Bright Lights Film Journal

Recent DVDs: <em>Christ in Concrete, The Garden of Eden, Breaking the Cycle, Mau Mau Sex Sex, Ordinary Sinner</em>

Five DVDs for every taste, though some are more appetizing than others

Creative Commies Conceive Christ in Concrete

Canadian-born Edward Dmytryk (1908-1999) was doing well in Hollywood before 1947, having worked his way up the ranks from editor (The Ruggles of Red Gap) to first-rate director of such solid efforts as Murder My Sweet and Crossfire. Then his 1945 Communist party membership led to an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and a year in jail. After his release, Dmytryk moved to England and attempted to make movies there. There were others abroad who were blacklisted by the HUAC, and together with screenwriter Ben Barzman and actor Sam Wanamaker, Dmytryk found revenge.

Such is the set-up for the making of Christ in Concrete, a remarkable movie based on a 1939 semi-autobiographical novel by Pietro di Donato about Italian immigrants struggling to survive in New York in the 1920s. The movie takes on a big slab of American urban history, tracing the intersection of Old World frugality and superstition with New World false optimism and greed. Around every corner is heartbreak. The central character, bricklayer Geremio, sacrifices loyalty for ambition, and suffers disproportionately. His wife, the shy Annuziata, wants nothing more than a home to call her own, but her dream becomes an obsession that threatens to destroy the family. Geremio’s friends are alienated as he jumps at the chance to be a foreman, but his triumph turns to disaster. Skilled men suffer humiliations when the only work they can get is shoveling snow. Dmytryk even risks losing our sympathy for Geremio by giving him a comforting girlfriend when his wife grows slovenly and bitter. At every turn we see a harsh critique of the failure of American capitalism to provide for its laborers in time of need. Christ in Concrete potently reminds us that good people can be drawn to darkness when fortune and luck fail them. In that respect, Christ in Concrete appears less sentimental than The Crowd, An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun, Marty, or any other mainstream treatment of America’s class system.

The performances in Christ in Concrete are spot-on. As Geremio, Sam Wanamaker was acting in his second movie, yet he carries the starring role like a comfortable, commanding veteran. As Annuziata, Lea Padovani must devolve from dark-eyed youthful beauty to the ghost of disappointment, which she accomplishes expertly. The camerawork by C. Pennington Richards is some of the best of the era, with the city streets, darkened hallways, and construction sites void of any softened corners guaranteed by Hollywood of the 1940s. With Dmytryk, Richards gave Christ in Concrete an astonishing look, which manages to straddle and suggest both film noir and Italian neo-realism. The deep focus crisp black-and-white photography evokes a handful of strong movies yet to be made, including On the Waterfront, Edge of the City, America, America, Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, and Pickup on South Street. Visually, Christ in Concrete looks like the most influential movie nobody ever saw.

It’s no stretch to suggest that artistic exile served Dmytryk and Christ in Concrete well. So much about this film is anathema to American filmmaking of the 1940s: the rare attention paid to immigrants’ daily lives, the depiction of a wife and mother as something less than a saint, and the exploitation of American labor. The obsession of home ownership, complete with complex psychological underpinnings and its painful consequences to the protagonist’s marriage, is a theme more fitting to neo-realism or the bluntest of O’Neill dramas. Christ in Concrete shares its rough-edged moral outrage with Visconti’s La Terra Trema but its gilded professionalism with Wilder’s Double Indemnity. It’s a knockout combination. Dmytryk found some kind of artistic voice in exile in England unlike any heard from him before or since.

Christ in Concrete excels in the details. Its observations of Italian immigrant life have the ring of authenticity as mother dilutes the wine for the children at dinner, friends indelicately attack a plate of spaghetti, or various superstitions are ritualized. And Christ in Concrete is brimming with music, supplied by on-screen singers or through the rich orchestrations of composer Benjamin Frankel, another unbending Communist.

