Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Blind Swordsman

This November Criterion release their most ambitious title to date, the 27-disc anthology of the Zatoichi films, one of the longest and most popular series in Japanese Cinema. Barnes & Noble are set to ship my copy any day now although I don't hold out much hope that this will arrive this side of Christmas (and in one piece), so with that in mind, I grabbed a little taster of what to expect with the 21st film of the series, from 1970, Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire, previously available as part of AnimEigo's 7-disc collection. In this episode, the blind swordsman has been targeted by a yakuza gang for his continued disobedience, and is lured to a festival where he is to be assassinated...

If the short synopsis above seems simple, consider yourself spared. As with some of the other episodes I've seen, eccentric plotting is to be expected. In The Festival of Fire not only is Ichi in peril from the yakuza gang (led by a boss who's also blind), but from a mysterious swordsman seeking revenge for the death of his wife who Ichi may have had relations with. In another plot strand, one of the yakuza lieutenants has enlisted his beautiful daughter to steal the masseur's heart and lead him to his doom. Twists and turns aside, The Festival of Fire hits all the highpoints of the series, and includes some incredible swordplay, like a sequence where Ichi is set upon in a bathhouse by a cadre of naked tattooed yakuza. The film includes some weird moments too, like a new wave-ish dream sequence, while the credit sequence where Ichi is pursued by a dog is one of the most bizarre I've seen in quite a while. Although the series could never match the level of carnage seen in the Lone Wolf & Cub films, the 70's era films had their fair share of gory moments - like a scene in The Festival of Fire, where a yakuza soldier makes his exit with a spectacular geyser of blood from a neck wound.

Ultimately what makes The Festival of Fire so enjoyable and the series so compulsively watchable is Shintaro Katsu and his Zatoichi persona - the tortured brow, the awkward waddle, his exuberance for gambling, women and drink, his supernatural senses, and his extraordinary sword technique which slaughters enemies (and tree trunks) with lightning speed and ferocity. Zatoichi made Katsu a huge star, and by all accounts he was quite a hell-raiser. Katsu was often at odds with Japan's film intelligencia with own brand of popular violent action cinema (he starred in the title role of the Hanzo the Razor series, and produced the Lone Wolf & Cub films), and to borrow a phrase from one of Zatoichi's foes, was the pebble in the rice bowl. Writing in his Japan Journal memoirs, Donald Richie recalls attending a dinner for Japan's film community, with Nagisha Oshima and Katsu glowering across the table at each other. Sadly, the Blind Swordsman passed away in 1997 after battling cancer.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Maniac Music

I'm just fresh from a screening of William Lustig's 1980 film Maniac and not having seen the film for some years now, I had forgotten just how good Jay Chattaway's electro-acoustic score is. By the late 70's, early 80's seemingly every low budget Horror film was outfitted with an electronic soundtrack. By then synthesizers had become more affordable, and cash-strapped film producers were more likely to seize the talents of a one man bedroom boffin than a composer with an orchestra in tow. This was an era when electronic music was still relatively new and exotic and many Horror films of the day featured little more than bargain basement knob twiddler soundtracks (Inseminoid and Don't Go In the Woods come to mind). Jay Chattaway's music for Maniac is something else entirely, a dark gloomy work which really compliments the urban menace of Lustig's visuals. This being a slasher film, Chattaway's music comes with its fair share of requisite stings - a tradition already well established in the wake of John Carpenter's music for Halloween, but it's the score's quieter moments which really impress - like the extremely unnerving music that accompanies Spinell's maniac tending to his mannequins, or the thick brooding drones in the sequence where Spinell sets his sights on the couple making out in the car.

It's difficult to think of another contemporary American Horror film with a score similar to Maniac, the music in fact sounds closer to a European tradition, falling somewhere in between Ennio Morricone, Tangerine Dream and Goblin, the opening theme music in particular is augmented with a melancholic flute refrain and a fretless bass sound that might have strayed from an ECM record. Chattaway's score did earn an official soundtrack release in 1981 on the Varese Sarabande label in the US and releases followed shortly in France and Italy. Since then the soundtrack has surfaced at various times on CD and vinyl in limited edition runs, but fortunately the entire score can be listened to here

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Africa Addio

I'm currently reading Tim Butcher's Blood River, an account of the author's journey through the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 during a period of political upheaval and intense lawlessness. With that in mind it seemed as good a time as any to revisit Africa Addio, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's 1966 documentary recording the painful final years of British, French and Belgian rule in Africa in the early sixties. The film, assembled from three years worth of footage gathered throughout the continent is grueling, harrowing and at times shocking. Among the events presented in the film include the handover of power in Kenya and the bulldozing of white farms; poachers brutally laying waste to wildlife in Mozambique; mass graves of Arabs murdered by soldiers of the interim government of Zanzibar1; Portuguese troops fighting rebels in Angola2; Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda3; racial violence in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the bloody aftermath of a battle between government soldiers and rebel insurgents in the Congolese city of Stanleyville4; and in the film's most infamous episode, an assault on the Congolese town of Boende by mercenary soldiers where two rebels are executed on camera.

Jacopetti and Prosperi have long claimed that their film was not invested with any political agenda, but was made as an emphatic criticism of the colonial powers and the chaos left in the wake of their messy departure from Africa. In the space of a few short years, the continent had made the transition from brutal white rule to brutal African dictatorship, with many of the worst trappings of empire still in place. Jacopetti and Prosperi were quick to seize the opportunity to record this era of Africa history as it was unfolding, but Africa Addio is too steeped in the language of the mondo documentary - a package deal of exotic scenery and shocking incidents, to be a truly important historical document. Seeing the film today, any viewer not familiar with this era of Africa history would have a job finding his bearings. Many sequences pass by with little information about when and where the sequence was filmed and the circumstances of the event. And it's this lack of context that condemns the film to be little more than an atrocity exhibition for the armchair traveler. The extensive footage of animal slaughter in the film is particularly disturbing to watch, and while the Italian narrator laments the activities of poachers, one has to wonder if a scene where an elephant calf is torn from the womb of it's dead mother was really necessary.

Roger Ebert who hated the film, dismissed Africa Addio as "dishonest" and "racist", and while I don't entirely share Ebert's opinion about it being racist, the film will do little to alter the stereotype of Africa as the dark and savage continent. Ebert's assertion that the film is dishonest does require more careful consideration. In his review of the film Ebert took exception to a number of sequences in the film, like scenes of white Boer settlers leaving their farms in Kenya with their belongings in cattle wagons to make the long journey south. Ebert claimed this simply would not have happened in this fashion, the wealthy Boers would simply fly back to the Cape, rather than set out on antiquated horse drawn wagons. Perhaps. More seriously Ebert questions the harrowing footage of animal mistreatment and killing seen in the film, suggesting that Jacopetti and Prosperi might have had the butchery staged for their cameras. In this regard Ebert may well be correct - in an early sequence in the film a Kenyan court is passing sentence on anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels for various crimes against the white settlers, including the maiming of livestock belonging to farmers. The film then cuts to a sequence where cattle are seen writing in agony, their tendons cut, before being destroyed by their owners. Immediately the viewer has to wonder if Jacopetti and Prosperi simply had the good fortune to turn up just as both events were occurring ? It seems unlikely. Authors David Kerekes and David Slater in their 1994 book Killing For Culture were also not convinced that all the scenes in Africa Addio were genuine, singling out a sequence filmed on Zanzibar island which purported to show a beach strewn with bodies of Arabs, recently killed by government forces as being particularly dubious.

Whether the film makers used fakery or sincere factual reconstruction remains unclear. When discussing the film for the 2003 documentary Godfathers of Mondo, Franco Prosperi deflected charges of coercing soldiers into committing murder for the film, Prosperi insisted that it was easier and technically better for the film to fake it. If the veracity of some scenes in the film is questionable, the majority of Africa Addio's scenes of human suffering are distressingly real. The film is filled with scene after scene of corpses in various states of disrepair. Bodies are shown decomposing in ditches, viciously mutilated and burned beyond recognition. In one scene a man points to a pile of hacked off hands, a traditional punishment meted out in the Congo. Two sequences in particular have secured the film's fearsome reputation, the execution on camera of two men filmed in the Congolese town of Boende, during an assault on the town by government-backed mercenaries. In the first sequence a man is shot dead by a firing squad. In the second sequence, a rebel accused of killing 27 women and children is seized by soldiers and shot in the chest and then in the head right before the camera.

Despite the brutality of the images, Africa Addio is often very beautiful to look at. Cameraman Antonio Climati's deep focus Techniscope photography, captures a number of extraordinary moments, like a zebra foal airlifted to safety by helicopter and silhouetted against a brilliant setting sun. In another sequence, Climati trains his camera on a sprawling caravan of Tutsi refugees and their livestock fleeing to the safety of Uganda in the wake of Hutu violence. Another caravan of people is later seen in Johannesburg, this time a crew of gold miners, preparing for the nightshift, the illuminations from their pit helmets giving the appearance of a huge swarm of fireflies. In yet another sequence, a certain joviality creeps into the film with a slow motion montage of cheerful bikini girls defying gravity on the beaches of Cape Town.

Today, Africa Addio has become a footnote in cinema history, the film occasionally revived by Exploitation movie enthusiasts and mondo movie fans. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi did not earn a single mention in the book Imagining Reality: The Faber Book Of The Documentary, Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins collection of essays on the form. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are referenced in Haskell Wexler's 1969 film Medium Cool when Robert Forster briefly mentions Jacopetti and Prosperi's debut film Mondo Cane, from 1962. And interestingly, Africa Addio and Medium Cool feature sequences where the film makers find themselves in mortal danger. In Medium Cool Wexler and his soundman are caught up in a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In Africa Addio, during a sequence filmed in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, Jacopetti and his cameraman are manhandled out of their car by soldiers (with Jacopetti seen bleeding after the butt of a rifle shattered their car window) and for a few anxious moments were held at gunpoint until they were identified as Italians, not British as originally suspected, and were let go. Perhaps Jacopetti and his crew might not have been so lucky if Roger Ebert was calling the shots...

"Keep smiling!" director Gualtiero Jacopetti advises cameraman Antonio Climati, when both were seized by the army at Dar es Salaam

Further Reading

1. Zanzibar Revolution, 1964
2. Angola War of Independence, (1961–1974)
3. Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda, 1963
4. Simba Rebellion, 1964

Friday, 1 November 2013

10 Great Moments in John Carpenter's Halloween

1. The Crane Shot

The opening prologue of Halloween is justifiably celebrated for the use of the Steadicam, or more specifically, the panaglide, a camera which seemingly floats in and around the Myers' house like a silent assassin. My favourite moment in this whole sequence comes right at the climax when a confused 6 year old Micheal Myers is unmasked and Carpenter in a tremendously stylish bit of direction pulls his camera back to frame Myers and his parents in a striking high angle crane shot.

2. "Every town has something like this happen..."

A campfire ghost story as told by Haddonfield's cemetery caretaker... I remember over in Russellville, old Charlie Bowles, about fifteen years ago... One night, he finished dinner, and he excused himself from the table. He went out to the garage, and got himself a hacksaw. Then he went back into the house, kissed his wife and his two children goodbye, and then he proceeded to... Carpenter's inspiration for Halloween was Hitchcock and Psycho, and like Hitch's signiture film, Halloween is often perceived to be more explicitly violent than is actually is. Carpenter in fact found the subsequent slasher movement's taste for gory throat-slittings and other assorted splatter rather distasteful and to underscore Carpenter's sense of good taste, has an ever so slightly irritated Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) interrupt the caretaker's tale before it reaches it's bloody crescendo...

3. Night Falls on Haddonfield

In a film full of expertly edited shocks, Halloween has a wonderful jolting edit some 39 minutes into the film when Carpenter jump cuts from the failing light of a late dusky evening to full on inky black night. Rather than a more subtle transition from evening to night, Carpenter's choice of cut is momentarily disorientating - moving from a master shot of a Haddonfield avenue to a shot further along the avenue from inside The Shape's prowling car. For me this is Halloween's very own bone-to-satellite moment and with all the character-building out of the way, the film at this point gets down to business.

