Monday, December 15, 2008

ECCO (Mondo di Notte 3, 1965)

A friend recently suggested that since I like "mondo" movies I ought to seek out the Faces of Death films from the 1980s. I said they weren't the same thing; their focus is too narrow. Mondo movies are about more than exotic ways of dying. But from the friend's point of view the difference didn't seem that great. Aren't they just collections of weird stuff aimed at the exploitation market? At the barest level, that's what they are, but the best mondos aspire to a cumulative experience, created chiefly by editing, commentary and music, that might actually expand one's consciousness. The ideal may be best expressed by George Sanders' interpretation of the American title for Mondo di Notte 3. "Ech-co," as he enunciates it, means "Look, witness, observe, behold!"

Mondo movies are basically feature-length newsreels without the news, globetrotting travelogues in search of something we don't see every day. Sometimes the purpose is titillation. Sometimes the object is pure shock. But the unifying theme is the dramatic variety of life that still exists "out there," far from your home town movie screen. Sometimes the mondo filmmaker adopts a moralizing, usually hypocritically judgmental tone toward his material. Sometimes a worldly cynicism prevails. But then there's the music, usually from Riz Ortolani, that insists on a lush, romantic embrace of the world. Ortolani's music echoes the Shakespearean theme repeated by Sanders during Ecco: "there are more things in heaven and earth..." Here's an American trailer, provided by Something Weird Video.

For me, mondo movies have an added attraction as relics of the past. Much of the phenomena they display probably doesn't exist anymore. At least one suspects that ours is now Mondo Mundane, a homogenized virtual world, while the best of the mondos -- the works of Jacopetti & Prosperi, above all, -- make the past look like a more exciting place. Maybe some of it wasn't real, as some of the stuff in Ecco plainly isn't, but that's where artistic license comes in. Mondo movies are entitled to as much license as their more refined cousins, the personal essay-type films like Orson Welles' F for Fake or Fellini Roma.

Ecco is a typical mondo in its breadth of subject matter. In short order, it takes us from a Berlin dueling club near the Wall to a Japanese "hypno-pedagogy" facility and a karate school, and then to the Paris Opera's debutante ball, which is contrasted with the "cruel, almost provocative hilarity" of a drunken revel elsewhere in town. We cut from mountaintop monasteries in Greece to a patently fake "black mass" in the U.K. -- "a pale symbolic version of the original atrocious rites," Sanders assures us -- and then to Brazil for footage of Pele and the Mardi Gras. Voyeurism is a recurring theme as we watch Kenyan dancers who do native steps for the tourist trade, only to trade in their costumes for modern clothes to dance for themselves at jazz clubs, followed by a visit to the Treetops Hotel, home of "the safari of air-conditioning and very dry martinis," and a trip to Reno, where male bodybuilders perform in "the housewives' answer to burlesque."

Depending on one's temperament, the most disturbing parts of Ecco are the extended whale hunt off the coast of Portugal and the Paris stage act of Yvon Yva, the self-proclaimed "apostle of the will" who draws long needles through his pecs, his abs, and his throat to prove that "the psychic can dominate the physical body. Probably the fakest bit apart from the black mass is an extended night-time joyride through the streets of Stockholm by Swedish "teddy boys" and their girlfriends, culminating in sex on a car roof (which barely rises to the softcore level) as appalled elders look on. The movie keeps coming back to Paris, once for the final performance of the gore pioneers of the Grand Guignol theater, a meeting of a buttocks appreciation society, and a pretty hot strip show during market workers' cognac break, and later for Yva's performance and a visit to a lesbian nightclub. There seems to be enough material for Mondo Paris, but the movie ends with the juxtaposition of an English artificial-insemination clinic and the ordeal of a Roman woman who climbs up a church's steps on her knees in hopes of miraculous fertility, only to be bothered by a cameraman.

For some viewers, mondo films are less than the sums of their parts. Those folks have come for the sexy bits and only endure the rest. For me, the music and the overall attitude makes superior mondos more than the sum of their parts. In Ecco, director Gianni Proia doesn't get too heavy-handed with the editing. The most blatant transition you get is a cut from a woman's arm being lopped off at the Guignol to a statue's intact arm. Sanders seems like an ideal mondo narrator, but doesn't really contribute many of the witticisms you might expect from his jaded screen persona. Riz Ortolani's score is characteristic, ranging from electronic experimentation to choral bombast worthy of a Hercules film to catchy tunes in the mode of "More," the pop hit theme to Mondo Cane.

Mondo is a take-it-or-leave-it genre. Either you get it or it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. I like them enough to say that everybody ought to try one, and Ecco offers enough variety, especially in the widescreen DVD from Something Weird Video, to make that worthy of your experiment.

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