Tuesday, July 19, 2016

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


A revue-style film such as ZIEGFELD FOLLIES poses some distinct challenges to my system of categorization. There are a few sequences that flirt with ideas of the supernatural, but should any of them be taken seriously? The opening frame story shows the deceased Flo Ziegfeld, happily enjoying his lot in a well-appointed heavenly apartment, when he starts meditating what it would be like to put on one more big revue-- which, as it happens, will feature not the luminaries of the famous showman's own time, but the cream of the MGM contract players. Still, given that the film never again returns to Heavenly Flo, I feel secure in dismissing his sequence as belonging to the naturalistic version of the "fallacious figments" trope.

Most of the musical numbers and comedy routines are performed for the screen as if they were taking place on Ziegfeld's imagined stage, so that for the most part, the diegesis supports the idea that they're not phantoms of his imagination, but hypothetical real players going through their paces-- which also means that they are naturalistic by nature. I'll get to the one exception shortly.



The opening musical number, "Here's to the Girls," is so over-the-top that it verges on outright fantasy. Dozens of female dancers parade around the stage in rose-petal pink outfits, enough to make even the more ardent lovers of the color become worn-out. It's supposedly a salute to femininity, at least in its most passive aspect-- except that it takes a weird turn with the appearance of Lucille Ball-- still deemed an MGM beauty, and years away from becoming known as a comical hausfrau. She joins the parade of "pretty in pink" dancers, but then diverges into the company of another group of females, all dressed in black cat-suits. Lucy cracks a whip around their heads to keep them in line, but as the still below shows, they can still display their claws in front of their mistress.




I don't know if most viewers in 1946 made any correlation between whips and cats (and a synonym for cat that has another intriguing meaning). Yet I could well believe that the film-makers were having some fun with some light lesbian imagery, confident that the audience would be titillated without exactly knowing why.

I'll pass over the possibility of analyzing most of the other sequences, none of which are quite as eye-popping as the opener-- except for the one number that, by itself, would fall into the phenomenal domain of the uncanny.

":Limehouse Blues," the film's longest number, follows an unnamed Chinese man (Fred Astaire in "yellow-face") as he wends his way through London's Limehouse district, notorious as a haven for criminals, Chinese laborers, and Chinese criminals. He spots an elegant Chinese beauty (Lucille Bremer, also with Asian makeup) and follows her. She gazes longingly at an ornate fan in a shop-window, and then passes on. Astaire inquires about the price of the fan with the shop-owner, but finds the price beyond his means. Back on the street, he gazes at the fan, seeing in it a possible key to the lady's heart. Then a small gang of smash-and-grab thieves break into the shop-window, and try to flee while exchanging shots with the London bobbies. Astaire reaches for the fan, accidentally put into his reach by the thieves' actions-- but this action spells his doom, as he's fatally struck by a bullet. The remainder of the number shows the Chinese man dreaming about a happy, dance-filled union with the object of his affection, before he wakes to dreary reality, and his own demise.




Short as it is, I would dream Astaire's dream-sequence "uncanny" because, in contrast to the other numbers, it's being imagined by one of the characters, and goes beyond the bounds of what one might reasonably expect of an ordinary dream. Were "Limehouse Blues" a short of the same length, it would fall into the uncanny domain. But within this revue-structure, the uncanny mode is overpowered by the great majority of naturalistic sequences.

I should comment also on my choice of Fryean mythoi. Only a few sequences are comedies in the usual sense, in being focused on outright humor, and "Limehouse Blues" is certainly in the vein of drama. However, the majority of the musical numbers are devoted to celebrating feminine glamour. in such a way that it would usually be taken as a validation of heterosexual union, even if the opening number is a bit problematic on that score. Thus, even when there is no actual romance in a given number, as in the concluding song "Beauty," I tend to see all such glamour-celebrations as indicating the successful union of romantic interest-- and this aligns, for reasons Frye also expounded upon, with the mythos of comedy.

THE SHAOLIN BROTHERS (1977)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic // marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

I'll make the allowance for the possibility that this movie seems worse than it is because it may've received a bad dubbing-job. But it still seems like an incoherent mess, and I did find one online review that asserted that most chopsockies by director Joseph Kuo follow a similar pattern.

The one noteworthy thing about SHAOLIN BROTHERS is that it's the closest I've ever seen to a film in which two plot-lines are really fundamentally separate, even though the film makes a piddling effort to unite them. Beside this film, even a jumble like 1967's CASINO ROYALE seems well organized. I gather than 1970s Hong Kong films had no outlet for "anthology films," so Kuo simply took two unrelated plotlines-- possibly one being shot for an unfinished feature?-- and spliced them together.

The film starts out in the domain of the marvelous. While opening credits are still rolling, we see a small group of Chinese "hopping vampires," complete with Buddhist ofuda (paper talismans) hanging over their faces, bouncing down a night-time village street. A voice-over tells the audience that in medieval times it was deemed important for the bodies of the deceased to be returned to the villages where they were born. Well and good, but the voice-over DOESN'T tell onlookers that these particular corpses have been re-animated by a Taoist mortician, who for some unexplained reason doesn't simply load his corpses in a wagon. Instead, he revives them so that-- they can hop all the way to wherever they're supposed to go. I've only seen a small handful of "hopping vampire" films, but I have a feeling that this "custom" is entirely the invention of the film-makers. Not that this in itself is necessarily a minus: a lot of non-canonical folklore makes for interesting cinema. But SHAOLIN BROTHERS, having come up with this bizarre and thoroughly impractical notion, has no idea what to do with it.

All of this corpse-nonsense appears long after the film establishes its principal, largely naturalistic plot, based on the struggles between the loyalists of the vanquished Ming Dynasty and the evil turncoats of the triumphant Ching Dynasty. As I don't have access to character-names, I'll call the hero Good Ming Guy and his opponent Bad Ching Guy. (The latter is played by Carter Wong, one of the few 1970s martial-arts stars who remains recognizable to non-specalists like myself). There really are no "Shaolin brothers" in the story, but the hero and the villain trained under the same mentor, so I guess that makes them "brothers," even though they don't call each other that. Also, when the film does show the mentor, he doesn't look like a Shaolin monk, but like some old Taoist herbalist living in the hills.

Anyway, Bad Ching Guy wants Good Ming Guy to join forces with the Ching forces. Good Ming Guy refuses, and they fight. Bad Ching Guy wounds his opponent with poisoned needles, apparently hidden with the belt worn by the villain, and stolen from their former master (and what would a Shaolin monk be doing with a belt full of poisoned needles?) Good Ming Guy goes on the run. His sister and some of his other allies ramp up their attempts to overthrow the Ching forces, though it's not clear whether or not Good Ming Guy was already allied with some counter-revolution. Later on, we finally see Good Ming Guy with his mentor, who informs him that he can slow down the effects of the poison, but it'll still kill the hero in nine days.

One of the rebels is killed fighting the Ching soldiers, and this provides a tenuous excuse for bringing in the Taoist mortician with his traveling parade of corpses. One of the rebels brings the dead guy to the Taoist, who says he never makes one of these night-time journeys unless he has six hopping dead people. The story-telling becomes extremely murky here, but I think two or three of the rebels fake their own deaths so that they can go along with the mortician's procession and avoid scrutiny by the soldiers. All that I can say for certain is that one or two of the vampires are real, though they don't do anything but hop about, disappear, and annoy people, and that at one point three of the "vampires" whip off their paper talismans and run off.

By film's end we finally get back to the main conflict, as Bad Ching Guy mops up the floors with all of his rebel-opponents, Good Ming Guy shows up, says something incoherent about the golden rope-weapon he wields, and then somehow sets the villain on fire. The two of them tumble into a river and the "brothers" perish together, while the mourning sister looks on. Frankly, though her fighting-scenes are brief, this actress (seen in the still above) is the only one who perks up the routine battles. Some sources identify as Lung Chung-erh, but Hong Kong Cinemagic is perhaps more reliable, listing her as "Chin Meng," with only three or four other credits to her name.

Frankly, I wouldn't have spent this much time writing about this stuffed Shaolin duck if it hadn't been a challenge to classify. In most films with any vampires, hopping or not, the main characters are intimately concerned with either fighting or avoiding them. In SHAOLIN, the real vampires have no effect whatever on the main story, and so I've come up with a new category for this sort of metaphenomenon: the "peripheral-marvelous."

