Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An offense for the whole family


If you are a long-time POP OFFENSIVE listener, you know that last week's episode got a little sticky. My co-host was David Smay, the co-author of Bubble Gum Music is the Naked Truth, and, for two hours, we filled the air with enough treacly, toddler friendly tunes to give even the most battle hardened pop fan a stomach ache. (We also played "I Touch Myself", but that's another matter.) You can listen to the episode, which has just been posted over at KGPC969.org, by going here. The complete playlist for the episode can be viewed here on the Pop Offensive Facebook page.

Save on FUNKY BOLLYWOOD and make out like a bandit!


As part of their March blow out, FAB Press is offering my book Funky Bollywood for the low, low price of £6.00. That's about 7.50 U.S.--less than a third of the cover price (though keep in mind that that price does not include shipping from the UK.) To buy it, go here. But act fast; there is only so much funk to go around.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hot Summer (East Germany, 1968)


East Germany's DEFA Studios brought a brave face to the task of emulating whatever global cinematic trends were necessary to compete for their audience with popular films imported from the West. In this they were largely successful, creating along the way unique takes on both the western and sci-fi genres. That said, Hot Summer, which was intended to be a socialist answer to AIP's Beach Party movies, must have been something of an uphill battle. The studio, dependent on government funding, had to obey their masters' edict that their films, while entertaining, had to tow the party line—a policy that resulted in musicals in which coverall-wearing workers did pirouettes on the production line. Meanwhile, films like Beach Blanket Bingo were as pure a celebration of American-style leisure as had ever been committed to film.

Evidence of this contrast can be found in the film's oft-reprised title song, which eschews celebrating sun, sand, and surf in favor of just telling us how incredibly hot it is (“the rays are merciless….we’ll get a mighty bad sunburn”)--almost to the point of praising the joys of heat stroke. The film follows two groups of teenagers--one all boys, one all girls, and each numbering about a dozen-- as they make their way to a seaside collective farm where they will spend the Summer. For the larger part of the film these groups are treated, not as collections of individuals, but as sort of collective gender masses that act in concert with their designated leaders. Those leaders are kai, played by Frank Schöebel, and Stupsi, played by Chris Doerk. Both Schoebel and Doerk, who were married at the time, were popular singers of the day, which means that Hot Summer forbodes From Justin to Kelly.


From the start, Hot Summer exhibits a confused attitude toward teenage sexuality. In contrast to the boy and girl crazy teens of the Beach Party movies, the boys and girls of Hot Summer regard each other with a puerile antagonism unbecoming to "teenagers" that are clearly well into their twenties. At one point, the boys set mice loose in the girl’s dormitory and, at another, steal the girls’ clothes while they are swimming. The early song numbers, which are shrill and brassy to a one, consist of the two groups facing off from opposite sides of a room and practically screaming the lyrics at each other.

Stupsi, for her part, is like a one woman Anti Sex League. Her signature song is a jaunty little ditty in which she opines that men are stupid apes not worthy of any woman's time. When one of the girls is mistakenly assumed to have slept with one of the boys, she is cruelly ostracized from the group. In this context, Sumpsi's boyish look and butch haircut can't help but make one wonder what was intended with all this.


Despite all this rancor, the boys and girls, once they arrive at their destination, dutifully pair up, as if obligated to do so by the kind of movie that this is. And with that, Hot Summer takes a turn toward the dark side. A love triangle that develops between Kai, his best friend Wolf (Hanns-Michael Schmidt), and Brit (Regine Albrecht), a pretty blonde, threatens to divide the group ("are we a collective," asks one of the boys. "Or just a gang?) Brit has a mildly hedonistic personal philosophy—expressed in the motto “i do what I love and love what I do"--that seems to infect the whole gang, demoralizing them to the point that they take a joyride in a boat belonging to the collective. They are busted by the police. Heads are hung and lessons learned.

A note on the songs in Hot Summer: as for those in the film's first half, I really can't say much more than that they are brassy and shrill, as well as a little manic. None of those qualities are alleviated by the fact that these songs are shouted like an accusation from across a room. Happily, at the movie’s midpoint, the quality of the songs miraculously improves, starting with a song sung around the campfire that is actually quite lovely. This is followed by the welcome addition of a Brechtian cabaret number and a couple of rock and roll tunes sung by Frank Schöbel that allow the young cast to dance in a normal, human manner.


As for the choreography in the rest of the movie, it darkens my heart to say that it is impossible not to laugh at it. It’s a style of dance that combines rhythmic shuffling, shoulder shaking, and the occasional arm wave to stultifying effect—and which achieves an almost caustic level of ridiculousness when performed by several cast members in tandem. Occasionally we will see a dancer embark on a cartwheel or somersault, the resolution of which we are not made privy to.

I enjoyed watching Hot Summer, although I can’t find much to say that would recommend it. When a film industry is subject to the kind of imposed limitations that East Germany’s was, it is sometimes fascinating, not for what it does, but for what it tries. Such is the case here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Joe Caligula (France, 1966)


In its own muted, black and white and very French way, Joe Caligula screams its swinging 60s origins at you from its first frame onward. There are the plastic minis, the slim cut suits, the lively beat music (and a fantastic score by Jacques Loussier), the ever present cigarettes, conspicuous posters of Graham Parsons and Francoise Hardy, and a general air of dissolute grooviness. Then there is the hooker who, at the film’s opening, delivers a bored sounding endorsement of the new wave to a john she is pushing toward a brothel:

“It’s exciting. Godard… Chabrol… Come on.”

But is Joe Caligula a new wave film? It may be unfair, but director Jose Benazeraf’s long history of sexploitation filmmaking makes me lean toward no. The thing that Joe Caligula shares with a film like Godard’s Breathless is the cold detachment that Benazera brings to depicting everything from violent action, to lovemaking, to two people sitting silently in a café. This results in a film that, like Breathless, is at once gritty and dreamlike. Yet Benazera seems to lack the mischievous political intent that Godard weaves throughout his quirky narratives. Instead, Joe Caligula comes off more like a genre film in new wave drag—which puts it in good company, given the pervasive influence of that movement throughout commercial cinema at the time.


The film begins with Joe Caligula (Gerard Blain) and his gang arriving in Paris from parts unknown (it is speculated that they are North African Europeans but never confirmed.) Fetishized down to the last detail, the gang is as much a study of movie iconography as actual characters; a group of slick young hoodlums in matching black suits and shades. The gang immediately makes their presence known by conducting a series of violent robberies against small businesses. The city’s underworld is run by a gang of older, more traditional gangsters, and they take exception to Joe and his crew’s anarchic style. When the Caligula gang goes after one of their own, a pimp named Alex (Jean-Jacques Daubin), a gang war ignites—though it could be said to be less a gang war than generational warfare with bullets.

It quickly becomes apparent that Joe and his boys are planning to take over the older crooks’ racket by force—a task they take to with their typical bloodthirsty recklessness. After they dump the flaming corpse of a gangster named Antoine (Marcel Gassouk) at the gangsters' doorstep, the gang war goes white hot. Antoine’s widow, the torch singer/stripper Lea (Maria Vincent), decides to take matters into her own hands and hits the streets, trying to sniff out the location of the Caligula’s gang’s safe house. Joe, meanwhile, takes his sister Brigitte (Jeanne Valerie) and goes on the run. We have earlier seen Joe describe his incestuous feelings to Brigitte in no uncertain terms, and because of that, it is difficult to determine whether her shell-shocked demeanor is the result of past trauma or simply a choice made by the actress playing her.



While Joe Caligula captivates with its mod era stylishness and attitude, it is less likely to do so as a character study. We know from his actions that Joe is a malicious psychopath, but as a character he is completely blank. He is as he does, and beyond that we know virtually nothing about him. In fact, no one in the film even says his name at any point; we only know that he is Joe Caligula because that is the name of the movie that he is in—and that may be the point. It could be that Joe is just a soulless cypher who is doomed to live out a movie archetype to its logical and bloody conclusion, which he does.

Things start to collapse for Joe when Brigitte grows bored with the thug life and goes off on her own. Lea has meanwhile been canvassing the town, asking everyone about a “blond with empty eyes” and her “possibly mad” male companion. When she finally spies Brigitte, sitting alone in a café, she makes short work of luring her back to the brothel, where the gang brutally tortures her. Finally, the gang extracts the info they need, allowing them to close in on Johnny for a climax that is as violent as it is preordained.


I’m fairly certain that the flatness of Joe Caligula’s characters was a directorial choice—and perhaps also a gesture toward a certain vogue in French cinema at the time. And, in pointing that out, I feel no rancor. I am the last person who would want every character in a film I watch to come with a detailed personal history. In fact, the absence of any identifiable human feeling from the film made it that much easier for me to soak in all of its era appropriate cool and aloof visual playfulness. That as well as the odd bits of business—a robbery in which Joe’s gang all wear Beatles wigs, a weirdly rushed torch song that Maria Vincent sings in a distracted whisper—that were more than sufficient to keep my interest from one scene to the next. (The generous amount of female nudity also helped a lot in that regard.)

If that sounds like a pretty utilitarian approach to cinema spectatorship, mark my word: In the wake of Rogue One’s digital skullduggery, watching a film like Joe Caligula could be our best preparation for the films of the future, which will be cast entirely with reanimated husks that display the same combination of glamor and soullessness that the stars of this movie do.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Seek the forbidden


Keith Allison, the dark overlord of Teleport City, has a new bastion in his ongoing quest to fill the internet to absolute bursting with "cinema, sin, and swinging style." It's called Mezzanotte, and Keith is kicking it off in an appropriately stylish manner with a series of reviews of Italian Giallo films. My first contribution is a piece on Luciano Ercoli's The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, a movie whose combination of sexy business, threatening atmosphere, and outlandish mid-century design makes it as Giallo as all get out. Check it out, won't you?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

An Offense by any other name


Last Wednesday's Pop Offensive was the first of a series of episodes to not feature my usual co-host Jeff Heyman, who has joined the Foreign Legion to forget. This time, my guest co-host was my dear old friend Erik Auerbach, who shamed be by bringing in a lot of songs that should already have been played on the show, yet have not. I mean, can you believe that we had yet to play the Soft Boys, Husker Du, The Saints, or the DB's? Well, now we have, so my legacy is safe.

Anyway, you can stream the archived version of the episode here and read the playlist here, on the Pop Offensive Facebook page.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Super Girl (Pakistan, 1989)


While looking for background information about Super Girl, I slipped into an internet K-hole that contained a bunch of weird, fan-made Supergirl movies and a community of “underwater peril” fetishists. During one of the many showers I’ve taken in the hours since then, it occurred to me that, if you are a regular reader of 4DK, I don’t really need to present you with a lot of background on Super Girl. All I have to do is tell you that it is an old Pakistani movie starring Sultan Rahi and Anjuman and your head will immediately be filled with the sound of people bellowing insults at each other in Punjabi against a background of thunderclap sound effects.
 
The bellowing in Super Girl starts right off; with Rahi charging into his sister’s wedding on horseback to loudly object to her arranged marriage. A scuffle follows with several knife wielding guests (the groomsmen, perhaps?), whom Rahi either kills or just beats up really bad. His mother, chagrined by what Martha Stewart might say about such a departure from protocol, smacks him with the hard truth that he, also, is party to an arranged marriage, although he does not even know his bride due to the arrangement taking place when he was a young child. Cue the thunderclaps!


