his minions who brutally assault Jeanne in an act of ceremonial rape that leaves her broken and bewildered. In her despair, the young beauty makes a pact with the Devil who takes the shape of a mutating phallus that promises her pleasure and power. Afterward Jeanne’s world descends into a dark hallucinatory nightmare of swirling colors propelled by sorcery, perpetual pain and erotic ecstasy.

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We’re Off to See the Zardoz

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In the pantheon of wildly ambitious, certifiably insane major studio films released in the go-for-broke 1970s, few can hold a candle to Zardoz (1974). Director John Boorman was riding high on the success of Warner Bros.’ Deliverance two years before, so he was essentially given free rein to choose whatever story he wanted as long as the budget was right. The 20th Century-Fox production was envisioned by Boorman as his second vehicle with Burt Reynolds, but when the mustachioed superstar proved too ill to sign on, Sean Connery was brought on instead. The result is a hallucinatory and utterly unique fever dream of a film, as much fantasy as sci-fi despite its marketing (perhaps because Boorman was still frustrated at being unable to launch an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings), and once seen, it’s certainly not easy to forget. [...MORE]

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September 5, 2015
David Kalat
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The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari

There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.

But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy.  (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 19
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A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

Opening title sequence for A HARD DAY'S NIGHT

If you missed A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964) when it screened at the recent TCM Film Fest, you’ll get another shot tomorrow when it airs as part of an evening celebrating the British Invasion. A Hard Day’s Night marks the Fab Four‘s debut in front of the cameras for a feature film and is credited with breaking away from the previous template for musical pictures of a boy-meets-girl story interspersed with musical numbers. This is not to say our four boys don’t meet girls, as there are throngs of screaming women, many random encounters, and George Harrison would even meet his future wife, Pattie Boyd, on the shoot (she’s one of the women the Beatles run past in the train – and was also responsible for grooming his hair during the film shoot). But what really fuels the film is an anarchic energy inspired by The Goon Show radio program of the ’50s that also influenced the lads in Monty Python. To be more specific: one of the people talking into the microphone for the Goon Show was Peter Sellers, before he was a film star, and Sellers would later co-direct with Lester The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), which was an 11 minute short that the Beatles quite liked and which led to Lester being hired for A Hard Day’s Night (and a year later also Help!). [...MORE]

John-Cassavetes
May 31, 2014
David Kalat
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Cassavetes vs. Ottinger – Arthouse Grudge Match

Several weeks ago, I posted an essay that claimed that the reason movies get made is to make money.  I stand by that claim, and have spent the many of the last several weeks trying to explore the edges of it, but I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying that everyone who works in film is motivated solely by greed.  I am saying that the people who work in film have bills to pay, mouths to feed, kids to put through college, etc.  I’m sure there are some lofty-minded artists who resist and reject all that, and are only motivated to realize their own personal visions—but even they are better served by enjoying a modicum of commercial success.  And that’s where we are this week—to see what happens to artists so determined to buck the system they end up compromising their own art worse than any studio hack could.

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KEYWORDS: John Cassavetes, Ulrike Ottinger
COMMENTS: 10
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Children of Fantasia

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I had the privilege and pleasure of attending a rare screening of a more-or-less unique version of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  The venue was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Riccardo Muti and the conducting of Ludwig Wicki, performing live to a screening of selections from both Fantasia  and  Fantasia 2000.

It was, in a way, a realization of Disney’s original ambition back in 1940.  He had cooked up the idea that Fantasia would remain in a state of perpetual flux, with musical selections being rotated out and in continually.  One such alternate selection was prepared, but not used, or at least not used for its originally intended purpose, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s version of Fantasia presented this scene, re-integrated in amongst Mickey the wanna-be Sorceror and the dancing alligators.