For that matter, it's not entirely clear whether or not any Oriental weirdness makes it into the main plotline. Hong Kong cinema is certainly replete with all sorts of odd gimmicks, and the poison-needle belt might have been one of these. However, it's not clear that the belt fires the needles, or just has them embedded in it. Similarly, if the golden rope has some sort of power, this too is not clear, any more than the possibility that the old master works any magic to slow the hero's fatal demise. Since director Kuo didn't bother to enlarge on any of these matters, by default I'll deem the main plot naturalistic.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

Looking at the IMDB listing for Harry Alan Towers' production credits, this movie-- also known as BLAST-OFF, and originally titled JULES VERNE'S ROCKET TO THE MOON-- seems an odd duck indeed. Towers' resume is filled with a lot of action thrillers and horror films, and in my experience most of them were poorly made time-fillers. What I've read of Towers' bio is that he was a consummate deal-maker, forever jaunting around the European continent making deals to get movies made. The result is that many of his films-- particularly the Fu Manchu series with Christopher Lee, for which Towers is probably most famous-- display a polyglot of nationalities in their production credits.

FOOLS probably wasn't much more expensive than Towers' other productions, but it gives the illusion of luxury thanks to its multi-star cast-- Burl Ives, Terry-Thomas, Troy Donahue, Daliah Lavi, and Gert Frobe, just keeping to those who had enjoyed starring roles previous to this 1967 flick. A closer look reveals that the film remains chained to a few basic locations and doesn't invest much in spectacular effects-work, in contrast to THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, which came out two years previous from an unrelated production company. Did Towers have some notion of "upping his game," of becoming one of the more mainstream movie-makers? It's a tempting notion. But Towers had just come out with the first two Fu Manchu films in the two years previous-- both directed by Don Sharp, who also helmed the adventures of the Asian mastermind-- and he would make three more in the ensuing years, as well as his incredibly dull COUNT DRACULA. So if the producer entertained any thoughts of mainstreaming his work, they probably didn't last very long.

I haven;t read the Verne novel on which this is supposedly based, but it's been said that the film's a loose adaptation at best. The meandering story is all about assorted characters-- mostly British, with a couple of other nationalities mixed in-- attempt to experiment with burgeoning new technology, some of which has nothing to do with firing rockets to the moon. For instance, Terry-Thomas's character gets hold of a magnetic pool ball designed to cheat at pool, while Gert Frobe perfects a helmet with a little cannon on top of it. But when the rocket-project gets going, that becomes the common theme that draws everyone together. The ticking clock is that leading lady Daliah Lavi, affianced to prospective rocket-pilot Troy Donahue, knows that the incompetents behind the project are going to make a fatal shambles of everything, so she seeks to prevent the launch. Though the main borrowing from Verne is the idea of using a cannon to shoot a capsule to the moon, the general comic attitude toward all the learned bumblers is also very Vernian.

Only in one scene does this lightweight movie assume some weight, if only by accident. A group of the bumblers are about to test a new explosive by setting it off in the countryside. Donahue, whose girl has just floated away in a balloon, runs up looking for help. The explosive goes off, and everyone is felled by a massive wind that knocks them down. Given that the fifties and sixties were the height of atomic-bomb cinema, I find it impossible to think that the film-makers weren't aware of the parallel to the first atomic test. But the scene in FOOLS-- in which no one suffers more than ruffled hair and clothes-- is oddly reassuring. It makes one long for the halycon days of Victorian technology, when humankind had yet to "become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."

Friday, July 15, 2016

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

A few reviewers have commented that this Italian-West German giallo may have had some influence on the growth of the American slasher-genre in the 1970s. Of course the key trope of SOLANGE-- in which women are obsessively stalked by a serial killer-- was nothing new even in the early 1960's.

Director and co-writer Massimo Dallamano started out his career as a cinemaographer. This certainly explains why SOLANGE looks beautiful even when very ugly things are taking place. However, a lot of cinematographers who take up the director's profession don't evince a strong sense of story-- and so it is with SOLANGE, despite being based loosely on one of Edgar Wallace's popular thrillers, THE CLUE OF THE NEW PIN.

