Saturday, March 15, 2008

There's Always a Bottle

You know that you’ve been doing this for a long time when you not only attend a double bill that you’ve seen before, but it consists of the exact same prints that you saw the last time. On night two of the Mario Bava festival at the American Cinematheque it was the same 35mm print of 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON they showed in 2002, still looking immaculate and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was screened once again using Joe Dante’s personal 16mm print. Just like Thursday night, the Egyptian was surprisingly crowded. I wondered how the audience would react to 5 DOLLS. Would there be a sudden revolt once the opening party sequence began with all those zooms? Fortunately, the audience stayed seated and seemed to enjoy the film. Yes, there was some laughter at those fashions and probably some bafflement at a few of the plot turns, but with this film deadpan silence isn’t a total necessity. Even more surprisingly, I found myself loving this oddball film maybe more than I ever have before.

There’s little point in once again going over the plotline of this TEN LITTLE INDIANS knock off where jet-setters vacationing on an island are knocked off one by one as there’s much discussion over scientific formula-MacGuffin and the money that is being offered for it. Watching the film this time I found myself paying more attention to Jill, the sensitive artist played by Edith Meloni, who is currently having an affair with Trudy, the wife of the formula’s creator, played by Ira Furstenberg. In thinking about the attention the film pays to Jill’s paintings it occurred to me that the film is actually populated by characters who represent some of the key aspects of society, specifically the industries of art, science, finance and service. Along with those factions, there are several additional wives to several of the men who seem to serve little relevant function in this world. It’s as if 5 DOLLS presents us with its own microcosm of the world and what happens to the rich, the weak, the strong, the indentured and the bystanders. The order the characters are knocked off —or, it should be stated, the order we believe they are being knocked off—seems somehow equivalent to how people fall by the wayside in the rat race of life itself. What we learn at the end seems to tie into all this, forcing us to reevaluate the seemingly noble proclamations of a key character. And among these adults, we have the barely explained character of Isabel who represents youth—a child, specifically, who darts in and out of the film, eavesdropping on people as would a child hiding at the top of the staircase listening enviously to the adults downstairs having a good time. Or, in other cases, cowering around the corner as they yell and scream at each other, as if hiding from ones parents. The way she interacts with several of the characters at various points indicates that she could become like any one of them later in life and the way she seems to be going at the end, what the film seems to be saying about what happens to youth…well, sometimes that’s just the way the world works. Maybe it’s a crazy theory but this is 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON we’re talking about, so thinking outside the box is probably allowed. Either way, it made this film about some of the shallowest people imaginable seem richer than it ever had and even more deserving of praise that I could give it, as truly off-the-wall as Bava’s direction in the film might be. And if it’s all nonsense, then I still have moments like the remarkable Edwige Fenech running along the beach after discovering the houseboy’s body as the exhilarating score by Piero Umilani plays on. It’s lingering moments like that which make 5 DOLLS such a favorite of mine and make me want to watch it again right now.

From the elegant trash of 5 DOLLS the second feature of the night brought on the elegant brutality of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the classic early giallo about beautiful models at the Christian Haute Couture fashion salon being savagly murdered by a masked maniac. Even on 16mm, I found myself continually looking for all the background details going on during the scenes at the Christian Haute Couture. There’s continual activity going on in those sections that keep the eyes darting all around the frame. It also stood out for me how adult the film is, not just in its depictions of violence in a sexually charged atmosphere, but how even in the midst of the sometimes-stilted dubbing, there’s a maturity to the characters relationships on a level that is almost unheard of today in films of this genre. This feels especially true when viewing what Eva Bartok as Countess Christina Cuomo does with her performance in the last part of the film. It’s the sort of element which adds to the intrigue and it also to the elegant-yet-sleazy tone, reminding me that these characters inhabit a world nothing like the one we know today. As stated before, it was Joe Dante’s own 16mm print that the Cinematheque screened, one which looks to be cobbled together (by Dante himself?) from various sources to make a complete version. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much identical to the version available on DVD, except that it features the American title sequence, not the more stylized cast introduction credits seen on disc. It’s good that it’s there and maybe the vibe it gives off adds to how effective it is, but it’s a shame such a beautiful looking film is presumably only available to be screened like this. The compositions and colors throughout seem to demand an emphasis of that feel of luxurious deviance and I can only hope that at some point a print will exist that allows it to be viewed in such a way.

Dull films, like houseboys, come and go, but there’s always a bottle, to steal a familiar line heard in this double bill. Fortunately, there’s also 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, two films which continue to unveil new shadings in their own unique moods, giving me an added appreciation for what was accomplished in Italy long ago. Now I’ve got to figure out where I left that J&B.


Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

Hi there!

Assuming you have one of the 2 domestic 5 DOLLS DVDs (the more recent Anchor Bay may be anamorphic, but it looks to me like a simple adaptation of the same marginal element), how does the presentation compare to the immaculate 35mm print?


Mr. Peel said...

Hi Jeffrey--

To my eyes, the overall look of the discs and the 35mm print seem relatively similar to each other. The only differences in the actual film, as far as I can tell, are that the credits on the print are in English, not Italian, and the print goes to black at the point of the THE END title card while the disc version contains additional shots of the car driving during the credits.