Thursday, 21 September 2017

Los Blues de la Calle Pop

During my visit to Spain last year, prior to my pilgrimage to Calpe for the inaugural instalment in the (hopefully soon to be continued) Great Jess Franco Locations Tour, I was obliged to spend several days just down the coast in Benidorm – a town whose negative reputation couldn’t even begin to prepare me for the reality of its sheer, staggering awfulness.

A baking strip of wall-to-wall concrete and claustrophobic, decaying high rise hotels sucking the life out of a once idyllic beach front, Benidorm is populated largely by roving gangs of bloated, sun-burned British tourists, many of whom seem determined to live down to their nation’s very worst stereotypes by behaving in as thuggish and xenophobic a manner as they can get away with without attracting the attention of the town’s ever-present (and presumably long suffering) police patrols.

Along the front, bars seem to blast out Queen and Bryan Adams for about sixteen hours a day whilst serving microwaved pizzas and endless steins of watered down lager, whilst further back from the beach, the streets, distressingly, begin to resemble the dying centre of some economically deprived English town - full of familiar decaying chain stores, rubbish-strewn pavements and a vague sense of menace.

Deeper into what passes for Benidorm’s “pleasure quarter” meanwhile, in between Brit-owned faux-pubs proudly advertising the fact that no Spanish is spoken within, one can find beer-sodden strip joints, sex clubs and, I’m sure, vice-related enterprises of a less legal nature, all of an order so grimy and desperate that even Jess Franco himself might have thought twice before paying them a visit.

In view of these horrors, I have subsequently been delighted to discover ‘Los Blues de la Calle Pop’ (“The Blues of Pop Street”), an extremely strange little movie that Franco filmed in Benidorm in the midst of his early ‘80s Golden Films purple patch. (1) Herein, our hero rechristens the town “Shit City”, reimagining it in his own inimitable fashion as a kind of neo-noir dystopian wonderland of organised crime, rampaging punks and sweaty sexual violence.

Fitting roughly into the lineage of whimsical, ramshackle thrillers Franco had been occasionally banging out ever since La Muerte Silba un Blues in ’62, the inexplicably named ‘.. Calle Pop’ (wouldn’t “Shit City” have been a better title?) begins with a scene in which down at heel private eye Felipe Marlboro (Antonio Mayans) is hired by a sad-eyed young lady named “Mary Lucky” (played, with typical Franco weirdness, by a one-shot actress credited only as “Mary Sad”). She pleads poverty, but reluctantly agrees to pay Marlboro back with a bit of casual sex if he will travel to Shit City to locate her missing boyfriend, who goes by the name of “Macho Jim”.

Mary hands Mayans a picture of “Macho Jim”, and, in a rather bizarre visual gag, we see an insert shot of a Frank Frazetta-style barbarian illustration, prompting the observation that ol’ Jim certainly seems to live up to his name. Other shots of Frazetta artwork will proceed to pop up once or twice through the rest of the film, though whether they are intended as Godardian avant garde interjections or just weird attempts at humour, who knows.

Similarly, quite why the protagonist of this movie is named “Felipe Marlboro”, despite being essentially the same character as Franco’s frequently recurring private eye Al Periera, whom Mayans played on many occasions, is likely to remain a mystery for the ages.

In a further eccentric touch, stills of the Manhattan skyline are used to illustrate the opening credits sequence, over which the credits are scrawled in the form of blood-red children’s sprawl, accompanied by crude, stick-man illustrations, whilst a dusty old bossa-nova/fuzz-rock track blares in the background.

Arriving in ‘Shit City’, Marlboro of course has to stay at one of Benidorm’s very few actual cool-looking hotels (shot from high angle, its geometric outline briefly captures a touch of the sinister, futuristic vibe Franco brought to the ‘Grande-Motte’ complex in Lorna The Exorcist).

Whilst making himself at home, Felipe discovers that his neighbour in the hotel is some kind of loud-mouthed dominatrix type person who seems to have stepped straight out of Derek Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’, complete with hair like a poodle attacked with spray paint, studded leather jacket and a dog collar.

Though Marlboro declines her offer of casual sex, they still hang about together a bit, and as such, he subsequently finds himself in the hot seat when she is unceremoniously murdered by a gang of sadistic underworld heavies, catapulting our hero into a theoretically complex (but actually just boring and inconsequential) sub-‘Big Sleep’ style mystery with the elusive “Macho Jim” at its epicentre… or something.

(The movie’s primary antagonist, by the way, is an unhinged flamenco dancer who assaults his victims via aggressive dance moves, accompanied by snatches of canned music on the soundtrack and cries of “please, not the flamenco!”. Perhaps it’s a Spanish thing, I dunno, but speaking as a foreigner I must say I found this line of humour somewhat less than hysterical. Flamenco-guy’s main sidekick however is a moustached ‘70s long hair / aviator shades type dude, which I thought made for an amusing contrast.)

As I have stated in prior reviews, I feel that, to some extent, Jess Franco never really got the 1980s. Whilst he remained as prolific as ever through the first half of the decade, I just don’t think he was ever managed to exploit the aesthetic of the era as successfully as he had during the ‘60s and ‘70s - thus aligning himself with a long list of ‘60s veterans in all creative fields who hit the skids in a big way once 1980 rolled around.

But, this failure certainly wasn’t down to any lack of effort on Franco’s part, and, as my brief synopsis above implies, what we find ourselves looking at here is – brace yourselves – a Jess Franco movie full of punks.

Yes, the streets of Shit City are veritably overflowing with cockerel-haired, safety pin adorned, leather-clad miscreants, of whom the ill-fated dominatrix girl and “Macho Jim” (when he eventually makes an appearance) and but two, and indeed, Franco’s take on the punk sub-culture is just as off-beat as you might imagine.

Well, I say ‘off-beat’, but it’s really more just lazy, to be honest. The beliefs and tastes of the ‘punks’ are never addressed by the film, and basically it is easy to imagine that, when Franco found himself working on a story that featured a lot of ‘youth’ characters, he just asked “hey, uh, how are the kids dressing these days? It’s all this ‘punk’ thing, isn’t it?”, prompting whoever was responsible for the film’s make up and costumes gave him a big HELL YES and then go absolutely bananas with the idea.

Whoever was responsible, ‘Los Blues de la Calle Pop’s low rent urban warriors are certainly a sight to behold, verging on ‘Rollerblade’/‘Intrepidos Punks’ level ridiculousness at times. Much face paint is in evidence alongside the requisite overdose of hair-spray, whilst the female punks sport plastic-y looking chains and fragments of mismatched lingerie, whilst appearing to have taken a few lessons from the Betty Rubble school of DIY dress design.

My favourite male punk meanwhile is a guy who wears a black golf visor with “PUNK” written on it with correction fluid, combined with a homemade swastika patch, black leather driving gloves and a Phil Oakey-style face-covering forelock. I don’t know how much they paid him to walk around Benidorm dressed like this, but it wasn’t enough. (2)

Meanwhile however, there is not even the slightest hint of ‘new wave’ music to be found within ‘..Calle Pop’ – quite the contrary, in fact. Indeed, I’m sorry to report that most of the music used here is at best inappropriate, at worst singularly dreadful, consisting of a bunch of lumpen, cheesy big band jazz cues of the kind more traditionally used to enforce a ‘jaunty’ atmosphere in unspeakably Germanic sex comedies. (Hell, for all I know Franco might have picked up some tapes of this stuff whilst making an unspeakable German sex comedy.)

Wherever it originated from, this ‘wacky’ guff plays loudly and incessantly through much of the film, pretty much destroying any attempt to create a dystopian/neo-noir kind of ambience, and driving me to distraction in the process. (Seriously - it’s awful.)

We do at least get some brief respite from the trombone however when, in a delightful instance of only-in-a-Jess-Franco-film surrealism, it turns out that Shit City’s punk rockers like to congregate in a ‘piano bar’, where they listen intently as the director himself (playing a kind of loosely Film Noir inspired nightclub pianist/informer type character named “Jack Chesterfield”) lays down some gentle boogie-woogie and mellifluous lounge jazz for their delectation.

This being a Franco film of course, the ubiquitous punks are also dedicated strip club patrons, and it is here, needless to say, that we encounter Lina Romay – appearing in her ‘Candy Coster’ alter-ego – who essays the role of “Butterfly”, the latest in a long line of happy-go-lucky exotic dancers / sex workers portrayed by Romay in Franco’s films from the mid ‘70s through to the mid ‘80s.

Often, Lina’s nightclub scenes are highlights of the films in which they feature, with the couple’s unique voyeur/exhibitionist relationship firing on all cylinders (from my own reviews, Los Noche de los Sexos Abiertos, filmed the same year as this one, proves a pertinent example), but sadly, Franco’s mojo seems to have deserted him here, and the strip club routines are pretty dire.

Capturing Lina as she works her way through a listless, buttock-grinding routine that proves distinctly unflattering to her increasingly plump form, these typically lengthy digressions see her rolling around and gyrating rather clumsily on the grubby stage, basically resembling the kind of unedifying spectacle one might expect to see in an actual Benidorm strip club. Rendered even less enjoyable by the fact that she seems to be moving to a completely different beat from the mind-numbing easy listening cue heard in the finished film, I’m afraid this is definitely not a highlight of Ms Romay’s storied career in erotic cinema.

Actually, it is interesting to note that, for the most part, ‘Los Blues de la Calle Pop’ is entirely lacking in the kind of sexual content one would expect of an ‘80s Franco film. Though the storyline itself is full of unseemly business (prostitution, strip clubs, sexualised murders), someone involved in the production seems perhaps to have taken a last minute decision to pitch the film at a slightly different audience, and as such, nudity and on-screen sex is kept to a minimum (by Franco standards, at least). Despite being staggeringly sleazy in most other respects, the aforementioned nightclub scenes for instance don’t even see Lina taking her g-string off (which perhaps to some extent explains why both she and Jess seem so bored with the whole affair).

But then, late in the movie, Franco goes and blows the whole deal with a lengthy Mayans/Romay love scene, filmed as was often his want in this era entirely via near-abstract close-ups, including the sight of Mayans spending a great length of time sticking his chops into what I’m *fairly sure* must be an artificial bush (though with Lina, I wouldn’t count on it). Maybe they thought the censors wouldn’t mind if it was a fake one, or something? Who knows.

In light of this confused approach, it is difficult to figure out quite who this film was supposed to be aimed at, or indeed how it secured a release at all, given its DIY level production values and lack of any easily exploitable content. (3) As with most of Franco’s straight ‘thrillers’, casual viewers are liable to find ‘..Calle Pop’ an off-putting, meandering and generally infuriating experience, whilst its intentional comedy elements alternate between the hopelessly clumsy and the simply incomprehensible. The “youth movie” aspects that the film’s domestic VHS release gamely tried to play up meanwhile never really materialise, with the generally sleazy vibe further mitigating against this idea, so, without any real erotic material to fall back on, what does that leave us, beyond a barely releasable load of lackadaisical, in-jokey Franco hoo-hah?

Well, for dyed-in-the-wool Franco freaks such as myself of course, such barely releasable hoo-hah is very much our bread and butter, and in spite of everything, ‘Los Blues de la Calle Pop’ is actually a surprisingly engaging film on a purely visual level. As I discovered when returning to it to take some screenshots for this review, if you play it through with no sound or subtitles, it actually starts to look like pretty great in places.

Some scenes utilise rich, deliberate colour schemes (red walls and stained glass), picked out with what looks like it might have been quite decent cinematography before the ravages of VHS took hold. At various points in the film, different varieties of red filters are even used – sometimes to create an atmospheric ‘evening’ effect, and sometimes just for the sake of random weirdness (such as making a drab hotel lobby look like a photographic dark room).

In another characteristic Franco touch, ‘accidental’ camera blunders (over-saturated sunlight, lens flare, botched focus etc) are actively encouraged, and indeed exaggerated in the name of added visual interest. In particular, rainbow-coloured light halos, created by strong light sources shone directly into the camera, can be seen exploding all over the place like cost-free psychedelic effects.

At the other end of the technical spectrum meanwhile, a brief scene in Lina’s dressing room casually pulls off a nifty ‘infinite mirror’ effect, and a red-tinted final confrontation between the two leads is constructed with great skill and no small amount of style, paying effective tribute to the jagged framing and editing patterns of classic Film Noir. The film’s editing (credited to David Raposo) is actually very good throughout, meaning that, mystifyingly awful though it may be in many ways, ‘..Calle Pop’ at least never drags. (4)

Franco’s usual ADHD tendencies also see him splicing in static close-ups all kinds of posters and decorations adorning the bars and apartments in which the film is shot, some of which – including the Frazetta illustrations referenced above and a Victorian print of a train accident assigned the English caption “Oh Shit!” - seem to provide oblique commentary on the on-screen action. Between shots of Bogart, Marilyn, Led Zeppelin and Adam & The Ants, the cultural iconography of Benidorm circa 1983 is certainly well-explored here.

Locations are used reasonably well (I was particularly delighted to see an early ambush/fight sequence staged within the monolithic shopping mall that I ventured into to pick up some breakfast supplies during my stay), and the idea of reimagining Benidorm as a kind of floating, pulp fictional dystopia is an absolutely brilliant one, although sadly Franco doesn’t seem to have put a huge amount of effort into realising it on screen.

As usual in these Al Periera-type movies, he seems to have been more concerned with goofing on a few half-remembered scenes from whatever classic Hollywood crime movies were on his mind at the time, and, as usual, one suspects this was a lot more fun for the director than it is for his audience.

For first time in fact, we get a definite sense in ‘..Calle Pop’ of Franco getting old. Up to the mid-70s at least, his films felt at least somewhat in tune with the zeitgeist, comfortable in their own skin you might say, but here he demonstrates little interest in the contemporary characters and settings, instead subjecting his viewers to the squarest music imaginable whilst giving every indication of wishing to return to the glory days of his youth, taking in some black & white studio masterpiece in a darkened Madrid picture house.

One gets the feeling here that by this stage in his career Franco really just wanted to make his own ‘Kiss of Death’ or ‘The Big Combo’ or something… but, when you find yourself in Benidorm in 1983 with a few Pesetas in yr pocket and a cast & crew consisting mainly of local kids, you’ve got to adjust to your circumstances, and ‘..Calle Pop’ is the somewhat confused result – a massively self-indulgent work, complete with an overriding tone of camp self-awareness that would go on to shape the majority of the director’s dreaded post-1990 Shot-On-Video output.

For its sheer strangeness, for the chance to see Franco’s take on Benidorm, and for all the random, piano bar-frequenting punks, I confess I actually quite enjoyed ‘Le Blues de Calle Pop’ on its own terms, but at the same time, it is not a viewing experience I would necessarily recommend to many other human being. As should be abundantly clear by this point, we’re well into a “For Madmen Only” corner of Franco’s filmography here, so if you’re anything less than a tenth level adept of the great man’s canon, I’d advise approaching with caution.

(1) Despite being shot during the period in which Franco was primarily working for Golden Films, ‘..Calle Pop’ seems to have been shot without their intervention, with the credits assigning the production solely to Franco’s own Manacoa Films. Combine this with the lack of any credited producer and ‘..Calle Pop’s bottomless eccentricity, lack of easily exploitable genre elements and general obscurity all come into sharper focus.

(2)In tracking down and watching ‘Los Blues de la Calle Pop’, I have actually found myself fulfilling my long-standing ambition of discovering a film crawling with punks which was NOT included in Zack Carlson & Bryan Connolly’s otherwise encyclopaedic Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. I wish I could take the opportunity to become probably about the 78th person to point out this oversight to the authors, but the book’s promotional website is long-dead by this stage, and it was out of print the last time I checked, so what can ya do?

(3)According to IMDB’s always eerily hyper-specific box office data, ‘Los Blues de la Calle Pop’ did actually enjoy a brief theatrical run in Spain, selling exactly 5,401 tickets and earning 1,291,425 Spanish Pesetas.

(4) An editorial assistant on a number of mainstream/arthouse films in Spain during the ‘70s (as well as the 1975 Exorcism knock-off “The Devil’s Exorcist” with Jack Taylor), Raposo seems to have moved toward (s)exploitation fare when he took on full ‘editor’ status in the early’80s, although I believe this film is his only credit for Franco.


Elliot James said...

A documentary about this sleaze pit town sounds like it would be more engrossing than Franco's detective film.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comment Elliot. Funnily enough, Franco did actually make a quasi-documentary (well, "anthropological beach party movie", apparently) at the same time he was shooting this one. It's proved too obscure for me to track down thus far, but you can find a review here:

Elliot James said...

It looks like it's on a porn tube site called xvideos, a site I won't go on.