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Bengal’s 80s Retrospective Part X (spoilers)

Well, I’m back to do ever more films relating to the 1980s, films that I had never seen before, all to catch up both just because and that it might well be pragmatic to get it done in case of critical civilization failure caused by a number of crisis’ humanity refuses to address for its own good. If it makes you feel better, you can go with the former excuse as the dominant one and hey if my opinions incite your interest enough, you can use that as your excuse. This go around, we have a surreal Italian film about WW2, an Abel Ferrara cult classic, a Ralph Bakshi animated cult classic and a latest entry in the numerous offerings coming out of 80s Bollywood.

The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) (Italy)

Image from Filmlinc.com (The context behind this is no less uncomfortable, to be honest.)

The Taviani brothers, who you might know if you’re an Italian reader and probably won’t if you’re not, are a Palme d’Or winning directing duo, one of which is still alive at the age of 90. Their most notable work is the film to be discussed here, a dreamlike look at the Italian people trying to survive both Nazi and Italian Fascist forces near the end of the Second World War in 1945. We see several perspectives, but the most notable, who is the present day narrator is Cecilia, who was a 7 year old girl trapped in a situation she couldn’t fully understand.

Cecilia knows enough that they’re forces trying to kill her and that she, at the very least ,could be a collateral victim between not just the retreating Fascist forces but the Italian Partisans firing back at them in the crossfire. Cecilia could be an allegory for the conflicting emotions Italy itself felt and continued to feel about their role in the bloodiest war in history.

It was a boot shaped nation that found itself on both sides of the war, first under the sway of the original Fascist Benito Mussolini. After Il Duce proved to be extremely incompetent in his handling of the war and wasting of Italian lives, his government kicked him out and tried to get good with the Allies that had started to invade their country, starting with Sicily.

However, Hitler’s Germany just so happened to be in the neighborhood and had the manpower to take over the country and eventually made ol’ Benito a puppet dictator for Northern Italy. The Italian people were ready in a number of ways to help take back their homeland from Fascism, mostly through a resistance movement not dissimilar to the Free French and the various Partisan groups of Eastern Europe including the Czechoslovaks and Polish. As far as I know, Italy’s official government was mostly inert due to the Allies moving in after taking Rome and half of it being in the Fuhrer’s hands.

Not all Italians wanted to be made un-Fascist though it was admittedly a movement that was shrinking day after day after day. We see Italian fascists here try their best to survive themselves while also fighting a cause that none of them had illusions of winning. Hell, this movie shows them getting wiped out by just the Partisans alone, no American or British troops ever pop up. What makes this rout of the Fascists less triumphant for the viewer when it normally would be is that they’re children and their parents in the ranks and the hapless civilians on the run we follow get stuck in the middle of the skirmishes, most dramatically at a large wheatfield, the scene of the iconic, very impaled guy you see above you, more on him later.

It starts with a group of civilians in a small town, stuck on the same harrowing question that the Clash once posed: should we stay or should we go? The Nazis are coming and they fear they will burn down the town during their retreat from the Allies. They’re just as worried that they will be cut down in gunfire if they dare leave. Other rituals of Italian life, such as a couple that wishes to get married in spite of the extenuating circumstances complicates matters.

Little Cecilia, as young as she is can barely understand the deep shit she’s in. I would hope I would be a little more cognizant of the matters at hand if I were still her age. At times, Cecilia’s obliviousness or how she processes the very grim situation she’s in came across to me at times as if she were not quite right in the head.

Her behavior during the group’s travels didn’t always make her seem fully sympathetic and that famous shot of the guy with a bunch of javelins in his torso? That doesn’t actually happen. Cecilia imagines that a bunch of Roman soldiers appear and throw their spears at the Fascist to save her from getting capped. She remembers her history lessons from school as a basis for that fantasy. As to what actually happened to the Fascist that was about to kill her? It’s never actually shown what actually killed him and saved her, but I’m going to assume it involved lots and lots of lead.

I was starting to think that Cecilia might be mentally ill, hallucinating such things but the reveal at the end of her being a mother retelling her story of survival to her sleeping child during the titular Night of the Shooting Stars reveals her to be quite sane. It really was a Calvin level example of her imagination running wild, all while she was in very real danger. As other moments can attest, children were by no means exempt from the horrors of this war.

To this day, I can imagine Italy’s memory of their participation in WW2 must make them very uneasy. Sure, many of their countrymen and women would take up arms and fight on the right side of history ultimately. Hell, the partisans took care of Mussolini before the Allied forces could. But this sense of being on both sides and it tearing up the Italian psyche in the process is somewhat unique among European participants of the conflict. It became not just a fight against an invading force like Germany, it was also a brutal struggle against their own people, which is always a swell predicament.

