Did you happen to record Monty Python’s Flying Circus when it was shown on PBS back in the 1970s?
Do you still have the tapes?
Is there a TIME LIFE logo at the end?
If so, please write to me.
REQUEST: Did you see this movie when it was first released?
If so, please write to me.
This movie was so badly reviewed 40 years ago, when it got mostly poor boxoffice returns.
But when I see it with modern audiences nearly everybody seems to love it and to want to talk about it enthusiastically afterwards.
I really want to know how audiences responded back in the day.
The Italian poster, designed by Renato Casaro
Another Italian poster, designed by someone or other
Here’s yet another poster, which popped up on eBay (item 360102413543).
The Australian and German posters. The black man has been deleted,
except for his hand, which has been changed into an indecipherable abstraction.
(Don’ want to put off the customers now, do we?)
The English-language export version, taken from Radley Metzger’s only remaining US print,
is finally available on DVD — from
This is where the creators of MTV got
all their ideas. But nothing I’ve ever seen on
MTV comes close to the mastery of this original from
the late 1960s.
After Heart in His Mouth,
producer Dino De Laurentiis offered Brass a chance to make a smaller and even more daring film.
Brass chose to update a script he had written in early 1964 immediately after completing
In capo al mondo.
He had apparently become enamored of the avant-garde filmmakers and decided to one-up them all.
He again hired his friend, cartoonist
Guido Crepax, to draw the storyboards and to create graphics.
Shooting began in October 1967 and the result, NEROSUBIANCO,
which premièred at the Cannes festival in May 1968, was a carefully wrought and meticulously structured orgy of free-association.
To help explain what is or isn’t going on, disembodied voices occasionally break through saying, in both Italian and English,
“Qualcosa come un sogno” — “Something like a dream.”
A song goes further:
“Didn’t you know that your misty eyes haven’t seen?
They’ve been telling lies in dreams.”
Anticipating Brass’s later works, the visuals, and even more so the voice-overs, are bluntly sexual —
more blunt than even we today are accustomed to experiencing.
The title has a double meaning — or actually a triple meaning. The Italian equivalent of
“black and white” —
as in “Read it for yourself; it’s all there in black and white” —
is “nero su bianco,” which literally means “black on white.”
The main situation in the film is the unspoken mutual obsession
of a black American man and an Italian housewife in London.
Which, if any, of the characters are supposed to be real,
and in whose imagination(s) any of this occurs,
is open to probably any interpretation.
My interpretation is that none of the characters is supposed to be real,
and that the entire film is Tinto’s stream of consciousness.
There is little dialogue,
and most of the film is accompanied by a rock group called Freedom,
who serve as a sort of a Greek chorus.
Tinto Brass directs the little old lady on how to machine-gun hippies.
Again, the breathtakingly fast editing
reveals the six-perf splicing tape. Many of the images
are probably too far out to qualify as surreal.
di Grazia’s consciousness lab
becomes almost a carnival ten-in-one, with
subjects’ responses measured on an enormous
oscilloscope. Husband Paolo is ready to go to sleep
when he discovers that his wife Barbara has turned
into a cow. A few scenes later, after Barbara compares
him to a monkey, Paolo turns into two oranges and a
banana. A little old lady machine guns a line-up of
hippies. Freedom plays several songs while perched in
a tree. The film is filled with negative images,
monochrome images, multiple takes, overcranking,
undercranking, unexpected sound effects, and nonstop
mixing of new film with archive film, cartoon
drawings, and billboards.
Brass utilizes some of the
war-atrocity footage he had gathered for Ça
ira to create a shattering sequence when Paolo
reappears as a ghoulish priest in Luna Park’s love
tunnel, proclaiming that love scenes are forbidden
because they’re dangerous, but that scenes of war
are permitted and will now be shown instead. Yes, the
idea is simplistic, but its summary of civilization’s
insane disconnect is terrifyingly true
and presented so directly and forcefully that
it’s impossible to put it out of one’s mind.
