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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Notes from Blue Underground
(Continued)


Back to Part One

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

The Mondo Cane Collection

The Mondo Cane Collection

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/A

If the Adam Jahnke of 1998, the year I got my first DVD player, was to take a look at the DVD shelves of the Adam Jahnke of 2004, he'd see a lot of titles that he never, ever thought would be there. Back then, I never imagined there would be great, two-disc special editions of such movies as Big Trouble in Little China, Carnival of Souls and One from the Heart. I never dreamed there would be a movie based on Pirates of the Caribbean, period, much less one that I actually enjoyed. But of all the wonders and oddities to come my way, I never in a million years would have thought we'd see an eight-disc box set collecting the mondo movies of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi.


The history of this peculiar subgenre of documentary filmmaking has been well documented (particularly in the invaluable book Killing for Culture by David Kerekes and David Slater... try to find a copy now if you have any interest in this sort of thing), but if you're not familiar with it, here's a brief rundown. Mondo movies got their name with the release of Jacopetti and Prosperi's 1962 film, Mondo Cane. Essentially a travelogue showcasing strange behaviors around the world, Mondo Cane became a phenomenon, shocking audiences around the world and spawning countless imitators. Exploitation disguised as non-fiction had been around for a long time, of course, arguably going back to some of Thomas Edison's more infamous shorts like Electrocution of an Elephant. But Mondo Cane gave the form a format, combining a stream-of-consciousness narrative, cynical narration, and often repulsive footage of violent tribal customs, including killing animals.

Before long, the shockumentary was everywhere. There was Mondo Hollywood, Mondo Mod, Mondo Freudo, and on and on and on. Ultimately, producers began to leave the sexual part of the mondo movie to the porno industry and mondo became more violent and controversial than ever. Movies like Shocking Asia, The Killing of America, and the notorious Faces of Death series created headlines around the world. No matter that much of the material was faked (and poorly, for that matter). Some of it was real and that was enough to make the whole thing ethically dubious, at best.

For their part, Jacopetti and Prosperi only made half a dozen films between 1962 and their acrimonious breakup in 1975. But their legacy and association with the genre they helped create has been more than enough to stain their reputations forever. Are they visionary geniuses or irresponsible madmen? Should their films be studied or buried in a deep vault forever? Well, personally I don't think any book, movie, song or whatever should be locked away and forgotten about. And thanks to Blue Underground's box set, we can finally look film-by-film at the work of Jacopetti and Prosperi and judge for ourselves. The Mondo Cane Collection collects five of Jacopetti and Prosperi's six films (the mondo-in-name-only Mondo Candido is rightfully omitted). Let's take a look at them disc by disc, if you dare.

Mondo Cane - Italian for "A Dog's World", the original shockumentary may appear tame compared to what came after but still retains some of its power to shock. The filmmakers travel around the world, presenting examples of man's cruelty to other men, beasts, and himself. The animal cruelty tally: pigs being executed, dogs being eaten, geese and cattle being force-fed, snakes being skinned alive, irradiated sea tortoises dying on the beach, the graphic beheading of a bull, sharks captured and poisoned, etc, etc. The human cruelty tally: tribal women locked in cages and force-fed tapioca, a visit to a Chinese "house of death", and penitents on Good Friday slashing their legs with broken glass and re-enacting Christ's walk with the cross. In the just plain bizarre department: women rip the shirt off Rossano Brazzi, a visit to a Pasadena pet cemetery, insects being eaten in a fancy New York restaurant, and a modern art painting is created by nude models dousing themselves in dripping blue paint and pressing their bodies against a canvas.

Even all these years later, Mondo Cane remains the best of the narrative-free, stream-of-consciousness style mondo movies. Jacopetti is, if nothing else, a highly-skilled editor and the free-wheeling associations made here, juxtaposing the sequence in the pet cemetery with the dog restaurant in Tai Pehi for instance, are often very clever. Also, the dry, sardonic narration sets the tone for mondo movies for generations yet to come. Yes, Mondo Cane is occasionally difficult to watch, particularly if you're an animal lover. But it was an immeasurably influential film. If you're only going to watch one mondo movie, I'd recommend it be this one.

The disc is presented in the original full-frame aspect ratio and in both English and Italian mono. The film looks and sounds much better than any other copy I've seen previously. Extras include three trailers (British, Italian, and American), a TV spot, a poster and still gallery, five galleries of location stills and behind-the-scenes photos, an audio promo apparently played in theatre lobbies, and a well-written essay by David Flint entitled The Unofficial Mondo Phenomenon.

