Pazartesi, Eylül 03, 2007

Forgotten Films

Disappointed at the staggering incompleteness of the so-called “Internet Movie Database,” I have made this initial stab at filling in some of its many, many gaps. As we rapidly become a Wiki-World, it is increasingly important that everyone contribute to our collective learning, with a minimum of elitist screening. I can only hope that more people come forward with as much information as they possess about forgotten films such as these:

Cerebus the Aardvark (1980)
D: Ralph Bakshi

The critical and popular failure of his animated epic The Lord of the Rings (1978) caused animation director Ralph Bakshi to reevaluate the direction of his work. On the one hand, he was unwilling to let go of his love of fantasy filmmaking; on the other, his attempt to go "mainstream"--with a great marketing campaign and a tremendous built-in fanbase of Tolkienheads--had not worked as planned. Collaborating with independent comic book artist Dave Sim, Bakshi decided to adapt Cerebus, a relatively young and obscure independent comic book about a barbarian aardvark which, converse to LOTR, had a fanbase cultishly small. There may have been some calculation in the decision. It would be a smaller, more personal fantasy film, like Wizards (1977), and he knew he could produce it cheaply and quickly. On the other hand, it was Sim's work, and he could concentrate his focus on an artistic collaboration similar to the one he would reproduce with Frank Frazetta on Fire and Ice (1983). The stakes would be lower than they were on Lord of the Rings, yet he would be on familiar turf. Cerebus, in fact, has a lot in common with Wizards, from the parodic fantasy tableau (the comic book, in its first issues, strictly satirized Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, as well as Michael Moorcock's Elric) to the cynical, world-weary voice. But undoubtedly Cerebus was lighter material for Bakshi. Ultimately, Wizards was a fable, thinly-veiled, of the Holocaust, right down to its live-action inserts of Nazi propaganda. Cerebus was a brilliantly-drafted comic book filled with elaborate, funny storytelling and witty dialogue: an entertainment.

Initially the project was proposed by ABC as a half-hour-long television special, and Sim, skeptical of the suits and eager to keep the comic's integrity intact, suggested that Bakshi direct. Bakshi was contacted by ABC and Sim almost simultaneously. Bakshi--who got his start doing Terrytoons and Marvel superhero cartoons--admired Cerebus very much, but had no interest in returning to the small screen; the failure of LOTR had not tempered his ambition that much. He suggested a feature, which excited Sim, and after a minor legal scuffle--despite ABC's claims, Sim had never relinquished his rights to his character--the project was turned over to Bakshi's animation studio.

Sim worked directly with Bakshi on the script. The short poem which precedes the film--about the transient nature of civilizations--is Bakshi's, not Sim's (Bakshi composed a piece of poetry to accompany each of his films, although only Cerebus and Coonskin prominently feature them--the latter is sung by Scatman Crothers over the opening credits). In fact, Sim voiced minor objections to the opening scrawl's implication that the story might take place in the far future, after a nuclear apocalypse, a la Wizards; Bakshi asserts this was not the case, and that the poem doesn't address Cerebus or his world directly. The plot of the film is based roughly on various early issues of the comic book: Cerebus, a freelance swordsman and "an earth-pig born," is first seen battling Robert E. Howardian barbarians in snow-covered mountains--the soft, rounded snow that so often permeates Sim's art. He joins with the band after proving his mettle; they encounter a lost city ruled by a mad wizard who transfers his consciousness into a stone statue; in another city, Cerebus encounters the swordswoman Jaka, with whom he becomes infatuated; she betrays him over some bags of gold he's attempting to rob from a lunatic avenger called the "Cockroach"; he joins with another band of outlaws, whose aardvarkian god Cerebus resembles; he is involved in a conspiracy to depose their leader and becomes their god-king; and finally their army is dispersed during a great battle with an evil, ancient god who appears to snort an illicit substance to gain his strength. In the end, Cerebus rides off alone, without a bag of gold to show for his efforts.

The chief criticism of the film was that it was aimless and sometimes incoherent and relentlessly noisy and manic; in retrospect, it's easy to see that Bakshi was attempting to hit upon his favorite moments from the comic books while inserting his own anarchic, occasionally vulgar sensibility. The scenes with the Cockroach (a clueless superhero prototype which foreshadows the Tick) are much more charming in Sim's stories than in Bakshi's world, where he rambles and screams seemingly without end, becoming just another Bakshi grotesque. Jaka, quite different here than in the books, seems to have been partially combined with Sim's Red Sophia, but only to provide the requisite buxom Bakshi female. In one notable scene, she literally rips Cerebus' heart out of his chest and stomps it into a puddle on the ground. The ending is chaotic and, in places, poorly animated. Bakshi could never handle large battles very well, and pausing the action to show the dopey--or doping--enemy warriors engaging in bizarre, quasi-vaudevillian routines harkens back to Wizards and Fritz the Cat, but doesn't serve the story. By the end, one's first impression of Cerebus the Movie is only that a Lot of Stuff happened.

But that's just the first impression. Cerebus warms to repeated viewings, particularly to see how smoothly Bakshi's rotoscoping technique is evolving from LOTR. Cerebus the Aardvark is a fully animated character, but most of the other characters are rotoscoped, with realistic movement and a pleasingly detailed character animation that harkens back to Sim and one of Sim's influences, Barry Windsor-Smith. Jaka in particular is absolutely lovely. As you might expect, the larger crowd and battle scenes suffer from LOTR's tendency to lean more heavily on live action and less on animation; they're hastily animated over, and appear as though viewed through colored cellophane. Nevertheless, on a low budget and a tight schedule, Bakshi knows to lean heavily on style, and for the most part it carries the day. Cerebus is the perfect combination of LOTR and Wizards, and the lighter tone of the film makes it a pleasing parody and one of Bakshi's most unconditionally enjoyable films.

Dune (1978)
D: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Three years in the making, Jodorowsky's Dune is certainly one of the most expensive and lavish midnight-movies ever made, and continues in the direction of sheer surrealistic spectacle he'd begun with The Holy Mountain (1973). Jodorowsky had agreed to make Dune simply by looking at the cover of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel; though many Herbert fans, upon seeing the final product, wondered if he ever got around to seeing it.

Paul Atreides (Brontis Jodorowsky) is the teenage son of Duke Leto Atreides (Alejandro Jodorowsky), the leader of the House Atreides, one of three ruling houses who, over the course of the film, battle over the desert planet of Arrakis/Dune. Duke Leto, in several extended sequences early in the film, teaches his son how the three houses represent three primal powers in the universe: the mind, the body, and the family (or familial connections). He also begins to teach young Paul to explore his innate psychic gifts. In one sequence, Paul’s dog is gored by Feyd (Mick Jagger), servant of the evil Baron Harkonnen (Orson Welles). Duke Leto demonstrates viscerally that each death produces a life, by extracting a white dove from the dog’s entrails. After a power grab by Harkonnen and Duke’s torture and assassination (strapped to a disemboweling machine which resembles a crucifix—-tying his death to both the dog’s and Jesus’, apparently), Paul flees into the desert with his mother, the Lady Jessica (Geraldine Chaplin). There he is raised by the Fremen, desert nomads who see him as a Messiah. He becomes intoxicated with the planet’s spice, has many mystical visions in which his father visits him again and teaches him more lessons, and finally leads the Fremen in a rebellion against Baron Harkonnen and the Emperor (Eddie Constantine, replacing Salvador Dali, who demanded more money than the already-inflated budget could afford).

The soundtrack combines the efforts of Pink Floyd, Popol Vuh, and Jodorowsky himself. The screenplay is by Jodorowsky and Dan O’Bannon, and the art direction is by famed illustrators H.R. Giger and Moebius (Jean Giraud). With such a pedigree, you might expect this to be something of a surrealistic masterpiece. Its reception at the 1978 Cannes festival, however, was decidedly mixed, if not disastrously negative. Perhaps expectations were too high, though Jodorowsky was proclaimed by one prominent Cahiers du Cinema critic to be nothing more than a cinematic charlatan. There were some admiring critics among the wider press, and some favorable notices in America (most vocally Roger Ebert), but fans of the novel saw the film as a travesty, deleting too many important characters, plotlines, and nuances, and substituting long, trippy sequences filled with what was perceived to be a lot of hippie mumbo-jumbo. On the whole “Alexandro Jodorowsky’s Dune” (as goes the full on-screen title) was a financial flop which effectively ended Jodorowsky’s filmmaking career, and sending him fleeing into the world of comic books, where he continued to work with Moebius.

But the look and feel of Dune deserves reevaluation. It certainly follows a more linear model than The Holy Mountain, and is therefore somewhat easier to follow. While it possesses less of that film’s madness, it’s still a spectacle film, with one amazing setpiece after another. Particularly memorable is Paul and Lady Jessica’s exile in the desert of Arrakis, as they face a multitude of temptations--hallucinations and mirages—which threaten to destroy their moral fortitude. Jodorowsky deliberately calls to mind Christ’s temptation in the desert, or Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert, as well as his own El Topo. (These sequences were shot in many of the same Mexican locations as El Topo.) At the end of this long passage, the two pilgrims come face to face with one of the mythic sandworms of Arrakis—the only time we see one in this adaptation—and its gaping, vaginal maw threatens to consume them before Paul is able to psychically tame it, and send it back to the sands. The giant worm is an astonishing visual effect, a mechanical model which vibrates as it breathes, although the white, semen-like goo that leaks from its mouth—and drenches Lady Jessica—is overkill. The rainbow-like interior of the Palace of Arrakis is astonishing and grand, while at times organic and womb-like in its claustrophobic corridors. There’s also quite a bit of nudity for a big-budget 70’s science fiction film, such as three fully nude (and elaborately tattooed) women who accompany the Emperor—one black, one white, one Asian, and all completely shaved. It does seem that Lady Jessica, in particular, is rarely clothed during the film, although she’s usually draped in some fluid or another.

Though occasionally it becomes difficult to believe we’re on another planet—with so much location shooting in Mexico City and Madrid—there is some crude but effectively psychedelic blue-screen work during the space sequences. Nevertheless, due to the extended production time, the film was released three years after its inception, and one year after Star Wars (1977). Audiences weren’t eager for a science fiction film that required thought; and, to be honest, the special effects in Dune seem quaint and handmade in comparison to Lucas’ state-of-the-art FX. But with its gushing juices, gore, sand, and sex, this is probably an adaptation of Dune that’s as earthy as it is spacey, and one that’s purely satisfying on its own terms.

The Odyssey (1972)
D: Nathan Juran & Aristide Massaccesi

Casting about for a new idea after The Valley of Gwangi (1969), stop-motion special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, with producer and frequent collaborator Charles H. Schneer, began to settle on the inevitable idea of doing a “proper” adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. The scope was very grand, by looking at their early outlines and storyboards: an encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, Odysseus’ men being transformed into pigs, the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and a spectacular journey into Hades. Most financiers balked at the scale of the production, despite the worthy job Harryhausen and Schneer had performed on Jason and the Argonauts, and after a few years of failing to raise the needed money, they began to entertain the idea of making The Odyssey an U.S./Italian co-production. Harryhausen had eagerly suggested the director Nathan Juran (First Men on the Moon), with whom he had worked very comfortably. The cast would be largely Italian unknowns, apart from John Phillip Law (Odysseus), an American actor no stranger to working with Italian crews, Claudine Auger (Thunderball) as Penelope, Ernest Borgnine as Poseidon, and Yul Brynner in a brief cameo as Zeus. Filming lasted three months, with Italy’s Cinecitta studios supplying Mount Olympus and a few other key locations. Three-quarters of the way through shooting, Nathan Juran became seriously ill, and was hospitalized. With money almost depleted, threatened with losing their actors to other assignments, and under pressure by their Italian investors, Harryhausen and Schneer agreed to allow an Italian second-unit director to complete the shooting of the film. This was Aristide Massaccesi, who would later became best known under the pseudonym “Joe D’Amato,” and who had already shot a couple of his own low-budget spaghetti westerns. Massaccesi was responsible for the Circe and Sirens sequences as well as the bookending segments in Ithaca. His less-professional style did not meet Harryhausen’s satisfaction, but finding he had little choice, he completed his part of the bargain by delivering some fanastic special effects including Polyphemus (designed to look more subtly human than the cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), a hideous, tentactled Scylla, the half-human, half-bird Sirens, and Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades.

The film, despite its production difficulties, hold up much better than Ulysses, the 1955 Italian adaptation with Kirk Douglas in the title role. Most of this is thanks to Harryhausen, although there are long gaps between his effects sequences, and many slow points (the film runs 135 minutes). The final battle in Ithaca, which should be cathartic and exciting, is instead incoherently handled and abrupt. There’s also some horrible overacting (and unfortunate comic relief) on behalf of Odysseus’ crew.

Harryhausen and Schneer sued the Italian production company when they’d learned that several hardcore pornographic sequences, shot by Mr. Massaccesi himself, had been inserted into the film for a re-release in Italy to adult movie theaters. This version of the film, intended for a completely different audience than the original release, was entitled The Erotic Adventures of Ulysses, and is currently available from Something Weird Video.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1975)
D: Nicholas Roeg

This film does not exist, but should have.

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