Dmytryk’s unique mixture of social commentary and emotional calculations does not always mesh. The script veers away from realism to serve melodrama through a selection of overly drawn speeches. The plentiful Christ symbolism offers much pondering on the insertion of his story into an industrial milieu, but the vision isn’t fully realized. There are no scenes of Christ in Concrete set in church, which smacks of oversight in a movie about Italian immigrants in the 1920s. The ending is problematic, in part because of its overwhelming dramatic impact. It’s urgent, raw, and frightening — and threatens to nullify all the previous action of the movie.

The hodgepodge of extras is problematic as well. An extended chat with Di Donato’s son Peter and film historian Bill Wasserzieher isn’t as compelling or educational as it might have been. Pietro Di Donato’s crude and grainy home movie footage has value only in marketing. Commentary over the movie offers quotes from the book and discussion of a remake with Robert De Niro. The three speakers, author Norma Barzman, film professor Fred Gardaphe, and Richard Di Donato, all have valuable contributions, but they annoyingly talk over each other in their zeal for the movie.

For the most part, Christ in Concrete amazes with its clear-eyed purpose and absence of studio artificiality. Its journey from obscurity to rediscovery is a tale in itself. It was shot in 1948 entirely in England, save for the opening credit shots of the canyons of Manhattan. Released in 1949, it lasted one week on a screen in New York before it was pulled due to its subversive content and blacklisted creative team. In 1951, Dmytryk named names to the HUAC, and was rewarded with plum assignments in the 1950s highlighted by The Caine Mutiny and Raintree County. By the time he directed The Carpetbaggers in 1964, Dmytryk’s Communist ideals and Capitalist warnings were nowhere to be found. Christ in Concrete meanwhile received periodic, unheralded reissues under alternate titles Give Us This Day and Salt to the Devil, but for the most part it had gone unseen in North America. Today it appears as if out of nowhere, bereft of a prejudicial critical reputation. See it fast. Such a condition isn’t likely to continue.

To order, visit All-Day Entertainment.

Earthly Delights in The Garden of Eden

Here is an altogether delightful rarity from yesteryear. The Garden of Eden began as a German stage play, with the rights bought by the delicate beauty Corinne Griffith, who set about finding top personnel for a 1928 silent screen translation. The result is a briskly paced bonbon of mistaken identities complicated by Cupid’s arrows.

The Garden of Eden is another relic to prove there are no new stories — only new tellings. It begins with naïve Toni LeBrun (Griffith), who leaves Budapest in search of fame as an opera singer. She has ambition but no talent. Filled with untested self-confidence, Toni ventures to the Palais de Paris, where she meets up with ogling impresario Madame Bauer (Maude George). We have in the Madame the progenitor of not one but two stock characters: the lecherous producer and the predatory dyke. George excels in the role, reveling in her duty to procure a penful of fresh, well-turned “squab” for the chorus line. Between Madame Bauer’s designs and Toni LeBrun’s delusions, it makes for a sprightly play on sex and show business coupled with Toni’s airs of responsibility that come with a swollen ego. But The Garden of Eden has just begun, and soon the action moves to Monte Carlo, where a bushel of men await with designs on our heroine.

The Garden of Eden was directed by Lewis Milestone, who infuses the movie with the graceful tracking shots and deep-focus mise-en-scène that marked the most accomplished of late silents. When the plot gets complicated by a kindly wardrobe mistress (Louise Dresser) who’s hiding a big secret, The Garden of Eden appears to presage the sparkling comedies to come from Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. That’s no coincidence: The Garden of Eden scenarist Hans Kraley also wrote several of Lubitsch’s comedies, suggesting he deserves more credit as the common denominator to film comedy pleasure.

Milestone showed a well-developed knack for comedy with The Garden of Eden and Two Arabian Knights, a farce that won him a 1927 Academy Award. But he is best remembered for 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, that anti-war primal scream masterpiece. Apart from The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Milestone never reached toward excellence again, but for a moment he had the most preternatural gift for light comedy and dark drama of any man in the business.

There are dated elements in The Garden of Eden to be sure. Griffith is charming, even if she is too old at 35 to play an ingénue. Charles Ray as love interest Richard Dupont is too doughy to be given such duties today. And all the men have on too much eye shadow, blush, and lipstick, which was conventional then but looks ridiculous now. But the photography by pioneering John Arnold (The Big Parade) and art direction by wizard William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind) are top-notch. If the plot lacks believability at certain key moments, we can remember that credibility was never a strong feature of the romantic comedy.

