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KinoKultur: Maria Montez, Mondocane, Museum Town

Kino Lorber Museum Town

KinoKultur is a thematic exploration of the queer, camp, weird, and radical releases Kino Lorber has to offer.

Three July releases from Kino Lorber show us how important it is to map the geographies of a film’s setting. Setting can hold buried treasures, untold dangers, and perhaps even enlightenment. All we have to do is remember the map is not the territory.

The enchanted worlds of Maria Montez and John Hall are thick forests of race, gender, empire, and technology. The three films presented in the Maria Montez & John Hall Collection show off the remarkable chemistry of this pair, the ornateness of 1940s orientalism, and how Technicolor saturated it all. 

Ignited by their exotic appearance in Universal’s Arabian Nights, this collection presents three subsequent pairings of the on-screen duo, each a vibrant adventure film with more or less the same plot and pervasive Orientalism. These are short fairy tales in which psychology is of little consequence. We’re here to watch the white knight rescue the same raven-haired damsel with a new lurid background each time.

For White Savage, Montez plays Tahia, a South Sea Princess soon to be married off to a horrible industrialist were it not for the handsome shark hunter, Kaloe (John Hall), determined to free her heart and body. It’s the same deal in Gypsy Wildcat, but with a caravan. The collection concludes with Sudan, a dusty tale about Naila, an Egyptian princess bound and besotted by her rebel captor Merab.

Gypsy Wildcat (Kino Lorber)
Gypsy Wildcat (Kino Lorber)

What the commentary tracks for Gypsy Wildcat and Sudan make clear is that the project of these films is to show off the skills of two singular cinematic attractions: Technicolor and Maria Montez. The films in this collection were made when the movie color company first climbed to the height of its influence. Every corner of the screen is filled with bold pigment, making these films quite bedazzling to watch.

Yet we can’t help but notice how the use of color film goes part and parcel of the racist imagery in the background. Technicolor means the colorfulness of the exotic can be put on display. Deep color lets us see golden earrings shimmer, blue beads sparkle on veils, and crimson dresses whirl. Each film will have some erotic/exotic dance in which sound, color, and movement collide into an expression of “passion” that has no purpose other than to show you the wonder of cinema.

But these films show us the work of cinema as well. We can see white supremacist narratives boldly now that they’re in Technicolor. There is no place, no actual location, only set-dressing. They are always Polynesia, The Middle East, and The Middle Ages all in one. Yet the painted sets are not as bad as the painted faces, which become even more grotesque because what is raceplay but a play of color? 

With his clean white teeth and Saxon braun, the handsome rescuer stands out against the other. These films demonstrate that the “colorization” of orientalism in the white imagination and the rise of Technicolor are inseparable. Thanks to this new color technology, 1940s Hollywood could continue its project of white domination by contrasting its Aryan angel with the wild and too-vibrant Other.

Tragically concealed amongst these colonial layers is the extraordinary work of Maria Montez. It’s evident why the Dominican actress became known as “The Queen of Technicolor.” The camera loves her, and she knows how to work every angle. Like the wild settings against which she stars, Montez has her own complex interior geography. Her characters are, on the page, little more than paper dolls. But the way Montez puts her characters on ensures she’s never lost against the backdrop like so many other fairytale princesses of her time. Instead, her feelings become bold and alive, vibrant and daring.

A perfect example of this reactive fully-present performer comes in Gypsy Wildcat, my favorite of the awkward three for its more complex plot and sentiment. Since the film is set in a Medieval Everywhere-Europe, naturally, it features a dove landing on the window sill. Montez pounces on the non-union avian, holds it forcefully to her face, then hurls it back out the window. She’s an incredibly physical and wide-swinging performer who refuses to let you watch anyone else. She may have found her male lead in John Hall, but her true romantic partner is the camera.

Mondocane (Kino Lorber)
Mondocane (Kino Lorber)

In much the same way the performances and stories in the Maria Montez & John Hall Collection get swallowed by the political and technological objectives, the same can be said of Mondocane and its aesthetics. This 2021 Italian Post-Apocalypse drama follows two boys, Pisciasotto (Giuliano Soprano) and Mondocane (Dennis Protopapa), both thirteen and on the brink of young adulthood. When the warring factions of their environment finally make the boys choose sides, the two will learn startling revelations about each other and society.

Alessandro Celli’s debut film uses a simple plot to tell the story of a complex world. Unfortunately, the story never rises above a basic tale of friendship tested by dividing factions. Protopapa and Soprano’s performances are sometimes convincing, especially together, yet lost in what feels like an exercise in abstract worldbuilding. In trying to create a world stripped away of the past and filled with an uncertain future, Mondocane becomes almost exclusively all mood. Billed as a brutal post-Mad Max Lord of the Flies, Celli spends a great deal of time setting up the world and tone without entirely fitting the human beings into its artistic endeavor. In doing so, he loses the heart of the story. 

Museum Town (Kino Lorber)
Museum Town (Kino Lorber)

But if there’s one release that heartfully situates art in its context, it’s the 2018 documentary Museum Town. The film presents the history and struggles of MASS MoCa, a vibrant modern art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. The space was once a bustling factory employing most of the town. 

That is, until Jennifer Trainer and Thomas Krens breathed new vibrancy into the sleeping factory. With a bit of love and lots of money, they grew the museum into a treasure trove for artists and locals. Not that it all went smoothly or is all settled, quite the opposite. While we watch legendary Black Chicago artist Nick Cave set up his deliciously camp exhibition, we also talk to locals of all opinions and how they feel about rubbing up against so-called “highbrow” people or concepts. For everyone, the people and the town of North Adams are foremost. 

Where the previous two releases allowed any artistic goal to be swallowed up by the politics and production of their settings, director Jennifer Trainer expertly interlays the relationships between art, commerce, and society. And she’s able to do this because of her intimate knowledge of MASS MoCa, having been there since day one. Her insider position means she has unprecedented access and trust in the museum and its town. Museum Town takes a knowledgeable step back and asks us to look at how art, people, and place commingle and affect each other. 

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