Friday, January 31, 2020

A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY 1968

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of movie marketing knows that any film calling itself A Quiet Place in the Country is certain to be set in a country locale that’s anything but. And by the same token, anyone remotely familiar with the works of Elio Petri—the Italian director/screenwriter of that Haute futuristic fantasm The Tenth Victim (1965) and the 1970 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner winner for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion—knows that any movie made by this unsung post-neorealist auteur is bound to be a barbed political allegory distinguished, in no small part, by a strikingly idiosyncratic visual style and a dynamic musical score.
Both presuppositions are realized to mind-blowing effect in A Quiet Place in the Country, an offbeat, exhilarating puzzle of a film that has a lot to say about man, muses, money, and madness. And it does so while oozing irresistible ‘60s-era inscrutability from every artfully-composed frame.
In this sequence, one of several punctuated by imagery alluding to contemporary and classic works of art, a faded beauty in a decaying villa (top r.) assumes a pose reminiscent of Jean-Louis David's 1800 Neoclassical portrait Madame Recamier (top l.). As the figure draws closer, the woman transforms into Rene Magritte's 1951 surreal parody, Perspective: Madame Recamier by David (bottom l.)


A Quiet Place in the Country is a giallo-hued psychological thriller about the artist as outsider. A study in the creative alienation that charts one man's slow descent into madness as he wages war with inner demons and suppressed obsessions. In fashioning his subjectively fractured, paranoid vision of the world of art, Elio Petri takes simultaneous aim at consumerist culture and the moral decay that lies at its core. Specifically, the dehumanizing effects of the market-mandated practice of harnessing and harvesting creativity and artistic expression for the sake of profit.
A film that intriguingly combines diverse elements of style and genre, the tone of A Quiet Place in the Country shifts eerily--and joltingly--from dreamlike to nightmarish in service of a narrative that’s part murder mystery, part obsessive love story, and part horror film.
Vanessa Redgrave as Flavia
Franco Nero as Leonardo Ferri
Franco Nero is Leonardo Ferri, an abstract expressionist artist living in Milan. An artist whose success is both a source of guilt (he's the one who sets the exorbitant prices charged for his paintings), and resentment (he runs himself ragged filling arbitrary gallery quotas that only feed his belief that success has turned his art into merchandise--just another collectible consumer commodity). Stricken with an acute case of creative stasis and trapped within a kind of existential inertia, he fears that his methods of creation--a spontaneous, gestural, “action painting” technique---are becoming obsolete in the high-volume Pop Art world of mixed media and mechanical reproduction.
A modern artist pitted against modernism, everything about his work has grown too “too” for the contemporary marketplace: his prices too high, his methods too slow, his canvases too large, and his art too impenetrable.
Normative Dualism
The mental and physical in the creative process

With his two-month creative dry spell threatening to turn into three, stress and isolation take an ever-increasing toll on Leonardo's mind and psyche. Most provocatively, in serving to escalate his already conflicted feelings for Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave), his married lover who also just happens to be his agent.
The cool pragmatist to Leonardo’s exposed-nerve fantasist, Flavia—who has him on an allowance, keeps tabs on his work output, and is forever scribbling down figures in ledgers—loves him, but is shrewdly accepting of his paranoid distrust and need to cast her as the villain in their relationship. Flavia: (catching sight of him eyeing a weighty object d’art in his apartment): "Darling, Leonardo…you can’t kill me with that, it’s just a big paper clip.”
The ambiguity of perception figures significantly in how A Quiet Place in the Country builds suspense and consistently keeps the viewer on unsteady ground. Early in the film, Leonardo is depicted as the bound, passive, sex-object exploited both physically and creatively by the materialistic Flavia. The ready assumption is that we're seeing Leonardo's perception of the dynamics of their relationship. Later in the film, this scene is mirrored in a way that casts it in an entirely different light.


Owing at least part of his artist’s block to the challenge of trying to create meaningful work in the face of society’s capitalism-fed, art-as-consumer-goods ethos (he’s seen reading Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction), Leonardo seizes upon the reasoned notion that the only way to get his inspiration mojo working again is to move away from the distractions of the city to a place of isolation and quiet where he can be at one with his thoughts.

Fate seems to oblige all too readily by placing in his path a remote, deteriorating villa that fairly beckons to him from the road. Although its condition is rundown and locals whisper about it being haunted by the ghost of a beautiful Countess who died there 40 years ago; the villa is nevertheless a secluded, bucolic spot offering Leonardo everything he’s looking for. And quite a bit more of what he'll forever wish he'd never found.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
A Quiet Place in the Country is a sociopolitical, psychosexual haunted house movie that always feels a hairsbreadth away from submerging itself in its own late- ‘60s stylization. A thinking-person’s Giallo incorporating all the familiar tropes of the genre (murder mystery, amateur sleuthing, graphic violence, eroticism, red herrings, etc.), its chief deviation from tradition—and key determiner as to whether or not this film will be your cup of tea—is its commitment to preserving the twitchy schizophrenic perspective of its abstract artist protagonist. Something achieved by presenting its rather straightforward story in as arty, willfully cryptic a manner as it can get away with without having to identify itself as avant-garde experimental cinema. It’s not that A Quiet Place in the Country doesn’t have a beginning, middle and an end, it’s just they’re all in a different order. 
Fragmented Fantasy
A Quiet Place in the Country is a reworking of Oliver Onions' 1911 masterwork of supernatural fiction. The Beckoning Fair One.  The story of a man consumed by his obsession with a seductive, potentially malevolent ghost.

But for me, the style IS the story of A Quiet Place in the Country, a modern gothic tasking the viewer with determining whether a chain of increasingly bizarre events befalling a brooding hero is rooted in the psychological or the paranormal. As obscure and enigmatic as Petri’s images may be (pretentious...sure, heavy-handed...yes, fascinating...always), they credibly convey Leonardo's mental disintegration and heighten identification with the character. Petri's intimate style also poignantly underscore themes in the film interpreting the creative impulse--the need to express oneself and be understood by others--as an outer-directed primal compulsion compensating for the inner-inaccessibility of the unknowable self.

Visual Artist
Estranged from his feelings, Leonardo tries to invoke anything resembling a human reaction as he flips through slide images of eroticism and violence. Leonardo's unreliable perceptions are dramatized in the film's motif of windows (often barred), kaleidoscopes (distortions), mirrors (fractured and two-sided), peepholes (limited), and camera lenses (at a remove).


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Given my fondness for the hyper-stylized charms of Gialli, it surprises me to think just how late-to-the-party I was in getting around to seeing my first Italian Giallo film as recently as 2016. The film was Lucio Fulci’s extraordinary Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), and it so knocked my socks off that I went from 100% unfamiliarity with the genre to having since added some 40 Giallo titles to my film library.
I’m not sure that I’ve yet reconciled myself to the violence (making me thankful for that fake-looking, poster-paint-red blood they used back in the day), but I never cease to be impressed by how accommodating the genre is to such a broad scope of narrative concepts. There’s room for everything from gumshoes to ghosts under the Gaillo banner.
Idée Fixe 
 Flavia, the realist, and ever the consumer, is preoccupied with wealth. Leonardo, a resuscitated sensualist since moving to the country, is fetishistically bewitched by a yonic scrap of clothing once worn by the woman he thinks is haunting the villa.


As an example of the “arthouse horror” style of Giallo, A Quiet Place in the Country is low on sensationalism, surpassingly high on atmospheric mystery, and takes a cue from its title by trading the gaudy colorfulness I usually associate with the genre, for a kind of baroque naturalism. The very effective result is that supernatural terrors take place in the brightness of day, and hallucinations and spectral visions are all made the more disturbing by being indistinguishable from reality.
Terrified at the prospect of spending the night alone after witnessing a particularly hair-raising
display of ghostly pyrotechnics, Leonardo imposes himself upon his maid and her "brother." 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
It’s been my experience that it’s very rare for a really intriguing horror film or mystery to have a payoff that lives up to its setup. The more disturbing the journey, the greater the chance the Big Reveal will prove anticlimactic. Against all odds, A Quiet Place in the Country ranks as one of those rarities. For me, it was an effectively compelling chiller with a doozy of a surprise ending worthy and fitting of all the with-it weirdness that came before it. 
By large measure, credit is owed to Oliver Onions’ impeccably-structured source novel; longtime Gialli cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and Andy Warhol’s two 3-D horror titles, Dracula / Frankenstein); and a rattle-your-bones improvisational music score by Ennio Morricone and Nuova Consonanza.
Autoerotic
Leonardo Becomes His Own Sex Object

But as a huge fan of the exquisitely elephantine Camelot (1967) I'd be lying if I said that any part of this remarkable film impressed me more than the reteaming of Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero... MY Lady Guenevere and Sir Lancelot (the 2nd of some five films they would come to make together). Playing emotionally enigmatic lovers, both actors inhabit their roles with charismatic ease (Nero's the best I've ever seen him), their real-life sensual chemistry breathing life into the film's hyperventilating eroticism.
What Do The Simple Folk Do?
Though Redgrave appears nude in several scenes, fans of Nero have to content themselves with discreet angles and loincloths. As we now know, he was saving full-frontal for when he turned 75 (The Time of their Lives - 2017)


A Quiet Place in the Country is genre-faithful as murder mystery, Giallo thriller, and supernatural horror film, but its presentation is perhaps too iconoclast and its appeal too niche for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Personally, I was absolutely enthralled by the film from the first frame to the last, finding much in what Elio Petri had to say about art and alienation still relevant and echoed in contemporary films like Nocturnal Animals (2016) and Velvet Buzzsaw (2019).
There's a thin membrane separating impulse, instinct, and inspiration. A Quiet Place in the Country suggests the wall distinguishing between passion, obsession, and compulsion is perhaps nonexistent.


BONUS MATERIAL:
A reader (thanks!) brought it to my attention that the source material for A Quiet Place in the Country, Oliver Onions' novella The Fair Beckoning One, was also made into a (stultifyingly pedestrian) episode of the Hammer anthology TV series Journey to the Unknown. Starring Robert Lansing and Gabrielle Drake, the episode was broadcast in December of 1968. Although A Quiet Place in the Country was also made in 1968, it wasn't released in the US until 1970.
TV version of The Fair Beckoning One available for now on YouTube 


That Redgrave and Nero were considered quite the scandalous pair in their day, now seems rather quaint. The two met in 1966 while making Camelot, lived in sin (gasp!) and had a baby out of wedlock before separating in 1971.  Shocking stuff, that.
What makes their story the stuff of fairy tales is their reuniting after several decades apart, and getting married in 2006. A story made all the more romantic due to countless interviews given by the never-married Nero over the years claiming he would never marry and that Redgrave had been the love of his life. In 2017 the couple danced together on the Italian TV show Strictly Come Dancing (below).
1968                                                        2017

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, January 9, 2020

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN 1972

Toys Are Not For Children, an unashamedly debauched ‘70s grindhouse trash treasure with the subversive smarts of arthouse cinema, is a psychosexual fever dream about childhood trauma and arrested emotional development. In keeping with the film’s kiddie-centric theme, and being something of a case of pop-cultural stunted growth myself, I offer an introduction to the film in the style of my favorite childhood cartoon show--The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle--a program that ended each cliffhanger episode with two pun-heavy either/or wordplay titles. 
Toys Are Not For Children 
(In the voice of narrator William Conrad) Be sure to join us for our next episode: 
 "Welcome to the Psycho-Doll House” or “Mourning Becomes Electra-Complex.”

