Friday, March 22, 2013

Do Pray for Me, Argentina

Now that the world has its first Latin American pope, I’ve been thinking a lot about Argentina. Not that I’ve ever been there. (I do have some cousins in Buenos Aires, whose long-ago visit to L.A. proved traumatic for everyone in my family. For one thing, they looked down their noses because we didn’t serve steak on a daily basis. Yeah, right.)

As a kid, I associated Latin America with the musical numbers so ubiquitous in old Hollywood movies. You know the ones I mean: full of maracas, conga drums, ruffled sleeves, and ladies wearing fruit baskets on their heads. A tiny but spunky Brazilian entertainer named Carmen Miranda became the queen of such musical kitsch. She and her ilk were deftly parodied by Danny Kaye, who (in the famous “Lobby Number” from Up in Arms) briefly posed as “Carmelita Pepita, the Boleevian Bombshell.” I’ve seen vintage musicals in which such blatantly Anglo chanteuses as Judy Garland and Jane Powell impersonate south-of-the-border señoritas by shaking shoulders, hips, and anything else that moves.

Latin America also shows up in American movies as a place full of crazed dictators, evil kidnappers, and massive political unrest, as reflected in such tough-minded dramas as  Salvador and Costa-Gavras’ Missing. Those of us from the Roger Corman world remember how Roger’s penchant for making overseas production deals led to a whole series of shot-on-location thrillers, usually set in the fictitious South American nation of San Pedro. Roger is not much prone to making jokes, but even he sometimes joined in on our comic laments for this benighted republic, which suffered from every disaster our screenwriters could think up. Revolutions! Earthquakes! Native uprisings! Nuclear holocausts!

At least three Corman sword-and-sorcery flicks were filmed on the cheap in Pope Francis’s native country. Regarding The Warrior and the Sorceress, a continuity goof  cited on IMDB reminds me of the haphazard nature of all such productions: “When Naja first escapes from the castle, her g-string is purple. By the time she is reunited with her father, it's gold.”  Corman crews also shot two Deathstalker films, the second of which was completely rewritten on the set by irrepressible director Jim Wynorski. To Jim it seemed pointless “to make a serious movie with tinfoil swords  and a cardboard village.” That’s why he ripped up the script and opted for outrageous comedy. Jim insisted to me, “This was a great film because I was totally out of control.”  

According to Jim, Roger loved the change in tone, despite the hand-wringing of the local Argentine producer. This producer was a courtly old gentleman named Héctor Olivera. I enjoyed working with Héctor on the screenplay of an erotic thriller, also for Roger, called Play Murder for Me. But he is best known by fans of Argentine film as the director of a brilliant 1983 political satire, Funny Dirty Little War. Yes, Argentina’s movie industry is worthy of respect. The great Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura came to Argentina for one of his intricate, memorable dance films, Tango. The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, usually won by Europeans, has twice been awarded to Argentine productions: The Official Story (1985) and The Secret in Their Eyes (2009).

But Argentina’s greatest contribution to world cinema is undoubtedly a man who writes wonderfully jazzy film scores. Lalo Schifrin has been responsible for Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, and a host of Clint Eastwood films. Go to his website to hear his most famous score of all. Perhaps it will serve as theme music for the challenges Jorge Mario Bergoglio will face in the years ahead. 


  1. Having seen the two fairly serious Deathstalker movies on either side of Mr. Wynorski's second entry in the series - he made the right choice. The movie was a funny breath of fresh air in a period when you could watch scads of sullen heroes carry a big sword as they walk across endless landscapes and get in a few desultory fight scenes.

    In those days - how did you collaborate with Mr. Olivera? Did he come to Hollywood? Snail mail? Email? (I woudn't think email due to the time period).

    Lalo Schifrin is one of my top composers - his Mission: Impossible theme alone grants him huge respect from this fanboy!

  2. Hector did indeed come to L.A., where I had the unusual opportunity to take him out to lunch on Roger's dime. (Believe me, this was rare.) Then we got to work on the script for "Play Murder for Me." It was written by an Argentine writer, and revised by one of Concorde's regulars, but Hector was very punctilious about going through each line of dialogue and each stage direction to make sure it was absolutely right. I loved the fact that he cared so much about using grammatical -- and correctly punctuated -- English: he was far more literate in that respect than most of our American writers.