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Saturday, Feb 10, 2007


On an isolated island in the middle of the Caribbean, Dr. Jake Terrell has made a breakthrough in the study of dolphins and interspecies language. His star pupil Fa has not only learned to understand English but he also has a rudimentary ability to speak it. Hoping to avoid exploitation of his special savant sea creatures, he shuns any press and avoids the in-depth inquiries from the Bland Foundation, who is funding his work. But when a seedy reporter named Curtis Mahoney threatens to blow the cover off the experiments, Terrell feels he has no choice but to bring Fa, and his female companion Be, out into the open. The revelation of the mammals’ special skill only makes matters worse, since it turns out that a shadow organization within the government has planted a spy in Terrell’s own staff.


As Fa and Be are being prepared for introduction to the world, they inadvertently become part of a conspiracy to use trained dolphins as assassins. It’s up to Terrrell and his remaining loyal staff, along with an unsuspected ally, to save the salt water sophisticates and prevent the porpoise murder of the President. And without a Jackal in sight, international terrorism has obviously entered a new era. Step aside all you candidates from Manchuria, it’s time for The Day of the Dolphin.


At the time, there was probably no perceived writing/directing team hotter than Mike Nichols and Buck Henry. Their prior two films together (The Graduate and Catch-22) had been embraced as counter culture calling cards, reel responses to bourgeoisie society and the war in Vietnam, respectively. Nichols alone was a wunderkind, having created such additional cinematic benchmarks as the acting triumphs Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. So when Joseph E. Levine came looking to enforce his contract with Nichols (he was required to do one more movie for the producer), the young filmmaker approached his old friend about doing something completely different, something the two had never tried before. And then they went and made this movie instead. Part science fiction, part political thriller, with some ‘Earth First’ environmentalism thrown in for good measure, The Day of the Dolphin became a highly anticipated collaboration between the creative team.


It also complemented the early ‘70s fascination with the future, technology, earth, and the supposedly intelligent sea mammal species. It was considered quite topical, as it was based on an immensely popular bestseller that capitalized on the current craze for studies of dolphin and porpoise behavior. Scientists were, at the time, making advances in the very subject area, both pro (language) and con (mine recovery) the movie addressed. Add the notorious box office sideshow of George C. Scott and his young trophy wife Trish “Who’s Linda McCartney” Van Devere, and it seemed that a can’t-miss combination of talent and material had been discovered. There was no way it could fail. But remember, this is also what Franz Liebkind and Roger De Bris thought about Springtime for Hitler.


Seen in the far more sophisticated light of this new millennium’s mega-technical binary computer complicatedness, this simple underwater weirdness has definitely lost a lot of its sea legs. By today’s standards, The Day of the Dolphin is a goofy premise, made even goofier by the eventual thriller plot and, in the frenzied final moments, is rendered totally and completely into one of the goofiest movies ever made. But this is meant in a good way. Sort of. Like Darwin in SeaQuest DSV or the cyberpunk sea creature in Johnny Mnemonic, the inherent intelligence of the faux Flippers here becomes part of a campy car crash that, while not an all out disaster, plays more like a nonsensical National Geographic Special with ornery Oscar winners.


It’s hard to pinpoint just what does this movie in. Perhaps it’s the notion of the rather barrel-chested and city-slicked C. Scott donning a wet suit and doing the dead man’s float with his creature cast members while he channels Patton’s more “feminine” side. Or how about the substantial lack of lines for any other member of the cast, save for the scene-stealing slimeball Paul Sorvino as the single greasiest black ops agent in the covert government of America. Maybe the rest of the cast was as seemingly pissed as Fritz Weaver, all watching as the blow-holed, fish eating egomaniacs hogged all the single syllabled dialogue? (F.W. would get his revenge though. He went on to act alongside a megalomaniac motherboard in the computer bore Satan’s spawn silliness from 1977 called Demon Seed). Or possibly it was too many days in the tropics, allowing the baking and stroking rays of the Bermuda sun to confuse an otherwise sound and gifted filmmaker and his cinematic choices. Whatever it was, it turned his cautionary tale about tampering in God’s aquatic domain into Hooked on Phonics with Fa and Be.


