“It is not what we were promised. Every family in America wanted this to be a time when they could get ahead a little more, put aside a little more for college, do more for their elderly mom who’s living alone now or give a little more to their church or charity. Every small business wanted these to be their best years ever, when they could hire more, do more for those who had stuck with them through the hard times, open a new store or sponsor that Little League team. Every new college graduate thought they’d have a good job by now, a place of their own, and that they could start paying back some of their loans and build for the future. This is when our nation was supposed to start paying down the national debt and rolling back those massive deficits. This was the hope and change America voted for. It’s not just what we wanted. It’s not just what we expected. It’s what Americans deserved. You deserved it because during these years, you worked harder than ever before. You deserved it because when it cost more to fill up your car, you cut out movie nights and put in longer hours. Or when you lost that job that paid $22.50 an hour with benefits, you took two jobs at 9 bucks an hour and fewer benefits. You did it because your family depended on you. You did it because you’re an American and you don’t quit. You did it because it was what you had to do. But driving home late from that second job, or standing there watching the gas pump hit 50 dollars and still going, when the realtor told you that to sell your house you’d have to take a big loss, in those moments you knew that this just wasn’t right. But what could you do? Except work harder, do with less, try to stay optimistic. Hug your kids a little longer; maybe spend a little more time praying that tomorrow would be a better day. I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn’t something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we CAN do something. With your help we will do something.
‘Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, “I’m an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better! My children deserve better! My family deserves better. My country deserves better!”

As political speeches go, this was a very effective one, and well delivered by a guy that many people think didn’t have it in him.

My problem here is that it completely elides the damage done by the Gingrich Congress of the Clinton administration (with Clinton’s passive acceptance, I will sadly stipulate) and the economy-raping mechanizations of eight years of the Bush administration (with pretty feeble resistance from Congressional Democrats, majority or minority). No president, Republican or Democrat, could have turned the tanker of American government, and this crippled American economy, back on course in just four years. That Obama/Biden was at the helm instead of McCain/Palin is something I’ve thanked our lucky stars for over the last four years – McCain/Palin, with this Republican House, would have done incalculable economic, diplomatic, and social harm to this country. Not that Obama has done a very good job, but things could have been much worse. I prefer right-minded half-measures to wrong-headed roaring successes.

At the start of 2009, no family or person deluded themselves into thinking they could ‘get ahead a little more.’ No small business envisioned ‘they could hire more,’ or ‘do more for those who had stuck with them through the hard time.’ They knew for a fact that the ‘hard time’ wasn’t even close to being over. ‘Every new college graduate thought they’d have a good job by now, a place of their own, and that they could start paying back some of their loans and build for the future.’ Do you personally know any recent college graduate that expected this from their near future? Neither do I. ‘… when you lost that job that paid $22.50 an hour with benefits, you took two jobs at 9 bucks an hour and fewer benefits. You did it because your family depended on you. You did it because you’re an American and you don’t quit. You did it because it was what you had to do.’ You did it because people like Mitt Romney have made it that way, and given you no other options; they want to acquire your business, hollow it out and kill it for their own multi-million dollar profit, pay little if any taxes on that profit, drug-test you if you go on unemployment, or, if you do find a job afterwards, reduce the minimum wage, cut your benefits and leave your economic and health-care future to the vagaries of private health insurance underwriters or the hopelessly rigged-at-the-top American stock markets.

I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed.‘ Mitch McConnell  didn’t. He flat-out said so. John Boehner and Eric Cantor didn’t. Allen West and Rand Paul didn’t. Michelle Bachmann and Steve King and Louis Gohmert and  Jim DeMint and *add-your-favorite-obstructionist-here* didn’t. Needless to say, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Monica Crowley, Sean Hannity, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Andrew Breitbart and all of those other tiny, lonely ‘minority’ voices in the ‘liberal media’ didn’t. And, pardon me if this is rude, but I don’t believe you, Mitt. Oh, sure, you want America to succeed, but on your terms. You’re going to spend money like a sailor on leave just as your Republican White House predecessor did, but, like him, you’ll convince a lot of us that this money was spent for all the right reasons, as opposed to all of those socialist, revenge-of-the-Kenyan-colonist, prop-up-the-welfare-queens reasons President Obama seems to have had.

