Santa Sangre and WUSA: Blood and Hate Speech – DVDs of the Week

10 February, 2011 (09:33) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Santa Sangre (Severin)

A student of Marcel Marceau in Paris, a founder of the surrealist theater Panic Movement in Mexico City, a Zen Buddhist, playwright and comic strip author, the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made his fame as a cult film director with his sprawling, symbolic, surreal films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, brutal and strange allegorical odysseys written and directed by and starring Jodorowsky that became staples on the midnight movie circuit and artifacts of the head film culture. They are also crude and grotesque productions that revel in the metaphysical mix of the sacred and the profane.

Blood cult: Jodorowsky style

Santa Sangre was made more than fifteen years after The Holy Mountain (and after the collapse of his attempt to bring Dune to the screen”) and his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller have improved with time. Whether or not this is the most accessible of Jodorwsky’s films (he also dabbled in more mainstream filmmaking), it is certainly the most accessible “Jodorowksy film,” a vision filled with circus imagery, surreal scenes, grotesque violence and psycho-sexual trauma. The director casts two of his sons as Fenix, his mad protagonist—Axel Jodorowsky as the grown man (introduced as an inmate in an asylum, regressed to savage behavior and pre-verbal existence) and Adan Jodorowsky as the young boy (a junior circus magician in tux and fake mustache watching the grotesque conduct of adults around him)—and then sends us into the psychodrama that sent him to the asylum. In flashback we watch his alcoholic brute of father (Guy Stockwell in slobbering degenerate mode) take time out of his knife-throwing act to seduce the voluptuous tattooed lady and his tempestuous trapeze artist mother (Blanca Guerra, all burning eyes and hissing fury) take her vengeance in a particularly personal way. In the present, he is drawn into the urban world for a field trip and wanders off to his waiting mother, who has plans to use his arms as the instruments of her continued revenge. Think of it as Jodorowsky’s Psycho by way of Fellini on shrooms.

An English language film made by a Chilean-born/Paris based-writer/director and an Italian producer (Claudio Argento) in Mexico (where Jodorowsky made his most famous films), Santa Sangre mixes culturally-specific art and mythic and religious archetypes with carnivalesque color and primal drives to offer a vision that defies national identity. This exists in its own world of cloistered social units—a circus troupe, an asylum, a blood cult that prays to a murdered rape victim as their saint—and rituals. An elephant’s funeral marching through the streets that ends with an offering to the earth that becomes a free-for-all of a starving peasant mob scavenging the corpse for meat. A father tattoos his young son’s back with a dagger as a rite of manhood (sans anesthetic, of course). An armless tango dancer performs with a partner who provides the arms like a puppeteer with a life-size model. (Axel Jodorowsky, who offers his arms—complete with painted and manicured nails—followed his father’s footsteps and trained under Marcel Marceau and his mime talents are well used here.) And is that a python in his pants or is he just overcome with desire? (It’s both). The symbolism isn’t subtle. It’s earthy, primal, hallucinatory, not always graceful but certainly bold and provocative.

Axel Jodorowsky and Sabrina Dennison

This is the same cruel, unforgiving world of his older films—one woman sells her mute daughter (who dresses in clown white face-makeup and a tutu) as a pliant sex doll to her clients—and just as brutal, though for all the violence the film is less visually explicit than expressionistically suggestive. There is also more compassion and grace, and perhaps a little hope. Jodorowsky found inspiration from the true story of a serial killer who was cured of his madness and redemption is at the heart of this odyssey. Less overreaching and more compassionate (and at times wickedly, darkly funny) than his first features, Santa Sangre remains Jodorowsky’s most accomplished and evocative film.

Santa Sangre enjoyed a VHS and laserdisc release back in the day, giving Jodorowsky his biggest audience ever in America, but both have been long unavailable (and, quite frankly, those formats are both all but archaic for most home viewers) and this release marks both the two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray debut of the film. Severin offers a well-mastered edition on both formats, with the colors bright and the image sharp, and lavishes the release with very good supplements.

The feature-length documentary “Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre” is as comprehensive as you could hope for, featuring original interviews with Jodorowsky, his two sons Axel and Adan, co-stars Blanca Guerra, Thelma Tixou, Faviola Elenka Tapia and Sabrina Dennison (who is mute in real life and communicates via sign language), composer Simon Boswell (a longtime collaborator of producer Claudio Argento) and designer Alejandro Luna. Jodorowsky is joined by journalist Alan Jones of the commentary track and provides solo commentary in a collection of deleted scenes, and there are new and archival interviews with the director (one of them conducted by composer Boswell) as well as more featurettes. “For One Night Only: Alejandro Jodorowsky” is a 1990 documentary made for British TV and “Goyo Cárdenas Spree Killer” is a documentary on the real-life serial killer that inspired the film. There are also shorts, trailers and a music video.

WUSA (Olive)

A curious artifact of social commentary on hate speech and demagoguery hiding behind the flag of patriotism and religion, WUSA is an odd, arch, cynical portrait of con jobs and willing victims of all kind. Paul Newman arrives in New Orleans to collect a debt from a fellow hustler (Laurence Harvey) and ends up a deejay on right-wing radio station WUSA (“the sound of a decent generation”), reading (and sometimes writing) the twisted news and provocative editorials with the blasé cynicism of a man who doesn’t believe in anything. Joanne Woodward is a former hooker with a scar across her cheek (a constant reminder of her old life) who moves in with Newman but is increasingly appalled by his apathy and Anthony Perkins the idealistic social worker next door who discovers that the enigmatic welfare survey he’s been hired to conduct is actually a political hatchet job he traces right back to the radio station. Pat Hingle plays the radio station owner with a sour smile and an insincere wink in his eyes, looking like he’s counting potential profits as he sizes up Newman’s patter. Newman’s charming but bitter character is a cousin to parts he played in films like Hud and Cool Hand Luke, but where those bad boy characters had a rebel streak in them, he’s simply an opportunist here who doesn’t care about anyone or anything, including himself.

It was clearly an important project for Newman, who co-produced the film and brought in his Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg, but it collapses under its own self-importance. While the current climate of partisan news channels makes this oddly timely, the film hammers home its politics with blunt force (we know Perkins is the liberal conscience of the film because he spends his free time taking sympathetic photos of poor black kids and old folks in the slums) yet leaves the conspiracy drama vague, more symbolic gesture of outrage than convincing plot. Nashville and Network revisit the territory in different ways with more interesting and complex social satire and political commentary than this abstract conspiracy drama of corrupted characters who end up sold out or destroyed by the machinery of hate. Even the hippies living down the hall turn out to be shameless opportunists who take a gig singing at the hate rally and then slip their stash into Woodward’s purse when the cops arrive, an act that dooms this trampled flower of battered dignity. But it is strangely fascinating in its complete cynicism. Laurence Harvey co-stars as a con man in the collar of a revivalist preacher. Mastered from a preserved (though not restored) print, the disc is a little noisy with coarse colors and overly grainy image: eminently watchable and in some ways appropriate to the subject matter, but hardly stellar.

America, America (Warner)

“My name is Elia Kazan. I am Greek by blood, a Turk by birth and an American because my uncle made a journey.” Elia Kazan’s most autobiographical film—and his first production from his own original script—is a labor of love based on family autobiography, a first-person odyssey that he shot almost entirely on location in Greece and Turkey with a largely unknown cast. Stathis Giallelis plays Stavros, a stand-in for both his uncle and himself who comes off as a Greek-American James Dean by way of Sal Mineo in an East of Eden where the prodigal son follows his dream and this time makes his father proud.

This journey takes nearly three hours and, while rich with detail of the life and culture of early 20th Century Turkey, it doesn’t flow as much as pool around various episodes on the road of Stavros’ education. Stavros spends much of the film simply observing and enduring while Kazan chalks up the injustices (political and social) that send the intense young dreamer across the ocean to the embrace of Lady Liberty. Taking his cameras (manned by rising young cinematographer and future film legend Haskell Wexler) to the motherland gives the film a dusty earthiness but the odd mix of accents, theatrical dialogue and awkward post-dubbing works against the verisimilitude. Seen through modern eyes, it’s more curious artifact than profound experience, interesting but not as involving or affecting for the audience as it surely was for its creator. The film was previously available exclusively in the 18-disc “The Elia Kazan Collection.” It arrives as a single-disc release with commentary by film historian Foster Hirsch.

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