Thursday, March 1, 2018

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast, Episode 4!

Another episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever Podcast is upon us. This time I'm discussing the Herman's Hermits track "No Milk Today" and it's author, Graham Gouldman, who went on to become a driving force behind the band 10cc.

As this is the fourth episode of the podcast in as many months, I reckon it's going to be here for the long haul. In honor of that, I've invested in some more internet real estate in it's name. You can now visit the official FBPSE Facebook page, where you can listen to every episode up to and including the new one, here, and the official FBPSE Twitter feed here. And if you want to go right to the source, visited the Podcast's Soundcloud feed here.

Of course, all of this is just a pale prelude to August, when the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever theme park will open in Redondo Beach, California. This will remain open until that inevitable day when the ABBA robots malfunction and start killing tourists. Reserve your tickets now!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Femina Ridens, aka The Laughing Woman (Italy, 1969)

Ok, ladies, a question for you: Who among you would not feel that a lifetime of male domination and constant humiliation would be a fair trade for being the kept woman of a wealthy, narcissistic pervert? Hmm, let’s see… all of you? Alright, then.

Granted, that’s not a very appropriate question to ask at this particular cultural moment. But I had to ask, because that type of man-up/woman-down relationship is a constant fixation of Western popular culture, even as the audience for it shifts. After all, the Fifty Shades of Gray novels and their screen adaptations are squarely aimed at the women folk, essentially being modern day bodice-rippers offering Harlequin Romance with a Desadean twist (with a nice dose of wealth porn thrown in for good measure.) But such stories have traditionally been engineered with an eye toward male titilation—from John Fowles’ The Collector¸ the many iterations of The Story of O, and, in the mainstream, 9 1/2 Weeks, and even Pretty Woman. Each of these works posits the existence of an actual human woman who finds having her sexuality bought and paid for by a man of means somehow liberating. The appeal of this idea to the masculine ego is not too mysterious, but to women? Could it be that this world is such a dangerous place for women that some of them would pay any price—forfeiting their dignity, even their humanity--to be protected from it by a buffer of wealth and privilege? I’m looking at you, Melania.

This fantasy is so powerful that even a film like Femina Ridens, which seems to pride itself on subverting that power, cannot do so without delivering a lot of fan service to the raincoat crowd. Granted, as sexploitation films from the late 60s and 70s go, Femina Ridens (aka The Laughing Woman, but released by Radley Metzger in an English dub under the telling moniker The Frightened Woman) is pretty tame. Which is to say that, if it were Japanese, there would be enemas in it. And maybe eels.

As it is, the film sticks with a pretty literal expression of sado-masochism, which seems to be the default fetish of Western fiction. It seems hard for popular cinema to imagine any type of off-kilter sexual proclivity that does not involve someone hurting someone else or being hurt by them. Apparently, though the range of human fetishes is limitless, those fetishes’ appeal to straight society is limited to those that serve us up with a heady cocktail of sex and violence. In other words, no one is going to pay to see a movie in which a beautiful woman is absconded with by a mysterious count with a diaper fixation. But, of course, that’s just a choice, not the result of sexual violence being any kind of broad cultural fetish, or anything like that.

Femina Ridens stars A Hatchet For the Honeymoon’s Dagmar Lassander as Mary, a pretty young journalist who, after succumbing to a drugged highball, finds herself decorously imprisoned within the pushbotton-everything, mid-century modern dreamhouse of Sayer, a wealthy philanthropist played by The Night Porter’s Phillipe Leroy. Here she is subjected to constant ritual humiliation, as well as Sayer’s constant voyeuristic gaze. Sayer, it turns out has a lot of interesting (read: paranoid) ideas about female liberation, seeing the movement's first tentative steps as the prelude to a full on insurrection that will see the removal of men from the birthing process and their eventual extermination. Thus Mary, an educated and assertive young career woman, becomes his stand-in for the feminine gender as a whole, setting the stage for the archetypal battle to come.

Some of Sayer’s methods are boilerplate movie psycho stuff—chopping off Mary’s hair, whipping her, soaking her with a firehose, etc.—but others are more peculiar. At one point he tapes her mouth shut and forces her to watch as he slathers half a baguette with marmalade and eats it. At another, he shows her a hogtied female figure in constricting bondage gear that’s suspended from the ceiling, only to reveal that it is only a mannequin. He also forces Mary to make love to a mannequin version of himself and, later, makes her play a chamber organ as he fondles her body invasively. But by far his creepiest contrivance is a double bed divided in half by a moving panel, which he sometimes draws back to reveal to Mary that he has been lying beside her during a moment of presumed privacy, to drive home that he is always watching.

Throughout all of this, Phillipe Leroy, while indulging in all the evil chuckling and delivering of maniacal proclamations we all expect, takes pains to show us Sayer’s pathetic insecurity and preening self-absorption. It becomes obvious that his fantasies of coming female domination are  expressions of his anxiety over his own waining physical prowess, as exemplified by a scene in which he forces Mary to watch him do naked pull-ups from a bar suspended over his bathtub. It’s easy to imagine that his fetishes are the only way that this sad beast can get off, as there is nothing about him that doesn’t scream impotence (in an early scene, he angrily castigates Mary for her views on male sterilization as a means of birth control.) At times, Mary seems to be aware of this fact, and tries to sell Sayer on the idea of romantic love and mutually pleasurable sex. When this fails, she tries to exert the natural power that she, by virtue of her sexuality, holds over him, at one point preforming a topless go-go dance in her quarters, all the while aware that he is watching inertly from the other side of a two-way mirror.

And then, after Sayer revives Mary following a suicide attempt, love blossoms between the two—with results as chilling as anything we’ve seen so far. I’m talking about scenes of the couple frolicking in the fields and cuddling in the shower as whimsical music plays. This inexcusable audience torture ends with a scenic trip by amphicar to a seaside castle where Mary laughingly cajoles Sayer into overindulging on fried oysters. But amid all this lovey-dovey frivolity, one has to ask oneself—or Femina Ridens director Piero Schivazappa, if he happens to be in the room—whether Mary’s affections are real, or if she is just playing on Sayer’s feelings to her advantage. You might, in fact, ask yourself ..


Another inopportune thing about the current cultural moment is that it prevents me from discussing a silly movie like Femna Ridens with the flippancy it deserves. Because, despite whatever subversive--or even feminist--intentions its makers might have had, it is indeed very silly—and it is silly because it undermines those very intentions in two ways that are directly tied to how much it conforms to the practices of the typical European sexploitation film of its day. For one thing, while it’s fun to look at Francesco Cuppini's ultra-mod production design  and groove to Stilvio Cipriani’s slick, pop-inflected (and excellent) score, both of those elements are aggressively employed to embue Sayer’s money-driven world of decadent excess with a seductive glamour, and, while Mary’s turning the tables is a foregone conclusion, it appears to be a conclusion that the film's male creators have some ambivalence about.

It also has to be said that the filmmakers do themselves no favors with a couple of instances of  laughably on-the-nose symbolism--which, to be honest, is what a lot of us watch these old Italian exploitation films for. The first occurs during the pair's romantic idyll, when Sayer pulls his car over beside some railroad tracks to receive some road head from Mary. As she goes to town on him below the camera's view, an engine passes by towing a flatbed car bearing an all female band. A close-up shows us the clarinetist salaciously mouthing her instrument. Get it? It's exactly the kind of seedy, winking coyness that makes hardcore porn seem wholesome by comparison.

Another of the film's blunt force metaphors is the statue of a giant pair of spread female legs with a vagina dentata at its nexus. At the film's opening, a group of business men are seen filing listlessly into its maw and then,  at a pivotal moment, Sayer himself is seen stepping inside, only to emerge as a skeleton. This less than subtly signifies the moment at which Mary goes from being the victim to the femme fatale.

On the other hand, thanks to some goofy musical cues (babbadabbadip-doowah!) and sound effects, plus a few instances of romantic slapstick, the film at times adopts a tone that is downright breezy. This is typical of the European ‘sex romps” of the day, which positioned themselves as clarions of the Sexual Revolution, spreading the word that sex was no longer something to be taken seriously, that it was instead something fun… even zany! And sadly, Femina Ridens was not the only of these films to portray as fun and zany sex that was practiced upon those without agency or choice, or used, in tandem with wealth, to callously exploit them. (I can’t help recalling the running gag in When Women Lost Their Tales concerning how Senta Berger is routinely gang raped—zanily!--by her caveman companions.)

Now I’m not saying it’s not possible to surrender to Femina Ridens’ charms and simply enjoy it as a stylish piece of European pop cinema, which it is. I’m just saying that, to do that, and then turn around and write about it as if it's not problematic on a number of levels, would be an act of bad faith I’m not ready to commit, no matter how sprightly the soundtrack. And so I gaze forlornly through the window at the kids on the other side of the pane, the ones without scruples, who happily cavort in the sprinkler while jazzy Italian pop music plays, shouting out bad words like “boobs” and “tushie” with gleeful abandon. Sigh.

Friday's best pop song ever

Thursday, February 1, 2018

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast, Episode 3!

Hi, I'm Todd and I like turtles, Chinese noodles and pop music. Mostly pop music, though. In fact, I like pop music so much that I have a new favorite song every Friday. I post videos of those songs every week, under the banner Friday's Best Pop Song Ever, but I also have a monthly podcast of the same name in which I examine one of them in excruciating detail. The latest episode of that podcast, which I've just posted, deals with "A Glass of Champagne" a robust bit of bubbleglam from the nautically-themed British band Sailor. You can stream it using the link below.

Friday's best pop song ever

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Pop Offensiv är fantastisk!

I think last week's survey of Scandinavian pop was one of the best episodes of Pop Offensive yet -- and certainly the best one since I took over the show a few months ago. And now it's available for streaming from the Pop Offensive Archives. Why wouldn't you want to listen to it? Is it because you don't have the complete playlist to read along with it? Well, here's that, too, just posted over on Pop Offensive's Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (Japan, 1970)

Nikkatsu's Stray Cat Rock films established a couple of precedents in Japanese exploitation cinema. For one, they contained the seeds of the Pinky Violence films that Toei would produce throughout the 70s. Second, they mark a first step in the ascent of actress Meiko Kaji, who was just on the cusp of achieving Tarantino-certified cult icon status with her titular roles in the Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion series.

However, those coming to the first film in the series, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, with hopes of seeing a nascent version of the cold-eyed badassery Kaji would evince in those later films will be at least a little disappointed. Because here Kaji is little more than a supporting player, leaving the spotlight to star Akiko Wada, a Japanese pop singer here making her screen debut. And that is as it should be.

Wada makes her first appearance in the film under it’s opening credits, playing surly loner Ako, who comes roaring into town on her motorcycle like a distaff Brando, her face—and gender—obscured by her helmet. Soon she runs into Mei (Kaji), a waifish street kid who demands she give her a ride. Ako drops Mei at a mucky unused reservoir, where she joins in a fight against a rival gang with her fellow cadre of bad girls. Mei and her friends quickly lose their advantage, and are saved by Ako, who chases the other gang away while doing sick jumps on her hog.

Now having made fast friends with the gang, Ako retires with them to a noisy psychedelic nightspot, where she finally removes her helmet to reveal her long hair and arguably feminine features (by which I mean that the permanent cocky smirk on her face is somewhat on the far side of demure.) Mei is undeterred by this revelation and asks Ako to dance, which she does. This is as far into Sapphic territory as the film goes, though there are other vague intimations of Mei’s attraction for Ako.

Mei is saddled with a boyfriend, Michio (Koji Wada), who, by all appearances, is a cowardly loser. Michio is intent on gaining entrance to a neo-fascist criminal gang called the Seiyu Group, and endeavors to do so by convincing the gang to bet heavily on his boxer friend in an upcoming match, with the understanding that he will convince his friend to throw the fight. He fails in this, and ends up a prisoner of the Seiyus, who beat him mercilessly. A real “stand by your man” type, Mei convinces the other girls to join her in rescuing him--and, in the ensuing brawl, Ako comes very close to blinding Hanada, the gang’s boss. This is enough to make the elimination of the gang, and Ako especially, a top priority for Hanada and his giggling top enforcer Katsuya (Tatsuya Fuji).

In classic Pinky Violence tradition, the battle-hardened young women of Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (not to be confused with just plain Delinquent Girl Boss, a later Toei film) find themselves in a world populated only by the most grotesque examples of the male species. This is true from the sickeningly weak-willed Michio all the way to the leering Katsuya, who, at one point, leads his men in violently raping Mari, a member of the gang portrayed by Yuka Kumari, the sister of  Branded to Kill's Annu Mari.

These portrayals are given a sharper edge by the fact that the movie has a bit more grit than later PV films, which had a tendency to go over the top into lurid absurdity (surprising, given its director Yasuharu Hasebe is famous for directing the modish fever dream Black Tight Killers.) Unlike some of Toei's later PV films, which seem targeted at dirty old men, you get the sense with this picture that the filmmakers are actually trying to speak to the disaffected youth they are portraying. To this end, there are a lot of moody location sequences that, while celebrating Tokyo nightlife, also seem to hint at its emptiness and isolation. The nightclub scenes are harshly chaotic, and gain an added sense of verisimilitude from the appearance within them of actual bands of the time, like long-haired psych rockers The Mopps and OX.

All of this is not to say that the film is without stylization, as the occasional appearance of blinding, primary colored wipes and overlays clamorously attests. Also, it being a Japanese studio film of its era, it almost goes without saying that many of the shots are beautifully composed--especially when Hasebe chooses to forefront his young actors, dwarfed by the indifferent urban landscape looming above them. As an added concession to pop consciousness, we also get a couple of songs from Akiko Wada, including her hit “Boy and Girl”, (which was featured on Volume 2 of Big Beat’s Nippon Girls series if you want to hear it.) To these the husky voiced, sleepy-eyed Wada brings the same confident swagger that she does to her acting.

I have to say that Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss seems pioneering for how it so matter-of-factly presents an androgynous female protagonist in the typically male role of the laconic outsider hero. Contrary to expectations, none of the exploitative tropes concerning same sex attraction (the shower scenes, the leather clad bdsm, etc.) are in evidence.

All of this allows Wada to emerge as a female action hero of rare charisma and gravity. Though Kaji would eventually take over the lead in the Stray Cat Rock films, in Delinquent Girl Boss it is Wada who provides the film with exactly the kind of compelling central presence that Kaji did to her more well-known films. Check it out.


Now that our country is being overrun by Norwegians in response to Mr. Trumps golden-tongued proclamation, it may be time to look at what our friends from the frigid north of Europe have to offer us.

Of course, that is not the reason that I programmed an entire evening of tunes from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland (though mostly Sweden, if we're being honest) for tonight's Pop Offensive. The set was, in fact, programmed a couple of months ago, then I got sick and was unable to broadcast it last month.

And the reason I programmed it that way is because I host a show about pop music and the Scandinavians are a people with pop music in their blood. If Scandinavian pop has one flaw, it may be that it is sometimes too pop: too catchy, too slick, and too upbeat. But even its most dedicated detractors have to admit that even its most cloying musical products are stunningly well crafted--all the while proclaiming that there's no way in hell that they would listen to this show. If that's you, consider yourself forewarned.

Pop Offensive goes Scando rando tonight (Wednesday, January 17th) at 7pm PT and can be streamed live from kgpc969.0rg. So why not grab yourself a plate of lutfisk, pour yourself a glass of potato vodka, and tune in.