Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cincinnati, Heaven and Hell

You tried to warn me then
And I still loved you when
You said the words I could not believe...

When you work in the business of film and video reviewing, there's a constant and sometimes oppressive pressure to cover only what is new. More and more often of late, I've been fighting this sense of regimentation by watching what I want to watch, what I'm most drawn to. The movies I find most enticing at any given time may not be new releases; they may not even be official releases -- indeed, they may not have been released at all. There is, and always will be, a tremendous allure about those unsanctioned titles which can only be seen through the efforts of a dedicated subterranean community. Fortunately, each issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG can support only so much of my own writing, which leaves me a certain amount of time each month in which to truffle out the kinds of movies that can only be found by those who are willing to dig. It is the pursuit and study of these random obsessions that keep me excited about what I do.

That love was just a game
A game to play
Any way
Maybe madly
Or maybe sadly...

A Swede maybe, frozen to death possibly.

I was recently able to realize a long-held dream of seeing Luigi Scattini's mondo film SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL (1968) in English. Judging from the copy I obtained, it must have had an official DVD release in Japan, because it was in English with fixed Japanese subtitles. I looked around the internet in search of the actual disc, but couldn't find it at any of the usual outlets, so I can only surmise it has gone out-of-print.

Could it be really true

My love meant nothing too

And I was only just a passing affair?

Marie Liljedahl - A Swede in danger?

Supposedly a documentary about the peculiarities of Sweden and its people, SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is a patently false construction -- for example, a segment on a Swedish biker gang ends with the cyclists dismounting to chase a young woman through the woods, whom they catch and then proceed to gang-rape in a coyly filmed and very short sequence. Close-ups of the supposed victim reveal her to be actress Marie Liljedahl, a fact which, at the time, would have been apparent only to those few who had also seen INGA, EUGENIE... THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION or GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES FOR ADULTS.

Trauma? Acting?

Edmond Purdom's narration of a later segment about a secret lesbian club (where we witness the congregation of what Mr. Purdom calls "human wreckage") mentions that the earlier segment's rape victim is among the women onscreen -- hinting that all lesbians share a history of traumatic contact with the male sex -- but Ms. Liljedahl is nowhere to be seen among their number. Other segments profile a kind of permissive barge cruise where teenagers can lose their virginity and gain sexual experience with multiple partners; a nightclub featuring a topless rock band; the birth of a baby destined for adoption; a home for unwanted children; Sweden's supposed epidemic tendencies to alcoholism and suicide; a tour of a Swedish atomic shelter (which looks rather like the dressing room area of a sports arena), and a group of teen girls who run semi-naked through the snow after opening their pores with a nice schvitz in a sauna.

Brother and sister, man and wife -- or are they?

Yes, it was true that

You never did care...

Da dee da dee-dee ( Mah-ná mah-ná), Deet dee-dee deet...

It's during the almost embarrassingly innocent sauna scene that Piero Umiliani's hit song "Mah-ná Mah-ná" is heard for the first and only time in the picture. To be sure, a large measure of this strange film's pull on my imagination stems from my purchase of the 45rpm single -- a song wholesome enough for Cincinnati's Larry Smith Puppets (and later, the Muppets) to pantomime on television -- when I was in my early teens. The Ariel Records label mentioned parenthetically that the song was from the movie SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL, about which I knew nothing, but I can vividly recall the tingles of teenage complicity and transgression I felt when the film eventually opened at Cincinnati's Twin Drive-In Theater, carrying an X rating. I suppose I had already transgressed along similar lines when I bought Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" from the MIDNIGHT COWBOY soundtrack, but there was nothing conspicuously adult about that song. There was something vaguely creepy about discovering "Mah-ná Mah-ná"'s ties to an X-rated movie; it was such an otherworldly novelty record, an instrumental from a film peopled with unprofessionals, my brain boggled as it pondered what racy spectacles the song might accompany onscreen. Easy Tempo's soundtrack CD contains a list of the musicians who performed Umiliani's score (including none other than Gato Barbieri) and reveals that the vocals were by Sandro Alessandroni ("Mah-ná Mah-ná") and Edda Dell'Orso ("Deet dee-dee-deet") -- both of whom contributed significantly to Ennio Morricone's unparalleled score for Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST the very same year. Indeed, there is a track on the album called "La Signora Cameriera" featuring a distinctive whistle by Alessandroni that evokes "Cheyenne's Theme" from the Leone masterpiece.

What do Swedish policewomen do when off-duty? Nude modelling, of course.

Umiliani's alternately spritely, mournful and longing lounge score (currently out of print, but downloadable from here) lends a haunting ambiance to what otherwise would be a peculiarly arid sketch of European despair. Perhaps its most compelling cue is a bluesy torch song called "You Tried To Warn Me" (amusingly listed in the end titles as "You Tried To Worm Me"), sung by Lydia MacDonald. The song's melody is repeated serially throughout the picture, even instrumentally reprised within other cues, though its lyrics make no specific comment about anything in it. Other reprised melodies, like that of "Solitudine," have a greater bearing on the picture, their symphonic strains of overbearing sadness going some way towards describing in music the supposed Swedish sense of malaise -- that bizarre nullity of spirit that blooms only in the land of the midnight sun, compelling the natives to marry their siblings, drink antifreeze, jump off the roofs of buildings, and dance with members of the same sex.

Cavorting at the lesbian bar.

And, though you're gone,

I'll still keep on loving you.

Sweden's Love Boat. Or is it?

With its POV shots of boats meeting the horizon lines of glittering waterways, cars venturing along barren country roads, soulless architecture and a cast of (mostly) nameless people, some of whom are shown leaping to faked deaths from window ledges or sharing a bottle of Aquavit with strangers in a public pissoir -- all set to unexpectedly gripping music that counts, along with 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, as Umiliani's masterpiece -- SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is one of those movies that best come alive when watched in solitude in the after-midnight hours. After watching the movie, I seriously considered giving it another spin right away, knowing that a second viewing would inevitably take me to even stranger corners of the night and my imagination. It struck me, unexpectedly, as a Ballardian picture, empathic but strangely clinical, the kind of movie that entices one (at least entices me) to think about exploring it further -- not in the form of a review, but in a work of experimental short fiction. It's not so much about Sweden, I gather, as it's about a place in the imagination called Sweden.

J.G. Ballard's Sweden. Or is it?

Could it be really true

My love meant nothing too

And I was only just a passing affair?

Going to the drive-in. Or am I?

Now that I've finally seen SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL via this DVD-R disc, I find myself wishing all the more ardently that I could have seen it in 35mm when it played at my local Twin Drive-In Theater in 1970. I wish I could find and interview the Ohioans and Northern Kentuckians who went in my stead, like one of those man-in-the-street interrogators from the SCHOOLGIRL REPORT films: What was the experience like for them? Was it what they expected? Why did they go? Because of the hit song? Because of the X rating? Did they curse to themselves when they realized that it wasn't going to be quite the sensational exposé they had been led to expect? Did they snicker or feel revulsion at the grinny brother and his shy-looking sister who (we're told) met belatedly in life, fell in love, and had to leave Stockholm for the anonymity of life in a smaller town? Did they see through the phony parts, which supposedly caused a public uproar when the film was finally televised, many years later, in Stockholm? Did they inadvertently learn something about Sweden, its progressive views on sex, its socialist society, despite Scattini's fictions and manipulations? Did they recognize themselves in it?

A Swedish girl broods in her room -- as I once did. Were they showing "Cincinnati, Heaven and Hell" only four blocks away and she couldn't go?

If I think hard enough, I am there... semi-reclined in the driver's seat of a 1967 Camaro at the Twin Drive-In on that lost evening -- which I actually spent approximately four blocks away, "in my room, in my room," even then grinding my teeth at the thought of the experience I was missing, so close yet so far away. As the film ends, cheap images of atomic devastation followed by splicy, jumpy footage of teenage girls sunning their naked bodies on a riverbank -- nubile representatives of a reborn Sweden -- the closing song ("Sleep Now, Little One") cuts out on my window speaker. It is abruptly replaced by the Twin's stock intermission/exit music, which always began with either The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" or The Beatles' "Lady Madonna" joined in progress. The movie is over, I tell myself; it will never play here again. I sit patiently, savoring the moment, letting the cars around me ignite and jockey for positions in the exiting queues, all of their drivers somehow more eager than I to break away from this shared spell of mystification and return to their mundane lives.

Yes, it was true that

You never did care

And, though you're gone,

I'll still keep on loving you.

It occurs to me, as I watch their Mustangs and Thunderbirds and Ramblers inching away and suddenly bolting onto Tennessee Avenue like racehorses, that I will, in all likelihood, never know any of the people with whom I just shared this singular experience, which makes them indistinguishable from the people who appeared in SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL, whom I will also never know. Sometimes, years later, a revelation may crop up in conversation at a party or around a watercooler -- "You were there too?" -- but it occurs so rarely that those other cars might as well be filing out of a theater somewhere in Stockholm.

Knowing that it will be some time before the exits are cleared, I decide to stretch my legs. I get out of my car, light a cigarette and look up at the stars -- the stars that Cincinnati shares with Stockholm and the little Swedish town where the incestuous lovers have hidden themselves away from worldly scrutiny, while consenting to celebrate their love openly in a motion picture that will be shown all around the world. I think about how a movie like SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL is like a message in a bottle, sent from one culture to another... I've found it, I've seen it, but now what do I do with it? A train whistle blows in the distance and wonder where it is going at this hour. Will it cross the Erie Canal? Both Sweden and Cincinnati have an Erie Canal...

Suddenly, a car horn intrudes upon my reverie. The lot is now empty and a man is waving impatiently to me from the theater gate; he wants to close up. I drop my cigarette, replace the speaker on its stand and climb back into my Camaro; I start up the engine and enjoy the slow sensation of my tires rolling over the gravel and the condoms and the popcorn boxes on the way out, my headlights bouncing off the arrows leading to the exit. I take the right turn on to Tennessee Avenue slowly and gracefully. A left turn would take me home.

Cincinnati's Tennessee Avenue... or somewhere in Sweden? You tell me.

I drive past the Porter's Paint store ("Cover the Earth"), past the McDonalds, past Natorp's Garden Center -- looking for back roads at the outskirts of my neighborhood that might click with the torch song from the movie that is stuck on automatic replay in my head.

You tried to warn me...

I continue to avoid the roads that would take me home until well after 3:00 am, celebrating the fact that it is still the weekend, that it is still 1970, knowing that the sun must inevitably rise on Monday and the commencement of a new working week. I know that, as surely as Monday slips into Tuesday, Tuesday into Wednesday into Thursday, my memory of SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL will slip into those fuzzy banks of the brain where we file those unexpectedly important moments we didn't share, the things we finally cannot be sure actually happened. I muse to myself: I'll never see that movie again. They never show X-rated films on television.

As long as I continue driving, holding my responsibilities at bay, my memory of this peculiar and strangely longing, lonely film will stay as fresh in my mind as it will ever be. And so I drive on, reflecting on the places I may never go, on broken hearts and lives half a world away, as I hum once again Umiliani's song about a love affair entered into with reckless abandon.

You tried to warn me.


POSTSCRIPT (6:16am): It must be serendipity... The first response I received to the above fever dream came from reader Lars Erik Holmquist at Stockholm University! Lars wrote to inform me of the happy news that SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL has just been released on DVD in Sweden, where it never received a theatrical release! Here is a link to Klubb Super 8's sales page for the disc, which includes audio tracks in English, Italian and Spanish -- in which the narration is respectively read by Edmond Purdom, Enrico Maria Salerno and... I don't know who. Lars tells me that he contributed some of his paper collection on the title to this release, which features a stills and poster gallery as well as pictorial adornments on the packaging. Lars also sent me these links (here and here) to pages from his own blog, Terror in the Midnight Sun, where he blogged about SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL himself.

POSTSCRIPT (9:42 pm): Reader Miles Wood informs me that SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL was in fact released on DVD in Japan on the Avanz label, back in 2004. An Avanz sales page suggests it may still be available.

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