And yet the movie somehow manages to squeak out an overall entertaining evening at the motion picture aquarium. Nichols has always been a uniquely skilled visual director, and his gorgeous tropical tableaus are wonderful. He does frame the majority of the film in medium two shots, as if to distance his audience from much of the laughable lunacy going on. But that’s only because there’s a lot to loll your head holes over in The Day of the Dolphin. When Georgie C. forces Fa to speak English and request a repast with his Caribbean Queen Be, he initiates the first interspecies booty call, compelling the horny mammal to mouth “Pa. Fa. Want. Be. Now.” Hell, these precognizant porpoises even get all freaked out when some suit suggests there’s a shark in their personal pool (anticipating the reaction to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws by a full two years). There are many scenes of Scottie in short pants, and musical montages of dolphins attempting the Venus Butterfly. By the time we get to the plot to eliminate the President (which comes so completely out of left field you expect Ted Williams to appear chasing after it), we are ready for anything.


But nothing can quite prepare us for the final moments of the movie where the fraught Fa tries to get his portly “Pa” to look back at him, just once more for one last father/fish fin wave. Indeed, the star speak-and-say sea creatures here give better performances than many of their land-lubbing counterparts. The Day of the Dolphin may long be remembered as the first chink in Nichol’s seemingly indestructible suit of creative armor, but all it really represents is a failed experiment in that most difficult of future shock filmmaking: the intelligent animal adventure.


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Friday, Feb 9, 2007


Henri Danglard is a famous Paris nightclub owner known for his fabulous shows and relatively poor business acumen. When he loses at his latest ventures, Henri stumbles upon a brilliant idea for a revival. He will bring back the traditional, risqué dance the Cancan, and build an entire upper-class club to feature this lower-class concept. But first, Henri needs dancers, and his sometimes girlfriend / always headliner Lola De Castro refuses to comply. So Danglard finds a young lady working in a laundry and grooms her to be his next star. Nini is very flattered by all the attention and soon falls in love with her mentor.


As the new theater, the Moulin Rouge, is being constructed, Lola tries to find ways to undermine her wayward lover. She uses her sexuality to lure the backers into pulling out of the deal. But then, a depressed prince, completely infatuated with Nini, comes to the rescue. It’s not long before it’s opening night, and the Moulin Rogue is ready to reintroduce the Cancan to the French people. Only problem is, Danglard is no longer paying attention to his star. And Nini refuses to take the stage, lest she understand where her relationship stands with the showman.


As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist with the skill of a painter in the frame of a filmmaker. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication.


While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Hilarious and heartwarming with a wicked cynical core about the life of a performer, it is the stuff of mythology in the making. More so than An American in Paris, or any other Tinsel Town take on the fantasy that is France, French Cancan is a countryman’s compliment to the memory of his once-magnificent homeland. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.


Jean Gabin, one of France’s all-time great actors, turns nightclub manager Danglard into perhaps the most charismatic cad in his long lineage of such roles. Relying far more on his entire body than just his matinee-idol features (Gabin was only 51 when the movie was made, but he looks and plays it much older), he brings grace and gaiety to a character that is, more or less, a celebration of a life in show business. Though we see Danglard suffer both highs and lows at the hands of the insular world’s backstabbing and competitive nature, we also understand completely why he stays in the game. For Danglard, the real world is a farce, a self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty with no real passion or presence. In the world of the theater, however, it is human endeavor that makes up the market, and as a result, dictates the level of personal commitment. Nothing is more tactile than the stage, according to Renoir, and Gabin is its chief celebrant.