Women of the World - After the amazing success of the Oscar-nominated Mondo Cane (sure, it was only Best Song but can you imagine a movie like this being nominated for anything today?), a follow-up was a foregone conclusion. Fortunately for the distributors, they didn't have long to wait. Partially culled from outtakes from Mondo Cane and partially from original footage, Women of the World purports to be take a global look at the quirks and foibles of the fairer sex. So you might think that this installment would be less harsh. Not so fast. True, not as many animals were destroyed in the making of Women of the World but you still get treated to some plastic eye and breast surgery in Japan, thalidomide babies suffering from grotesque birth defects, and some incredibly painful face peeling techniques.

Women of the World works best, however, when it eschews the gross-outs and concentrates on dark, cynical humor. Jacopetti and Prosperi introduce us to a number of aspiring actresses in Cannes and Hollywood, none-too-gently mocking their dreams for the future. There's a bizarre fashion show in Africa and also some terrific vintage glimpses of Vegas and Paris in the 60s. Women of the World also looks at effeminate men and masculine women, tsk-tsking these "unnatural friendships". Now's as good a time as any to point out that all of the mondo movies suffer from some, shall we say, outdated perceptions of homosexuals, minorities, and so-called "primitive cultures". In some ways, these attitudes date the films more than anything else. But while these attitudes are prevalent throughout, I'd hardly suggest they're worth getting worked up over. For one thing, Jacopetti and Prosperi seem to hold pretty much everybody in the world who isn't named Gualtiero Jacopetti or Franco Prosperi in utter contempt. So it isn't like they're singling out these minorities for scorn. They're equal opportunity offenders. And besides, if you're willing to sit through movies that feature animals being slaughtered, you're not likely to be horribly offended by a little light bigotry.

Women of the World is another full-frame effort and again, the audio options are in English and Italian mono. If you needed further proof of how popular the mondo craze was, check out the English dub. The voice you hear is none other than the late Peter Ustinov, of all people. Extras are limited to a pair of trailers and another poster and still gallery.

Mondo Cane 2 - The world wanted more mondo and, in 1964, Jacopetti and Prosperi begrudgingly obliged with Mondo Cane No. 2. This one is almost entirely outtakes from the original three-year shoot that begat Mondo Cane and, in the documentary on the eighth disc in this set, Jacopetti disowns Mondo Cane 2 completely. And while the novelty is certainly gone, it isn't that bad. The most shocking sequence features the infamous self-immolating monk in Saigon. But while that event certainly happened, the footage in the movie is faked. Other wacky sequences in Mondo Cane 2 include a crocodile being killed, cooked and torn apart, a hard-head competition in Sardinia, more weird painting (this time with spit instead of bodies), and a slap-happy musical finale. Good times.

Mondo Cane 2 is the last of the full-frame movies in this set and once again offers both the English and Italian dubs in glorious mono. Extras this time include the international and domestic trailers, the same TV spot as on Mondo Cane, and another gallery of posters and lobby cards.

Africa Addio - In 1966, Jacopetti and Prosperi would release their most notorious movie, Africa Addio (aka Farewell Africa). Shot over two years while colonialism was finally dying its last breaths, Africa Addio documents a continent in turmoil. Jacopetti and Prosperi's cameras follow poachers, mercenaries, revolutionaries, and tribespeople and come up with some of their most graphic and disturbing footage yet. For the first time, we see people actually shot and killed on camera. It was these sequences that caused the most uproar back in the 1960s as the filmmakers were accused of having these people murdered specifically for their film. While they were eventually acquitted, the accusation stained their reputations forever.

Africa Addio gained even more notoriety in 1970 when its American distributor cut over 45 minutes of political commentary and released a strung together pastiche of the most violent moments as Africa Blood and Guts. Jacopetti and Prosperi disown that version completely and Blue Underground has included both the original 1966 version and, for the first time ever, the complete 139-minute directors' cut. The directors' cut is actually a better film. There is less narration but what's left makes more sense than what was there originally, providing more context and political information than we originally had. The sequence of events is slightly changed as well, making for a more natural and free-flowing narrative.

