Tuesday, March 23, 2010

7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) (shown December, 1992)

The cold, chill winds of December blew relentlessly upon the huddled, miserable masses in Boston in 1992 ... so I thought: "What better time to show a movie set in a desert town in Arizona?" Not just any film, mind you, but one that was near and dear to my heart, 7 FACES OF DR. LAO.

Before I talk about the film, however, a few words about the novel upon which it is based. THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO was written in 1935 by Charles G. Finney. It can be read on a number of levels, from an enjoyable quick fantasy to the underlying tales of the human condition that are slyly hidden within. I have lost count how many times I have read this book; I wore out a number of paperback copies in my youth, have given away more copies to friends and have always had at least one copy in my collection at all times. Set in the town of Abalone, Arizona, it is filled with a typical cross-section of humanity, with all their foibles, vanities and shortcomings. Out of nowhere comes Dr. Lao, an Asian magician with a circus unlike any other: instead of lions, tigers and bears, his creatures are all from mythology and legend: The Golden Ass, the Sphinx, the Hound of the Hedges, a mermaid, The Medusa, and more. Each is there to teach a lesson to the people of Abalone ... if only they are wise enough to hear it.

Miracles are shown and disbelieved; magical scenarios are played out to an audience who, by the end, are certainly older but none the wiser. As each act builds on the one that came before, the townspeople become more and more caught up in the spectacle, but never grasp the important hidden meanings behind what they are seeing. It all leads up to the main attraction: the Pagan God Yottle and the obliteration of His followers for displeasing Him. As mysteriously as the circus appeared, it is gone again, leaving the puzzled townsfolk to wonder (some for the rest of their lives) just what they had seen.

This description only touches the surface of what is found in the book: for the men of the town (for example), there's the Adults Only tent: not filled with hootchie-kootchie girls doing lascivious dances, but the Real Deal - a young satyr on the verge of adulthood, peeping nervously at a wanton circle of nymphs. They know he's watching and tease and bother him with their dancing, getting closer and closer to him until they bound on him, cutting off his escape. As he submits to the pleasures of the flesh, one of the old codgers remarks, "Hot stuff!"

Hot stuff, indeed, especially for 1935 - and still too hot almost 30 years later when director George Pal brought the tale to the screen. The basic plot is still there, but many of the lessons have changed or been watered-down to make them more "family-friendly" - a number of the mythological creatures of the book are gone, and some have undergone a complete metamorphosis: instead of a quivering pubescent satyr, we are now treated to Pan, the God of Joy. The Medusa survives intact, as do the Serpent (supposedly the original serpent who tempted Adam and Eve), along with Merlin the Magician, Appollonius of Tyana and the Abominable Snowman.

Dr. Lao was played by Tony Randall, in what I consider to be his best role. George Pal originally wanted Peter Sellers for the role, but was overruled by the studio. I believe they made the right choice, as I fear Sellers would have steered the character too much into buffoonery. Randall had the role of a lifetime, and knew it: he played all of the roles listed above (voice only for the Serpent, as it was a stop-motion animated model, courtesy of Jim Danforth). Technically, he plays EIGHT roles in the film - during the final spectacle in the main tent of the circus, as the townfolk are wondering at the procession, there is a quick cameo of Tony Randall as ... Tony Randall, shaking his head at how woebegone and moth-ridden the various acts are!

The basic plot of the film concerns one Clinton Stark (Arthur O'Connell), who is trying to get all the citizens of Abalone to sell out of their dying town and move away. He has inside information that the railroad is coming, and is eager to make a killing. Opposing him is crusading newspaper editor Ed Cunningham (John Ericson), singlehandedly trying to save the town and the people from making the biggest mistake of their lives. Ed is in love with the beautiful, widowed town librarian Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden), a spinster before her time and mother of the OTHER hero of this tale, young Mike Benedict (Kevin Tate).

Most of the film is seen through Mike's eyes, who still has the awe and sense of wonder that a circus inspires in the young and young at heart. He hits it off with Dr. Lao and tries repeatedly to join the circus, but Lao lets him down as easily as possible every time.

