One Groovy Bat

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

As a fan of Dracula (from Lee to Lugosi) and blaxploitation cinema (from Coffy to Dolemite), I have a hard time resisting the nocturnal urban lure of Blacula (1972). By the 1970s Count Dracula had seen countless screen re-imaginings and misrepresentations. The movies were hammering the final nail into the classic icon’s coffin, but there was always the occasional hit that kept him from staying in the grave permanently. Blacula may not be considered a great film, but for what it is—a movie about a black Dracula—it’s actually a really enjoyable romp through the supernatural…and it’s got soul. Sure, it has it’s fair share of cheese and hokiness, but even the immortal Bela Lugosi version from 1931 wasn’t perfect and was certainly not lacking in the melodrama department.

Dracula is a racist.

Dracula is a racist.

The story of Blacula begins exactly as it should: in Transylvania in the year 1780. The African noble, Prince Mamuwalde of the Ebani tribe (played by impeccably William Marshall), is having a little chat with the notorious Count Dracula. Mamuwalde urges the Count to aid him in his efforts to end the slave trade, but the Count evidently likes the slave trade and, additionally, has developed a fancy for Mamuwalde’s wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Dracula feels it is perfectly acceptable—nay, even complimentary—to take Luva as a concubine. When Mamuwalde refuses the diabolical insult, the Count reveals his vampiric powers and has his undead minions attack the Prince and his wife. Pay attention to the disappearing and reappearing candles during the scuffle. Biting Mamuwalde on the neck, Count Dracula curses him with an unquenchable lust for human blood and seals him shut in a coffin, leaving Luva to die alone in the stone room with her trapped husband.

Where was Luva's skeleton when the coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???

Where was Luva’s skeleton when Blacula’s coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???


Then the awesome animated credits pop up. It’s very Fistful of Dollars, but with a funkier score.

Flash-forward to 1972. Two gay interior decorators are buying stuff in the Count’s old castle and, naturally, just have to have the coffin, unaware of the horror within. While unpacking their Transylvanian bounty they unleash a very cramped Blacula. Bewildered and stiff, Blacula discovers the unstoppable desire to snack on human blood. He makes short work of his first two victims.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Blacula wanders the streets of Los Angeles and chances upon Tina (Vornetta McGee again), a dead-ringer for the deceased Luva. The encounter proves incredibly taxing on Tina as she frantically flees the strange man as a chase reminiscent of a Pepé Le Pew cartoon ensues, ending with one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie: Blacula’s pursuit of Tina is punctuated by him getting hit by a taxi cab and a rattled female cabbie berating his apparent lack of intelligence as he casually rises up off the ground, muttering about the collision ruining his reunion with his reincarnated lover. When at last he realizes the cabbie’s antagonism he snaps into vampire mode (developing fangs, some super-gnarly eyebrows, a rather pronounced widow’s peak, and cheek-burns) and bites her. Awesome.

Autopsy.

That’s weird. The deceased is completely drained of blood, clutching a crucifix, and has two small holes on her neck. It must have been a car accident.

Things get more coincidentally complicated when Tina’s sister, Michelle (a very fine Denise Nicholas), is the girlfriend of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala—easily the coolest name ever) who is investigating the mysterious murders of the gay interior decorators and the cabdriver. The deep holes in the necks and the absence of blood in their bodies seems suspicious, so Dr. Thomas reads up on the occult.

Clubs back in the day.

Clubs back in the day…

At a night club, Tina, Michelle, and Gordon are treated to a special guest. It is Blacula, arrived to return the purse Tina dropped when she ran away. He apologizes for frightening her and joins them for drinks. The sight of this caped, eloquent, and charismatic aristocrat (with the diction of a god!) against these modern settings doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And the stranger’s deep poetic voice with its enchanting cadences (seriously, I want William Marshall to read me bedtime stories) echoing back to time’s long past captivates his new friends. Things are going well, bloody Marys are ordered, Tina is warming up to Mamuwalde, and then someone snaps a picture of them and the gallant ex-prince excuses himself…to kill the photographer just as she’s developing the pictures and discovers that Blaculas don’t show up on film.

