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Sesso nero (1980)
Guilt ridden last love rites
9 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This languid, sloppily shot Joe D'Amato hardcore shocker is a poem of sex and death, set to a soundtrack of 70s cocktail jazz and disco. Mark Shannon plays one Mark Lester, a middle-class American with a rich, sterile wife who learns (it what must be a first and last time twist in porn cinema) that he has some kind of cancer of the genitalia and needs to have them completely removed if he is to live. He makes a deal with his doctor that he can have 15 days grace before surgery makes him a eunuch and heads off to a Caribbean on which he formerly lived and where he left the love of his life to die. The film is a kind of Last Holiday of the penis….

Like any hardcore film, the story is string on which to hang the sex sequences but it is hard to imagine what man would want to get off on a film in which the hero has the threat of complete castration hanging over him. The women are very beautiful yet the sex scenes themselves have a dead quality, as if the characters were performing under the weight of an incredible sadness; Nico Fidenco's melancholy scoring helps create this mood.

Lester is a less than admirable human being. Not only did he betray the woman who loved him, he's clearly made his wife feel pretty inadequate about her sterility and made it plain to her that he married for money; he humiliates a European friend still living on the Island with a local, ex-prostitute wife by insisting that she have sex with him before he donates to their local school project; he murders an overweight Caribbean prostitute whilst cursing her as a slut (which is rich coming from such a sleep around as him). His friend is little better, and only tells Lester's wife where the dying man is after she has performed fellatio on him. Still, Lester seems to know that he is an unredeemed sinner, as he gets drunk, screws around, slips in and out of sexual fantasies and doubles up in pain from his carcinogenic bits.

Definitely a product of a Catholic, Christian culture, D'Amato's Sesso Nero (literally "Black Sex") is a slow, depressing, conflicted and strangely compelling film. The denouement, where the dead girl and her family (through a mix of voodoo and deception) get their revenge on the man who wronged her, is both sudden and shocking. With its explicit self-emasculation, it rivals I Spit on Your Grave as a cinematic moment to make any man in the audience wince. As blood seeps from his self-inflicted wound into the sea, the protagonist dies a lonely, damned death in the arms of a memory, haunted by his sins.
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Now to be forgotten
6 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
An ironic title considering the film's subject's current reputation, Remember Me This Way is an hour long documentary on British Glam Rock star Gary Glitter, filmed at the height of his fame. The bulk of the film follows a rather anodyne version of Pennebaker's Don't Look Back template: the star is shown doing publicity interviews, hosting parties, rehearsing, recording, intercut with footage of his manager trying to get him the best deal over the telephone. Nothing much of interest is revealed, unless you are fascinated by how often Glitter's clothes get removed during gigs or that his speaking voice is rather posh. Glitter speaks of himself as rather a heart-throb for his fans, which just goes to show how much these thing are in the eye of the beholder. It is a shame, and perhaps telling, that there are no interviews with the fans themselves.

This being the mid-70s, there's an odd bit of undeveloped mockumentary where Glitter is seen filming a (fake) Hollywood feature, a scene where he karate-kicks his way through a group of villains. Quite why this is in the film is anyone's guess – perhaps Glitter's people hoped that someone would put up the money for a genuine Gary feature. Nobody did, which is understandable seeing how Glitter acts in this segment.

The best bit of the film is the last 15 minutes, with concert footage from the Rainbow Theatre. Whatever you say about Glitter (and most of it won't be nice), he was a fine showman in his time and his concerts had a manic edge and rhythmic punch about them which were compelling. It is quite understandable from this footage why he was such a big star, as he sure knew how to entertain a crowd.

It is a quirk of fate that this film will probably never be reissued on DVD, given its star is now a convicted child sex abuser. This is a shame, as it doesn't invalidate the value of this film as a record of a highly successful UK pop artist at the height of his fame. Inconsequential though most of it is, it is pretty well edited and, as I say, the concert footage is magnificent.

Trivia fans might like to know that this was released as a second feature on a double bill with the Canadian kids film Brother of the Wind, both films being advertised as "for all the family to come and see".
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The Constant Royal Round
1 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This documentary collage was released to cinemas in 1977 to coincide with the Queen's silver jubilee. If my memory serves me correctly, it was poorly reviewed and rather less than successful. There was even a storm in some local newspapers about it being pulled before the end of its first week of release – commercial cinemas were apparently supposed to subsidised a flop because it was supporting the monarchy. The film was shown very soon after on television (bypassing the then 3 year after release agreement that UK terrestrial TV had in place with cinema distributors) and promptly vanished into obscurity. It disappeared so completely that for years it didn't even have an IMDb listing. Now it's released again on DVD, in the 60th anniversary year of Elizabeth II's coronation.

Viewing at this distance, it's easy to see why reviewers might have been less than enthusiastic. The film edits together disparate footage from the past quarter century in order to make a single point – that though enormous changes have occurred, Elizabeth is a constant fixture. So, we see footage of the Queen with British Prime Ministers from Churchill to Heath, French premiers from De Gaulle to Giscard d'Estaing, various commonwealth leaders; we see footage of notable news and sports events, such as Kennedy's assassination, England's 1966 World Cup victory and the Moon landings. Against the backdrop of ever-shifting History, Elizabeth carries on her endless round of ceremonial events, openings and launches, state visits. The point is endlessly repeated – through it all, she remains.

The trouble with this is, whilst it makes its point precisely, it doesn't offer any counter-argument. That a film celebrating the Silver Jubilee should unquestioningly support an argument for monarchy is unsurprising and it could hardly have done otherwise, yet this does not make for very exciting cinema. Nor does it reflect the problems that were on the surface in the UK by 1977, erupting in industrial disputes, the compact with Europe, tensions over immigration and a nascent Republicanism, soon to be spurred by the release of the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen single (a rather more commercially successful enterprise than 25 Years). A film which acknowledged all of this might still come down on the side of constitutional, hereditary monarchy but it would have had to take a more robust approach to the subject.

Still, Peter Morley's film is impeccably edited and, at 73 minutes, it hardly outstays its welcome. Because it is now more than 35 years old and much of the archive footage used is considerably older, it has genuine curiosity value. It also looks back at a time when coverage of the Royal family was neither salaciously celebrity-fixated nor resentful and critical. That attitude, of a detached and respectful deference and understated defence of the institution and people is long gone, was dated even in 1977. It is actually rather intriguing to see it now. Ironically it does – because things have changed so much – now carry a sense of unintended drama, as the argument it makes is so rarely heard in the mainstream, and certainly never in such an unfussy tone.

Finally, it is probable that Peter Morley meant to make something impressionistic, as the full title 25 Years – Impressions suggests. Elizabeth's life is repetitive and unchanging, even as world-changing events fly by. Viewed in this way, the film does slyly suggest that the life-long job of the monarch is not particularly enviable and it could cause a grudging respect and empathy in the heart of all but the staunchest Republican.
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Bronson goes all Jean Genet
1 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This odd Charles Bronson comedy western comes on like Support Your Local Gunfighter but turns out to be a strange, Jean Genet-tinged meditation on illusion, erotic games-playing, social construction and mythologizing. Bronson plays Graham, a two-bit outlaw who dreams that his gang's up-coming bank-job is doomed. On the way to town he loses his horse and the gang stop off at the ranch of a wealthy widow, Amanda (Jill Ireland); he engineers to stay at the ranch whilst the others go off to rob the bank.

There follows a strange, BDSM-ish and role-playing erotic encounter between Graham and Amanda. The film makes it clear that they are immediately sexually attracted but they have a protracted session of pretence in which he plays the part of a mean outlaw and she the prim lady in mourning. He attempts to ravish her but, crucially, can see that her resistance is a socially restrained charade. To facilitate her acquiescence, he pretends to be impotent and she pretends to help him to a cure. Through these games, which include a fair amount of rough and tumble play-fighting, the two manage to reach a place where their desires can be fulfilled. They spend an idyllic three hours together until Graham learns that the bank raid has gone wrong and his fellow robbers have been arrested. Amanda, determined to create him as the man of her dreams, insists that he goes to town to rescue them. Determined to feed her fantasy, Graham affects to ride into town but contrives to fake his own death by exchanging clothes with an itinerant dentist. The dead body (face hidden) is shown to Amanda, who (wearing a Jezebel-like red dress she'd put on to eroticise her time with Graham) faints when the posse brings the outlaw's corpse to the door. Graham is arrested for the dentist's misdemeanours and ends up with a year in gaol.

So far, the film has been pretty much contained within the enclosed space of Amanda's home, a kind of faux-European mansion in the middle of nowhere. Now the action opens up, with Amanda riding to town to be humiliated and scorned by the townsfolk as a scarlet woman, condemned for sharing illicit hours with an outlaw. Graham and Amanda's encounter suggests that a strange exchange takes place when an outlaw makes love to a respectable member of society – he has to give up his outlaw status and she has to take on a mark of sin. But now the plot turns again, as Amanda gives a rousing speech to the crowd in which she affirms that she loved Graham for the 3 hours they spent together and it redeemed her life. The townsfolk love this and a passing writer offers to turn her story into a book.

The book about Graham and Amanda's encounter, romanticized and embellished, becomes a bestseller with spin-off song and other merchandise. When Graham is released from prison, he returns to the town in disguise to discover that it has turned itself into a theme-park, a memorial to the now mythic defeat of Graham's gang and the love of the outlaw and the lady. There are even tours to Amanda's mansion, which Graham takes. When he reveals himself to his love, she is none too pleased to see him. She'd remembered him and written him as taller and better looking! His meagre dream of escaping into a mediocre life of banking and marriage holds no appeal to Amanda, who wishes to uphold the myth for its worldwide audience of fans. Rather than give up the myth, Amanda kills herself, her real flesh disappearing to be replaced entirely by her legend.

Where does this leave the real Graham? Of course, no one believes him when he tells them who he is – not even people who used to know him. They have all bought into the myth and the reality is no longer viable currency. Graham descends into a pitiful drunkenness. In ironic scenes, he interrupts songs and plays about his own life, only to be rejected by the audience. Finally he is left in a lunatic asylum – where, in a bitter twist, the delusional accept him for who he really is.

From Noon Till Three tells an ambitious story of American mythologizing (reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) but daringly combines it with a meditation on how the erotic is built on a fantasy which supplants the real. It is here the film resembles the plays of Jean Genet – the whole of society becomes grounded in an erotic fantasy and woe-betide anyone who can't live up to it. Entire lives become mere dressing up and pretence.

The film is prevented by being great by the often pedestrian direction of its author, Frank Gilroy. There is a little visual flare in some shots but too often things feel like a television movie, lacking visual and cinematic poetry. This is a shame, because there are odd times when the sets are emphasised as just that – theatrical sets – and the theme of the film feels visualised appropriately. The opening – an deserted Western set onto which the outlaws ride to meet their doom in what turns out to be Graham's dream – is perfection and suggests that these characters lives are themselves dreams acted out in an entirely constructed society, where only sex and death are real. To Gilroy's credit as a director, he does get extraordinary performances from Ireland (the right mix of minx, coquette, prim and maniac) and Bronson, who stretches himself as never before and inhabits his series of disguises with aplomb, whilst never losing sight of the character's reality as a rather grubby nobody.
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Drum (1976)
Disavowed homoeriticism in the Old South
19 June 2012
Warning: Spoilers
A sort-of sequel to the rather splendid antebellum slavery melodrama Mandingo (it's based on the same novel series), Drum is less profound in its depiction of desire becoming catastrophe in a historic nightmare but it certainly contains enough to raise the eyebrows of viewers. As in Mandingo, the old South is a backdrop to transgressive sexual longings and congress, this time adding in homosexual desire (both male and female) to the mix.

Drum's view of lesbianism is relatively enlightened, showing a long-term loving relationship between a fallen Southern belle turned Madame and her maidservant. This being a period of violence and tragedy, the two are soon separated by the black woman's murder. Male homosexuality is less well depicted, with a sadistic old Southern queen of a slaver and his handsome pathic being it's representatives. The old queen DeMarigny's role in the film is contradictory, as although he is the main antagonist to the handsome slave protagonist Drum, he also makes explicit the film's homoerotic glorifying in the body and sexuality of the boxer turned actor Ken Norton. The filmmakers clearly needed to disavow this homoerotic aspect to their drama, as they have Drum settling his scores with DeMarigny by ripping his genitals off with his bare fist.

The film revels in its violence, cross-racial sexuality and spectacle to the extent that it feels less like Mandingo at times than the notorious slavery-Mondo film Addio zio Tom. The dialogue is salty and nasty, with liberal peppering of the "N" word and frank talk about white women's breasts and black men's "blacksnakes". Hearing as fine an actor as Warren Oates drooling "Oh you knows I likes big titties" is either hilarious or tragic, depending on what view you take. The film makes on feel like taking a bath after viewing, so foul is the world depicted therein – but this suggests to me that exploitation is the best way of drenching an audience in as disreputable and irredeemable a period of history as the slave-era. This is subject matter which would only be diluted if drenched in liberal humanism and turned into a redemption drama.

Drum was advertised in the UK with the tagline "Mandingo lit the fuse, now Drum is the explosion" and the filmmakers certainly earn this as the screen does indeed erupt in chaos, riot and violence at the close. The Falconhurst mansion goes up not just in flames but in rather mystifying blasts, as if Oates' character were storing dynamite in most of the rooms. This complete destruction of the setting and most of the cast, as well as an extremely "unsatisfying" ending might be dramatically rather forced but it feels entirely appropriate for the subject matter.
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An S&M dream in a hotel lobby
30 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
If some jaded, pervy European businessman had fallen asleep in the foyer of a second-rate hotel in 1977 and had a reverie which mixed his sadly tame S&M fantasies with that morning's newspaper report on revolutions in South America and the piped music in the lobby, the contents of Helga: She-Wolf of Stilberg might be that dream. Available in a boxed-set of Nazi Cult films, Helga in fact isn't set during World War Two nor is there a Swastika in sight; Helga's locale is some sort of dream-space, a banana republic situated in a European landscape.

Title character Helga is a rather incompetent version of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, given the job by her dictator president of running a vaguely Salo-like castle keep in which young women, mostly related to opposition and insurgent families, are imprisoned and, under Helga's rule, sexually abused and tortured. True to the flaccid and self-defeating nature of our businessman's fantasies, Helga's attempts to reign over her charges are met with derision and contempt by the prisoners and she is often left crying on her own, her wardrobe of red silk shirts and big-buckle leather belts no compensation for her failure to rule the roost.

The film is so incompetent that its repetitions (how many times do the prisoners line up to be chosen by the doctor? And how often does Helga walk down the skanky staircase to the dungeon?) and unmotivated action very much mirrors the droolings of a dreaming mind and its final fantasy of liberation is as feeble as could be expected from a jaded and pervy Euro-gent, perhaps one who is an Anglophile with a penchant for Carry On films, as the comeuppance of Helga reminds one of nothing less than the blanket-bath given by the rebellious patients to Hattie Jacques' matron in Carry on Doctor. That the liberation is called into question by the final shot, where the escaped heroin and her lover are in the sights of a gun aimed by a former prison guard, only goes to show that a tired businessman can, in his dreams, reach an unintended moment of vision bringing into focus the endless nature of the world's nightmare cycles of violence.
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Promising character in a missed opportunity
17 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
The first official sequel to Universal's Dracula film loses both director Tod Browning and star Bela Lugosi as well as the central character the latter played, Count Dracula (Universal obviously didn't have as much nous as Hammer and think up various ways of revivifying him for sequels). Despite the film's beginning just moments after the 1931 film ends and in the same location, the bulk of the plot concerns the crimes and travails of the titular character, Dracula's Daughter.

Countess Zaleska is not happy being a vampire and hopes that the death of her father will break her habit of going out after dark and sucking the blood from the necks of innocent victims. No such luck, as Dracula still controls her from beyond the grave and she goes through men and women at a pace. The existential situation of the Countess is the most intriguing feature of the film – she is like a sinner incapable of repentance or an addict unable to kick her addiction. In the course of seeking a cure for her behaviour/condition, she meets and falls badly for a psychiatrist, Dr Garth, but he is neither capable of reforming her nor interested in spending eternity as a member of the living death alongside her, so Zaleska is on a losing game. There is something moving and horrifying about her predicament and many people who aren't vampires will be able to identify with her inability to kick her addictions and avoid a terrible fate.

Whilst the main plot line is fairly successful, with many creepy moments, convincingly sick encounters and relationships and a fine performance by Gloria Holden as the Countess, the sub-plots in the film are mostly played for laughs, with Dr Garth and other characters' dialogues peppered with wise-cracks better suited to a Thin Man film than a Gothic horror. If the film had the courage of its convictions and concentrated on the existential malaise of its heroine, it would still hold up strong today. As it is, it looks like it was a missed opportunity at the time and is a curate's egg for us. But the good bits of the egg might well inspire the viewer.
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Sant'Agostino (2010 TV Movie)
The Eternal City of God grows from a Dying Rome
1 July 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Augustine is a two-part, Italian-made mini-series about the influential theologian and church father Augustine of Hippo. The piece tells the story of his life from a teenager to his death at the age of 69. The last few weeks of his life, with him living as a famous church grandee and Bishop of Hippo during a siege of the city by Vandals, act as a framing device for flashbacks to his life and conversion to Christianity. Much of the content for the scenes of him as a young and middle-aged man come from his Confessions, which is probably the earliest extant autobiography.

The film takes us in a fairly stolid but not uninvolving way through his stealing of peaches as a boy, his studentship in the debauched city of Carthage, his rise as a lawyer, his struggles with conscience and the nature of truth, his involvement with the Manicheans, his time as court orator to the boy Emperor Valentinius II, his conversion to Christianity and his disputation with the Donatists. Each of these episodes is clearly, sometimes slightly simplistically, dealt with and includes genuine drama and character development. The framing story is less successful, although the climax has some power: Augustine personally goes into the Vandals camp and delivers some Hippo citizens who were being held as prisoners.

Augustine's major relationships – with his mother, his concubine and Bishop Ambrose, who converted him – are well-drawn if a little sentimentalised. There's also an apparently invented character, Valerius, who is a friend of Augustine's from his younger days and stands for the dying world of Rome, as Augustine stands for the eternal City of God. Augustine's mother Saint Monica comes across as a little one-dimensionally sanctimonious and this leads to the major fault of the series – it takes a rather partial view on Augustine's Christianity, agreeing with him that it is The Truth but never really pinpointing why it is. Instead of a properly dramatised revelation of why Christianity is the way, the film substitutes posturing and welling, saccharine music. This is a shame, as the film does go some way to exposing why being a mere legal rhetorician or an elite, celibate Manichean is wrong. The debate with the self-righteous Donatists is well-done and dramatically reveals the Catholic doctrine of the forgiveness of sins, but this leads the film to rather humanise and underplay the austerity of Augustine's own doctrine of Original Sin.

Augustine himself isn't the most attractive character. He begins as a rather arrogant, egotistical man and continues there. Of course, this is part of the story's point – that Augustine is a great father of the Church despite his personal faults. This rather radical dramatic strategy gets a bit lost in the script's unwise choice to have his final victory underlined by its facilitating a soppy love-story between a young Christian woman who looks up to him and a Roman centurion. Nevertheless, the mini-series is ambitious, informed and fairly faithful to the life of the man. It does attempt to dramatise profound questions and an important moment in the development of European civilisation. If you can forgive it's tasteless and tacky aspects, you might find much that intrigues.
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Poker-faced lesson in immorality
15 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The fifth Bronson/Lee Thompson collaboration is as misanthropic and cynical as a film can get. Using a grindhouse aesthetic, the film tells the story of the tracking and execution of a torturer by an assassin. The story is told in a pretty reductive way - we see examples of the torturer's crimes against humanity then we see the assassin hunting him down, killing his associates one by one before finally getting to the main quarry. Yet although the film is entirely free of editorialising, a moral question is raised entirely through the action – is the assassin's murderous activity any superior than the torturer's? The torturer, Moloch, is portrayed as a middle-aged man without a country, a freelance adviser to totalitarian regimes (and Western democracies) who displays and passes on expertise in causing human suffering. He is a man without morals, whose only allegiance is to his sister, a haughty lesbian who has no qualms about her brother's business. This is a man with no redeeming features – reptilian, merciless, immoral. His nemesis Holland (Bronson) is a retired assassin, living a lazy life on a luxurious island; clearly, his career as a paid killer has been highly profitable. He is lured out of retirement by what appear to be the pricks of conscience – Moloch has murdered his friend (a crusading journalist) and Holland has also viewed videotaped testimony from torture survivors. Holland takes on the job of meting out retributive justice to Moloch without payment.

Holland is accompanied on his mission, at his request as he needs cover, by a woman and her daughter (the family of the murdered journalist). It is clear though unstated that this is a risky strategy, especially as it puts a child in jeopardy. The woman sees the assassin as he is immediately – a cold and ruthless killer – but nevertheless goes along with the mission as she requires revenge for her husband's death.

The bulk of the film is an episodic series of executions, as Moloch's team are killed in various grisly and sadistic ways. It has to be said, the audience is not discouraged from enjoying them – most notably a barroom brawl in which Bronson grabs the erect penis of a bothersome macho through his jeans and squeezes it until the man passes out (in other words, tortures him). But as things progress, the assassin's methods become more morally questionable. He kidnaps Moloch's sister and this leads directly to the sister's death. The torturer in turn kidnaps the child, who is put in mortal danger. Although things work out "okay" in the end – the child is saved and the torturer is killed by a pack of his disfigured victims – the sadism we have been invited to indulge in and enjoy as morally justified leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth.

At no moment does the film play its hand and admit that its agenda is to question the notion of violent retribution. Yet the net affect of watching the sadistic story play out creates a palpable need to shower off the dirt. Director Lee Thompson has played his game here with the perfect poker face; the entire action is an example of The Evil That Men Do.

Interestingly, for anyone following the Bronson/Lee Thompson collaboration, the film's protagonist Holland begins where Cabo Blanco's Giff ends, living the high-life by the beach. Giff was a mythologised exemplar of the Allied Powers' moral rectitude at the close of the Second World War. The Evil that Men Do shows that, by the 1980s, the US and its allies are morally compromised by their own use of Nazi torture techniques. Yet the film's cynicism demonstrates that any attempt to redress this state of affairs through violence will end up creating a closed cycle of morally barren sadism. The strikingly brief shot of a happy ending – Holland with the woman and child returned to his beach retreat – is utterly superficial and dismissive in its thankless resolution.
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Caboblanco (1980)
Parroting the legend of the good guys
9 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The third collaboration between star Charles Bronson and veteran British director J Lee Thompson is, like its predecessor The White Buffalo, a strange beast but this time the collaboration doesn't quite manage produce something interesting. An all-star caper set in South America after the close of World War Two, Capo Blanco shows a disparate group of International adventurers going after what turns out to be a hoard of treasure looted by the Nazis during the war. The image of Capo Blanco as a melting pot of various International chancers gives the place in image as well as name a nod to Casablanca. The ex-patriot American protagonist, Giff (Bronson), runs a bar in town just like Rick in the classic and the supporting characters echo figures who once listened to the "You must remember this" refrain – an ultimately good but morally compromised police chief (Fernando Rey doing Claude Rains), a wicked Nazi (Jason Robards for Conrad Veidt) and a mysterious, beautiful woman with Paris in her past (Dominique Sanda standing for Ingrid Bergman). There is an awkwardness to the film, as if Thompson is unsure as to whether this is an homage or a pastiche.

Thompson, in his later years especially, was a filmmaker whose world-view was riddled with misanthropy. Here he tries to take what Wilde might have termed a bank holiday from cynicism, as he confesses in a short "Making of" documentary filmed during the shoot, where he identifies the post-war setting as "…an era of romanticism, an age when things seemed to have a drive and excitement of their own, when values were considered to be important and the feeling that the hero in the end should triumph and that you could root for good against bad. We've lost a lot of that, as indeed we should do in the modern cinema. But that is occasionally something which should occasionally appear on the screens when we're making a film today." Cabo Blanco is an exercise in nostalgia but it is exercising muscles in Thompson which had long-since wasted away. For the most part Cabo Blanco a tired film. The story is told without any real effort at audience engagement. Most of the excellent cast are on auto-pilot. Yet this is the logical consequence of its nostalgic romanticism.

The denouement, a long and not very well-paced scene in Giff's bar, sees the moral of the film being played out, yet it is as if the figures are animated waxworks re-enacting scenes from a no longer living past. The police chief, who has up until now assisted the Nazi in the search for the treasure, learns that it is loot from "Churches, synagogues, death camps" and so jumps ship, joining the good guys. He regains, in Giff's words, "his soul". The film dramatises a moment when the post-war allies had the moral high ground and where their rectitude could persuade others that they were indeed the good guys. This is a legend now, as the film self-consciously admits in a series of mythologising voice-overs, and Thompson can only repeat it, parrot it. The plot self-consciously involves a parrot's memory. It as if the myth were preserved in aspic, no longer a living thing. The epilogue, over which the voice over tells us that "the legend (…) grew and grew and Cabo Blanco prospered", shows Giff with a swanky house on a hill with the girl, living the good life. A good life built of the legend that he is a good guy.

Yet Giff, as his back-story tells us, is a murderer. And as a murderer, he himself is on the run from gas chambers not in Nazi Germany but in the good old USA. Even when making a piece of supposedly romantic nostalgia, Thompson cannot help but let his cynicism seep out.
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The white man's doomed road to redemption
31 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Surely one of the strangest big budget, action-star vehicles of all time, The White Buffalo stars Charles Bronson as a syphilitic Wild Bill Hickok, returning to the West after a stint on the stage and haunted by night terrors featuring a rampaging white buffalo. He is determined to track down and kill this creature of his nightmares, a quest shared by Indian chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson). Whilst Hickok's pursuit of the "white spike" is motivated by dreams and greed (the quest takes place in the midst of a gold-rush which Hickok plans to make his killing in), Crazy Horse must kill the animal in retribution of its rampage through an Indian village, a rampage in which the chief's own child was killed. At first the two men, both travelling under pseudonyms, are rivals and enemies but their shared mission makes them allies and, tentatively, friends.

The film is not what you'd call an action-packed adventure. Hickok does get involved in fights and shoot-outs but the over-arching mood of the film is of melancholy, as if the quest were a kind of death-drive for the characters. This mood is helped by the casting, as various (and often doomed) travellers or death merchants, of fading Hollywood luminaries (Stuart Whitman, Kim Novak, Slim Pickens, memorably John Carradine as an undertaker) whose ageing faces and bodies act as memento moris in the audience's eyes, visible symbols of the progress towards death that the film seems keen to put before us. The white buffalo itself is as more of a symbol than a living animal and this is emphasised by its being depicted by the use of a clearly mechanical model. The white buffalo is a close relative of Melville's white whale and whilst the quest doesn't end in Hickok encountering an Ahab-like death, there is a shared sense between this story and Melville's that the pursuit of the white beast is a negative form of the hero's journey; his motivation is in dreams and greed and this is contrasted with Crazy Horse, who has a more intimate and honourable relationship with the quarry. Hickok realizes this himself when he lets Crazy Horse keep the dead beast's meat and fur, a decision which alienates Hickok from his white ally Charlie Zane (Jack Warden).

Yet Crazy Horse and Hickok can never be friends; Hickok has sinned against the Indian nation in the past and so, finally, even having achieved his dream quest alongside the chief, Hickok is left a man alone. This gives the film an almost unbearably chilly conclusion, leaving the viewer with the sense that the hero can never find redemption, can't ever beat death. It is little wonder that the film was roundly rejected by audiences and critics on its original release, as it is ultimately a rejection of the Hollywood hero's journey/redemption narrative. The only place the hero is going is to a lonely and violent death (as stated by the final credit sequence showing pictures of our two heroes with the information that, a few years after the film's events, both died violently).

J Lee Thompson directs the film with a great feel for the mysterious and deathly allure of the object, whether this be the sheer face of a rock wall, the desert, a field of snow or the furious brow of the buffalo. That the animal is a mechanism only reinforces the tragedy of man – all objects, whether 'natural' or 'man-made' serve to allure men towards their deaths. Ultimately, the film is a poem of death; it's most haunting image being a huge pile of buffalo skulls by the side of a railway line, an image which can't help resonate with the 19th genocide of the American Indian as well as 20th century train-tracks towards the death-camps. Perhaps the centre of the film is in Hickok's self-justifying speech about the cycles of history, where he tells Crazy Horse that it is not the white man's turn to rule through violence and the terror of their weapons. That may be true but, in the film's disturbing vision, racial success history brings no content, just loneliness, fear and death.
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God Rot Tunbridge Wells! (1985 TV Movie)
God shut John Osborne up
27 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
God Rot Tunbridge Wells is essentially a monologue for the dying Handel, played by Trevor Howard (himself towards the end of his career). Handel looks back at his success, his sexual frolics, his benefactors, his critics and the cultural scenes he inhabited as well as mulling on matters of spiritual and musical significance. As he does this, his memories are shown without dialogue in staged scenes from his life (the technique of these scenes is not unlike silent movie narrative).

The monologue is written by British playwright John Osborne and his contribution tells us less about Handel than about JO himself; the obsessions he gives Handel – appreciation of Englishness whilst despising suburban mediocrity, hatred of critics and academics, valuing whilst failing at friendship, a conflicted relationship with Anglicanism, unfocused attacks on priggishness whilst celebrating his own snobbery, descents into sentimentality - are all Osborne's own. That Osborne can only write on a single register – splenetic ranting – only compounds the feeling that we are listening not to an 18th century composer but a 20th century angry old man. Some of the writing is very good and Howard speaks it superbly but it is on such a single note that it becomes rather tiring over two hours.

The piece is made worthwhile by director Tony Palmer's usual brilliance at integrating music with film visuals. The camera movements and the cutting are perfectly in tune with the soundtrack; he knows just when to track in gradually, just when to finesse a slow cross fade, just how to create a montage of images which give a visual expression to the music. Handel's music is gloriously celebrated here and we get many beautiful excepts.
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Death Wish II (1982)
A problematic, exploitative & challenging death wish...
24 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Winner's first Death Wish sequel is, in a narrative sense, a stronger film than its predecessor; that is, if you forgive the plethora of coincidence on which the film's main plot rests. The protagonist, middle-class architect Paul Kersey, has moved from New York to Los Angeles and put his vigilante past behind him. The final stage in his healing should be the reintegration of his damaged daughter into his life and the wider society and his marriage to a socially conscious radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland, Bronson's wife in reality). Yet lightning strikes twice as his doting maid and the recovering daughter are raped and murdered by a gang of street thugs and Kersey becomes a vigilante again, taking out the members of the gang one-by-one. To paraphrase Wilde, to have your daughter raped once, Mr Kersey, may be regarded as a misfortune; to have it happen again looks like carelessness… Nevertheless, this rather contrived inciting incident gives Winner the opportunity to create a film which, whilst it is certainly sensationalistic, offers a provocative challenge to viewers, whether they be bleeding heart liberals or "string 'em up" reactionaries. Kersey heads to the streets, disguised in working class casual labourer get-up, takes a room in a two-bit dive which he uses as a base for his revenge. This hotel is opposite and above two sparsely populated inner-city missions, from which emanate Christian prayers, preaching and hymns, looking to save the souls of the society's criminal classes and dregs. Kersey intends to get to them first. His initial revenge killing here features the cold-blooded summary execution of a young blonde thug who wears an ostentatious cross; Kersey asks him "do you believe in Jesus?" and the thug nods yes; Kersey ripostes "well you're going to meet him now" and blows him away: the young man's chance at redemption for his sins has been taken from him. Rat are shown scuttling away and the film asks, are the criminal classes mere vermin to be cleaned off the streets or have they souls which can be saved? The association between Kersey's prey and animal life is continued later when he wounds one, tracking the young man by means of his blood trail.