HOMAGES, INSPIRATIONS, OR
PLAGIARISMS? At the end of the film we see a mass
of people in Hyde Park, some of whom are outlandishly
dressed, running from behind the film crew’s
camera into the distance. This is unquestionably where
Monty Python got the idea for their sketch about Ken
Russell’s Gardening Club. There are also
two brief glimpses of the black man’s hands
folded in front of the white woman’s
breasts — the same image that Spike Lee used for
the poster of Jungle Fever.
ACCOST NOT THE LADY.
Since nobody else is ever going to mention this,
I guess the task falls to me.
In this scene (which got a good laugh at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood on 3 April 2009),
an ideologue lies in wait for unsuspecting prey.
Barbara chances by, and the ideologue grabs her and spins her around
to preach her a political sermon in some dialect of Chinese.
He brandishes Mao’s Little Red Book and concludes by slapping it into her hand.
Barbara is stunned.
She opens the book only to discover that it’s an English translation of
Jean-Luc Godard’s script of La Chinoise.
And that is when we learn, definitively,
that the English dialogue track was recorded prior to the Italian dialogue track,
for even in the Italian edition we hear Barbara’s English voice say “Crazy!”
And that brings us to the next section:
IN ENGLISH, ONCE AGAIN. Though
Anita Sanders and Nino Segurini spoke Italian on screen,
the bulk of the film was shot in direct sound in English,
and it is the English version that Brass prefers. He
even dubbed a voice-over line himself: “Pornography
of violence.” The Italian edition is a mix of the
two languages, without subtitles.
There is an odd element in this movie, though, and it concerns the dialogue:
Frequently the characters are heard talking even though their lips are not moving.
That is a device copied from the influential 1946 indie called
Dreams That Money Can Buy.
SOMETHING ALWAYS GOES WRONG:NEROSUBIANCO
was well received at the Cannes trade festival, but was banned by the Italian censors in November 1968.
Producer De Laurentiis couldn’t file an appeal because he had just fled the country to escape the clutches of the tax collectors,
hence neither his name nor the name of his studio appears anywhere in the credits.
The Italian Inland Revenue then confiscated the De Laurentiis studio, Dinocittà, and all its holdings,
Despite all this, Ceiad Columbia somehow managed to release the film briefly in Europe in early 1969
to what Variety called “fair returns for a way-out pic.”
The international prints were trimmed by 10 minutes — and it was not the censorable material that was cut!
In October 1969, Radley Metzger’s distribution company, Audubon Films,
released the English-language export version in the US under the title Black on White.
The reviewers of the time, who were honor-bound to clock the running time themselves,
apparently did not do so and copied the now-erroneous 89-minute spec into their reviews.
The export prints had the title ATTRACTION printed right into the credit scroll,
which made alteration nearly impossible.
What I think Radley probably did was to superimpose BLACK ON WHITE on the first image of the trees,
and then leave the ATTRACTION title alone.
When he attempted to put the movie into wider release, he changed the title to
The Artful Penetration of Barbara,
though the poster contained an abbreviated title: The Artful Penetration.
I’m sure that anyone who put on his raincoat and sunglasses and snuck into a showing ended up being terribly disappointed.
Metzger finally had someone go through the posters and sensibly paste ATTRACTION over THE ARTFUL PENETRATION,
but the movie continued to die at the boxoffice.
In 1996 or 1997 I happened to meet Metzger at the Syracuse Cinefest.
He told me that he thought the film exceptionally fine, and that he was saddened that it had never found its audience.
He still holds the license for the US rights to the English version, but he ran into complications in his plans to release the film on DVD.
(Thank you so much, Radley, for allowing me to see your copy of the film!)
A severely censored 59-minute English version, entitled Attraction, was shown in England briefly in late 1973,
and it was possibly this same version that was shown in Australia.
The film has rarely been shown since that time.
Some sources mention another release, somewhere on this planet, under the title Shameful.
If this is correct, then whoever retitled the film misunderstood it perfectly.
ELUSIVENESS: Among the rare showings have been television broadcasts,
which not only crop the 1:1.85 width to fill the screen, thus rendering many of the images incomprehensible,
but they also hack it to pieces, resulting in a running time of 66 minutes at PAL speed, about 20 minutes short of the original.
To top things off, many of the tasteful nude scenes and other supposedly objectionable images are obscured by spinning spirals and cross-hatches.
Yet even in that form it’s a magnificent work.
(Thank you Jönas for supplying a copy!)
TUNES: The music Brass commissioned from Freedom —
and in later films from Fiorenzo Carpi, Pino Donaggio, and Riz Ortolani —
is masterfully synched to the emotions and rhythms of the films.
I doubt any other filmmaker/composer teams have done such exquisite work in matching sound to image as these teamings.
For those who are interested, Freedom consisted of four members and a producer, three of whom had just been fired from Procol Harum.
Before Freedom had even had time to prove their worth by composing a single measure of music,
Brass commissioned them to write fourteen songs for this film.
According to enthusiasts of psychedelic rock, these are the only songs by Freedom that were any good —
and they are now considered among the cream of the crop of the genre.
Freedom, though, led a jinxed existence.
Strangely, the group had not known about the existence of the rare Italian LP until circa 1999.
By the way, I’m no rock fan, to say the least, but I find these fourteen songs irresistible
and have listened to the CD re-issue probably hundreds of times now.
Yes, I know, the musicianship is rather inept.
But I like it anyway.
The original soundtrack LP,
which Freedom didn’t even know had been issued, was on the Atlantic label, ATL-LP 08028,
and is now quite the collector’s item.
It was reissued on vinyl thrice, first in 1994 by Tenth Planet, a British/French label,
in a limited edition of 500 copies, label TP011.
The cover was monochrome, and the accompanying booklet amusingly stated the the film
“appears to have been abandoned.
Whether the film was complete or not is difficult to ascertain,
but it does not seem to have received a general release
(although given that de Laurentiis is alleged to have financed more than 500 films,
it’s unlikely that even he noticed its non-appearance).
However, the intended soundtrack album eventually emerged in June 1969,
a full eighteen months after the band had started work on the project.”
More recently there came a third issue, a limited edition of 1,000 copies from Merry-Go-Round Records of Japan,
“Hidden Archives Series No.1,” label MGRL 0001, taken from the master monaural (!) tapes,
with the addition of two extra “dry” tracks.
A fourth issue came out shortly afterwards, by Merry-Go-Round in collaboration with Comet Records, MIE 012/2.
“The Truth Is Plain to See” Left to right: Bobby Harrison, Steve Shirley, Ray Royer, Mike Lease
CURMUDGEONS: The critics were totally clueless.
Howard Thompson of the New York Times (10 October 1969, p. 36) wrote:
Radley Metzger, a tireless promoter of sensationalized sex movies,
often with a wisp of artistic camouflage,
has scraped a British barrel and come up now with something called “Black on White.”...
As entertainment or art, this Technicolor picture is garbage [actually it was Eastmancolor — RS]....
The rock ’n’ roll score, boinged out by some seedy-looking hippies we first see perched in a tree like a bunch of vultures,
The exhibitors of “Black on White” themselves have given the import a rating of “X — persons under 17 cannot be admitted.”
Younger movie-goers can take that as a compliment.
This time that X means excruciating.
“Kent” in Variety (15 October 1969):
Pretentious exploiter that fails to deliver enough sex or shock values to score....
The whole thing is punctuated by an utterly forgettable rock score....
The direction is strictly pedestrian.
I give both critics a thumbs down, zero stars.
No imagination at all!
I bet they’re lousy conversationalists too.
With raves like theirs it’s little wonder that no one bothered to take a look.
Better reviews and a stronger promotion could probably have turned this into a midnight favorite quite easily.
Modern audiences, after twenty years of NEROSUBIANCO’s lame bastard child, MTV,
would surely be more attuned to the film’s eccentricities.
Since this movie was made, the only advance in the music-video genre of which I’m aware can be found at
(If the link doesn’t work, search Google for "hatten.swf".)
The tagline above was Radley Metzger’s invention.
We are offering a bounty for a good-quality, complete video
(at least 89 minutes at 24fps, at least 86 minutes at 25fps,
1:85:1 camera matte). If you know where we can get one,
write to us.
Carter: From Phil Silvers to Tinto Brass? What a jump!
Yes, he was in The Phil Silvers Show: You’ll Never
Get Rich (a.k.a. Sergeant Bilko). And then
Battlestar Galactica? What an odd career. He had learned Italian when he
fell in love with and married his Italian tour guide in the early
1960s, shortly after which he switched careers and became the first black newscaster
in the USA. When he received the offer to appear in this film, he took a leave
of absence from his regular job, which led to an epiphany, for this odd little movie
taught him that his first love was indeed acting, and so he switched careers again.
Anita Sanders quickly fell off the map. She was
later credited as an assistant director on the English-language version (but
not on the Italian version, strangely) of Fellini’s Casanova (1976). I bet
there are stories there, and I wish I knew them. After this and
Nino Segurini never appeared in another Tinto Brass movie. I guess
he got tired of being likened to flea-picking baboons. (Thank
you, Marcel, for filling me in on Terry Carter’s career, but Yahoo destroyed all our
correspondence; so please write to me again. Thanks!)
REQUEST: There are hundreds
of extras in this film. (Hey, after all, many of the shots were
“stolen,” to use movie lingo. That simply means that
Brass and his crew wandered around London and spent much time just
filming things and people that they happened to see. And I bet that
a bunch of the folks who followed the script were people that Brass
spontaneously picked out of crowds.) If you can identify any of the
folks on screen, please contact us. Thanks!
POSTSCRIPT ADDED ON MONDAY, 8 JULY 2002:
I just learned that Nick Saxton, production-and-location manager on this film,
later directed some of the earliest pioneering music videos.
Well, I haven’t seen his works, but now I know something more about the evolution of this cultural phenomenon.
Sounds like he was a fascinating guy!
An obituary (formerly at http://www.chalice.net/pages/offaxis/01-09-27nick.html),
written by his longtime friend Bruce Miller, mentions also that Saxton worked on another Tinto Brass movie called Separation.
Something got garbled; he actually means to refer to a movie by Jane Arden and Jack Bond,
which you can learn about at
“Separation (and Procol Harum).”
Thanks to Roland at ‘Beyond the Pale’
for referring me to this site and solving a mystery.
Summary posted on BFI site:Separation, scripted and starring Jane Arden, concerns the inner life of a woman during a period of breakdown — marital, and possibly mental. Her past and (possible?) future are revealed through a fragmented but brilliantly achieved and often humorous narrative, in which dreams and desires are as real as the ‘swinging’ London (complete with Procol Harum music and Mark Boyle light show) of the film’s setting.
Summary posted on BFI site: Jane Arden’s violent and powerful adaptation of her work with The Holocaust women’s theatre troupe looks into the mind of a woman labelled schizophrenic and finds, not madness, but tortured sexual guilt created by the taboos of society.
Summary posted on BFI site: ‘A complex and fascinating experimental exploration of time and identity. Anti-Clock is a film of authentic, startling originality. Brilliantly mixing cinema and video techniques, Arden and Bond have created a movie that captures the anxiety and sense of danger that has infiltrated the consciousness of so many people in western society. Filled with high tension and high intelligence, Anti-Clock is mysterious, disturbing, fascinating and exciting’. (Jack Kroll, Newsweek)
Separation is marvelous. I’ve not seen the others yet.
Italian director Tinto Brass shooting “Bianco Su Nero”
(“White or Black”) on London locations for Lion Films and Dino DeLaurentiis.
Variety, Wednesday, 8 May 1968, p. 48:
TINTO BRASS — is ready to show his “Black on White” — a
modern musical without dialogue to producer Dino De Laurentiis.
Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1973, p. 230:
...Author of such works as Ca Ira, L’Urlo, Drop Out
and La Vacanza, Tinto Brass — second only to Carmelo Bene in eccentricity of
style — here employs a non-narrative cut-up technique involving all manner of editing
devices, freeze-frames and negative effects, in a film shot on location in London by an
obviously resourceful cameraman. One suspects that it must have been pretty incoherent
in its original form, but as presented here with extensive cuts, it is an
incomprehensible shambles, neither sexy enough for the exploitation market nor fashionable
enough for art houses.... — John Gillett
[I’ve been able to locate only
one Carmelo Bene film, Salome. “Eccentricity”
is the right word all right!] Here are some clips: