Back in August, I read that Gualtiero Jacopetti had died. It's okay if you don't know who that was.
Back in the 60s, a new kind of film came out that was meant to shock its audience. Mondo Cane (Dog's World) was the first of these, followed closely by the uncreatively titled Mondo Cane 2 and a slew of other Mondo films.
One film in the Mondo genre is ECCO, which means "Behold!" The version I watched is narrated by George Sanders, a man with a bizarre sense of humor. Also, he was the first voice of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (all others being voiced by Tony Jay).
The last thing you need to know about Mr. Sanders is that he committed suicide. He left the following note:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.After watching ECCO, I see why the ordinary world bored him.
Now, let's see....
We start with a shot of the sun and Mr. Saunders' dulcet narration, quoting Shakespeare. Cut to the opening credits and the most annoying title song ever.
Our first shocking and horrible thing is a mensur match in Germany. Mensur is academic fencing, but in this case, it's a specialized type of fencing whereby the opponent's face is slashed. We learn that the winner is the one who walks away with scars.
Then to Japan, where we witness both hypo-pedagogy and karate. Not really very shocking today.
The débutantes' ball isn't really much of anything, but I suppose it's been presented as a form of contrast. This section goes straight to the hobo's ball, which is not as fancy.
We're then treated to circus act that consists of two people on a ladder, slung under a motorcycle, running around on a tight wire. This isn't that exciting until the camera pulls back and lets you know how high up they are, and how narrow that cable is. I must admit, watching that bike fly through the air is unnerving.
And speaking of falling to a crushing death, we cut to the amazing monasteries of Meteora. Come the zombie apocalypse, these places should be safe.
At this point, we reach the lamest part of the whole movie. The alleged "black mass" held by "witches" to invoke the devil. I found the entire sequence stupid and offensive, and not just because of the actual witches I've known over the years. It's weak writing, its intention is obvious, as is its contrivance, and it's just embarrassing that anyone would be shocked by such a blatant set-up. I still laughed, however, because it was just so dumb. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a liberal application of Christopher Lee.
With the idiocy over, we jet down to Rio de Janeiro to see carnival (and a little bit about Pelé). The first thing that actually popped into my head was Orson Welles' It's All True, which he never got to finish, but featured a large part of carnival. Much like the débutantes' ball from earlier, this isn't shocking or exciting at all to today's audience; this is the evening news (local news if it's a Pride parade). As much as ECCO is supposed to be a catalog of shocking things from around the world, what it's really become is a catalog of quaint ideas and attitudes from the mid-60s. Oh, how the world has changed.
Cut to: a night-club in Nairobi and the native dance of the Samburu in their native and authentic form. Ah, but these girls are not natives (not authentic) but showgirls who will later put on bras and high-heels and go to a boogie-woogie club. We cut back and forth until people are doing the twist to drums and gyrating to saxophone. Hardy har, movie. You're so clever.
While we're in Africa, let's look at a fancy hotel where white people go to look at animals. This isn't shocking; it's just sad. The best part is the utter contempt with which Sanders narrates the scene. There is nothing on screen he respects.
By means of contrast, we go to Reno for a body-building exhibition. The contempt here is two-fold: Sanders' explanation of what is going on, and the body-builders, who sneer at their older, female audience.
This cuts to a San Fransisco night-club and the weirdest song and dance number, "An Iron Girl in a Velvet Glove", who bemoans her fate while tearing a telephone book in half. It is an act that has not, and perhaps should not, been repeated since.
It would not be a Mondo film unless there was graphic gore and ECCO does not slack off in that department. In this case, it's a whaling expedition, complete with blood and dramatic music. The eventual butchering of the carcass is the grossest aspect.
A sequence that really drags for me is the wild teenagers of Sweden, who drink too much, drive too fast, and ZOMG IT'S SO SHOCKING. No, not really. It's not shocking; it's boring. Sanders asks why the youth of a country with the highest standard of living would resort to such horrible behavior. Modern life, with your lack of challenge, look what you've done to these despairing creatures! Everything was wonderful and no one was happy.
Enough preaching, movie! Show me something....oh! The ritual of "Saidachi" (actually Hadaka Matsuri), held in February when it's cold. Young men who are mostly naked take a dip in some very cold water, then jam themselves into a temple and fight over a talisman. This is a surreal and dehumanizing sequence that turns individuals into a seething mass of arms and shouts.
