Pasolini’s Arabian Nights

Written by Joe D on October 12th, 2011

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Another rare discovery on Netflix streaming, the 1974 Grand Prize Winner of the Cannes Film Festival, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights or Il fiore delle mille e una notte. I saw this film on it’s initial release back in 1975 in NYC and this is the first time I’ve watched it since then, I started watching it around midnight last night and couldn’t turn it off, I was so caught up in it’s mystic spell of storytelling, just like the caliph who can’t bring himself to kill Scherezade because he wants to hear how her story turns out.

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It took a lot of courage for Pasolini to travel to these exotic locals (Yemen, Ethiopia, etc.) for one he was homosexual and in some of these places at that time that was punishable by death. He got the creme de la creme of Italian film artisans to work on the film, costumes-Danilo Donati, Set Design- Dante Ferretti, Editing- Nino Baragli, Music Ennio Morricone, Camera-Giuseppe Ruzzolini.

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Pasolini and his intrepid crew penetrated hermetic societies, filming in locations that had never been seen by Western audiences, these places are like something out of a dream, it imbues the film with a sense of poetry and magic, bringing the intertwined tales of the Arabian Nights to life in a primal, savage, beautiful way. It is interesting to compare it with Korda’s Thief Of Bagdad,they both spring from the same source and have similar scenes, the prince transformed to an animal, discovering a princess in her garden, taking on a beggar’s clothing, but Arabian Nights tells the tales in a more authentic way, truer to the original. Pasolini was fascinated with the early roots of the novel, picaresque tales of travelers, collections of anecdotes that gave rise to the novels form. The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales come to mind, storytelling at it’s most basic interpreted by a 20th Century poet. A beautiful work of Art by a great artist. Check it out.

Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari to screen at Disney Concert Hall

Written by Joe D on October 11th, 2011

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Robert Wiene’s Expressionistic masterpieceThe Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari will screen Sunday October 30 at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeies. Robert Clark will accompany the film live on the massive organ. I have been wanting to hear that instrument since it was built and here is the perfect chance. Frank Gehery’s design was nicknamed the Box Of French Fries and you can see why.

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Fritz Lang was supposed to direct this film but it didn’t work out. Robert Wiene did an excellent job.

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Fritz was busy directing Die Spinnen. Conrad Veidt starred as Cesare the somnambulist. He later played Nazis in Hollywood films like Casablanca where he was Major Strasser.

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It’s very cool that a film that influenced film design so strongly , cited by many as a major influence on Film Noir with it’s painted shadows and highlights, should screen at a Temple of Artistic Design, the Disney Concert Hall.
The only drag about this whole thing is that the tickets are too expensive. Halloween is a children’s holiday and what kids can afford tickets to this. They really should have free recitals of organ music for children and underprivileged people here. Music is a gift to all humanity not just rich patrons. Exposing youngsters to sound like this can only improve the quality of life for all denizens of our globe. Let’s hope it can happen.

Val Lewton Returns!

Written by Joe D on July 26th, 2011

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Here is the 3rd installment in my Val Lewton article extravaganza! This time it’s from Life Magazine. It’s mainly about Bedlam , the last of Lewton’s films for RKO, notable for it’s use of Hogarth prints as inspiration. Then there’s a short section on Lewton and a great photo of him in a screening room. Val got a lot of good press. Lewton constantly amazed his contemporaries by producing quality period films on a minuscule budget. His techniques are still well worth studying .

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I Walked With A Zombie

Written by Joe D on December 8th, 2010

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I went, I watched, I walked with I Walked With A Zombie. It was incredible! Really the best way to see this film is in a big theater with 35mm projection! There is no substitute, you pick up so many more nuances, the atmosphere becomes all pervasive, your psyche is opened up to the incredible images and fantasy pours in through your eyes and ears to your very soul! This is how the makers designed the film to work, they didn’t think about TV or video. To say the least it was a moving experience and it clocked in at a rocket fast 70 minutes!

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This film is crammed with ideas, Lewton and his team did exhaustive research and it shows, the music, the dancing, the Afro Caribbean culture give Zombie a rock hard foundation on which to build a castle of fantasy and terror. But terror in a Fairy Tale like way, sort of innocent yet savage, ruthless as Nature and as pure. This film is a textbook of studio filmmaking at a peak of artistry. The B&W photography,the lighting, the production design, the process photography, amazingly executed.

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The Great RKO Artisans of Storytelling-P.S. Check out the legal disclaimer at the bottom of the frame for a joke.

We start in Canada, in a Victorian office, snow falls furiously outside the window. Our Heroine (Francis Dee) is ta nurse being offered a job in the Caribbean, one stock shot of a big sailing schooner later we’re on board (thanks to process photography) with the boss of the plantation and his men, who sing a strange island song in the background. The scene here between Francis Dee and Tom Conway is a brilliantly written piece, it expertly sets the mood for the rest of the film. “It’s so beautiful” Dee thinks to herself only to be interrupted a second later by Conway telling her “It isn’t beautiful” Dee answers “You read my mind” , Conway replies, “You see those flying fish, they’re jumping in terror to escape being eaten, that phosphorescence in the water? The putrescent bodies of dead organisms, This is a place of death.” He sets a tone of unease, he unsettles Dee by reading her mind(supernatural), he belittles her naivety, he fascinates her with his honesty. That sets up their complicated relationship for the rest of the film. All in a couple of minutes.

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Then theirs a scene in the town of San Sebastian, probably the RKO backlot dressed up by D’Agostino and Keller. They filmed here maybe a day or two at most, it’s used a couple of times in the film but sparingly, you really get the impression that everything was planned out and organized with maximum efficiency, the budget was $134,000! A scene in a buggy (process) as an old black islander drives Dee to the plantation is also illuminating. The driver tells her how the slaves were brought to the island in chains on a ship, the figurehead of which is now prominently displayed at the plantation. “It’s so beautiful here” “He replies “If you say so miss, if you say so” She naively ignores the whole slavery aspect, the inherent inhumanity, brutality, focusing on the lush scenery. Lewton’s comment on Western insensitivity.

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Figurehead of St. Sebastian, a representation of the slave based history of the island

The story continues and some of the high points are, the first night at the plantation, Dee is awakened by a woman crying, she goes out to investigate and enters the Tower where the wife of Ellison is kept. It’s pretty creepy, the tower set is particularly effective consisting of a stone stairway slashing across a black frame. Dee climbs the stairs and is confronted by the wraithlike zombie wife of Conway, Jessica Holland. The zombie advances upon her and I swear they applied a skull like make up to her face, it’s shot in a long shot so you can’t see her too clearly but I want to watch it again and check.

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The next great set piece and my favorite scene of the film is when Dee brings Mrs. Holland to a Voodoo ritual, she leads the entranced blonde through a swamp, all artfully created on soundstages, the native drums beat ominously, they come across several talismans , a cow skull, a hanging goat, a human skull and finally a huge zombie guard, he reminds me of Gort from Day The Earth Stood Still.

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But due to their protective amulets , pinned to them by the maid at the plantation, they pass unmolested. The ceremony is great, excellent music by real voodoo drummers and authentic dancing that must have blown peoples minds back in 1943. Here’s another aspect of this film that added to it’s tabu appeal, the underlying hint of interracial sex, the way the maid wakes Dee up by tickling her foot, the fascination of the voodoo priests for the tall beautiful white zombie. The confession by Conway’s mother that she participated in zombie rituals and was possessed by a voodoo god! This is 1943! Lewton so skillfully implies all this and gets away with it! Genius! Also he employed a lot of black actors, including Sir Lancelot, the calypso singer who Lewton also used in Curse Of The Cat People and Theresa Harris who is wonderful as the maid Alma. She is funny and sexy and appears in Out Of The Past and many other classic films.

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The beautiful Theresa Harris-she is the crying woman that awakened Francis Dee on her first night on the Island. She was crying because her sister had a baby. The Islanders cry at a birth and rejoice at a death. The only freedom from their slavery.

There’s a transitional device used in this film that’s very subtle. I first noticed this technique in Cat People which was edited by the same person, Mark Robson. It’s a sort of a wipe, but it’s as if a black shape passed in front of the lens, in Cat People it feels like a black panther crossed very close to the camera, it creates a subconscious sense of unease, you’re not really aware of what happened, it seems like a quick fade out fade in but it isn’t. Watch Cat People and Zombie carefully and try to catch it. In Zombie it occurs late in the film, a transition between Dee talking to Conway at night at the plantation and Mrs. Holland trying to leave. Somewhere around there. A very subtle masterful stroke that I’ve never heard anyone speak of. The end of the film is a brilliant study in visual poetry, economy of storytelling, and the power of an ending. The drunk half brother kills Mrs. Holland with an arrow from the figurehead in the garden, just as the voodoo priest pierces the doll of Mrs. Holland with a pin.

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The half brother(James Ellison) carries Mrs. Hollands body away pursued by the giant zombie guardian. He walks into the ocean to escape the zombie only to be swallowed up by pounding waves.
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Dissolve to native fisherman spearfishing in the shallows ( a tank on a sound stage artfully lit and decorated) as they fish and sing they discover Mrs. Holland’s body,

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Studio Artifice

dissolve to them carrying her in a funeral procession back to the plantation where Dee and Conway wait. The END! No dialog explaining what happened, no happy ending with Dee and Holland rushing off to get married, we don’t know what they’re going to do, it’s ambiguous and it’s great! As a matter of fact there is no dialog at all in the last 10 minutes of the film! Pure visual poetry accompanied by music! Try that today. All I can say is thank you LACMA for showing this film in a theater, with 35mm projection! And every film lover out there should see it this way, it’s a blessing!

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I Walked With A Zombie to screen at LACMA

Written by Joe D on December 6th, 2010

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Treat yourself to a Holiday Zombie Afternoon. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s classic I Walked With A Zombie will screen Tuesday Dec.7th at 1pm, how delicious an afternoon screening! When you come back from your trip to Zombie Island it will still be light outside, be like Woody Allen, share his guilty pleasure of seeing a movie in the daytime. Plus it’s a rare opportunity to see this gem in glorious 35mm B&W! Movie theaters are turning more and more to digital projection soon you’ll only be able to see film at museums and revival houses, Bah! Humbug!
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I want to see it in 35mm!

Here’s all the info. This is a great example of how Art Directors Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter Keller were able to create a poetic mystical world on a shoe string budget, ably abetted by Cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. So check it out, see for yourself what all the hubbub about Val Lewton and his gang of tricksters is about. Too Bad the Tiki Ti is closed or we could all meet there for a post screening Zombie.

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Val Lewton’s Curse Of The Cat People, Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura

Written by Joe D on September 21st, 2010

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I recently re-watched Curse Of The Cat People, Val Lewton’s masterpiece. Running an extremely efficient 70 minutes, it’s incredible how much story, atmosphere, character, and artistry the filmmakers have packed into this B thriller. The brilliant script by DeWitt Bodeen picks up the characters from 1942’s Cat People 7 years or so later and now living in Tarrytown, NY, nearby to where Lewton grew up. This setting enables Lewton to inject local lore from his own childhood, notably the legend of the Headless Horseman Of Sleepy Hollow. Lewton was primarily a writer and even though he gets no screen credit as such, this script was a collaboration between Bodeen and him. Robert Wise, crack editor of such RKO gems as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Devil And Daniel Webster was called in to replace the original director Gunther Von Fritsch, who had fallen behind schedule, Wise began his directing career with a bang. Cinematography was by the terrific Nicolas Musuraca, lensman of the incomparably shot noir Out Of The Past. Art Direction by the prodigiously talented Albert S. D’Agostino ( perhaps a distant relation of mine) and Walter Keller. Top it off with excellent performances most notably that of the wonderful child actress Ann Carter. Curse Of The Cat People is an incredibly sensitive film, dealing with the fantasies of a lonely, mis-understood child. Amy Reed creates a “friend” that cares for her and plays with her, partly because her father refuses to believe her stories. Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) was married to Irena (Simone Simone) in the original Cat People. He’s afraid his daughters’ flights of fancy will lead her to a similar end as Irena. His loss of the woman he loved has made him afraid for his daughter and really for himself, he does not want to go through the loss of a loved one again, as a result he clamps down on his daughter, seeking to snuff out her “dangerous” imagination. He only succeeds in driving her into the arms of her friend Irena. Amy had discovered a picture of Irena and her mother’s guilty response triggered an unconscious identification with the beautiful, mysterious figure in the photo.

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Winter comes and it gives Musuraca and D’Agostino a chance to really shine. Irena gives her Xmas present to Amy, transforming the garden behind the family home to a glittering cathedral of shimmering lights, fantastic winter forms of ice, snow, the bare limbs of trees, a magical application of Movie Studio Artifice, effects done in camera with lighting changes, some of the most beautiful examples of this lost Art ever created.

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Another noteworthy sequence is when Irena appears in Amy’s bedroom, telling her little friend she must go, never to be seen again. This is accomplished with a tracking shot, Irena is there and then she is obscured by the camera tracking behind a chair,when the camera emerges Irena is gone, the open window letting some mist cascade in where she once stood, also pay careful attention to the sound track lest you miss the whispered “Goodbye” a beautifully mixed sequence. A group of carolers comes by the house and the shots of the family framed in the front door of their home listening are superb.

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Sir Lancelot appears as the faithful man-servant and he is as always great. Lewton used him several times in his films and he always played a character of great dignity, a tribute to Lewton’s egalitarianism. Lewton was hired at RKO ( my favorite studio) to run their “B” horror unit. The movies had to be short ( these were the days of the double bill), produced for under$150,000, and based on a title the studio brass came up with. Lewton disliked this title and the marketing of the film was off base suggesting a straight horror revisit to the original Cat People but I think the title is good, the curse is what happens to the traumatized survivors of the first film, mainly Oliver and Alice Reed. Cat People was a huge hit, saving RKO from the brink of ruin so the studio left Lewton alone and he was able to create some wonderful fantasies on a shoestring budget, a real tribute to the talents involved. Culminating in his masterpiece Curse Of The Cat People, a very personal film.

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Val Lewton
This brings me to Part Two of this essay, something that struck me while recently viewing this film. Does it contain the root of a character from Mario Bava’s masterpiece Operazione Paura (Kill Baby Kill) .Curse Of The Cat People was made in 1944, as soon as WWII was over the USA flooded Europe with films. They had been prevented from distributing films in Europe during the war. I’m sure Mario Bava went to see this film in Rome and it made a deep impression on him. Bava’s father was a special effects artisan, a sculptor who made creatures for films. Bava was an effects cameraman, master of the in camera effect, matte painting, trick lighting etc. He had to have seen this masterpiece of studio artistry and been deeply moved. The story goes that when he was casting Operazione Paura he searched high and low for a young girl to play the part of the ghostly killer. He couldn’t find one, finally he got a young boy to don a wig and play the part. I think he was looking for his own Ann Carter. A child that resembled her. There are some similar images in the films, for example when the girls are seen in Close Up looking through a window pane.

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Another paralell, a child’s ball provides the key to another dimension in both films, in Curse Irena is first revealed tossing Anne’s ball back to her, the little girl throws the ball offscreen to her friend and Simone enters with it and throws it back. In Paura the bouncing ball of the devil girl is often the first sign of her coming.

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Bava’s film is an illusion inside of an illusion, a puzzle at the heart of which is a subversion of innocence to evil, a baroque fantasy about the loss of childhood innocence. Perhaps not so far fetched considering the realities of a war torn country. One thing that always struck me about Curse Of The Cat People is the hominess, domestic peace of it’s setting. You want to live there in Tarrytown amongst the legends, old bridges, fireplaces, gardens. Life seems so peaceful, serene. Maybe Operation Paura is a reaction to that idyllic vision from an artist that lived through real horror. Another interesting fact, the girl who falls to her death, impaled on a wrought iron fence at the begining of Operazione Paura is named Irena.

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Mario Bava

Max Reinhardt

Written by Joe D on November 3rd, 2009

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Max Reinhardt, king of German theater had to flee Nazi oppression at the height of his creative success. He came to America, staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl and was signed to a contract by Warner Bros. to direct a film version. I guess it didn’t make money because Reinhardt didn’t get to make any other films. But the film he did make with William Dieterle co-directing is incredibly beautiful. Fantastic images in luminous Black and White, they must have upped the silver content in that batch of nitrate film because the images positively glow!

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A number of Reinhardt’s collaborators from Germany re-located to Hollywood and created some of the most creative films ever made there. Dieterle made the incredible Portrait Of Jennie, a magical film beloved by none other than the great Surrealist Luis Bunuel.

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Although Dieterle was driven to drink and a nervous breakdown by the incessant barrage of telegrams from amphetamine fueled producer David O. Selznick. The cameraman Joseph August of that film died soon after of a heart attack, Selznick strikes again? John Brahm, director of The Lodger, The Locket, and Hangover Square was a Reinhardt alumnus.

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John Brahm

So was Otto Preminger, not a filmmaker of Fantasy, but definetly a ground-breaker when it came to sex, race, drugs, Black-Listing. Plus he directed the archtypal Laura.

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Mr. Freeze says “Where’s Dorothy Dandridge?”

And Edgar G. Ulmer labored in the Art Department for Reinhardt. He directed the Bauhaus influenced Horror fim The Black Cat. A curious coincidence, Reinhardt opened an Acting School in Hollywood to pay his bills, Anne Savage attended and hit it off with Max, she later starred in Ulmer’s Detour.

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Edgar G. Ulmer, a Black Cat crossed his path at Universal

Here’s a promotional film about the making of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Albert S. D’Agostino

Written by Joe D on September 7th, 2007

This post is about the super talented Art Director Albert S. D’Agostino. He designed the sets for some great Universal horror films of the 30’s, like The Raven with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and The Invisible Ray also with Karloff and Lugosi.
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We’ll put the embalming machine right there.

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Then he moved over to my favorite studio, the crazy house RKO. Here he worked on some more masterpieces of supernatural atmosphere, all of Val Lewton’s classics- The Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With A Zombie, Curse Of The Cat People.
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The Cat People

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Who ordered The Zombie?

While at RKO he was made head of the Art Department and he is credited on hundreds of films including some incredible noirs like Out Of The Past, The Spiral Staircase andClash By Night.
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One Of My All Time Favorites

And Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World! His credits are mind boggling. I’m attaching a scan of an article from the summer 1971 issue of Cinefantastique by Gary D. Dorst written at the time of D’Agostino’s death. If anyone has any more information about him or knew him please let me know, I’d love to get more information on Mr. D’Agostino.
Here’s a link to a great article about him:http://www.filmreference.com/Writers-and-Production-Artists-Ch-De/D-Agostino-Albert-S.html
And here is the scan of the CineFantastique article

Albert D’Agostino - CineFantastique

p.s. Our last names are very similar, I always wondered if we might be related.