She Said Boom

fifth column:  a group of people who act traitorously and subversively out of secret sympathy with an enemy of their country.

(dictionary definition)

She Said Boom

Dick Hebdige marks the beginning of “punk” as we know it today in the year of 1976 when a young girl was almost blinded by a flying beer glass at the 100 Club in Soho.  Hebdige singles this incident out because in his mind it served as the catalyst for what he terms “the mass moral panic” that first drew critical attention to “punk”.  What does this have to do with Kevin Hegge’s documentary film She Said Boom (2013)?  Defining and understanding the political origins of “punk” will enlighten one to the motives behind the band The Fifth Column; the subject of Hegge’s film.  To explain why “punk” became such an enduring and influential cultural movement one need only apply the very definition of “fifth column”.  Consider, as the members of The Fifth Column did in their native Toronto, that the “enemy of their country” is not a terrorist nor a corrupt politician necessarily, but rather concepts and ideas that are in conflict with the traditionally accepted modes of thinking in Western civilization today.

The Fifth Column cannot be labeled “punk” however, even if their music fits within the mechanics of punk music.  The Fifth Column, like Crass before them (though to a lesser extent), utilized an array of media beyond music such as film to give a voice not only to women, but homosexuals.  Before Pansy Division or Bikini Kill there was The Fifth Column, and their influence on both demographics has been monumental.

This is what Hegge’s film She Said Boom works very hard to communicate.  By interviewing members of the band, their contemporaries, and their successors Hegge is able to contextualize The Fifth Column not just musically, but sociologically.  That The Fifth Column was so successful in their aesthetic fusion of punk music and film in giving voice to Toronto’s subculture tempts critics to draw a comparison between them and Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.  Yet Hegge’s ignores this comparison wisely.  Primarily, one must assume, because at this point not only is a comparison with The Velvet Underground a cliché, but Hegge would be indicating a duplicate social structure of oppression at work in both New York of the mid-1960s and Toronto in the 1980s.  Admittedly there are similarities, but a comparison of this nature would negate the principal instigating factors at work in propelling The Fifth Column beyond the circuit of your “run of the mill” garage band.  Thus, Hegge is very successful in his portrait of The Fifth Column, their work, and their legacy.

The Fifth Column

She Said Boom is very liberal in its appropriation of footage of The Fifth Column members from their films and the films of their associates (Caroline Azar, Beverly Breckenridge, GB Jones and Bruce la Bruce).  Though this footage is compelling in how vividly it renders a time, a place, and an aesthetic, the very employment of footage in this way has become a tactic so often used by documentary filmmakers that it is becoming tiresome.  Between Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) and Don Letts’ Westway To The World (2000) this tactic was not nearly as prevalent.  However, Westway The World‘s syndication on MTV and VH1 over the following years have helped engrain this device into the very mechanics of what is popularly referred to as the “Rock-Doc”.  And this is a shame because of all the documentaries that utilize this tactic to this end She Said Boom has had some of the best archives of footage to pull from.

-Robert Curry

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Love & Mercy

In the last decade there have been a number of quality biographical films.  Always a popular genre with audiences, the biographical genre has always been a bankable contender for Academy Award nominations, for instance Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005).  That there has been room for innovation within this formulaic genre in the American mainstream is indicative of the influence of European film.  Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) bears the obvious influence of Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Karl May (1974).  Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra (2013) represents the less avant-garde approach to the genre, though it’s innovations are no less incredible due to the fact that it represents its homosexual subject in a vein that is as explicit as it is humanistic.  What Soderbergh and Haynes both employ, thus marking a new clear trend in the genre, is an abandonment of graphically portrayed lapses in time, such as a title card reading something like May 8th, 1914.  Until recently this has been a hallmark of the genre, exemplified by Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), the antithesis to the aesthetic proposed by Haynes and Soderbergh.

