Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Naked and Violent (1970): or, Mondo Americano

I'll admit to having limited first-hand experience with the "Mondo" documentary subgenre. It's a type of film I've read a good deal about but of which I've actually watched relatively few examples, like pre-WWI German Industrialist Hygiene films or Scando-Mongolian Expressionist Midget Porn. Named after the infamous film that inspired all subsequent examples, Paolo Cavara and Gualtiero Jacopetti's Mondo Cane (1962), the Mondo movie specialized in sensationalized depictions of strange, shocking rituals from around the world, often focusing on "savage" cultures like African and South American native tribes.

Actual animal killings, bizarre rites of passage, and taboo sexual ceremonies were the genre's stock in trade, and the lurid scenes that fill such movies were sometimes real, but just as often staged by the filmmakers for maximum shock value. (This aspect of the Mondo film was satirized gruesomely and unforgettably by Ruggero Deodato in his even-more-infamous Cannibal Apocalypse.)

As time went on the "savage" Mondo films (Africa Addio [1966]) were joined by "sexy" Mondo films like L'amore primitivo (1964--according to imdb, "including such things as sex slavery, dwarf love, Asian brothels and lesbians!"), the wonderfully titled Mondo Freudo (1966), and even Russ Meyer's Mondo Topless (1966, reviewed right here on MMMMMovies). As long as something was shocking and exotic and suitably unconfirmable, it was fair game, and the perverted public ate it up.

For trash-film fans from the USA, however, probably none of the Mondo titles is more shocking than Sergio Martino's 1970 effort Naked and Violent (aka America cosi nuda, cosi violenta, or America: So Naked, So Violent). Directing only his third feature and with still a ways to go before finding his stride in a series of excellent, stylish gialli and horror flicks, Martino presents a view of late 60s America as a savage, brutal place, with all the sensationalism and cultural condescension one would expect from the Mondo Africa films it mimics.

"Say you love the U.S. of A. SAY IT, BOY!!!"

We open--after the AMAZING heart-felt title song, "Look Away (Lady Liberty)"--at Cape Kennedy, where for the second time NASA is about to send a group of astronauts to the moon. As the stern, disapproving narrator tells us, the moon no longer charms people the way it used to--jaded by success and affluence, curious Americans gather more to buy spaceman-shaped earrings, interstellar snacks, toy rockets, and even space-themed pornography! Rather than a symbol of the triumph of man over nature, Cape Kennedy has become a "lunar park," an amusement park for the bored, pampered, perverse citizenry to glut its insatiable appetite for thrills.

"I'm about to blast off, baby!"

Insomuch as the flick has a central thesis, this is it: America, the richest country in the world, is full to the brim with sickos. Perhaps because of its wealth and unchecked political power, even the most way-out tastes and fetishes can be indulged, and frequently are. The movie purports to be a documentary of the darkest corners of the American Nightmare.

Viewed dispassionately, it's not a bad thesis--in fact, it's neither the first nor the last film to place the American consumerist lifestyle at the center of all the manifold evils not just in our country, but in the world. A compelling and even damning movie could be made--in 1970 or in the present day--with just that argument as its basis. But of course a Mondo documentary is not the place for serious socio-cultural critiques, and Martino and crew are not interested in presenting one. They're here to shock, and shock they will, by hook or by crook!

Ain't That America?

We start in New York City, which the narrator calls "the largest Italian city in the world," as it contains at least four million people with Italian surnames. Looking at the massive skyscrapers in a dizzying vertical shot from street level, he informs us that some of these buildings, with hundreds and hundreds of floors, are built "entirely without windows!" Then we take a tour of the Bowery, where we see alcoholic bums sleeping on the street as passersby step over them. Finally we visit a Retirement Home, where sad-faced, dementia-plagued seniors languish, "forgotten" by society. One old man is happy to be used for experimental cancer treatments, we're told, as it promises him a chance to be "useful."

In a time-honored Mondo technique of juxtaposing the grotesque with the sensual, we are then flown to Miami beach, where we watch some of the "most healthy, well-fed examples of youth" in the world. It's a cheap shot to go from the dying derelict cancer patient to the beautiful bodies of Miami, but it's also an effective one--you can't help but be drawn in, and then ashamed for it, which is of course the point. Sniffing most derisively, the narrator tells us these girls "all have the most perfect figures possible...and therefore, identical ones."

Well, there's no arguing with that methodology.

A few shots underwater and on the beach hint at some of Martino's future style, but just barely. Still, as quick and dirty as mondo films were, it's surprising any got through at all. The film moves at an absolutely breakneck pace, hardly giving one scene or pronouncement time to register before moving on to the Next Shocking Thing. Therefore, narrative summation is neither possible nor terribly useful. It appeals more to my low-level OCD, therefore, to categorize the scenes first by a) subject matter and then by b) reality versus staged.