Dr. Lao advertises in Ed's newspaper the coming of his circus, which is in town for only two nights, and everyone turns out, with each person being guided to a particular tent. Stark goes into the tent of the Great Serpent, and is surprised to see an exact talking reptilian version of himself, who not only completely humiliates him as being one of the poorest representations of the human race He has ever seen, but also knows the secret of the railroad. Stark panics until the Serpent explains that his secret is safe with Him.

Angela, meanwhile, is directed by Dr. Lao into the tent of Pan, the God of Joy. Adjusting her sight, she realizes she is alone in the tent, when an erotic air is sounded on the syrinx (or Pan Flute), and the magnificent Fertility God appears. He looks strikingly like Ed Cunningham, and the combination of His music, His dancing, and the scents in the stifling hot tent bring Angela back to a sensual (and sexual) re-awakening (see picture above) ... before other people enter the tent and she is horrified by what she sees in the full light.

Mrs. Cassin (Lee Patrick), the town gossip, has her comeuppance by having her future told by Appollonius of Tyana. Not realizing his curse of having to speak the complete truth to a customer, he delivers the films' most poignant lines about her bleak future: "Childless you are, and childless you will remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture them ... When you die, you will be buried and forgotten, and that is all. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all."

The showstopper of the circus is the Medusa - as Dr. Lao points out, there's always one citizen in every town who thinks She's a fake and is turned to stone. Abalone is no exception, with the town harpy Kate Lindquist (Minerva Urecal) determined to prove Lao a charlatan. She whips around the curtain and mirror arrangement used to safely display the Medusa ... and is promptly turned to stone! Merlin, who has seen it all (and, we're led to believe, has had to do this conjuration before), turns her back ... she, at least, has learned her lesson.

While the townspeople are at the circus, Stark's henchmen trash the newspaper printing press, which Ed and his pressman discover and consider finally throwing in the towel. The next morning (thanks to Dr. Lao's magic), the press is good as new, and Ed prints an even more scathing attack on Stark, delivering the issue to him personally.

The second and final night of the circus is devoted to the Spectacle of Woldercan - imagine an IMAX presentation under the Big Top. It's a cautionary tale set in ancient times, about a rich, evil man willing to give people lots and lots of money ... just for a signature. Are they selling their property - or their souls? Even more disturbing is that everyone in the audience has a doppleganger on the screen, and none of them are covering themselves in glory. Finally, the Lord Above is wroth at the town and it's greedy, sinful people and destroys it utterly. The lights fade, the Big Top disappears ... and everyone finds themselves in the Town Hall, ready to put to a vote whether to sell out to Stark or not. The unanimously vote no, and Stark (who has had his own epiphany) tells them the truth.

His henchmen, disgusted by the turn of events, decide to bust up Dr. Lao's circus for revenge. Shooting the doctor's pet fish out of it's bowl, they are horrified to find one MORE attraction rarely seen - the Loch Ness Monster, who doubles his size every ten seconds when not in water! Reaching gargantuan size, it chases the villains, at one point cornering them and sprouting all seven heads of the different personas of the doctor.

Mike alerts the doctor, he gets out his rain-making machine to shrink Nessie back to goldfish size, and all is well. Mike tries one final time to join the circus, where Dr. Lao lets him down gently with one final lesson: "Mike, let me tell you something. The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you're tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That's real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that's... that's circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, "I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!" Every time such a thing happens, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao."

7 FACES OF DR. LAO is available on DVD and is required viewing for everyone reading this - it is a wonderful fable, and one with lessons to teach each and every one of us ... if only we are willing to listen.

Next Time: A new year (1993) of viewing dawns at Conjure Cinema, and we go straight from the sublime to the ridiculous, with 1967's PREHISTORIC WOMEN. If you are brave enough to face the Legend of the White Rhino, be there!