Yeah! The movie just found its second wind! Off to the Grand Guignol for a murder and dismemberment! This was a cheap shot and the fake arm made me laugh, although it was very well constructed. It still reminded me of Troma Studios, in its own way.
Then a "touch buttocks" society and...what is UP with France? Most of the "shocking" things in this film happen there. Is France just some cesspool of shock and awe? I know this is an Italian film, but COME ON! France is right there. You think Italians were shocked by any of this stuff? Was this made specifically for export? This is just silly.
Nnnggg.....still in Paris and now we're at an open-air market, which is cool. But we're also in another night-club! This is a strip-tease sequence with Rita Renoir that goes on for far too long and I fast-forwarded through most of this because it's frightfully dull. It wasn't shocking at all and it wasn't even a very good act.
Roller derby, on the other hand, kind of exciting. That was a fun little break.
OK, this is the part where I actually did look away. Yvon Yva is a French human pincushion and managed to put a skewer through his right tit, a rapier through his abdomen, and an ice-pick through his throat. The concept of piercing like this is not as upsetting as how jerkily he does it and watching it poke through his skin. Going in, no problem. Coming out? Yeah, I can't watch that. I've seen others do this act live and it never bothered me before, but the way in which Yvon does this is just stomach-turning. Please, dude, get some sharp skewers before you do this act again, unless you're just trying to gross us out.
Oh yeah, you are.
And here's the part of the film I've been waiting for: THE REINDEER SCENE.
North of the Arctic circle and time to rangle in the deer. Hoo-ee! It's a round-up! And just like a cattle round-up, there's going to be some steer-making (e.g.: castration). As Saunders puts it, "following an old tradition, this operation will be performed by the women."
If you've been to one of our shows, you've seen this clip. I won't go into detail.
After the reindeer work is done, the young Lapland men lasso young Lapland women and haul them off make love in the lichen (and hopefully, more Laplanders). The camera slowly pans away. Stay classy, movie.
Back to Paris. I am sick of Paris. This time it's a lesbian club and Marie Brassard sings about how Paris does not love her. You and me both, sister. I am feeling no love from Paris at all.
Now for some more "natural" entertainment and a singer in Argentina. I think the term "singer" here is being used very generously, but I was honestly more worried for her safety in that room full of men than anything else. These don't strike me as people who are capable of keeping their hands to themselves.
And now here's the part of the film that actually weirded me out.
A young man gets a package off a train and rushes by bike to a large stone building. We're in Exeter (not an alien) England and the package he's received is sperm. This is artificial insemination, which, in the 60s, was shocking. What weirded me out about this section was how it was handled.
It seems very innocent by today's standards. People donate sperm and eggs all the time, and other people pay very well for those raw materials by which they can carve out their little niche of the future. We don't think anything of it now, to help childless couples get what they want out of nature.
No, what bothered me were the head-shots of the patient.
They blacked out her eyes.
Someone went through this movie and drew a black bar on every frame where this woman's face appeared. Her identity is lost forever through a very deliberate act. They could have just edited out any frames in which her face appeared, which would have been a lot easier; but instead, they went through the pains-taking effort of drawing on the film.
And after everything in this movie, after all the horrible and "shocking" things that have happened, and the sheer exhibition that's been displayed, this is the one thing that was too shocking to show. Look at the tits, look at the blood, look at the asses, but for god's sake, don't look at this woman's eyes.
And then we have the final scene of the movie: a woman climbing stairs on her knees hoping that she'll be blessed with a child. A photographer runs up beside her and starts to take her picture and she looks it him for a moment. As she continues her climb, he takes her picture over and over again, and each time, she looks back at him, then goes on about her business.
The movie ends with a still-shot of her looking at the photographer, a look of disgust on her face. "Why is this of interest to you? Why would you look at this?"
And George Sanders says, "Ecco! Look around you! Ecco! Observe the passions of men and examine their dreams! Watch for ugliness; it exists in greater variety than you want to imagine. Witness the power of will over flesh. See all you can see of nature's grace, hope, and beauty. Ecco!"
I watched this, so you don't have to.