  • The filmmakers take us to the Woodstock Music Festival, where we see masses of nude, pot-smoking, and sometimes bleeding hippies. The narrator gives us statistics on the number of people who died at the festival (five) and the number of infants born (three) and concludes that Death has bested Life, 5-3. Clearly he wasn't correcting for the Sha Na Na bonus! All this seems to be real footage.
  • We also get to see a real-live hippie tripping on smack. (Note, though the filmmakers insist it's LSD, the intravenous administration tends to imply heroin. Of course I'm no hippie myself, so feel free to correct me, junkies!) He blathers about kittens, Mao Tse Tung, salads and salt, and a lot of other stuff. Less fun than it sounds, but believably real.
  • Hippie Girls rent themselves out to dirty old men to be human canvasses in an "art" class. The modest $5 fee sounds like a bargain to me. If it's not real, I want to believe it was anyway.
...but I know what I like.
  • In the fairly obviously staged hippie segments, we start with the bored bourgeois housewives of San Franscisco going down the strip and picking up dirty hippies for "follow ups"--i.e., dirty weekends with no strings attached. Later on we see a trio hiring a hippie hustler for a love-in, to which they've graciously invited the cameras. Ever wanted to see a hippie forcibly bathed? Now's your chance.
  • Things get wilder with a suburban/hippie mash-up, as a group of stoned orgy enthusiasts don rubber horror masks and then practice free and indiscriminate love all over each other. I don't know why I never thought to bring a fog machine to my orgies, but these flower children have shown me the error of my ways.
  • Less fun is the peep-show between the gates of the Polanski mansion, where Sharon Tate et al. met their grisly and famous demises. This is immediately followed by a Black Mass Ceremony in which a hippie girl is stripped naked (Zang!), her body covered with hot dripping wax (kink wahey!) and then a live chicken has its head pulled off and the blood graphically squeezed all over her skin (Yeah bab-hey, wait, shit, that's fuckin' gross...). The animal death is real, and so was my vomit.
Don't think about the chicken


Of course the great shames of America's history are the country's treatment of the Native Americans and the slave trade, and the fallout from both serves for prime fodder for exploitation.

  • With the Native Americans, we see a poverty-stricken village in the Grand Canyon, which is fairly respectfully done. They try to milk a later scene with a group of Native American's staging a protest at Alcatraz, but there's really not much there.
  • With Black/White relations in the US, the filmmakers have considerably more luck. In the real footage, we get to see a "South Will Rise Again" old woman toting her shotgun around her city streets, presumably looking for negroes. We also hear from the female owner of a newspaper in a town that has just elected its first black mayor, and she has some unflattering things to say about it, both in print and on film.
  • In a rather amazing betrayal of the width of the cultural disconnect and the Italians' own racial attitudes, Martino films a Black church revival meeting, explicitly connecting the religious celebrations with the former slaves' African pasts. That's as may be, but he follows it with "actual footage shot in New York City!" of a full-on voodoo ceremony, where a chicken is killed and women go through a rite of passage that involves a machete in the crotch. Later we see a middle-class voodoo rite where the witch doctor "parks his Cadillac before putting on his grass skirt," leading to more African costumes and dancing. It's as if the filmmakers think they can't have a Mondo movie without tribal ceremonies, and have bent over backwards to make sure they can fit them in. (Not voodoo, but still exploitative: there's also a staged lynching re-enactment that's as uncomfortable as it should be.)
New York, Yesterday


And then there are the things that just have no category.
  • Cowboys string up a dozen live rabbits by their feet to a clothesline, then take target practice with rifles, the effects of which on the helpless bunnies' heads are graphically shown. Not for the weak of stomach, this scene was probably the most cruel and unnecessary I've seen since the monkey-eaten-by-python sequence in Slave of the Cannibal God--also, coincidentally, directed by Martino.
  • A lonely nebbish brings a surprise package home with him, which turns out to be an inflatable sex doll! We get a lot of mileage out of the poor fellow blowing up his date and then dressing her in nylons. Fortunately we cut away before he actually gets his groove on. It does make one appreciate the advance in technology, however.
Even your fantasy girl disapproves

  • In Las Vegas, men at a circus-themed casino throw balls at a dunking-booth style target while blanket-covered women on mechanical beds watch. When one hits the target, the girl is dumped to the stage where she performs a strip-tease! Which casino is that again?
  • A pacifist, hoping to stay out of the draft, recruits his long-haired friends to chop off his fingers so he can't hold a gun! This is shown in graphic detail, which points out the absolute fakeness of it, and thus becomes hilarious.
The Shocking Truth
  • And then there are the parts of American culture that must seem strange to anyone not borne to it: American football (49ers and Bears, or Gladiatorial Combat?); drag racing and short-track motorcycle racing (the latter of which looks legitimately, CRAZILY dangerous); a drive through Dallas along the very route where JFK was assassinated, and the statement that because of the tourist industry rising around the site of the murder, it has become "an amusement park of death"; Hugh Hefner's contradictory Playboy philosophy (juxtaposed with the killing of the rabbits above, of course); the Amish (which the Italians don't get AT ALL); and even a short segment devoted to the phenomenon of monster toys!
Multo Mondo

After these and dozens of other scenes by turns shocking, hilarious, and downright baffling (and sometimes all of these at once), Martino winds up with a short vignette about old folks retiring to the "paradise" of Florida--lots of the happy aged cavorting about in ill-advised bikinis, etc.--which is a 50-years-on revisit of the Miami Beach cheesecake from earlier (cottage cheesecake, maybe?) , but also directly contradicts his early uncomfortable visit to the nursing homes where we supposedly lock away the aged who can no longer live a happy life. Ah well, whattaya expecting here, Ken Burns?

And possibly a comb

The final manipulative twist of the knife is a scene purporting to show something good and noble about the American spirit, to offset all the preceding ugliness. What demonstrates the basic humanity of Americans better than anything else? Well, according to Martino, it's a 2000-soul strong home for "retarded" children, where kind-hearted USA-sians teach the mentally deficient to feed themselves, dress, and perform Christmas pageants. It's a choice clearly made as an excuse to show the afflicted children as sideshow grotesques, and is fairly shameless and exploitative in the worst sense--what I mean is, it's one thing to make fun of middle-class hippies in psychodrama therapy, but another to leer at mentally handicapped children smearing oatmeal in their hair and shrieking "Silent Night" off key. I've got a pretty high threshhold, I'd like to think, but this seemed extremely icky in its intent and execution.

The conclusion of the documentary will get any red-blooded American's dander up, as the narrator unleashes a poetically damning speeach at one of the country's most beloved symbols, the Statue of Liberty. After reciting the "Give us your poor, your tired, etc." speech, the narrator responds:
"Oh, put out your light you hoarse old gal. Your shouts do not move me anymore. Your call sounds always fine, I must admit. But I cannot accept it any longer. After years listening to your lies, I don't care anymore. Put out your light! Ye tired old gal. And turn your back to the Ocean. And put a little love, if you can, in me too."
It's a good thing for Martino & co. Toby Keith wasn't around in 1970--and also that one presumes he doesn't watch that many movies with subtitles. (Or maybe he does, what do I know?) He'd have put more than love into him, that's fer sher. Boot-shaped love, courtesy the Red White and Blue! YEEE-HAW!

Of Thee I Sing

I can only assume the print MYA DVD used for their transfer was the best surviving one they could find, but it's still in pretty rough shape--lots of scratches, specks, and occasional print-damage jump-cuts. But as you might imagine, that sort of enhances the viewing of a Mondo film rather than taking away from it.

As a film by a man whose later work I admire a great deal (well, except for the cannibal stuff), I find it interesting to see how Sergio Martino got his start, even if little of his later trademark style is in evidence. As a time capsule of perversion, an exercise in gross-outs, and a fascinating look at my own country's culture from an outside point of view, I'd recommend Naked and Violent to those interested in that sort of thing. 2 thumbs.

Just keep it away from Lee Greenwood, though--God knows it would probably kill him!

"*Sigh.* Well, shit."


Andrew Green said...

Fascinating post....
I gotta check out that Naked and Violent movie.

Samuel Wilson said...

Damn! This one looks like it would give Goodbye Uncle Tom a run for its money. But now that I mention Jacopetti & Prosperi, they prove that style was possible in mondo films, which can be said to have a certain generic rhetorical style, at least, along with ironically romantic orchestral music from Riz Ortolani and others. Bigger budgets like J & P had also help a lot. But back to Martino, I must never have noticed this one because the title makes it sound like a giallo. Now that I stand corrected, I've got to track it down. Thanks for bringing it to our attention in such amusingly critical detail.

dfordoom said...

I've never seen a Mondo film. Unless you count Mondo Topless! I'm not sure if you've actually convinced me I want to see one or not. It sounds sort of fascinating though.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Andrew -- Thanks for the comment!

@Samuel -- Actually I added it to my queue without knowing it was a Mondo movie (as you say, it sounds like a giallo), and only became aware of the difference upon receipt. I haven't seen GOODBYE UNCLE TOM, and don't know if I will in the future, but this one definitely delivers the shocks and gross-outs.

@dfordoom -- MONDO TOPLESS has about 50% more nudity, and 100% fewer actual animal deaths, so I think that's definitely a win for Russ Meyer. ;) And indeed, the genre proper is both fascinating and horrible.

Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Very informative! SOunds right up my street.

Joe Monster said...

Hmm. I pretty much have the same ideas as everyone else. This film sounds kind of sick and definitely not cool because of the animal deaths. But yet, for some strange reason, I feel like I want to see it. Maybe it has something to do with the morbid fascination inherent in most horror fans.

Or maybe it's just my overwhelming patriotism!

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