Friday, March 19, 2010

BLACK ORPHEUS (1959) (shown November, 1992)

Our second foreign feature was 1959's ORFEU NEGRO, known in America as BLACK ORPHEUS. Directed by Marcel Camus, it is a modern retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The film came to my attention unlike any before it: I was paid to watch it. I had been making overtime money as a projectionist for college courses, and one semester (during a Classics course) was called upon to show this film. I knew nothing about it, being more concerned with making sure the equipment and sound were working properly, but part of the job was staying on-site to troubleshoot should the occasion arise.

Imagine my surprise when this magnificent tale unfolded! The students with me at the time were the usual mix: some were interested, some were bored, some were asleep - and the rest had blown off the showing entirely. I was completely captivated, however, by the sheer kinetic energy that inhabited this film and threatened to drag the viewer in - the non-stop music, the dancing, the costumes (ESPECIALLY the costumes); all the elements that go into being the best at Carnaval time, no matter the cost.

The hero of the tale is Orpheu/Orpheus (Breno Mello), the most handsome man in the favela (shanty town) overlooking Rio. By day a streetcar operator and by night a singer and dancer, he is the acknowledged leader of his Samba School. They are practicing for the Judges' Prize at the upcoming Carnaval, and for bragging rights through the upcoming year. Orpheu is also (literally) the Golden Boy of the favela, with all the ladies in love with him and with his Sun costume a vision in gold (see the posters above). He is equated throughout the film with the Sun and Light - in fact, two of the local boys are convinced that Orpheu's guitar playing is what brings the Sun up each morning.

A disquieting symbol of foreshadowing comes early on, as the boys have a Sun kite they are trying to fly on their mountaintop meadow - it flies proudly for a few moments, then begins it's inevitable descent (with the boys frantically trying to stop it), mirroring Orpheu's descent to the Underworld to come. Orpheu is reluctantly engaged to the fiery Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), a beautiful but controlling harpy. On the eve of Carnaval, she drags him to the town clerk's office for a marriage license. Upon hearing his name, the clerk innocently asks if Mira is Eurydice. Not knowing the legend, Mira becomes jealous, thinking Orpheu is seeing another woman.

The irony here is Orpheu already HAS seen Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) - he just didn't know it. She arrives that same day and rides his trolley to the end, to get to her cousin's house. Her cousin Serafina (Léa Garcia) just happens to be Orpheu's next-door neighbor ... and so the table is set. Eurydice has not come to Rio for Carnaval, however ... she is there to escape Death. He has already come to her in person and she hopes to lose Him among the crowds.

Orpheu sees Eurydice again upon arriving home and is enchanted by her - she is everything Mira is not: quiet where Mira is brash, innocent where Mira is vulgar, etc. Orpheu loses his heart to Eurydice and, when Serafina's boyfriend arrives for the night, offers Eurydice his bed. He sleeps outside in a hammock, or tries to. To tame his haunting thoughts of Eurydice, he sings a gentle love song, which brings her to the door of his shack - and the lovers together.

The day of Carnaval dawns, with the native boys awaiting Orpheu's raising of the Sun with his guitar playing. Coincidentally, just then he plays to awaken Eurydice. Serafina sees that Orpheu has finally, genuinely fallen in love and arranges to have Eurydice dance in her place at Carnaval, wearing Serafina's costume and remaining veiled (in order to fool Mira). All goes well until Mira sees Serafina and her boyfriend in the crowd and rips Eurydice's veil off, vowing to kill her. As Eurydice escapes, Death (in a Carnaval costume of a skeleton) finds her again and chases her.

Eurydice escapes to the streetcar station, where a tense cat and mouse game begins between her and Death. Orpheu arrives to save her, and, unable to find her in the dark, switches on the lights in the station. Unfortunately, Eurydice was holding on to the trolley wire and is accidentally electrocuted by her lover. Death tells Orpheu: "Now she is mine", and Orpheu goes into a paroxysm of grief.

Her body borne away, Orpheu goes into denial and wanders the streets, determined to find her. He winds up at the police station and goes to the Missing Persons office on the twelfth floor. The janitor tells him there is no one there, only papers, and hearing Orpheu's plight, tells him he can help Orpheu find Eurydice. In a beautiful adaptive touch of the myth's Descent, Orpheu and the janitor are seen (from above) going down, down, down the spiral staircase to the red floor far below.

The journey doesn't end there - Orpheu is led to a local cemetary, guarded by a Great Dane named Cerberus (of course! :)) - inside the cemetary, he is led to a macumba ritual wherein he hears his beloved Eurydice calling from behind him, asking if he can just be content with her voice. He is warned that if he turns around, he will lose her forever, but (just as in the original story) the temptation is too much and he turns, angered to find Eurydice's voice coming from a possessed practitioner.

Orpheu's journey comes to it's predestined end, as he gets Eurydice's body from the morgue and promises they will be together always. He begins his trip up the mountain in the pre-dawn hours, only to arrive at the top to find his shack set afire by Mira in a jealous rage. Seeing the lovers, she throws a rock that hits Orpheu in the head and sends them tumbling over the mountain's cliff ... together at last in death.

The coda has one of the boys give the other Orpheu's guitar, telling him to play to bring up the Sun. The other boy protests he doesn't know how, but is encouraged to play anyway, and as he does, the Sun rises for another day. He is proclaimed "the new Orpheu", a little girl asks them to dance, and the circle of life, love, and death continues.

BLACK ORPHEUS is available on DVD in a magnificently sumptuous transfer as part of the Criterion Collection, and comes with an exhaustive book on the background and making of the film. It is a beautiful film, one that all Conjure Cinema fans should see.

Next Time: My personal favorite film of all time is discussed - THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO! Be there!

Monday, March 15, 2010

RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) (shown October, 1992)

The summer of 1975 was a Hell of a good time for me. Why? It was the summer that I affectionately remember as the "Summer of Satanic Panic", thanks to two Devilishly fun drive-in films: June's RACE WITH THE DEVIL and July's THE DEVIL'S RAIN (the subject of a future entry here) - I managed to finally catch up to both (along with THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) on a drive-in triple bill at the (sadly defunct) South Shore Plaza Drive-In. They don't make evenings better than that! :)

The story concerns two couples, Frank and Alice Stewart (Warren Oates and Loretta Swit) and Roger and Kelly Marsh (Peter Fonda and Lara Parker), who take an RV vacation together from San Antonio, Texas to Aspen, Colorado - two weeks of stress-free skiing, dirt-biking, and drinking. After driving all day, they pull off for the evening in a secluded, off-the-beaten-path area and settle in for the evening. Perfect creekside view, lovely full moon ... what could possibly go wrong?

Frank and Roger find out, as a bonfire erupts across the creek and a coven of devil worshippers begin their ritual. Taking their binoculars, the guys inch closer to get a better view - giggling with titillation at the nude female revelers, they're having a grand time ... until Frank witnesses a girl ritually sacrificed. Horrified, they run for the RV, just as Alice opens the door and yells at them to come in for the night. Frank screams for Alice to turn the lights off in the RV, but it's too late. The Satanists see them and come streaming across the river, murder in their eyes.

The film only runs 88 minutes, but it is more action-packed and bite-your-nails tense than most films twice as long. After a harrowing escape which includes the obligatory "RV stuck in the creek while the crazed Satanists get closer" scene, the couples begin the first of many fights for their lives. Two of the cultists smash in the back window and try to get in, with Roger hammering away at them, while another jumps on the main windshield, looking for all the world like the World's Biggest Bug (hey, EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas!) :)

There is a fifth main character in the film, and that is the RV itself. You have NEVER seen a machine take such a massive beating and keep going like this camper does. The more I watch RACE, the better the argument could be made for the RV as the modern equivalent of the medieval castle under siege, with the enemy getting more and more desperate to silence the couples forever.

After reporting the attack to the Sheriff in the nearest town (R.G. Armstrong), Frank and Roger are driven back out to the site to search for evidence. All traces are gone, except a big bloodstain ... and a dead dog. The Sheriff chalks it up to hippies all doped up and acting crazy, has his deputy take a sample of the blood, and drive the men back to his station. He apologizes for the mess, tells them go on and enjoy their vacation - if only it were that simple.

While the men are away, Alice and Kelly are cleaning the RV, when Kelly notices a slip of paper stuck to the shattered back windshield. It is a warning for the couple to be silent about what they've witnessed, or they'll be cursed ninefold, along with the runes of the spell itself.

Thoroughly shaken now, they get a temporary fix on the windshield and continue on to a RV park, hoping to regain their happiness. The girls go for a swim at the center's pool, where Kelly starts to get the uneasy feeling that ALL the people there are watching her ... and could be one of "them". They head back to the camper, and she tells Roger she wants to go home, which Frank vehemently rejects. As he points out, they've scraped for five long years to have this vacation, and they're going through with it.

Some neighbor campers come over and they all go out to the local honky-tonk bar to relax. Kelly gets the feeling again ... from the keyboard player in the band. Is he one? How about the gas station attendant? The librarian? That little old lady? As their neighbor says: "Witches? WITCHES?" Frank has to sheepishly shake his head, knowing it sounds foolish, but still ...

Coming back to the motor home, the couples are met with the terrible sight of Kelly's strangled dog, Ginger, hanging from the door (a further warning to keep silent). This just angers the men more, and they flee the RV park, to put as much distance between them and their pursuers. But it's not far enough, as they find out when they try to get some food from the cabinets - they are set upon by a pair of rattlesnakes ... in a rolling, skidding RV ... at night ...

This becomes the final straw for Frank and Roger. They stop at the next store they find and get a shotgun, shells and other weapons and go on the offensive. It's just as well that they do, for this final section of the film is where EVERYTHING ramps up. Among the beautiful, desolate Texas countryside they are set upon by the cultists in every kind of machine available, from cars to tow trucks to delivery trucks, all determined to ram them off the road and kill them. This is where the film truly shines, with some of the finest stunt work LONG before the advent of CGI, including a spectacular high-speed rollover car stunt that has to be seen to be believed. Peter Fonda estimated the car in question rolled 19 times, and it's a good guess. The car in question is seen briefly in the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqv6PIH_ymY
Speaking of the trailer, my hat's off to the ad man who came up with the classic line that absolutely sold me on making this the MUST-SEE film of the summer: "When you Race With the Devil, you'd better be faster than Hell!" :)

I won't spoil the ending here, except to say that Kelly was right, everybody IS after them and it seemed the ENTIRE state of Texas were witches ... every man, woman and child! This made for a WILD drive-in night at the end of the summer of 1975 for me ... except when I started to think about it as I left home and headed to my first year of college ... in, yep, you guessed it ... Austin, Texas. As this Northern boy crossed over the state line and stepped out of the car for gas at the station in Texarkana, Texas, his worst fears were confirmed. The attendant just stared and stared at me - then he called his mechanic out, who stared and stared at me ... and I thought "this is it, I'm a dead man, just like in the movie!" Turns out neither of them had ever seen plaid pants before ... but that's another story! :)

Next Time: We explore a truly haunting variation on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with 1959's BLACK ORPHEUS. We hope you'll join us!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (1948) (shown September, 1992)

With our September show, we launched our first full-scale musical, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS. I admittedly had reservations about showing this, not knowing how a modern audience would react to it, but I need not have worried. The folks who were in attendance that evening were quite taken by the film, the plot, and the music, and it still holds up well today.

The film is based on a Broadway musical with a very interesting pedigree: music by Kurt Weill, book by S.J. Perleman and Odgen Nash (!), with lyrics by Nash, as well. The story was loosely based on the book The Tinted Venus by F. Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie), who was also responsible for The Brass Bottle, which was turned into a charming fantasy starring Tony Randall and Burl Ives (an upcoming entry in my blog). All of this was, of course, adapted from and poking fun at the original Pygmalion myth.

The play starred Mary Martin, who was also going to star in the film. However, she got pregnant and the film rights were sold to Universal, who kept the plot and little else, dropping a good portion of Weill's original music and adding new songs by Ann Ronell, who coincidentally just happened to be director Lester Cowan's wife. While the music took a turn for the worse, the replacement actress in the title role was (pun fully intended) heaven-sent.

I'll admit right now that I can't be impartial when talking about this film, as Ava Gardner was (and is) my hands-down favorite old-school Hollywood actress. A stunning beauty, Ava (1922-1990) was the perfect choice for the Goddess of Love. The plot concerns a department store window dresser, Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker), who is called upon by store owner Whitfield Savory II (Tom Conway) to fix the sticking drapes of a $200,000 statue of Venus before it's unveiling to an admiring public (think Macys, but with it's own art gallery ... when was the last time you ever heard of a department store with it's own art gallery?) - as Eddie is working on a ladder to get things working smoothly, he sneaks a peek at the statue and, in a moment of impetuosity, gives it a kiss, magically bringing it to life.

Venus is delighted and smitten with Eddie and wants to experience more of the human feeling of Love, but only has a limited amount of time on Earth to do so. A whirlwind of unrequited love affairs complicates matters further, with Eddie's casual girlfriend at the store, Gloria (Olga San Juan), getting more and more aggressive with her talk about marriage; Eddie's best friend at the store Joe Grant (Dick Haymes) secretly in love with Gloria; and the wise-cracking bosses' secretary Molly Stewart (fabulously portrayed by Eve Arden) pining for the one man who doesn't notice her. With the Goddess of Love now roaming the Earth in human form, all of these relationships come crashing together in a comedic crazy-quilt.

Things go from bad to worse at the unveiling, with the statue missing and Savory calling for Eddie's head. The police drag Eddie back to the store and he has to re-enact what happened. After finally being allowed to go home (with the suspicious police keeping an eye on him), Gloria and Joe show up and try to help, first with a hot bath and then with an offer to run and get him soup. As he's getting ready for his bath, who pops up but love-struck Venus, sending Eddie into a panic and his landlady banging on the door, screaming about her "no girls allowed" policy!

More merry misadventures ensue, with Eddie finally sneaking Venus back to the store after hours. In order to avoid the security guard, he hides Venus in the Model Home, a look into the pushbutton future ... of course, every button he pushes keeps bringing the bed down from the wall, much to Her amusement. This leads to the signature song of the film (and the play) "Speak Low (When You Speak Love)" - sadly, even though Ava had a perfectly fine singing voice, she was dubbed by Eileen Wilson for the film. It's a lovely tune, and one that has been renewed periodically over the years, with one of the latest versions by Barbra Streisand. As the magical song takes over, Gloria and Joe fall for each other and Eddie stops fighting Fate and kisses Venus.

Venus is discovered asleep in the Model Home the next morning by Molly, who calls Savory down to see Her for himself. Of course, he falls in love with Her, and demands that She be given everything She wants, immediately assuming She will be his new plaything. Rather than being flattered by this, Venus turns him down cold for Eddie, which infuriates Savory to the point of having Eddie arrested. He is used to getting what he wants, when he wants it, with his money ... but not this time.

Eddie takes Venus to a park for an idyllic evening of dancing and romancing, but then ... Her time is up. She is called back to Olympus and must answer the call. She's heartbroken to leave him, he's heartbroken to let Her go (and must be feeling more than a little stupid letting the whole night get away from him like that), and before he can get back to Her, She's gone. Before She leaves, She makes Savory call and have Eddie released from jail, as well as opening his eyes over his love (and need) for Molly.

The film ends with the statue back in place, Savory and Molly heading off to their honeymoon, and a distraught Eddie in front of the statue saying "we never even said goodbye." Just then, a lovely and familiar looking lass walks by ... she just started in the Model Homes department and is the exact likeness of ... could it be??? When Eddie introduces himself, she smiles and gives her name as Venus Jones ... and closes with "Nobody's likely to meet two girls named Venus", thus giving herself away ... and her heart to Eddie. The curtain rings down on the statue and the film, and there's not a dry eye in the house.

The film is available on DVD, in both its original black and white version, as well as a colorized one. It's every bit as enchanting today as when it was first made, and receives my highest recommendation.

Next Time: We turn our sights from the Heavens Above to the Infernal Realm below as we take a RACE WITH THE DEVIL - strap in and join us!