A Dalmatian Called Nixon

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The Doberman Gang was playing all over Mexico City when I was there last June—including the front-page headlines. Passing up Byron Chudnow’s three-year-old dog biscuit (retitled El Gran Asalto de los Doberman) was easy, but I did find myself drawn guiltily, morning after morning, into the details of a real-life Doberman gang whose hefty dark chieftain went by the name of “La Jitomata” (“The Tomato”).

Her gang, according to the papers, had racked up more than two years of robberies, assaults, stabbings and homicides using a Doberman called “Samson,” a Dalmatian called “Nixon,” two bulldogs (“La Troya,” “El Goliat”), and assorted other attack dogs to terrorize victims. The gang’s depredations ranged from the capital to Puebla and Acapulco. Now the police, with much selfcongratulation, had rounded up the malefactors; and each day’s newspaper brought new revelations regarding the size of the gang and the Dickensian nature of its internal affairs. “Le Jitomara,” it seemed, was given to recruiting extremely young boys, orphans, seducing them, legally adopting them, and sending them out into a life of crime. Hence, I suppose, the gang’s own sobriquet: “La Banda del Pañal” (“The Diaper Gang”).

As the days passed, these lurid revelations dwindled to mere accusations and denials and lists of names: gang members, victims, informers. But what names! “El Chicharrón” (“Cracklins”) … “Piyuyas” (“Leaky”) … “El Diablo” … “Pinocho” (“Good-Lookin”‘) … “El Pecas” (“Freckles”) … “El Pato” (“The Duck”) … “Cantínflas”! I thought gangland aliases like this had died with Damon Runyon; guess not.

But then, in the putatively peaceful provinces—Pátzcuaro, state of Michoacán—I stumble on the real wild bunch: La Banda del Fantasma Negro, the Black Ghost Gang. These guys ride out lookin’ for trouble every night at 7:40 p.m., at the Cine Michoacán. Looks from the posters like they’re the featured heavies in a genuine oldfashioned adventure serial, and since I’ve always wondered how you could tell a Mexican serial from a run-of-the-mill Mexican feature film, one of those episodic hack jobs starring Santo the Masked Wrestler, say, I fall by the Cine Mich’ to catch their act.

Well, these four masked men ride up to the peaceful hacienda, see, and they bust in and simply shoot anything that moves. One wounded man crawls out of the ranchhouse and hides behind the bush. The gang scours the grounds for survivors but overlooks him. They ride off.

There is absolutely no audience reaction to this shocking massacre, apart from some desultory conversation and some restless coming and going along the aisles. Which is reasonable enough, considering the abysmally stilted, static quality of the acting and staging (the word “direction” should be reserved for more sophisticated occasions). OK. We cut now to the open road and two new characters riding along toward the camera. The hero of the serial, it is—a bigotón, inevitably, a guy in a dressy cowboy suit with a great big moustache and his sidekick, kind of a funny-looking smaller guy with a wise mouth on him.

The wounded survivor from the hacienda is crawling around out there in the brush, mind you, moaning and hoping somebody’ll come along. But first, a word from the mariachi orchestra! The bigotón, teeth flashing, looking straight into the camera, bursts into song. And the Cine Mich’ audience instantly responds with cheers. Once again, their reaction struck me as perfectly reasonable. The song’s a good rousing “norteño,” the mariachis are good and brassy, the guy’s voice (or the voice of whoever dubbed the song) is strong, full of good humor; and coming as it does after that monumentally boring “action” scene, this canción stirs the blood and lifts the spirit. I felt like cheering myself.

So the wounded guy is maybe lying out there under a cactus bleeding his guts out—who gives a shit? I only lost patience with this pattern a few scenes later when the saloon-warbler heroine’s big ranchera song (more cheers, also whistles, yips, yells, yodels, piropos) got interrupted by yet another clumsy gunfight scene; and when it became clear that the subsequent musical number would be seriously delayed while the convalescing wounded man, the sheriff, and the hero stood around like wooden Indians discussing how to cope with the Black Ghost Gang, I split.

***

The Pañal gang’s Dobermans weren’t the only dogs in the news. A movie called Don’t You Hear the Dogs Barking? was sent by Mexico to Cannes this year. Its director, François Reichenbach, has shot more or less documentary footage on everything from the U.S. Marines to Artur Rubenstein, El Córdobes, Joe Cocker and Orson Welles. Though Dogs is a feature film, it draws heavily on Reichenbach’s decades-old fascination with indigenous Mexican rituals, folk art, and traditions. (He sold his Modiglianis long ago, he says, to buy some Huichol Indian “yarn paintings.”)

