Dec 9, 2019

Classe Tous Risques

Admittedly, the older I get, the more François Truffaut’s classic film Jules and Jim (1962) seems like phony bullshit as dreamed up by an effete poser that has never had a genuine masculine friendship and I recently discovered that I was not the only one with this canon-contradicting opinion after reading a tribute to Gallic auteur Claude Sautet (Max and the Junkmen, Mado) by fellow French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. Indeed, in the short yet superlative tribute entitled ‘The Quiet Courage of a Great Filmmaker’ featured in the March/April 192 issue of Présence du Cinéma, Melville soundly argued when comparing the masculine friendships of Sautet’s masterful second-feature Classe Tous Risques (1960) aka The Big Risk aka Consider All Risks to Truffaut’s film, “People often speak of films where the relationships between men, their friendships, have an enormous importance. I believed in the friendship of Abel Davos and Stark absolutely. It is interior, and does not appear by means of dialogue. The two men’s behavior makes explicit their feelings, without either of them having to speak of their friendship. On the other hand, I was not able to believe in the friendship of Jules and Jim, even though they speak of it often.” While Melville opens his tribute by confessing, “I offer my friendship rarely,” Sautet’s film had such a huge impact on the filmmaker that he not only gave his friendship to the fellow frog auteur but also somewhat copied his singular gangster film style, which is somewhat ironic when one considers the source material of the film. Indeed, despite being a French Jew that famously fought with the French Resistance during WWII as he would so painstakingly pay tribute to in his film Army of Shadows (1969) aka L'armée des ombres, Melville would (somewhat unwittingly) take imperative influence from a film based on a 1958 crime novel about real-life French Gestapo agent Abel Danos (alias ‘le Mammouth’ due to this robust/muscular build)—a bodacious bad ass that refused to wear a blindfold upon being confronted with the firing squad that would execute him—as penned by Corsican-blooded card-carrying-fascist collaborationist José Giovanni (real name Joseph Damiani) who was involved in the torture, blackmail, and murder of various French Jews and resistance fighters. In fact, gentleman Giovanni was, not unlike Danos (who he befriended in prison), even sentenced to death himself for three premeditated murders but luckily (and unlike Danos) he escaped the guillotine when his sentence was commuted by President Vincent Auriol and instead he served eleven and a half years of an initial twenty years of hard labor. Fierce fascistic source aside, I suspect that Melville, himself part of a criminal underground, could sense a certain intrinsic authenticity to the less than glamorous crime and grime of Sautet’s film. 

 While Melville arguably had an imperative influence on the filmmaking of French master auteur Robert Bresson with his debut feature Le Silence de la mer (1949) aka The Silence of the Sea—a more or less avant-garde chamber piece featuring a reluctant Nazi officer apparently partly inspired by German Conservative Revolutionary movement intellectual and supposed Nazi-fellow-traveler Ernst Jünger—there is no question that Classe Tous Risques was a crucial influence on the filmmaker’s legendary gangster flicks, including Le Doulos (1963), Le deuxième souffle (1966), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970).  In fact, I would argue that Sautet’s film is more immaculate and enthralling than all of Melville’s flicks aside from possibly Le Samouraï (1967) and apparently I am not the only one that thinks so as source writer José Giovanni himself would once say, “CLASSE TOUS RISQUES is the best film adaptation of any of my books. It doesn’t have any nightclub scenes. It doesn’t treat the subject as folklore. And it has more heart than LE DEUXIÈME SOUFFLE.” Indeed, Melville’s Le deuxième soufflé is also a Giovanni adaptation that stars Lino Ventura, but it spends about an extra 40 minutes to do what Sautet’s film accomplishes more effortlessly in terms of sheer underworld pathos, paranoia, and pessimism. As someone that experienced much of Melville’s oeuvre long before ever even hearing of Sautet, I can safety say that watching Classe Tous Risques felt like the result of the mastering of the Melvillian universe as if all of the ‘excess fat’ and static plodding that sometimes plagues the Judaic auteur's films was carefully cut with the carefully calculated precision of a seasoned Fleishmaster.

Indeed, whereas most of Melville’s films are something I might be inclined to revisit every couple of years, Sautet’s second feature is a seemingly flawless flick of the good and hearty sort that demands to be re-watched regularly and can be re-watched when you’re in any sort of mood despite its rather bleak and pessimistic subject matter. Of course, being the kind of person that prefers Once Upon a Time in America (1984) to all of Sergio Leone’s other films combined, The Fire Within (1963) aka Le feu follet to any of Malle’s other films, Taxi Driver (1976) to Scorsese’s later Goodfellas (1990), La Bête Humaine (1938) to Renoir’s purported magnum opuses La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), and even Luca Guadagnino’s ostensible Suspiria (2018) remake to Dario Argento's 1977 original, Classe Tous Risques is like the cinematic equivalent of ‘cold comfort food’ as a rare gangster flick of almost Spenglerian pessimistic proportions that dares to question humanity as a whole in its delightfully despairing depiction of a foredoomed gangster on the run that quickly loses everything that makes life worth living.  Indeed, if any film acts as an apt eulogy for the gangster genre, it is Sautet’s underrated black-and-white masterpiece.

 Notably, Jules and Jim is not the only obnoxiously overrated La Nouvelle Vague film that would eclipse Classe Tous Risques—a film that still has not completely gotten its due despite now being regarded as a masterpiece among certain cinephiles and film historians—in terms of sheer popularity. Indeed, as French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (Death Watch, Coup de Torchon)—a loyal protégé of both Sautet and Melville—explained in a tribute to the film entitled ‘Beautiful Friendships’ in regard to its unfortunate history, “Sautet’s film was also eclipsed by BREATHLESS, released just a few weeks before; all the credit for bringing out the talent of Jean-Paul Belmondo went to Godard, despite the fact that in CLASSE TOUS RISQUES, Belmondo shows us a completely different side of his great gift as an actor, his remarkable versatility, by making credible an authoritarian character with radiant charm, by stunningly fusing virility and childlike innocence, in a performance that is in a totally different register from the one he gives in BREATHLESS.” Admittedly, due to my general loathing of Godard’s debut feature and especially the lead character, I initially disliked Belmondo and would not really realize his brilliance and effortless charisma until seeing him in relatively mainstream films like Georges Lautner’s The Professional (1981) aka Le Professionnel and against-type arthouse roles like in Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961). In short, Godard neutered Belmondo in films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou (1965) as if to make the actor more autobiographically autistic. In Classe Tous Risques, Belmondo does what Belmondo does best by being both the ultimate man’s man and lady’s man as a suave young cocksman that knows exactly how to fight and fuck (despite the film technically not depicting much of either). 

 Not surprisingly, both Melville and Sautet were completely unaware of the covert fascist flavor of Classe Tous Risques, which is probably a good thing as the film probably would not exist otherwise. Indeed, as Sautet stated in an interview featured in the book Conversations avec Claude Sautet (1994) by Michel Boujut when asked if he know that the film’s lead was based on an infamous fascist, “If I had known, I might not have made the film. I was not aware that Abel Danos—Davos in the film—had belonged to the Bony-Lafont [collaborationist] gang during the occupation. It was only after the film was released that one day, in a bistro, some underworld types tipped me off: ‘It’s great that you made a film about Abel!’” In fact, apparently Sautet did not even realize that his screenwriter, José Giovanni, who he described having “got along perfectly” with, was also an (ex)fascist as the novelist (and, later, filmmaker) was not revealed to be a collaborationist until October 1993 after being exposed by two trashy Swiss dailies. Undoubtedly, Giovanni’s experiences as a once-condemned man certainly informs the decidedly desperate and even sometimes downright nihilist tone of Classe Tous Risques, which ultimately concludes with the lead antihero passively accepting his date with death despite technically getting away with his crimes as the character has been condemned by fate after losing virtually everything that meant something to him, not least of all his pride and dignity. 

 Although his crimes are never made clear, French gangster Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) has been tried in absentia and sentenced to death, so he is now hiding in Italy with his wife and their two little boys after being forced to flee Switzerland. After committing a successful holdup on a busy Milan street with the help of his rather agile accomplice Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol)—a completely fearless fucker that demonstrates complete loyalty to his comrade—that concludes with an insane getaway that involves motorcycles and carjackings, the group decides to, somewhat curiously, head back to France. Rather tragically and quite unexpectedly both Raymond and Abel’s wife are gunned down by custom agents just as they arrive at a deserted beach cove in the middle of the night in an almost surreally nightmarish scenario that marks the beginning of the end for the seemingly forsaken antihero. Virtually trapped in Nice, France with his two extremely young sons, who are clearly scarred for life as they witnessed the coldblooded murder of their mother and family friend Naldi, Abel is seriously screwed in more ways than one, but luckily some people owe him a “debt,” or so he naively assumes as a man of honor that seemingly never heard the timeless sentiment that there is, “No honor among thieves.”  Indeed, Abel might be a violent crook, but he has a strict moral code that gets put to the test when his old comrades break said moral code.

Abel expects to have good help from his old underworld buddies as Henri ‘Riton’ Vintran (Michel Ardan) owes him a big favor for funding his successful bistro and Raoul Fargier (Claude Cerval) practically owes him his life for somehow getting him out of prison, but unfortunately it never occurred to the antihero that his old pals are nowhere near as honorable, grateful, or respectful as he is. While a third friend, Jean ‘Kid Jeannot’ Martin (Philippe March), wanted to promptly arrive in France with a machinegun and ambulance to smuggle him back to Paris, he is talked out of it by Riton and Fargier as he is on parole and cannot risk such a precarious move. Since Fargier is a self-centered coward and Riton has been emasculated by his nagging barmaid wife, the ‘old friends’ decided to do what amounts to the bare minimum and reluctantly agree to hire a young stranger, Éric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to pick up Abel and his sons. Needless to say, Abel is highly offended to the point of feeling deeply betrayed when a total stranger as opposed to his old friends arrives in Nice, but, unbeknownst to Fargier, who hired him, Stark is actually an old comrade of Raymond Naldi or as he confides to the protagonist while trying to alleviate his worries, “I had a friend named Raymond Naldi. They don’t know in Paris. I didn’t want to tell you either, but with what you’re thinking, it’s better if I did.”  While technically a mere hired mercenary, Éric ultimately proves to be the only real friend that Abel can count on in a relationship where the young up-and-comer learns to respect and protect an old pro in decline.

 It is immediately apparent that, despite their age difference, Abel and Éric have great chemistry and become immediate friends despite not saying much to each other as if the two have an instinctive understanding of one another. While Éric acts as a phony ambulance driver as Abel pretends to be an injured patient, he happens upon a beauteous beauty named Liliane (Sandra Milo of Federico Fellini's (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965)) being beaten on the side of the road. Naturally, Éric promptly knocks out the pathetic woman-abuser and then boasts to Liliane, “The nice thing about me is my left.” After Éric tells her a phony story in regard to their ambulance masquerade, Liliane agrees to join the group as a phony nurse and even maintains the charade after noticing a hidden machinegun inside the vehicle. Needless to say, Éric has not only found a new friend but also a new lover, as Liliane immediately starts a hot and heavy romance with the young gangster despite her quite different background as a theater actress.  As for Abel, he may have acquired a new young friend, but he has lost two old ones as he ruthlessly berates both Riton and Fargier upon being reunited with them.  Indeed, as Abel states to his old comrades with a certain visceral intensity, “But who sent a total stranger to Nice for me? It was you. And you. You two are pretty sly. You figure I didn’t have much of a chance. So it starts off with a driver you hope not to find, and it ends with a cousin in Brittany.” While Fargier remarks “He hasn’t changed a bit” after Abel throws a violent fit that concludes with him smashing a large mirror and then storming out of his ex-pal's bistro, both he and Riton have become bourgeois bitches of the superlatively soft and pathetically self-centered sort. When Éric tries to comfort Abel by remarking, “You know…Riton and Fargier…you should forget them,” the antihero calmly replies, “I already have. They don’t exist any more.” Since there is no way that he can provide a safe or healthy life for his poor now-motherless children, Abel decides to give them to his friend Chapuis’ sister and then he proceeds to live a lonely life where he spends most of his time silently brooding in a tiny maid’s room located inside the same apartment building where Éric lives.  Needless to say, it is only a matter of time before Abel cracks or, more specifically, completely gives up on life altogether.

 Since he needs escape money and future funds for the care of his children, Abel decides to do one more job that involves robbing a sleazy fence named Arthur Gibelin (Judaic Renoir regular Marcel Dalio), but unfortunately the miserable miser makes the ultimately fatal mistake of getting Fargier and, in turn, the police involved in a desperate attempt to get his stolen money back. Indeed, a certain police officer named Inspector Blot (Jacques Dacqmine) begins making threats against Riton and Fargier and they know they are next after Abel kills Gibelin. Leading a revenge campaign the begins with the murder of Gibelin after discovering that he hired a private investigator to follow Éric (whose identity he got from Fargier), Abel then kills Fargier by shooting him outside of his house in what proves to be a fittingly anticlimactic shootout between a virtual rabid bull and a bitch. Unfortunately, Fargier’s wife Sophie (Michèle Méritz)—a beloved figure among the gangsters—dies in shock of a heart attack upon finding her husband’s corpse, thus inspiring Abel to stop his revenge campaign just before he kills Riton. Aside from Sophie’s shocking demise, Abel is also demoralized after Éric is shot in both his legs by Inspector Blot and arrested while in the process of warning the protagonist about the cops. Completely consumed with guilt and seemingly wishing for death, Abel tells his old friend Kid Jeannot that he is done for good because, as he states with a certain manic intensity, “… I’m calling it quits. This is goodbye, Jeannot. Thérèse. Naldi. Sophie. And now Stark. I can’t do anything for him. Understand? […] Abel’s gone. There’s nothing left. Get the hell out, Jeannot. Do me a favor. Get out of here.”  In fact, Abel's proclamation of defeatism is so decidedly unbecoming and uncharacteristic that it even deeply disturbs a hardened criminal like Kid Jeannot who scampers out of his friend's hideout like a shocked child.  Indeed, in the end, Abel disappears into a crowd of people on the street just as he once appeared at the beginning of the film.  As the narrator notes in regard to Abel’s patently pathetic and ultimately uncharacteristically passive acceptance of total defeat, “A few days later, Abel Davos was arrested. He was brought to trial, sentenced and executed.”  As for Éric, one can only hope that his love affair with Liliane works out and that he quits organized crime as the last honorable gangster, Abel, is dead.

 While regarded as both a classic and masterpiece among many Francophile film fans today, Classe Tous Risques was such an abject failure upon its initial release that its auteur decided to give up filmmaking altogether, or as Sautet scholar N.T. Binh once explained, “That CLASSE TOUS RISQUES turned out to be a commercial failure was such a bitter disappointment to Sautet that he announced the abandonment of his career as a film director. But only two years later, when the film was discovered by a group of young cinephiles (including future director Bertrand Tavernier) and was rereleased on the art-house circuit, it had a spectacular reception and quickly became a cult favorite. Meanwhile, Sautet had returned to another career—as a clandestine adviser and script doctor on other directors’ projects (including films by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Louis Malle, Alain Cavalier, and Robert Enrico).” Speaking of Malle, although quite different aesthetically as a pastoral war drama, his film Lacombe, Lucien (1974) certainly makes for a great double-feature with Classe Tous Risques as a rare piece of cinema that dares to ask the hard questions and brings unexpected nuance and inordinate empathy in terms of depicting the desperate decline of an underworld collaborationist that eventually finds death in the end (notably, neither film depicts the execution of its antihero, as if it would be in ‘bad taste’ to depict the state-sanctioned murder of a strangely likeable fascist thug).

Despite its age, Classe Tous Risques also deals with timeless themes that still inform the philosophical essence of film and television today, not least of all The Sopranos (1999–2007) where one soon discovers that, typically, the only way out of a life of organized crime is either prison or death. Indeed, as Abel attempts to warn Éric, “Let me tell you something else, if you ever decide to do something else, something where you’re sure to sleep in your bed every night, I’ll be glad to hear it, wherever I am. I’m telling you because we always think we’re clever. But if you stop standing your ground, you’re nothing. You slip a little more every day…until…until you’re nothing. Like today.” Of course, the lead antihero of the hit HBO show spoke similar words and that is why it would not be a stretch to describe Abel Davos as the (proto)Tony Soprano of French (ex)Gestapo agents, albeit slightly less sociopathic (of course, it does not hurt that guido lead Lino Ventura has a bull-like build comparable to Amero-wop James Gandolfini). Undoubtedly, my only complaint in regard to Classe Tous Risques is that it does not conclude on a similar note of disconcerting ambiguity as The Sopranos, even if it is not hard to predict what Abel's fiercely foredoomed future might be like. 

 In a somewhat recent review of Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s Befrielsesbilleder (1982) aka Images of a Relief, I expressed my interest in films depicting the misery and desperation that typically haunted fascist types after World War II and I would certainly argue that Classe Tous Risques is one of the greatest of these films despite the director apparently having no clue it was based on a real-life French Gestapo hood. Additionally, I would argue that the novels of José Giovanni—a man that remained vocally ‘right-wing’ his entire life and clearly paid tribute his fascist comrades via his books—are a sort of wonderfully lowbrow post-fascist continuation of the grand frog tradition of so-called ‘literary fascism’ as associated with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Lucien Rebatet, and Thierry Maulnier. After recently re-watching Classe Tous Risques, I was certainly reminded of an unforgettable quote from P.P. Pasolini’s swansong Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) when the fascist ‘Duke’ played by Paolo Bonacelli declares, “We fascists are the only true anarchists.” And, of course, such an innately anarchic spirit explains how José Giovanni could have a successful artistic career after prison without anyone initially realizing his less than kosher background, hence why a Jewish (ex)Resistance fighter like Jean-Pierre Melville—a self-described “right-wing anarchist”—could so thoroughly identify with and deeply respect a work dreamed up from the mind of a man from the opposing fascist side. As for commies, they apparently were not interested in Sautet’s deceptively meaty masterpiece or any of the great frog gangster flicks of the era as they preferred soulless social realist twaddle, or as Tavernier once explained, “Yet CLASSE TOUS RISQUES’s strength and orginiality were underestimated upon its initial release. It is true that gangster films had never been particularly popular with a whole segment of the French critical establishment. Journalists loyal to the Communist cause followed Georges Sadoul’s lead in routinely panning them, even those like NIGHT AND THE CITY and TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, directed by filmmakers close to the party, insisting it was better to take an interest in workers and tradesmen than in criminals.” 

 Of course, as a film that puts a premium on true masculine friendship, honor, respect, loyalty and masculine virtues in general, the film would certainly be considered ‘fascistic’ by today’s exceedingly effete and self-destructively feministic film critics who despise any male character that is not a virtual eunuch. In that sense, Classe Tous Risques is not only a sort of crypto-fascist film noir, but also—in the Peckinpahian sense—a visceral Gallic celluloid ‘death poem’ on the twilight of French masculinity, so it is only nature that Sautet would go on to direct lavish arthouse dramas like A Heart in Winter (1992) aka Un cœur en hiver and Nelly and Mr. Arnaud (1995) aka Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud featuring exceedingly emasculated and broken (yet ostensibly ‘misogynistic’) proto-nu-male protagonists that have less testosterone in both their entire bodies than the technically-defeated Abel Davos has in his dehydrated piss. Of course, it is also no coincidence it is effeminate guys like Fargier and Gibelin that betray Abel as they are symbolic of a new spiritually neutered post-Vichy frogland where hos and dough come before true bros.  Luckily, Sautet at least had an eclectic collection of friends including Giovanni, Tavernier, and Melville that supported his film and ultimately got him out of early retirement as a cinematic auteur. Although Sautet would go on to more ‘highbrow’ material like A Heart in Winter about the perils of being a romantically-retarded autistic introvert and receive much warranted critical acclaim for such films, Tavernier was probably right when he once wrote during his pre-auteur days as a film critic, “People say CLASSE TOUS RISQUES is a B Movie. Better B like Boetticher than A like Allégret.”  Likewise, better a männerbund than a mangina, hence the difference in quality and testicular fortitude of the gangster films of Sautet and Melville to those of an overly-intellectualized autist like Godard who even managed to make Über-bro Belmondo seem like a buffoonish bungling bitch that probably dreams of blowing Bogart.   Of course, Abel Davos would have thought old ‘Bogie’ was a dick-downing queer.

-Ty E

Dec 2, 2019

Star 80

Despite the recent so-called Me Too movement where a bunch of bigwig Hollywood types, mostly of the Hebraic sort, were rather predictably exposed as sleazy sexual predators, the perennial semitic stereotype of the shiksa-defiling chosenite has yet to reach the mainstream public consciousness due to the mainstream media carefully portraying these pathetic perverts as ostensible “white men.” Indeed, while absurdly presented as “white,” disgraced Miramax cofounder and top Democrat supporter Harvey Weinstein—a physical monster of a man that was the subject of an article entitled ‘The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein’ at the Judaic publication Tablet magazine—is the virtual living and breathing physical embodiment of a nasty Nazi caricature straight out of Julius Streicher’s tabloid trash Der Stürmer. Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with the hermetic history of Hollywood knows that Weinstein was simply part of a grand Hollywood tradition of goy-gal-exploiting that, rather conveniently, has rarely been depicted in Tinseltown movies despite the fact that Hollywood loves making masturbatory movies about itself (hence the abject commercial and critical failure of a film like The Day of the Locust (1975) where the sins of Sunset Boulevard are laid bare). Of course, there are exceptions and it took a good degenerate goy boy like Bob Fosse—a rather handsome mensch born to a Norwegian-American father—to depict such a scenario, albeit in a somewhat atypical fashion that really underscores the innately sexually unsavory and sickening nature of Hollywood as opposed to focusing on the racial character of such corruption.

 Indeed, Fosse’s cinematic swansong Star 80 (1983)—a film depicting the meteoric rise and brutal demise of Dutch-Canadian Playboy model Dorothy Stratten who was infamously murdered by her Hebraic (ex)pimp husband Paul Snider—is a notable film in that, on top of being inordinately aesthetically alluring for the time, it depicts how a wholesome blonde beauty can be transformed into an international sex object and ultimately destroyed in Hollywood in such a short time in a deceptively captivating cinematic work that hypnotically highlights the heinous debauching character of Hollywood and the sort of conmen, parasites, whores, hucksters, and sociopaths that lurk there. In terms of being based on the real-life tragic death of an attractive young girl from a decent (albeit fatherless) family that got murdered after getting sucked into a lurid lifestyle in the (post)counterculture age, Star 80 is like the Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)—a film that also features an older Jew lover grooming a young shiksa and leading her on a road to ruin—of the 1980s, albeit all the more infuriatingly tragic. Undoubtedly, what makes Fosse’s film somewhat more provocative than Richard Brooks’ criminally-underrated cult classic is that it mainly focuses on the killer to the point of empathizing with his personal and professional failures as the discarded husband of a hot Aryan ‘it girl.’ 

 While Fosse fanatics—if they exist—would surely disagree, I have no qualms about confessing that, as a proud hater of musicals and everything they stand for, Star 80 is unequivocally my favorite flick directed by the dancer turned auteur. Indeed, while I can appreciate Lenny (1974) as an unconventional biopic despite my disgust for its titular subject and All That Jazz (1979) as the American answer to Federico Fellini’s surreally autobiographical masterpiece 8 1⁄2 (1963), I find Cabaret (1972) to simply be an aesthetically and sexually sickening film that, in my mind, can only inspire fantasies of defenestration. While some people might find the flick to be redundant as the Stratten-Snider story had already been depicted two years earlier via the totally mundane made-for-television movie Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story (1981) starring the all-too-absurdly-improbable-and-masculine Jamie Lee Curtis as the eponymous lead, it is also an indubitable auteur piece where male fox Fosse finds great conflicted personal sympathy with a coldblooded killer and necrophile. Indeed, as Sam Wasson noted in his book Fosse (2013) in regard to the auteur and the overly wanton world that created him, “Bob Fosse was the best thing ever to come out of burlesque, and he would pay for it forever.”

In short, Fosse spent his younger years as an underage dancer being sexually exploited by old debauched strippers and it would have an imperative influence on how he looked at sex in the entertainment world. For example, as Wasson retells in his book, “Strippers—twice Bobby’s size in two directions, and twice as sharp—preyed on him before the show as he stood in the wings about to go on […] When the girls found out he wasn’t the eighteen-year old he said he was, they started messing with him. Feathered gorgons appeared […] They pulled Fosse from his Latin conjugations onto their laps, crushing his face in fingers and tongues, twirling his perfect hair and the cock in his tuxedo pants. Scared and alone, he did as he was told. Even if that meant doing what no good boy should do, he did it, because if he cried out, they’d blow his cover and he’d be out of the show for good, and what would he tell his mother? […] Something must have been seriously, shamefully wrong with him, because, despite everything he should have run from—the fondling, the sinning, the heckling, and the shirking—to him, having the strippers’ attention felt a little like being a star […] He was drawn to the girls, then hurt by them. ‘It was schizophrenic,’ Fosse said. He couldn’t get away from it and he didn’t want to.”

 Not surprisingly considering Fosse’s cumming-of-age story, sexual (and social) grooming is one of the main themes of Star 80, which is a film that rather fittingly takes its name from the real-life vanity plate on the signature black Corvette of psychopathic groomer-cum-killer Snider. Indeed, it is no coincidence that, early on in the film, the virtual antihero Paul Snider played Eric Roberts—a character that was largely influenced by both Fosse's own personal experiences and Montgomery Clift's tragic character George Eastman in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951)—remarks upon seeing Dorothy Stratten for the very first time working at a Dairy Queen, “Get ‘em while they’re young,” which he proceeds to do. During his rather lecherous life, Fosse learned to go from prey to predator and, in that sense, he identified with sicko Snider in the worst sort of way, or as drama critic Martin Gottfried explained in his book All His Jazz: The Life & Death of Bob Fosse (1990) in regard to the auteur, “There can be little doubt that he identified with Paul Snider […] As Dan Melnick said, ‘Bob was projecting the worst part of himself on Snider.’ […] The differences between Snider and Fosse, of course, were greater than the similarities […] Like Paul, who depended on women to support him, Fosse had married strong, older women. Like Snider he turned to young girls, who posed no challenge and could be ignored. Like Snider, he had hoped to be a movie star, and like Snider he failed. Like Snider he was regularly criticized for being tasteless. Unlike Snider, he was not tasteless to his soul. Paul Snider created a star in Dorothy Stratten, only to be denied credit for it, just as Bob felt he had been denied credit for his part in Gwen Verdon’s success. ‘I was always interested,’ he said during an interview about STAR 80, ‘in the man behind the woman, especially the show woman.’”

In short, the film is like the Aryan goyization of a most monstrous coldblooded murder where Fosse somehow brings preternatural humanity to the innately inhumane in a manner that is, in many ways, hopelessly goyish yet ultimately more provocative than the real-life story. In fact, the film does not even mention the obvious fact that Snider was a member of the tribe despite the fact that the killer regularly wore a Star of David necklace and people knew him by the name “The Jewish Pimp.”  Of course, Fosse's glaring dejudaization of the subject matter is probably explained by the fact that Hebraic screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was his friend and mentor. In fact, Fosse was hoping that Chayefsky would do a rewrite of his Star 80 script, but the screenwriter had already become completely disillusioned with Hollywood due to his nightmarish experiences on Ken Russell's Altered States (1980), not to mention severe health issues that resulted in his death in 1981 (and, like a surreal scene straight out of All That Jazz, Fosse even performed a tape dance routine at his funeral!).

 Although Jewish, Paul Snider was an uncultivated philistine who, in terms of verbal IQ, only managed to master the lowly art of remembering everyone’s name and redundantly (mis)quoting his degenerate virtual pimp heroes like Hugh Hefner. In terms of predatory street smarts as a parasitic bottom-feeder, Snider made quite the impression on the hopelessly naïve Dorothy Stratten who, on top of having very little experience with men (for example, she only had one previous boyfriend), she seemed to be looking for a father figure as her padre abandoned the family when she was young (born Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten, Stratten was actually a first-generation Canadian as the progeny of Dutch immigrants). As depicted in Star 80, Snider saw the perfect unconsciously beauteous victim to exploit in Stratten and the fact she was underage and nine years younger made this extremely easy for him, at least until she achieved fame and fortune on her own and finally came to the bitter realization that her beau was a no-good-bastard.  Indeed, Snider took it for granted that Stratten would always be her meal ticket, so naturally he became completely unhinged when she began to get famous and dumped him for a powerful Hollywood filmmaker that was previously in a much publicized relationship with famous beauty Cybill Shepherd.

The real-life Dorothy Stratten, who was blessed with rather large lips and shapely tits, was infinitely more beautiful than boyish Mariel Hemingway who portrays her in the film. Achieving virtual dyke status for her oftentimes unclad performance in prized Hebraic screenwriter Robert Towne’s overrated directorial debut Personal Best (1982), Hemingway was naturally not Fosse’s ideal choice for the role but she did have a certain innocent “unused quality” like Stratten and getting breast implants more or less sealed the deal for her in terms of the singular role. Needless to say, beloved male bimbo Eric Robert—an actor that is impossible to hate, even when playing degenerate junky criminals like in convicted pervert Victor Salva's The Nature of the Beast (1995)—is certainly more charming and handsomer than the real Paul Snider, but Star 80 is less a historical document (despite being largely factually sound) than an aesthetically pleasing exposé on the perils of sexual exploitation and fame-seeking in Hollywood in the age of (post)sexual liberation. Indeed, not unlike the hapless heroine of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Dorothy Stratten is ultimately a victim of so-called sexual liberation and feminism as her rise and demise would be unthinkable otherwise, or as 20/20 senior producer Muriel Pearson recently remarked to the Montreal Gazette in regard to the new documentary The Death of a Playmate: The Dorothy Stratten Story, “The advent of the pill liberated women to make new choices about their sexuality. But it was, at times, a double-edged sword. We highlighted the duality of past and present by depicting a kind of double standard that was part of the PLAYBOY philosophy.” 

 While Playboy Führer Hugh Hefner—a supposed goy with certain semitic physical and political sensibilities—was very supportive of the production of Star 80 to the point where he allowed Fosse to use the Playboy logo and even granted him access to his mansion for research (in return, Fosse cast Cliff Robertson instead of Harry Dean Stanton to portray Hefner at the glorified pornographer’s recommendation), the film does not portray the ‘publisher’ in an altogether positive light. In fact, Hefner comes across seeming like a more pretentious and self-satisfied yet no-less-full-of-shit version of pathetic-wannabe Snider; or, in short, a scheming glorified pimp acting like a father figure to stupid lost girls. In fact, as depicted in the film, horn-dog Hef even attempts to pass off his porno company to Stratten as a family (and, in turn, the family she never had), even stating with a certain glaring lack of sincerity, “PLAYBOY is a very special magazine, Dorothy. There’s no other magazine like it. All the writers, editors, photographers, the girls, etc. We all have a very special relationship. It’s not like any other magazine. We’re all like a, well, we’re just like a family.” A pseudo-sophisticated creep that smugly roams around his own lavish parties in insufferably flamboyant pajamas while routinely having his soft ass kissed by a carefully selected collection of adoring ass-kissers and brain-dead whores, Hefner represents the superlatively shallow and soulless dream that Ashkenazi simpleton Snider is so senselessly chasing (in fact, Snider, who founded the Chippendales Dancers, modeled the look of these male strippers after ‘Playboy Bunny’ costumes).  Of course, both men act as the father that Stratten never had but, unfortunately for Snider, Hefner does a better job of it.

While Dorothy Stratten comes off looking hopelessly naïve like a lamb unwittingly be led to the slaughter, virtually everyone else in her life (sans her poor mother) is totally shallow and/or painfully narcissistic, including her covertly kosher plastic surgeon housemate Dr. Martin ‘Geb’ Geber (David Clennon) who brags that he owns a Rolls-Royce simply as “an investment” and not as a “status symbol,” as if that is some sort of important distinction. Needless to say, being a super shallow guy that is hopelessly high on his own supply and clearly only cares about himself, Geb is completely oblivious to the fact that his housemate Snider is a ticking time-bomb and is a great danger to Stratten, even after his girlfriend points out the obvious. In fact, when Snider acts with a certain lovelorn lunacy after Stratten leaves her, Geb responds by smugly complaining, “I can take a bragging Snider, I can take a conniving Snider. I just can’t stomach a sentimental Snider,” as if heartsickness and sentimentality are the same exact thing.  Of course, Geb is no different than anyone else in Stratten's life in that he ultimately fails her in the end, hence the value of Fosse including pseudo-interview scenes with these largely superficial and/or unsavory characters who talk a lot but never say anything that truly matters.  In that sense, Star 80 oftentimes feels like a sort of anti-murder-mystery where the murder is already solved and the characters seem incapable of offering any real clues.

 While Stratten reluctantly agrees to marry Snider despite Hefner hypocritically objecting due to the kosher Canadian having “the personality of a pimp,” she is killed by her hubby only after 16 months of miserable marriage after leaving him for a sensitive filmmaker. Indeed, while Stratten marries Snider because she believes “I owe it to him” since he was responsible for jumpstarting her career, she cannot help but swiftly dispose of him upon meeting ‘cinematic auteur’ Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees)—a fictionalized character based on filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich who unwisely cast her in his box-office bomb They All Laughed (1981) and made her the subject of his dubious memoir The Killing of the Unicorn - Dorothy Stratten 1960–1980 (1984)—as he is the complete opposite of her Hebraic husband as a kind, thoughtful, and empathetic ‘artiste’ that, quite unlike most men in her life, seems to see her more than just a tasty piece of fresh meat.  As a one-guy kind of gal, Stratten, quite unlike her hubby, is fond on monogamy and refuses to maintain the charade of her sham marriage after falling for Aram. Of course, after a series of disastrous business ventures that are all funded by the success of his wife, Snider—a hyper hypocritical huckster that regularly cheats on his lover throughout their rather one-sided relationship, including with less than lovely negress prostitutes that seem like insipid street slime compared to his positively pulchritudinous spouse—sees it as the ultimate blow to his already fragile ego when Stratten cheats on him with a big name Hollywood director.

While Stratten tries to buy him off with a relatively generous offer of $7,000, perennial loser Snider feels entitled to much more because, after all, he ‘discovered’ her. Needless to say, if Snider cannot have Stratten, no one can, so the Jewish pimp buys a shotgun and blows her brains out, but not before virtually ritualistically raping and brutalizing her. As if to confirm his position in the afterlife in some otherworldly Gehenna where he will be able to play pool with Oskar Dirlewanger and Carl Panzram, Snider then straps Stratten’s bloody naked corpse onto a ‘sodomy rack’ and then proceeds to commit necrophilia with his dead wife off-screen while the camera focuses on various nudes of the tragic heroine as if to starkly contrast her nightmarish reality to the pseudo-sophisticated erotic illusions that Playboy contrived. Before blowing his own brains out, Snider triumphantly declares, “You won’t forget Paul Snider” and the rest is history. Luckily for Snider, Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story—a largely forgettable TV movie turd of the subpar soap-era-esque sort that features the less than handsome Bruce Weitz portraying Snider—was not the only film made in tribute to his infamy, as Star 80 is a near-masterpiece in terms of style that somehow manages to be respectful to both the real-life murderer and his victim (whereas the TV movie only inspires feelings of apathy and banality as manly mischling Jamie Lee Curtis, who already looks rather ‘used up,’ seems completely incapable of expressing even an inkling of innocence or naivety, among other important nubile qualities that the real-life Stratten so effortlessly radiated).

 Despite featuring many morally dubious subjects, Star 80 is a strangely moral film, or, more specifically, the sort of covertly moralistic movie you might expect from a deeply troubled man that personally experienced the sins and debasement that it almost gleefully depicts as if to entice the viewer while mocking them at the same time by giving them unrivaled beauty and then ruthlessly ripping it to shreds with a certain understated elegance. On top of Fosse utilizing the film as a sort of covert self-criticism via the Paul Snider character, Star 80 acts as a sort of stylish cinematic condemnation of the people, places, and professions that the auteur was so personally accustomed to. Indeed, featuring an aesthetic that falls somewhere between a post-Cries and Whispers Ingmar Bergman film (notably, Sven Nykvist acted as the cinematographer) and, well, vintage Playboy smut, the film ironically utilizes glamour to goad the viewer into asking questions about morality in an era that basked in shallow spectacle and disposable escapism, hence the commercial failure of great dark 1980s films like Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981) and James Bridge’s Mike’s Murder (1984), among countless others. While the film portrays the fictionalized Bogdanovich character in a mostly favorable light, Teresa Carpenter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice source article ‘Death of a Playmate’ is considerably less flattering to the point where it accuses both the filmmaker and Hefner of causing Stratten’s death. To make things somewhat creepier, in 1988, 49-year-old Bogdanovich married Dorothy’s 20-year-old little sister Louise Stratten in a dubious childless marriage that ended in divorce in 2001 (notably, as depicted in the film, Snider was already ‘grooming’ Louise when she was just a little girl). While Fosse was a philandering man, he certainly never reached the degeneracy of overrated auteur Bogdanovich who not coincidentally did a great job portraying a sleazy Hebraic psychiatrist on The Sopranos. If anyone can learn anything from the Stratten sisters, it is that girls abandoned by their fathers make easy prey for predators, especially if they are young, dumb, and beautiful. 

 As his films surely demonstrate, Bob Fosse was a considerably haunted and self-loathing man and while looking around a club on Sunset Boulevard during the production of Star 80 he even went so far as to confess, “I’m going to die in one of these places. Here’s where I was born.” While Fosse did not croak in a pile of his own vomit in some sleazy strip club surrounded by topless hags with saggy its, he did, not unlike his semi-autobiographical character in All That Jazz (1979), succumb to a heart attack and, rather fittingly, it was in the arms of his own virtual Dorothy Stratten, Gwen Verdon, whose career he made and (at least in his own mind) he never got enough credit for. Indeed, Verdon was Fosse’s wife-cum-muse and the auteur acted as the director–choreographer for both the stage and film musicals she was best known for, including Damn Yankees! (1958) directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott.  As to what Fosse actually thought about the uxoricidal necrophile of his film, he would state, “Paul Snider was a guy who seemed a product of the sort of shallowness that comes from buying hook, line, and sinker the slick-magazine philosophy of what the American male should have. That is, if you have the right kind of car or the right kind of clothes, learn people’s names, learn how to say hello charmingly, and all that, then the world will be your oyster.” While I agree with Fosse to a degree, I believe he is bit too generous in his assessment of the semitic souteneur. After all, Snider came from a fucked family that, fulfilling the worst sort of racial stereotypes and surely using Talmudic reasoning, successfully petitioned a court to grant them all the assets of both Snider and Stratten after the murder-suicide because the Playmate died first and thus her homicidal hubby technically ‘inherited’ her wealth.  Speaking of strange familial connections, Bogdanovich virtually unwittingly predicted the casting of Star 80 when he opted to include a rather dark passage from female lead Mariel Hemingway’s grandfather Ernest Hemingway’s popular antiwar novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) as the epitaph on Stratten's grave marker. 

 While All That Jazz is a painfully personal film that makes Fosse seem like a self-destructive blackhole that sucks up everyone and everything around him, Star 80 is arguably even more uniquely unflattering, albeit in a considerably more cryptic fashion. Indeed, as Martin Gottfried argued in his biography, “‘In STAR 80,’ John Kander said, ‘Bob was saying the same thing he was saying in CHICAGO. That everything sexual is disgusting, [but] I never knew him well enough to understand what demons he was exorcising.’ Perhaps the demon was sexual guilt. Perhaps STAR 80 was an exorcism of that demon, or perhaps it was an expression of his anger with Hollywood and its failure to make him a movie star. Perhaps finally, in some way, he was linking both of these major themes of his life as reflections of the qualities that he feared might be discovered within himself: shallowness, fraudulence, a self who, like Paul Snider, he secretly believed was cheap, unmanly, incompetent, and unlovable. Riff.” Indeed, it is certainly hard to believe a heterosexual man would be such a great dancer, musical-theatre choreographer, and theatre director and it surely is not particularly traditionally masculine that he would utilize such feminine skills to woo women. Of course, one cannot also forget that Fosse was forced to experience being molested by much older predatory woman to establish such a career, which is certainly something that probably haunted him for the rest of his life. Indeed, as Gottfried also argued, “…what emerges in sharp focus in STAR 80 is Fosse’s inclination to blame public sex—as if something had to be blamed—for private lust […] But there is so much shabby sex in STAR 80 that even with the PLAYBOY sensibility as a theme, it seems excessive. Yet the brilliance of the movie, its power, probably could never have been achieved without the crass sex. It is as if the exorcism of Bob Riff required an overdose on sleaze.” Of course, ‘Bob Riff’ is the stage-name used as a teenager when he was being molested by slutty strippers.  As a victim of a group of virtual female Paul Sniders, Fosse ultimately learned to become a Paul Snider himself, at least in his own troubled mind.

 Not surprisingly, lead Eric Robert go into Brando-esque method-acting-mode during the filming of Star 80 to the point where he became a sort of demonic composite of both Snider and Fosse, which is apparent during the film, or as Gottfried explained, “As Dorothy’s assurance grows, Paul’s cracks. He changes his style and goes Hollywood in a clothing-store scene, putting together snakeskin boots, gold chains, and an unmistakable Fosse costume of black—black shirts, black pants. He would wear Fosse black for the rest of the film as STAR 80 begins its ascent to climax, and with full rhythmic music Fosse makes this wordless costuming scene into a virtual dance number.” Naturally, Fosse went further than making Roberts dress like him, or as the actor explained in Gottfried’s book, “He educated me on the life of the strip clubs. He wanted me to know it wasn’t about fucking, that every stripper who was a ‘lifer’—that’s what he called them—has the same issues as children who were molested. Bob believed that. He wanted me to know that this guy [Snider] had expertise, that this guy, if he weren’t a psychopath, would have been hugely successful.” And Fosse was successful because he was not a psychopath, but an inordinately sensitive man that could empathize with the damaged dames that both preyed on him and were assumedly preyed on themselves. As someone that has dated (ex)strippers and victims of molestation, I can safely say that Star 80 left a sick feeling in my stomach and reminded me of why it would be a blessing if both Hollywood and the entire so-called adult entertainment industry became the object of a complete scorched-earth policy.  While Paul Snider only killed Stratten and (thankfully) himself, one can only imagine how many souls he destroyed during his short pathetic life via sexual exploitation as a pimp.

 Notably, Star 80 begins with a potent opening credits sequence featuring glossy pin-up shot of Hemingway-as-Stratten juxtaposed with the tragic heroine stating to a journalist, “PLAYBOY’s motto is the girl next door. They look for girls that are wholesome and fresh and young and naïve. They look for all of that. So most of those girls do have that type of background.” During this same sequence, a journalist can be heard asking Stratten’s teenage sister, “Would you like to be just like your sister when you grow up?” and she replies, “Yeah. Because I’m proud of her.” Undoubtedly, in this opening credit sequence before the film has really even started, Fosse has established a clear anti-Hollywood/anti-porn message where both Hollywood and Playboy are blamed for the seduction and, in turn, sleazy sexual debasement of youth who come to believe that flashing their boobs and beaver will lead to fame and fortune. Of course, Fosse, who dreamed of being the next Fred Astaire as a child, knew this all too well and he paid the ultimate price, but luckily it at least eventually resulted in great films like All That Jazz and Star 80 where the shady side of show business begins to resemble a sort of metaphysical hell that not even the gloss and glitter, which the auteur's films have plenty of, can disguise the pangs of debasement and spiritual destitution.  In some ways, one could even argue that Stratten's death was an unintentional mercy killing as the beauty at least never had the opportunity to degenerate into a forsaken creature like self-slaughtering porn diva Shauna Grant or harpy-like ‘Me Too’ messias Rose McGowan.  Indeed, whereas McGowan now seems seriously possessed by some sort of fiercely demonic feministic force and (at least, to me) is quite hard to even look at due to her crazy-dead-eyes despite once being quite beautiful in her early films like Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation (1995), Stratten followed in the tradition of James Dean and will remain forever young and beautiful.

As for Fosse, Star 80—a film that the auteur expected would win him an Oscar—was so severely savaged by both film critics and former allies alike that the filmmaker decided to give up on filmmaking altogether and never directed another film.  Indeed, bitch boy Andrew Sarris went so far as describing it as “one of the most glumly misogynous movies ever produced on this continent” with “The gruesome ending, particularly, is the biggest treat for women-haters this side of the underground snuff circuit.”  A notorious beta, Sarris, who was not a bad film critic, seems to be projecting his own fantasies and/or conflicted feelings onto the film, as Star 80 derives its singular pro-female/anti-Hollywood majesty by devastatingly depicting the destruction of what Bogdanovich once somewhat rightly described as a ‘unicorn’ as Dorothy Stratten was a woman that was so strikingly statuesque and pure in her pulchritude that here mere presence in Galaxina (1980) is the sole thing that makes such stupendously stupid sci-fi-scat watchable.  Undoubtedly, what Sarris and other critics of the film cannot deal with is being forced to confront the fact that such a breathless beauty was so savagely murdered and defiled in the dream realm of Hollyweird in an aesthetically flavorsome film that utilizes a slick Playboy perfect style to underscore such frivolous post-sexual liberation fantasies of fame and fortune.  Indeed, to fully embrace a film like Star 80 one must reject the lies of feminism, sexual liberation, and Hollywood and accept a certain cultural cynicism where the exploitation and commodification of feminine beauty is seen as something virtually satanic and ultimately anti-human.  After all, the greatest celebration of Dorothy Stratten's beauty would have been if she had children with a similarly attractive man (as opposed to unattractive kosher conmen like Snider and Bogdanovich) and not as the heavily edited subject of a semen-soiled porno mag that some pussy-starved loser used as a quick masturbation aid.  In that sense, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Fosse's film is the greatest thing to come from Stratten's life as a nearly cinematically immaculate warning on the perils of the road to stardom in a Der Stürmer-esque Sodom where girls must be virtual gorgons if they hope to survive, let alone thrive.

-Ty E

Nov 28, 2019

Land Without Bread

As a virtual lifelong loather of the sort of debasing deluded dreams that Hollywood so sickingly sells like a pimp attempting to pass off a seasoned slack-jawed STD-ridden streetwalker as a prized virgin beauty, I have naturally always been more attracted to a sort of realism that borders on the surreal; whether it be Bavarian sensation Werner Herzog’s morosely morbid depiction of infamous necrophile Ed Gein’s hometown in Stroszek (1977), the somehow mystifying yet simultaneously demystifying avant-garde docs of Dutch auteur Henri Plaat (Fragments of Decay, El cardenal), or the hypnotically darkly humorous aesthetically nihilistic excesses of Harmony Korine’s delightfully deranging debut feature Gummo (1997). Needless to say, as both a cinephile and longtime Luis Buñuel fan, I should have probably watched the Spanish auteur’s third film and sole documentary contribution, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933) aka Land Without Bread aka Unpromised Land, a very long time ago, yet I just recently endured it for the first time after being inspired by the animated feature Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018) aka Buñuel en el laberinto de las Tortugas directed Salvador Simó. While I am not a huge fan Simó’s of film—a somewhat superficial and even hagiographic semi-fictional tribute to Buñuel’s personal mein kampf while making Land Without Bread that, at least partly, feels inspired by the troubled Walt Disney-Salvador Dalí collaboration Destino (1945/2008)—it certainly did its job in terms of inspiring me to finally watch the documentary, especially after I watched the extra features included on the Shout Factory blu-ray and discovered the Dutch documentary Buñuel's Prisoners (2000) aka De gevangenen van Buñuel where modern-day descendants of the Spanish region depicted in the doc express both great hatred and loving respect for the Spanish auteur.

Indeed, Buñuel’s 28-minute doc—a pioneering cinematic work that is described as both a ‘pseudo-documentary’ and ‘Ethnofiction’ on Wikipedia yet anticipates cinema-vérité and is surely both more intriguing and subversive than anything Jean Rouch has ever directed—has ultimately proved to be such an influential film that it has inspired multiple documentaries and a virtual children’s animated feature, yet it seems that no one can actually agree on what the film actually is or the auteur's intent in what is arguably a playfully morally dubious experiment in understated cinematic savagery of the delectably distastefully tragicomedic sort where the misery of man is ruthlessly rubbed into the viewer’s face with an almost demonic dispassion. Depicting the everyday destitution and surely surreal poverty of the Las Hurdes region of Spain, the short does the seemingly impossible and equally nonsensical by being a true ‘Surrealist documentary’ that makes a mockery out of the sort of nauseatingly naive proto-Rouch-esque ethnographic racial fetishism associated with frog surrealists like Michel Leiris.  In short, in Land Without Bread, the viewer is shocked to discover that even parts of Europe exhibit the same sort of perturbing sub-Lumpenproletariat impoverishment and almost transcendental backwardness that is typically associated with the Dark Continent.

 As a cinematic work that was directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, funded by the lottery winnings of an anarcho-syndicalist sculptor-cum-painter named Ramón Acín that was murdered by supposed fascists during the first year of the Spanish Civil War (which, ironically, the film supports the start of!), and co-written by a commie Surrealist named Pierre Unik who died in a concentration camp in 1945, Land Without Bread is undeniably an important piece of both cinema and (meta)political history where the loony leftist idealism of its creators now seems genuinely absurd on retrospect.  In that sense, the film seems even more innately surreal today than when it was first released in what is ultimately a great example of an artist (or, in this case, artists) becoming a victim of his own youthful political naïveté (not surprisingly, Buñuel's political views, or lack thereof, would only become more nuanced and cynical as he aged). Taking its title from a reference by Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin about how every social and political problem can supposedly be cured with mere bread, the film would seem relatively political ambiguous if Buñuel had not later added a sort of patently preposterous postscript that reads: “The generals’ rebellion aided by Hitler and Mussolini would restore together with the privileges of the owners, the peasant workforces. But the works and peasants of Spain will defeat Franco and his accomplices. With the help of anti-fascists all over the world, tranquility and happiness will make way for civil war and forever eradicate the pockets of misery this film has shown you.”

Of course, as everything from intentional Soviet famines like Holodomor to the current starvation plaguing much of Venezuela today, commies are not very good at feeding people—whether it be moldy Bolshevik bread or otherwise. Idiotic youthful idealism aside, the doc was a valiant act of cinematic rebellion and a film that apparently could have gotten Buñuel killed, or as the auteur explained in his memoir My Last Sigh (1982), “When the Republican troops, backed by Durutti’s anarchist column, occupied Quinto, my friend Mantecon, the governor of Aragón, found a dossier with my name on it in the files of the civil guard. In it, I was described as notoriously debauched, a morphine addict, and the author of that heinous film, that crime against the state, LAS HURDES. If I could be found, the note said, I was to be turned over immediately to the Falange, where I would receive my just deserts.”  Of course, Buñuel collaborators Acín and Unik were not so lucky, but such was the spirit of the age as artists were purged from both sides of the political spectrum.  For example, upon France's so-called liberation during WWII, French filmmaker Jean Mamy—a one-time leftist that acted as the editor of Jean Renoir's Baby's Laxative (1931) aka On purge bébé—was executed in part for directing the Vichy anti-Freemasonry propaganda film Occult Forces (1943) aka Forces occultes (in fact, the film's writer Jean Marquès-Rivière and producer Robert Muzard were also sentenced to death, but they both managed to ultimately survive).

 Notably, despite only covering a couple pages of Buñuel’s excellent book, you arguably learn more about the history of Las Hurdes, which the auteur was initially inspired to make a film about after reading the anthropological study Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927) by Maurice Legendre, by reading the auteur’s autobiography. As Buñuel explains in My Last Sigh, “Once upon a time, the high plateaus of Las Hurdes were settled by bandits, and by Jews who’d fled the Inquisition,” though one surely would not know that after watching the film as Jews and banditos seem like otherworldly Übermenschen compared to the fiercely forlorn modern-day inhabitants of the region.  In Land Without Bread, the viewer discovers a seemingly endless arid wasteland that is described as follows by narrator Abel Jacquin, “Throughout this labyrinth of mountains…the 52 villages that make up Las Hurdes are scattered…with a total population of 8,000 people. Ahead, we must descend a steep slope…and cross the splendid valley, Las Batuecas…currently inhabited by an old monk who lives here…surrounded by a few servants.” Apparently, for four centuries, the valley was inhabited by monks, the Carmelites, who preached Christianity in the main villages of Las Hurdes, but now the monasteries are completely deserted aside from a sole monk and his handful of loyal servants. Despite the decline of spiritual leaders in Las Hurdes, the nicest buildings in the area are all churches, which surely reminds its lowly inhabitants of their ultimate value in the face of god almighty. In fact, it seems that the only thing these pitiful peasants have is religion as that don’t even really have a folk culture, or as Buñuel explained in his memoir, “As for folk dances, those trite expressions of misplaced nationalism, Las Hurdes didn’t have any.”  Indeed, instead of pesky fascistic volk dances, the area is plagued by roaming packs of rock-throwing inbred mutants, or so one discovers while watching Buñuel's oftentimes organically grotesque yet hardly garish film.

 Due to poverty, malnutrition, poor hygiene and inbreeding, among other things, genetic degeneration in Las Hurdes is a serious problem to the point where the area is plagued with dwarfs and violent mental retards that tend to throw rocks and attack people, including Buñuel’s small film crew.  Indeed, while the auteur's intent is certainly dubious, there is no denying the nightmarish reality of the genetically forsaken sub-troglodytes featured in the film. Naturally, senseless death is also an everyday occurrence in the area, as Buñuel encounters a small little girl lying on the ground that, as the narrator reveals, apparently died only a couple days later after the footage was shot. At one point, the viewer encounters a seemingly elderly woman breast-feeding a baby with her completely deflated bean-bag boobs, only to be told by the narrator that she is actually only 32-years-old (admittedly, I found this claim to be more than a little bit improbable). Most people in the area only have the choice of potatoes and beans as food (with the slightly richer inhabitants occasionally partaking in pork), though, every so often, goat meat becomes available when said livestock accidentally falls off a cliff (for the film, Buñuel did not have time time wait for such an accident so he shot a goat off a cliff himself!). Dysentery is also a big problem in the area as the locals tend to eat unripe cherries out of  sheer desperation. Even death is not easy in the region, as corpses have to be carried many miles as most of the villages lack cemeteries (for these admittedly rather realistic scenes, Buñuel had an infant ‘play dead’ and somehow the fly-plagued babe does a good job acting!). While the primary food industry in the area is beekeeping, the locals do not actually own the bees, thus making it all the more absurd that goats, mules, and people are ofentimes killed by said bees. In short, death seems to be the main concern for the locals of Las Hurdes and, as an old woman says at the very end of the doc, “Nothing keeps you more awake than to think always of the dead. Recite an Ave Maria for the peace of their souls.”  Of course, considering Buñuel’s own staunchly cynical stance on his ancestral faith, the inclusion of the poor wretched old woman's words seems all the more bleak yet simultaneously playfully nihilistic.

 At the end of the film, the narrator less than passionately declares, “After a two-month say in Las Hurdes…we leave the country,” but, as referenced in the documentary The Journey of a Surrealist, Buñuel later remarked, “Once you’ve been to hell, how do you get out?” Cynical exaggeration or not, the doc makes its case with very little effort that Las Hurdes is a miserable virtual pre-medieval hellhole and, as the auteur intended, the idiotic sort of European xenophiles that fetishize African poverty merely need to travel a couple miles to find the ugly extreme of abject of human suffering, just as the white liberal and Judaic intellectuals of today pretend tend to weep for the melanin-privileged people of the world without batting an eye for the poor whites of Appalachia (who, in their disgustingly deluded slave-morality-ridden minds, believe that these poor whites deserve it due to imaginary privilege being part of their magical racial birthright). Rather ironically, despite the film’s contrived commie postscript, Buñuel was later forced to concede to Mexican actor and screen writer Tomás Pérez Turrent that Francisco Franco enriched Las Hurdes, confessing, “Yes, some years ago I went to Las Hurdes. It had changed somewhat because it had become part of Franco’s favorite region. There was electricity in some towns and they made bread everywhere.” In short, ostensible fascist Franco brought bread to the land without bread. Political intent aside, Buñuel felt the doc was part of the same personal Surrealist Weltanschauung as his previous two films Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'Or (1930), noting, “It’s in the same line. The first two are imaginative, the other is taken from reality, but I feel it shares the same outlook.” Still, the film was distinct to the auteur in at least one way as he stated to José de la Colina, “Nothing is gratuitous in LAND WITHOUT BREAD. It is perhaps the least gratuitous film I have made.” 

 In the worthwhile compilation The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock (1975), André Bazin noted, “With LAS HURDES (LAND WITHOUT BREAD), a ‘documentary’ on the poverty-stricken population of the Las Hurdes region, Buñuel did not reject UN CHIEN ANDALOU; on the contrary, the objectivity, the soberness of the documentary surpassed the horror and the forcefulness of the fantasy. In the former, the donkey devoured by bees attained the nobility of a barbaric and Mediterranean myth which is certainly equal to the glamour of the dead donkey on the piano. Thus Buñuel stands out as one of the great names of the cinema at the end of the silent screen and the beginning of sound—one with which only that of Vigo bears comparison—in spite of the sparseness of his output.” Indeed, while Land Without Bread does not quite transcend the singular shock of an eye being slit like in Un Chien Andalou (1929), it manages to defile the soul in a striking fashion to the point where death feels like it can be virtually touched and the smell of decay is not too far away, which was surely the auteur’s intent in depicting his homeland as a place of deathly destitution and dystopian delirium where the crucifix is a symbol of death and the legacy of Catholicism is one of starved disease-ridden corpses and perennially smirking retards. While Bazin would also argue in regard to the film, “The documentary on Las Hurdes was tinged with a certain cynicism, a self-satisfaction in its objectivity; the rejection of pity took on the color of an aesthetic provocation,” I personally deeply respect Buñuel—a bourgeois boy that had no real innate personal understanding of the human misery he encountered—for not succumbing to conspicuously contrived bleeding-heart buffoonery by taking the easy gutmensch route and pretending to weep for people that need everything but misspent tears. 

 Notably, at one point in Land Without Bread, Buñuel plays virtual art critic in a scene featuring morbid midgets and mental defectives juxtaposed with the deadly serious narration, “The realism even of a Zurbarán or of a Ribera falls far short of such a reality. The degeneration of this race is primarily due to hunger, lack of hygiene, poverty and incest.” While some might find such sentiments to be as cold as an unclad Icelandic female corpse, I am also reminded of the auteur’s words, “I’ve always believed that the imagination is a spiritual quality that, like memory, can be trained and developed.” After all, only Buñuel could arrive to such a charmingly twisted yet aesthetically truthful conclusion after being confronted with such miserable misbegotten untermenschen that have no time or taste for the bourgeois luxury of fine art. Thankfully, Buñuel did not pull a Forough Farrokhzad who, after finishing her sole film The House Is Black (1963)—a 22-minute doc depicting the horribly disfigured individuals of an Iranian leper colony—decided it would be wise to adopt two leprotic children due to her haunting experiences while working on the film (notably, she died only four years later in a car wreck, thus assumedly leaving those kids orphans once again). The last thing the world needs, especially the cinematic world, is another documentary where we are supposed to feel sorry for poor brown people and thus it comes as a great relief that one of cinema’s greatest and most singular artists created a classic documentary that is the total opposite of the Michael Moore school of ludicrously lame liberal agitprop of the unwittingly shamelessly grotesque sort.  In short, Buñuel was a pinko-leftist the same way German Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn was a National Socialist.

Literal documentary or not, it is hard to imagine Werner Herzog’s underrated second feature Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) without the existence of Buñuel's short doc due to certain striking aesthetic similarities, especially when it comes to the ‘ecstatic truth.’  Although Buñuel would never again direct a documentary, he apparently edited together an abridged version of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) featuring elements of Luftwaffe auteur Hans Bertram's Feuertaufe (1940) aka Baptism of Fire for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), but it unfortunately has never been released. While Buñuel would even demonstrate an apparent antifascist stance in later works like Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), I somehow doubt his MoMA edit of Naziland is as unflattering as his depiction of Las Hurdes in Land Without Bread. After all, as certain wise people sometimes say, you cannot polish a turd but you can certainly polish a Stahlhelm.  Either way, I think it is safe to say that no modern-day leftist would believe the film was made by one of their brethren. As for the poor people of Las Hurdes, thank god that Franco could do what Buñuel’s (or, more literally, André Gide's and Jean Cocteau’s boy toy Marc Allégret’s) camera could not.  Admittedly, while Land Without Bread is one of the Buñuel films that I am least likely to revisit anytime soon, if I am feeling in enough of a masochistic mood to experience very vintage human suffering, I will certainly choose it over French master auteur Alain Resnais' obscenely overrated shoah showcase Night and Fog (1956) aka Nuit et brouillard.  In describing one of his later masterpieces, Manny Farber—the virtual Sam Fuller of film critics—argued in regard to Buñuel, “His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints, conceived by a literary old-world director detached from his actors but infatuated with his cock-eyed primitive cynicism.  It's this combination of detachment and the infatuated-with-bitterness viewpoint, added to a flat-footed technique, that produces the piercingly cold images of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL.”  Of course, the same could also be said of Land Without Bread but it is exactly Buñuel’s so-called “cock-eyed primitive cynicism” that allows us to face the harsh truth of the dreadfully primitive in a wondefully wicked way that reminds one of the classic Spanish phrase: “¡Viva la Muerte!

-Ty E