I predict this: if President Obama is re-elected, with the current split-Congress, the national debt will be a full third lower in 2017, with stable continued reductions in place for the next 4-8 years after that. (That bet is off if the entire Congress goes Republican – they’ll make 1990s Japan look like a Marrakech street market.) If the horror of a President Romney is visited upon us, it’ll be a third lower in 2017, but will skyrocket to our worst nightmares by 2020. And what’ll the Republicans say about the Democratic candidate then?


Let’s get a few big things straight:

-Most seniors already know that the Romney/Ryan ticket proposes to keep the existing Medicare benefit program. They’re not confused. They just don’t trust these men to keep their promises, and they fear that what they’ve had will not be there for their children. Democrats aren’t ‘scaring’ seniors – saying so doesn’t give American seniors much credit.

-Social programs did not cause the financial crisis in Europe. Big banks and the finance industry did. Pensions, bonds, long-term investments – these were the primary casualties. Social programs are in trouble because of the former – it’s NOT the other way around.


The Giallo Project – Mario Bava – The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Credit: humorcomicsfumetti.blogspot.com

Most references will tell you that giallo movies followed the template of pulp crime novels and murder mysteries published by the Italian firm of Mondadori from the thirties through the fifties, which generally featured yellow borders around the cover artwork (giallo is the Italian word for ‘yellow’). Most were simply translations of British and American mysteries and thrillers – Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, Edgar Wallace, Erle Stanley Gardner, etc.

Digging deeper, you’ll discover that in the late fifties and sixties, German filmmakers started a wildly popular series of Edgar Wallace adaptations called krimi (short for Kriminalfilm) – Wallace was a prolific writer of British mysteries: The Green Archer, Fellowship of the Frog, The Four Just Men, The Ringer, The Strange Countess, The Squeaker, The Crimson Circle, as well as the original creator of King Kong – the man wrote over 175 novels, most from the 19-teens through the 1930s, though perhaps only a dozen are still in print today. Harald Reinl and Alfred Vohrer made many krimi for the Danish studio Rialto; Jürgen Roland, and Karl Anton are also notable krimi directors.

Credit: amazon.com

Wallace’s novels (as well as the other Mondadori titles) are very efficient little potboilers; they primarily feature a single villain, always mysterious and unknown, and the intrepid policeman or detective who finally reveals his (or her) identity, though not before the subsequent commission of a number of linked, lurid crimes. The krimi films, like Wallace’s novels, are noted today more for their quantity rather than their quality, but they were very popular at the time, and laid important foundations for the later work of a lot of other writers.

Also instrumental in the giallo array of influences were the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Just look at a partial list of his fifties films: Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M For Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), not to mention the biggie in 1960, Psycho. The hallmarks here, of course, were the visual craftsmanship and the emphasis on the psychological aspects of the characters.

Another consideration, both in style and economics, was the success of England’s Hammer Studios, an enterprise that had been producing films since 1935, but didn’t distinguish itself as a production company until the late fifties, when they started producing singularly stylish and, to the standards of the time, fairly explicit horror movies. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) were their first forays, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and directed by Terence Fisher. While produced on small budgets (observant Hammer fans can list the sets and costumes used over and over again in subsequent sequels), Fisher’s flair for rich period imagery and colorful composition gave the films a slick, stylish veneer. Over the sixties and seventies, Fisher and others created six sequels to the Frankenstein films, eight other Draculas, and three other Mummys, as well as many other cult favorites like the Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire, and Twins Of Evil), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter.

The Hammer films, as well as other foreign horror films (usually dubbed into English), were successful here due to a change in the American film business. Up until 1948, American film studios owned the theaters their work was shown in. When this policy was overturned in the court case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. for anti-trust, the studios could no longer monopolize distribution, and non-studio distributors opened the gates for non-American films. The rights were generally cheaper, and European films weren’t saddled with the Hays Production Code for provocative content. Anyone who grew up in the sixties will remember seeing dozens of these films at drive-ins and on late-night television. (We also, finally, got exposure to filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio DeSica, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini as well.)

