Saturday, March 9, 2013

MANDINGO (1975)

I only update this to ruin your day, guys.  We left off with girls who carve themselves, and this time we'll head back in time and to the South, where whites drink and get racey in bed in bare houses and blacks die in myriad unpleasant ways.  MANDINGO has accrued, somehow, a rep as a "bad movie" over the years and it's hard to deny that there are moments here that could be kin to SHOWGIRLS or GIGLI.  The thing about this movie, though, is that it's stuffed with stuff, so you could really say almost anything about it and not be wrong—there are certainly worthwhile elements and memorable moments enough to merit a watch.


Falconhurst is a crumbling mansion in the pre-Civil War South, home to the Maxwells and their slaves.  Crippled son Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) weds incest veteran Blanche (Susan George), but finds more comfort in the arms of slave Ellen (Brenda Sykes).  Meanwhile, male slave Mede (Ken Norton) displays fighting skill in a whole loitering episode and gets pushed into awful to-the-death proto-MMA.  MANDINGO has a fairly busy plot with lots of thematic action bubbling under the surface.  Philosophically, I suppose the question to be asked is how much responsibility can individuals have for evils that are perpetuated in/by their society?  The slaves astutely point out that their masters must be aware of their essential humanity, since they take steps to keep them away from books, religion, and other emboldening things.  So Hammond's obviously at fault for buying into the system (and he does—check out the reaction once the issue of manumission is raised).  How 'bout Mede battering & killing people in his fights, though?  Heady stuff, well-executed.


Oh, the acting in this!  Character actor appreciators are going to die of happiness at the efforts of Richard (THE JERK) Ward, Susan (STRAW DOGS) George, and Paul (THE JEFFERSONS) Benedict.  The most interesting actors don't get the most screen time, unfortunately, but what's there is splendid.  I've heard tales of woe about George here and at times she gets a little too manic, but her early presence and post-baby malaise are most fine.


So some of the George stuff and some of the dialogue earns the "camp" tag ("To get a son, you have to be a whole lot better at pleasurin'!") and, okay, some of the scenes are a little too overwrought and ridiculous—


—but other scenes really do bring the horrors of slavery home, especially the way that blacks were co-opted into a system that tortured other blacks—


—including a resurgence of the gladiatorial fighting that marked the fall of Rome.


MANDINGO is regarded in some circles as a big-budget exploitation film, partially owing to the copious bloodletting and eye-gouging.  But it also doesn't skimp on the sex and has a special fascination for intercourse between ethnic groups.  The "relationship" between Hammond and Ellen was so deftly constructed (at first) that I kind of wanted the movie to ditch the other elements and just made this a period romance, like a plantation Romeo and Juliet.


Tellingly, the scenes that are most carefully composed and shot are the sex scenes—



—although the mutilation and punch-ups are well-constructed, too.


Content aside, I think a lot of the reason this gets pegged as exploitation is because it looks like a cheapo b-flick.  BUT, listen, the setting is key here, it demonstrates that this family has fallen from whatever Dixie/feudal glory they possessed.  The walls are bare, the floors are bald, it looks like a sexploitation film shot in a series of darkened corners.


When George's character degenerates into alcoholic desperation, they show it by showing how she's given up on cleanliness and order, BUT THERE ARE ONLY LIKE FOUR THINGS SITTING ON THE FLOOR.  MANDINGO's landscape is practically post-apocalyptic.  


People mostly don't talk about MANDINGO, except to say that they heard it was bad, but you obviously shouldn't take a critic's word for it.  Listen to me instead, I'm the opposite of a critic and I am advising you to give it a spin.  And I am also apologizing for how Debbie Downer the past few posts have been!  I have been under black clouds for a bit, but then I won an award and got over listening to Filth Pig all day long, so future posts should mark a return to the trashy/fun status quo.  Get ready for pleasurin'.  

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