Saturday, September 26, 2020

last week in letterboxd

The Balloon, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956

An expansive family melodrama, but structured around a woman for whom family life is closed off forever. Michiyo Aratama as the sad mistress, clinging to a cruel, unworthy man, is the center of the film, her oval face not quite fitting in with the modern, western-oriented middle-class sensibilities surrounding her. The only one who understands her is a round-faced girl everyone else talks down to. From her first scene, emerging out of bed and throwing herself at cold Tatsuya Mihashi, Michiyo's desperation is palpable. Like everything else, sex is a serious thing for her. She's haunted by the past, too, by the war that took her husband, and she is not the only one. Everybody feels boxed in one way or another, everyone's presence is a betrayal either of the past of the future, everyone's looking for escapes big or small. Some will even make it, but not Michiyo.


It's mostly set in entertainment spaces and homes that aspire towards entertainment spaces, but there are also quiet side-streets and a traditional matriarch trying (in vain) to hold things together in the old way. Kawashima is always curious, never judgmental. Rodin's "Thinker" makes an appearance in one of the most beautiful scenes. In a bar, German tourists sing a Franconian drinking song:

Trink mer noch eTröpfsche,
trink mer noch e Tröpfsche,
aus dem kleinen Henkeltöpfsche
Oh Susanna...

Emanuelle Around the World, Joe D'Amato, 1977

The real deal. In EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK the animal-snuff- and rape-scenes almost felt out of place, with the camera lingering on, as if without consciousness, an automaton gaze just killing time before moving on to more pleasant things again. Here however, you just have to take everything in, and when you think you've managed to escape, D'Amato manages to squeeze in another gang rape in the last few minutes.

A true exploitation rollercoaster ride from start to finish, the highest highs, the lowest lows, the India scene in the beginning is very funny, and everything is served with maximum conviction. This is the Emanuelle way, and her libertarian philosophy is on full display, too. Fittingly, this is also the film in which D'Amato discovers that any sex scene can be enhanced by a well-placed low-angle shot. Essential gutter filmmaking.

Probably the best soundtrack of the series so far. That groovy theme that always hits when things are going to be really dark is so damn effective, and I'm especially glad they ditched that stupid "Black Emanuelle" title song.

Still not sure if I want to see EMANUELLE IN AMERICA again just now, though. (Well...)

Wild Geese, Shiro Toyoda, 1953

Another tale of people hustling each other and their desperate dreams of escape. It looks absolutely astonishing and maybe it is first and foremost a showcase of the amazing level of technical skill in the Japanese film industry of the 50s. I don't know if there ever was anything comparable anywhere else in the world at any time.

Still, not quite my kind of film. Toyoda certainly knows how to push its buttons, but it is a bit too much in love with its plot mechanics for my taste and it lacks the sense of lived-in social reality of the best Japanese films of the era. Here, everything feels a bit closed-off, world as function of story instead of story function of world. Takamine is marvelous, of course, but her performance too is much more showy than in her films for Naruse and Kinoshita.

Toyoda obviously is an expert Metteur en scene, though, ingeniously combining quotidian realism (the use of space in Otama's house is pretty much perfect) with poetic, almost abstract flights of fancy. Like when she sees the student for the first time: Otama's face trapped between the bars of her window, but suddenly surrounded by pure black and therefore freed. Also the stuff with the umbrellas and bittersweet the last few minutes. Somewhere hidden between all of those stage-tricks is a great melodrama of defeat closer to John M. Stahl than Mizoguchi.

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Joe D'Amato, 1977

Compared to the all-you-can-eat mondo approach of AMERICA and AROUND THE WORLD, this almost feels like classical cinema again, maybe because this time there's a rather clear delineation between the softcore scenes and the cannibal stuff. Especially since the sex is surprisingly sensuous. The scenes of Gemser and Tinti especially are the warmest, most intimate in the series so far. There's also the ultimative fuck in front of the NY skyline scene that they just had to include sooner or later.

Once they reach the jungle, things pretty much switches into action-adventure mode, which also means that Emanuelle herself loses a bit of control. She's no longer mistress of ceremonies, but just another piece of prey (that drony cannibal pov shots are extremely unnerving; D'Amato might not have been the best storyteller in the world, but his suspense/horror technique is always first-rate). Luckily, that wonderful water goddess scene as well as her woke closing monologue spoken directly into the camera (how shameless can you get) more than make up for it.

Of course, there's still enough relevant imagery in there to either satisfy or disgust pretty much anyone. As for myself, I can stand stuff like this only once in a while, but right now I'm completely in love with European exploitation cinema again.

A shame Emanuelle ditches her wonderful doll-camera after the first scene, though.

The Rainbow Man, Kiyohiko Ushihara, 1949

Killed by color! Inventive mystery set almost exclusively in a very gothic mansion populated by an upper-class family that cultivates a nice, space-specific set of neuroses. The rainbow stuff is pure gimmickry, to be sure, but effective enough at that and while the film clearly is modeled after Western patterns, there are some rather extreme mood changes that would feel very much out of place in American b-movies of the time. (In fact, the frenetic eccentricities of the Vohrer Wallace films might be a better comparison.)

Velluto nero, Brunello Rondi, 1976

A spiritual experience laying bare the dead souls of capitalist modernity or just a particularly annoying new-age-retreat? Hard to say, and the most terrifying thought might be that maybe both are one and the same thing anyway. You have to take in the stupid with the visionary here. All three men, for example, are caricatures of the worst kind, but that doesn't mean that Al Cliver as the world's phoniest guru won't hypnotize us too in the end.

