Wednesday, February 23, 2011

WILD WOMEN (1951)



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

WILD WOMEN (aka BOWANGA BOWANGA and many other titles) seems to be the only work of Argentina-born writer-director Norman Dawn that has survived in the hearts of bad-movie lovers everywhere. I consider myself fairly well versed in the reputations of the great, near-great, and somewhat interesting ranks of Hollywood B-movies, but aside from WW nothing on the list of Dawn's credits is familiar to me.

The phenomenality here is like that of the earlier-reviewed TARZAN THE TIGER, being another tale of mysterious Africa-- wherein the biggest mystery is "where the hell did all these white native people come from?" This film, concerning a lost tribe of white (and permanent-waved) Amazon women, fits my uncanny-trope "exotic lands and customs."

Given the film's adventurous trappings, one might be tempted to call it adventure (even if the film's overall effect is comedy, particularly at the end). But structurally the focus is not the white-hunter heroes, whose only object is to escape being killed, but the Amazons, who, contrary to the poster above, actually do know what men look like and are seen to keep a few as slaves (though the scene with the tribe's men is just one of many time-killing "stock footage" shots). In my system, any time one is focusing more upon a monstrous being, or set of beings, one is dealing with the mythos of drama, or more properly melodrama.

I imagine talking about Fryean mythoi and Campbellian functions in concert with such an unremittingly cheesy flick probably sounds like the height of pretension. Let it be said that not for an instant am I claiming any *auteur* status for either Norman Dawn or his one semi-memorable creation, and I don't imagine anyone involved with the movie thought of it as anything more than cheese. But somehow, in the rush for exploitation, he did touch on a few more resonant ideas than did the majority of Hollywood "potted-plant" jungle-thrillers.

For example, whereas many such thrillers never vary from presenting as heroes the stalwart white-hunter type, Dawn does get some interesting comic mileage in that his two beefy male heroes are accompanied by a comedy-relief squirt (Don Orlando, whose career seems to consist of "funny Italians"). This shrimpy fellow naturally "comes up short" when he meets the Amazons of Ulama, who are tall enough to dangle Orlando's character above ground. As for the women, one of the beef-heroes describes them as being as "strong as oxen," which is a nice reversal.

The relative strength of the Amazon women is atypical for Hollywood. Previous Hollywood takes on Amazons (such as 1945's TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS) generally portray a group of hot babes who wave their spears about on occasion. Here, the Amazons are still hot babes, but they're babes who can fight. The Queen (Dana Wilson, who'd later marry Cubby Broccoli of JAMES BOND film-fame) doesn't bother to give the short guy a trial, but does order the two beefy explorers to prove their mettle in Amazon wrestling-matches. Surprisingly, given that Mrs. Peel is about 15 years away while Xena won't appear for two generations, one of the stalwart white-hunters actually gets his ass kicked by a leggy Amazon. The other stalwart guy saves the reputation of American manhood somewhat by winning his bout, but-- oops, now he has to marry the Queen, while Short Guy has to be sacrificed to the Amazons' fire-god. When the bridegroom protests, the Queen shows she's no slouch either, giving him a couple of good belts that put him on the floor.

Fortunately for the guys, one of the females decides to help them escape, and after the hunters scare off the Amazons with a fireworks display, off go the heroes and their new friend, singing a merry tune that, once again, shows how seriously Norman Dawn took this whole thing.

And yet, though the film is a silly piece of cheese, I like the Amazons' no-nonsense eugenics credo: "Weak man; gift to fire god! Queen take strong man!" Though the Amazons can barely be called a "society" in the true sense (though I do consider that they fit Campbell's sociological function), their group also symbolizes the female animal's desire to mate with the strongest to produce the strongest children. Thus, however dim its execution, Dawn's opus does reference the Campbellian cosmological function, which deals (as I read it) with all the things that go into making an orderly physical cosmos-- including crude eugenics.