This new DVD from Flicker Alley offers worthwhile extras in addition to a shimmering remastering of the best surviving elements. There are reproductions of lobby cards and press releases from the original 1928 press book. Limited cast biographies are on hand, too, but the plum extra is a 10-minute 1927 short called Hollywood the Unusual. Here is a travelogue with a roving camera taking in every bit of architectural whimsy that Hollywood had to offer at the time, with buildings inspired by native styles of Scotland, Morocco, Turkey, the Netherlands, Spain, Mexico, and ancient Egypt. Never mind that this short has nothing to do with The Garden of Eden. Considering that virtually all buildings featured in Hollywood the Unusual have long since been razed, this short ought to be added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as a vital document of an era long since passed. The Garden of Eden should, too, as a fine example of the lighthearted, seemingly effortless early merging of comedy and romance.

To order, visit Flicker Alley.

Three for the Shower: These icky movies will make you feel dirty

Mau Mau Sex Sex

Mau Mau Sex Sex is not icky because it’s badly made — it’s not — but because its subject may be a bit too blue for most tastes. We have here a straightforward documentary from filmmakers Eddie Muller and Ted Bonnitt on the life and careers of Dan Sonney and David Friedman, two aged purveyors of exploitation movies of the 1950s and ’60s. These guys are still dear friends, full of respect and admiration for each other. Friedman is more gregarious, a bargain-basement P. T. Barnum whose job titles ranged from carny (“The carnival was the birthplace of exploitation,” he notes) to PR man for Paramount. Sonney became a loyal husband and father to four daughters. His stated opposition to smoking and drinking, and the casual domestic moments with his kids and spouse, are a bit protracted. We get that they’re normal, whatever that is.

Mau Mau Sex Sex’s chief asset is its historic tracing of the exploitation genres. We are given scenes from Forbidden Adventure (1937), which featured topless Cambodian women romancing gorillas. We’re treated to decomposing footage of nudist camp films of the early 1960s with their friendly, smiling, genital-free glimpses of fun and frolic. These “nudie cuties” gave way to “roughies,” with scenes of women bound, gagged, and flogged. Blood Feast (1963) required the vital organs of virgins who conveniently went bare-breasted for the camera. The Citizen Kane of roughies was The Defilers (1965), all about two men who lock a woman in a basement to psychologically and physically abuse her. By all evidence, the roughies are not as far removed from polite society as we may imagine. The Defilers looks like American Psycho or Boxing Helena without big-studio backing, but it shows an even closer resemblance to The Collector, a major Oscar-nominated A-list feature also released in 1965.

Sonney and Friedman’s queasy movies flew under the radar of the Production Code, getting by on vague promises of “education” and “moral guidance.” The Golden Age of exploitation movies was the late 1960s, when 750 theaters nationwide were part of a pipeline of cinematic sewage. Mau Mau Sex Sex offers a look at some of them through its generous portion of breast-bobbling trailers. We see highlights from The Ramrodder, Thar She Blows, and Space Thing, which manages to look even cheaper than Plan 9 From Outer Space. The ancestral link between these classics of a kind and the mainstreamed porn in the early 1970s such as Deep Throat, The Devil and Miss Jones, and Behind the Green Door, is worth further research.

What do these two auteurs have to say for themselves as they near the end of their lives? Sonney is uninterested in revising history to make his movies appear good or socially redeeming. To his credit, he offers no self-seriousness or Grey Gardens documentary weirdness. He seems very much a content man who has made peace with his legacy. Friedman comes off more as a gleeful, cigar-chomping scheister, ready still with an eye-twinkling fast quip. Both make no apologies for their unexpurgated celebration of the straight male gaze.

To order, visit

Ordinary Sinner

If you’re looking for a compelling examination of homosexuality and the modern church, might I suggest Priest? Might I also suggest you steer clear of Ordinary Sinner, an unresurrectable corpse of a movie? The characters are so broadly drawn, and their self-pitying is so epic, that I couldn’t decide whether to laugh, groan, or send my eyes heavenward for deliverance. There was plenty of opportunity to do all three.

