Monday, August 22, 2011

R.I.P.: Gualtiero Jacopetti

Gualtiero Jacopetti
4 September 1919, Tuscany – 17 August 2011, Rome

Gualtiero Jacopetti was the Italian director who, in conjunction with co-writers/co-directors Franco E. Prosperi and, occasionally, Paolo Cavara (4 July 26 – 7 Aug 82), traveled the world to film the strange, the shocking, the disgusting for a series of "documentaries" of oft-questionable verisimilitude. Gualtiero Jacopetti himself claimed himself to be – and is commonly seen as – the creator of the genre now known as the "shockumentary" with the 1962 classic documentary Mondo Cane, a title which translates into "a dog's world". Mondo Cane, nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, was also graced with one of the true masterpieces of easy listening, Riz Ortolani's haunting melody More, which was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1964. (It lost to Call Me Irresponsible.)
Jacopetti, who was born in Barga in Tuscany, began his career as a journalist, something he supposedly considered himself to be until the very end. According to the NY Times (quoting Italian obituaries), Jacopetti assisted the Allied troops when they invaded the land of Mussolini in WWII and also lent a helping hand in starting the popular Italian magazine L'Espresso. He was a producer of newsreels prior to making feature films. As was the case of the makers of "white-coaters" in the USA during the late 60s and early 70s, one of the reasons Jacopetti turned to the documentary approach was to get by the censors.
Though often accused of staging the events he filmed, Jacopetti claimed to only have ever staged one scene, a reenactment (in Mondo Cane 2) of the famous AP photo of the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk. In 1966, in the aftermath of the shockwaves left by Africa Addio / Goodbye, Africa, he also saw in necessary to return to Africa to gather testimonies that he had not paid mercenaries to arrange executions for him to film.
As mentioned previously, Jacopetti is commonly credited with having invented the shockumentary, a claim that is echoed equally by historian, fan and dweeb, but a claim that totally fails to take into account earlier "non-fiction" films such as Edward A. Salisbury's 1928 documentary Gow The Headhunter (re-released with narration in 1931 as Gow the Killer) – a "goona-goona" documentary deemed exploitive enough to be worth re-releasing by the great US exploitation film producer David F. Friedman, who re-released it as Cannibal Island in 1956 – or, even closer to the general search for shocks so evident in Jacopetti's films, Ray Phoenix and Cedric Worth's 1957 Naked Africa which, in the post Mondo Cane world, was re-released as Mondo Africana.
While it may be arguable whether or not Jacopetti is really the father or the stepfather of the shockumentary, what is without a doubt is that his film was the most influential. Mondo Cane is a much imitated and lastingly influential piece of exploitation, the creative sperm behind untold imitations, including the perennially popular but often staged Faces of Death films. (Click here for a short documentary of the first of the series.)
As the influential maker of the kind of documentary A Wasted Life enjoys, herewith we pay our respects to Gualtiero Jacopetti, who died in Rome on 17 Aug 2011.
May he rest in peace — or somehow send us a documentary on the weird sexual and social practices of the afterlife.
The photo at the top of Jacopetti was taken from the great website dangerous minds.

For your listening pleasure, the theme song to Mondo Cane, Riz Ortolani's classic More:

The same song, with lyrics, slaughtered by The Supremes:

European Nights (1959, dir. Alessandro Blasetti)
Original title: Europa di note. Jacopetti's first feature-length film credit, this time around only a writer, a credit shared with Ennio De Concini. European Nights is a relatively traditional and non-shocking documentary of the biggest acts of Europe in the 50s; as the definitely non-mondo segment below reveals, the ironic commentary Jacopetti's films are known for is already present.
A scene from the film, featuring a magic performance by Channing Pollock:

World by Night (1961, dir. Luigi Vanzi)
Original title: Il mondo di note. Written by Jacopetti, the film did well enough to garner a sequel the next year, World by Night No. 2, with no input by Jacopetti and directed by Gianni Proia, who went on to do a few mondo documentaries following the success of Mondo Cane. According to Les Adams at imdb: "What if Ed Sullivan had taken his Really, Really Big Show show on the road to Amsterdam, Blackpool, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Hollywood, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Las Vegas, London, Sydney, New York, Paris, Stockholm and Tokyo? The result might have been similar to this duller-than-dirt travelogue featuring dancing whales, stripping females and a non-performing performing dog. Not to mention the Kim Novak look-alike Ricky Renee, the Bluebell Girls of Paris, strippers such as Feline and Rapha Temporel (the houri of the hammock); juggler Marco of Stockholm, Wild Willie Harris and the Tiller Girls of London. Come to think of it, this looks more like the State Fair of Texas than The Ed Sullivan Show. Plus, the Fair also offers Fletcher's Corney Dogs and three-pound turkey legs..."

Che gioia vivere (1961, dir. René Clément)
Jacopetti supplied the story to this comedy starring no one less than Alain Delon, the second film Delon made with Clément, entitled The Joy of Living for its English-language release. According to lapratho at imdb: "[T]his is one of the most hilarious movies I remember! [...] If you want to see a classic bomb tossing match [...] look no further! You need to have a certain sense and mindset to watch this kind of movie though. Simple, straightforward, lighthearted comedy with the over the top exaggerated flair only older French and Italian movies were able to generate and get away with. Just don't watch it if you hate, for example, Louis de Funes or other European comedians, because this movie is in their style [...]."
A very long scene from the film, in Italian, that in no way makes me think that the film might be funny – but then, I can't stand Louis de Funes:

Mondo Cane (1962)
The influential classic, written by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara, directed by Jacopetti, Cavara and Franco E. Prosperi. The uncut version runs 108 minutes, the cut version 85. As the website Pop Matters puts it: "Mondo Cane is structured as a series of juxtapositions between contemporary and traditional cultures. Wealthy pet owners in Pasadena bury their beloved bow-wows in chic graveyards, while tribespeople in Taipei braise Bowser for Sunday supper. Los Angeles housefraus indulge in Vic Tanny luxury spa treatments while the women of Tabar are fattened to increase their fertility. Hilarious, sad, and minimally gruesome, Mondo Cane is everything you think it is and something you might not expect, that is, intelligent documentary by way of droll comedy."
US Trailer:

La donna nel mondo (1963)
AKA: Women of the World. Uncut run time: 107 minutes. Directed and written by Jacopetti, Cavara and Prosperi. Pop Matters says: "Boring and repetitive, narrated by Peter Ustinov, the film showcases women of all races, creeds, sexual orientations, and occupations. Deploying National-Geographic-style nudity and violence familiar from the Cane films, Women lacks a clear agenda. It's only in the final 10 minutes, a section called 'Some Missionaries,' that the old Jacopetti and Prosperi Mondo 'magic' kicks in. In response to a fashion show featuring French models, heavily ornamented African tribeswomen in Nigeria beg to have their stubby nails polished, while the glamor gals look mystified and uncomfortable. Similarly, the crosscutting between European women suffering through modern dermabrasion techniques and Bedouin women in the Middle East smearing camel dung on their cheeks, shows that both groups seek 'rejuvenation' through ritual. Unfortunately, these sequences are too little too late." Wikipedia details the content a bit more: "Among those featured are women training in the Israel Army, a female priest in Sweden, window prostitutes in Hamburg's red light district, bed models in Hollywood, California, professional mourners in Sardinia, Lamaze classes in Switzerland, a fashion show given to the Maasai, divorce ranches in Nevada, United States Treasurer Elizabeth Rudel Smith, eyelid-shaping surgery in Japan, and spent ordnance scavengers in Western Sahara."

Mondo pazzo / Mondo Cane 2 (1963)
Bye-bye Cavara, who must have been busy with his own shockumentary, 1964's Malomondo (soundtrack). This film seems to exist in multiple running times, ranging from 108 to 72 minutes, depending on the source you look at. At imdb, Sujit R. Varma writes: "The original shockumentary sequel made up of episodes in the life of man and beast, filmed all over the world - New Guinea, Germany, Singapore, Portugal, Australia, America and beyond. This time around, the voyage includes vivisection, recreations of old west lynchings, a visit to a mortician's school, transvestites, wild sex clubs and alligator hunting."
Italian Trailer:

US Trailer

Mondo Africa / Witchdoctor in Tails (1966)
Paolo Cavara was back onboard with Jacopetti & Prosperi for the last time before moving on to feature films, helming such fun fare as The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971 / trailer) and Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears (1973 / trailer). Uncut, 139 minutes; unrated English version, 128. Narrated by a slumming George Sanders, who sank even further in 1967 to costar in the Sonny and Cher film, Good Times (trailer). Worldwide Celluloid Massacre says: "A somewhat condescending rare Mondo from Jacopetti, returning once again to their favorite subject: Africa. The approach is relatively tamer on the theme of wild Africa newly infected with Western civilization comforts and culture backed by a pretentious narrative. Witchdoctors become politicians, women give up their piercings and tattoos for face cream and lingerie, a white man teaches them how to smile small and subtle, black teenagers try to pose like Schwarzenegger, primitive African behavior and lifestyles are contrasted with new Western comforts, tom-toms with phones, and African dance with calisthenics. As usual, the viewer is left wondering how much is staged or just spliced with a fictional narrative, there are random scenes of strange African rituals, dances, punishments, and various ways to acquire a wife, and the obligatory nods towards shocks are also here including slaughterhouse gore, leprosy and tribal circumcision."

Africa addio / Africa Blood and Guts (1966)
"Europe has abandoned her baby just when it needs her the most."
Directors and writers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi decided to keep their focus on Africa and produced a shockumentary often maligned as one of the most racist, pro-colonialist ones around. Roger Elbert ripped into it when the film came out, and perhaps the nicest thing he had to say was: "Africa addio is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit." Jacopetti was taken to court in Italy for supposedly paying to have some of those killed on film killed specifically so he could film the event; he was acquitted. In Berlin, incensed students managed to get the film pulled – primarily by destroying the cinema; the protest is seen as being one of the first anti-racism protests of Germany, a country not exactly known for racial sensitivity. At imdb, once again according to Sujit R. Varma: "[T]his [is a] violent document of a continent in transition; the change from white colonialism to independent black statehood. Often times, this resulted in the wholesale massacre of thousands of people and the indiscriminate extermination of wild life. Captured on film are mercenary killer squads wiping out entire villages, executions, Mau-Mau massacres and more!"

Goodbye Uncle Tom / Addio zio Tom (1971)
Directed and written by Jacopetti and Prosperi, with music by Riz Ortolani – why break up a good team? Original running time, 136 minutes; unrated English version, 123 – available in so many versions, who knows which was/is the "real" one. Most of the film was shot in Haiti with the full cooperation of dictator "Papa Doc" Duvaluier and the Tonton Macoutes. The film is a crossbreed of shockumentary and docudrama, in that it is about a documentary film team that gets sent back in time and is thus able to film the true conditions under slavery.
Roger Elbert did not like the film: "The vile little crud-squad of Jacopetti and Prosperi has been getting away with movies like Farewell Uncle Tom for so long now that maybe they think audiences will stomach anything. This time they don't even kid us that they're sincere; their vomit-bag of racism and perversion-mongering isn't even covered up with the usual slime of sanctimonious BS."
Pop Matters has a nicer view of the "fictional documentary": "[...] Jacopetti and Prosperi turn their twisted focus to the atrocities committed against African slaves in the U.S. South. Following a cargo of human chattel as it is sold, tortured, and debased, Goodbye, Uncle Tom is a searing denunciation of slavery as an institution and way of thinking. Filled with images of haunting beauty (pastel Southern belles on Louisiana plantations) and gut-wrenching injustice, the movie walks a difficult tightrope."

Mondo Candido (1975)
Four years after their "docudrama", if Farewell Uncle Tom can even be called that, Jacopetti & Prosperi turn away from filming "facts" and make a real feature-length film, co-written by some unknown named Claudio Quarantotto and inspired by Voltaire's Candide. Cinephile 101 says: "This movie has it all! There's sex, violence, and philosophy. It's an epic surreal arthouse/exploitation/comedy adventure. Most noteworthy about the film is how littered it is with gorgeous yet cartoonish symbolism and props. It's like something out of El Topo combined with Monty Python." Shock Cinema says "It's like Ken Russell's The Devils meets Laugh-In." Any and all write-ups about the rare art film make it sound like a true a must see – as do both the clips below.
Slow motion scene with babes, bullets, boobs, blood, Palestinians and music by the great Riz Ortolani:

Italian Trailer:

Fangio - Una vita a 300 all'ora (1981)
After six years Gualtiero Jacopetti returns (without Prosperi) as writer for this documentary directed Hugh Hudson – anyone remember Chariots of Fire (1981 / trailer), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984 / trailer) or Revolution (1985 / trailer)? – about (!!!) Juan Manuel Fangio, five times World Champion and "one of the great Formula One drivers of all times." (I wouldn't know; Formula One bores me to tears.)

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