The man himself would probably enjoy his artistic evolution being described as ass-backward. After a few years' absence, Italian director Tinto Brass re-emerged in the late 1970s with two world-class sleaze hits Nazisploitation opus Salon Kitty (1976) and the notorious Penthouse-produced Caligula (1979), which he and scenarist Gore Vidal disowned (for different reasons). Thereafter he settled into glossy softcore romps whose fetish focus made him cinema's Trunk-Junk Laureate to Russ Meyer's Bard of Boob. Now 80-something, Tinto enjoys the long-running dirty-old-man status change of national embarrassment to cultural institution.
Yet before finding his professional-ogler niche, Brass was a young artist of the '60s doing that Marx-and-Coca Cola thing like everyone else, stirring together the avant-garde, genre trash, and whatnot. He made not one but two films with the era's socialist It couple, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; a spaghetti western called Yankee (1966); and several anarchic movies as distinctively of their countercultural moment as a Peter Max poster.
Two such works get a rare big-screen unearthing in this week's YBCA mini-retrospective "Psychotic and Erotic: Rare Films by Tinto Brass." They recall a time in which no op-art design, split-screen image, cineast in-joke, or gratuitous Holocaust insert was beyond reach of a wide-open European commercial market where radical capitalists like Brass could cut creative teeth.
The quasi-giallo Deadly Sweet (1967) sets lovebirds Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin (a Miss Teen International who would next incarnate Terry Southern's porn ingenue Candy and endure costar Marlon Brando's alleged pawings) in Swinging London, pursued by kidnappers, blackmailers, police, and one mean dwarf. If a fashion-shoot montage doesn't remind you of the prior year's Blow Up, that film's poster is glimpsed for good measure.
Arbitrarily switching from color to black-and-white, this giddy lark remains your sole chance to witness the Conformist (1970) and Z (1969) star delivering a Tarzan yell while playing drums in his underpants, let alone enduring eyebrow torture. Its ending eerily anticipates 1972's Last Tango in Paris, once intended for Trintignant. (Brando's buttery costar Maria Schneider later stormed out on more degradation as Caligula's original female lead.)
Even prankier, 1970's The Howl arrives at a Hippie Trail internationalism as ideologically pure as it is hindsight-campy. More a trippy lifestyle statement than a coherent political one, it runs Chaplinesque Gigi Proietti and flower-child Tina Aumont through a gauntlet of surreal Bunuel/Jorodowsky/Arrabalesque horrors, including animal slaughter, historical atrocity clips, and mime. Spoken placards inform "Contemplation is bourgeois attitude" and "Anger must explode. Hate must burst!" Papism is ridiculed, though madonna/whore equations go unexamined. (You can take the artist out of Italy, but ... )
This agitprop fantasia eventually wears one out. Still, how can one dislike any movie that "ends" with a giant onscreen question mark that keeps doodling along, just to mess with ya? That's the Tinto Brass a Vanessa Redgrave could call comrade. The subsequent auteur of Paprika: Life in a Brothel (1991) not so much.
"PSYCHOTIC AND EROTIC: RARE FILMS BY TINTO BRASS"
The Howl, Wed/24, 7:30 p.m.; Deadly Sweet, Sun/28, 7:30 p.m., $6$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF