Thursday, June 22, 2017

Friday's best pop song ever

Novyy Gulliver, aka New Gulliver (Russia, 1935)


Director Aleksandr Ptushko’s Novyy Gulliver was Russian cinema’s first feature length film to combine live action and stop motion animation. Of course, Russia was a few years behind Hollywood in performing that feat, as special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien had accomplished it as early as 1925 with The Lost World and would repeat it in 1933 with King Kong. Neither of those films, however, could be said to present as clear a condemnation of the exploitation of the proletariat as Novyy Gulliver does—which is of course what you would want from such a film.


Ptushko began his film career at Moscow’s Mosfilm Studios, where he started out sculpting puppets for use in other animators’ films. He quickly moved into making films of his own, starting out with a series of animated shorts featuring a character called Bratishkin. More shorts followed and, by 1933, he had assembled a large enough team to begin work on the ambitious Novyy Gulliver.

The film concerns an upstanding Russian youth named Petya (played by 15 year old actor Vladimir Konstantinon) who, while on an outing with his communist youth group, falls asleep during a reading of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As he sleeps, Petya sees the novel play out in his mind, but, because his head is so full of communism, it turns into a weird Marxist parable. This is not too surprising, as, when we meet Petya, he and his fellow scouts are marching in lockstep while singing a jaunty song about the joys of labor in which they call themselves "flying Leninists.”

Now inhabiting the role of Gulliver, Petya awakes to find himself prisoner of the tiny Liliputians—or, more specifically, of the Liliputian royals. In depicting Liliput’s ruling class, Ptushko draws heavily upon the court of Louis XIV. There is no mistaking this rogue’s gallery for what they are: a collection of spoiled libertines who are living lives of idle extravagance at the expense of the common folk. The king is clearly a simpering idiot, and can only address his public by lip synching to pre-recorded speeches. The real power in the kingdom is held by the King’s chief of police, who uses the military to keep the laborers and general populace in line.


The Chief’s leadership style is, of course, a paranoid one, and so his greatest concern, upon the arrival of Gulliver, is that Gulliver will side with the workers. His answer to this is to recruit Gulliver, whom he refers to as a “human mountain”, to the capitalist cause. This works only until Gulliver sees the chief whipping one of the laborers, at which point he rises to his full, enormous height and regales the crowd with a booming version of the happy working song from the beginning of the film. It is at this point that the Chief determines that this meddling Socialist giant must be killed, but his initial attempts are foiled by the wily Gulliver.

It could be said that Novyy Gulliver‘s combination of live action and animation is more sequential than it is simultaneous. After a live action prologue, it is with the introduction of the Liliputians that the film’s employment of stop motion animation begins, and that it indeed starts to consist of almost nothing but. Ptushko and his crew take a lot of editorial license with the puppet sculpts, making the royals a grotesque lot with bulbous eyes and tremulous, gaping mouths. On the other hand, the workers are portrayed as colorless and almost identical in appearance, like a bunch of green plastic army men given life.


The craft evident in Novyy Gulliver’s execution may be its best argument for the virtues of collective labor. Employing many hundreds of puppets--some with as many as a hundred or more different heads to portray different expressions--it was clearly a massive undertaking. Even more so given that few of these puppets were allowed to remain idle, as Ptushko and his crew took pains to create movement in every corner of the frame. As many of the scenes in the film are crowd scenes, that amounts to hundreds of tiny manipulations per frame. It is perhaps for this reason that, when Vladimir Konstantinon is required to act in close proximity to one of the Liliputians, the filmmakers give themselves a break and use an actual doll or hand operated puppet.

The gears of the royal’s downfall are set in motion when the Chief puts the laborers to the task of building a weapon that will kill Gulliver. Unknown to him, the workers have decided to throw their lot in with Gulliver and stage a revolt in the weapons factory, killing the foreman in the process. This scene, which owes a heavy debt to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, is aided immeasurably by a nightmarishly phantasmagorical miniature set in which the bizarre looking factory machinery looms over the workers like malevolent giant insects. More clever staging is employed by the climax that follows, a spectacular puppet battle royal that sees more toy tanks blowing up than a Showa era Godzilla movie.


One of the most fascinating things about Novyy Gulliver is how it employs a medium so often used toward more whimsical ends to depict the grim, life-and-death stakes of class war. In other words, Baby New Year this is not: if all the caricatured puppets and cartoon sound effects lull you into thinking that the end that awaits the King and his chief of police will be in any way pretty, you have another think coming.

Then again, at the end, all of Novyy Gulliver's events turns out to have been a dream—and we are returned to a world where militarized children sing about how awesome it is to work in a factory.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Podcast on Fire's Taiwan Noir episode #24: Master of the Guillotine. and Shaolin Invincibles


On this latest episode, Kenny B and I discuss Master of the Flying Guillotine and Shaolin Invincibles,      two low budget Taiwanese Kung Fu movies featuring oddball elements that you might think would make them ripe for ridicule. Sounds like the makings of a fun, lighthearted episode, doesn't it? Except, in the event, I found myself defending Shaolin Invincibles, a movie most remembered for featuring a pair of sloppy looking, Kung Fu adept gorillas. Check it it out, won't you?

Friday's best pop song ever

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Name the fictional punk rock band


In honor of the upcoming release of my novel PLEASE DON'T BE WAITING FOR ME, I've been holding a little contest. The idea is that the person who comes up with the best old school punk rock band name wins an autographed copy of the book. The original deadline for entries was May 15th, but I'm now extending it to June 15th. The truth is that too many of the best entries so far have been from friends of the blog, and I want to be able to award the prize without the appearance of playing favorites. So come on, all you beautiful strangers, step up to the plate!

You can submit your entries here (please don't leave them in the comments.) I only ask that you try to keep your band names era appropriate (circa 1977 to 1981), which means no current cultural references--as tempting as "Covfefe" may be. I'll announce the winner on July 1st.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Help! Help! The Globolinks (West Germany, 1969)


Help! Help! The Globolinks may be a weird film, but it is also a weird film with a pedigree. Commissioned by the Hamburg State Opera, it’s a television film of a children’s opera written and directed by Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-American composer who was American composer Samuel Barber’s librettist of choice. Menotti’s most well known work is another children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the filmed version of which, commissioned by NBC, became the first television Christmas special to be aired on American TV on an annual basis (this was obviously quite some time before the advent of Rudolph and Charlie Brown.) That it is not quite so well known is perhaps due to the fact that, while Amahl had clear biblical overtones, Globolinks is about psycho-surrealist space aliens whose spoken language sounds like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

The film begins with an alarmed news reader shouting the warning that the Globolinks have arrived on Earth and have completely taken over “parts of” Germany. We are then delivered into a lengthy sequence during which the Globolinks undulate to random electronic noise amid a psychedelic play of light and colors worthy of an Iron Butterfly show at the Filmore West. It is a credit to this film that I find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe the Globolinks. Essentially, they look like segmented upright windsocks that constantly telescope up and down in a Slinky-like motion. You could almost imagine them being employed as wind dancers outside a car dealership. There are also a bunch of humanoids in brightly colored head-to-toe body stockings who appear to be suspended from the heavens, marionette-style, by multiple scarves--whom I think are supposed to be humans in the process of turning into Globolinks. To tell the truth, the whole thing was overwhelmingly reminiscent of that bizarre sequence in the Starman movie Invaders from Space in which the malevolent aliens pose as a modern dance troupe—and almost as strange. Yes, I said it.


At the risk of spoiling Globolinks for those who plan to only pay half attention to it, it  early on reveals itself to be a parable about the power and value of music. Thus we are informed in the opening announcement that the only thing that can destroy the Globolinks is music. This would seem to suggest that the industrial noise that the Globolinks groove to is intended to be the absolute opposite of music—a notion that might have some Music Concrete fans up in arms. That is, until you consider that the specific “music” being referred to here is opera, which is unarguably the most easily weaponized form of music on Earth.

To that end, a busload of schoolchildren on their way back from Easter break find themselves stranded in the creepy forest in which the Globolinks have set up camp. The handsome young bus driver, Tony (William Workman), seeing that his charges are sleeping peacefully, is the first of many in the film to express his feelings through bone rattling song, opining about how strange and scary everything is. And it’s a further credit to Globolinks that, despite my distaste for opera, its visual strangeness was enough to keep me engrossed for the whole of its brief running time.


In keeping with its operatic roots, Globolinks’ action is limited to two indoor sets, one representing the forest and another representing the office of the school’s headmaster, Dr. Stone. The forest set, in particular, is creepily evocative, giving the scenes set in it the feel of one of the old Hammer horrors, or, when bathed in multicolored lights (as it often is), a Mario Bava film. I also couldn’t help being reminded of set-bound low budget sci-fi films like Devil Girl from Mars and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X, two films which no one is likely to have ever considered turning into an opera.

It’s apparent that all of the singing in Globolinks takes place in some separate sphere from where the Globolinks are, because none of it has any effect on them. It is only when an instrument is played that they cower and flee. Unfortunately for the schoolchildren, none of them have brought their instruments along with them for the holiday—save for Emily (Edith Mathis), an older girl who plays the violin. Because of this, Emily and her violin are tasked with hiking back to the school in search of help. This she does while sawing out an appropriately mournful tune (presumptive title “You Guys Are All Assholes.”)


Meanwhile, back at the school, Headmaster Stone (Raymond Wolansky) is getting an earful from the music teacher, Miss Euterpova, who threatens to resign in response to her students’ indifference. Euterpova is played by Arlene Saunders, a Cleveland-born soprano who found fame with the Hamburg State Opera in the mid 60s. For some reason, Saunders is fitted with a putty-molded proboscis worthy of Cyrano. While the other teachers are simply given ridiculous names (Professor Turtlespit, Mr. Lavendar-Gas), she is the only one caricatured in this manner, which seems odd, given that she is the primary bearer of the film’s “can’t stop the music” message (one song, in which she details the roles of various instruments, comes across like a staidly Teutonic version of “Turn the Beat Around’.) Once she leaves, Stone is ambushed by a Globolink, after which he begins the process of turning into a Globolink himself, which starts with him being able only to speak in random electronic sounds.

Globolinks announces itself as “an opera for children and those who like children.” And, like all of the best children’s entertainment from the Sixties, it contains elements that would certainly terrorize many among the younger set. Chief among these is Stone’s transformation, which begins with him being sheathed in a face-distorting stocking mask and ends with him being suddenly yanked into the stratosphere. Also potentially scarifying are the Globolinks themselves, who are terrifying by virtue of their inexplicable nature—a far cry from the face painted, floppy-antenna-wearing actors in Santa Claus vs. the Martians. As a tot, I was similarly petrified by the marionette aliens in Fireball XL5, because, being neither cartoons nor people in costumes, they were entirely unrelatable to my undeveloped little brain.


Globolinks’ final act is set in motion when Miss Euterpova, taking control of the situation, forms the other teachers into a marching band and sets off to rescue the children. I won’t spoil what happens next, other than to say that the film ends with Euterpova admonishing the children to “keep music anchored in your souls or the chords of your hearts will freeze.” This tenet is given heft by the fact that the story’s only casualty, Dr. Stone, had earlier announced that he didn’t sing or play an instrument. You hear that, tone deaf people? You are doomed. That chill you’re feeling in your heart is the icy fingers of non-musicianship claiming their due. I think this also applies to drummers (ouch!)

In the end, I really enjoyed Help! Help! The Globolinks¸ mainly for how it combines so many familiar genre elements into something so unlike anything I’ve seen before. It also has a certain visual allure, thanks to its psychedelic color scheme and fanciful set design. Also of note is the level of commitment of its performers, who belt out those high notes with so much gusto you might expect their faces to explode. Of course, I feel safe saying all of this because I am fairly certain in the knowledge that no other literal space operas like it exists.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

An Offense from the past


Last Wednesday's Pop Offensive was dedicated to the sounds of 1970s top 40 radio, a little experiment in time travel so successful that all of our 21st century technology started to fail us. If not for a last minute intervention by our station manager, Katherine, I would have had to make a desperate plea for someone with an 8 track player to come to our rescue. Of course, if you listened to the show, you know all that already.

However, if you didn't listen, you missed out on all that drama, as well as a pretty great selection of classic pop tunes from the era of Nixon, Ford and Carter. The Ohio Players, Looking Glass, Earth Wind and Fire, The Osmonds, you name it--they were all there in all their satiny, elephant flared finery. Of course, the episode is now available from the Pop Offensive archives, so there's no need to take your own life just yet. And if you need another reason to live, check out the Pop Offensive Facebook Page, where, in addition to a bunch of swell videos of the songs I played, you will find the complete playlist.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

WEDNESDAY! Pop Offensive takes you back to the 70s (whether you like it or not)


To those who weren't alive in the 70s, it was a decade of kitsch. To those who were, it was a decade of kitsch, melancholy, boredom and confusion: Gas lines, the Nixon presidency, Vietnam, Cambodia, and, my god, so much beige. For those of us who saw the era from that perspective, the chirpy sounds emanating from the AM radio dial were something of an ironic slap in the face. But, oh, how things have changed. Today we can enjoy those songs, not only for the lovingly crafted pop gems that they are, but for the wholly fictional halcyon age that they celebrate. So put on your happy face and join me on Pop Offensive tomorrow night (Yes, it's still just me, seeing as Jeff Heyman is still enjoying his self imposed exile) as we salute the ersatz golden age that was the 70s, as represented by the AM radio gold of the day. We'll be streaming live from kgpc969.org starting at 7pm Pacific time. Be there!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Lola la Traleira, aka Lola the Truck Driver (Mexico, 1985)