The central character is Peter (Brendan P. Hines), a divinity student who returns to rural Vermont after he has lost the faith. He hasn’t lost his emotionally unstable boyhood pal Alex (Kris Park), or his appreciation of female loveliness in the form of Rachel (a wasted Elizabeth Banks). There’s trouble brewing when humorless, wooden Father Ed (humorless, wooden A. Martinez) dares to preach tolerance for those who prefer non-reproductive sex acts.

Director John Henry Davis and screenwriter William Mahone can’t decide who these people are. Rachel is a giddy schoolgirl one minute and a stripteasing seductress the next. The young men of tortured sexuality don’t earn much sympathy in 2003 — Greenwich Village and Naked Boys Singing! are only a few miles away. The villain sports a mohawk while his scenes are shot in muted grays to symbolize — what, a parallel universe? When the script fails its actors, which is every few seconds, some piece of music fills in where honest emotions fail. When a scumbag yells “faggot” to one of the stars, the soundtrack immediately offers a piano and flute ditty to let us know our hero feels really really bad.

Did I mention that Ordinary Sinner is godawful dull? Scenes dawdle one after another, with still more mood music to convince us that something of portent is smelling up the DVD player. The script is so hackneyed you can recite lines before they’re delivered. And apparently the filmmakers believe that if the characters say “fuck” and “fuckin'” often enough the dialogue will sound natural.

Ordinary Sinner has the intellectual gravity of a TV Guide crossword puzzle and the excitement that comes from dusting furniture. It takes hard-hitting subjects — homophobia, the church, hate crimes — and squashes them flat with a treatment too obvious for bumper stickers. Ordinary Sinner doesn’t have the guts to suggest that gaybashing has complex origins. It’s so much easier to make the bad guy a cartoon creep and so absolve more subtle forms of institutional homophobia, be they governmental, medical, or religious. The moral of Ordinary Sinner, flaccid and simple as it may be, is clear ten minutes into the longest 93-minute movie on record. All that’s left for another 83 minutes is the resolution of good intentions.

To order, visit Wolfe Video.

Breaking the Cycle

Two young gay would-be actors in New York are rooming together. Trouble starts when one pines for the other, who is preoccupied with scoring chat-room tricks. The “stable” one starts an online conversation with roomie, and they sort of fall in love over the keyboards. As if morphed into a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy, our boys then learn their cyber identities one at a time.

Breaking the Cycle is bad enough to make one pine for state-sponsored propaganda and restrictions to artistic expression. It’s ghastly what can arise when the untalented are given a video camera. And what is the message here? Its silly neopuritanism smacks of those old educational films with titles like Never Talk to Strangers and That Devil Marijuana. On the surface it seems “filmmaker” Dominick Brascia wants to stress that sexual promiscuity is unfulfilling, a worn-out lesson better delineated in just about every movie ever made with the possible exception of The Battleship Potemkin, Gidget Goes to Rome, and Winged Migration. Any movie that attempts to stress sexual responsibility among gay men, and then offers softcore sex scenes without acknowledgment of rubbers, has got its wires crossed.

Breaking the Cycle was taped on video for an apparent budget of $1.50 through the Santa Monica based 10% Productions, Inc. It ain’t MGM, but it is a shameless warehouse for Wal-Mart quality gayabilia. After you enjoy Breaking the Cycle, you can watch a promo for 10% merchandise, with its fine selection of coffee mugs, calendars, and t-shirts all featuring photos of well-muscled boy rumps. To prove 10% isn’t just out to separate the gullible gay from his hard-earned yen, this noble corporation announces that some of its revenue goes to charity. That’s nice, but good deeds don’t begat good entertainment.

The whole enterprise makes one ask where gay men got a reputation for good taste.

Let’s not start with the holes in plausibility, or the falsely happy ending. Let’s not start with the performances of the two leads, whose avowed real-life straightness is no excuse for devoutly unconvincing performances. What is Breaking the Cycle? Hard to say. It fails as a polemic, as entertainment, as pornography soft or hard, as drama, as comedy, as cautionary tale, as mythology, as slice-of-life, as …

To order, visit