Tinto Brass website: March 2002
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 Tinto 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 Chi lavora č perduto. 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 premičred 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.
Again, the breathtakingly fast editing reveals the six-perf splicing tape. Many of the images are probably too far out to qualify as surreal. Umberto 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 our Western world’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.
IN ENGLISH, ONCE AGAIN.
Though Anita Sanders and Nino Segurini spoke English 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.
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. The Italian Inland Revenue then confiscated the De Laurentiis studio, Dinocittŕ, and all its holdings, including NEROSUBIANCO. 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 79-minute international version in the US under the title Black on White. It bombed. Later he reissued it under different titles: The Artful Penetration and The Artful Penetration of Barbara. I’m sure that anyone who put on his raincoat and sunglasses and snuck into a showing ended up being terribly disappointed. Metzger finally retitled it Attraction, the title used in Germany. It continued to die at the box office. 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.
Among the rare showings have been television broadcasts, which not only crop the 1.85:1 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!)
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, two 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 psychadelic 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, like Brass, 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.
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, is terrible.... 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! And 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. Oh well. Modern audiences, after twenty years of NEROSUBIANCO’s lame bastard child, MTV, would surely be more attuned to the film’s eccentricities.
Terry 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. Anyway, I’ve got to respect a guy who decided to learn Italian just so that he could function better with the film crew. And 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 L’urlo, Nino Segurini never appeared in another Tinto Brass movie. I guess he got tired of being likened to flea-picking baboons.