4. The Thing (From Another World)

Aside from Halloween's debt to Psycho (and Suspiria as Carpenter acknowledged on the Criterion laserdisc commentary), two other films feature prominently during the course of Halloween - the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet and Howard Hawks' 1951 production of The Thing From Another World. In retrospect, the inclusion of The Thing has become one of Halloween's most famous in-jokes, although it seems unlikely that Carpenter was planning to remake the film as early as the Spring of 1978. It's interesting to note that the direction of The Thing From Another World was credited to Howard Hawk's editor Christian Nyby, but Hawks' wrote, designed, produced and most likely directed the film over Nyby's shoulder. For Halloween's first two sequels, Carpenter delegated directing duties to Rick Rosenthal and Tommy Lee Wallace yet Carpenter was still heavily involved in the production and filming of both films.

5. Nancy Loomis gets sexy

Simply put my favourite character in Halloween is Annie Brackett played by Nancy Loomis, one of the film's doomed babysitters. Unlike the virginal Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) or the bubble-headed Lynda (PJ Soles), the character of Annie is smart, hip, funny and sexy. Actress Nancy Loomis (real name Nancy Louise Kyes) appeared in Carpenter's previous film Assault on Precinct 13 and most likely Carpenter wrote the part of Annie with Loomis in mind, the actress grabbing some of the funniest dialogue in the film ("Laurie, Mr. Riddle is eighty-seven!") as well as a great moment when her boyfriend Paul teases her over the phone about her being a vamp ("I think that's all you think about!") and she replies, "That's not true, I think of lots of things. Now why don't we not stand here talking about them and get down to doing them"

6. Haunted Planet

Only two brief clips of Forbidden Planet are seen on the Doyle TV set but the most significant borrowing from the film is Louis and Bebe Barron's pioneering electronic soundtrack. In the sequence where Tommy hides behind the curtain to scare Lindsey, he spies out the window a silhouette of The Shape (or what he believes to be the Bogeyman) carrying the corpse of Annie. In a moment of inspired genius, the strange and eerie atonal music from Forbidden Planet, quietly heard playing on the TV set in the background now swells up on the soundtrack to make an powerful and unnerving marriage of image and sound.

7. "Death has come to your little town"

When John Carpenter first met with Donald Pleasance about appearing in Halloween, Carpenter remembered the actor's reluctance to play the part of Sam Loomis. Fortunately, Pleasance's daughter convinced her father to make the film resulting in a resurgence of the English actor's career. Pleasance is quite brilliant in the film as the slightly sinister psychiatrist but Carpenter deserves much credit for giving the actor some wonderful dialogue. In one of the film's most famous scenes, Loomis describes his nemesis to a sceptical town sheriff: "I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall - looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff..."

8. Shut the door !

I'm usually not an obsessive viewer who can spot film goofs and gaffes but this moment from Halloween always has been shouting back at the screen. In the scene where Bob and Lynda arrive at the Wallace house, Bob grabs Lynda from his van, sweeps her up in his arms, and in his excitement to get it on with his girlfriend, leaves his van door open ! In a later shot, the van door is closed - a continuity gaff or perhaps a conscientious neighbour. Unfortunately for Bob, his van door is the least of his problems...

9. The Art of Death

In one of Halloween's most chilling moments, The Shape pins Bob to the door of a cupboard with a kitchen knife (feet dangling off the floor no less) and gazes at him for some minutes, and in a strange canine way, tilts his head from side to side, perhaps admiring this frozen tableau of death or perhaps registering some sexual confusion that Bob is clearly not a girl - the objects of his sexualized violence.

10. The Shape Emerges

Finally no word about Halloween is complete without mentioning one of the film's chief architects Dean Cundey whose lighting and camerawork give the film a truly frightening dimension. One of Cundey's most inspired moments is a shot from the final act of the film which perfectly illustrates Michael Myer's enigmatic credit name The Shape: as Laurie quietly sobs in a corner of the landing, Myer's emerges out of a pool of darkness, at first as a strange ghostly disembodied face, the white mask eerily lit by Cundey's subtle blue gel lighting. A cinematic icon is born.