Anyway, a very offbeat Emanuelle film, and I was mostly on board with it, thanks to the decidedly musical take on sex and a delightful sense of desert absurdity. As for Gemser, she doesn't necessarily have the most screentime, but she still dominates: no psychological entity like everyone else, but the beginning and the end of the gaze, when she gets hypnotized she melts into ritual, into cosmic space-time. As far as the plot is concerned, this time around she's not a reporter but a model who gets forced by Tinti into bizarre tableau non-vivant constellations. The best shot of the film, though, is just her bending backwards, with the camera shooting through the arch of her body. Made me think what ALIEN would've looked like with her as the alien (and, maybe, Annie Belle as Sigourney Weaver).

La spiaggia del desiderio, Enzo D’Ambrosio / Humberto Morales, 1976

Faux Emanuelle on faux Debussy island. As an exploitation film a complete bust (Kennedy especially is completely wasted), and even as a third-rate take on BLUE LAGOON at best barely tolerable. The sex scenes are very long and very soft. Still, Gemser seems relaxed throughout, maybe the lower energy level on display here was a welcome change of pace.

The Call of Blood, Seijun Suzuki, 1964

A wacky delight not only because of the more openly experimental imagery but also because of stuff like the sliding door stuck between Ryota's girlfriend and his mother. Generally the domestic scenes display a lot of care for detail, as if to balance out the anything goes approach once the boys step out of the house. The ending feels a bit like a war film with most of the war removed. Just two shell-shocked guys in a wasteland.

Papaya dei Caraibi, Joe D'Amato, 1978

D'Amato teases with cannibalism and cock fights, just to let you drown in the quicksands of a tropical slow-burn soft sex / uneasy hangout / moody postcolonial horror movie. Compared to the EMANUELLE-films, the plot feels rather well-rounded, but still doesn't really go anywhere. (Mostly because the cyclical time of myth is at odds with the linear time of politics; Papaya herself is positioned as a political actor by the script, but D'Amato's camera films her like an ancient goddess sent to earth in order to punish men by fucking them to death). Anyway, the journey is the reward.

Blade Violent - I violenti, Bruno Mattei, 1983

"I represent the captive audience watching this shit."

Belle of the Nineties, Leo McCarey, 1934

Between Mae West delivering (mostly; a few good ones slipped through) bland, desexed lines as if they really were witty and risque and a plot that's supposed to be a nostalgic celebration of classic Burlesque, but really just comes down to a number of petty people hustling each other this is a rather weird and not completely unengaging misfire. The only thing that really makes it memorable is the spiritual scene, though, not only because of the layered musical arrangement, but also in terms of Mise en scene. The whole sequence feels like a throwback to early cinema: The rules, hierarchies and control mechanisms of analytical montage fade away and the whole screen succumbs to the immediacy of spectacle.

The Wind-of-Youth Group crosses the Mountain Pass, Seijun Suzuki, 1961

A sentimental, colorful and musical showbiz film about transforming a traditional circus routine into a revue performance in line with the media age: it's no longer about exhibition of craft, but about flow of entertainment. Might even be interesting to watch this as a reaction to the introduction of color television in Japan one year earlier, with Suzuki crafting his film as a superior form of revue entertainment, too.

At the same time, of course, films like this, combining youth culture textures with older dramatic forms no longer really valid, where everywhere in the early 60s. I was reminded at times of the German Music House Schlagerfilme, and while Suzuki certainly is a better director than Ernst Hofbauer and even the sometimes very good Hans Billian, aside from a few beautiful color explosions he plays it rather safe here, especially when it comes to sex.

Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade, Joe D'Amato, 1978

This time it didn't take me long to confirm that I had seen this before: The scene with the mechanic servicing Ely Galleani was still burned into my brain. Later on everything flows along smooth as silk, even when things finally get a bit nasty in the last reel. Basically a rehash of AROUND THE WORLD, but the stakes are much lower and it's not exactly clear why. Anyway, let's follow Emanuelle one last time around the globe, witness her running with the animals and parading in front of skyscrapers, enjoy some of the series' most beautiful sex scenes (one of them doubled by way of a mirror image)... and marvel at her stylish cigarette lighter-camera, just another proof that in a better, or at least more exciting world D'Amato and Gemser would've taken over the Bond series at some point.

Smashing the O-Line, Seijun Suzuki, 1960

Nikkatsu Action film with a strong script and an excellent cast (Hiroyuki Nagao especially shines as the gloomy sleazeball reporter). Suzuki has great eye for downbeat location and plays things mostly straight, although the film takes some interesting turns after Nishina goes undercover.

Violenza in un carcere femminile, Bruno Mattei, 1982

I guess I understand why many exploitation fans are fond of or at least sympathetic towards Mattei. He has an honest, naive, uncunning approach to his material - it's clearly a case of filming what one loves with him. Still, in the end I'm in it for the visual pleasure and his films just provide so damn little of it. Strangely enough, once in while he does manage to achieve a striking shot, or even a somewhat effective sequence - the beginning of WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE, or here, I guess, some of the moody nighttime terror scenes in the first half; but he is never able to sustain any tension and sooner or later the literality of his image-making goes on my nerves. There's really no filter. here. Every impulse has to be put on the screen immediately in the blandest way possible.

Compared to Mattei, the other Black Emanuelle directors (yes, even Albertini) are bona fide aesthetes. He's the ultimative "wouldn't it be awesome, if" kind of filmmaker. I mean, how can you make something like the Laura Gemser throwing a bucket of shit scene so damn dull?

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