As Nini, Françoise Arnoul is the picture-perfect embodiment of the ingénue: a seemingly helpless young lady who secretly hides a wealth of worldly wisdom—and desires. She matches magnificently with Gabin and holds her own throughout all the strenuous dance material. Other standouts include the walking wantonness of exotic beauty Maria Felix. As the star attraction in Danglard’s productions, she combines unbelievable sensuality with the necessary arrogance of a headliner to create a love/hate relationship with the audience. With Giani Esposito as perhaps the most sullen, depressed nobleman ever to darken a movie screen (his whole ambiance is one of gloom and sadness) and Philippe Clay as the tax collector-turned-clown Casimir (always the center of attention with his commentary style songs), French Cancan rides on the backs of some of the most amazing performances and characters ever created for the French cinema.


Fans of Renoir’s work will also be taken aback by the abject sexuality the director tosses into French Cancan. There are several sequences (Gabin and the fetching Maria Felix in bed, a dancer changing in a back room) that definitely push the limits of skin and the inference of nudity by 1955 standards. Also, Nini is a woman who enjoys many trysts outside the wedding bed (with baker boyfriend Paolo and Gabin) in blatant contravention of the morals of the day. Some could argue that this is merely the filmmaker falling into the trap of cliché, claiming that show people are far more brash in their proclivities and loose in their ethics than the stuffed shirts who come to their performances. But the truth is, Renoir is really celebrating the embracing of life that individuals ensconced in the arts seem to enjoy. Instead of denouncing the bed-hopping and suggestions of flesh, Renoir seems to be saying that those who give their souls to an audience night after night are rewarded with a more free and open spirit, an advantageous ability to see the elemental, emotional aspects of life (of which, of course, sex and sexuality are part and parcel).


Indeed, the distinction between the life of a performer and the world of the average man or woman is at the heart of French Cancan. Nini is given a choice near the end of the film: She can have the “normal” life of a laundry girl, or she can become a trouper, a member of the performing profession who casts off all concepts of normalcy for the chance to strut and fret upon the stage. Her eventual choice is then channeled through a celebratory dance, a 10-minute masterwork of music and maneuvers that ends French Cancan on an amazingly upbeat and infectious note.


Perhaps the slyest bit of direction by Renoir ever, French Cancan is a movie that sneaks up on you with its overwhelming likeability. The director constantly circumvents your expectations, allowing the film to flummox and fool you time and time again. Characters consistently break into song, using the moment to add an exclamation point to a person or problem. Minor, telling details undercut broad strokes of sentiment, and the sets suggest reality while invoking the canvases of the great masters (including Renoir’s own father). Proving he can make even the most anarchic of dances into a true statement of the sublime, Renoir uses the Cancan, with its racy nature and skirt-raising ramifications, as an expression of freedom and joi de vivre. Indeed, the entire film is like a sharpened bottle of champagne just waiting for the cork to pop, releasing its exuberant effervescence. When the ladies dance the French Cancan in a frenzy of glorious gymnastics, the movie finally fulfills its promise.


An amazing film to look at as well as a stirring tribute to the essence of Renoir’s native land, French Cancan represents one of the finest examples of cinematic experimentation ever attempted. Renoir creates his own concept of France in the early 19th century and, with the help of some remarkable and memorable characters, invites us on this glorious trip down the Ruelle De Mémoire. It is, without a doubt, one of the great films in the lexicon of motion pictures.


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Thursday, Feb 8, 2007


Now that the NFL has finished having its way with the populace, paltry Pro Bowl the only thing left on the pigskin schedule before six months of football-free entertainment, it’s a good time to turn back to the premium pay movie channels. Indeed, this week, there’s a decent amount of cinematic goodness to spare. Between a powerful family drama, a glorious drive-in delight from one Tom Laughlin, and a sneak peek at Alfonso Cuarón’s early directorial genius, the main movies featured themselves will provide a tantalizing trio of palpable motion picture possibilities. Toss in a few of the additional choices, and the week beginning 10 February is looking mighty fine. Let’s begin with SE&L’s top selection:


Premiere Pick
The Squid and the Whale


In one of the more intriguing moves of 2006, Entertainment Weekly columnist Stephen King (yes, THAT Stephen King) picked this film to top his year end best-of list. But this is not some Kaiju inspired monster movie. Instead, writer/director Noah Baumbach drew on his own childhood and the divorce of his literary minded parents as the foundation for this deeply heartfelt film. With its perfect performances from Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels, and the unapologetic way it deals with familial strife and subtext, Baumbach has resurrected the kind of interdependent drama that hasn’t been relevant since Ordinary People took home the 1980 Best Picture Oscar. Baumbach even snatched his own nomination, proving that there was more to this movie than one man’s memories. (10 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Final Destination 3


The third time is definitely not the charm for this initially inventive horror franchise. While the bloodshed and body count is still very high, the series has definitely moved from suspenseful to schlock. After the opening rollercoaster gag, it’s more of the same old ‘cheating death’ dopiness that actually made the first two films feel fresh. (10 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

ATL


It’s urban crime and violence, Southern style. Shifting the typical hood histrionics to Atlanta, and hoping that the casting of Outkast’s Big Boi would spur some box office interest, this guns and gang gratuity never found an audience beyond its bullets and bodies demographic. Still, music video director Chris Robinson shows great poise behind the lens. (10 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Saw II


For those wondering what happened to the original Saw‘s perfectly planned puzzle box conceits, the answer is director Darren Lynn Bousman. Arriving with his own designs, and a craving to concentrate on murderous machinery instead of intricate storylines, he almost destroyed a brilliant horror legacy. Thankfully, the original Saw guys were around to set the circumstances straight. (10 February, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Y Tu Mama Tambien


Those interested in experiencing more amazing cine-magic at the hands of Mexican moviemaker Alfonso “Children of Men” Cuarón need look no further than this 2001 masterwork. What sounds like an incredibly tawdry premise (two young men meet up with a promiscuous older woman for a sex-soaked road trip of self discovery) actually turns into an intelligent look at life, commitment and compassion. So overloaded with energy and vitality that the film practically glows with effervescent sensuality, Cuarón creates a beautiful comedy of character, avoiding the clichéd while tapping directly into the raging hormones of his unbridled machismo males. More importantly, he turns the coming of age catalyst Louisa into a full blown, three dimensional individual. It’s a move we don’t expect from such a storyline, and confirms the genius that would carry Cuarón to bigger and better things. (11 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Elephant


Gus Van Zant’s reflection on the massacre at Columbine takes its own sweet time building up to the deadly firefight, but during the long, languid tracking shots, we see how high school frustrations turn into slow burn homicidal rage. With his amateur cast and non-judgmental position, what could have been exploitative is merely masterful. (12 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Open City


More or less the start of the Neo-realism movement in Italian cinema, Roberto Rossellini used his emerging cinema véité style to capture Rome under Nazi occupation. With its bleak black and white cinematography, ‘us vs. them’ storyline, and emphasis on life during wartime, Rossellini proved that fact supplemented by fiction could create a devastating cinematic statement. (13 February, Sundance, 7PM EST)

Wishing Stairs


The J-horror fad from a few years back brought much of Asia’s obsession with dark-haired ghosts and young girl innocence to the fore. In this Korean scarefest, the students at a private school learn that a set of haunted stairs can be the answer to your prayers – or the beginning of an unending nightmare. (12 February, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Born Losers


Before Billy Jack, his Trial and his trip to Washington, filmmaker Tom Laughlin introduced the famous half-breed hero in this biker gang gone gonzo exploitation classic. Using the same revenge-oriented narrative he would employ throughout his turn as the titular character, Laughlin imbues his emotionally wounded Vietnam vet (this guy has a chip on his soldier the size of Montana) with enough martial arts moxie to overcome some of the story’s sloppier aspects. Thanks to a stellar supporting cast including Jeremy Slate as the head motorcycle maniac and a group of bad guys with names like Gangrene and Speechless, Laughlin shows his ease with this material. It’s gratuitous gold that would serve him well in the ‘70s, when his Mr. Jack became an enigmatic cultural icon. (15 February, Flix, 5PM EST)

Additional Choices
Cactus Flower


It’s incredibly dated, what with its forced free love mantra, and offers the unusual sight of Walter Matthau as a swinging, sex-obsessed dentist. But there is more to Gene Saks adaptation of the silly French farce than meets the idea. It won Laugh-In loon Goldie Hawn an Oscar, more or less legitimizing the creative value of the counterculture. (13 February, TCM, 8PM EST)

The Hand


Leave it to Oliver Stone to make the B-movie standard reanimated limb formula viable again. In this case, cartoonist Michael Caine looses his drawing hand, and his mind, after a particularly nasty car accident. Soon, his vivisected paw comes crawling back for revenge – though the purpose behind its murderous motives are never quite clear. (14 February, ThrilllerMax, 6PM EST)

Creepshow


In a flawless homage to the twist-ending eeriness of the old EC Comics, Stephen King and George Romero deliver one of their best collaborations. Spread out amongst the five excellent examples of storytelling and scares, look for early fright flick turns from Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Leslie Nielsen and Hal Holbrook (14 February, ThrillerMax, 7:50PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Feb 7, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Producer Harry Novak moves flesh out of the nudist camp and into the realm of mainstream comedy.

Kiss Me Quick



During the late 50s and early 60s, nudity was forbidden on American movie screens. The Hays Code, an offshoot of the MPAA’s battle with trade unions over how best to manage Hollywood’s talent, had set up strict limitations on what could and could not be shown in the country’s theaters. Along with the typical strictures – hardcore sex, extreme violence, etc. – former Postmaster Will Hayes and his confab of censors took the notions of motion picture morality to ridiculous extremes. Couples could not be shown sleeping in the same bed. Illegal drug use of any type could not be shown. And most importantly, the exposing of the body – specifically, the FEMALE body – could not be featured. To challenge these or any other “indecency” determination was to run the risk of being blacklisted…or even worse.


Of course, there were those in the cinematic underground who made their living attacking these Puritanical pronouncements. The pornographers, the makers of stag and smoker reels who worked in shady back alleys far off the path of legitimacy, taunted the treatment of taboo material at the hand of Hays, though they never really considered themselves part of mainstream moviemaking. And since the MPAA more or less buttered their daily bread, the conventional artists of Hollywood gladly accepted the rules and went about their sexually illogical business. But those looking for a compromise between vice and va-va-va voom wanted a way to show the human body and not end up on a wrong side of the celluloid – or the law. For these pioneers, there had to be an answer to the perception of skin as indignity.


Said solution came in the package of the nudist camp film. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling which made it clear that nudity, by its very nature, was not inherently pornographic (especially when it was featured as part of a “medical or health” ideal), members of the exploitation racket hit upon a novel inspiration. Since nudist camps were considered private spas for wellbeing and fitness, abiding by principles proposed by their European medical counterparts, a nice fat fleshly loophole was discovered. Filmmakers flocked to the nation’s sun worshipper facilities, bringing with them willing models, mediocre storylines, and more than enough ‘exposable’ film. Before long, the circuit was overloaded with scantily clad volleyball players and shuffleboard sharks, each one sporting a carefully positioned towel or accessory (to blot out the still scandalous groin area).


It wasn’t long before the novelty of nudity set within an amiable, outdoorsy location – along with the obvious dichotomy between the professional models and the rather wrinkled, sometimes repugnant actual nudists – took a toll on the rapidly fading nudism fad. If the financial aspect of flesh was going to prosper, someone had to move it into a whole new realm. Luckily, producer Harry Novak knew just what to do. Recognizing that horror films held as much sway over the drive-in crowd as the suggestion of sin, he decided to combine the two. Even better, he would employ comedy as part of his ploy to avoid suspicion and keep his efforts from raising the reservations of the nation’s ethical watchdogs.