The film also contrasts Kersey's actions with an argument for criminal rehabilitation. Geri is researching the methods by which a criminologist doctor has been rehabilitating offenders and, by another ripe coincidence, the final member of the gang ends up in the doctor's clinic. Bronson inveigles his way in and metes out death to the perpetrator, by means of electrocution. An orderly who works at the clinic catches him and lets him go. There is a class argument being enacted, whereby working class men support Kersey and middle-class do-gooders think they know a better way. The film heavily weighs the argument in Kersey's favour by showing the thugs as barely human scum but the visceral nature of the debate as portrayed is food for thought. Kersey hardly ends up rewarded for his actions – he loses Gina and is little more than the ghost of a man haunting his regular middle-class lifestyle by the film's close. The idea that Kersey is making himself a shadow of his former social self is portrayed on screen by some nicely done expressionist cinematography.

The film's argument is problematized further by the graphic portrayal of the violence, especially the sexual violence meted out to Rosario, Kersey's maid. A long, drawn-out gang rape plays out on screen, with the stripped woman whipped and humiliated by laughing goons – there's an extent to which Winner (and his core audience) is revelling with them in their sexual sadism. If, ultimately, the film's makers and viewers are of the same bent as the criminals, then their siding with Kersey is very much a personal death wish.
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St. Ives (1976)
"it's expensive being honest"
24 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
St Ives was the first fruit of what turned out to be a fecund collaboration between tough-guy actor Charles Bronson and veteran British filmmaker J Lee Thompson. Based on a novel by Ross Thomas (The Procane Chronicle), St Ives is clearly a contribution to the 1970s neo-noir cycle, the Watergate-era revival of the hard-boiled detective story. It's not a major contribution to the genre – it pales beside The Long Goodbye, Chinatown or Night Moves – but it's an entertaining watch, well cast (including a cameo by genre veteran Elisha Cook) and it leaves a subtly bitter taste in the mouth.

Raymond St Ives (Bronson) is a retired sports writer and wannabe Great American Novelist who agrees to act as a go-between for a rich old villain Abner Procane (John Houseman channelling Sydney Greenstreet) who has had his memoirs stolen. St Ives is dragged into a world of swank mansions, sordid downtown locations, corrupt cops, petty criminals who meet nasty ends and, of course, a femme-fatale (Jacqueline Bissett) who is looking out for herself. This last character doesn't subvert the genre expectation in the post-feminist way of Chinatown, nor are the Bogart/Bacall exchanges between Bissett and Bronson entirely convincing (there is an air of pastiche here).

The film is set in Los Angeles and it is no coincidence that Procane spends his time watching old silent epics as a form of (American) dream therapy, an escape from his neuroses; even his criminal scheme takes place at a drive-in cinema. There's a subtext involving old Hollywood being used as a screen which hides the sordid realities of contemporary American life – the climax involves the rich old man's screen being rolled back to reveal his friend and psychiatric as the prime mover of a plot against him, a plot motivated by envy, greed and Oedipal hatred. The final has Bronson refusing four million dollars ("it's expensive being honest") and handing over the cash and the femme-fatale, leaving both in the hands of an 'honest' cop, his honesty held in the balance as sex and filthy lucre present themselves as temptations to climb into the 'bucket of faeces', as the cop had previously described the world of criminality. The ending presents us not with the happy denouement we first saw Procane lulling himself with in front of a silent film but an ambiguous moment of ever-present inducement to dirty one's hands with ill-gotten gains, the truth of the American dream.
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Interesting but very partial history lesson
12 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The subtitle of Erotikus: A History of the Gay Movie is a little misleading. The film, narrated by LA Plays Itself director Fred Halstead, begins by looking at the muscle magazines and films of the late 1940s-early 1960s, then at the softcore films of the late 60s and the boundary-pushing and legal-testing which allowed these to evolve into hardcore loops and then features. However, the look at feature films is rather heavily weighted to those made in the early 1970s by Tom DeSimone. DeSimone, of course, directed Erotikus under the pseudonym of L. Brooks. There's no disclosure of interest within the film and this combined with the praise lavished on DeSimone's films by the narrator feels rather self-serving and even dishonest.

DeSimone's early gay porn features were certainly interesting, as the long clips in this film illustrate, but they weren't the only such films making an impact in this period. True, Erotikus does nod also to Boys in the Sand and LA Plays Itself but the omission of such important features as Seven in a Barn, The Experiment and Born to Raise Hell gives a skewed vision of history.

Many of the films excerpted here have little to no chance of getting a legal release now in their original form. This is nothing to do with obscenity and entirely involved with the appropriation of music which would be extremely expensive to licence: George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want and a cover of Dylan's Pledging My Time all serve as aural backdrops to scenes of hardcore f**king, oral and masturbation. At least this tells us that show tunes and disco were once not the only music gay men were expected to be interested in.

As to the clips, many of DeSimone's films did possess an admirable ambition and told interesting stories. As to whether they are erotic, this is subjective. For this viewer, most of the men on display here are pretty repulsive but there are certainly many who would disagree. Fashions for types of bodies, hair styles and facial grooming change and I am a product of a later era. But Erotikus offers some intriguing if partial history for those of us who did not live through the early years of gay liberation; and, indeed, for those of us who are not American, as Erotikus like many other portraits of early US gay life neglects to mention that the rest of the world actually exists.
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A Western Allegory of Contemporary (1970) Gay Consciousness
5 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Song of the Loon is a peculiar soft-core gay film, based on a popular pulp novel which was published in the mid-1960s. Gay soft-core from that era is a historical curiosity. Shortly after certain financially strapped cinemas began trading to the gay crowd, there was a testing of the legal limits of representation. Hardcore was not yet licensed, so a handful of soft-core gay features were produced; the most ambitious of these is probably Song of the Loon.

The film, like the book, tells the story of a naïve frontiersman who comes to terms with his sexual orientation through his encounters with an Indian tribe, the Loon, who practise free love and homosexuality. As such, this is what came to be known as a 'coming out drama'. The intriguing thing here is that the drama is played as an allegory, with the Loon standing in for the out gay man and the villains of the piece - a preacher and another, closet-case frontiersman – stand for those men who have not come to terms with themselves and so turn into homophobic hypocrites. The preacher's name is Calvin, so in part the film's allegory is a theological argument on the merits of a sex-denying Christian Puritanism versus a pagan liberation theology.

Song of the Loon intersperses narrative with montage sequences, the latter mostly involving soft-core episodes of lovemaking; there are some dodgy effects used to give these episodes an arty feel. The film was clearly made on a low budget; much of the editing and all of the acting is poor. The film is very earnest – there is hardly a moment of humour in the entire running time. There is also no sense of historicity, which emphasises the allegorical nature of the story; the idea of coming to terms which your sexual orientation is something that would have meant little-to-nothing to 19th century frontiersmen. Yet as a cultural and historical document of the time it was made, replete with coy eroticism, free-love preachiness and enlightenment through hallucinatory vision-quests, this has considerable value.
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More Desires for Sex and Money
31 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This is a minor Eurosleaze hardcore spectacle concerning the misadventures of a group of young (late teens/early 20s) Swedish girls who take a holiday in Ibiza. They travel by boat, things getting off to a telling start when one of their number almost makes them miss the boat as she has been busy shagging her lift to the quay in a field (a goat looking on with interest). One of the number, a boyish blonde, assures the rest that she has their money and passports. On arrival in Ibiza, this blonde nearly misses the port as she is (we soon see why they are all friends) shagging a bloke in her cabin. She rushes ashore but sure enough she leaves their valuables on board. The girls meet an obliging black bisexual woman who lets them stay in her sea-view villa and pay their way on the Island by taking a variety of jobs (casino hostess, shop-assistant, go-go dancer), each of the girls invariably shagging the boss of the establishment they are working in. They men are, for the most part, old enough to be the girls' fathers.

