Wednesday, October 31, 2007

TrĂ¡gica ceremonia en villa Alexander (Riccardo Freda, 1972)

Welcome to Destructible Man’s Halloween party!

Tonight’s party lasts a mere 1 minute and 35 seconds and it is a veritable symphonic blitzkrieg of violence. We get lots of shooting, lots of getting shot, a plummet from a window, an incineration, lots of running around in the dark, a dune buggy -- and most importantly, three flabbergasting dummy-deaths in a row!

In succession:

Luigi Pistilli, with a broadsword, segments a man’s head like it was a Carvel cake.

On old woman shoots Luigi Pistilli in the head (which pumps blood like a carton pouring milk in a glass to go along with that Carvel cake).

And last, but never least, a man decapitates a horrified onlooker (as if he was super-pissed about not getting any of that cake for himself, so he goes for the next best thing he can get his hands on -- some ambiguously gendered dude’s head!!!).

So enjoy the cake and the party -- squint real good and have a:

Happy Halloween, Dummies!

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ten Little Indians (George Pollock, 1965)

Here’s a frosty little Sunday evening after-dinner mint for you dummy-death-a-holics:

The individual plummets of husband and wife Joseph and Elsa Grohmann; a German couple, domestics-for-hire. Either shady post-Holocaust Nazis or shady post-Holocaust Jews (vague non-details and allusions ambiguously non-integrated), who jointly share a murderous past and a jointless death -- played by an appropriately cast Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe.

The first of three remakes of Rene´Clair’s 1945 version of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit template AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by producer Harry Alan Towers (aka screenwriter Peter Welbeck) -- the second and third were perpetrated in 1975 by director Peter Collinson set in Iran and 1989 by Alan Birkinshaw set in South Africa, respectively.

This one is set in a snowbound Swiss mountain chateau and delivers the goods in a solid, amusing style with a cast perfectly suited both to its genre and era of production. It also delivers an outstanding dummy-death!

So throw another log on the fire, pop open the Harvey’s Bristol Cream, slap on the Hai-Karate and Jean Nate´ and freefall with these two sequences:

first clip - 30min:07sec - 30min:24sec into the movie

Where’s the beef?
No dummy, you say? Why -- you’re right -- by gum! But the visual mathematics of the sequence’s sheer brutality -- the complete awareness of what is happening to Elsa --

-- and Elsa’s complete awareness of what is happening to herself as the cable-car cable snaps and the car is demolished against the side of the mountain --

-- orchestrated to a symphony of her screams and crunching metal and rock -- all conspire to set the audience up for what will inevitably be the show-stopper yet to come.

Cleverly, the filmmakers deprive us of a flopping, cascading carcass this first time around, hypnotically suggesting to the viewer:

1) that by seeing no body whatsoever amidst the endlessly rolling wreckage we are meant to believe that Elsa was literally obliterated during the “accident”

and 2) that we should rightfully expect more, more, more on that inevitable next journey down the mountain.

They soon oblige:

second clip - 50min:33sec - 50min:43sec into the movie

The set up is perfect.

Director Pollock neatly establishes a treacherous environment with deft location shooting and effective use of both character and audience-only subjective point of view.

He also pulls off a double deception -- Mario Adorf first turns into uncredited stunt double Larry Taylor before turning into a faceless, boneless sack of laundry during his tumble to oblivion.

A scrumptious visual metaphor hidden within the fabric of a movie superficially about people who may or may not be responsible for the crimes they are accused of and punished for -- and one that literally and figuratively deals with people rarely being who they are supposed to be time and time again. Bon apetit!

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903)

First things first...

Couldn’t say it any better than this citation from Tim Dirks’ invaluable website,

“One of the milestones in film history was the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter - a former Thomas Edison cameraman. It was a primitive one-reeler action picture, about 10 minutes long, with 14-scenes, filmed in November 1903 - not in the western expanse of Wyoming but on the East Coast in various locales in New Jersey (at Edison's New York studio, at EssexCounty Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna railroad)."

"The film was originally advertised as "a faithful duplication of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West." The plot was inspired by a true event that occurred on August 29, 1900, when four members of George Leroy Parker's (Butch Cassidy) 'Hole in the Wall' gang halted the No. 3 train on the Union Pacific Railroad tracks toward Table Rock, Wyoming. The bandits forced the conductor to uncouple the passenger cars from the rest of the train and then blew up the safe in the mail car to escape with about $5,000 in cash."

"The film used a number of innovative techniques, many of them for the first time, including parallel editing, minor camera movement, location shooting and less stage-bound camera placement. Jump-cuts or cross-cuts were a new, sophisticated editing technique, showing two separate lines of action or events happening continuously at identical times but in different places. The film is intercut from the bandits beating up the telegraph operator (scene one) to the operator's daughter discovering her father (scene ten), to the operator's recruitment of a dance hall posse (scene eleven), to the bandits being pursued (scene twelve), and splitting up the booty and having a final shoot-out (scene thirteen). The film also employed the first pan shots (in scenes eight and nine), and the use of an ellipsis (in scene eleven). Rather than follow the telegraph operator to the dance, the film cut directly to the dance where the telegraph operator enters. It was also the first film in which gunshots forced someone to dance (in scene eleven) - an oft-repeated, cliched action in many westerns. And the spectacle of the fireman (replaced by a dummy with a jump cut in scene four) being thrown off the moving train was a first in screen history.”

