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 ) 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.
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.
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!
"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."
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.
And then there are the things that just have no category.
The Shocking Truth
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!
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!
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
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.
Even your fantasy girl disapproves
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?