Tuesday, October 16, 2012

To Save and Project 10: Day Two (Oct.14)

Anarchist Movies of the Spanish Civil War:
Report on the Revolutionary Moment (1936) & Carne de fieras (Flesh of Beasts) (1936)

Introduced by Spanish anarchist film historian Edouard Waintrop, these films unfortunately didn't feature enough historical context in their prefaces to enforce their historical importance. The first film, a 22-minute newsreel (with photography and production credits to Fox Movietone), captures rebel forces against Franco as they prepare to do battle with fascist forces nation-wide. Where the newsreel wears its anarchist leanings proudly, Carne de fieras is a very different animal. Hiding beneath the veneer of a standard romantic comedy beats the heart of anarchism, not just behind the camera, but in front of it. Successful boxer Pablo, married to a philandering wife, adopts young street urchin Ten Cents after saving the boy's life from drowning. The young comic pipsqueak and Pablo's trainer, Picatoste, become his only confidants when the athlete discovers his wife in her singer lover's embrace. Hoping to distract him from the cuckolding and a recent loss in the ring, Picatoste averts his gaze to Marlene, a beautiful French woman who dances topless in a cage while her co-star, General Marck, keeps the lions and tigers surrounding her at bay. But the lovely vision is pursued by her creepy, possessive servant, Lucas, who threatens to kill anyone who tries to take her away from him.

The cast and crew of Carne de Fieras, captured as ghosts in this photograph
The history behind the film is more intriguing than what appears on the screen. First of all, the feature was never completed. The Spanish civil war halted production and it was never resumed, as director Armand Guerra took his cameras to the battlefields of the war. He and his family fled the country soon after the filmmaker was labeled a propagandist for the rebel cause, and he died of an aneurysm in Paris in 1939. Neither female lead survived the 1930s. Blonde bombshell Marlene Grey, a true-life performer with wild cats, was mauled to death by a tiger during a performance in Marseilles in 1939. Brunette femme fatale Tina de Jarque worked with the rebels as a spy, performing at Republican events and gathering information to relay back to rebel forces, and was captured and executed in 1937 as she attempted to escape with her lover and thousands of dollars in jewels over the Spanish border to safety in France. Despite the film's producers surviving the civil war, they could never hope to make money off completing, editing, and releasing the film: its surprising nudity (Marlene Grey's topless performances are seen twice) and themes of adultery and divorce would have run afoul of the Spanish Republican censors. The footage remained buried in a closet for decades. Sadly, no one remembers the name of the charming young child actor who plays Ten Cents. The film has become a ghost of its former self, capturing a pre-Franco moment in time and the last time many of the film's cast and crew would ever be seen or heard of alive again. The flow of the narrative is understandably fractured, as several key scenes were never shot before bombs started falling around Madrid, but what remains, edited together and restored in 1992 by the Cinematheque de Zaragoza, is a whimsical folly whose charms gleefully overshadow the darkness surrounding its production history.
The doomed Marlene Grey doing her wild cat cage dance

CARNE DE FIERAS in its entirety, in Spanish language only.

Barrios Bajos (1937)

Recalling the best of America's pre-Code shockers, Barrios Bajos is a mix of proto-noir imagery and angst-ridden melodrama, not completely satisfying but an intriguing curio none-the-less. Translated as Slums, the sordid back alley narrative begins with a woman's scream and a man scurrying from his upper-class apartment building, finding solace in a dingy bar where a woman croons the title song for an appreciate audience of winos and whores. Ricardo has killed his wife's lover, and the police are on the hunt. The newspaper boys scream "Crime of passion!", leading him to seek shelter in the home of his old friend Valencia, an ex-con now working at the docks for meager wages. Meanwhile, deceptively friendly Rita encourages a drunkard to return home to his wife, Rosa, who leaves in a rage right into the arms of the elderly woman, eager to bring the young woman into her house of ill repute, overseen by slimy pimp Floreal. However, the two sex traders don't count on Valencia taking a shine to Rosa, who resembles his late wife, and protecting her from a life of prostitution by securing her a job as a barmaid in the bar below his apartment. Floreal sends his bleached blonde mistress Mae to discover the identity of Valencia's mysterious roommate Ricardo, believing the truth will enable him to blackmail Rosa into joining his stable.

Of course all of this sounds like good, scummy fun in the vein of Warner Brothers' memorably provocative social dramas of the 1930s. There is an extended sequence of Rita's prostitutes arriving to the town port in cars at 3am to service a ship full of sailors, as well as shocking moments of Rita letting a man visibly sniff cocaine off her finger to ease his wallowing pain and Mae having her head smashed through a glass window! Where the Hays Code stopped this kind of material from being shown, or even hinted at, in the United States by 1934, General Franco would ensure that Spanish cinema would not encourage this kind of behavior up until his death in 1975, by which time American cinema had embraced all manner of previously censored material, including hardcore pornography. This is what makes Barrios Bajos such a special film. Despite problematic pacing and a few performances that miss the mark, director Pedro Puche features so many jarring moments in his rather predictable crime story-turned-love triangle that it oddly succeeds at winning over the audience. As Valencia, the film belongs completely to Jose Telmo, in a performance that recalls, again, the working-class heroes of Warner Brothers. Pilar Torres' Mae is a cheap, sleazy delight, stealing scenes whenever she swaggers on-camera.

If you speak Spanish, you can watch the whole film above. No Spanish needed to enjoy Pilar Torres.

 Tell Me Lies (A Film About London) (1968)

Perhaps best known for directing Lord of the Flies (1963), Peter Brook made his biggest mark in the world of English theater, working as official director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for two decades. His cinematic adaptation of Marat/Sade (1967) raised eyebrows, and he utilized most of the same cast (from his theatrical company) for the rarely-seen docudrama Tell Me Lies, one of the most provocative and unique films about the Vietnam War I have ever seen. There is nothing quite like it.

Actors Mark Jones and Robert Lloyd (as well as Mark's live-in girlfriend, Pauline Munro) are moved by a magazine pictorial on civilian injuries in Vietnam to do their own documenting and research into the anti-war movement taking place in London. Scenes of actors playing MP's wildly dancing at a party to a pro-Vietnam rock song mix with real veterans and protesters sharing their thoughts on the conflict. The famous, and still horrifying, footage of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk appears, as well as newsreel footage of Viet Cong street executions and American soldiers feeding young Vietnamese children, now homeless after napalm wiped out their villages. Notorious black civil rights figure Stokely Carmichael talks about freedom and peace with lovely, soft-spoken French-Vietnamese Jacqueline Porcher, the cast breaks into catchy musical numbers, Glenda Jackson (pre-Oscar and pre-dental work) plays a protester who reveals by film's end that she prefers being isolated from the conflict so she can maintain distance from it, Jones dreams about blowing up the American Embassy and imagines himself a US soldier drawn into a Saigon gay bar to connect with other men, Lloyd re-enacts the self-immolation of Quaker Morrison, an unnamed American comedy troupe (including Bill Macy before "Maude") perform "101 Things to Say to Get Out of the Draft", and many other whacky, controversial sequences weave in and out of the unusually structured narrative. Brook admitted during his post-screening Q&A that the film did not begin with a defined shape, a process which took place in the editing phase. One gets the feeling that he and his cast came up with ideas on the fly and whichever ones worked the best made it into the finished film. It gives most of the film a kind of improvised, free-flowing spirit that frequently works in its favor.

A soundtrack album was actually released! I want it!
Restored from a recently discovered internegative at the BFI, Tell Me Lies mixes bold color with stark black-and-white for an interesting palette, though the film never defines the reasoning behind the coloring of each individual sequence. At 118 minutes, the film threatens to wear out its welcome in several instances, but the clock stops during riveting moments like a lengthy, heated debate at a dinner party between Jones, Munro, and several stuffy members of Parliament, the aforementioned Carmichael-Porcher conversation, and Jackson's final act confession. With BFI's track record of sterling DVD/Blu-Ray releases, here's hoping Tell Me Lies hits the format very soon so it can be rediscovered by a generation of viewers who could benefit from its radical, angry vision.

 The re-release trailer for TELL ME LIES, including the catchy title theme song

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