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Sunday, 1 April 2012

April Fools! Camera Obscura: Weird Films from Famous Directors


An uncharacteristically tame still from Capra's Controversy.
I haven't updated in a few weeks, but never fear, as today I've got a special treat for y'all. As you might know, on Thursdays I usually recommend an unusual double bill to watch, but as I've not updated in a while I though I'd do an especially unusual double bill for this week's main post, with two films that are barely known at all. The first is by the legendary director Frank Capra, whose almost completely forgotten Thirteen Nights in Farvardin was made in 1922 but banned before release. The plot follows the adventures of a young woman traveller in the Middle East, and her sexual encounters with (embarassingly stereotyped) Persian men. Each night, Dolores, the central character, is visited by an increasing number of men who seduce her with presents, such as marigold gloves, which were in short supply in the 1920s following a yellow rubber shortage. Indeed, adjusted for inflation, in 1920 just one pair of mid-market marigolds could cost as much as the equivalent of a plane ticket in today's money. The film was banned before release, and all copies were thought lost until 2005, when a restoration team were shocked to find a Capra film which involved hardcore pornography, bondage and one particularly explicit scene with a snake charmer. Dubbed 'Capra's Controversy' by the New York Times, it's thought that after the censorious furore that followed completion of the film, and a stern telling off from long-time friend and collaborator James Stewart, Capra turned his back on erotica for good. It's quite astonishing to see a pornographic film from the director of It's a Wonderful Life and It Happened One Night, and at 4 hours and 17 minutes long, it's an especially lengthy trip into silent erotica.

The second film is a low budget, 1976 arthouse production from Richard Curtis, the writer-director responsible for the TV series Blackadder and the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. This early project was entitled Happy in Paris, but unlike his more recent work, Happy in Paris was an experimental film that explored the effects of psyschotropic drugs on the mind. Positioning himself as a maverick against the studio system, Curtis insisted that his entire cast and crew took LSD throughout the shoot, so as to accurately capture on film the experience of taking acid. Other bizarre requests included that all publicity for the film should be in Danish, and that only egg mayonnaise sandwiches were to be served for lunch, but that crew members were to supply their own bread. The star, French actor Jacques Lauren, said of working with Curtis:

"He is an eggomaniac. And that's not just my accent: the only thing he loves more than himself is eggs. I believe in this project, but Richard's a screwball. Yesterday, he wouldn't shoot until he inspected all of our fingernails for 'contaminants'. Then afterwards he kept blinking very quickly and timing his blinks with a stopwatch. We were there until four in the morning".

Happy in Paris' poster. To keep with the esoteric tone of the film, Curtis insisted that no promotional material should contain the film's name.

Set not in Paris, but rather in Japan, it's about a French ex-pat who finds himself in post-war Japan, and who slowly becomes embroiled in a sub-culture of drug-fuelled karaoke binges and massive scalectrix competitions, with an impressive 43-minute climactic toy-car race, filmed in black and white and with no dialogue or score. Both films are fascinating, if bizarre and confusing experiments, but also I think, both present examples of a fascination with the exotic, that if we look, bear out in the rest of their works. Ironically, despite their rarity in physical form, Thirteen Nights in Farvardin and Happy in Paris are in the public domain and are currently available on Youtube. Check them out for a couple of unusual slices of cinema history.