Mario Bava had been diligently working as a cinematographer since the early forties, following in the footsteps of his father, Eugenio, who had shot many of Italy’s most famous silent films. Among Mario’s many shooting credits were Gina Lollobrigida comedies and Steve Reeves strongman epics. His first credited films as a director were actually projects that he finished for other directors: Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri in 1956 and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster in 1959, as well as 1959’s The Giant Of Marathon, another Steve Reeves vehicle originally directed by Jacques Tourneur. His first full feature film, as a director, was Italy’s first science fiction film, Le Morte Viene Dallo Spazio (The Day the Sky Exploded) (1958), but the directing credit went to Bava’s more experience studio supervisor, Paolo Heusch. In 1960, he finally got his own credit on his own film, La Maschera Del Demonio (Mask Of The Demon, best known in the USA and England as Black Sunday), an extraordinarily moody and stylish horror film which launched the career of the actress Barbara Steele. Filmed in black-and-white, it combined the straightforward storytelling and expressionistic film noir-ish photography and lighting of the German krimi movies with infusions of Hitchcock’s Freudian subtleties and Hammer’s sense of lush period hysteria. (And its opening scene, featuring Barbara Steele having a spiked mask hammered through her face, would have never passed muster in America before then.)

At this point, it bears mentioning that Mask Of The Demon (Black Sunday), while certainly one of Italy’s finest genre films, IS NOT considered a giallo film. Giallo connoisseurs tend to eschew ghost stories, monster movies, or anything that might smack of the supernatural. Giallo films are real-world psychological murder thrillers that are enhanced by film techniques, uniquely modern music soundtracks and fevered psychological extremity – which is why Bava’s fourth film (after two other sword-and sandal films, Hercules in the Haunted World and Erik the Conqueror), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo) (Italy, 1962), is the film considered to be the first true giallo film.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much seems pretty tame these days, but it was groundbreaking for a number of reasons. It was originally conceived as an homage to Hitchcock; the title makes this pretty obvious, as well as the familiar Hitchcock conceit of an everyday innocent being plunged into harrowing circumstances they seem unequipped to resolve themselves. The film also endeavors to add comedic elements within the dark main story (John Saxon takes an absurd amount of physical damage in the course of wooing Nora), and contains some Freudian undercurrents that enhance the characters without distracting from the main plot. (Leticia Roman’s Nora is straight out of the sexually-repressed ice-queen mold that started with Grace Kelly, was elaborated upon with Kim Novak, and became explicit with Tippi Hedren. Many argue (rightly so, I believe) that Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, in Psycho, is killed by Norman’s ‘mother’ as punishment for her earthy, forthright sexuality, a staple motif in many gialli that American filmmakers like John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham emulated in the seventies and eighties.) But Bava’s variations on the Hitchcock template put the visual elements front-and-center, regardless of the diluting effect it has on the central mystery. His nighttime location shooting on the Piazza de Spagna (the Spanish Steps) is almost German Expressionist in its stark lighting, atmospheric scale and abstracting camera angles, and the lush apartment that Nora stays in for most of the film is an art director’s dream, used to thrillingly macabre effect by Bava and his legendary cameraman Ubaldo Terzano.

Credit: commonsensemoviereviews.com

The plot: young and pretty Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) is flying in to Rome to visit her sick Aunt Ethel. While flying in, reading one of the mystery novels she loves to devour, she meets a charming man who shares cigarettes with her; upon her arrival at the airport, we learn he’s smuggling drugs into Rome through those same cigarettes, and he’s arrested. Feeling like she’s weathered a close call, she proceeds to Ethel’s apartment. Attending to Ethel is the handsome Dr. Marcello Bassi (John Saxon), who fears that she’s in pretty dire straits despite her ebullient manner. When Ethel indeed succumbs that night, Nora can’t reach the doctor, and strikes out on her own into the dark Roman night to fetch him from the hospital. At the Spanish Steps, she’s molested by a purse-snatcher and loses consciousness. Upon reviving, she witness a murder – a dying woman who has been stabbed in the back lurches towards her for help, but a man appears behind her as she dies, extracts the knife, and drags her body away. Nora passes out once again; a male passerby tries to revive her with a little whiskey, but to no avail. She’s eventually discovered by a policeman, who thinks she’s drunk, and she’s taken to the hospital. Dr. Bassi gets her out, despite the suspicions of the doctors and the police, but her tale of the murder is pretty far-fetched – it may be a trauma-induced dream caused by the purse-snatcher’s attack, it may be a hallucination caused by those drug-laced cigarettes, or it may be just an overactive imagination fueled by her addiction to lurid mystery novels.