Love & Mercy

When Love & Mercy (2015) was announced and Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son, Married Life) was credited as writer, one immediately anticipated the non-linear format of the film.  Bill Pohlad’s name likewise signified an expectation for innovation given his previous credits as producer of Steve McQueen’s controversial 12 Years A Slave (2013) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011).  These expectations were fulfilled insofar as Love & Mercy works along a non-linear narrative structure.  The film jockeys back and forth from the mid-sixties to the late eighties in the life of Brian Wilson.  However, as these scenes play out it becomes painfully obvious that there is no syncopation between the sixties continuity and the eighties continuity and that each scene works as a simple, single revelation of Brian Wilson’s tortured psyche.  The film had every opportunity to nurture a naturalism in its dialogue and its performers whilst still conforming to its non-linear structure ala Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1981) but went in the more traditional, condescending route instead.

In this way the script of Love & Mercy is not particularly concerned with Brian Wilson the man nor Brian Wilson the public figure.  On the contrary, Love & Mercy‘s script restricts itself to the vernacular of ready-made character types familiar to this genre.  Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of Doctor Eugene Landy fits the familiar profile popularized by Faye Dunaway in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981) without any of the charm of having done it first.

Love & Mercy runs in to trouble again when it sacrafices its chance to be an instructive visual text on Brian Wilson’s recording methods while working on his masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006) represents the possibilities for finding and exploring its subject in the studio space.  For Kijak, Walker’s employment of unusual sounds and techniques becomes a means through which we the audience can experience Walker’s perspective in which everyday objects are simply potential instruments.  Pohlad utilizes the scenes of the Brian Wilson character in the studio as just another means to show his audience what a “nut” Wilson was.  Pohlad also conforms these sequences to the aesthetic popularized by Daniel Richter’s footage of John Lennon in his Tittenhurst Park studio during the recording of his Imagine album in 1972.  Richter’s visual style and unconventional sense of framing can be seen in every biographical film about a major recording artist since the release of the Lennon film.

LOVE AND MERCY

What carries Love & Mercy through all of this is John Cusack.  Unlike Paul Dano who plays Brian Wilson circa 1966, Cusack never projects emotions into a scene, nor does he overplay moments of emotional confrontation.  Cusack may not look as much like Brian Wilson as one may hope, but he does ground the character in himself.  It’s a case of an actor being a character of the real person as opposed to playing that person.  When an actor “plays” the person they are cast as it is often easy to parody, as is the case with Meryl Streep in Iron Lady (2012).  The opposite of this is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Eugene O’Neil in Reds (1981).  In this respect Cusack is able to create some scenes of genuine tenderness between himself and Elizabeth Banks, who is scripted into being more of a plot device than a character.

What is the most disappointing aspect of Love & Mercy is that it failed to live up to its potential.  In raw form, all of the elements were there for it to be a film of the caliber of Behind The Candelabra.  Yet it seems that the filmmakers were unsure of what they wanted to say and as how to communicate it.

-Robert Curry

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Stanley Kramer: Producer & Director

Gene Hackman in Kramer's 1977 political thriller The Domino Principle

Gene Hackman in Kramer’s 1977 political thriller The Domino Principle

Perhaps more than anyone else ever associated with the motion picture industry Stanley Kramer has been and still is a name that signifies quality and prestige, intelligence and social conscience.  But as a director and a producer there is a marked difference in the films bearing Kramer’s name.  With the advantage of hindsight, of looking back over his entire filmography, the films that Kramer produced and did not direct seem to hold up better over time.  Perhaps that is because of the skill possessed by those filmmakers whom he contracted to helm these films.  But I would argue there is a coherent stylistic similarity between the majority of these films that is indicative of the cause of the longevity of these films.

