Thursday, September 29, 2011

Salon Kitty (1976) and a word (or a hundred) about online shopping

Was this what they signed up for when they joined the Hitler Youth?

Tinto Brass is one of a handful of true auteurs of erotic cinema, and an ever rarer species in that unlike, say Radley Metzger, he survived the advent of both hardcore and home video and continues to produce his own brand of softcore cinema to this day.  He's best known in the United States for 1979's Caligula, which is a damn shame.  I reckon that there's few, if any, filmmakers whose work could survive being butchered by Penthouse editor Bob Guccione.  A far, far better indicator of Brass' considerable talents is 1976's Salon Kitty, a sly and witty exploitation film that has far more on its mind than mere titillation (not that that is remotely neglected.)   Kitty uses the true story of a Nazi brothel to examine the clash of cultures when National Socialism arrived in the debauched heart of Weimar Germany and the messy business of mingling sex and politics, and it does so with lavish production design, appealing cabaret numbers and an excellent cast loaded with veterans of the grindhouse and the arthouse.  Of course, many out there will disagree with me.  Some will find this movie to be deeply offensive or outright pornographic.  That's great.  There would be little fun in sharing our thoughts on film if we all thought the same way.  Unfortunately, there's some out there who not only don't like this movie, but think that no one else should either.  Worse, these people have the ear of a certain major online retailer.

Ingrid Thulin in Salon Kitty's opening cabaret number.

Last night I was browsing through my Amazon wishlist, pruning off items that I had picked up elsewhere or no longer wanted for whatever reason.  In the process of doing this I came across several items that were listed as "No Longer Available."  I assumed at first that these were merely items that Amazon was no longer able to get through their distributors.  But I was curious to see which items these were and so I googled the Amazon product numbers.  I was more than a little surprised to find the blu-ray of Salon Kitty was one such item, as it's a recent release and still readily available from Blue Underground.  It turns out, however, that this has nothing to do with availability.  It seems that there have been a number of titles removed from Amazon's virtual shelves in the last few months for their sexual content.  Examples include 1974's S&M classic Flower and Snake and the Italian sex comedy Desirable Teacher.  Now, we can argue the relative merits of any of these films...but not if we can't buy them.

When I read discussions on this subject on various forums, I repeatedly ran across people making the claim that there's no reason to be concerned about this; stores have a right to choose what they stock and it's not government censorship, which would be a real problem.  Absolutely.  We can be thankful that these films have not been prohibited by the state and that we still have alternative outlets from which to purchase these and other similar titles.  Yet it doesn't follow that just because something worse could happen we shouldn't concern ourselves with what has happened.  The person who falls and breaks their leg may be thankful they didn't break their neck, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't seek treatment for their leg.

The film's most iconic image

Look, the fact is that Amazon matters.  The internet is the lifeblood of digital diversity.  Boutique labels like Blue Underground, Synapse, Severin etc. would likely go out of business if they had to depend on being stocked in brick and mortar stores.  And when it comes to online retailers, Amazon dwarfs any and all competition.  So yes, we can still buy films like Salon Kitty at other online outlets, but for how long?  We all know that most film studios won't release a film in theaters with an NC-17 rating due to theater chains that won't book it and newspapers that won't run the ads.  It does not seem unreasonable to me to worry that if Amazon, the largest online retailer of films by an impossibly wide margin, keeps allowing the tastes of the most puritan Americans to dictate what they stock it won't be long before it's not economically feasible for companies like Blue Underground to release DVD's of controversial films.

When Amazon got in trouble for pulling books off users' Kindles, no news outlet missed the irony of the fact that the title in question was Orwell's 1984.  Well, once again the subject matter of the work in question is oddly appropriate for a discussion of Amazon's questionable business practices.  Salon Kitty tells the true story of the titular brothel, a Weimar era den of pansexual carnality.  The house is run by Kitty Kellermann, as played by Ingmar Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin (Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers) with panache and grace.  When war breaks out, Kellermann finds her brothel the target of SS officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger, famous for work with Visconti in films like Ludwig and The Damned) who wants to turn it into a den of spies.  A group of young women, fresh out of the Hitler Youth, are trained to be both spies and seductresses in order that Wallenberg can learn the sexual kinks of his colleagues and superiors and use that knowledge against them.

Teresa Ann Savoy is changed by her relationship with John Steiner

In a sense, Brass is turning the folk wisdom about the fall of Rome on its head.  We've all heard the claim (often used in support of various censorship regimes in contemporary America) that the orgiastic decadence associated with late Rome was a sign that the empire had lost its moral center and that debauchery somehow precipitated its inevitable decline.  Here, Brass posits the debauchery of Weimar Germany as, instead, a node of freedom and point of resistance against rising totalitarianism.  Kitty seems to speak for Brass when she makes comments like "I never dirtied my hands with the shit of is clean."

Rounding out the main cast is the stunning Teresa Ann Savoy, whose character Margherita experiences the film's main developmental arc.  When the film opens she has the haughtiness only accessible to someone too young and too spoiled to understand the world around her.  She spits venom at her parents, telling them that they're part of a dead generation and on the wrong side of history for not wholeheartedly supporting the Nazi party.  Only when she meets and falls for a man who bears the physical and metal scars of warfare does she question the fantasy of the Third Reich.  Savoy provides much of the film's flesh, but is not mere eye candy.  It would easy to get lost in the shadows of terrific leads like Thulin and Berger, but Savoy does a remarkable job of projecting her character's changes through a largely understated performance.

Is Helmut Berger preparing for a role in a Nazi production of Buck Rogers?

The fantasy being offered by the Nazi regime to its subjects is one of the primary focuses of the film.  Brass has a tremendous visual wit, and never misses an opportunity to poke fun at the cult of personality behind the iconography of totalitarianism.  In one unforgettable sequence, a nazi officer visiting Kitty's brothel doesn't want to touch the prostitute he hires.  Instead he projects film of Hitler's speeches across her naked body and masturbates to the sight.  When Wallenberg takes Margherita as his mistress he makes her watch as he plays dress-up, donning a series of outlandish Nazi outfits that suggest he has spent way too much time reading comic books.

No discussion of this film's visuals would be complete without the mention of one name:  Ken Adam.  Yes, the legendary set designer behind such iconic images as Doctor Strangelove's War Room and the most fantastic sets from the James Bond series (including Blofeld's volcano base in You Only Live Twice) is at work here, and the results are extraordinary.  Whether evoking a Weimar cabaret or a sterile and cavernous SS facility, Adam proves yet again that his ability to tell a story through visual design is absolutely second to none.  Of particular note is Margherita's brothel bedroom, where ubiquitous mirrors at staggered angles suggest both the eroticism of Brass's contemporary Radley Metzger as well as the notion of the omnipresent voyeur of the SS spy.

Even if you hate all the sex and nudity, you can't deny the genius of Ken Adam

When the Gestapo officers sit in windowless rooms listening to the sexual goings-on in the brothel, they look far more perverted than any of the customers or employees of Salon Kitty.  And that's really the heart of the question isn't it?  Who is the truly perverse: the one who finds a safe environment to explore their fantasies, or the one who spends all their time concerned about what others might be fantasizing about?  Clearly Amazon is hearing from the latter camp.  Some customer out there got worked up about the fact that you or I might watch Salon Kitty and thought we shouldn't have that choice.  Amazon has heard their voice.  Let's make sure they hears ours too, alright?

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