Friday, July 10, 2009

Notes on SZAMANKA

In preparation for 200 words I needed to write about writer-director Andrzej Zulawski, last night I watched what is presently his penultimate feature, SZAMANKA, a French-Swiss-Polish co-production from 1996. Set in Warsaw, Poland, the film is, like much of Zulawski's work, a human story staged against a shifting political dynamic and it is also, like all of Zulawski's work, a shriek directed at the cosmos in objection to the essential incompleteness of man. His films have a reputation for being erotic, but they seldom are; they are about sex, and they are often graphic without becoming pornographic, but the sex is never satisfying for the characters or the viewers because they are meant to lay bare yearnings that can only be satisfied by our ultimate return to God. The sex in SZAMANKA ultimately takes on a religious connotation, which can be seen here in the face of actor Bogoslaw Linda, who gives a remarkable performance.

Linda plays Michal, a Polish archaeologist who meets a college student known only as "the Italian" (Iwona Petry) when his suicidal priest brother abandons his apartment. When the Italian expresses aggressive interest in taking over the lease, the archaeologist takes sexual advantage. She doesn't object but doesn't seem to like it either, until she turns to him mid-coitus with a "gotcha" smile that makes sense only as the story continues to unfold.

The two characters embark on what seems a mutually addictive, LAST TANGO-like sexual relationship within the claustrophobic apartment. One of their trysts becomes humorous in that, every time we assume it has ended, it begins again, for what seemed to me five times running, at which point the perspiring couple begin laughing themselves.

But, as in all Zulawski relationships, where there is desire, there is pain -- pain tapped by the impossibility of true spiritual connection. The Italian's emotions are played so as to seem rooted in the objectification and sexual imposition that all attractive women suffer, and though the film might sound exploitative, it paints a very bitter portrait of the indignities women endure in an exploitative culture.

But the Italian is more than she appears to be. As the story gains a sometimes baffling philosophic complexity, Michal is changed from sexual predator to the predated. (Often in Zulawski's work, the most initially repugnant characters become surprisingly sympathetic.) Here we see him literally brought to his knees by photos of details of the Italian's nude body, arranged into an icon appropriate to his new religion.

As the dialogue explains, the Italian is actually a szamanka (shaman or succubus) who, while Michal believed he was ejaculating inside of her, was in fact ejaculating "female sperm" inside of him, which has infested and taken possession of him. Consider this information only a semi-spoiler, as where their relationship finally takes them is, I think it is safe to say, astonishing.

While this bizarre love story is proceeding, Michal is having exciting times in his day job, as the ancient mummy of another shaman, male, is unearthed for the examination of his team. The shaman's body (discovered in possession of psylocybin and other antique hallucinogens) is covered in tattoo spirals and other arcane markings, and the back of his head has been shattered, ostensibly to permit the fleeing of his soul.

In a tremendous sequence, the archaeologic team appear to succumb to mass insanity as a result of exposure to the shaman's remains and undertake to revive him while getting high on his stash.

The moment when the mad team of scientists walk like Egyptians across the screen is simply one of the most impressively preposterous in Zulawski's filmography.

But greater still is the moment when -- possibly real, possibly hallucinated -- the shaman does revive and whispers words of wisdom into Michal's ear. Alas, it is too late for wisdom and the story to which the principals are doomed must play itself out, as indeed it did centuries before.
SZAMANKA (in Polish, the feminine form of "shaman") is available only as a Russian import DVD on the Premier Digital label. It is NTSC and all-region with French and Russian audio and English or Russian subtitles. (Alas, no Polish track so all the audio is dubbed -- with the Russian being dubbed over the French track in the manner of verbal subtitling.) Tony Simonelli at Xploited Cinema tells me he has only one copy left in stock, which they will not be renewing, so I would recommend that anyone interested in seeing this fascinating, mad picture should act... like yesterday.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Now Accepting Comments

By popular demand, Video WatchBlog is now accepting comments from its readers! In other words, now you can help me to do the work I so often don't want to do.

All 870 postings (to date) can now be commented on, but anything older than five days requires monitoring by me and will not appear immediately... but it will, once approved.

Mind you, the Comments box is not a letters page; the correct address for that is letterbox@videowatchdog.com. The comments are to be used for responses to what I post here on Video WatchBlog. Within that framework, I welcome and look forward to your participation.

What Gets Your Dark-On?

I recently saw a reference to DARKON (2006), a documentary about the gaming subculture, and thought to myself, "Now there's a word that should be hyphenated." So here's my latest contribution to the lingo of the horror culture: "dark-on." As in, "I've got a real dark-on for Jess Franco movies." Or "I've got a dark-on for H.P. Lovecraft stories."

Okay, people -- go to town with it! And don't forget to send me my cut, should it become profitable for you. ; )

In the meantime, tell me... What gets YOUR dark-on?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Blogging 'Bout the 'Dog

VIDEO WATCHDOG contributors par excellence Stephen R. Bissette and Sam Umland have devoted space in their blogs today to write about the milestone that is VW's forthcoming 150th issue. I was very touched to read these articles and commend them to your attention, and I am grateful to both of these gentlemen for what they expressed and for what they both continue to bring to VIDEO WATCHDOG itself. Click on their names and you will be taken there.

First Look: VIDEO WATCHDOG #150

A little late, but worth the wait!

Full details, free samples and the proverbial much much more now at the VW website's "Coming Soon!" page.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I'm Garrulous About Garrel

Here's my monthly link to my NoZone review in the pages of the current SIGHT AND SOUND, which this month is about two films by Philippe Garrel: I CAN NO LONGER HEAR THE GUITAR and EMERGENCY KISSES. Worth knowing about, especially for fans of Nouvelle Vague cinema and fans of the late Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Waffling About Watchdog, Weight and Woodstock

Sam Umland has written a wonderful response to my previous posting's 20th year announcement at his 60x50 blog. Always thoughtful reading here and I commend it to your attention above and beyond his VW musings, which include an overview of his and wife Becky's long and valued affiliation with the magazine.

We have been receiving numerous calls, even from our printer, inquiring about the status of VW 150. Donna promises to have it to the printer by Monday, so it should be a busy weekend here at Chez Watchdog. Today, with temps pushing to 100° here in Cincinnati, the air conditioner went back into my office window to facilitate speedier and more pleasurable editing of the contents of VW 151.

Also, though I did not mention it on Tuesday (when it would have shared the spotlight with VW's 19th anniversary), Diane Pfister and I finished our screenplay THE WEIGHT OF SALT AND SOUL that same day after four months of steady, intensive and almost exclusive labor. The following day we made some additional changes to the 181-page manuscript and sent it around to our agent and some friendly readers for feedback. Our plan is now to take a week off and decide what we want to do next.

Yesterday I watched four movies in a day (Robbe-Grillet's EDEN AND AFTER, the four-hour director's cut of WOODSTOCK in Blu-ray, JUNO and THE SAILOR FROM GIBRALTAR), which is something I haven't done since... well, since I was who I used to be. I have owned a Grove Press hardcover of Marguerite Duras' novel THE SAILOR FROM GIBRALTAR for close to thirty years and have wanted to see the movie for as long. It was a great disappointment, as I find Tony Richardson's films almost invariably are. I thought the controversial JUNO was refreshing, savvy fun with a commendably subtle edgy subplot (had I been directing, Jason Bateman would have pulled out a copy of THE HEADLESS EYES rather than THE WIZARD OF GORE, though), and EDEN AND AFTER gave such a brilliant slant to the rest of the day that I think watching an art film at 10 or 11 every morning might be just the way to start my day.

WOODSTOCK remains one of my favorite movies, and its non-musical elements are becoming more poignant and fascinating with age. The bottom end of the disc's 5.1 TrueHD mix attests to how dully or just plain badly most of the bassists at Woodstock actually played, but let's hear it for the select few who make the movie's subwoofering bearable and melodic: Bruce Barthol of Country Joe and the Fish, John Entwistle of The Who, Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, and god of all bass gods, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane. Speaking of the Airplane, the disc's second disc of supplements includes something else I have waited more than thirty years to see: one of the earliest live performances of the then-not-yet-released "Volunteers," which appeared on the original soundtrack album set but has never been included in any cut of the movie. Legend has it that most of the band got dosed from a water jug before taking the stage at dawn, and by this point in the set, Jorma Kaukonen's guitar playing had become pre-grunge sludge and Marty Balin, clearly tripping his balls off, sings the words with a passion he could still summon when the song was fresh.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Now In Our 20th Year

According to Donna, who remembers such things, it was nineteen (19) years ago yesterday -- on June 15, 1990 -- that the first copies of the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG were delivered to our home.

We were unhappy with some unfortunate things about VW #1, which was ineptly printed and cut by a Kentucky company evidently unaccustomed to printing anything but business cards. The paper stock was like shirt cardboard and no two copies of the issue were uniform in height; I can remember Donna taking a paper cutter to the tops and bottoms of some copies in a mostly vain attempt to make all the pages in some individual copies the same size. It was a source of personal unhappiness to me that we were so short on photo material that I had to resort to drawings to fill certain gaps. I had won awards for art when I was in school, but it was a muscle I hadn't flexed in awhile and, at least to me, it showed. I do like the drawings I did for Craig Ledbetter's Venezuelan video piece, and The Letterbox (showing the unmistakable hand of Christopher Lee rising from a letter-strewn coffin); in fact, I was so pleased with the Letterbox art that it continued until our 9th issue, at which time I stumbled on our more playful way of introducing each issue's letters department -- which other magazines have sometimes tried to emulate.

But despite its production shortcomings, the issue had an impact (people still talk and write to me about "How To Read a Franco Film") and it launched an award-winning magazine that is now in its twentieth year of business and which, in some ways, has helped to change the face of the industry it writes about.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Better Yet, Read the Book

A couple of nights ago, I watched, for the first time in probably a quarter century, Karel Reisz's 1981 film of THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN -- one of those movies I find watchable though I don't really like it. However, after seeing it again, in HD no less, four things about it stood out for me as immensely likeable.

The first and most obvious thing is the splendid cinematography of Freddie Francis. The man was an auteur; I can recognize his work at a glance.

Secondly, the delightful presence of one Lynsey Baxter as Ernestina, the betrothed of the Meryl Streep-haunted Jeremy Irons. It's a sad comment on the vagaries of love that Irons stumbles about blind to the charms of this foxy Victorian, who is not only a dead ringer for Deborah Kerr in THE INNOCENTS (also photographed by Francis -- coincidence?) but also deft with a bow and arrow.

Thirdly, the great Leo McKern, whose glass eye is for some reason less noticeable or more believable than usual.

And finally, bravo to Irons for executing what is undoubtedly the most perfectly timed drunkard's fall I have ever seen in a film. Thank goodness someone has posted the entire movie in segments on YouTube, so I can direct you to this portion and timecode 1:30. I never tire of watching this.