Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Hardcore Collection / Extra Action

The Hardcore Collection
Extra Action (& Extra Hardcore)
Directed by: Richard Kern
180+60+ minutes.

Ask any twenty something hipster to name five awesome photographers and they will most likely name Richard Kern as one of them – Because they all read freebie mag Vice and will also name Terry Richardson too, as they both are frequently featured in the pages of that mag

Ask any forty something cineaste with a passion for underground and narrow niches to name five awesome photographers and they will most likely name Richard Kern as one of them – Because they all read freebie mag Vice and will also name Terry Richardson too, as they both are frequently featured in the pages of that mag… but the forty something person will also start off on a rant about those experimental underground movies that Kern made back in the eighties. Confrontational imagery encased in micro narratives with harsh bursts of audio-assaults composed by the likes of Sonic Youth, and Foetus. This was the Cinema of Transgression, a razors edge, where art meet’s low budget filmmaking, performance meet’s underground, sex meets death. I personally think that this time period is one of the finest ever when it comes to groundbreaking art.

Watching Richard Kern’s works again for the first time in a very long time, I still have to say that I prefer the grainy super 8 eighties/nineties movies to the later stuff. Their gritty rawness and enthusiastic aura generate such a potent stature. Popping in the new release transfers me right back to early- mid nineties and damn I did enjoy the Cinema of Transgression back then, and in some fucked up way I still get some kicks from those movies today.

Starting with Xeroxed underground zine’s such as “The Heroin Addict”, “The Vailum Addict” and “Dumbfucker”, filled with eclectic writings and images that in a Dadaistic way reflected the feelings the Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina born, Kern had for the saturation of culture, films, music and foremost for the ways of life in everyday New York it’s no real surprise that the anti-establishment soon moved on to handmade, zine movie making. Kern stepped into filmmaking with his first short, Goodbye 42’nd Street 1983 [also featured as an bonus on the Extra Action & Extra Hardcore DVD] which see’s a subjective camera wandering the now long lost 42’nd street and imagining what goes on behind the closed doors and cinema billboards… in more than one way the obvious influence upon the early films of Richard Kern pop up both on screen and in the thematic imaginary encounters he intercuts the walk down 42’n street with – seedy and violent exploitation cinema!

Mid eighties, alongside several other New York alternative scene characters like Beth B, Lydia Lunch, Tommy Turner, David Wojanarowic, and perhaps most importantly Nick Zedd they became a scene of their own, the no holds barred, homemade cinema movement christened by Zedd as, The Cinema of Transgression.

With a manifest written by Zedd which basically rejects the use of rules, structure and cinematic snobbery the doors where opened and New York underground cinema saw some of the most important and vital works being made in the short span of just five-ten years. Anything goes and anything does go in these movies, which definitely are not for the weak of heart. Theory meet’s improvisation, Performance meets structure, chaos meet’s reality. The movement is provocative, innovative and fascinating. The Cinema of Transgression is a movement to know, understand, love and respect.

Ironically, all the things they where taking a stance against, all figure in their movies, some in fantastic ways. The great victory is that these movies in their short form (with some exceptions as some are long massive pieces) become something of a concentrate of storytelling, juxtapositions and narrative. All that stuff I ramble on about in my texts here, well, it’s all in the movies of the Cinema of Transgression too, it’s not just mindless art fuck, and I still to this day say that the Cinema of Transgression did more for movies than Lars Von Trier’s Dogme ever did.
As for Kern, well, you could split his work into two important time periods between 83-87 and then 90- till today. In between 87-90 he left New York as he relocated to San Francisco to break up with his addiction to drugs. Amazingly enough he hooked up with New York shock-rocker (and times performance artist) Kevin Michael Allen, more known to you and me as G.G. Allin, later figure of the post Transgression director Todd Phillips! – Yes, years before he became the golden calf of Hollywood comedies – Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, Due Date and both The Hangover movies – Phillips was knee deep in toilet rock drugs and faeces as he toured the US with G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies for the documentary Hated 1994.
But back to Kern, during the first period, 83-87; his most important movies where made, stuff like The Manhattan Love Suicides, The Right Side of My Brain, King of Sex, and the magnificent Fingered. Among the cast members you will find cult figures like Lydia Lynch, J.G. Thirlwell (aka Clint Ruin, aka Foetus), Nick Zedd, a young Henry Rollins and Lung Leg. It’s also during this time period that Kern starts hanging with rock band Sonic Youth – who along side other alternative acts such as Foetus, Killdozer, Butthole Surfers and Cop Shoot Cop frequently are featured on the scores to the movements movies. Provocative and eclectic music for provocative and eclectic films At times the imagery, eclectic force and imagery of the movement all come off as destructive music videos, something Kern went on to direct several of as the years passed by. Sonic Youth (Death Valley 69, Goo), King Missile (Detachable Penis), Marilyn Manson (Lunchbox) and more recently Dentata (Earwig).

After cleaning up, in late 89-90 to now, he made the body of work for which he is most renown today, his photography much of which has graced the covers of many a cultural magazines and publications. Although where he’s obviously steered his career into sill photography, he still directed the odd short movie every now and then such as Sewing Circle, a hypnotic body modification/ performance that see’s star of Nick Zedd’s War is Menstrual Envy 1992, Kembra Pfahler, have her vagina sewn shut by two other women. (Yes, this one is part of The Hardcore Collection now, and it was missing from those German VHS’ tapes once distributed by Jörg Buttgereit's producer Manfred O. Jelinski back in the nineties.)

The Hardcore Collection gathers some of the finest works created by Kern, and should definitely be part of any true cineaste – or alternative film historian’s movie archive. I can’t express the same enthusiasm over the Extra Action (& Extra Hardcore) disc, as the shorts on Extra Action more or less are movies made up of the models Kern shot still photographs of, moving about in suggestive ways. Like his shoot captured on video, and quite possibly as he shoots them for the Taschen book Action – with which the DVD “Extra Action” originally was included. Although the films do have some great scores by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and the Njuta Films release is worth picking up for the bonus movies as there are several early shorts on there, some of which haven’t been released before.

Kern described his filmmaking with the following passage: “I take what interests me in the movies and put it in shorter format so I don’t get bored. What interest the America public are sex and violence and the seamy side of life. Most people don’t have those in their lives, so they go looking for them” in more than one way, you will see this when you divulge into The Hardcore Collection (and bonus features on Extra Action & Extra Hardcore), are a time capsule unlike any other, and something that absolutely puts contemporary low budget filmmaking to shame. I love The Cinema of Transgression, it's the punk rock of filmmaking, punk rock with tattoos.

Now I only wish that someone would compile and reissue Nick Zedd’s works in the same way too, because you ain’t seen nothing until you have seen Zedd’s masterpiece Police State 1987, the surreal Thrust in Me 1985, Geek Maggot Bingo 1983, or the mastodon performance trip War is Menstrual Envy 1992.

Now enjoy some Kern directed Sonic Youth as you wait for your order to arrive!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mirror, Mirror - The Reflective Gaze of Umberto Lenzi

Looking at some of Umberto Lenzi’s early movies, the pre-gialli specifically - Orgasmo 1969, Cosi Dolce... Cosi Perversa (So Sweet… So Perverse) 1969 and Paranoia (aka A Quite Place to Kill ) 1970), I have come to find a recurrent use of mirrors… seriously mate, it’s not possible to miss them. They are a huge part of early Lenzi cinema, and are an effective way to send signals to the audience. Perhaps this was an influence of Lenzi on set, possibly somewhere jotted down in the scripts, may be a little notes of how to use mirrors in the shot. Maybe it was a set designer who had an ingenious moment… on several occasions, or perhaps it is all the work of cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori who shot at least eight movies for Lenzi. Well for whatever reason there’s a clear mirror fetish going on in the films of Umberto Lenzi.

Watching these movies I’ve noticed how key moments in several of Lenzis’ films have an intriguing use of mirrors. Sometimes they merely deepen the composition, open up the room and show the orientation of other characters. At times it’s to create a shock moment, or similar effect, other times it’s pure symbolic value, but almost every time a mirror figures, it marks an important moment. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Starting off on an easy foot, the mirrors open up the room. They give a depth to the shots, establish the location, and rather frequently a reflected character will be out of frame. It creates an excitement when we are allowed a peek into the off-screen space and see stuff outside of the frame.

Other times characters are placed with their backs towards the camera. The mirror reflection shows us their face – where we can read their emotions - and brings them into the piece, and at the same time their true feelings can be projected.

Lurking in the background is a clear favorite composition of Umberto Lenzi’s. It’s featured in a majority of his movies, and I can’t help but think of the Medusa, who with her fatal stare, kills her victims as they turn to stone. The only way to avoid death was to look upon her reflection, which disarmed her lethal stare. One could see these mirror compositions as metaphors for the deadly gaze, as the people staring at each others reflections frequently have sinister motifs in their game of deception. Instead of talking directly to each other they talk via the mirror, or in the worst case not at all, it’s the all said through mimicry and body language reflected through the mirror.

Nudity is rarely shot straight on when not in scenes of intimacy. For a voyeuristic – exploitative – approach, the camera merely pulls back, and shows us nudity through reflection instead. It works, and the nudity becomes more tantalizing, as if we the audience where seeing something we weren’t supposed to, sneaking a peak instead of staring at the naked flesh.

Take a look at these two scenes from Paranoia and Orgasmo. Both of them feature Carroll Baker’s character taking a shower, and in both scenes her love interest watches her safely hidden away in the off-screen space. We can only see him through the mirror. With the story plot in mind, it’s fair to say that the mirror in these cases acts as a metaphor for deception. Unlike the lurker who stands in the background, this is more of a threatening use, as this time only we know what’s lurking outside the frame. It’s a perfect metaphor and one Lenzi used on several occasions.

Ironically, there is no reflection in the mirror of the blind Martha Caldwell [Carroll Baker again] in Il cotello di ghiaccio (Knife of Ice) 1972.

After the pre-gilli thrillers, Lenzi worked with D.P. Alfio Contini – know for his work on Lilliana Cavani on Il portiere di note (The Night Porter) 1974, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point 1970, and awarded for his cinematography on the Antonioni/Wim Wenders co-production Beyond the Clouds 1995. Un posto ideale per uccidere (aka Oasis of Fear) 1971, tells the story of two youths, Dick Butler [Ray Lovelock] and Ingrid Sjöman [Ornella Mutti] who scam their was across the country peddling dirty photographs and sordid materials. By chance they come across the seemingly wealthy Barbara Slater [Irene Papas] who lives all alone in her huge mansion… a potential gold mine the two conartist can’t walk away from. With the theme of pornographic images and selling smut as one of the image systems of the movie, Lenzi uses the mirrors as a confirmation of the leading characters vanity. Almost every mirror is used for the lead characters to gaze upon themselves. The Greek myth of Narcissus comes to mind. Blinded by his own beauty he was completely unaware of his own pending doom, and walks right into his own demise. Just like Dick and Ingrid do in Oasis of Fear.

A cherished moment can be found in the 1975 Gialli Gatti rossi in un labirinto di ventro (Eyeball), where Lisa Sanders [Mirta Miller] stands smoking in her bathroom/makeshift darkroom. With the mirrors position declared, one to the left of the screen, and one in front of her, this makes for a haunting insight when she has her throat slashed moments later. Although the camera never takes position so that we see what she sees reflected in the mirror – instead we are treated to Mario Di Salvio and Alfredo Tiberi’s violent neck gash effect – we understand that what Sanders sees is her own death reflected in the mirror. A moment that definitely resonates Michael Powell’s influential Peeping Tom 1960.

Perhaps the finest example of this mirror fetish can be found in the masterpiece Paranoia (aka A Quiet Place to Kill) 1970. This movie bookends the pre-gialli thriller series, which all have strong influences of Boileau-Narcejac’s novel Celle qui n’était plus (The Woman who Was), Henri-George Clouzot’s Les Diabolique 1955 and Hitchcock’s Vertigo 1958 – stories that all focus on trickery, deception and foul play between a complex constellation of characters.
Introductions of Characters.

An unnerving moment when reflection and reality don't match up

Unfaithfulness is revealed... and confronted via mirrors.

Almost every lie, or moment of deception is introduced, or revealed through a mirror. The mirrors almost work as portals into an alternative universe where the truth is projected for the audience to see.

Off-screen secrets, nudity, tension builders and shocking reveals, almost every one of the areas discussed above come into play in Paranoia, and at times in several layers.

So there you have it, the mirror fetish of Umberto Lenzi, finally revealed and exposed … now it’s up to you to find the cracks that reflect his mind in the mirrors of his movies. I promise you that you will look and reflect upon Lenzi’s movies in a whole new way from now on.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Doctor of Doom

Doctor of Doom
Original Title: Las luchadoras contra el medico asesino
Directed by: René Cardona
Mexico, 1963
Lucha Libre, 75min

René Cardona, director of such classics as the award winning fantasy/family movie Santa Claus 1959 (which sees Old Whitey team up with Merlin to take on the devil who wants to wreck X-mas) and the harrowing Supervivietes de los Andes (Survive!) 1976, and father of René Cardona Jr., actor, director, writer of stuff like ¡Tintorera! (Tintorera: Killer Shark) 1977, and Guyana: Cult of the Damned 1979. For the magnificent female wrestler fun fest Doctor of Doom, Cardona Snr. joins forces with writer Alfredo Salazar for a dynamic tag team, and the results are once again pure fucking magic. Together the team of Salazar and Cardona made some of the best mexploitation flicks ever… try La horripilante bestia humana (Night of the Bloody Apes) 1969 and La mujer murciélago (The Batwoman) 1968 and Santo en El tesoro Drácula 1969, on for size and then tell me that these guys didn’t have some magic going.

An enigmatic Doctor R., [Roberto Cañedo] is determined to complete the first brain transplant, and goes about kidnapping young busty women with the help of his goon Gomar [Gerardo Zepeda – a big buff guy who starred in several other Cardona flicks as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo 1970, Alex Cox masterpiece Highway Patrolman 1991 and Alex de la Iglesia’s Perdito Durango 1997]. Gomar is a brutish beast with the body of a wrestler, and the brain of a gorilla, the tragic result of a previous experiment… After yet another failed brain transplant Dr. R. decides that he needs to stop experimenting with common street girls and go for someone with higher intelligence so that they can appreciate the experiments and not die of the shock following surgery. Hot hellcat, luchadoras, Gloria Venus [Lorena Velázquez – one of the essential female Mexploitation actresses, who played anything from bad girl, to luchadora to evil vampire queen] get’s drawn into the mystery when her friend Alicia goes missing, leading her right into the stern flirtation of Detective Arturo [another Cardona regular; Armando Silvestre]. There’s been a string of dead women found during the last couple of months, and the detectives suspect that there might be foul play at hand… you don’t say.

Back at the gym, Venus is introduced to a “new girl” who has come to train with them, none other than Golden Rubi [American Elizabeth Campbell in her first of a string of Mexican Luchadora films. She’d star as Golden Rubi in at least three other movies after this initial one, before disappearing from the movie scene in 1970]. The Doctor’s experiments on the “intelligent” girl fails too, which has him set his sights on a woman with a strong physique. You guessed it, he goes after the two fighting females and this starts off a series of fights, flights and dramatic meetings where acid is thrown in faces, characters are set on fire, scarred for life, and after a shocking reveal of the Mad Doctors identity, he creates his masterpiece female wrestler Vendetta, and true to the genre’s formula they all end up climaxing in one final fight.

Mexican wrestling movies hold a special place in my heart – hey, I don’t have a half sleeve tattoo of Blue Demon for nothing – I love everything about them, the fights, the semi-tame acting, the quasi effective monsters and foes, their great pulpy soundtracks and the ever repetitive structure that comes with these movies. It’s just like watching a Giallo, an generic slasher or even a Godzilla flick – they all follow the same path, the structure is the same no matter what and if you’ve seen one, you are prepared for the rest of them.

Doctor of Doom is no exception. Being the first in a string of Cardona/Salazar wrestling flicks featuring Gloria Venus and Golden Rubi, it kick starts from the first scene. The initial attack sees Gomar jump out of the shadows and lay his hairy hands on a woman who screams as the movie shifts into the credits. Staying true the subgenre’s formula, the credits take place over a fight, it’s Gloria Venus beating the living crap out of her foes in the ring. Now this print being an Americanized version produced by K. Gordon Murray - you know the drill, buy something cheap outside of the US, redub it and sell it again rehashed for an American audience - the US titles are superimposed over the fight. Normally there would be some arty illustrated titles followed by this fight. Because this is all formula, as these fights are to establish the protagonists of the movies. They always win despite faux danger of facing defeat in the ring. Antagonists be aware, these hellcats kick ass.

Generally Lucha libre, or as in this case luchadora movies, are firmly built around an investigation plot, the most important ingredient is obviously the wrestling – as proven with the bookend fights and frequent bouts with foes throughout the movies. But what makes the genre so unique is the concentrate of genre traits that always form the movie - there’s three legs the genre relies upon – the investigation plot and the wrestling, then the third is the blending of other genre trait such as the horror themes, the science fiction traits, the supernatural, folklore, mad scientists, space invaders, living dead conquistadors and Aztec mummies. There’s almost nothing that these wrestling heroes haven’t faced, fought and defeated.
Just like the films of Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras and others the Luchadores take on the part of the amateur sleuths or helping the police. In the Golden Venus series, Venus and Rubi are something like girlfriends to the two detectives Arturo and Chema [Chucho Salinas] but also kick ass and help to solve the mystery of Doctor of Doom.

Something else found in Doctor of Doom that Salazar later recycled for the Santo y Blue Demon vs. Drácula y el Hombre lobo (Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman) 1973 and Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein (Santo and Blue Demon vs. Doctor Frankenstein) 1974 movies, is the wristwatch intercom, which is used at least once in all the movies mentioned. In Doctor of Doom it’s used to save Chem and Arturo from a classic gothic slow moving wall of spikes, on the other end, the angered Gomar waiting behind bars to tear off their heads. The overall plot and structure is not too far from the one later reused in Miguel M. Delgado’s Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein 1974, one of the masked duo’s absolute finest moments. A mad scientist experiments on poor victims, kidnaps a friend of the hero character, and after a series of bouts the whole thing culminates with a wrestling match. What connects Doctor of Doom and Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dr. Frankenstein on a deeper structural level is the fact that the Mad Scientist creates a wrestler foe for the protagonists to fight against, in this case and both movies end when antagonists fall to their deaths from extreme heights.

It’s always the directors of these cheap exploitation films that we remember. Say the name René Cardona to a genre enthusiast and they will more than likely have at least one reference point or two. Although I’m still pushing for writer recognition, and Alfredo Salazar needs to be hailed as the one of the important Mexploitation screenwriter he really was. Not only did he write close to a hundred movie scripts, but he also directed a bunch of pulpy rock’n’roll comedies/dramas, and did a lot to lay the foundation from which most future Luchadora movies would be told. The formula or structure I discussed above. Just as I always see Gustavo César Carrión’s soundtracks as a verification of quality, I look for Salazar’s name in the credits, as this also is a confirmation that I’m not going to be disappointed. Alfredo’s brother, Abel Salazar, was an actor, and can be seen in many of Fernando Méndez movies. Movies often penned by that other master of Mexican genre cinema, Ramón Obón.

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