Into the Vortex, part two

Pub date May 17, 2011

The second half of the Vortex Room’s May retrospective of movies about crazy (or just beleaguered) artists is heavy on 1970s Eurosleaze — a status surely we all aspire to.

First up is a Thurs/19 double bill of a famous classic and, until recently, a extremely hard-to-find cult obscurity. The classic is none other than Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 English-language debut Blow-Up, which as we recently learned from best-tribute-honoree-ever Terence Stamp at the San Francisco International Film Festival, was originally cast with himself and Joanna Shimkus (who gave up a brief acting career for a still-extant marriage to Sidney Poitier) in the leads. The inscrutable Italian fired them without warning or explanation, casting David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave instead.

Blow-Up is one of the most austere, enigmatic films ever to have enjoyed great popular success — somehow it hit the “Swinging London” nerve internationally despite being utterly (if fascinatingly) obtuse. Hemmings plays a decadent mod fashion photographer who accidentally captures images that might be related to a murder in a public park. Or might not. This led to Antonioni’s crash ‘n’ burn second English language feature Zabriskie Point, a 1970 disaster with some unforgettable sequences. But that’s another story.

The photographer as spy on illicit matters was taken further in 1973’s Baba Yaga, a late entry in the annals of European features based on adult targeted comic books. This second and last feature by Corrado Farina — the first was even harder-to-find 1971 occult capitalism = cannibalism story They Have Changed Their Face — is a baroque fantasia in which bob-haired photog Valentina (Isabelle De Funès) is lured into the orbit of seemingly lesbian “witch” Baba Yaga (expatriate American star Carroll Baker), who casts a spell on her camera to the distress of various friends and collaborators.

They include Valentina’s boyfriend, played by George Eastman (a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori) — an underappreciated one-man treasure hunk of Italian cinema lore. He sparked deliciously onscreen and as occasional scenarist for directors ranging from Fellini, Bava, and Pupi Avati to prolific, bottom dweller Joe D’Amato (who journeyed from respected 1973 Klaus Kinski giallo Death Smiles on a Murderer to such telltale titles as 1981’s Porno Holocaust, 1995’s 120 Days of Anal, and 1999’s Prague Exposed).

Often encouraged toward one extreme or another (robber-kidnapper-rapist in 1974’s Rabid Dogs, homicidal monster in 1980’s gory Antropophagus, “Big Ape” in 1983’s dystopian sci-fi knockoff After the Fall of New York), he gets a rare romantic lead role here. Briefly shirtless in Baba Yaga, he merits deployment of that timeless phrase: woof.

The Vortex’s final May program features two commercially failed turn-of-the decade (several decades ago) takes on fashionable kink. Massimo Dallmano’s 1970 The Secret of Dorian Gray stars Helmut Berger — presumably taking an angry vacation from lover Luciano Visconti, who refused to cast him in 1971’s Death in Venice as a much-younger love object — plays Oscar Wilde’s antihero in a “modern allegory” wherein he despoils a whole roster of 1960s Eurobabes. This being Berger, however, his heterosexual passion is about as persuasive as his three-piece salmon-hued suede suit is natural, in retrospect. Stabs at swinging relevance include our protagonist visiting discotheque “The Black Cock Club.” The film gets correspondingly gayer as it goes along.

Finally there’s its cofeature De Sade (1969), a rare big-budget effort from American International Pictures — and a huge flop, though that didn’t stop them from investing further in invariably doomed “A” pictures beyond their usual drive-in range through the mid-1970s. (Trivia note: De Sade was the last film to play Berkeley’s late, beloved UC Theatre in 2001, when its ebbing repertory-theater fortunes finally ran out.)

De Sade is a P.O.S., but an ambitious such. It copies opening-credit graphics from Saul Bass; a theatrical framework and wannabe visuals from the Fellini of 8 1/2 (1963); presumes that lots of slo-mo toplessness will convey limitless intellectual perversity, accompanied by the kind of now-corny audio and visual FX that made Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967) so datedly trippy.

In the title role, Keir Dullea does his best to act seriously — as he had in 1962’s David and Lisa, let alone 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — but this ludicrous stab at Fellini-esque decadent carnivalia is dreadfully betrayed by cheesebag director Cy Endfield and writer Richard Matheson — though their work was apparently much interfered with. The results reduce a famous literary and philosophical anarchist-tyrant to a misunderstood victim of unfair political and familial circumstance. Whaaah. It’s lavish and trivial — ask anyone who’s actually waded through The 120 Days of Sodom, which remains the toughest literary slog this side of the collected works of Bret Easton Ellis. 


Thurs/19 and May 26, 9 and 11 p.m., $5

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF