Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pulgarcito (Mexico, 1958)

Given it is a companion to Roberto Rodriguez’s scarifying Little Red Riding Hood films and was directed by Rene Cardona, who would later give us Night of the Bloody Apes and Survive!, Pulgarcito is surprisingly lightweight. Gone are the bizarre creatures, animal costumes and grotesque humor of the Riding Hood films, replaced by lots of child friendly capering to and fro. Of course, I watched the Spanish language version of the film, so I was spared the tone deaf dubbing and squalling musical numbers of K. Gordon Murray’s American release version.

Tom Thumb has received numerous literary treatments over the centuries, probably the most well-known being Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Poucet, upon which Pulgarcito (which no one ever has referred to as “Mexican Tom Thumb”) is based. Long a fixture of English folklore, the character first saw print in the late seventeenth century, with the publication of Henry Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the History of Tom Thumb the Great. This was purportedly a tome rife with crude scatological humor, as tiny Tom Thumb is repeatedly consumed—either by accident of design—by a variety of beasts and humans before being shat or vomited out.

Disappointingly, Cardona’s Pulgarcito chooses not to follow this path and instead bases its shenanigans on the more kid-friendly versions of Tom Thumb that have emerged in the years since Fielding’s treatment. True, the threat of Tom being eaten does inspire much of the aforementioned capering to and fro that takes place, but Cardona always pulls short of actually having this happen. Rodriguez’s La Caperucita Rojas, by contrast, pulled no punches in depicting the wolf’s fantasy of a gruesomely roasted Little Red Riding Hood laid out on a platter before him.

The story here sees Tom and his six normal sized brothers (is it okay to say “normal” in this context, or will I be accused of harboring some kind of stature-phobia?) fall afoul of an ogre played by Santa Claus’ Jose Elias Moreno. The ogre chases them all over the forest, brandishing a nasty looking knife and presumably saying something along the lines of “Get in my belly!” Finally they seek shelter with a sympathetic crone who turns out to be the ogre’s wife (the heavily made-up Maria Elena Marques). They are in the ogre’s house, and upon his return find themselves hanging from the kitchen wall like so many plucked chickens.

Tom Thumb/Pulgarcito is played by Cesareo Quezadas, a diminutive child actor who, from this point on, was doomed to have ‘Pulgarcito’ affixed to his name in the credits of whatever film he appeared in—including this film’s synergy happy follow-up Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos. In depicting his small size, the makers of the film admirably eschew the process shots used by so many in their stead and instead use a series of forced perspective compositions that are impressive as long as you don’t care about the relative sizes of Quezadas and his co-stars remaining consistent throughout the film. The same can be said for the numerous oversized props and set elements. All in all, Tom’s size fluctuates from that of a large hamster to something I’ll call “approximate Weng Weng” from shot to shot.

Eventually Tom and his bros devise to defeat the ogre by cleaning his house while he is out and introducing his seven filthy daughters to a bar of soap--in other words, attacking his very ogre way of life. In the course of tidying up, the ogre’s wife finds her old magic wand and, in a glittery climax, transforms herself back into the beautiful fairy princess she once was (Maria Elena Marques again, but heavily made up in a different way.) Amazingly, this works, and the ogre, surrounded by so much cleanliness and beauty, finds the ice on his glacial heart summarily melting away. True, he may have consumed many terrified human beings in his day, but he is now nice, allowing us all to dance in celebration as the curtain falls. (Er, SPOILER)

And I, too, can dance. Because Pulgarcito is the last of these Mexican fairy tale movies that I have to watch, freeing me to move on to other sources of grotesque kiddie fare for your esteemed delectation. Of course, I wish that it had been more gross and disturbing, but you can’t have everything.

Friday's best pop song ever

Fantomas Redux

My Teleport City review of Andre Hunebelle's 1966 fumetti adaptation Fantomas has been given a second life over at Mezzanotte. As you would expect from webmaster Keith Allison, Mezzanotte is a site steeped in European decadence, and Fantomas, in all his various forms, is right at home there. Check it out, won't you?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An offense for the whole family

If you are a long-time POP OFFENSIVE listener, you know that last week's episode got a little sticky. My co-host was David Smay, the co-author of Bubble Gum Music is the Naked Truth, and, for two hours, we filled the air with enough treacly, toddler friendly tunes to give even the most battle hardened pop fan a stomach ache. (We also played "I Touch Myself", but that's another matter.) You can listen to the episode, which has just been posted over at, by going here. The complete playlist for the episode can be viewed here on the Pop Offensive Facebook page.

Save on FUNKY BOLLYWOOD and make out like a bandit!

As part of their March blow out, FAB Press is offering my book Funky Bollywood for the low, low price of £6.00. That's about 7.50 U.S.--less than a third of the cover price (though keep in mind that that price does not include shipping from the UK.) To buy it, go here. But act fast; there is only so much funk to go around.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hot Summer (East Germany, 1968)

East Germany's DEFA Studios brought a brave face to the task of emulating whatever global cinematic trends were necessary to compete for their audience with popular films imported from the West. In this they were largely successful, creating along the way unique takes on both the western and sci-fi genres. That said, Hot Summer, which was intended to be a socialist answer to AIP's Beach Party movies, must have been something of an uphill battle. The studio, dependent on government funding, had to obey their masters' edict that their films, while entertaining, had to tow the party line—a policy that resulted in musicals in which coverall-wearing workers did pirouettes on the production line. Meanwhile, films like Beach Blanket Bingo were as pure a celebration of American-style leisure as had ever been committed to film.

Evidence of this contrast can be found in the film's oft-reprised title song, which eschews celebrating sun, sand, and surf in favor of just telling us how incredibly hot it is (“the rays are merciless….we’ll get a mighty bad sunburn”)--almost to the point of praising the joys of heat stroke. The film follows two groups of teenagers--one all boys, one all girls, and each numbering about a dozen-- as they make their way to a seaside collective farm where they will spend the Summer. For the larger part of the film these groups are treated, not as collections of individuals, but as sort of collective gender masses that act in concert with their designated leaders. Those leaders are kai, played by Frank Schöebel, and Stupsi, played by Chris Doerk. Both Schoebel and Doerk, who were married at the time, were popular singers of the day, which means that Hot Summer forbodes From Justin to Kelly.

From the start, Hot Summer exhibits a confused attitude toward teenage sexuality. In contrast to the boy and girl crazy teens of the Beach Party movies, the boys and girls of Hot Summer regard each other with a puerile antagonism unbecoming to "teenagers" that are clearly well into their twenties. At one point, the boys set mice loose in the girl’s dormitory and, at another, steal the girls’ clothes while they are swimming. The early song numbers, which are shrill and brassy to a one, consist of the two groups facing off from opposite sides of a room and practically screaming the lyrics at each other.

Stupsi, for her part, is like a one woman Anti Sex League. Her signature song is a jaunty little ditty in which she opines that men are stupid apes not worthy of any woman's time. When one of the girls is mistakenly assumed to have slept with one of the boys, she is cruelly ostracized from the group. In this context, Sumpsi's boyish look and butch haircut can't help but make one wonder what was intended with all this.

Despite all this rancor, the boys and girls, once they arrive at their destination, dutifully pair up, as if obligated to do so by the kind of movie that this is. And with that, Hot Summer takes a turn toward the dark side. A love triangle that develops between Kai, his best friend Wolf (Hanns-Michael Schmidt), and Brit (Regine Albrecht), a pretty blonde, threatens to divide the group ("are we a collective," asks one of the boys. "Or just a gang?) Brit has a mildly hedonistic personal philosophy—expressed in the motto “i do what I love and love what I do"--that seems to infect the whole gang, demoralizing them to the point that they take a joyride in a boat belonging to the collective. They are busted by the police. Heads are hung and lessons learned.

A note on the songs in Hot Summer: as for those in the film's first half, I really can't say much more than that they are brassy and shrill, as well as a little manic. None of those qualities are alleviated by the fact that these songs are shouted like an accusation from across a room. Happily, at the movie’s midpoint, the quality of the songs miraculously improves, starting with a song sung around the campfire that is actually quite lovely. This is followed by the welcome addition of a Brechtian cabaret number and a couple of rock and roll tunes sung by Frank Schöbel that allow the young cast to dance in a normal, human manner.

As for the choreography in the rest of the movie, it darkens my heart to say that it is impossible not to laugh at it. It’s a style of dance that combines rhythmic shuffling, shoulder shaking, and the occasional arm wave to stultifying effect—and which achieves an almost caustic level of ridiculousness when performed by several cast members in tandem. Occasionally we will see a dancer embark on a cartwheel or somersault, the resolution of which we are not made privy to.

I enjoyed watching Hot Summer, although I can’t find much to say that would recommend it. When a film industry is subject to the kind of imposed limitations that East Germany’s was, it is sometimes fascinating, not for what it does, but for what it tries. Such is the case here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Joe Caligula (France, 1966)

In its own muted, black and white and very French way, Joe Caligula screams its swinging 60s origins at you from its first frame onward. There are the plastic minis, the slim cut suits, the lively beat music (and a fantastic score by Jacques Loussier), the ever present cigarettes, conspicuous posters of Graham Parsons and Francoise Hardy, and a general air of dissolute grooviness. Then there is the hooker who, at the film’s opening, delivers a bored sounding endorsement of the new wave to a john she is pushing toward a brothel:

“It’s exciting. Godard… Chabrol… Come on.”