Rahi demands to know where this wife of his is, and his mother tells him that she is in London, living the life of a swinging single girl in the big city. This prompts from Rahi a chilling vow that he will bring her back and “make her drink the water of the village well”, which I assume means that he will cleanse her of her filthy western ways and reduce her to a state of trembling servitude appropriate to the wife of an exemplar of Punjabi manhood such as himself. He then doffs his kameez in favor of a button down shirt and slacks (the closest thing to male nudity that I have yet seen in a Sultan Rahi movie) and hops on the next plane to Blighty.

We are then taken to a London disco, where Rahi’s better half, the notorious Super Girl, backed by a chorus of chrome spangled boy toys, is singing the movie’s theme song, a percolating disco number that randomly incorporates the riff from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Super Girl is portrayed by frequent Rahi co-star Anjuman, whose status at the time as a female superstar in the hyper-masculine world of Punjabi cinema was at least unprecedented, if not completely anomalous. Anjuman had put on a few pounds at this point in her career, and I’ve read that the Pakistani press gave her a really hard time about it. This perplexes me, because, at the size she is here, Anjuman could have easily played the heroine in a Pashto movie—and you don’t hear about anyone giving the likes of Shehnaz Begum trouble about her weight. (Of course, there was probably an element of fear for one’s physical safety at play in that.)


Anyway, we soon learn that Super Girl is a stylish master criminal who, when she is not playing at being a disco diva or shaking down drug dealers, is careening around town with her two doltish cronies in either a purple dune buggy or a little red corvette convertible. Of course, at this point, she has no idea that an aggrieved Sultan Rahi is heading her way, or that he is carrying with him a conservative dress that he plans to force her into. And that is probably for the best, as, at the moment, Super Girl seems to have other problems. No sooner have she and her stooges left da klub than they are attacked by a band of ninja assassins. Super Girl makes short work of these assailants with some lightning fast kung fu moves—which are mainly accomplished via lots of quick cutting and some very loud sound effects that will make you fear that the building you are in is collapsing. Obviously, Super Girl has made someone in London really pissed off, and one of her henchmen suggests that she head to Manila until things cool off.

Of course, no sooner has Super Girl left London than the newly dapper Sultan Rani arrives. He wanders around forlornly for a while, showing Super Girl’s photo to random passersby (The Chi-lites “Have You Seen Her” would have worked really well on the soundtrack), before learning from a helpful merchant that she has hightailed it to the Philippines. He follows.


And it is here in Super Girl that, if not for Omar Khan’s fine review of the film for The Hotspot Cafe site, I would have become very confused. You see, most, if not all, of Super Girl’s location footage was shot in Manila—an unsurprising fact given the cozy economic relationship that Pakistan and the PI enjoyed at the time. The problem is that those parts of the film that were meant to be taking place in London—including most of the film’s first half hour--were also shot in Manila, with the only concession to verisimilitude being occasionally inserted stock footage of Big Ben. I, of course, watched this film without subtitles, and the combination of that and the recurring shots of planes taking off, which suggested long-range travel, might have left me with a very strange idea of where Super Girl was meant to be taking place. Of course, the prominence of a hotel called The Philippines Village in many of the shots probably would have clued me in eventually.

Anyway, as soon as Rahi arrives in Manila, he encounters a fellow Pakistani who is begging for change on the street. This fellow will be the first of a number of comic relief back-up players who will be bulking up Super Girl’s running time from this point, so consider yourselves warned. It is also around this time that he meets PJ, a giggling deviant in a bad hair metal wig who is a member of the vast criminal network of which Super Girl is also a part. PJ, whose lair gives prominence to a fountain shaped like a giant liquor bottle, is in charge of a human trafficking operation that involves recruiting/tricking young Pakistani girls to work in the Filipino sex trade. His most recent victim is Gauri, a feisty village belle who, according to Omar Khan, is played by Anjuman’s actual sister.