Marcia Forbes as Jamie Godard
Harlan Cary Poe as Charlie Belmond
Evelyn Kingsley as Pearl Valdi
Luis Arroyo as Eddie 
Fran Warren as Edna Godard

During New Hollywood’s clumsy transitional years, when recently-relaxed censorship laws made it easier for explicit images of sex and sadism to proliferate on movie screens, low-budget exploitation films were faced with the dilemma of seeing the once-exclusive staples of their domain—prurience, sensationalism, nudity, violence, profanity, and sordid content—co-opted by the major studios. With 20th Century-Fox greenlighting megabuck miscalculations in weirdness like Myra Breckinridge (1970)  and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), and Warner Bros. bankrolling the X-rated, controversy-courting masterworks A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Devils (1971), how was a lowly, lowbrow independent expected to compete?

For many in the quick-play, easy-profit trade, the obvious solution was to raise the stakes by lowering the sleaze bar. To explore themes and topics even the majors might be squeamish about touching, and in so doing (perhaps inadvertently, but always inevitably), usher in the crazy.
Enter filmmaker Stanley H. Brassloff, creator of two of 1968’s more obscure “roughies” (a gritty subgenre of sexploitation, usually featuring sexual violence) Two Girls for a Madman and Behind Locked Doors, and the director/producer/screenwriter (with Macs McAree) of the disarmingly whacko Toys Are Not For Children
As if suddenly realizing it has an awful lot of perversion to shoehorn into a rather breakneck 85-minute running time, Toys Are Not For Children gets swiftly down to business in a doozy of a pre-credits sequence that perfectly sets the tone for all the bizarro that follows. To the accompaniment of ominous chords of organ music and considerable heavy breathing on the soundtrack, an astonished mother walks in on her teenage daughter writhing naked on a child-sized bed in an infantile, toy-cluttered bedroom, lost in a fog of rapturous masturbation while caressing a stuffed toy soldier and moaning “Daddy…Daddy!”
And…we’re off to the dysfunction races.

Barbie's No-Fun House
Furniture scale and decor emphasize the doll-like world Jamie inhabits
“How long has this been going on? The stuff you’re doing… you’re just like your father! Well, he’s too busy with his women. All he ever did was send you these stinking toys and you take them to bed. It’s unnatural. Do you hear me? Unnatural!”

The individual demonstrating that any toy can be a sex toy when you’re toting around emotional baggage the size of a steamer trunk, is 19-year-old Jamie Godard of Long Island, NY. An emotionally immature young woman who, if you'll allow for the gross understatement, really misses her absentee father.
It seems beloved daddy Phillip Godard was abruptly and unceremoniously kicked out of the house, never to be seen again, when Jamie was but six years old. Left in the toxic care of Edna, her embittered, sexually repressed mother, Jamie's coping mechanism is to cultivate a dissociatively idealized image of her father. A soft-focus, turbidly carnal image dramatically at odds with her mother's frequent, epithet-laden reminders to Jamie that her father is a whoremonger, a drunkard, and, like all men, an evil scumbag who wants only one thing from women. Well, two things, actually. Edna emphatically maintains that men only want housewives and whores...just not in the same woman.

Playing Around
Jamie finds her dream job working in (what else?) a toy store. There she meets and hastily marries her co-worker, Charlie as a means of escaping her mother. In this scene, Charlie expresses his love for the decidedly impassive Jamie under the watchful gaze of several toys. Most prophetically: a Betty Big Girl doll and one called Little Honeymoon (the space baby from Dick Tracy comics).