At Ethel’s funeral, Nora and Dr. Bassi meet Laura Craven-Torrani (Valentina Cortese), a wealthy doctor’s wife who befriends them and insists that Nora stay at her place instead of Ethel’s small, now sadder, apartment. Laura Craven’s sister, we discover, was murdered ten years ago, directly in front of their apartment on the Spanish Steps, in exactly the fashion that Nora believes she witnessed just a few nights ago. But the perpetrator, the Alphabet Killer, was caught and sentenced to jail. He had killed A, B, and C (Laura’s sister, Emily Craven) before being apprehended. Has the Alphabet Murder returned, or are those murders being copycatted? And is Nora Davis the ‘D’ on the Alphabet Killer’s list? If so, who was the woman Nora saw being murdered a few nights ago? Nora, of course, must find the truth, and survey a series of spooky interiors, looming and foreboding Roman passageways, stark lightbulb-lit white hallways and shady characters in pursuit of the serial killer. The true killer, of course, emerges from among the characters we’re already familiar with, one of the last people we’d suspect.

As shopworn as that formula had become, it’s the novel execution by Bava that distinguishes the film. You could write a film-school dissertation on just the myriad ways he lights Leticia Roman’s face, let alone all of the other eerily beautiful compositional delights that Bava employs in telling his story and scaring hell out of us. Despite its dated conceits, which aren’t nearly as effective today as they were back then, it’s still a pretty involving film, and the final twist is genuinely surprising.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much laid the groundwork for the many giallo films that followed. This film can be seen as the introduction of sorts. His subsequent film, Blood And Black Lace (Sei Donne Per L’Assassino) (1964), became the textbook, and is one of the most stylish, lurid and clever mystery-horror films ever shot.

Movies – The Luis Buñuel Project – Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread)

‘Las Hurdes’ – photo courtesy of http://www.ruralc.com.

Las Hurdes (more commonly known as Land Without Bread [Tierra Sin Pan]) (Spain, 1933) seems, on its face, to be an almost pointlessly dire travelogue documenting the miserable living conditions of the people of the Las Hurdes mountain range, and the Hurdano valleys within, in the Spanish province of Extremadura (aptly named). It’s almost the antithesis of what you might expect from the canny, darkly humorous Surrealist that produced Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. But, while the film is a presentation of very real aspects of the people and culture, Buñuel has shaped his film in very politically persuasive ways to expose the very un-Christian neglect to which the ostensibly ‘Christian’ church and government has culpably subjected these people, and this region.

Buñuel’s commitment to the surrealist aesthetic was unwavering, but he felt that the Surrealist movement in Paris had given up on the idea of constructively transforming society through their art, unlike other revolutionary art movements in Russia, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in France. He was also distressed that André Breton, Louis Aragon and the others were becoming dismissively elitist snobs, concerned only with their own work for its own sake. Coupled with the censorship of his screenings of L’Age D’Or, featuring his depiction of Jesus as a main character in a Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days Of Sodom, Buñuel left France to pursue other avenues of creative work.

Buñuel’s fellow participants in the making of this film were Spanish anarchist acquaintances, and they were anxious to use their ‘documentary’ as a damning statement against the incumbent King Alfonso
XIII, whom the filmmakers knew was acutely aware of the levels of poverty and degradation that the Hurdanos were subject to, yet did little more than pay lip service to any kind of real reform or relief. They were careful to keep the film grounded in actual reality, but also took opportunities to accentuate the squalor within the structure of the film.

Travelogue-style, we first visit the village of La Alberca, a small, clean, animated town just outside of the mountain range, where an annual feast is being celebrated. One of the features of the day is young bachelors of the town riding on horseback through the city streets, ripping the heads off of rope-suspended birds as they ride past. Buñuel sets a tone here very early, not only depicting the casual cruelty that the men are capable of, but the ease with which these acts are institutionalized, and celebrated, by the populace.

Then we journey further in, to the valley village of Las Batuecas, almost entirely abandoned at the time save for a crumbling monastery and its sole inhabitant, a friar. “Today, adders and lizards are the friar’s only companions,” states the narrator. It’s a ghost town, and it probably should be – the whole region is characterized by brutal summers and almost constant drought. “Within the walls are the ruins of 18 chapels.” The question isn’t why has the church abandoned this village; the question is why did they build here in the first place?