No pictures!

No pictures!

The movie goes on with many things happening at once. Blacula courts Tina like a true gentleman while Dr. Thomas digs up corpses and realizes they’ve a vampire epidemic on their hands that the police station will never believe. Also, several characters that Blacula has bitten earlier in the film become vampires themselves and start biting everybody indiscriminately. Apparently you never truly die from a vampire bite, you only become a superhuman vampire with greenish skin (there is one cop and a guy with a hook hand we never see again after they get bitten, but seeing as how every other character survives to be vampires I just bet those two guys are still wandering around somewhere). It almost reminds me of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) starring John Saxon (Enter the Dragon), a particularly terrible movie where so-called cannibals bite people and then those people in turn become “cannibals” who only desire to bite other people and make them “cannibals” (yeah, nobody ever dies. They just become oppressed minorities with weird nibbling habits fleeing government retaliation. Like Blacula the only characters who truly die are the ones who get killed by normal means).  A highlight of Blacula is the police raid on a warehouse full of vampires bitten by one of the gay guys from the beginning. People get shot, attacked, bitten, and set on fire. Major points for all the full body burns, but I can’t help but wonder about this scene. The gay vampire seems to have bitten (by far!) the most people. Is Blacula making some kind of commentary about promiscuity or the spread of social diseases during the 70s? Should we be offended?

These vampire zombies are fabulous.

These vampire zombies are fabulous.


As Tina falls more and more in love with Blacula/Mamuwalde, Dr. Gordon Thomas and the cops get closer and closer to unmasking the vampire and discovering its daytime coffin hideout. Actually, the romance between Tina and Blacula is the least interesting and least believable part of the movie, but the movie seems to know that and focuses on other things while that stuff is happening. By the time Gordon and the cops find Blacula’s hideout in a chemical plant, Tina has already agreed to be Luva II for the undead Prince Mamuwalde (it’s like The Mummy). Time is running out and cops with spherical helmets—seemingly from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs —fill the chemical plant, putting Blacula on the defensive. Comically, the cops are very easy to kill. Gently bumping their big, stupid helmeted-heads against a wall takes them out in a flash. Something I noticed the second time I watched it; I wonder if Dr. Gordon Thomas is safe from vampire attacks because he’s always wearing a turtleneck.

SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoiling the epic finale of Blacula.

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week...

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week…

One dopey cop catches Blacula and Tina running away down a hallway and discharges his firearm, killing Tina. Blacula dispatches the policeman by gently bopping his helmet head on a pipe and punching him. With no time to lose he bites Tina to ensure she will have eternal undead life as a vampire with him. Angered and vengeful, Blacula storms through the dark chemical plant killing cops left and right. Guys get stuff dropped on them, they get thrashed, and some guys get thrown off ledges, but soon Dr. Gordon gets to the coffin, hands the stake to the police sergeant, opens it up, and the sergeant rams the stake into the body…only to discover it’s Tina! Tina sits up (now with vampire fangs) and claws at her bleeding chest and finally dies. Her sister Michelle screams in horror and cries as Gordon stands off to the side (probably tacitly reflecting on the grim turn of events and thanking God Almighty he gave the stake to the sergeant). Blacula appears and everyone backs away with fear and respect as he steadily approaches Tina’s dead body. A beaten and heart-broken vampire, Blacula announces that he has lived again only to lose Luva twice. With a heavy heart Balcula turns and marches up the stairs and into the dawn’s early light to commit vampire suicide. He stumbles as the sun’s cruel rays burn him and he at last collapses and his flesh melts away revealing a maggot-filled skeleton.

That might take more than a Tums.

That might take more than a Tums.

For the all the questions Blacula raises, the film is kind of awesome. Perhaps Mamuwalde’s acclimation to life in the 20th century was a bit too easy, but maybe they didn’t want to rely on simple fish-out-of-water jokes like the George Hamilton movie Love at First Bite. I do wonder how he innately knew that cameras—an invention he would have never been introduced to beforehand—would not pick up his image, but that’s nit-picking, I guess. There are some continuity errors, but the editing is pretty good for the most part. The plot moves quickly and the characters (with the possible exception of Tina, unless Mamuwalde put some spell on her to make her fall in love with him) have believable motivations and are interesting and engaging. William Marshall takes the role very seriously and commands every scene he is in. Another actor might have tried to bring humor to the part, but Marshall plays it completely straight and, you know something? It works. Any Dracula character needs one essential ingredient: charisma (unless you’re the gnarled Nosferatu type). William Marshall has great charisma and screen presence as Blacula and he elevates the entire film. It’s a fun Halloween movie with classic horror-tragedy and some great action. Unlike the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Draculas, Blacula is almost a good guy. He is the victim of Dracula’s evil and is driven more by love than by wrath. He is a compelling character with a life full of tragedy. Maybe Blacula isn’t quite as raucous or ground-breaking as other blaxploitation movies like say Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but for my money it’s pretty entertaining.

There's a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn't there.

There’s a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn’t there.

The sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973) is not as fun. Blacula’s not in it as much and it doesn’t have the same quick pace and much of the magic is gone, but Pam Grier is in it and the last scene in the house is pretty neat. I like the first movie and I hope you will too. For great soul horror this Halloween look for Blacula.

Top 10 Reason to See Blacula

1. Blacula totally sticks it to the Man (by gently bopping their helmeted heads against walls).

2. It’s got a great funky score.

3. Thalmus Rasulala’s mustache.

4. Denise Nicholas is real pretty.

5. William Marshall’s commanding and elegant performance.

6. If we all watch it maybe we can bring back the cape look.

7. People get set on fire.

8. Blacula was the first movie to win the Saturn Award for “Best Horror Film” (to put this in perspective: other great films to win since include The Exorcist, Young Frankenstein, The Wicker Man, The Fly, The Silence of the Lambs, and Army of Darkness).

9. It’s a cherished classic from the blaxploitation genre.

10. Remember Twilight? Me neither, watch Blacula.

Good evening.

Good evening.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 30, 2010

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The Movies You Did Nazi

So you’ve probably seen some of these but for the sake of the Nazi/not-see pun I ran with the title.

Nazis make great villains. They’re easy to spot, easy to pinpoint in history, and easy to hate. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Shock Waves (Peter Cushing plays a Nazi zombie in that one), it’s always been easy to hate these guys. Nobody’s going to forget Christolph Waltz’s performance in Inglourious Basterds anytime soon. In eager anticipation of the new movie Iron Sky (2012)—where Nazis on a secret moon-base prepare to attack earth in space zeppelins (Gingrich, you fool!!!)—I am reminded of other some Nazis that made it to a ripe old age to be bad guys for a younger generation.

Marathon Man (1976), directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), is a pretty famous one, but I am surprised by the number of people who still haven’t seen it. It’s back when Dustin Hoffman was the hottest ticket in town, but the real reason to watch the film is the menace of the evil Nazi, Dr. Szell, played by the illustrious Laurence Olivier (Sleuth, Rebecca, Spartacus). I won’t waste time with the intricacies of the wonderfully thrilling plot, but the several scenes that make this movie famous should be good enough for anybody. An incognito Dr. Szell being recognized by Jewish Holocaust survivors in New York City as he tries to get his precious diamonds appraised is a fantastic bit of cinematic suspense. This scene was also spoofed in an episode of Seinfeld. Then there’s the infamous dentist sequence in which Olivier tortures Hoffman with dental equipment. He’s a Nazi AND a dentist? Can this guy get more evil? Oh, he just murdered those innocent bystanders.

“Is it safe?”

Laurence Olivier appeared in another 70s Nazi movie, only this time as an old Jewish man trying to solve a mystery in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) directs this sort of loopy conspiracy theory plot about geriatric Nazis stuck in South America (much like Szell). The Nazis are played by James Mason (Lolita, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Gregory Peck (Captain Horatio Hornblower, The Guns of Navarone). That’s right. Peck. Gregory Peck plays a Nazi. Not only that but he’s supposed to be Dr. Josef Mengele! Atticus Finch is Mengele in this movie!

I say this movie is a little loopy because it centers around Peck and Mason making dozens of clones of Adolf Hitler and planting them all around the world, strategically re-staging all the original Hitler’s boyhood traumas (nature vs. nurture schtick). The idea of old men living in the jungle hatching a convoluted plot to make an army of Hitlers is, well, just kinda nuts. As far as conspiracy theory flicks go, Capricorn 1 was probably better, but I like The Boys from Brazil more just because it’s so weird. Detective Yiddish Olivier is also a fun plot element. As a Holocaust survivor he’s got to settle the score. He has a personal stake in all of this. It’s a fun, hokey movie with science gone wild and some dog attacks. Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy) is also in it, but he gets killed off pretty quick.

Stanley Kramer (Inherit the WindHigh Noon) has produced and directed many films about race relations and important political issues and while Pressure Point (1962) might not stack up so well next to The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it’s a decent flick all the same. The main feature was directed by Hubert Cornfield. The great Sidney Poitier (SneakersIn the Heat of the Night) plays an unflinching psychiatrist who must get to the bottom of why a racist American Nazi (played by Bobby Darin) keeps having nightmares. The film is a little awkward—I chiefly blame the bookend cliche of the “That reminds me of the time when…” conceit, but the movie as a whole is not a total waste of time. Poitier and Darin are both very good and there are some truly surreal sequences that try to delve into the psyche of the patient. Grown men trying to climb out of sinks, voices emerging out of the wrong mouths, swinging meat, pipes that turn into knives, and a game of tic-tac-to that gets more than a little out of hand are all some of the fascinating images you will take away from this otherwise fairly forgettable movie. The cinematography is pretty solid all around.

Peter Falk (Murder by Death, Wings of Desire) also has a brief appearance and is credited as being a ‘special guest star.’ I never understood having ‘special guest star’ for a movie. Like they don’t normally star in this movie but here they are. Pressure Point is a little stagey, but well acted and some memorably weird sequences. It reminded me vaguely of The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Really quick shout out to John Landis’s The Blues Brothers (1980). Let’s face it, this movie is an overlong and gloriously bombastic tribute to great blues musicians and wild car chases. Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) and John Belushi (Animal House) and a host of awesome comedy and blues cameos make this John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) flick a classic, but don’t forget Henry Gibson (Magnolia) as an uptight neo-Nazi out for revenge against the Blues Brothers for wrecking their Skokie-like protest (all before Danny Kaye did Skokie for TV too). The cops, hillbillies, crazed flame-torch wielding exes, the army, and everybody else was chasing the Blues Brothers, why not Nazis too? I especially love their homosexual confession as they plummet to their deaths.

The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Man in the White Suit with Alec Guinness. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with Gregory Peck. The Man in the Moon with Jim Carrey. How about The Man in the Glass Booth with Maximilian Schell? Schell (The Black Hole, Topkapi) was the defense attorney in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), but it is his captivating and manic performance as Arthur Goldman in Arthur Hiller’s The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) that really caught my attention. I can only say Hiller (The Out of Towners, Silver Streak) directed it because it is Schell’s performance that makes it. This is such a bizarre and interesting film. Maximilian Schell plays a wealthy eccentric Holocaust survivor living in luxury in New York City. Prone to both irreverent outbursts critical of religion and flashback spells that make him temporarily catatonic, Arthur Goldman is a strange persona indeed, but he just gets stranger. When a group of Israelis kidnap him with the intent of putting him on trial for war crimes (they believe Goldman to be a falsified alias), Goldman goes totally berserk, but not in the way you might expect. He completely shifts personas and becomes the Nazi war criminal he is accused of being. He insists on defending himself and that he be allowed to wear his Nazi uniform. The idiosyncratic Jewish New Yorker and Holocaust survivor metamorphosizes, without batting an eye, into a barking Nazi lunatic with total devotion to the extinct Cause. During the wild trial Goldman must be kept in a glass booth to keep his offensive testimonies and unhinged craziness in check. When it appears that much of the evidence against Goldman is forged (and by Goldman himself) the Jewish court has to re-evaluate everything. The audience is confused too. Who has he been fooling and why? We knew Goldman was nuts but which persona was his fake one? It’s not as clear as we once thought. This is a fascinating and bizarre film that really resonated with me. It’s been weeks and I still can’t shake it. Is it the story of post-war trauma or Jewish guilt? Is it Schell’s insane Oscar-nominated performance? Is it the chilling final minutes? I don’t know, but I can say that despite the film’s cinematic shortcomings I would recommend it.

Interestingly, The Man in the Glass Booth was also based on a novel written by the great Robert Shaw (Jaws, The Sting) who also played a Nazi himself in Battle of the Bulge (1965) opposite Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men).

Nearly 70 years after the war and Nazis are still iconic screen villains. Sometimes serious (Schindler’s List), sometimes silly (Dead Snow), but always recognizable. If you are looking for some truly different films about Nazis check out some of the titles I’ve mentioned in this article. Some of these should be fairly easy to come by because they’re so famous (Marathon Man, The Blues Brothers), but I would encourage you to check out the others as they offer something much more offbeat than your typical fair.

The 2012 Busan International Film Festival

We hailed a taxi in Yongin at around 5 in the morning. The buses don’t start running until near 6 in Korea. The taxi deposited us at Suwon station where we boarded the train to Busan. The five hour ride across the quiet and foggy Korean countryside was pleasant and uneventful. Upon arriving in Busan we met our final companion and proceeded to penetrate deep into the world of cinema.

The first film we saw was probably quite fitting for us. It was a South Korean film about a western woman visiting a small Korean town. It was aptly titled In Another Country (2012). The simple story of a French lady going to a small Korean town might have been entertaining on its own, but director Sang-soo Hong knows how to add layers and interest. It is told three times, with actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) becoming a slightly different character (all named Anne, however) each time  the film stops and tells a different story—all with the same locations, supporting characters, and loose tie-ins to the other plots. The story is also vaguely hooded within the context of a girl writing script ideas on a legal pad to cope with her ambiguous home anxiety. And so our elliptical wheel turns. It’s a quiet, modest, nonlinear film whose structural cunning and obscurity compensate for whatever some might deem a low budget. In Another Country reminded me of a sort of cross between Certified Copy (2010) and Run Lola Run (1998)…but I liked it better than those particular films. Among its many charms is Yoo Jun-sang as the mildly awkward but unflappably gregarious lifeguard whom Anne repeatedly has run-ins with. The lifeguard character effortlessly steals every scene he is in. Another shout out goes to the monk dude. I admit my bias when discussing this film as many of the smaller scenarios endured by the central character resemble many of my own since moving to Korea, but I think the average movie goer will probably enjoy this strange little beast all by themselves.

After the film we wandered down to the beach and ate some spicy Korean octopus.

Fly with the Crane (2012) was to be the next film we would view. Directed by Rui Jun Li, this somber and earthy Chinese movie feels more like a dramatization of a National Geographic article than a cinematic fiction. This is not Crouching Tiger, this is a gorgeous, meticulous, and authentic feeling movie about the subtly shifting winds of change. Old Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma)  is a 73 year old retired coffin maker living in rural China with his adult children. His role as a figure to be respected is gone and he is viewed more as a cumbersome relic clinging spitefully to traditional ways. When burials become outlawed in his province in favor of cheaper and faster cremations, the dying wishes of Ma and all the town’s elderly is in crisis. Tradition demands they be buried in the earth so that the white crane can carry them to heaven. Nobody wants to end up as smoke. When the government even begins to dig up Ma’s friends who have had secret burials things become more upsetting. The world around Ma is changing, even if it still seems very under-developed and simple to some, and with the coming of change so perishes the traditions of the old. Fly with the Crane is slow and simple but rich in its humanity. For a movie about a tragic figure trying to plan his own funeral it’s not without some moments of gentle humor and simple humanity. Although it is shot in largely very long takes (Bela Tarr fans will be fine) that let you just steep in the environment, the pace never drags and the music (although its use is sparse) is wonderful and well-placed. I cannot reveal the ending, but let’s just say I don’t know that I was mentally prepared for the final scene.

Following a fitful night’s sleep on a solid wood floor we were up again at 6 to wait in the ticket line. We managed to obtain precisely the tickets we were looking for.

Film three was the only movie I had been aware of back in the states. I had wanted to see it but was afraid I’d be in the wrong country at the time of its release. Ha! Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an American film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play by Lucy Alibar. While the film unfolds as an immensely gritty American fable and allegory for the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it proves to be also a hardy story about resilience, home, stubbornness, and maybe even the desire for one’s existence to be validated and remembered. Beasts combines elements of the real world but punctuated by an exaggerated logic and a poet’s sensibilities. The cast is great but it is the lead role of Hushpuppy played by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis that makes it all work. As the film itself quips, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” A child actor can make or break a film, and little Quvenzhané really makes it. The story follows the tough little girl, Hushpuppy, as she deals with living in uneducated squalor with her erratic and volatile father on the wrong side of the levy in a dilapidated bayou community called the Bathtub. Things go from bad to worse when the Storm comes and floods their world and then the ice caps melt releasing prehistoric bloodthirsty aurochs that rampage their way to the Bathtub. It is an edifying experience for the imagination and a welcome emotional letter for the soul. Much is dealt with and all from a child’s eye view. Between the amazing score that stirs your very core, the almost Herzogian use of animals, the sumptuous photography, and powerful pint-sized performance this proves to be a special movie indeed. The innovative auroch special effects were done by Death to the Tinman and MGMT music video director, Ray Tintori.

And then ate Vietnamese food alfresco.

So three solid movies in a row. We were doomed for a stinker, right? No so.

The last film we were able to catch before our train was The Pirogue (2012), a Senegalese production directed by Moussa Touré. I had no idea what a “pirogue” was before watching this movie. Apparently it’s not at all like those Polish ravioli things [pirogi]. The story concerns 30 Africans who are attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe via Spain. The trouble is they must face long uncertain days on the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a glorified canoe-type boat called a pirogue. This is a very even-handed drama that does not feel manipulative. Every character is a person with individual hopes and dreams and everyone’s will is eventually tested on their doomed sojourn. Storms at sea are bad, but when your craft is as exposed and vulnerable as theirs it becomes devastating. Soon desperation sets in and they begin to wonder how long their journey will go on. I do not wish to give away too much because the less you know going in, the more powerful the drama will be. This film was inspired by the thousands of Africans who have made similar journeys to Europe and the thousands who perished attempting it. This is not Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Much like Fly with the Crane, The Pirogue feels very authentic, which makes each moment that much more believable and heart-breaking. Arizona law-makers should watch this movie. We, in America, think we’re the only ones with an immigration problem, but it is a cross-cultural occurrence that challenges many nations, and all of those nations might benefit from viewing the phenomenon from the other’s point-of-view. The cast is powerful and despite the bulk of the drama unfolding in one space (a rather crowded boat) it holds your attention because you’re never sure what will happen next.

All in all I’d say we were blessed to see the diverse and amazing films we did. My big regret was that we only got to see four movies. There were so many other ones we wanted to see, but it was just too difficult and we only had two days. The International Busan Film Festival was an absolute delight and I highly recommend all the magnificent movies I saw.

The following day I was back at work and watched a film of a much different nature. It was a PSA about sexual harassment at work, but it was all in Korean so I’m not sure what I was meant to learn. Is spanking my coworkers a bad thing?

Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011