“Scene 4: The tender and the interior of the locomotive cab, looking toward the front of the train: The train is moving about 40 mph. While the two bandits have been robbing the mail car, another bandit climbs over the tender and holds the engineer at gunpoint. A fourth bandit struggles with the fireman, who has seized a coal shovel for defense and climbed up on the tender. They have a fist-fight on the tender until they fall. The bandit has the advantage - he lands on top of the fireman. He takes a lump of coal and strikes the fireman on the head until he is unconscious. Then after overpowering him, he hurls the victim's body off the top of the moving train. [This was a startling special effect, although it was only a dummy figure.] The two bandits force the engineer to bring the train to a stop.”

review by Tim Dirks / excerpts used by kind permission

This, historically, the first example of a dummy-death in film, is also, thankfully, a primo example!

The transition from man to dummy is bold and confidant. The shocking violence against the fireman character sutures the audience’s stunned involvement to the act they, as pure voyeurs, are helpless to prevent. The jump-cut to the dummy transcends the stuffed-clothes nature of the dummy itself by it’s ultimate insistence that the dummy is still the character of the fireman.

Note that even though the initial audience for this effect were not used to 1) seeing violence of this degree and 2) seeing this entirely cinematic effect, audiences today and forever are asked to similarly accept and react to that very simple visual bridge between real and unreal. It is an effect that begs to simultaneously be taken for granted and reacted to. If the effect were performed entirely by the actor, the impact would be greatly lessened, though visually it would be more “believable.” It is essential to have the substitution of dummy for man for the sustained frisson to occur.

So ultimately, and most probably inadvertantly, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY provides, amongst many firsts in such a deceptively literal film, the first cinematic lesson in existential visual metaphor - though it is born consciously out of a practical necessity on the part of the filmmakers - and though, that metaphor is individual to each viewer; even indistinct or non-existant to some depending on the viewer's acceptance or rejection of the dummy-death.

Cinema/Character must be literally, instantly swapped out of his physical “life” to sell the jolt of the violent act, but in doing so, agitates the Cinema/Viewer’s complex subconscious concerns of just such a replacement.

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Destructible Man-ifesto

In the beginning, Eastman Kodak created film…

And soon after, film begat images recorded onto film, which, in turn, begat stories recorded by means of sequentially edited images onto film...

Which begat special effects to enhance the “unfilmable” components of the stories recorded onto film…

Which begat the legal demand for “safe” depictions of graphic mayhem within this cinematic spectacle...


Being a dummy is no picnic. From it’s first moment on this earth, not unlike a living being, the dummy is destined to die. But that is where the similarities between dummy and other life forms on this planet end.

A dummy is created by man in his own image primarily to perform tasks that no other living creature would be physically able to perform...

Mannequins pose eternally motionless – displaying an ever changing variety of fashions…

Lawn jockeys remain forever perched – illuminating safe passage to hearth and home…

Crash test dummies undergo endless building and vehicle stress tests so as to provide human beings with a safer modern lifestyle…

Effigies provide cultures with a symbolic focal point to harness their strengths and vulnerabilities, hostilities and festivities…

But the toughest row the dummy has had to hoe in this last century has been in entertaining it’s look-alike living, breathing counterpart.

On stage and film, the dummy has been made to undergo some of the vilest, cruelest, most physically punishing forms of mayhem – all for the mere amusement of mankind. Why are dummy deaths in motion pictures so thrilling,

so exciting,

so hilarious?

What is it about that moment when the baton of existance is passed from human actor to inert facsimile? What is it about that moment when those two figures are supposedly indistinguishable? The answer is: dummies don’t do what they’re told.

Within tribal societies, dummies/effigies are intermediaries between the physical world and the spirit world. In cinema, they are intermediaries between credible verisimilitude and limp, limb-flailing delirium. For seemingly lifeless wads of plastic and cloth, they display a distinctly human tendency towards anarchy.

Cinematographers are often forced to violate a carefully planned and executed shooting blueprint in order to capture the unpredictable, uncontrolled frenzy of a dummy death. This moment is tantamount to an act of vandalism upon the very movie the dummy itself is appearing in.

One would think that technological advances in computer generated imagery would, by now, have rendered a good, solid dummy death obsolete. Not so! They continue to appear with pleasing regularity in some of Hollywood’s highest profile, even Oscar-winning movies.

Mistakenly, dummy deaths are often associated with low budget genre productions (horror, crime, war, etc) but sooner or later, every A-list director is going to have to throw a dummy, poorly disguised in their lead actor’s costume.

Lest not forget, in this very real, unreal realm, not even dummied animals are exempt from indignity;

horses, crocodiles, lions and snakes seem to suffer the most frequent abuse in the white knuckled grasp of a bronze-skinned muscleman or a pith helmeted celluloid adventurer.

And so, within these hallowed cyber-halls we will explore "Planet Dummy-Death": all the avenues of celluloid dummy-deaths and dummy-death culture and hopefully shape a stronger sympathy for this under-appreciated intrepid of the modern age -- the Dummy.

So, consider this site a celebration, if you will – a toast to a faithful and prolific breed of creature specifically designed to die and die again – figuratively – literally – cinematically -- exclusively -- for your benefit.

photo sequence #1 - DEATH PROOF (Quentin Tarantino, 2007) © Miramax Film Corp.
photo sequence #2 - THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN (Jack Pollexfen, 1956)
photo sequence #3 - HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (Vittorio Cottafavi, 1961)

post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr