Saturday, May 17, 2014

#182: The Haunted Castle (Georges Méliès, 1896)/Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)

Several firsts this week. This is the first time I've reviewed two films in the same post, and The Haunted Castle is the oldest film I've written about on this site (though at three minutes it's only the second shortest -- David Lynch's one-minute short film for the Lumiere & Company project takes that honor). Most film historians agree The Haunted Castle is the first horror film ever, and J. Searle Dawley's take on the Frankenstein story is the first committed to film. I decided to put these two together not just because they're firsts, but also because they have a combined running time of fifteen minutes, and they were the only two films I could track down in the first section of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, a section covering the years 1896-1913, before feature-length films were the norm. And they're both on YouTube. I have embedded them here, though the Méliès film is also available on the DVD box set of his work that came out a few years ago.
Horror wouldn't become a popular genre until the mid-to-late teens, and this first horror film, a year into the medium's existence, plays more like slapstick comedy with horror elements, though many staples of the genre get their first airing here. It makes sense, though, that horror and comedy would be paired from the beginning. Fear and laughter have a pretty intense marriage and probably always will. It also makes sense that this first horror film is the work of a magician-turned-director, with its sleight-of-hand disappearances and reappearances making up the bulk of the action.
Georges Méliès has reentered the cultural conversation in recent years with a fictionalized version of himself appearing as a major character in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and The Haunted Castle is a fascinating peek into his still-developing style. Often presented as the other side of the coin from fellow French trailblazers the Lumieres, who specialized in documentary and slices of life, Méliès was cinema's first important fantasist, letting his imagination dictate his style, a pioneer of special effects and genre. His most famous film is the science fiction landmark A Trip to the Moon, but he made hundreds of films in the course of his legendary career.
The Haunted Castle is a bit more awkward and stilted than most Méliès films, but it was very early days for him and for film in general. The camera barely moves, the special effects are a bit more rudimentary, but the spirit of invention and excitement is palpable. So many horror tropes get their first airing here -- vampire bats, devils, ghosts, crucifixes as weapons against evil, disappearing and reappearing beings. A plot synopsis is a bit silly for a three-minute film, so instead of setting it up, I'll just let you watch it. Here it is.
Fourteen years after the first horror film, Thomas Edison produced the first Frankenstein film. In classic Edison fashion, his name appears on every title card, but the director and actors never received a credit until the film was restored years later. Though this 12-minute sprint through Mary Shelley's novel captures little of the spirit of that classic book and is pretty silly besides, the depiction of the creation of the monster has an eerie power, and the creature itself looks more like what you'd expect a being created from the parts of dead people would look like than the more familiar Frankenstein template. He's a messy, shambling, misshapen thing, and a scene of him hovering over a bed has a genuine spookiness.
The film is unsophisticated and awkward compared to the innovations to come from Griffith, Murnau, etc., and to the innovations of the past from pioneers like Méliès, but Dawley does some interesting things with tinting, and he captures some powerful images. These early films retain an otherness and a dreamlike atmosphere, and it's always educational to see how many techniques and storytelling devices remain. Again, you know the story, so here is Frankenstein.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

#181: Africa Addio (Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi, 1966)

The Italian filmmaking duo of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi have the dubious distinction of pioneering the "mondo" subgenre with Mondo Cane in 1962. Mondo films are sensationalized exploitation documentaries, often with staged scenes, that pretend to have some anthropological or cultural purpose but are designed to shock and titillate and that feature a mixture of actual and staged footage of death, sex, animal cruelty, and (sometimes fabricated) tribal ritual and non-Anglo-Saxon custom. Mondo films are often racist and sexist, though the filmmakers tend to act surprised and indignant when they are challenged on their racism and sexism. The films were popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, with a resurgence (and possible nadir, though how could you get much lower?) in the 1980s with VHS culture and the Faces of Death series.
Jacopetti and Prosperi's most ambitious, as well as most racist, sexist, and exploitative, mondo documentary is Africa Addio, or Africa: Blood and Guts as it was retitled and reedited to heighten its sensationalism in the '70s. Filmed in 1964, Africa Addio is an anthology of post-colonial turmoil with a ridiculously self-important, condescending narrator. The filmmakers travel the continent for the most sensational footage they can find; when they don't find it, they stage it. As the narrator intones racist and sexist commentary and pseudo-profundities about the "Dark Continent," the camera shows British colonialists leaving the country, protest rallies, safaris, much shooting of animals, some shooting of people, rebel uprisings, ogling of undressed and half-dressed women, the aftermath of genocide, mercenaries for hire killing rebels, gold miners at work, and the effects of apartheid in South Africa, all presented with little context and background.
Aside from some beautiful shots of the countryside and undeniably visceral footage of political turmoil, there would have been little to recommend this film at the time of its release. Almost 50 years later, it's a fascinating historical curiosity of a sensationalized film genre and a particularly egregious example of then-contemporary European racist attitudes toward the African continent. The film moves briskly and is never boring, even at a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, and its narration is comically clueless about its own prejudices and self-parodic pseudo-intellectualism. The scenes of animal cruelty and dead bodies are hard to watch, and their juxtaposition with scenes of comic relief and unintentional idiocy make the viewing experience particularly strange. This is a weird, weird film.
I'd like to get a little more specific about the filmmakers' methods. It's particularly galling when an end title appears on the screen informing the audience that the film was "made without prejudice" and merely shows what the filmmakers saw, and that blood spilled anywhere is blood spilled everywhere. How then to explain scenes like an anti-colonialist rally where the filmmakers scan the crowd for exaggerated features of otherness (people with bad or large teeth, a man with protruding eyes, a man picking his nose, etc.), narration that informs the audience that Africa is a "dark little baby" that needs its colonial protectors the most right as they are leaving the continent, and a howlingly sexist scene that describes African women as "finally realizing that they are women" as they become more Westernized in dress and appearance and saying that black women are generally childlike while white women are "tyrants"? Throughout, the filmmakers' gaze treats white men as actual human beings while black people and all women are presented as objects or animals.
I mentioned the film's bizarre juxtapositions earlier. One scene, which contains actual footage of historical importance, sees the filmmakers capturing the aftermath of genocide in Zanzibar from a helicopter only a day after it occurred. They were the only film crew that close to the actual events, and the mass graves and rebels firing guns at the helicopter are not staged. The scene has an eerie power, though the filmmakers give no historical context for who and what we are seeing. This scene is immediately followed by a comedic interlude filmed at a wildlife preserve, where the music of Riz Ortolani (the B-movie Morricone) matches and exaggerates the movements of the animals. As the kids say, WTF? I realize comic relief is commonly used in fictional films to ease the tension of particularly dark moments, but in a documentary about violence and genocide, it's an insane choice. Later, a violent scene of tribal conflict is followed by several minutes of white women in bikinis jumping on trampolines (??????). That scene is immediately followed by partially nude black women enacting a tribal ritual as the camera focuses on their breasts and butts. The camera finally pulls back, and the tribal ritual is part of a movie being filmed by a white British crew. The actors take a break, in a hilariously stupid staged scene, from their roles and the men wheel a drum set, a piano, and several horns out of the thatched huts and break into a jazz song while the partially clothed women dance. The work day finished, the women put on more contemporary clothes while the narrator gives his spiel about black women learning to be women from white women as they emulate their clothing styles and seduction techniques. It's one of the most absurd things I've ever seen.
In the end, I feel Africa Addio is of more use to scholars studying race, post-colonialism, and its depictions on film than it is to general audiences as a piece of art or entertainment. It's a ridiculous, disgusting film that nevertheless fascinates in its strangeness, exploitation, and cluelessness. I don't intend to ever watch it again, but there's not much like it. I'll leave the last word to a young critic reviewing the film on its initial release, a critic who spent a year in college studying abroad in South Africa around the same time this movie was made, a critic who would later go on to become the most famous movie critic in the country, Roger Ebert (he gave it zero stars): "'Africa Addio' is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit. And it does so to entertain us. It claims to be a documentary of what has happened in Africa since colonialism ended. It shows us sadism and tells us we must not fear to see the truth -- but the sadism itself has been staged for the cameras. ... If only (the scenes of violence) were honestly presented, set in context, perhaps they could be justified. But they are not. Instead, they are staged for our amusement, cloaked in the respectability of an 'impartial' documentary, and in the end that is the most disgusting thing about this wretched film."