Every legend has a beginning, and for Rosa Gloria Chagoyan it was Lola the Truck Driver (aka Lola la Traleira), the Mexican box office hit that led the way to her becoming a rare female star in the testosterone sweating sausage fest that was 1980s Mexican action cinema.

Of course, there is a long way between Lola and the previously reviewed La Guerrera Vengadora 2, so if you’re looking forward to seeing Rosa execute sick jumps on her rocket-firing stunt cycle while exploding bad guys left and right as she did in that movie, you’ll probably be disappointed. Chagoyan, known primarily for being a radio personality at the time and thus, I assume, something of an unknown quantity as a screen presence, is here largely relegated to being eye candy while her male costars take on most of the brawling. She does do an awful lot of truck driving though.


Like La Guerrera Vengadora, Lola is something of a family affair, with Chagoyan’s father-in-law Raul Fernandez directing and her husband Rolando Fernandez co-starring. The film gets off to a running start as a semi plows through a wooden shack in a hail of bullets. In hot pursuit of the big rig is law enforcement officer Jorge (Rolando Fernandez), who is trying to put a stop to a drug smuggling ring that is using commercial container trucks to move their shady goods. Somehow he and his colleagues have missed that it is Leoncio, the owner of the trucking company (Milton Rodriguez), who is the brains behind the whole operation.

Leoncio is a man whom our current president might actually be right to call “a bad hombre.” Just how bad is Leoncio? Well, so bad that, at the beginning of the movie, we see him brutally murdering an elderly truck driver who refuses to take part in his operation. This righteous old dude is the father of Lola (Chagoyan), who, after inheriting her father’s rig, hits the road with her godfather (Joaquin Garcia Vargas) in tow. Vargas essentially takes the role of hapless comic relief little person that was inhabited by Rene “Tun Tun” Ruiz in the Vengadora movies, with the added trait of being old and somewhat crabby. There are actually a lot of comic relief characters in this movie, one of whom is an exaggerated gay stereotype who basically runs in and out of scenes with his hands fluttering. I also have to mention the teenage hitchhiker Lola picks up at one point--who, based on his unabashed gawping at her rack, appears to be intended as a surrogate for the film's male viewers.


Once Lola hits the road, we spend a large part of the movie only checking in on her intermittently—usually to find her driving down the highway with a serene expression on her face—and instead focus on the crime fighting exploits of Jorge and a mobile whorehouse situated in a truck’s cargo container. One of the girls involved in this enterprise is Alondra, who is played by Ranchera singer Irma Serrano, co-star of Santo’s worst movie ever, El Aguila Real. Alondra has insinuated her way into Leoncio’s inner circle—essentially as one of the bikini clad girls you will inevitably find draping themselves indolently upon the patio furniture of any self-respecting movie drug lord’s home—and is secretly reporting back to Jorge on his plans.

Lest you think that literally everyone in Lola the Truck Driver is doing exciting things except for Lola herself, let me say that that is only mostly true. During the film’s first hour, she does, to her credit, take part in a comedic barroom brawl that is accompanied by cartoonish musical cues and engages in a silly hair-pulling match with one of the hookers. Finally she meets up with Jorge, who is also driving a truck, and the two team up to deliver a wide load of justice to Leoncio and his fugly minions. And it is for this all too brief moment that Chagoyan assumes her place as the star of Lola the Truck Driver, only to too soon be lost in the maelstrom of airborne police cars, exploding helicopters and anonymous plummeting bodies that is the typical Mexican action film’s climax. After that she saves Jorge from a burning car and chases down Leoncio in an articulated bus—a mode of transportation that seems somewhat at odds with Lola the Truck Driver’s mission statement.


I think at this point my opinion that Rosa Gloria Chagoyan is criminally underused in Lola the Truck Driver is probably pretty obvious. Still, she has a radiant presence that makes the movie go down a lot easier than it otherwise might. Because of that, I am going to watch the two succeeding Lola movies with the expectation that I will see an incremental ratcheting up of bad-assery on her part. If not, I will be gravely disappointed. You wouldn’t like me when I’m disappointed.