I also think it's interesting that Hollywood B-flicks began playing a bit more with images of Amazons, pirate queens, and other fearsome females in the years after American men came back from WWII. But that's another story.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED (1985)


PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

This chopsocky opus isn’t quite as wack-a-doodle as 1993’s EAGLE SHOOTING HEROES, but it puts forth the same basic “making-up-as-we-go-along” vibe. Despite having a number of kung-fu fights, its theme of young lovers who fall victim to the plotting of rival familes gives it more resonance with drama than with adventure. However, it’s still “Bad Kung Fu Drama” worthy of its own entry in the oeuvre of Leonard Pinth-Garnell. As it happens, I recently screened King Hu’s 1969 A TOUCH OF ZEN, another dramatic kung-fu flick which has (and deserves) a stronger reputation for its execution of an Asian Romeo-and-Juliet theme. Any comparison to ZEN would “doom” the JOURNEY to obscurity.

The “rival families” here aren’t the families of the young lovers themselves, however. Poor girl Shiuh-erh, working in a Chinese brothel in some unspecified medieval era, is revealed to be the bastard child of the late Emperor. This makes her a suitable pawn for two contending princes, one of whom wants to marry her while the other wants to kill her. Both princes (who never figure into the main action otherwise) send out their kung-fu-skilled knights to collect/kill Shiuh-erh. Two female knights seek out the brothel and slaughter all the half-naked lady prostitutes, though Shiuh-erh escapes into the wilderness. There she meets her “Romeo,” a good-natured ferryman (Tung Wai, whose character name eluded me). He takes the girl under his protection, but against one's expectations he's no Jackie Chan hiding his kung-fu light under a bushel. The hero really is just an average schmuck who can’t possibly oppose the highly trained knights.

Tung does have one advantage: he happens to be the brother of one of the female knights trying to kill Shiuh-erh. To protect her brother the lady-knight tries to shield Shiuh-erh. The other female knight finds out, and the two knights fight and kill each other as Tung escapes with Shiuh-erh. In what may the film's only interesting dramatic moment, the brother evinces heartfelt guilt over having caused his sister's death with his Good Samaritanism and resents Shiuh-erh for having brought him to this pass. Of course, both matters are forgotten once the two star-crossed fugitives fall in love.

Other agents from both princes continue to pursue the couple, and the film goes off the tracks trying to elaborate some of the background of these peripheral characters, as when we learn that a female knight on one side had a thing for a male knight on the other side. The romance between Tung and Shiuh-erh finally heats up when they take refuge in a seemingly uninhabited shack, though they later find that they’ve invaded the domicile of a mute hermit-woman. The film goes even further astray here, in that the female hermit (who’s the same age as Shiuh-erh) is tossed out as possible fodder for a three-way romantic conflict. Said conflict never develops, so one wonders why the writers created the hermit-character at all.
The whole thing resolves in a big fight between the two opposing knight-factions. The two young lovers get trapped in a burning building and perish in each other’s arms, the victims of both the machinations of high and low strata of society. The End.

Though the acting is marginally better than one sees in many chopsockies, the meandering storyline sabotages the actors’ efforts. Additionally, despite the presence of long-time fighting-diva Kara Hui, most of the fights lack even average professional choreography. Perhaps the director felt more comfortable with sex than violence, for there are a fair number of softcore scenes here. But none of those scenes, including the aforementioned “slaughter-of-the-not-so-innocents,” are as memorable as even one of the many balls-to-the-walls setups from a comparable work like 1990’s NAKED KILLER.

The film is largely of interest to me as a study in my AUM theory. As with another of the chopsockies I reviewed earlier, BRUCE LEE’S WAYS OF KUNG FU, the film falls into the uncanny-category I termed “outrĂ© outfits skills and weapons.” However, in WAYS the weird weapons commanded by that film’s villains are important to showing how bad-ass they are. In JOURNEY, there are two usages of an odd power or weapon, which together take up many two or three minutes of screen-time. In the first relevant scene, one of the male knights captures his female knight-enemy and bends her to his will using “kung-fu hypnotism” (illustrated by a comical-looking animated effect). In the second scene, the female knight immobilizes Brother with an odd weapon that sprays wax in his face, which his allies then have to peel off.
That these oddball phenomena are too humble to constitute “marvels” should go without saying. But they take up so little screen-time that I almost want to regard them in a special category of “the marginal metaphenomal,” in which the metaphenomena, whether uncanny or marvelous, barely participate in the main narrative. However, in order to keep my system consistent, I have to say that even minor effects-- a wax-spraying weapon, kung-fu hypnotism-- do transport this mostly forgettable film into the category of “the uncanny.”

