Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Eros Plus Massacre (Movies for the week of 4/24-4/30)

The bloodiest day in American history is thought to be the New York Draft Riots in July of 1863 (memorably depicted on film in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York). The "official" count of the dead was in the vicinity of 300 people, but that count only reflected "white Americans" as one might expect from a society in which the Know Nothings still held formidable sway. Based on conteporary accounts, the true number is nearer 7000, most of them black or Irish. What does this tell us about America? It tells us that, when it comes to the massacre, we are rank amateurs compared to the French.

Mark Twain, in comparing whether the French or the Comanche were more "civilized," notes that the massacre is the French national pastime (he decided that the Comanche were more civilized, if you must know). From the Paris Commune, to the Terror, to Vichy, the French have developed the massacre to a fine art. The piece de resistance of that art is The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August of 1572, in which Catholic France set upon their Protestant dissidents, the Hugeunots, and murdered practically all of them. Some 70,000 people in two days, by most accounts. This history is recounted in Patrice Chéreau's 1994 film, Queen Margot, which should be of interest to any fan of horror films. This is a film drenched in blood. Two things triggered the massacre: first, the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny, a Protestant advisor to the King. Second: the presence of most of the leaders of the Hugeunots at the politically motivated marriage of Queen Marguerite (Margot), daughter of Catherine De Medici, and Henri de Navarre, also a Protestant. The marriage was intended to quell the unrest between religious factions, but the assassination of Coligny was like throwing a match into a powerkeg. With all of the Hugeunot leaders conveniently in one place, it was easy to destroy them all. Cut off the head and kill the body, as they say. The massacre occurs in the first half of the film. The remainder deals with the fallout, and as the film is about the political machinations of a late medieval, early renaissance aristocracy, the fallout is also drenched in blood. Forget any romantic notions that these people resolved their differences with duels--as they do in the book by Alexandre Dumas upon which the film is nominally based--they were murderers and libertines to a one. Their weapons were sex, poison, a dagger in the back or across the throat. One of the late images tells the story of the film: Isabelle Adjani as Margot, clad in a blindingly white dress now stained with the blood of her poisoned brother, stands between the coffins of two dead men, one of them her lover. Neither man has a head. The heads are on the shelf in front of her.

I describe this film as being of interest to fans of horror movies not only for its violence, but also because it points out the essential timidity of historically themed horror films produced within the genre itself. There is nothing...nothing at Hammer's recounting of the Elizabeth Bathory story in Countess Dracula (to pick one example) the equal of the violence and horror in Queen Margot. But don't approach it lightly. This is a film that can be profoundly confusing to a viewer with no prior knowledge of the story. There are dozens of characters in the film, most played by terrific actors, but there isn't anything like a scorecard. The story begins in thick of the plot, so the viewer is left to fend for himself. The sexual relationships may be as confusing as the politics, too, because everyone, it seems, is sleeping with everyone else. The filmmakers have taken the folk songs depicting Queen Margot's promiscuity and translated them literally to the screen. The resulting film is a bit of a hothouse, which would be a fault if most of it weren't true.

The title of this post is "Eros Plus Massacre," which is the title of a Japanese film from 1969. I haven't seen it, but I like the title, which fits the films I saw this week. Not just for the sex and violence, but also because some of them are Japanese.

Donald Ritchie notes in One Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema that the failing studio system in Japan attempted to prop itself up by "modularizing" their genre films. In assembling them from prefabricated elements, they kept costs down, but wound up with a cinema that began to show the uniformity of an assembly line product. This can be seen in striking fashion among Panik House's recent releases of "pinky violence" films. These films, mainly from Toei Studios, are a patchwork of revenge themes, yakuza bravado, pink film soft core, and bad girl fetishism. There turns out to be some room for a competent director to separate himself from an incompetent director, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Both Criminal Woman: Killing Melody (1973, directed by Atsushi Mihori) and Female Yakuza Tale (1973, directed by Teruo Ishii) are more or less the same movie. Both feature the formation of girl gangs that pit rival yakuza factions against each other. Both star Reiko Ike. Both feature a measure of female empowerment through revenge and crime. Virtually every trope found in these films is borrowed from another, better film. The card game that opens Shinoda's Pale Flower, for example, shows up here in a debased form, as does the pitting of both sides against each other plot of Yojimbo, and even the bold contrast of criminal women against an ash wasteland in Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. These are all proven commercial elements that Toei has distilled into "modules" with which to build their productions. Given that the mix of elements used to construct the basic outlines of the films are identical, there is no reason for one film to be better than the other, but Criminal Woman: Killing Melody is a better film than Female Yakuza Tale, mainly because it contains fewer "modules" leeching its vitality. It's a more linear film with a tighter focus on where it wants to end up, which reflects the fact that Atsushi Mihori is a more competent director than Teruo Ishii. It is also unencumbered by a predecessor--Female Yakuza Tale is a sequel to Sex and Fury, so it doesn't carry with it an expectation of elements from a preceding film. But this is all splitting hairs. Neither film is really very good. They traffic in gratuitous sex and violence for their own sakes. The most interesting thing about these films--to me anyway--is the way Toei bites the hand that feeds it. In both films, the yakuza is depicted as bumbling, stupid, and venal, easily deceived by a woman willing to bare her breasts and completely ruled by their genitals. Toei was carried through the collapse of the studio system in part because of the yakuza film, but also because they were in bed with REAL yakuza.

The Uninvited (1944, directed by Lewis Allen) is an elegant ghost story that's something of an anomaly among Hollywood ghost stories of the period. Ghosts were rarely played straight in classic Hollywood. They tended to be the fodder for comedies or charming fantasies--they were Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in Topper or Lou Costello and Marjorie Allen in The Time of Their Lives--but this film plays it straight. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play a brother and sister who buy a house on the coast of England only to discover that there's something wrong about the place. The center of the house's "wrongness" seems to be Gail Russell, whose family sold the house to our heroes. Without giving too much away, this film plays out like a supernatural version of Rebecca. What is immediately evident about the film is the influence of the Val Lewton films. The film makes good use of its deep shadows and oblique approach. It hasn't fully assimilated the Lewton formula--it had the budget to show its ghost--but there's enough of it. Though the film plays the supernatural straight, there is a comedic element between hauntings that goes down pretty easy. I never think of Ray Milland as a comic actor, but between this and It Happens Every Spring, he's pretty good. This was one of my mother's favorite movies. She had good taste.