Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Per Gance To Dream

Yvette Mimieux and Rod Taylor in George Pal's now uncomfortably prophetic THE TIME MACHINE (1960).

I was expecting a backlash of negative response after yesterday's internet cri de coeur, but every response I've received thus far has been sympathetic -- not in the sense of being comforting, but in the sense of expressing common accord.

The internet is hurting a lot of people, either by actively infringing on the livelihoods of professional craftspeople, or by making them increasingly passive. Donna and I were talking the other night and we mutually noted that it's rare anymore that anyone ever speaks to us with a genuine sense of curiosity. I can understand this where I'm concerned, since I seem to post my thoughts on this blog almost as soon as I have them, but Donna feels the same way. Even in the best of situations, don't you find that people nowadays tend to talk about themselves and it ends there? Unless, of course, they're people whose lives are so void of personal interest that they have utterly supplanted their sense of self by talking about nothing but the hapless misadventures of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Mel Gibson, et al that pass for Hollywood publicity these days. The art of conversation is mutating insidiously; people are bouncing monologues off each other rather than truly exchanging ideas (which requires being open to new ideas and points-of-view). I suspect this attitude is prompted by the degree to which e-mail has taken over so many of the former uses of the telephone and good old over-the-backyard-fence dialogue. I don't like sounding like a sign-waving, it's-the-end-of-the-world-crying fuddy-duddy, but we need to realize the extent of the very subtle damage that's being done to us, that we're doing to ourselves by embracing all this convenience. Remember the Eloi -- even they had curiosity! ("How did they wear their hair in your time?")

In related headlines... Bob Dylan says modern music is worthless..., TONY BENNETT: 'AMERICA IS CULTURALLY VOID'... and, in the words of the late great Brother Theodore, "I'm not feeling so good myself!"

Actually, I'm feeling a bit better. I took a friend's advice and spent some time last night sitting on my patio, on the first cool night Cincinnati has enjoyed in awhile, with a fine Montecristo cigar and an iPod loaded with some old time radio shows. (One of them was an ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET show called "Have a Cigar.") For those of you who are automatically turned off by the phrase "old time radio," don't think of it as old: think of it as "classic." Or better yet, think of it as one of those Krell devices from FORBIDDEN PLANET that hook up to your head and boost your intelligence, because radio forces the mind to fill in the blanks. It's not an imposition; it's a pleasure. You create the actors' faces, their wardrobe, their props, their art direction... and, when the show's over, you're left with the pleasant afterglow of having used what today's entertainment typically denies you: your imagination.

But back to me. (I'm laughing, and I hope you are.) When I came back indoors, I rounded out my evening by watching a film I've long been wanting to see: Abel Gance's 1955 film of Alexandre Dumas pere's LA TOUR DE NESLE. Some background: Several months ago, I went to the attic and pulled down an old tape of a movie I hadn't seen in about 20 years, which was released here theatrically as TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS in 1970-71. It's actually a 1968 film called DER TURM DER VERBOTENEN LIEBE ("The Tower of Forbidden Love"). Despite the lurid title, it's a 14th century historical swashbuckler in which the virgins are men who are lured to a tower with promises of sexual ecstasy, where the masked courtesans include the Queen of France, Marguerite de Bourgogne (a real historic personage, 1290-1315) and her two handmaidens, who indulge their nymphomania during the King's absence by having their way with strangers all night and having them slain at dawn.

I reviewed TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS for a future "Things From the Attic," and in the course of researching it, I found out that it was actually based on a play (not a novel, as cited onscreen) by Dumas, which is widely regarded as the finest example of French melodrama ever written. Even more intriguing, it was not the first film adaptation of the play, which had been previously filmed as a silent serial, as a feature in 1937, and a few times in the 1950s -- the most important of which was Gance's version, which marked his return to the screen after a twelve-year absence.

I was fortunate to find a copy of the Rene Chateau French VHS release of Gance's LA TOUR DE NESLE as a "Buy It Now" item on eBay. There is apparently also a more recent DVD release, which is also out-of-print but sometimes turns up there. Old French tapes are usually the bottom-of-the-barrel, quality-wise, due to the inferior SECAM system, but I must say that this was an exception, the equal of some of the best PAL tapes I've seen.

It's to be expected that a movie titled TOWER OF SCREAMING VIRGINS will contain some female nudity, but it comes as a bit of a shock to American sensibilities to discover that the 1937 version did as well; you can see the proof by going here and scrolling down. Somehow, the Gance film is most startling in this department, as the women's bared breasts and the men's bared bottoms -- not to mention the devastatingly unleashed female libido portrayed -- are couched in an opulent production that marries the rustic fantasia of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to a velvety color cinematography that recalls THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD or, better yet, one of the early Disney animated features.

Watching LA TOUR DE NESLE is not unlike seeing Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS with all the missing scenes documenting the evil Queen's orgiastic sex life put back in. And because Americans like myself are not accustomed to seeing sex dealt with so graphically in films of this vintage, it consequently carries a stronger erotic charge than 1968 version, which actually offers more skin. One gets the feeling of having stumbled onto a special print manufactured to satifsy a film producer's private predelictions and never meant to be seen by the general public. Silvana Pampanini, whose first close-up (in which she wears a lace mask) is guaranteed to draw gasps, uses a body double... but it doesn't matter. Probably owing to its erotic candor, LA TOUR DE NESLE was never released in America, so it is extremely difficult to see here -- but it's a classic of its kind and an essential addition to any self-respecting film buff's education. Criterion, are you listening?

More in my forthcoming "Things from the Attic" review...

PS: Earlier today, Video WatchBlog counted its 300,000th hit. I thank you all for your continued... curiosity.

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