The original version is presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen and English mono, both looking and sounding very good, all things considered. Extras include two trailers (one for Africa Addio and another for Africa Blood and Guts), a TV spot that I can't imagine would ever air on a contemporary TV station, a poster and still gallery and, as a DVD-ROM feature, the original US press book. The directors' cut is in Italian mono on a disc of its own that otherwise contains no extra features.

Goodbye Uncle Tom - Branded as murderers and racists after Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi attempted to change their image with a movie (in much the same way that D.W. Griffith did with Intolerance following the release of The Birth of a Nation). The result, Goodbye Uncle Tom, is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. Jacopetti and Prosperi take a helicopter back in time to Louisiana in the 1800s. They tour the south filming a graphic expose of the slave trade in America. We go from their arrival at port to their first stop, being cleaned, examined and fed in gruesome detail. We see slaves being used as sex toys, we see them being punished for various transgressions, we see runaways being slaughtered (by a hunting party that includes Jacopetti and Prosperi themselves!), and we pay a visit to a breeding farm. Along the way, we meet various historical personages such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Then, just when you think the movie can't possibly get any weirder, we abruptly cut back to the present day where a militant young black man with a huge Afro sits on a beach reading about the Nat Turner slave rebellions and fantasizes about axe-murdering every single white person he sees.

As an apologia, Goodbye Uncle Tom is a spectacular failure. I don't doubt their intentions were good but the film is so basely exploitative and utterly bizarre that it's all but impossible to see an anti-racist message beneath it all. And while everything in the movie is staged this time, that knowledge doesn't make the proceedings any less difficult to watch. It also doesn't help that the grim images are set to an infectious score by Riz Ortolani (whose musical contributions enlivened all of Jacopetti and Prosperi's films except Mondo Cane 2). The bad taste in your mouth gets even worse when you see in the credits that the movie was filmed in Haiti with the complete cooperation of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier! But as a piece of freakish psychotronic cinema, it's something of a demented masterpiece. I can't say this is a great movie by any stretch of the imagination but it's certainly unlike anything else you'll ever see. Good thing, too.

As with Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi were forced to make some drastic changes to Goodbye Uncle Tom before it could be released. So, for the first time anywhere, Blue Underground includes the never-before-seen directors' cut, Addio Zio Tom. This version is much different and even more inflammatory than the English version. Jacopetti and Prosperi include a lot more contemporary material here, juxtaposing the staged sequences with footage of demonstrations in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, well-to-do African-Americans celebrating their wealth, and even a bizarre proto-Driving Miss Daisy scene following an elderly white dowager and her black chauffeur as she tours the charred remains of her family's plantation. If Goodbye Uncle Tom is uncomfortably peculiar, Addio Zio Tom is one of the most misguided films ever shot. Once again, Jacopetti and Prosperi's innate cynicism toward the human condition works against whatever anti-racist agenda they may have had in mind. It's a strange piece of work and I don't think we'll be seeing a major Addio Zio Tom revival any time soon.

Like the Africa Addio discs, the separate versions of Goodbye Uncle Tom each receive their own disc. Both are in 16x9 enhanced widescreen. The directors' cut is in Italian mono and contains no other extras. The English version features the trailer, a behind-the-scenes still gallery, another poster and still gallery, and 8mm behind-the-scenes footage with an audio commentary by production manager Giampolo Lomi. The behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty interesting with lots of good information from Lomi (and at least one good laugh where he figures that Steven Spielberg must have seen Goodbye Uncle Tom because the port sequence in Amistad is almost identical... somehow I doubt it but it's a fun image). But at over forty-five minutes, you may lose interest before the film runs out.

The Godfathers of Mondo - So you've made it through all the movies and now you want some answers about just what the hell it is you've seen. This 90-minute documentary on disc 8 should do the trick. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are still alive and kicking and here, they finally get to speak up about the whole mondo phenomenon. Most of the most notorious moments from Mondo Cane, Women of the World, Mondo Cane 2, Africa Addio and Goodbye Uncle Tom are all covered here, from the monk's fiery suicide to the charges of homicide in Africa. We also hear from composer Riz Ortolani, Giampolo Lomi, cameraman Benito Frattari, and film historians David Flint, Jeffrey Sconce and Killing for Culture author David Kerekes. This is a well-produced, candid and informative documentary that doesn't shy away from the controversial details of Jacopetti and Prosperi's careers (and there are plenty). The pair broke up after Mondo Candido and they hold a grudge that apparently continues to this day, making for some interesting divergent opinions. I'm not horribly surprised they split after watching this documentary. Jacopetti comes across as something of a tyrant in the behind-the-scenes footage, not that Prosperi necessarily comes off much better. I wish documentary director David Gregory had delved deeper into the issue of what footage was real and what was staged and how Jacopetti's editing manipulates the viewer into believing one thing when the truth is something else. There are some unanswered questions in this regard, particularly with some of the more dubious moments in Africa Addio. But for the most part, The Godfathers of Mondo is a compelling and necessary extra to this set.