That's pretty much it in terms of plot. There's no twists and turns, merely a parade of sexual vignettes, culminating in an orgy on board a small ship. The film could be said to be illustrative of a transitionary period in hardcore feature-length porn: gone is the character and plot development of the golden age, replaced by a series of casually-linked sex sequences; yet Sechs Schwedinnen auf Ibiza was photographed on film and released to cinemas. As videotape and home viewing became more prevalent, the plot lines mostly became minimal and disappeared, leaving only the heaving bodies.

It is hard to imagine how this played in the cinema. Director Gérard Loubeau films the exteriors beautifully, with a good eye for scenic prettiness, but rarely makes any interesting shot choices in the interiors (the exception being a sex scene which begins reflected in a mirrored table). The sex sequences are hardcore and admirers of the actresses Olinka Hardiman and Marianne Aubert will find much to admire here.

The film was released in 1986 in British cinemas as More Desires Within Young Girls. The film has nothing to do with the 1978 American film Desires Within Young Girls, except that both films posit those desires involve only making money and having lots of hot sex. All hardcore elements would have been cut from the UK theatrical release; it is impossible to imagine this was much of a night out at the pictures in that form.
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Bijou (1972)
Bijou, an exercise in big screen theatrical affect
27 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Wakefield Poole's follow-up to his ground-breaking and enormously successful 1971 gay porn feature Boys in the Sand is a surreal, artsy piece of erotica. It's setting is for the most part in dark, theatrically-lit interiors, making it seem like night to the earlier film's day, moon to Sand's sun. It continues the previous work's aesthetic of cutting the images to classical and contemporary music. Generally it feels like an experimental, underground or even drugs film.

It begins by cutting scenes of a construction site, a car driver and a goofy woman walking along the street with the Mars section of Holst's Planets suite. These disparate images come together when the driver accidentally runs the woman over and her purse is stolen by a construction worker on his way home from the site. Back in his lonely room, the worker sorts through the purse, puts on some Led Zeppelin and proceeds to jerk off to Dazed and Confused and Babe I'm Gonna Leave You. But his masturbation is interrupted when one of the female images which flashes before his mind's eye is the woman being car-struck. The worker grabs a mysterious theatre ticket he has found in her purse and heads out.

His destination is the Bijou, a seedy dive in an apartment block. A crone on the door accepts the ticket and the man enters into another world. Poole throws all of considerable resources of money and imagination into creating a strangely lit netherworld of neon instructions, reflecting mirrors, drapes and men. The protagonist takes part in a dream-like, Dionysian orgy in which he loses his individuality and merges as another figure in a pile of bodies, although his not inconsiderable endowment ensures that he is mostly the active partner in the sex. After this long sequence (which makes up over half of the film) the man leaves and the film ends.

What the accident with the woman and the antics in the Bijou have to do with each other is anyone's guess; the latter could either be an expiation of his guilt or the former might have been a ritualistic induction into another, all-male world (although she does appear, laughing, in one of the split-screens Poole uses in creating the orgy). The special effects – mostly involving zooming in and out onto theatre lights and arranging mirrors to throw multiple reflections – are pretty tacky. Yet I should think that the film did have a disorientating and dazzling effect projected large on the screen of a porn theatre in the mid-70s, where sex was doubtlessly happening off as well as off the screen and the air was heavy with smoke and amyl nitrate. As a movie creating affect in its intended viewing environment, it will have been overwhelming. Now, in the cold light of day and seen on a home screen, it's lack of narrative is a little frustrating and its mise-en-scène feels pretentious; it lacks the intellectual content of Pink Narcissus or a Kenneth Anger short. This is essentially an erotic film made for the cinema screen, and for a certain type of cinema at that.
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The US gay male, first and second class
25 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
An intriguing Hand-in-Hand production from the golden age of porn, this tells the story of a successful ballet dancer, Ivan Hogan (Henk Van Dijn) and the two men in his life, fellow ballet dancer John (Jeff Sullivan) and working class trucker Joe (Gary Hunt). It is a supposed truism that, historically, homosexuality allowed the classes to mingle in ways which were not possible in rigidly class-bound societies; Ballet Down the Highway impressively suggests that the story is more complicated.

Ivan meets ballet newcomer John and the two go swimming at the YMCA before decamping to Ivan's swank, concierge-protected apartment to get down to some action. John had invited Ivan to his room in the Y, but Ivan isn't keen as it reminds him of his sordid past of poverty. The two shag then go their ways; it seems to have been a fairly emotionless transaction, although perhaps John has feelings for Ivan - he certainly wants to see the star again but Ivan is busy, off to his retreat outside of the city where he is taking delivery of a music box.

Ivan's car breaks down whilst he is out of town but, as luck would have it, the music box's delivery guy, Joe, is attracted to him and Ivan ends up getting a ride back to New York in Joe's truck. The early relationship between the men is interestingly developed: Joe complains about the weight of the music box but Ivan doesn't help him move it into the house, more interested in doing some exercises on the lawn. When Joe arrives, Ivan is naked and the free-living, middle-class city dweller has no issue with parading about and exercising nude in from of Joe. Not that Joe minds – having moved the music box indoors, he jerks watching Ivan from a window. Later, the two men bump into each other at the local greasy spoon (Joe has a fry-up whereas Ivan wants something not greasy). Joe discovers that Ivan is a dancer ("don't only fags do ballet?") and offers him a lift. Once Ivan is in Joe's truck, Joe is waving his cock around, encouraging Ivan to go down on it. They go to a motel where Joe tops Ivan and get on enough for Ivan to invite Joe to the ballet. Joe wants to attend but his pride means he wants to pay his way.

Joe suits himself up and attends the ballet but a mix up means the two men don't meet. Ivan goes home and invites John (who's been chasing him) around. Before John can arrive, Ivan turns up drunk. A threesome ensues. What is interesting here is the gauche desperation of Joe – stripping off and stumbling around Ivan's apartment, demanding sex and expressing violent jealousy (which Ivan soon stamps on). Clearly, Joe has very confused feelings for Ivan, whose fit body he is sexually obsessed with but whose cultural milieu he is alienated from; Joe dimly understands this but thinks that last night's good sex means that the two now get it on regularly.

John's reaction to the threesome is odd. He has thrown himself into the sex but at the end he goes home, confessing that he feels upset; Joe stays the night. In the morning, Ivan pleasures himself in the shower whilst Joe jerks over Ivan's framed picture in the bedroom, a poignant expression of their differing views of the relationship. Ivan simply wants Joe when he feels like a bit of rough; Joe is obsessed by Ivan's image.

Joe spends a scene before and a scene after this encounter with Ivan and John at a trucker's bar, where his friends mock his suit and accuse him of being a fairy as he's been to the ballet. Joe disavows his homosexuality but on the second occasion is outed when a mate overhears him talking to Ivan on the phone. It comes out that Joe has serviced the truckers in the bar on a previous occasion; now three of them drag him round to Ivan's and an orgy ensues. The truckers' and Ivan's attitudes to sex are very different: Ivan is easy about his gay identity and willing to get down to it when he wishes (but not when he doesn't); the truckers disavow their homosexuality with the idea that sex is something they inflict on weaker "fags". Yet the truckers are politeness itself to the high-class Ivan, whereas their own fellow working class trucker is humiliated and sexually used for daring to be queer. Ivan has no interest in these men and their muddled predicament and unceremoniously chucks them all, including Joe, out at the orgy's close. The next thing we see is John moving in with Ivan, the two dancers becoming lovers and practising moves together. The film ends with a beautifully filmed image of the two dancers silhouetted against the New York skyline, pirouetting in harmony. Neither they nor the film are interested in what has happened to Joe.

The film is okay technically, with basic set-ups and execrable diegetic sound. Yet the story is sophisticated in the ways in which it delineates the different approaches to homosexuality of middle and working class men. It affirms that, when it comes to relationships, the middle classes will settle down with each other; it is surely no coincidence that Ivan and John's first sexual encounter is by a mirror and the film ends with them reflecting each other's moves in a shared environment. Joe, with his gauche eagerness and naivety, has no place in Ivan's controlled world. Rough trade is there to be used and discarded; the working classes serve their social betters and, if they dare to dream of anything better, get put right back in their place. The striking thing is that in this film (which perhaps accurately reflects US society of the time), the working class men meekly accept this.
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Emanuelle's over-ripe orange factory produce
20 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
An admirably sleazy entry in Laura Gemser's filmography, this has the Black Emanuelle actress and her partner and perennial co-star Gabriele Tinti earning some quick bucks in the Greek exploitation film industry. Gemser plays a character called Emanuelle, who bears no relation to the Emanuelle she played in the original and the D'Amato series (perhaps the character wasn't called Emanuelle in the original Greek version but has been given that name in the dub). This Emanuelle is the abused trophy wife of a wealthy Greek orange magnate, a man who likes to humiliate and sexually torture his spouse with his business partners and in front of his nymphet of a daughter, Livia. Emanuelle plans and executes the murder of the magnate, a plot carried out by a seedy but sexy hit man called Mario Infanti. Emanuelle, now guardian of Livia and head of the orange distribution company, thinks she's got away with it. But Mario wants more money and the magnate's old cohorts suspect the truth.

The plot has an intriguing trajectory, as Emanuelle mends her fractious relationship with Livia and becomes romantically involved with another business contact of her late husband, Tommy Snow (Tinti). A new, happy family seems to be forming but the chance of happiness is cut short when Mario rapes Livia and Emanuelle revenges this by shooting him in an old amphitheatre, a setting which has the film's melodrama nodding to classical tragedy, Emanuelle (who'd have thought it?!) joining the ranks of Medea and Clytemnestra. It is as if any challenge to corrupt, abusive patriarchy means involvement with dangerous allies, the past association coming back to haunt the rebels even as they feel they are safe.

The story is interrupted at regular intervals by bouts of pretty steamy sex. Emanuelle makes love to Mario and then Tommy, Livia makes out with her young beau Mike and Mario makes out with various women. The sex scenes are as graphic as a softcore movie could get and have a horny, erotic feel to them. It is, however, somewhat problematic that the actress playing Livia looks barely older than 15 – she has a nude shower scene, a (tame) love scene with Mike, a very sexual disco dance and, most troubling, a brutal and prolonged rape scene where her naked body is abused and tossed around like a rag-doll. The BBFC certainly had problems with this casting and cut over 6 minutes out of the film at its last (2008) submission, "to remove scenes in which a naked or semi-naked child is portrayed in a sexual and exploitative manner, including a scene of sexual violence." This certainly gives the film an added edge of danger but the rape – coming out of nowhere in terms of dramatic build-up and Mario's character development – leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

But perhaps a nasty taste is one of the affects that Eurosleaze cinema of this ilk is designed to provoke? If so, then Emanuelle Queen of Sados (aka Emanuelle Queen Bitch, aka Emanuelle's Sweet Revenge et al) is a pretty ripe slice of the Eurosleaze, a veritable factory of zesty, over-ripened oranges.
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Average stag film with vaguely intriguing narration
15 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This presumably, from its date, is the film porn auteur Gerard Damiano made just before Deep Throat. Ironically, it is precisely the kind of porn film that Deep Throat did much to do away with – a few reels of stag-footage telling little to no story with barely discernible characters simply filmed having sex. There's very little of interest aesthetically here, either in the filming (basic shot constructions and lazy editing) or the performers (some of whom might be better suited to a live action film of the Hair Bear Bunch).

What little interest the film has, and what in fact makes it a Damiano film, is to be found off-screen in the non-diegetic narration. A pseudo-sociological narrator mediates the images with a certain degree of disapproval, bringing into play the queasily ambiguous attitude to sex which was a running theme in Damiano's 70s films. The main "character" is Andy, a single young man with a houseboat, which he uses to lure young ladies and host orgies with his wacky, degenerate friends. The narrator clearly dislikes Andy, describing him as misogynistic and pointing out the ways in which Andy manipulates girls to get them to clear up for and have sex with him. The narrator also seems to be obsessed with homosexuality – he sees a man engaging in voyeurism or performing cunnilingus as implicitly homosexual and when, in the final sex scene, a man is engaged with two women, one of whom performs cunnilingus on the other, the narrator is besides himself with glee that his thesis has been proved and the homosexuality has come to the surface. None of this is very scientifically convincing.

Evil Ways of Love turns up on the Alpha Blue Archives 3 film disc 'Cult 70s Porno Director: Gerard Damiano.' Were it not for Damiano's involvement, it is unlikely that this rather incompetent film – little more than a stag or home movie – would survive in the digital age. The film has no credits and it is only really its presence in this collection that links it to Damiano at all; one would barely think to look at it that this is a product of a man just about to change the face of the genre absolutely. Yet its mediating narration and its positing of casual sex as a twisted necessary "evil" does mark it as the product of the man who made Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and other individualized auteur pornographic features.
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The ultimate futility of battle?
3 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Il grande attacco, also known in various versions under the English titles Battle Force and The Greatest Battle, is by consensus a muddled WW2 Action picture with some good battle scenes and a confused plot. It maybe that the film is a lazy effort on the part of its writers but it also, in its incoherence, manages to say something about war and history which is inexpressible through a more formally consistent narrative.

A disparate group of people – an American general (Henry Fonda), an Irish-American war correspondent (John Huston), a German officer (Stacey Keach) and a famous German-Jewish actress (Samantha Eggar) meet in Berlin on the day that Jessie Owens wins an Olympic gold medal and the German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, refuses to shake the athlete's hand. The characters gossip casually about this and go their separate ways, with Fonda and Keach swapping souvenir Olympic medallions as a measure of their friendship. Six years later, these and a number of other characters are enmeshed in the second world war, the film consisting of various seemingly random sequences involving the characters in some kind of dramatic situation or undertaking a battle mission. Some of them are killed and some are still alive in 1943, where the film arbitrarily ends. But a coincidence means that the now dead Keach's medallion is in the hands of Fonda's American hero son (Ray Lovelock, of Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue 'fame').

Taking the film at face value and allowing it not to conform to classical narrative structures, it seems that the arbitrary and the coincidental are the rules of the game here. There is no narrative arc or learning curve to most of the characters' lives; they are driven to undertake their roles in the war, through either loyalty to their homeland or to their professions, without even really coming to a consciousness of their situation. This is most striking in Keach's story: he marries Eggar and fights and dies, heroically, for the German side in Africa; at home, his wife is sexually harassed and persecuted by the Gestapo until she commits suicide. Keach dies without knowing that the ideology he has been fighting for has killed the woman he loves.

Another sub-plot features Edwige Fenech as a French woman driven to prostituting herself to German officers by poverty. She isn't a bad person, she's eaten with self-loathing through her circumstance and is genuinely shocked when the Germans execute a Resistance fighter who has tried to hide in her apartment. Nevertheless, she herself is shot dead by the Resistance who are under the misguided impression that she was behind their compatriot's death. Her murder is quick and brutally achieved and her death doesn't teaches anyone anything. Life in war, for her and for most of the characters, is meaningless, degrading, dangerous and comes to a sudden end, as if life were a drive which simply stops when it meets an opposing, amoral force. Earlier in the film, Fenech has been helped by German officer Helmut Berger, here playing a character somewhat similar to Brando's in The Young Lions. Berger is fiercely loyal to Germany but doesn't seem ideologically Nazi nor does he seem to have lost his humanity – he looks seriously disturbed as he sees the death around him. Yet like Keach he never learns anything but how to die, which he (like an American soldier he'd previously shot) begs for. That Fonda's son doesn't kill Berger at the latter's request means nothing, as Berger croaks whilst drinking the water that Lovelock tries to force down his throat.