The viewpoint character is Rosseini, a married teacher who's having an affair with one of his teenaged female students. While the two of them are canoodling in a boat, they float past a forested area ashore, and the student sees the flash of a knife. Sure enough, the next day a young woman, also an attendee at the girls' college where Rosseini teaches, is found dead. As more girls die, police attention turns to Rosseini. He and, ironically enough, his betrayed-but-still-loving wife must play detective and find the real murderer.

While no one expects the characters of a giallo to be especially well-rounded, those of SOLANGE are unusually flat, while the mystery proceeds in a plodding fashion. Dallamano is so concerned with pretty surfaces that the main attraction of the subgenre-- gruesome yet imaginative murders-- is not developed. I won't reveal the film's one ingenious "reveal" at the end. But I will note that SOLANGE departs from the general PSYCHO-pattern of the killer who slays out of sexual frustration, and even spreads some of the evil deeds to the female of the species. However, the script is too slack to suggest the level of societal corruption one finds in the superior giallo films.

STRANGER FROM SHAOLIN (1977)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

This low-budget chopsocky depicts the avenging arc of Yim Wing Chim, a young woman left homeless when an evil agent of the conquering Manchu Dynasty kills off her whole family. She desires vengeance, and seeks out the Shaolin monastery to get the training she needs. One little problem: the monastery is only for guys, who typically practice their kung-fu moves with their shirts off.

Fortunately for Yim, the abbot suspects her identity and gives her a special form of training apart from the other students, so that she doesn't have to reveal herself as a girl. One of the young male students figures out the truth and becomes her chief helper, though no actual romantic complications ensue. For those interested in the female-centered martial arts discipline known as "wing chun," Yim gets some of this training as well as the film wends its routine way toward vengeance on Kang, the Manchu's chief hit man.

Kang is the film's only source of metaphenomenal content. Like some of the other kung-fu characters I've mentioned in previous reviews, he has an uncanny "body-hardening" power, so much so that Yim can't cut his flesh with a sword. In addition, he uses his long hair-queue as a weapon to confuse or entangle people. The Shaolin abbot explains his power as the result of this Taoist monster drinking "children's blood" to gain more power-- a rare trope in my experience, as most such martial "powers" are usually explained through breath control and so on. Maybe the long forgotten scriptwriter had a mad-on for Taoists?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

I BURY THE LIVING (1958)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


I BURY THE LIVING belongs to a small collection of decent films directed by Albert Band and written by Louis Garfinkle in the late 1950s, long prior to the period when Band became best known for turning out repetitive formula-flicks for son Charles Band's production companies.

I've examined here many "phantasmal figuration" films in which villains dress up in ghost-costumes. The hidden villain of BURY, however, creates a phantom that's purely of the mind, in order to play upon the mind of viewpoint character Bob Kraft (Richard Boone).

Kraft is a very down-to-earth businessman with a good job and a regular girlfriend. There's just one drawback to the job: due to familial obligations he's expected to perform some minor managerial duties at the local cemetery. In the main office he encounters the means by which the phantasm is conjured forth: a cemetery-map showing in detail which graves are occupied, and which are yet to be filled. Black pins are stuck in the former: white pins in the latter. By mistake, Kraft sticks a couple of pins in the points where their still living owners are supposed to be buried later-- and they promptly die.

I won't discourse in detail on the way in which the villain decides to use this odd coincidence to his own ends, partly because the set-up doesn't really track that well. But like most such films, the act of raising the spectre of uncanny fear is more important than the logic of the plot behind it all. Kraft, the stolid businessman, can't resist repeating the same action, putting black pins in the points assigned to the living-- with the result that the persons indicated pop off. It doesn't help that one of the local lawmen wonders aloud if it's possible that Kraft may possess some unconscious power that dooms men, in the same way that Haitian sorcerers doom their victims by sticking pins in dolls.

It's a paper-thin premise, but it's relatively original in content. That said, without Richard Boone's strong performance, I don't imagine anyone would bother to unearth the film.

THE HUMANOID (1979)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Though the Italian-made HUMANOID isn't a good film, or even a good STAR WARS rip-off, I'll say this for it: it chooses to swipe from elements in the Lucas film that other rips-- notably producer Roger Corman's 1983 SPACE RAIDERS-- didn't even seem to notice. It's quite possible that the scriptwriters-- including Aldo Lado, who directed the film under the pseudonym "George Lewis"-- were leery of any legal ramifications for modeling their story too closely on George Lucas's then-recent blockbuster.