The psychological fallout of being raised by two monumentally ill-matched individuals with the relationship skills of an Edward Albee Second Act, is that Jamie hasn’t grown up so much as grown weird. Inhibited, sexually fearful, and emotionally shut off on any subject that isn’t related to either toys or her dad; Jamie lives in a cocooned world of developmental suspended animation. One that feeds the delusion that her Daddy isn't just the only man ever to love her, he's the only man who WILL ever love her.
Like The Wizard of Oz, The Bluebird, and countless bedtime stories about little girls embarking on journeys in search of something elusive and prized, Toys Are Not For Children is a fucked-up Fractured Fairy Tale chronicling Jamie's perverted Pilgrim's Progress to contrive the world's most misguided father and daughter reunion.
Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
The blue, in this case, being Charlie's balls. Jamie prefers honeymoon cuddling with her stuffed toy


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
One of the nice surprises about exploitation flicks is that while they remain refreshingly honest and upfront about their commitment to giving audiences only the most salacious, exaggerated take on a subject at any given time, behind the surface, a great many of them turn out to be remarkably subversive. 
The kind of movie Toys Are Not For Children sold itself as can be gleaned from the two act-of-desperation alternative titles it was rereleased under after initially bombing at the boxoffice: there’s the grossly misleading How to Make Love to a Virgin and the simply nonsensical Virgin Dolls. But Toys Are Not For Children is actually an outlandish incest taboo/titillation tease propping up a provocatively rendered commentary on the limited and contradictory nature of society’s assigned roles for women. 
Jamie finds a friend, surrogate mother, & role model in Pearl Valdi, a New York prostitute and single mother (looking very Jacqueline Susann in her Pucci dress and mile-high hair) who visits the store one day to buy a birthday gift for her 9-year-old daughter. Jamie suggests a toy oven:
Jamie: “She can cook for her friends!”
Pearl: “Heh, she’ll be doing that for the rest of her life!”
Jamie: “Oh, when you’re 9 it's fun to play house!”
Pearl: “As long as you only PLAY house...it’s OK.”


With its three female major characters, at times, Toys Are Not For Children feels like Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) filtered through the twisted mind of John Waters. Jamie, Pearl, and Edna each represent a restrictive feminine archetype. Jamie is woman as the eternal child. The infantilized daddy’s girl expected to be the virginal, compliant, and dependent love-receptacle whose sexualized innocence she’s neither allowed to acknowledge nor own. Who gets to define what it means to be a "good" girl or woman? Too often it's tied to archaic, patriarchal notions of purity and the silencing of a woman's voice in deciding who has access to her body.  
Pretty In Pink
Even in the midst of the Women's Movement, the '70s trafficked heavily
in the fetishization of sexualized youth and the infantilizing of women 

If Jamie is a worst-case casualty of our culture’s mania for girls who mature sexually but never grow up, then Jamie’s mother Edna is the Donna Reed / Leave It To Beaver domestic fantasy yanked to the dark side. Literally a housewife in that she’s never seen outside the confines of her claustrophobic home (the film’s dollhouse motif, again), Jamie’s vindictive mother—like the proverbial madwoman in the attic—is characterized as crazy and irrational, but she’s the only one who actually sees what’s going on. 
Between the sleaze and shocking revelations, Toys Are Not For Children manages to squeeze in a surprising number of barbed observations about the narrow scope through which women are viewed by society. Through the subtly competitive relationships Jamie has with her mother (vying for the attentions of her father), and Pearl (capitulating to Eddie, Pearl's pimp and bedmate), it's dramatized how women, for want of male-gaze validation (aka love), often adopt inauthentic, ill-fitting personas and fail to be mutually supportive allies to other women...even in instances of shared trauma. 
In its depiction of Jamie's traumatizing home life, the film points to the cultural contrasts in the ways marriage is framed for women (all Happy Homemaker fulfillment, no drudgery) and men (standard Playboy Joke Page stuff about loss of freedom and a lifetime saddled to the ol' ball-and-chain). 
I Don't Wanna Grow Up, I'm A Toys R Us Kid
Ironically, the first time Charlie meets Jamie, he's the one acting like a child. Driving a toy car through the aisles, upon catching sight of his future wife, the camera frames him so he's surrounded by gendered toys of domesticity: a toy over, vacuum cleaner, blender, dishwasher set, and hairdryer

Rounding out this triad of female archetypes is whore: the umbrella label assigned any woman who falls outside the Purity Myth. As it happens, Pearl (who instantly won me over in her introduction scene by giving serious Jacqueline Susann energy with her big hair and Pucci dress) actually IS a whore, but an unapologetic one with a maternalistic streak. Caring to Edna’s cold, colorful to Edna’s drab, and lively to Edna's cynical dispiritedness, Pearl becomes an unexpected, unwilling role model for Jamie. 
I'm Coming Out
Jamie gets herself a Klute haircut, a new wardrobe, and a new career.  
As with Altman's film, the three women in Toys Are Not For Children exemplify three distinct aspects of female identity that are simply the standard-issue complexities and contradictions of being a dimensional human, yet society promotes them as being at odds with one another.
"That Jamie is a real doll!"
Charlie fails to conceal his annoyance at his boss Max (N.J. Osrag)
for insisting that married life must be pure bliss


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I can’t say exactly what expectations I brought to Toys Are Not For Children, I only know they were low. Making the mistake of assuming the film’s obscurity was indicative of its quality, I settled in hoping for nothing more than a newly unearthed, so-bad-it’s-good godsend. Is it low-budget? To be sure. Feature uneven acting? Without a doubt. Camp? Most certainly. But, much like when I saw Dinah East (1970)--that other little-known exploitationer I discovered decades after its initial release--I came away from Toys Are Not For Children simply floored to discover a sharp, perceptive, almost recklessly strange film. Feminist and fabulous, I'm convinced it's one of the best of the genre.
Sex-phobic Jamie has a particularly bad reaction to happening upon an amorous couple in the woods

Though not all of its ideas are thought through, and its take on sexual psychosis is dodgy, I'm nevertheless impressed by the film being audacious enough to structure its narrative in the form of Greek tragedy. Toys Are Not For Children cleverly tells the body of the story in disjointed, time-hopping flashbacks. The dual benefit and overall effect created is of having the viewer share Jamie’s fractured psyche while at the same time creating a narrative tension that feels like the piecing together of a puzzle. 
The look of the film is colorful and toy-box-bright, giving forth with an eye-orgy of kooky '70s decor, fashions, and hairstyles. The performances run the gamut of being a step above Andy Warhol level to the unexpectedly affecting and natural performance by Evelyn Kingsley as Pearl. 
Depending on how you look at it, Jamie's development or degradation is given visual emphasis in these mirror shots that have the artwork in Jamie's room reflect the changes in her life. Top right: a tiny picture of a little girl hangs in a room cluttered with toys. Below: a large painting of a nude woman staring unashamedly at the artist (viewer).

As the 1970s progressed, exploitation films grew so increasingly standardized and mainstream, genuinely offbeat, difficult-to-categorize releases like this all but disappeared. A fact that makes me regret that I missed out on the opportunity to see Toys Are Not For Children on the big screen in a theater back when it came out. Certainly, amid the glut of male-centric action films and buddy movies I saw at the time, a female-driven exercise in eccentricity like this would have been most welcome. But that's the past. I'm just glad SOMEONE thought to exhume this forgotten gem and give us connoisseurs of the kooky an experience not easy to forget.
Twisted Toy Story

BONUS MATERIAL
I was surprised to discover the actress playing Jamie's perpetually
pissed-off mother was a former big band singer and jazz vocalist
who, in 1947, introduced the popular standard "A Sunday Kind of Love." 


Films Dealing With Themes Similar to Toys Are Not For Children
Toys in the Attic (1963): Family dysfunction, incest, and Yvette Mimieux as a childlike woman.

Secret Ceremony (1968): Family dysfunction, sexual abuse, Elizabeth Taylor as a maternal whore, and Mia Farrow as a childlike woman.
Secret Ceremony
Toys Are Not For Children


Several times in the film I found my eyes drawn to the distinctive art print Pearl has on the wall of her apartment. It's a poster for a 1967 exhibit at New York's Pace Gallery for surrealist Ernest Trova. The image is from his Falling Man series. 


It's Time To Speak of Unspoken Things


Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020