There is a brief respite from the film's grimness at the end, as Fonda learns that Lovelock has survived thus far and been commended. Yet this is a bitter sweet given that this takes place after Fonda's visit to his other son's grave, who has been killed a few months before. More telling is the moment where Huston and a young cameraman are killed filming a battle – the camera is shown strewn in the sand, as if in a reflexive moment Il grande attacco realises and admits that the process of filming battles is futile.

There's no point in arguing that this is a great film. There is something rather distasteful about its predominant concentration on the lives of the officer classes (Fenech's character is the only exception) and it may be that Il grande attacco really is not worthy of serious consideration. Yet its inconsistency and randomness adds up to a curiously consistent vision of war as a meaningless serious of events for those unlucky enough to be caught up in its history and unconscious enough not to comprehend their predicament. Director and co-writer Umberto Lenzi was, during the same period as this film was produced, producing some of the sleaziest and sickest of the giallo, crime and even cannibal films of the age; perhaps this is better understood as part of that movement in Italian cinema that produced films which deliberately undercut the meaning-making inherent in the Hollywood model, producing a provoking vision of a universe of cruelty, absurdity and violent death which shows that the world is more made up of swirling, futile vortices than character-building, consequential journeys.
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The Tragedy of Benito Mussolini
2 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The film, like the almost contemporaneous Hitler: The Last 10 Days, follows the final hours of one of the leaders of the axis powers during WW2, in this case Benito Mussolini. Rod Steiger plays Il Duce (a role he was later to repeat in Lion of the Desert) and the bulk of the film concentrates on the former dictator coming to terms with the fact that his freedom is gone and his life may soon be as well. It is a compelling performance, as Mussolini begins defiant as the Germans demand to keep him under close guard (on the express orders of the Führer), attempts to wheedle deals with the Church and the Swiss to ensure an escape to neutral territory then falls into a sullen sulk as he is made a prisoner of the Italian partisans, realising that he is probably going to be executed. By the time he is put up against a wall with a gun pointed in his direction, he is almost catatonic.

This delineation of Mussolini's fall from power gives the film an authentically tragic aspect. It is as if the first 4 acts of Macbeth were cut and the final movement, with Birnam Woods closing in on the trapped usurper, were to constitute the entire drama. There is a wannabe Nietzschean aspect to Il Duce, a man who it is emphasised in the film looked on himself and was looked on by others as a God, although the slumped wreck we see being executed at the end is quite without divinity. The film strongly posits that Mussolini lost his self entirely when he lost power, an idea given vivid visual expression when he is wrapped in a head-bandage whilst being transported, the god-Emperor being reduced to the Invisible Man. The film portrays the dictator as a morally dubious but not utterly condemnable character – although he sheds no tears nor has any feeling for the ruin he has brought on his nation, he is a man constantly let down by those he trust, whether it be his protégé Hitler who invaded Russia against Benito's advice or his own black-shirts, who fail to provide the promised cavalry to rescue him.

Two other important character studies are intriguing. Mussolini's mistress, Claretta Petacci, is portrayed as the ultimate in servile love, even sacrificing herself at the end in a vain attempt to save the man to whom she has uncritically (if jealously) devoted her life. In the final third of the film, the partisan leader Walter Audisio 'Valerio' becomes a focus of attention, driven onwards with a single-minded mission to ensure that Mussolini is executed in the name of the Italian people rather than becoming a trophy prisoner of either the Americans or the British. That Valerio is a rather inhuman, cold figure adds a certain odd ambiguity to the film, as only on an ideological level could we sympathise with this man against the Mussolini that we see through Steiger's performance. I am not sure whether to call this ambiguity daring or dangerous. The mistress and nemesis of the dictator are played respectively, and excellently, by Lisa Gastoni and Franco Nero. Henry Fonda has an intriguing cameo as a rather reptilian Cardinal, whose sympathies and opinions are impossible to gauge.

The film begins at a stonking pace, cutting quickly through events and setting out the story admirably. The pace evens a little the tension mounts and the relationship between the dictators and his mistress gets explored with some depth and the negotiations as to what will happen to him get murkier.

On the whole this is a rather remarkable film, deserving of being much better known. It is a decent history lesson but, far more, a brilliant character study and chilling portrait of what happens when a human being overreaches himself and is brought down to nothing and death.
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The ego's doomed attempt to gain control
2 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
J Lee Thompson is an interesting and underrated director, this film - his contribution to the slasher genre - isn't particularly distinguished either within his filmography or within its type. There is, however, an interesting subtext running through the film which is potentially intriguing and enlightening.

The film begins with a teenage student off out one evening and running into her tutor, who lectures the girl about staying out gallivanting as opposed to studying; soon enough the girl gets murdered by an unknown assailant. In the next sequence, we meet the girl's peers, a group of popular students who haunt a local bar; there, they have a run-in with a bunch of old guys who are repetitively singing. The link between the two sequences which bookend the first murder appears to be an attempt by the characters to control the situation – the tutor wants to control her students, the students want to control the old folks. The film goes on to show that all such attempts at control are doomed to failure.

The theme of trying and failing to gain control is developed in the characterization of the protagonist, another young female student, who is attempting to come to terms with an accident in which her mother died and after which the girl had to undergo brain-surgery. The girl is disturbed that her head has been interfered with, that her memory won't come back at will and that she often doesn't know what has happened – this last is particularly awkward as her friends are disappearing one by one. We know that a killer is on the loose and, from just over half-way in, we think we know that this girl is the killer. But we are no more in control of our knowledge of events than the girl, as a final revelation proves us wrong. This last twist isn't particularly well achieved but at least it aligns itself with what appears to be the underlying theme of the film.

Significantly both the accident in the past (where our girl's mother attempted to get the wealthy local kids to attend her birthday) and the real killer's motive (she was the daughter of a man the girl's mother was having an affair with) involve attempts to impose control on the world, to bend it to the characters will. These attempts lead to the attempter's death. The figures of the film who represent masculine authority – the psychiatrist, the father, the policeman – are particularly weak and incapable of being the controlling force we or they might expect them to be.

Thompson manages to build up, despite the rather second-rate genre thrills on offer here, a coherent picture of a universe where any attempt to impose control on people and things is hopeless. The attempt of the ego – the I/Me – to give itself the birthday present it deserves, complete control over events and others, is one bound to end in disappointment.
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A missed opportunity
5 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very disappointing documentary purporting to cover the history of gay representation in cinema but lacking focus. The film zips quickly from Anger's Fireworks to films produced in the late 1960s, without a mention of the upfront art cinema and sub-textual mainstream films produced in-between. Instead we get supposed "experts" in the subject who don't appear to know what they are talking about - B Ruby Rich seems under the misapprehension that Jarman and Fassbinder were making films pre-Stonewall.

After this barely credible preamble, the film settles down to talking about the series of New Queer Cinema films which were produced in the early 1990s. Many of these are important films, but the slant here is very US-centric and the discussion is rarely rises above the anecdotal. The story then zips forwards to a very uncritical look at how gay cinema has begun producing happy, shiny DVD fodder for middle-class audiences; it isn't surprising that Bruce LaBruce doesn't get a name-check! Nearly all of the talking heads here (with the exception of the great John Waters) cry out for a queer version of mainstream cinema; it would have been nice to have some dissenting voices. It would also have been nice to have a debate around a film like Basic Instinct - gay critic Camille Paglia loved the film but is airbrushed from the version of events presented here.

The bias of the film gives the lie to the cry at the end for a pluralistic gay cinema; on this evidence, most of the people here hail from a very narrow, middle-class American background and most of them want a very anodyne, US-oriented gay cinema. This makes the film feel cliquey and a massive missed opportunity.
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