I pointed out in my recent review of the original STAR WARS that compared to most of the SF-films that preceded it, the narrative showed genuine respect for the made-up religion of the Jedi Knights. Most SW-imitators barely acknowledged this aspect of the original film, preferring to churn out cheapjack imitations of the film's space-skimming ships and blazing ray-blasters. Mediocre though THE HUMANOID is, the story does focus on a "spiritual odyssey" of sorts.

In contrast to WARS, HUMANOID starts out with the good guys still in control. Earth, which for some reason has changed its name to "Metropolis," is ruled by "Great Brother." Great Brother's own brother Lord Graal-- never seen without his imitation Darth Vader helmet-- was exiled to another quadrant with his pet mad scientist Doctor Kraspin and his sadistic wife Agatha (who likes to drain young women of their blood for the same reason as Elizabeth Bathory; to keep herself forever young). However, during the group's years of exile, they've built up their own private army, and Kraspin has come up with a new weapon: a missile that will change ordinary human beings into super-powerful humanoids.

Keep in mind that at the time this movie was put together, not even EMPIRE STRIKES BACK had appeared There were really no intimations in Lucas's first film that suggested the Empire's attempts to come up with clone warriors: a subject that would blossom in the "prequel trilogy" beginning with PHANTOM MENACE.

Kraspin chooses to use his test-missile on a large-bodied, but entirely ordinary, "planetary inspector" named Golob. Golob, who is initially bearded, is struck the missle, which not only changes him into a mindless colossus but also gives him a clean shave. After Graal turns some of his own soldiers loose on the hulk to confirm that he's now immune to "nuclear shells," the evil lord sends Golob on a mission to kill Great Brother, and one of his foremost female aides, Barbara Gibson.

The fly in the villains' ointment is that even though Golob easily plows his way through every armed soldier in his path, the power of the spirit is more than he can handle. For reasons that escaped me, Barbara just happens to be entertaining a guest: an Asian boy nicknamed Tom Tom. The kid wears an outfit like that of Luke Skywalker but possesses the spiritual power of Obi Wan, for he successfully manages to overcome Golob's programming and turn him into an ally, albeit one who talks like the Hulk: "Barbara-- my friend."

Nothing daunted, Graal's forces kidnap Barbara while simultaneously planning to use their special X-element to create a horde of superhuman warriors. Golob, Tom Tom, and a Han Solo-clone with the un-evocative name of "Nick" invade Graal's sanctum, destroy the X-element, rescue Barbara and flee before everything blows up. In the coda, Golob re-transforms back into a human being, and even somehow gets his beard back in one shake of a lamb's tail. Oh, and Tom Tom reveals that he's some sort of reborn Tibetan sage who came to the future to help out, and promptly invokes his powers to zip back to his previous existence on Old Earth.

Again, I emphasize that when I say that there's a "spiritual" side to HUMANOID, I'm not saying that it's well executed. Still, there is a basic "religion vs. technology" motif here, in that technology turns Golob into a mindless myrmidon, while Tom Tom's mental magic reforms him to some extent. Golob possibly owes his name to the cinematic version of The Golem, which like Fritz Lang's film METROPOLIS is best known from its silent-film origins. At the same time, Golob is set up to recapitulate another archetype dear to the hearts of Italians: the badass muscleman who can toss lesser men around like matchsticks, and who is most often seen in dozens of Hercules and Maciste films.

The action-scenes are watchable if never really exciting. Some of the film's charm for modern viewers may stem from watching its few big-name actors slumming in this low-budget production, such as Barbara Bach and Arthur Kennedy. However, for me the most fascinating thing is that though the performances aren't necessarily all that great-- least of all from Richard Kiel as the Herculean Golob-- they are all unusually low-key. I for one am used to seeing the actors in low-budget Italian SF chew the scenery outrageously, as in 1978's STARCRASH. In contrast, director Lado-- whose talents were better used for giallo like 1971's SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS-- seems to have encouraged the players to keep the mugging to a minimum.