But is Joe Caligula a new wave film? It may be unfair, but director Jose Benazeraf’s long history of sexploitation filmmaking makes me lean toward no. The thing that Joe Caligula shares with a film like Godard’s Breathless is the cold detachment that Benazera brings to depicting everything from violent action, to lovemaking, to two people sitting silently in a café. This results in a film that, like Breathless, is at once gritty and dreamlike. Yet Benazera seems to lack the mischievous political intent that Godard weaves throughout his quirky narratives. Instead, Joe Caligula comes off more like a genre film in new wave drag—which puts it in good company, given the pervasive influence of that movement throughout commercial cinema at the time.

The film begins with Joe Caligula (Gerard Blain) and his gang arriving in Paris from parts unknown (it is speculated that they are North African Europeans but never confirmed.) Fetishized down to the last detail, the gang is as much a study of movie iconography as actual characters; a group of slick young hoodlums in matching black suits and shades. The gang immediately makes their presence known by conducting a series of violent robberies against small businesses. The city’s underworld is run by a gang of older, more traditional gangsters, and they take exception to Joe and his crew’s anarchic style. When the Caligula gang goes after one of their own, a pimp named Alex (Jean-Jacques Daubin), a gang war ignites—though it could be said to be less a gang war than generational warfare with bullets.

It quickly becomes apparent that Joe and his boys are planning to take over the older crooks’ racket by force—a task they take to with their typical bloodthirsty recklessness. After they dump the flaming corpse of a gangster named Antoine (Marcel Gassouk) at the gangsters' doorstep, the gang war goes white hot. Antoine’s widow, the torch singer/stripper Lea (Maria Vincent), decides to take matters into her own hands and hits the streets, trying to sniff out the location of the Caligula’s gang’s safe house. Joe, meanwhile, takes his sister Brigitte (Jeanne Valerie) and goes on the run. We have earlier seen Joe describe his incestuous feelings to Brigitte in no uncertain terms, and because of that, it is difficult to determine whether her shell-shocked demeanor is the result of past trauma or simply a choice made by the actress playing her.

While Joe Caligula captivates with its mod era stylishness and attitude, it is less likely to do so as a character study. We know from his actions that Joe is a malicious psychopath, but as a character he is completely blank. He is as he does, and beyond that we know virtually nothing about him. In fact, no one in the film even says his name at any point; we only know that he is Joe Caligula because that is the name of the movie that he is in—and that may be the point. It could be that Joe is just a soulless cypher who is doomed to live out a movie archetype to its logical and bloody conclusion, which he does.

Things start to collapse for Joe when Brigitte grows bored with the thug life and goes off on her own. Lea has meanwhile been canvassing the town, asking everyone about a “blond with empty eyes” and her “possibly mad” male companion. When she finally spies Brigitte, sitting alone in a café, she makes short work of luring her back to the brothel, where the gang brutally tortures her. Finally, the gang extracts the info they need, allowing them to close in on Johnny for a climax that is as violent as it is preordained.

I’m fairly certain that the flatness of Joe Caligula’s characters was a directorial choice—and perhaps also a gesture toward a certain vogue in French cinema at the time. And, in pointing that out, I feel no rancor. I am the last person who would want every character in a film I watch to come with a detailed personal history. In fact, the absence of any identifiable human feeling from the film made it that much easier for me to soak in all of its era appropriate cool and aloof visual playfulness. That as well as the odd bits of business—a robbery in which Joe’s gang all wear Beatles wigs, a weirdly rushed torch song that Maria Vincent sings in a distracted whisper—that were more than sufficient to keep my interest from one scene to the next. (The generous amount of female nudity also helped a lot in that regard.)

If that sounds like a pretty utilitarian approach to cinema spectatorship, mark my word: In the wake of Rogue One’s digital skullduggery, watching a film like Joe Caligula could be our best preparation for the films of the future, which will be cast entirely with reanimated husks that display the same combination of glamor and soullessness that the stars of this movie do.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Seek the forbidden

Keith Allison, the dark overlord of Teleport City, has a new bastion in his ongoing quest to fill the internet to absolute bursting with "cinema, sin, and swinging style." It's called Mezzanotte, and Keith is kicking it off in an appropriately stylish manner with a series of reviews of Italian Giallo films. My first contribution is a piece on Luciano Ercoli's The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, a movie whose combination of sexy business, threatening atmosphere, and outlandish mid-century design makes it as Giallo as all get out. Check it out, won't you?