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The 50th New York Film Festival, Part 3

The New York Film Festival is in its final week, concluding on Sunday night with a screening of Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking, Flight. Most of the action this past weekend, though, took place during the Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar. In its 16th year, Views provides an increasingly large snapshot of experimental film practice around the globe. Taking place in the year-old Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the series takes over two screens and an amphitheater space, where audiences can jump back and forth between programs, if they can afford it.  This year’s slate includes festival mainstays like Nathaniel Dorsky, future fixtures Laida Lertxundi and Ben Rivers, and the unclassifiable duo of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Raul Ruiz, who straddle the arthouse/avant-garde divide.

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Seriously?

It’s been a little over a year since I debuted here, and in that time I’ve stirred up a handful of firestorms–but weirdly, not the ones I expected.  I posted a clip of Buster Keaton as a sympathetic Nazi general, and nobody chirped a word of protest.  I ran a whole blog about blackface comedians, and the comments thread it initiated was reasoned, intelligent and low-key.  I facetioustly pretended that The Thing was a Christmas movie, defended Popeye, and praised Charlie Chaplin imitators.

But the one time I provoked serious anger and acrimony was the time I suggested that William Haines–William Haines!–wasn’t all that funny (I got called “hateful” for that one!)

When I wrote last week’s post about the Muppets, I figured I was running a risk.  Critics say nice things about heavily hyped contemporary movies at their own peril.  But my positive thoughts on the new Muppets wasn’t what kicked up dust–heavens, no.  The vitriol came out in my offhanded reference to Orson Welles having appeared in the 1979 Muppet MovieSomehow, this prompted the comments thread to start to tear into F for Fake. (how?)

To be fair, it was just one lone voice, wailing into the ether about how much he hated the Muppets, and F for Fake.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a put-on, somebody simply trying to bait me.  But I’m not above being baited.  I won’t stand by and let anybody talk smack about F for Fake, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time.  Consider the battle joined.

Let's get in on!

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To Save and Project: The Movie Orgy (1968) and Afraid to Talk (1932)

For nine years running, MoMA’s To Save and Project international festival of film preservation has showcased the latest celluloid surgery jobs by archives the world over. It’s the one place where film stock is still a fetish, each new print ogled with the entitled leer of a sozzled Miss Universe judge. So I was sent to my oft-used fainting couch when it was announced that a digital restoration would open this year’s fest (which runs through Nov. 25th).   This prestigious pole-position was granted to Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), a delirious mash-up of pop culture detritus, from psychotic b-movies to baffling Bufferin commercials.

Dante and Jon Davison edited the entire feature by hand, splicing in new scenes when intriguing material passed their way. Eventually the project ballooned to 7 hours, but with its broad humor, broads, and critique of the military-industrial complex, it toured college campuses under a Schlitz beer sponsorship. By the end of its run the print had more stitches than Frankenstein’s monster, without the salve of Karloff’s soulful stare. It would be unlikely to survive another trip through a projector. So Dante shoved the benighted thing through a film-to-tape transfer, and after some screenings on the West coast has finally brought his beast to the East. Now at a svelte 4 1/2 hours, it’s a marvel of gonzo editing. It contains an actual narrative, collapsing the apocalypses  of a bunch of sci-fi/teen rebel/horror cheapies into one mega-Armageddon, while finding time for mini-comedies and grace(less)-notes in between.

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High & Low: Harun Farocki and John Landis

Two sixty-something masters of their domain have new work showing in the U.S. John Landis, a dean of the low farting arts, has his morbid comedy Burke and Hare playing cable-on-demand services and a limited theatrical run. Harun Farocki, of the high brow-furrowing arts, has a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Images of War: At a Distance. Landis has been tagged with artistic decline, something Hollywood directors have to deal with as soon as they sprout their first grey hair (Burke is his first narrative feature since 1998, was financed and made in the U.K., and released there in Oct. 2010). This kind of ageism doesn’t appear in the gallery world, where Farocki is now being embraced after decades as an experimental video artist. The MoMA exhibition is running his most recent work on a loop, Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), but also providing nearby monitors that are showing nearly all of his previous videos (which they acquired for their library). As artists, they are similar mainly in their dissimilarity, but both have a deep and playful sense of film history.

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