Monday, March 23, 2020

A Glass and a Cigarette (Egypt, 1955)

Despite being fronted by a trio of Egypt’s most beloved female entertainers, A Glass and a Cigarette, with its retrograde sexual politics, does women few favors. After all, what hoary old patriarchal stereotype is more hoary and old than that of the marriage-minded career girl? Even when that career girl is a belly dancer? And, yes, the film does feint toward being a gritty examination of alcoholism, but all such concerns get sent out with the trash once the home-wrecking floozy gets her slapstick come-uppance and the wayward heroine comes to realize her rightful place as a wife and mother. Ugh.

And I say the above with a real sense of disappointment, as Egyptian cinema, even in the fifties, was not necessarily hostile to feminist--or borderline feminist—statements, such as the films in director Salah Abu-Sief’s “Female Empowerment Trilogy”. Of course, those films came a couple of years after A Glass and a Cigarette, and have been hailed for their progressive attitudes. Maybe Glass, with its emphasis on hand-wringing domestic melodrama, wrapped in a legitimizing veil of social concern, provides an example of the type of movies that Abu-Seif was progressing from. Nevertheless, the film is considered a classic of Egyptian cinema’s Golden Age, thanks to the sure-handed direction of Niazi Mustapha (Antar, The Black Prince), the dazzling star power of its lead cast, the rich, black and white cinematography of Abdel Aziz Fahmy, and several glamorous musical numbers that put the vocally talented actors to good use.

In the film, Samia Gamal and Kouka play Hoda and Samma, two dancers at Cairo’s Al-Gala Casino. Both of them dream of marriage, but with Hoda, that dream has grown into a full-blown obsession. Early in the film, Samma, ever eager to help her friend, culls an assortment of unattached men from among the casino regulars and cajols Hoda to pick one of them to marry. The marriage designs of Samma, a non-resident Tunisian, are more administrative in character. It is at this time that we see Hoda throwing back shot to allay her “shyness.”

But Hoda’s shyness is not enough to keep Mamdouh (Nabil El-Aify) an up-and-coming-and-handsome young doctor, from sweeping her off her feet. As Hoda is primed like some kind of matrimonial rocket, almost no time passes before the two are married and have a baby, who they name Samma, after the woman who tried to pimp out her best friend in an Arabic augury to The Bachelorette. After a period of domestic bliss, trouble arises in the hourglass-shaped form of Mamdouh’s new nurse, Yolanda (Dalida), a dark Italian beauty whom the women mockingly call “Yolanda Macaroni’.” Yolanda sets her sites on Mahmoud and it is not long before Hoda, driven mad with jealousy, is throwing back highball after highball. This is treated as a new development, although we’ve already been shown that Hoda will turn to the sauce over being cut off in traffic.

A word about the women of A Glass and a Cigarette: At the time of making the film, Samia Gamal was widely regarded as one of the best belly dancers in the world. Six years earlier, she had starred as a mischievous genie in the comedy Afrita Hanem, one of the most beloved Egyptian films of its era. Kouka, who was the wife of director Mostafa, was so identified with the legendary figure of  Abla, the storied lover of first century Egyptian poet Antarah ibn Shaddad al-Abs, that one of the film’s musical numbers is dedicated to retelling the tale.

But it was Dalida who might have outshone them all. An Egyptian or Italian heritage, the actress and singer gained worldwide fame as a singer of French language songs. She could even claim the honor of singing the French language version of Brian Highland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weeine Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

All three woman acquit themselves wonderfully in the acting department. I loved Gamal and Kouka’s antic portrayal of female friendship, which at times reminded me of the girls in  Broad City. Dalida’s Yolanda is a Kohl-eyed personification of feminine malignancy, cold, covetous and calculating. She also steals the movie with a gorgeous torch song that she sings near the end.

Gamal also is really good at portraying someone who is completely stinking drunk while maintaining her glamorous aura. In one penultimate scene, after coming to understand that she has accidentally killed her baby, she staggers wildly down a city street and tumbles into a doorway, where she splays her long body out elegantly before passing out.

I also have to admire the way that Hoda’s drinking is portrayed, which is as damn near heroic. In one scene, she orders the bartender to line up six glasses of whisky in front of her, which she methodically downs before ordering another round of the same. That’s the way men like to think they drank when they were in their twenties, but never could.

Anyone who comes to A Glass and a Cigarette looking for a way to overcome alcoholism will probably be bitterly let down. As the film has it, Hoda begins drinking because her life is imperfect, but at the end, when she has humiliated Yolanda and has reclaimed her happy family, her life is perfect, and no more mention is made of her little problem until the cheerful closing credits music plays.

It all seems so simple.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

So... looking for more good Korean movies?

Sunday’s Oscar upset was not only an overdue recognition of Bong Joon Ho, who has been making superlative films ever since 2003’s Memories of Murder¸ but also of the South Korean movie industry as a whole, which has long been one of world cinema’s most reliable producers of compelling commercial cinema.

For those of you now on the hunt for other quality Korean films or recent vintage, I can of course offer the same list of relatively recent hits that any Asian cinema fan will give you: JSA; The Good, The Bad, and The Weird; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; Snowpiercer; Old Boy; A Bittersweet Life; The Handmaiden; I Saw the Devil; Siri, etc. But I can also offer you a sampling of classic Korean films that are marked by the same combination of casual violence, personal drama and mordant humor that would seem to be a kind of stylistic trademark of Korean cinema as a whole.

The Housemaid (Dir: Kim Ki-Young, 1960). Kim Ki-Young’s insane tale of a model nuclear family exploded by the intrusion of an unhinged young woman into their carefully managed domestic sphere. An oft-referenced classic of Korean cinema.

A Devilish Homicide, aka A Bloodthirsty Killer (Dir: Lee Yong-Min, 1965). A chilling noir nightmare that slides between family horror and crime drama.

Devil! Take the Train to Hell! (Dir: No-shik Park, 1977) A stylish, Japanese-set revenge drama from actor/director No-shik Park. Here Park plays a blind musician who roams the back streets of Tokyo in the wee hours, using his preternatural martial arts abilities to exact revenge against the four former Japanese soldiers who robbed him of his sight and murdered his wife. Bo-Yeong Ahn makes a colorful sidekick as a similarly empowered village girl out for revenge against the same men.

Iodo, aka Io Island (Dir: Kim Ki-Young, 1977) Housemaid director Kim Ki-Young once again explores the realms of the sexes as alien spheres, this time by placing a beleaguered male protagonist within an isolated community of women. It’s a story that owes a seeming debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, though it’s injected with enough of Kim’s own labyrinthine weirdness to make it indelibly his own.

A Woman Chases the Butterfly of Death (Dir:Kim Ki-Young, 1978) Kim Ki-Young returns with this surreal rumination on death, possession and butterfly collecting.

The Hand of Fate (Dir: Han Hyeong-Mo, 1954) An interesting hybrid; part tragic romance, part political allegory, part spy thriller and part anti-communist propaganda. Made at a time when Korean cinema, along with Korean society as a whole, was struggling back toward recovery after the Korean War. It was, while not a commercial success, a technical step forward in terms of its crisp editing and challenging bifurcated structure. Not to mention that it featured Korea’s first onscreen kiss.

We cult cinema fanatics are nothing if not covetous, so I have to admit that, as one of many scribes who have been championing Korean popular cinema for years now, I have to admit to feeling a bit bereft now that Sunday’s Oscars has let the cat out of the bag. Sadly, Korean cinema is no longer the treasured little secret of myself and a few other like-minded film geeks—and that’s as it should be. Any commercial cinema as artful, technically accomplished, and bearing such a unique perspective as this deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast #27: "Lonely Boy"

Sorry to be late posting this month's Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast. My time machine got stuck in 1976 and I had to fight off an army of Civil War reenactors in order to make my way home. My subject this time is multi-talented Linda Ronstadt sideman Andrew Gold's hit from that year "Lonely Boy."


Saturday, December 28, 2019

Get in the holiday spirit with Podcast On Fire

Kenny B has just posted his annual Christmas episode over at Podcast on Fire. This one features Ken, me, and fellow co-hosts Paul Quinn and Tom K-W cutting up and waxing eloquent about all things Asian cinema, including Bong Joon Ho's Parasite and the upcoming Blu-ray release of Kim Ki-Young's masterpiece of insanity Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly. Pour yourself a cup of  day-old eggnog and give it a listen, won't you?

Friday's best pop song ever

Friday, December 27, 2019

It's the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER Podcast #26: "My World Fell Down"

Hey, do you remember "A Little Bit O' Soul"? "Beach Baby"? "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat?" Well, those songs were all written by the same man. So was "My World Fell Down", which, unless you're an obsessive pop music podcaster like yours truly, you might never have heard of. Well now you'll hear all about it in this latest episode of the Friday's Best Pop Song Ever podcast.


Friday, November 29, 2019

This is why you have ears

If you have a long drive planned for this holiday weekend, 4DK is here to help that time fly by.

First of all is the latest episode of the FRIDAY'S BEST POP SONG EVER PODCAST, which has just been posted on Stitcher.

The subject of this episode is the criminally underappreciated girl group, Reparata and the Delrons, whose nautically themed hit "Captain of Your Ship" will be the subject of my penetrating appraisal.

Next up is this past Wednesday's POP OFFENSIVE, which has just been made available for streaming from KGPC's Pop Offensive Archives.

This month's theme is Northern Soul, so, for the safety of yourself and other motorists, you might want to pull over at a rest stop when the urge to get your swerve on becomes too great.

Enjoy yourselves, people!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Django The Bastard (Italy, 1969)

If you prefer your Italian Westerns dark, as I tend to, the waning years of the sixties is your vintage of choice. It was during that period—roughly all of 1969 through the first half of 1970—that some of the cornerstone films of the gothic western genre were released, among them Antonio Margheritti’s And God Said to Cain, Robert Hossein’s Cemetery without Crosses, and the bastard that I’ll be discussing today, Django The Bastard.

Django The Bastard is one of the only, and perhaps the only, of the Django films that could be considered a direct sequel to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 original. That’s because, rather than simply slapping the name Django on its protagonist for marketing purposes, it honors Corbucci’s conception of Django by presenting him as a blunt archetype; a specter of vengeance who strikes terror into the hearts of evildoers by merging in and out of the shadows, much like the American pulp anti-hero The Shadow. Of course, here, rather than showing up in town with a coffin dragging behind his horse, he shows up bearing a grave marker on which the name of his intended victim is written. In both cases, he’s a pretty morbid dude, is what I’m saying.

As directed by Sergio Garrone and portrayed by co-writer/star Anthony Steffen (aka Antonio De Teffè), the film’s incarnation of Django could rightly be called two dimensional, but can’t be faulted for lacking flesh and blood. That’s because, by the end of the film, the filmmakers are pretty clearly suggesting that this Django is not flesh and blood at all, but rather a straight up ghost. As such, the traditional way for a villain to greet him is by first shouting “but you’re dead!” before trying and failing to kill him. This interpretation is leant weight by the surfeit of spooky atmosphere that Garrone and cinematographer Gino Santini bring to the task of telling the story.

At the picture's opening, Django arrives in whatever godforsaken burgh this movie takes place in (when not specified, I tend to think of all Spaghetti Westerns as taking place in a fabled every-land much like the Shaw Brothers’ oft-visited Martial World) carrying a cross-shaped grave marker bearing the name Sam Hawkins. Hawkins (Victoriana Gazzara) is one of several turncoat confederate officers who betrayed Djangos army unit and left him for dead. (There is a surreal flashback to this event that lends Django the Bastard a similarity to another supernaturally tinged western, Giulio Questi’s Django Kill!] Now it’s some fifteen years later and Django is looking to track down those officers and subject them to some variably poetic and uniformly violent justice. Fortunately for him, all of them seem to have settled in the same town. Hawkins, in particular, appears to have done very well for himself in the years since screwing over Django and his comrades, and now rules over the town like some kind of personal fiefdom.

At Hawkins' side is his son Jack, an overgrown cretin played by Luciano Rossi, whose bleached mop of hair signals that his part might otherwise have been played by Klaus Kinski. Hawkins has paid Alida (Rada Rassimov) a money-obsessed bar girl to marry Jack and give him grandchildren. The fact that Alida, a cold hearted gold digger if there ever was one, is the movie’s primary female character means that there is little potential for Django to make love connection while on the vengeance trail.

Not that Alida doesn’t try. Indeed, it is Django’s exchanges with her that provide some of the script’s most pithy lines, such as when Alida offers to split Hawkins’ fortune with him. “I’m not interested in money,” Django says grimly. “You can’t buy much with hate,” Alida replies.

On a similar note, Alida tells Django at a later point that, with Hawkins’ money, they will be “rich forever.” “We won’t live forever,” says Django flatly.

And so Django goes about surreptitiously strangling, shooting, garroting and otherwise dispatching his betrayers, along with many of their minions. It gets to the point that the respective gangs have been driven into such a paranoid panic that they begin to war with each other. It is against this chaotic backdrop that Django and Jack hunt each other down, each hoping to kill the other before being killed themselves. Their final confrontation is, of course, violent and, for that added dash of sacrilegious frisson, staged in a darkened church.

I have seen Django The Bastard referred as a “horror Western” and I suppose that works, though I think the film’s reliance on fast-paced action plants it more squarely in the Western genre. Also to be considered is the fact that the film ultimately leaves open the question of whether or not Django really is a supernatural being. In this way, the filmmakers get to capitalize on the story’s spooky elements without sacrificing the credulity of audience members who came to the film expecting a straightforward Western. I don’t think those filmmakers had the ambition—or the stones—to do otherwise. If the film was an equal combination of the genres, it would wreak havoc with audience expectations. The horror aspect of the story would push us to see Django as some kind of monster, and empathize with his victim's suffering, while the Western would encourage us to identify with him as a hero, and revel in the suffering he inflicts upon his victims, who are, after all, the bad guys.

Because that’s the way Westerns work: the lone stranger who arrives in the strange town at the beginning of the picture is usually the one whose viewpoint we take, as his situation mirrors ours as we cautiously trek, guns drawn, into the strange new narrative that awaits us. While Django The Bastard is not the strangest Spaghetti Western that I’ve seen, its genre blending does sets it aside from the more prosaic films of its ilk enough to make it well worth seeing.