The other most notable perspective is of a 60 something man called Galvano, who eventually becomes a de facto leader of the fleeing civilians. You can see the weariness of the man as you can infer he’s already been through much before WW2 affected his life’s course. He eventually strikes up an old relationship with a fellow survivor of similar age, an old flame he never eloped with back in his youth. With the possibility that the two of them might die tomorrow, they spend the night together in spite of their fatigue and unkemptness.

Ironically, the following morning, it’s revealed that no, the Nazis won’t be killing them. They have instead gotten in contact with the Allied forces and they’re actually home free in spite of how just a day ago they had resigned themselves to death. Rather than being super relieved and happy that he was able to keep his old sweetheart and others like Cecilia alive, he goes out of the hotel as it starts to rain in the sunlight. He sits on a bench in the middle of the courtyard. Cecilia and the others take a truck to greet their Allied saviors. Galvano just sits.

What’s he thinking about?. Disbelief he actually didn’t die when younger more deserving ones did. The things he saw during and before the trek he went on evading Fascists. Does he still have a future with that old sweetheart? What future does he actually have at his age anyway? Or maybe he’s just plain tired and finally has a chance to rest.

Is it any of those things or all of them? Galvano never says. Cecilia never learns. All she knows is that in spite of her childlike reckoning with what happened to her nearly 40 years ago, as a grown adult and mother, she still can’t quite comprehend what happened to her, her people and her beautiful country. She’s glad that her child will not experience what she did and that is enough. I guess in the end, despite the dithering over who in Italy was responsible or guilty for the atrocities of the past, perhaps the message that is most relatable is that it is over, it was survivable and hopefully it won’t happen ever again. As of 2022, that might still be true.

Ms. 45 (1981)

Image from MOMA (I need a gun to keep myself among….)

Abel Ferrara is a darling among America’s Indie/underground crowd of filmmakers. Hailing from the Bronx, you might be familiar with the guy if you’ve heard of Bad Lieutenant, one of the higher profile NC-17 flicks. There is debate if Bad Lieutenant actually is harsh enough for the harshest rating, but the point that should still be made evident is that Ferrara has no qualms about depictions of harsh material. It’s his forte, and Ms. 45 is regarded as one of his stand-out works.

Many point to the 2019 Joker movie being influenced by two movies: 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy, two Scorsese/ DeNiro productions that have each in their own way become iconic examples of depicting mentally ill protagonists. Joker was set in the time range of those movies: 1981. So too does 1981’s Ms. 45 showcase a person’s descent into vengeful madness, all stemming from a sadly sympathetic place.

Zoe Tamerlis, a collaborator with Ferrara portrays Thana, a mute seamstress living in the seediest New York you could envision from the time and place it was made. She’s shy, good natured and just wants to stay out of trouble both on and off the clock. Unfortunately, she gets raped by the nadir of NY’s denizens. Twice. In one day.

She does not take it well and gets her hands on a colt. 45 pistol that one of the rapists misplaced in their trespassing. Very soon, with no ability to verbally communicate the horror inflicted on her, she decides that since she has the means, the power to avenge herself, why not just do it?

She eventually becomes a vigilante, deliberately looking for men on the mean streets of New York in the hopes of trapping and shooting them dead. Initially, it’s all a ploy to draw out the specific men who raped her but those rapists never appear again. I mean, this is Manhattan we’re talking about. Eventually, she becomes less vigilante and more straight up serial killer. She gets to enjoying her acts of slaying men in a manner that becomes uncomfortably similar to the enjoyment the rapists had in abusing her.

I should note, in spite of Ms. 45 being classified as an “exploitation” film, the two scenes of rape on Thana are not filmed in a sexual manner as we’re not meant to derive any sexual pleasure from her plight. In both cases, we focus only on Thana’s stricken, terrified face. There has been much debate as to whether or not rape is ever OK to depict in fiction, for any reason.

I forget who said it, but someone once said that including rape in a story is the cheapest, laziest type of drama to add This all-encompassing denouncement of allowing fictional depiction for this horrible act does seem limiting to a creator’s expression. If the purpose of a story would predicate this kind of behavior being depicted and if it serves a purpose that is I don’t know, anti-rape as Ms. 45 definitely is, I see no problem with including it. How you handle this demeaning type of criminal behavior is where I feel more comfortable joining in on having a critical eye drawn to it as a convention in storytelling.

There is a way to make the act of rape as a plot point skeezy, exploitative and just wrong when it comes to a character, namely a female character’s development. This was perhaps most noteworthy for recent popular culture in Game of Thrones where the beloved Stark character Sansa, after going through a lot of crap in the first four seasons, was raped in the fifth. In spite of the reasonings behind this moment, the moment along with the episode it was attached to, was considered the worst episode of GOT up to that point, though they were other reasons for the episode’s poor reception.

That episode’s reputation would be overtaken by how most of GOT’s last season was a startling dumpster fire. The point still stands that using fictional examples of rape, especially visual presentations of the act, are given super-scrutiny and even immediate dismissal in some cases.

But with Ms. 45, a film that is now over 40 years old, is it forgivable for including that subject matter now that it’s old, from a bygone time? Well, upon its release, critics were not kind at all to it though eventually it gained a cult recognition over time, salvaging its reputation. It should be said, and I am speaking as a male when saying this, that Ms. 45 was not careless when it comes to its subject matter.

Eventually Thana starts to see from her broken mind, all come-ons or attention from men regardless of context as sexual provocation. When invited from her boss to a Halloween party, she accepts only because she will been given a target rich environment.

The Halloween party in question is a haunting conclusion to the film for a number of factors. There is the eerie, offputting jazz soundtrack that plays during the climatic sequence, that is intercut with both Thana preparing her man-killing spree and the dancing party-goers one of which includes a creepy baseball-head costume that syncs with the music that creates a dreamlike visual that borders on fever dream.

Thana’s eventual unleashing of lead on the male partygoers, all while purposefully avoiding any of the female attendees is sheer, dark spectacle. Again referencing 2019’s Joker, it’s like the infamous moment where Arthur, that film’s Joker, suddenly whips out his gun on the talk show host who he’s murderously jealous of and shoots, all while shouting the oft quoted “YOU GET WHAT YOU F***ING DESERVE!”. Thana, being a mute cannot voice her venomous attitudes and lets her gun reveal how fallen she has become.

In spite of her actions, which grow more and more deplorable leading up to the Halloween party, there is a measure of tragic sadness yet in spite of what she’s doing. Even after her rape she remains a victim of tragic circumstance. Being mute, she cannot communicate to the police, her boss or her co-workers what happened to her. Her trauma makes her distrustful of even trying to express what has happened to her and though her 45., she finds an excuse to not only not communicate but hide what she becomes.

Soon, men who were never a threat to her are at her mercy and women, not knowing her rationale, scream in fear of her all the same. She has become a monster like her rapists. Some may then wonder if this film is anti-feminist. Here, we have a powerless woman gain power through a firearm and what does she do with it? Become a mentally disturbed serial killer. At the same time, she wouldn’t have become a monster had it not been for the loathsome behavior of men, many displaying on a number of levels toxic masculinity. Male behavior is not exempt from Ms. 45’s perspective, it is indeed as in contempt of it as it should be.

Was there any hope for Thana? Through a combination of internal and external factors, not really. Her frayed mental state, access to an easy “solution” and a growing addiction to the feeling she gets through her “revenge” doomed her to a place where everyone else treats her like a threat to be removed when initially that’s what she thought she was doing.

If Ms. 45 is exploitation, then it’s exploitation of the highest caliber. Taking subject matter that certainly features in exploitation but having more to say and more for you to think about than most other films of its genre. It’s neither pro or anti-feminist. It’s simply a story of a poor, hapless woman striking out at an uncaring, needlessly cruel world and not having the social circle to prevent her from becoming as pitiless as that world.

What it says about humanity and how we treat or ignore those we neglect should rattle male and female both. I imagine Ferrara looked at the New York he lived in when he made this film and felt just as perturbed as he hopes you would be when watching Ms. 45.

Fire + Ice (1983)

Image from Complex (Give Bakshi credit, he loves pleasing the male AND female viewers in this picture.)

Ralph Bakshi is a complicated yet important figure in American animation to me. He is important due to being one of the leading figures in not just making American cartoon-making have a more adult edge but also succeeding in the independent circuit. This is significant in making it more likely for adult or even teenage animation to have some success in the future.

When it comes to adult animation being a big thing both critically and commercially, Japan has gotten that down pat. America has relegated the success of animation for adult audiences to the small screen with only very occasional ventures into theatrical release like the satirical Sausage Party. Maybe you can credit the existence of South Park, Rick and Morty and Robot Chicken in part to Bakshi. Or maybe you can credit him with having the bravery to escape the assumptions that cartoons are only for the kiddies.

It hurts me to say that my limited exposure to his body of work is due to him not really being the best animator or storyteller. A for effort but a B or C in execution. The two projects that people most think of Bakshi for are Fritz the Cat and his valiant attempt at adapting the Lord of the Rings. I haven’t seen Fritz though I have heard that despite its “X” ( NC-17) rating, it really is just an R by modern standards and not even the strongest one. But then again, that classification came in 1972 and the marketing for the film wore that notorious rating as a badge of pride.

His Lord of the Rings, which aesthetically certainly inspired the film I’m about to talk about, is more intriguing than involving. His experimental mixture of traditional 2D animation and rotoscoping creates a surreal take on Tolkien’s masterwork that at times works and in other instances falls flat on it’s face. There are some interpretations of the material that I find to be a respectable alternative to Jackson’s and others where Jackson is laughably ahead of the curve.

On the one hand, there is some genuine creepiness to the atmosphere that fits into the story’s dark fantasy nature and then you find yourself rolling your eyes at Aragorn looking strangely Native American with a pants-less tunic, Boromir having for no discernable reason a horned Viking helmet and giant beard, and the Balrog looking absolutely pathetic in motion. As a still image, it’s not terrible, but man that rotoscoping sucks you out of the experience. But that same rotoscoping makes the Uruk-hai’s march to Helm’s Deep apocalyptically frightening. Oh, and this really isn’t Bakshi’s fault, but he didn’t finish the story, ending the movie right around where as it would turn out, Jackson’s version of Two Towers would stop. Funny that.

But what about Fire + Ice, a new fantasy story freshly crafted from none other than Marvel comic legends Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas with artwork drawn by fantasy art master Frank Frazetta? Surely not having the constraints of adapting a massive story like LOTR will free up Bakshi’s ability to tell a story his way, right? You would be right, yet I still feel mixed about the end result.

In another time and place, in a land not our own, a vicious war between the brutal people of the Ice lands against the peaceful people of the Fire lands rages. Simple stuff, right? Yeah, sure enough and the young blond haired warrior Larn and his barbarian looking people are stuck in the middle. His people are massacred as the vile hordes under the command of the dark lord NEKRON and his mother JULIANA smash through their defenses by unleashing massive glaciers on their fortifications.

It’s here that we see that Bakshi’s handling of timing, when it comes to things that should be fast and swift is not very good. You saw plenty of that in the numerous sword fights in his LOTR and it is no less numerous. Many of the fights involve rotoscoped humans duking it out and you might think that using real people with a reasonably high frame per second would make it quick yet clear enough, not unlike a live action fight. You’d be wrong here.

There is a strange, almost headache-inducing sluggishness to how these moments occur with rotoscoped figures fighting on a painted 2D backdrop. It’s indisputably distinct, but I would not call it an arresting visual experience. It’s hard half the time to register the results or how good or bad a fight is going and sometimes the conclusion to a bout can seem sudden or incomplete. Is it a consequence of rotoscoping’s limitations or Bakshi’s lack of understanding in choreographing fights? I don’t honestly know, and I yet respect the man enough for his ambition and pioneering spirit to not be too harsh.

Soon enough, Larn is on the run from the shambling, neanderthal-like hordes and some of the best animated moments come from his evasion through a jungle, up vine and tree branch. He meets a mysterious, expectedly bare-chested warrior called DARKWOLF, whose wolf mask makes him look like, well, who does he remind you of?

Image from Heroes wiki ( I was thinking of Space Ghost.)

Darkwolf here has his own vendetta against the dark lord Nekron, who is revealed to be either teenage or in his early 20s, and there is some subtle implications that the lord who is ruining the whole world might be his son. Almost reverse Luke and Vader but with no “GASP” revelation. He becomes Larn’s best chance of survival, stopping the freezing of the world (something that I wouldn’t terribly mind in my own reality right about now) and rescuing, what else, the super hot and basically naked Princess of the Fire realm Teegra.

This film is PG rated, though of the pre-PG-13 era and it’s honestly more adult for some pretty harsh violence, namely through a bunch of red shirts getting speared pretty good at the third act assault on Nekron’s Ice fortress. I made sure the header image for this entry featured both Larn and Teegra to emphasize that one of the things Bakshi wanted to push in American animation was nudity, something that again, pound for pound, Japan is beating us at in their arena of animation for better and for worse.

While Teegra is certainly alluring, I can’t complain due to how almost everyone is scantily clad including the male characters. In spite of Bakshi’s relatively rough style of animation, it’s a feast for both sexes so it seems less bad that way. Also, Teegra actually contributes more than just being the captive princess, though she is that. I don’t remember, but she might’ve actually gotten herself out of prison near the end, all while Larn and Darkwolf attempt to free her.

What can I say, it was the post Princess Leia era and I find it funny how both Teegra and the “slave bikini” iteration of Leia debuted the same year of 83′. That being said, and I do say this in a unisex manner but my God, do people in this world have thick skins. By the time we reach that ice fortress, NO ONE has bundled up and no one is at all bothered by being practically naked in that environment. What can I say, it’s a fantasy.

Speaking of, all that I have talked about reminds me that Conway and Thomas didn’t just do the usual suspects of Marvel characters like our boy Spider-Man. They also did Marvel’s versions of Conan the Barbarian and maybe more importantly, Red Sonja. Up until recently that is, the chainmail bikini fem-warrior to end all chainmail bikini fem-warriors didn’t mind the cold despite her lack of thermal protection. In light of who wrote this Bakshi production, it comes as little surprise that this stuff is featured here, let alone with an oddly pleasing lack of self awareness.

Fire and Ice can be fun in parts though Bakshi’s strange sense of pacing, particularly when it comes to when or when not to end a scene gets in the way. The film is only 81 minutes but this problem lingers all the way through. Also, some of the animation can just be bad at times. The opening sequence with the magical glaciers smashing through Larn’s village is very janky-looking.

Of course, I would still pay tribute to a man willing to do things that other animators of his time wouldn’t or just couldn’t. Also, this is still a shorter feature than his LOTR and for that reason can be a more expedient way to experience his distinct style for yourself. You can also avoid wringing your hands at the moments where Bakshi drops the ball with handling Middle-Earth and its denizens.

Kamla (1984)

Image by PicClicks (Sorry, couldn’t find any images from the movie.)

Kamla follows the trend in 80s’ Bollywood cinema in being morality plays that center on and critique contemporary concerns of Indian culture. Kamla is striking due to how surprisingly grim and sorrowful it’s outlook is. Other Bollywood films of this ilk have had upbeat conclusions with a measure of sadness. Not here.

Jaisingh is a investigative journalist hailing from Delhi who wants to expose the hidden female human trafficking system within his country. The titular Kamla is a sex slave that Jaisingh buys in order to showcase to the Indian press in hopes of inspiring a call to social change. Sounds great, right?

It obviously is and yet as the somewhat short (for a Bollywood film) proceedings go on, you start to see that Jaisingh’s desires for societal progress aren’t as humble as you would hope. The film is not subtle at all in making clear it’s intentions as a blatant end of film narration espouses, but it’s not just that human trafficking in India is bad that is the theme, it’s the self-sabotaging nature of humanity.

Jaisingh’s own ego and desire to impress others takes precedence over I don’t know, helping Kamla acclimate to an environment free of slavery and become a more free thinking woman (by Indian standards). Jaisingh basically ignores Kamla when it isn’t surrounding the press conference he is trying to set up, so his wife, daughter and servant take up the slack. They in turn try to have him pay more attention to her wellbeing but he just blows them off, a consequence of his sexist outlooks on female input.

In an attempt to bring attention and hopefully end one wrong in Indian society, he blinds himself to other considerations needed to achieve that goal, including needing to be a more open-minded and caring person to begin with.

In case you’re interested, I won’t give away the whole game of how Kamla concludes, but it does paint the admittedly blatant but no less valid argument that Jaisingh himself fails because of societal chains on himself. Chains his environment and his own volition placed him in. It’s a message that can very much be applicable to more than just the stakes of this film’s story. It’s a message that can resonate with concerns that India is facing nearly 40 years after this movie.

Perhaps the self-destructive assumptions about how to live as a man or woman in India can or are having terrible consequences on the billion plus population of that nation today. Modi’s Hindu Fundamentalist/ Nationalist stance on politics and the dangerous implications it has not just on the running of the country but in relation to fellow nuclear power Pakistan. Before you think I’m being too nosy on another country’s woes, keep in mind that a nuclear incident involving those two nations, even if isolated to just those two, can be catastrophic for the whole world. A contained nuclear war….won’t be in their case.

So I imagine there are plenty of people in India today who know the dangers of the kind of social contract Modi is trying to place on their country. The question that Kamla raises 38 years later to their situation is if they can make things better without unintentionally self-sabotaging. This is by no means a uniquely Indian problem: I have seen to my misery that same self-sabotage occur in my own country to those who are earnestly trying to challenge the status quo. Not naming any names here, mostly because I want to wrap this up.

I am not whatsoever saying this should stop people from trying to change the world for the better, but beware yourself when doing so. If you can do that, then half the battle may already be done, as GI Joe once told us.

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