If you are a fan of these films, like I am, there is one name that is so far conspicuous by its absence from this review—and that’s Mustafa Qureshi. Qureshi, with Rahi and Anjuman, formed the triumvirate of stars who would star together in dozens of films throughout the 70s and 80s. And though he was repeatedly defeated—and badly thrashed—by Rahi in every single one of those films, he nonetheless remained the only villain who seemed to be a worthy opponent for Rahi, matching him both in volume as well as ferocity until the final turnabout that would bring about his ruin.

It is perhaps by way of compensation for Qureshi’s absence that the makers of Super Girl came up with Black Cobra, the Boss at the top of Super Girl and PJ’s criminal network. I may be wrong, but it appeared to me that he was played by Asif Khan, an actor who I normally associate with Pashto films. In any case, whoever had the idea of making all the bad guys in Super Girl look like members of an awful Bon Jovi tribute band is responsible for giving the film a distinctive visual stamp. Apparently, all of these people hide their evil intentions under their huge hair, and Black Cobra, who brings the look home by wearing enough ill-fitting black leather to look like he stepped out of a Turkish X-Men movie, is no exception. I should also note that PJ and Super Girl appear to have switched wigs at one point, which no doubt has some kind of deep significance.


Super Girl also makes up for a lot by being a film in which Sultan Rahi and Anjuman are actual co-stars. Unlike the actresses whom Rahi had previously been paired with, who were often there just to sing a couple of songs to an indifferent Rahi before being rescued from the villain, Anjuman gets a lot of screen time, especially due to the bifurcated structure of the film’s first hour. Furthermore, Super Girl is presented as being a sort of counterpart to Rahi--equally shouty, violent and fearless—which makes the moment when they finally encounter one another all the more enjoyable.

That moment comes at the instigation of Super Girl’s long suffering father, who arranges a meeting between the two after Rahi tracks him down. Super Girl is just as unware of her marriage to Rahi as he was, and her reaction--well, ladies, just imagine being suddenly informed that you were married to as wrathful a personification of medievalist cultural values as Sultan Rahi, and I think you’ll get the idea. For a woman like Super Girl, Rahi’s ideas of enforced domesticity are a personally tailored nightmare, as is that dress he bears with him.


Finally, Rahi and Super Girl come to blows—and it’s a pretty great fight, featuring as it does two fairly hefty looking people wildly back flipping around like methed-up Russian gymnasts. Super Girl actually gets some good blows in, but is ultimately unable to withstand Rahi’s power slaps (yes, he wins the fight by repeatedly slapping her in the face.) Rahi then drags the defeated Super Girl back to her father’s house and locks her in a room with THE DRESS. This proves incentive enough for her to make a break for it, after which she hides out in PJ’s lair, where Super Girl’s all-fighting/all-shooting climax takes place.

I would love to tell you that Super Girl resists Sultan Rahi’s bullying and never wears that damn dress—and perhaps someday I will make a blog where I review movies as I wish they were, rather than as they are—but I think you would know that I was lying. Indeed, she does knuckle under, demurely avoiding Rahi’s eyes as he looks her over approvingly. The only thing that redeems this scene is that it immediately precedes one in which Super Girl leads Rahi to Black Cobra’s lair, following a route that takes them through a graveyard full of dancing ghouls. If anybody is keeping track of all these South Asian “Thriller” rip-offs, this is unmistakably one of them. Hell, it’s probably already on YouTube.


Once inside Black Cobra’s lair, Rahi and the Cobra get into it in a big way. It’s a pretty spectacular fight--desperate and vicious--which ends when Rahi, at his moment of victory, is set upon by Black Cobra’s minions and stabbed repeatedly. Of course, poking holes in Sultan Rahi only makes him more aerodynamic, and so he handily survives the five story fall that follows.

Super Girl’s action-packed final act observes all of the most important rules of low budget action cinema—primarily the one that says that there must be a helicopter, that someone at some point must hang from that helicopter and, finally, that that helicopter must get blowed up. At the end of the fight, with the Philippines rid of evil and helicopters, our heroes return to Pakistan, where Super Girl sings a love song to an indifferent Sultan Rahi—which is perhaps a less super outcome than she might have preferred.