Mondo Topless

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Of all Russ Meyer’s films, Mondo Topless is perhaps the most representative of a director who must, at the very least, function as a “filmmaker” in the simplest capacity, that being someone who makes films. To Meyer, these are products meant for mass consumption, quite like any household object assembled in a factory. In Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, biographer Jimmy McDonough describes it as “Meyer at his most threadbare and pure. Hard to endure straight through…Mondo Topless is best savored in short, concentrated blasts that allow you to linger on the chrome-plated, neon-lit nuttiness of it all…. (181)” In this respect, it’s somewhat easier to justify the existence of Mondo Topless. Meyer needed money to make the films he wanted. He made this. This made money. That’s the point.

It’s hard not to accept Meyer’s defiance towards being labeled an auteur after viewing this film, but in this case his “like I give a fuck” approach to the material is what makes Mondo Topless even worth mentioning. Anyone who considered Mondo Topless a difficult viewing experience should imagine what it’d be like as the product of artistic pretense. That would be a depressing slog. Instead, the resulting hour of breasts in constant motion amounts to little more than tedium while functioning as a prime example of Meyer’s egoistic impulse to film whatever caught his eye and trust his audience would be on board.

Still, at the very least, the viewer might appreciate the nakedly essential elements with which Meyer constructs his product here. There are no veiled intentions, no serious overstatements. In short, no shame. Meyer takes his aggressive adoration of the nude female figure and (aside from the somewhat baffling San Francisco tour opening) bombards the audience with it, no story attached, not even something akin to the wandering pervert with a concealed camera from Europe in the Raw. Hell, even when he recycles footage from that film it feels like less of an affront to the viewer’s intelligence and more like a wholly rational decision. That film “examines” a European scene, while this one allegedly does the same with American dancers. The focus of both films is so narrow, so intentionally ill-defined, it just makes sense that an efficiency expert like Meyer would smash them together in a bid for cohesiveness.

The same might be said of Meyer’s decision to include footage of Lorna Maitland’s screen test for Lorna. Again, Meyer acts out of practicality, doing whatever it takes to extend the scant runtime. In the process, he gets to show off his breast-obsessed brand. Mondo Topless becomes less its own film and more like a strange, bare-bones primer for the director’s filmography. Devoid of any narrative trapping or thesis, Mondo Topless subjects the viewer to the basic, motivating force behind Meyer’s career: the opportunity to put not just a naked woman onscreen but whatever immediately grabs him. More often than not this translates to sex and/or violence, but Meyer doesn’t place any unnecessary weight behind his content. He strives for shots that land like a wad of spit in your face.

Obviously Mondo Topless speaks to this plan of attack, and yet as far as the director’s films go it’s relatively bland. Sitting through it approximates what it might feel like to overdose on an individual’s personality, were such a thing possible. Despite all its promises of visceral thrills, the viewer is left with little more than numbness at the film’s conclusion. Fortunately, the undeniable talents on display in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! would resurface along with the money this film earned, so in one way, Mondo Topless is a resounding success.

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Daughters of Darkness

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Once a month, my college has this thing called Cinema Slapdown (or I’m assuming they still do; they did when I was there half a year ago). A popular film is screened, and afterwards two people debate whether it’s any good. (Often it was two faculty members, but there were larger public figures on occasion–my favorite was when Rod Blagojevich acted like his usual idiot self, in this case while going to bat for the Elvis Presley vehicle Viva Las Vegas; and I don’t think he even mentioned Ann-Margret’s terrific dancing as part of his defense.) The first time I went, the film up for debate was Batman Begins. During the final portion of the evening, when audience members give their pieces of mind, one student asked the film’s detractor why he refused to include such elements as cinematography and art direction in his appraisal. Because this happened several years ago, my memory of the event is somewhat hazy, but basically someone onstage–quite possibly Ron Falzone, the moderator–shot down that wayward freshman by pointing out that a filmmaker’s job is essentially to tell a story, that a film can be as beautiful as a Boccaccio, but if its ideas are lacking in substance, the film is ultimately a failure. This made perfect sense in discussing Batman Begins, seeing as Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy has an impressive look and feel that nevertheless fails to support the director’s heavy-handed treatment of central themes.

Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness takes place in a European seaside resort, obviously a far cry from Gotham City. But like the Nolan Batman trilogy, this 1971 horror film, one of the finest examples of the very specific “lesbian-vampire thriller” (think Hammer Horror’s The Vampire Lovers or Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter), asserts itself through a striking, carefully developed mise-en-scène. Unlike Batman, however, Daughters of Darkness doesn’t attempt to serve any heady dissertations with its visual flair. The film is instead content to function as garish entertainment and is all the more satisfying for it. With a large budget allowing for a big-name lead and a well-stocked art department, Daughters of Darkness boasts a greater pedigree than its genre lineage might suggest, ignoring artistic pretension for bold characterization and a well-crafted story, which, at its core, simply concerns itself with the morbidly fascinating spectacle of lovers using and discarding one another.

Filmed on location at several gorgeous locales, including Bruges and Ostend, Daughters of Darkness is a modern hybrid of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla and the Elizabeth Báthory legend. The plot concerns a love triangle between newlyweds Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen) and the Hungarian Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who, aside from the latter’s traveling companion Ilona (Andrea Rau), are the only guests at a lavish hotel. There are a smattering of other, minor characters, but for the most part, Kümel is charged with crafting a series of turbulent exchanges between these principle cast members. As played out against the hotel’s cavernous interiors, the characters’ melodramatic power struggles risk becoming stagey and tedious. Fortunately, this is circumvented by the ingenious casting of Seyrig as the Countess.

In Vampires and Violets, her excellent survey of lesbian representation in film, Andrea Weiss highlights Daughters of Darkness as more genuinely positive in its depiction of a lesbian relationship than, say, The Vampire Lovers. No doubt this is due in large part to Seyrig’s presence. Yes, the Countess’ relationship with her “daughters” adheres to the mother/daughter bond Weiss cites in a number of films featuring lesbian romance and astutely decries as undermining the legitimacy of lesbianism by filtering it through a more “recognizable” association. And yes, the Countess suffers a grisly death at the film’s end. But, as portrayed by Seyrig and the filmmakers, she also presents the same-sex coupling as especially desirable. As Weiss notes, “…the heterosexual norm turns out to be frighteningly abnormal and nightmarish… and the lifestyle of the lesbian vampire seems like a welcome alternative.” Seyrig embodies that alternative perfectly, irresistibly warm and charming without sacrificing an aura of danger.

Regardless of how good she is in the role, Seyrig’s vampire gains even greater magnetism from the actor’s appearance. This applies to the rest of the cast as well. Even if Ouimet and Karlen aren’t consistently great actors, we still buy them in their respective roles, because they look the part of conventionally attractive lovers. Even the Countess remarks, “Look, how perfect they are.” Because Daughters of Darkness concerns itself with people who don’t really know each other, people who often fail to see beyond the surfaces they project and so are startled when pieces of their true selves are suddenly on display, it is entirely appropriate that so much attention should be focused on the characters’ exteriors.

In keeping with this emphasis on physicality, the costumes worn in Daughters of Darkness are assaultive. It doesn’t matter if it’s only to be an intimate dinner for three; you can bet those three are dressed to impress. There is a stunning assortment of clothes, the best worn by Seyrig, of course. The Countess favors gowns in deep red, sparkling silver and pure white. Color-coding, when handled improperly, can be one of the more egregious examples of overwrought symbolism in film. An individual might read any number of things into a given color. (A hypothetical: “Does the green lighting in this scene suggest sickness? Jealousy? The protagonist’s passivity in light of the mounting pressures in his life?”) The colors in Daughters of Darkness point to the characters’ shifting allegiances (Valerie and the Countess both dress in all white when the former attempts to leave her husband) and mental states (Stefan’s cherry red robe declares his unchecked aggression). But the color palette employed here is so bold and relentless, dominating every scene, that it forgoes symbolism and demands to be savored for its aesthetic appeal.

Daughters of Darkness might have been unbearably arty and self-serious. Conversely, it might have been tiresomely campy. That the film manages to avoid both designations and still indulge in high theatrics elevates it beyond what potential viewers might reasonably expect. Rather than preoccupy itself with misguided attempts at navigating the twisted psychology of its central love triangle, Daughters of Darkness immerses us in the outrageously decorated world shared by its self-absorbed characters. This film doesn’t have time to brood. It’s having too much fun.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

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In a September, 2007 interview with journalist John Anderson, David Cronenberg had this to say about the depiction of violence in his films:

I’m an atheist and don’t believe in an afterlife; about my understanding of the human body and how it is the first fact of human existence. That if you kill someone, it is an act of absolute destruction. There is no heaven; I think you can rationalize killing someone if you think they’re going to an afterlife or are going to karmically recycle. I’m saying no, you’d better take it more seriously than that. That’s why in Eastern Promises—and there are only three scenes of violence in it—I insist on the physical reality of this destruction. It’s hard to take, but I think you let the audience off the hook if they get to enjoy the action, but they don’t have to notice the blood. That’s my take on it—which sometimes gets mistaken for “Cronenberg is a gore hound.”

I recalled a paraphrased version of this quote shortly after seeing Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), because Cronenberg offers such a fascinating counterpoint to the cavalier attitude many filmmakers and viewers alike often take towards onscreen violence, and although there are obvious differences between how each of these directors renders bloodshed, they share a pronounced consciousness of its impact. As is the mode with Peckinpah’s films, Alfredo Garcia boasts a high body count, and yet it refuses to shrug off the violence as incidental of its action movie pedigree.

Alfredo Garcia follows Bennie (Warren Oates) as he endeavors to find and deliver the title head to El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), who wants it as proof that revenge has been enacted against the gigolo who impregnated his daughter. The head will net him a handsome reward, but he must convince his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega)—who knew Alfredo in an intimate capacity that isn’t fully divulged—that it’s worth involving the two of them with murderous criminals and desecrating Alfredo’s grave (he died in a car wreck before any head-hunters could get to him).

On paper, Bennie sounds like a standard action movie hero: hard-living, fiercely independent, aggressive with a weapon and even more so with a woman. But as directed by Peckinpah and embodied by Oates, Bennie bears a vulnerability that radiates from beneath a pair of sunglasses that he even wears to bed. Peckinpah doesn’t provide a lot of information about his protagonist: he claims to have been playing piano at a bar for the past six years, while his skill with a gun and willingness to become embroiled in a shady, definitely life-or-death scenario suggest quite the sordid past. These obscurities befit someone who kills with the impunity of James Bond or Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but Bennie doesn’t exhibit the same detachment. Every dead body carries meaning. Even as he argues against Elita’s reservations about unearthing Alfredo, saying, “There’s nothin’ sacred about a hole in the ground or a man that’s in it,” his voice betrays an intense discomfort with the whole affair, as if he would rather not think about the lengths he’ll go to in procuring his fortune.

Later, while presenting El Jefe with the head, Bennie notes that “sixteen men are dead because of you, me and him,” an acknowledgement that contradicts the impersonality inherent in the term “body count.” (Curiously, marketing for the film also touts this mindfulness, as its trailer’s voice-over intones, “Twenty-five people will die,” and a poster reads, “Why is his head worth one million dollars and the lives of 21 people?”) Sure, Bennie isn’t lighting candles for the fallen, but how often do anonymous baddies get even a passing mention? Of course, this appreciation of death wouldn’t mean much if Bennie wasn’t so obviously harried by his actions. In his first scene, Oates portrays Bennie as an easy-going, amiable guy, then spends the rest of the film hacking away at this initial representation, to the point where he appears mentally unsound as he holds one-sided conversations with the head resting on the passenger seat.

The impetus behind Bennie’s rapid slide towards drunken derangement comes about two-thirds into the film, and I would have misgivings about spoiling it (although I realize I’m posting this on a blog with little to no readership). Suffice it to say that following this development the film becomes leaner and more immediately satisfying, largely because the necessity of Bennie’s mission, which has already been questioned repeatedly, is thrown even deeper into doubt. What’s more, he knows it. Take, for instance, the scene in which one of Alfredo’s relatives demands to know whether Bennie robbed the grave solely for money. He responds defensively with, “No!” but quickly changes his answer to a dejected “Si.” There’s a lot of shame in that one syllable. The typical action hero presses onward with unflinching conviction, and even if his motives are lacking in altruism, he has long since made peace with that fact. Bennie, however, must constantly confront his reasons for mowing down human beings for possession of a corpse’s head, and those reasons prove to resist easy acceptance.

The question isn’t whether Bennie has the ability to best his enemies in a gun battle; he is machine-like in his shooting. But when he does finally collect his cash-filled suitcase, will it really offer the peace of mind he has ascribed to it? Or will he ultimately be no better off than if he’d taken a bullet to the chest? Bennie may purport to think little of the dead, but when the last shots have been fired, his only friend is the severed head in the passengers’ seat.

Alan King’s Come on Children

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There is a pronounced measure of knowing humor in Allan King’s labeling of 1972’s Come on Children as one of his “actuality dramas.” King preferred the term over “documentary film,” perhaps in some part because it suggests an identification with deliberately constructed fictional narratives the public generally perceives as cinema’s dominant form. By coining his own phrase, King draws attention to the divide between fiction and nonfiction film-making. There is “drama” everywhere, King suggests, often in the last place one would think to look: wherever he’s standing.

And so it goes with Come on Children, a resolutely quiet but undoubtedly entertaining film set on a farm in Canada, King’s country of origin, and starring a “cast” of his fellow citizens. The premise, outlined in the text that opens the film, is that ten teenagers–five girls, five boys, ages thirteen through nineteen–live on a farm together without interference from societal strictures (parents, teachers, etc.). It seems ripe for shameless exploitation; one immediately envisions a relentlessly high-tension situation with intimations of Lord of the Flies. But King refuses to manipulate the proceedings to such sensationalistic ends. He is content to let his cameras bask in the mundane, which ultimately gives the audience a greater familiarity with his young subjects. The film revolves around the knowledge a person can glean about another by simply listening to the conversations that don’t hold any weight, at least not on the surface.

There are a few “heated” moments, such as the spat that arises as the result of one boy’s immature decision to make a huge mess in the kitchen for no apparent reason (his attempt to somewhat rationalize his actions is surprisingly eerie). Mostly, though, the kids get stoned, hang out and talk about whatever. It’s not like they have any real issues to worry about regarding their stay on the farm. (Though one girl is taken to the hospital when it comes time to have her baby! I was curious to know more about how she argued for her inclusion in this “experiment” so close to her due date.) Despite not having any direct interaction with the kids, the crew doesn’t downplay its presence. And how could they, without this becoming a hidden-camera affair? There is even a family visitation day, which provides for one of the more blatant confrontations, in this case between Aleksandar Živojinović (another surprise: that’s a young Alex Lifeson of Rush!) and his parents. Sure, an attempt to capture the kids in some desperate struggle for survival as their learned social behaviors disintegrate is a stretch by anyone’s standards, but at least King avoids forcing any overwrought dramatics on the group, as would be the norm on any number of today’s reality shows–lots of shrieking with little substance.

However, King wisely doesn’t try to divide screen time evenly between his subjects, instead focusing on the clearly charismatic ones while relegating the others to decidedly tertiary roles. Tellingly, the kids who draw King’s attention most often are the ones who are constantly expressing themselves creatively. For instance, John Hamilton, one of the group’s youngest and most gregarious members, treats his peers to impressive performances of songs strummed on his guitar; he even introduces the cast with a spot-on Dylan parody (his improvised take on one girl: “She’s horny as hell. She’s got good boobs.”). Hamilton is a natural entertainer, constantly joking around, but King also allows us a considerably more personal look, as the young man relates his struggles with substance abuse.

Hamilton often speaks with a loose enthusiasm, barely pausing to collect his thoughts. King’s film may not move at such a breakneck pace, but he does take a similarly scattered approach to his subjects, which generates its own excitement in that the filmmakers have little clue as to what the kids might reveal about each other but are no less intrigued by the great potential for unexpected “drama.” King understands: that’s life.

-Kevin Kern

 

Getting Self-Aware at the Video Store

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Throughout my career as a film student, I carried a chip on my shoulder that I don’t wholly regret: I was constantly disappointed by what I perceived as a lack of intellectuality surrounding my peers’ approach to the medium, a blatant disregard for film history that sullied their own projects. Of course, I’ll admit to a measure of pretension and, in some cases, hypocrisy, on my part, but I felt slighted when I sat in a film studies course and overheard a complaint like, “Why do we have to watch all these black-and-white movies?” I didn’t feel instructors should have to include such joking disclaimers as, “I know, it’s another old, dead, white man,” when discussing Hitchcock. There’s probably a more delicate way to express all this, but I won’t be bothered to look for it; these were surprisingly raw feelings at the time, and I won’t go to great lengths to refine them now. Today I’m more forgiving and less inclined to force people with a supposed interest in film to contextualize it the way I imagine they should. After all, I’m certainly no expert, and I’ve realized that it’s often better to take a more organic route to one’s knowledge of a given subject, allowing myself to enjoy various areas of film without the undue stress that comes with “needing” to view the films I “should” see.

That being said, I’ve held on to some sense of righteous indignation, and it flared up most recently on my first visit to Filmzilla, a DVD rental store in Minneapolis that claims—and I believe them—to offer more titles than Netflix. Formerly Nicollet Video Village, the name change came with relocation to the Seward neighborhood, but the establishment retained its notoriously irascible staff. Being that I spent my college years in Chicago, I automatically compare any claims of “abusive” employee-customer relations to the legendary Wiener’s Circle on that city’s north side, and while I didn’t expect to hear anyone at Filmzilla tell me to fuck myself if I, say, argued against a given film’s inclusion in the Criterion collection, I assumed their reputation for surliness at least indicated a deep appreciation for such an extensive library of titles. (And it really is an impressive collection; I spent nearly two hours browsing stuffed shelves that mixed broad categorizations like “Drama,” “Classics” and “Horror” with narrower labels like “War & Western,” “Cult” and “Asian Action.”) Of course, I’m not encouraging rental store clerks to treat their customers like philistines, but I will admit to thoughtlessly confusing a snobbish front with actual knowledge. Which isn’t to say the staff at Filmzilla isn’t knowledgeable about their selection; I would have to spend a lot more time in the store and either engage them in or overhear a lot more conversations to even begin to make a claim of that sort. But I had trumped up Filmzilla as some cinematic think-tank, a second film school with a drastically cheaper tuition fee (four movies for four days for five dollars).

What Filmzilla’s staff—at least the two working that day, one of whom I identified as the employee who repeatedly caught flak for his rudeness in a handful of somewhat unreasonable Yelp reviews of the store—engendered was something more akin to fanboy enthusiasm. I arrived at this hasty conclusion within my first five minutes there, when a heterosexual couple in their early twenties walked into the store looking for “hilariously bad movies.” What I wish the clerk had said in response to their request: “Fuck yourself.” What he actually said: “What flavor of bad?” What followed was a cringe-inducing conversation during which the phrase “flavor of bad” was uttered at least ten times (and once was too many).

According to the girlfriend, the couple was looking for something like Troll 2 or The Room. Big surprise. These films have become the Dracula and Frankenstein of midnight movie audiences, frequently spoken of in the same conversation as cult-classics at the vanguard of “so-bad-it’s-good.” It is incredibly doubtful that Tommy Wiseau, the producer-writer-director-star of The Room, will one day enjoy critical acclaim, but, held aloft on the gleefully ironic guffaws of dorky youngsters, he’ll never want for exposure.

Okay, these movies are really bad, but where does the conversation go from there? Part of their appeal is they don’t encourage discussion beyond their complete lack of quality and that they don’t have to. Which is fine! I’m not against just having fun with something; I’ve been to a screening of The Room and indulged in drinking games centered on how many times Troll 2’s young protagonist cried out for his grandfather (and if we’re comparing the two, I’ll choose Troll 2 over The Room, regardless of alcohol’s involvement in either viewing). But based on how many conversations I’ve heard between friends that sounded almost identical to the one this couple had, with the girlfriend enthusiastically describing each film’s astounding, mind-blowing awfulness, I wonder how many more genuinely good films are being ignored, films that might otherwise be considered essential viewing if the hilariously bad ones didn’t apparently demand so much attention. It’s sort of like tee-hee-ing over Harlequin romance novels at the grocery store with your friends while dismissing the fact that none of you has picked up anything remotely “literary” in over a month.

Predictably, both The Room and Troll 2 had already been snatched up. So what did the clerk recommend, representing the various flavors of bad? There was something he kept referring to as “Nazi porn,” but I never heard the title. Then there was Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which is, of course, a really good movie, and finally, to my surprise, Derek Jarman’s Blue. “It’s just a blue screen with people talking over it…. Yeah… I would definitely be doing something else while you have it on.” This is by far the most ignorant statement I’ve ever encountered regarding Jarman’s experimental offering, his final film before succumbing to AIDS-related complications, and I didn’t expect it to come from this guy. Again, I’d built him up as a connoisseur of cinema with opinions that I could totally get behind, just because he happens to work in a store with an uncommonly large selection of DVDs. That’s by no means a guarantee that he has a working knowledge of every DVD in the store.

And I should have kept that in mind when I took it upon myself to barge into their conversation and awkwardly inform them that they should feel uncomfortable about making fun of Blue because “it was the director’s last, uh, testament before he died…from AIDS.” The nervous laughter I got in response, along with the polite smiles that barely concealed thoughts that read something like, Who the fuck is this douchebag?, didn’t mollify me, and I certainly hadn’t enlightened anyone on the subject. Worse, I haven’t even seen Blue! I’ve enjoyed all the Jarman films I have seen, but in this case I was vapidly speaking on behalf of a film I had no firsthand experience with, thoughtlessly reciting facts I’d gleaned from a number of write-ups that I couldn’t specifically cite. In a way, it wasn’t all that different from the girlfriend’s espousal of Troll 2 and The Room. Humbled, I went back to browsing.

So what is it I want? I can aim for the impossible: to speak with absolute accuracy and knowledge on any subject related to film, expecting others to do the same. Or I can avoid these subjects altogether, resigning myself to disappointment. Then there’s the middle-ground—often the best way to go and the option I prefer in this case—which is to just relax and remind myself that everyone’s experience is their own, even if I’ve already experienced it.

-Kevin Kern