Thus the nudie was born, a combination of vaudeville level humor and burlesque oriented bodkin bearing. Though others had employed a similar stance within this new found gimmick guided gratuity – such surreal set-ups as magic cameras that saw its subject naked, special glasses that provided a similar scintillating view, etc. – Kiss Me Quick remains a milestone, since it pushed the limits of lewdness while simultaneously showing that there was nothing really ‘dirty’ about ladies bouncing around, bare-assed. Employing exploitation expert Bethel Buckalew (under his ‘Peter Perry’ nom de plume) and casting strippers from LA’s best nightclubs, the result was a sparkling slap in the face for those who felt nudity was naughty, or worst still, personally depraved.


The storyline was, by nature, desperately simple. In a lonely cardboard cutout of a castle, during a strobe light storm, Dr. Breedlove (actor Max Gardens in a bad fake nose, eyeliner pencil wrinkles, and hip John Lennon granny glasses) attempts to perfect his Sex Fizz, giving portions to his Sex Bombs in order to get them gyrating and undulating. Enter Sterilox (actor Frank A. Coe doing an impression of Stan Laurel on Quaaludes), an alien from the planet Droopeter in the Buttless Galaxy, who engages the doctor in a quest for the perfect female specimen. After giving the Sex Bombs (Boobra, Barebra, and Hotty Totty – otherwise known as Natasha, Bibi, and Claudia Banks) a sip of his Fizz, they begin a wigged out dance to some rather scathing proto-punk surf rock music.


Nonplused, Sterilox asks to see more women, and Dr. Breedlove cheerfully agrees by switching on his Closed Circuit Television Tom Peeper Device. We are then treated to 66 minutes of women undressing, undressed, and cavorting in exercise rooms and swimming pools, all the while making sure that their best features are front and center. Frankenstein, Dracula, and a strange Grand-Mummy kind of thing round out the cast in a nod to the time period (‘64 was a huge year for movie monsters in US popular culture). In between the men’s magazine style sequences, incredibly bad jokes are delivered by professional pratfallers who, in essence, should know better.


Devoid of anything remotely disgusting, and barely reaching the heavy breathing level of vulgarity, what we have here is an extended Burly-Q act made even more memorable by the outrageous acting and backdrop. Buckalew, who would go on to work with Novak on several sensational skin flicks including The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet and The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, does a brilliant job of staging the nakedness, using an unusual approach to his considered camerawork. During the Sex Bombs marvelous dance numbers, he simply sets up the lens and lets the ladies shimmy and shake. Occasionally, he will move in to get a close-up of a fawning face or wide-eyed gaze. But mostly, it’s point and shoot time.


Then there are moments where, in a more private setting, he will let the viewfinder slowly pan up and down a gyrating lass, developing a kind of carnal intimacy that XXX movies would learn to utilize – and abuse - a decade later. It’s fair to say that the level of wit, with its T&A tendency toward the tawdry and tasteless would make grade-schoolers wince in acknowledged juvenilia. In addition, if you’re interested in something beyond exposed breasts and retarded sexual references, Kiss Me Quick fails to deliver much of anything else. But as a monument to the moment when filmmakers found the chutzpah to challenge the wildly unconstitutional claims that kept movies in the decency Dark Ages for several decades, Harry Novak’s horror hijinx were instrumental in paving the way for greater cinematic openness. In essence, he moved nudity out of the camp and into the realm of ordinary comedy. As entertaining as Kiss Me Quick remains, its industry significance cannot be understated. Indeed, it was monsters that helped make nakedness a non-issue for the grindhouse gang. 


 


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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

Women hold a sacred place in Indian cinema. Pre-Christian rituals of worship are imbued on a screen projecting images of full-lipped goddesses. The inherent beauty of the female figure, the agility of the dancer, the playful sauciness, and above all, the promise of sex, is what endears these eight women to billions of moviegoers. Sex is less taboo and dirty in Indian cinema when rendered in a certain artistic, quasi-religious sort of way. Indeed, its procreative potential and its ability to excite the human consciousness grants it a divine status. Audiences don’t just drool and fantasize over these goddesses. Like their more cerebral Hollywood counterparts, Marlene Dietrich and Sharon Stone, they’re admired for their charisma, craft, elusiveness and unpredictability. As mutable as the Apsaras they recreate onscreen, these actresses grow more complex with each new film, tantalizing us with a spirited song sequence or surprising us with a new side of their acting, nuanced and original, that we didn’t expect to see.


Four of the eight actresses hail from South India, the heart of classical Indian dance. Dance is a vital aspect of worship in Hinduism. Shiva created the universe through dance, resolving and sustaining the cosmos via a sinuous ballet. A woman who is accomplished in the technique and discipline of classical dance is deeply respected for her beauty and her intelligence. South India’s starlets remind one of the primeval goddesses represented in cave sculptures: woman in its original, undiluted form.


One of the most popular stars of the 40s and 50s, Vyjayantimala, was the first big star from South India, no small feat in a North Indian-dominated film industry. With her astounding virtuosity at Bharatnatyam, her classical Earth Mother beauty, and her sensitive performances she paved the way for the other South Indian actresses. Hema Malini, the darling of the 70s, shared Vyjayantimala,’s talent for dance and arresting good looks, though she defined her persona as a wise-cracking, brassy skeptic along the lines of Jean Harlow. Sridevi, the reigning movie queen of the 80s (the most prolific of all eight, she sometimes had up to 10 movies out at the same time) upped the ante on slapstick and sex appeal—the Carole Lombard of Indian cinema. Rekha, the last of the South Indian beauties, a star of the 70s and 80s, seems to become more fascinating with age, starring in provocative roles that challenge the existing norms of India’s sometime hypocritical policies.


In the 70s, India like the rest of the world, was swept up in the tide of cultural revolution that came with political dissent.  As the Women’s Rights movement spread internationally, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi embodied modernity. While the Indian heroines thus far wore tasteful, conservative saris and bindis, Aman and Babi were unashamed to show off their lovely figures in bikinis and mini-skirts. They were looked upon as “Western” heroines whose rejection of conventional attire and attitude (the subservient wife or fiancé) stunned and titillated audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing an Indian woman so unapologetically cosmopolitan.


By the time Madhuri Dixit entered the scene the ideal of the screen goddess began to unravel. Actresses struggled to be seen as artists and not merely as nubile, plastic dolls. The late 80s and 90s, when more Indians were working abroad and longed to return to India, tradition and ritual came back full-force in Indian cinema. Dixit was the phenomenon of those years. A spirited dancer and vivacious personality she possessed a homespun beauty of Miss Middle India, a glamorous homebody equally at ease in an evening gown or cooking at home. She enjoyed the popularity Rita Hayworth did in the 40s, her picture emblazoned on every man’s wall in all far corners of the world. But the overwhelming celebrity as an international sex symbol became too much for Dixit, who retired from movies seven years ago to marry an NRI doctor and live a quiet life as a soccer mom near Denver, Colorado.


Kareena Kapoor is the most of recent of the lot and the one who seems to have the most fun. A star of the new millennium, when Indian society enjoyed more progressive liberalism and more respect for an independent, sexier woman, Kapoor is less inhibited than her predecessors, and less pretentious She dances, not classically, with enthusiasm and abandon. Her love of the limelight is inherited; the granddaughter of Bollywood founding father, Raj Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor combines the Old World glamour with New World attitude.


All of these women realize that being a sex symbol in India, a country that reveres sex but is still reluctant to talk about openly, is a challenging mantle to assume. As the object who graces the dreams of the both rickshaw driver and the Sultan of Brunei, she bridges men together with collective longings. But eroticism aside, the Bollywood sex symbol’s true talent is cerebral; she tantalizes with what’s left unseen, with fantasies unanswered. It takes a clever woman to realize that her sex appeal is half of what she has and half of what everyone thinks she has.



Vyjantimala circa ‘50s

Hema Malini circa ‘70s

Rekha circa ‘70s


Sridevi circa ‘80s

Zeenat Aman circa ‘70s

Parveen Babi circa ‘70s

Madhuri Dixit circa early ‘90s

Kareena Kapoor circa ‘90s


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