There was lots of prescreening hoopla in the Mexican press, but I gather the film wasn’t too well received at Cannes. A few critics complained that Perros was chosen over other, possibly worthier Mexican entries only because of screenplay-writer Carlos Fuentes’s pull as ambassador to France, fair-haired boy of the Mexican government, and member of still another notorious gang, the nefarious Mexican literary Mafia.

Reichenbach’s output does seem to have been uneven; still, I hope the movie finds a North American distributor. Fuentes is no mean writer, and the story—taken from a short novel by another good Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo—sounds interesting. A Chamula Indian leaves his highland hut with his young son and they traverse varied physical and temporal landscapes toward an encounter with modern life hitherto unimaginable to the primitive mind. The reminiscences of the father and the premonitions of the child merge in a dreamlike fashion reminding one enthusiastic critic of Artaud, Breton, and Apollinaire, no less.

The movie’s apparent blend of documentary, surrealism, and indigenous mysticism, shot in color in splendid Mexican locations, could make it quite appealing to young North American consumers of the conversations with Don Juan on the Journey to Ixtlan. And with his deep interest in the surface of Mexican Indian life, Reichenbach—whatever his directorial merits—may have been just the right man to package the commodity.

Hostile critics of his new film, on the other hand, may have had a potent and prescient early ally among the very powers habitually invoked by the shamen Reichenbach so admires. He himself relates—as an example of what a “magical country” Mexico is—how he filmed magic ceremonies in Indian communities of Puebla, Veracruz and other parts of the country for a solid year; and when the film came back from the lab it was … absolutely blank.

***

And while the Mexican spirit world was taking care of business in the film lab—a magical manoeuvre, Reichenbach hypothesizes, performed to foil soul-capture-by-lens—other magic, white magic, was enabling scores of non-Spanish-speaking tourists to eavesdrop in comfort on Quetzalcoatl’s epical dialogue with the Black Ant.

Their conversation is one of twelve episodes in a Sound and Light spectacle held twice daily except Mondays at the massive pyramids of Teotihuacan, ancient “City of the Gods” outside Mexico City. The Gods congregate and decide to create The Sun; sacrificial fires, deaths, and resurrections take place; The Gods fret about providing nourishment for Man; Quetzalcoatl chats with the Black Ant and discovers where to find that good old diet-staple, maize, etc., etc. Salvador Novo wrote the script. The National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, and its choirs, perform Blas Galindo’s special music.

In deference to the show’s primary travel-agency audience, its English version (prepared by V.S. Pritchett) comes on at 7 p.m., the Spanish one an hour-and-a-quarter later. Top billing in both versions, naturally, goes to the taped voice of The Sun. Well, that voice, the voice of El Máximo, El Jefe, in person, could issue in English from the Moses-like throat of only one North American actor. At 7 p.m. each evening except Monday, Charlton Heston (for it is, of course, He) starts the cosmic ball rolling. Other voices? Ricardo Montalban is Tecuciztecatl, a male Moon God; narrators include Vincent Price and Burt Lancaster. Remember John Gavin? He’s there too, as a High Priest. Versatile Jeff Morrow does a God, a Husband, and a couple of anonymous voices. The Black Ant? That’s rendered by the distinctive, black voice of the late Agnes Moorehead.

And Quetzalcoatl? Feathered serpent; priest-king; lawgiver; altruist; civilizer; beautiful-person par excellence; culture hero… ???

Charles Bronson.

***

I wondered what Mexico City audiences, accustomed to living in a place that’s slowly sinking back into the lake bed, would think of Earthquake rumbling away for weeks and weeks at several major theatres. According to critic Emilio García Riera (Excelsior, May 29), “the public, as with The Exorcist, has come in droves to verify that they won’t be as frightened as they expected…” Earthquake, he says, has been realized by veteran director Mark Robson “with the solid incompetence and deceitful spirit that characterize his work.” Maybe living on that soft subsoil has hardened the capitalinos against frights; in any case, the vibration of Sensurround, says Riera, merely leaves Mexico City spectators “mas bien tranquilo.” He concludes nostalgically with a tribute to the effectiveness of Van Dyke’s “modest cataclysm” in black-and-white, on a small screen, and without stereo, in San Francisco.

Another leading critic, José de la Colina, in Excelsior’s Sunday-edition Diorama of Culture, satisfied my curiosity regarding critical and popular response—in one of the most notoriously macho countries of the world—to Bertrand Blier’s male-oriented Les Valseuses (Going Places). Colina summarizes the ruthless, narcissistic, womanizing activities of the film’s two “heroes” and notes that its very title is Gallic argot for “testicles.”

He quotes a French critic who hailed the movie as one whose theme was “liberty,” and comments that the liberty represented is of exactly the type fantasized by the most repressed members of the consumer society, “…a compensatory dream in which each Sr. Pérez, M. Dubois, or Mr. Smith—and his sons more or less anxious to be ‘with it’—imagine themselves onscreen, or leave it vicariously to the actors, to live this terrific sweet life that reality has withheld from them.

“As every little Gutierro says during his week among the Acapulco crowds: ‘This is life; the rest, just life’s alms.’ It’s the dream too of all those youths who, while they travel packed in between one bad-smelling Metro station and the next, imagine themselves as juniors dowried with mechanical horsepower, barreling down Insurgentes Avenue at 300 kilometres an hour and picking off the chicks….”

So much for the critical view. But in relatively underdeveloped Mexico, as in “superdeveloped, ‘cultured’ France”, the same large public, Colina intimates, is responding with the same extraordinary “communion between director and audience ” to the movie’s pandering to repressed appetites: with cackles, sighs of satisfaction, exclamations of ecstasy.

***

What else is big box-office in Mexico these days? Well, the kung-fu craze still seems to be going strong south of the border, blowup posters of Bruce Lee plastered all over the kiosks, and kung-fu or karate “academies” ail over the place.

The usual transcultural American hits, too, of course: Quetzalcoatl (Chas. Bronson) in Death Wish; The Godfather; etc. Also, an occasional first-run showing of a poorly distributed or passed-over English-language film (e.g. Spielberg’s Duel, Michael Apted’s Triple Echo), the sort of serendipity I always hope for when I go to Mexico.

Pickings this year were a bit leaner than last, though, in the vital film-freak category of rogue foreign films finding their mysterious way, with Spanish subtitles, onto neighborhood screens. Only Nanni Loy’s impressive Detained Pending Trial paid off that long-odds moviegoing gamble this trip. I caught it at the Cine Venus, not far from the city’s central plaza, or Aocalo; and this is as good a time as any to urge Mexico City–bound FFFs (fellow-film-freaks) to jot down that theater’s name so they can check its listing out every few days in the morning “cartelera” (Excelsior) or in person, via the posters outside, if the printed listing yields inadequate information. The Venus runs triple bills, three times a week. It was showing Pierrot le fou when I checked into the city two years ago; this time a double-bill of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and Inagaki’s Rickshaw Man had just departed.

I seem to have a rendezvous with some obscure Nicol Williamson vehicle every time I visit Mexico. Last time it was Jack Gold’s fitfully successful The Reckoning. This year it was Ado Kyrou’s wildly unsuccessful The Monk.

The screenplay is credited to Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, but erotologist and Buñuel-specialist Kyrou’s bad direction seems to have torpedoed whatever felicities the dynamic duo originally thought up. Of course I saw a version with Spanish subtitles, but I have to report that in that version, at least, the dialogue stank. The script is purportedly based on “Monk” Lewis’s pioneering Gothic novel, and for all I know it may well follow the original down to the last silly, melodramatic detail, sex-mad priest, debauched duke, diabolical blond temptress and all. Stylish direction and/or fine acting conceivably could have made something of this farrago; but I doubt it. Kyrou’s direction, in any case, is choppy and sloppy.

The sex-mad priest, presented initially as a super-repressed fire-and-brimstone preacher on the sins of the flesh, is Franco Nero—more commonly, and sensibly, cast as an overtly unrepressed stud. The casting against type definitely doesn’t work here. Nathalie Delon is the diabolical blonde. She tosses her hair and bares her breasts more than satisfactorily, but seems to have wandered into the frame from a nearby discothèque; and her supposed ability to “pass” as a young male novice called “Brother Giovanni” during the first few scenes in the monastery is about as plausible as curly-haired, gypsy-eyed Franco Nero’s impersonation of a tight-assed cleric.

Now we come to Nicol Williamson as the debauched duke. He seems to have recognized early on, with his usual quirky intelligence, that he was stuck in a turkey. Acting-wise, he simply opts out. Well no, he does come to life for a couple dozen frames in one short scene, at table in his Castle on the Hill. Delon is sitting on one side, resplendently décolleté, and pretty as a Vadim picture, a blond queen of the night. On the other side is the erstwhile hellfire preacher, who has gone hell-for-leather down the primrose path by now. He’s unaware of the delightful surprise the evil Duke’s about to lay on him: Antonia, an irritatingly chaste young girl, has been abducted especially for him by the Duke’s men, and lies imprisoned in an upstairs chamber awaiting violation.

Williamson sits at the head of the table radiating pride at having lured this former pillar of the community into his unspeakable revels. Candles illumine the Duke’s brilliant red tunic, his white ruffled sleeves. A hand shoots out of that dainty getup and grabs a huge hunk of meat from the groaning board, a haunch, half an animal. His eyes sparkling and fixed on the renegade priest as he booms out a lusty preprandial grace, Williamson sweeps the dripping haunch to one side, the other, up, down: the sign of the cross! Pure Charles Laughton. After that scene, he lapses back into his coma.

Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler


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