If settling in Las Batuecas seems like a bad idea, the populations of the valley villages of Aceitunilla, Martilandrán and Fragosa are almost outrightly masochistic; the desolation and poverty smack you in the face. What houses exist are stone shacks; a tiny spring winds its way through the town, used for laundry, washing and drinking water for both people and the pigs that a few lucky inhabitants own. Otherwise the only foods are beans and potatoes. (All of those beheaded game birds in La Alberca take on new importance in hindsight). Honey is one of the only marketable ‘crops,’ but the hives must be transported seasonally, and donkeys are routinely stung to death. Mosquitoes, and the ‘swamp fever’ thereof, are a big problem, as well as inbreeding within the isolated families. When a small child in the village dies from deprivation or disease, a frequent occurrence, “…the women of the village all hasten to the bereaved home,” almost all carrying small children themselves.

The film is less than 28 minutes long, but even at that brief length, we often ask ourselves, “is he kidding us?” A friend of mine once heard the morosely dirgelike song ‘God Damn The Sun’ by the Swans, and found it hilarious – they couldn’t possibly have meant this seriously, he believed; it had to be satire. Buñuel knows exactly what he meant – accentuating the absurdity doesn’t render any of this untrue, but the absurdity also compels us towards empathy in a way that another more earnest and objective narrative might not. Buñuel understood that any other conventional approach would enable us to distance ourselves further from what we’re seeing. We’re told that the Hurdano have no chimneys in their homes, inflicting smoke damage upon themselves when they cook. Neanderthals figured out the concept of chimneys – these people somehow didn’t? People die of snakebites not because the bites are fatal, but because their treatment of the bites invariably leads to infection. A long explanation of the uses of strawberry tree leaves explains that the leaves are used for personal bedding until they rot; then they’re used as fertilizer.

Buñuel’s real point, of course, is that if even one government official, or even one clergy member, took a day or so to visit, at negligible expense, and shared ideas like “this is how chimneys work,” “this is how you boil water for sanitation,” “here’s what composting does,” many of these problems would disappear. But for all of their political good intentions, all of their Christian charity, they just couldn’t be bothered. He’s not making a statement about the natural, survival-of-the-fittest unfairness of existence – he’s making a statement about the absurdity, the surreality, of institutionalized neglect.

So what’s it like there today? It seems the Spanish government hasn’t so much improved things as they’ve figured out how to make it all tourism-friendly. “Pay special attention to the farmsteads: houses made from flat slabs of slate, with thatched roofs.” How quaint! “As far as fauna is concerned, Las Hurdes is a region that serves as shelter for protected species such as wild cats, otters and black storks. You can also see other animals such as boars and mountain goats here.” And be sure to pick up a jar of Las Hurdes honey!

The ideal way to see this film, other than in a theater, on the big screen, is to get hold of the Kino Video that features both Land Without Bread and Un Chien Andalou. It’s also on YouTube.

A Return To The Bathtub

Well, it’s clearly been months since I’ve done any postings here, but I’ve decided to reinvigorate this blog – I’ve honestly missed it. I’ll still be doing foreign film reviews on Examiner.com (the link to those reviews is on the right side of this page), and, here, the occasional post involving European-style Social Democratic political shit-stirring. (But, honestly, with almost three months to wade through before this election, and being a little oversaturated with it anyway, they’ll be pretty infrequent).

But I’ll mainly be using this blog to write about some of my favorite films, and film genres, without having to wait for an actual theatrical showing. The Examiner reviews are published when that particular foreign film can be seen in an actual theater in Chicago, on the big screen. Films I review here will need to be found on DVD, On-Demand TV, Netflix, Hulu or other places – they probably won’t be shown in theaters (but when they are, I’ll certainly alert you). I’ll do the occasional current non-foreign big screen release from time to time, but it’ll primarily be foreign films and American independents, films I really like and want to alert you to, and share with you.

I’ll also be making a point of doing most film reviews as larger Projects. The Russ Meyer Project posts of a few years ago (links to the right) have been very popular, and I had planned on doing a Luis Buñuel Project as well before reality conspired to distract me from that. So, as well as picking up where I left off there (links for my earlier Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or reviews are at the right of the page as well), I’m also going to be doing an Italian Giallo Project, a survey of those stylish, sexy and inventively gruesome films from the sixties, seventies and eighties, featuring directors like Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci.

In the next few weeks, look for Buñuel write-ups on Las Huerdes (Land Without Bread), Los Olvidados, and Susana, followed by the first Giallo article on Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Deep Red and Tenebre).

Subsequent Projects will involve actors (Delphine Seyrig, for one) as well as directors. And, of course, I’ll consider requests – especially on Buñuel and Giallo films, but suggestions for Projects as well.