With restored images and soundtracks, a plateful of well-produced extras, and multiple cuts of two films, The Mondo Cane Collection is practically The Alien Quadrilogy of psychotronic cinema. God knows that for most people, this is about ten times more mondo than you'll ever want or need. But if you think mondo movies are a relic of a less-enlightened past, think again, chumley. Mondo is not only alive and well, it's gone prime time. Every time you see some poor bastard attempt to eat his way out of a maggot-infested coffin on Fear Factor, you're watching mondo. Every time you see a woman undergo physical and emotional torture on The Swan, you're watching the contemporary version of Women of the World. In all honesty, I was extremely conscious of the fact that I was viewing these movies at the same time that photos and videos of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal was breaking around the world. At the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if I learned that some morally bankrupt producer somewhere was busy right now compiling Mondo Iraq. In fact, about the only thing these mondo variants don't share with the work of Jacopetti and Prosperi is that biting sense of humor. Certainly The Mondo Cane Collection isn't something I'm going to be pulling down off the shelf on a regular basis and spinning just for laughs. But for those with a serious interest in cult cinema, it's an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, collection.

----------------

So what's next for Blue Underground? Glad you asked because I've got the rundown on what to expect from the studio through the rest of 2004 (bet all those people who don't bother reading my column 'cause it's just me yapping all the time are feeling pretty dumb right about now, huh?). It's a typically eclectic range of cult favorites, ranging from horror to indie punk to animation. Keep your eyes peeled for details on all the goodies and, as we're all painfully aware, release dates are subject to be changed at the studio's whim.

June brings a pair of zombie favorites. Deathdream, Bob Clark's nifty 1974 Vietnam zombie shocker, and Blue Underground CEO Bill Lustig's own 1997 patriotic spookshow Uncle Sam are both due 6/29. Hey, what's the point of running a DVD studio if you can't release your own movies?

July is Lucio Fulci month (although I've always felt that if your heart's in the right place, every month is Lucio Fulci month). Fulci's splatteriffic 1979 classic Zombie finally returns to DVD, replacing the out-of-print Anchor Bay version. Joining it are the 1983 sword-and-sorcery opus Conquest and the 1980 thriller Contraband. Remember to protect your eyeballs when they land on 7/27.

In August, British filmmaker Alan Clarke gets the limited edition box set treatment with a lavish five-disc set. The box includes the movies Made in Britain, The Firm, Elephant and both the BBC and theatrical versions of the feel-good hit Scum. Also included is the documentary Director: Alan Clarke and promised participation by such notables as Tim Roth, Danny Boyle, Ray Winstone, and many more. Keep your eyes peeled for this one on 8/31.

Bill may have been killed but there's no stopping David Carradine. Blue Underground releases a pair of Carradine classics in September. Kung fu fans will want to grab Circle of Iron, probably the only movie in history to feature writing credits for both Bruce Lee and James Coburn. And if you liked Carradine as Frankenstein in Death Race 2000, you'll love him in Paul Bartel's car-chase follow-up, Cannonball. Both are due on 9/28.

Animation fans will want to get in line on October 26 for the long-awaited DVD debut of Ralph Bakshi's fantasy Fire and Ice. Expect three different editions of this one. A single-disc widescreen version, a double-disc limited edition with the Frank Frazetta documentary Painting with Fire, and a super-duper "Extreme Edition" which will be so splendiferous that Blue Underground won't even tell me what's on it yet.

Finally, Blue Underground releases the debut films of two of the best female directors of the 80's. Willem Dafoe stars in Kathryn Bigelow's The Loveless, while New York filmmaker Susan Seidelman begins her career with Smithereens. So if Blue Underground hasn't tackled a genre you like yet, you probably just don't like movies very much. It's an eclectic lineup they've got going and hopefully they'll be able to continue to provide the same level of quality they've had so far. Like I said back at the beginning, when the Bits says to keep an eye on a studio, we're not screwing around.

Jahnke out.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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