This is not a categorizing problem confined to Asian martial-arts films. In my review of MADAME SIN, I mentioned that superspy films in a given series (such as James Bond) oscillate from one phenomenality to the other. MOONRAKER is clearly marvelous. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is atypical. LIVE AND LET DIE is uncanny largely because of its fake-voodoo plotline, but even without the voodoo the film would still qualify as “uncanny” due to some of Bond’s low-level hardware, like a miniature circular saw in his wristwatch.

I should also note that in some works the element of “hypnotism” can become far more central: this includes narratives as different as the 1946 B-film THE STRANGE MISTER GREGORY and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel BLITHEDALE ROMANCE. So this film intersects somewhat with a category to which I’ve not yet examined in depth: “enthralling hypnotism and stage magic.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

MADAME SIN (1971)























PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


Thanks to the generosity of a CHFB poster, I was able to get a look at this TV-movie, which I last saw on commercial television thirty years ago. It’s invariably described as a pilot for a prospective teleseries, but one wonders how stoned a network executive of the time would have had to have been, to greenlight a series in which Bette Davis, herself just a few years shy of the age of seventy, played a Eurasian-seeming criminal mastermind. Had the series come to pass, one assumes it would have turned out something like the 1950s teleseries THE ADVENTURES OF FU MANCHU, with the cunning criminal essaying a bizarre scheme each week that would ultimately be defeated by the forces of righteousness. It may be that the fearsome devil-doctor inspired this telefilm in more ways than one, as the last of the Harry Alan Towers series of cheap-but-lively Fu Manchu films had appeared on theater screens three years before MADAME SIN showed up.

Like the Towers films, MADAME SIN tries to suggest the visual scope of the James Bond films while camoflaguing the paucity of actual resources. In the hands of director David Greene, who shot SIN in England and Scotland, this means a lot of long shots of English scenery to give a sense of grandeur. But whereas most incarnations of Fu Manchu give the villain dozens of henchmen, Davis’s Madame Sin gets just a trifling handful of helpers—mostly Denholm Elliott, who bankrolls her schemes, and a small handful of male and female assistants. But like Fu Manchu she has a talent for suborning good guys to her service, which brings her to enlist disaffected agent Robert Wagner in her quest to purloin a nuclear submarine, for sale to the usual foreign powers.

Davis does have one other important similarity to Fu Manchu: the use of science-fictional weaponry. Umberto Eco fallaciously labeled the Bond films as “science fiction,” but films in the super-spy subgenre actually vary greatly as to what kinds of science-fictional toys they use. Some plunge fully into the arena of the “marvelous” (MOONRAKER, OUR MAN FLINT) while others merely employ a few gadgets (LIVE AND LET DIE) and so fit better into my category of “the uncanny.” Were it not for the type of weaponry employed by Madame Sin’s agents—an assortment of weapons able to stun victims with sound-waves—SIN would fit more neatly into the “uncanny” category. For all that I know, Greene and his cohorts may have written in the use of sonics just to avoid the expense of conventional fake-firearms. But even if the sound-guns are Madame Sin’s only super-weapons, they do give the story a needed boost.

The telefilm’s greatest weakness is that Madame Sin, though thankfully played straight by Bette Davis, simply doesn’t sustain much interest. She comes from nowhere and her desire to steal national monuments and the like doesn’t mean much. The only interpersonal relationship here is that in the distant past the Madame had some relationship with Wagner’s late father, who was also a spy of some sort. Thus part of her reason for suborning Wagner is to attempt a relationship of some sort with his son, thus putting the dominant sentiment of SIN right in line with Davis’s repertoire of “women’s weepie” pictures. We are spared any overt romantic overtures from Davis to Wagner, but she does end up repeating her history with his father by executing Wagner for betrayal. Thus the dominant function here falls within the sphere of Oedipal psychology, though once Wagner is dead “queen bee” Davis is quite ready to move on to her next conquest.

Perhaps needless to say, since the narrative tells us us nothing about Madame Sin's background, none of the sociological underpinnings present in the Fu Manchu novels and films is present here.