Consider Champion (dir. Mark Robson, 1949), The Member Of The Wedding (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1952), The Wild One (Laszlo Benedek, 1953), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), and A Child Is Waiting (dir. John Cassavetes, 1963) and one is struck by the fact that each of these films, with their diverse styles and contents, have at their core a strong emotional relationship between two characters.  Champion concerns itself with the familial bonds between two brothers (Kirk Douglas and Arthur Kennedy) that are tested and ultimately broken by the elder brother’s ambition and greed.  The other four films mentioned above are concerned, at their core, with the search for a surrogate parent.  In The Member Of The Wedding Frankie (Julie Harris) finds a surrogate mother in Berenice (Ethel Waters) in the same way Marlon Brando finds a “mother” figure in Mary Murphy in The Wild One, or the father/son relationship between Tommy Rettig and Peter Lind Hayes in The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T.  Besides The Champion, the other exception to this trend is A Child Is Waiting whose central relationship is between Judy Garland whose well-meaning music teacher finds the child she has always wanted in Bruce Ritchey.  So though these films are essentially “message movies” designed to propagate contemporary progressive views, they work in equal parts as character studies.  And like most successful character studies in American cinema the narrative design of these five films seeks to illuminate the character of the protagonist via the protagonist’s search for emotional fulfillment in the external form of another character.

Kirk Douglas in The Champion

Kirk Douglas in The Champion

One can pinpoint the application of this technical trend in the productions Kramer himself directed quite easily, particularly in Ship Of Fools (1965), Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), and The Domino Principle (1977).  But even these films are incapable of being as human in their treatment of character as those productions helmed by other directors primarily because the narratives of these films are so heavily over burdened with characters.  Filmicly, in his role as producer, Kramer is typically quite skilled at constructing his prestige ensemble dramas, like Judgement At Nuremberg (1961).  But for Kramer the director the focus, albeit, the priority of the direction in such cases is on the concept proposed by the narrative and all of its components included.  So where Zinnemann or Cassavetes may down-play the preachiness of the script, Kramer embraces it, arranges, and choreographs the performances to cater to it.

-Robert Curry

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Sister Act & True Lies: Genre In The 90s Blockbuster

The mechanics of genre are as complicated in their motives as is their perpetual state of flux as these mechanics adapt to follow new trends in media.  The most obvious case being the Western, whose metamorphoses at the hands of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci indicated not only a desire for more sex and violence in the genre, but a more Freudian approach to the films’ characters.  In fact, most books dealing with an overview of cinematic history divide the progression of the Western into two distinct halves; before The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) and afterwards.  Despite the obvious differences between the Westerns of “then” and “now”, there are in the genre a set of unchanging aesthetic principles, and it is these principles that define the Western, justifying the very label of “genre”.  Westerns typically center on a protagonist finding redemption and overcoming his or her own inherent “evil” for the good of a community or a virtuous protagonist at odds with a massive “evil” force such as Apache, avalanches, sand storms, cattle barons, a gang, etc.  It is in these two basic character and narrative types that the Western attempts (and rarely succeeds) to construct an allegory for America.  But not all genres are as dynamically defined or as popular as the Western.  Some genres are so obscure that they exist only as sub-genres under the umbrella of larger and more abstract categorizations like “comedy”, “drama” or “horror”.

Sister Act

When The Walt Disney Company released Sister Act (1992) through Touchstone Pictures they sold the film as a family comedy and targeted parents with children between the ages of 8 and 14 as their primary demographic.  In part this was meant to cash-in on the built-in fan base for Nun comedies instilled in the parents by Sally Field’s The Flying Nun television show as well as to appeal to those who grew-up and were fans of Motown.  But to be fresh, new, and exciting Sister Act could not follow the formulas of The Flying Nun or other popular depictions of Nuns in the media like Lilies Of The Field (1963) and The Nun’s Story (1959) anymore than a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle could recreate the lack of success of Nuns On The Run (1990).  Instead screenwriter Joseph Howard and director Emile Ardolino returned to a tried and true Disney formula freshly imbued with the same nightclub edginess that made Pretty Woman (1990) one of Disney’s highest grossing films of the nineties.

The tried and true Disney formula I refer to first occurred at the height of Fred MacMurray’s tenure with the studio.  The basic premise, exemplified by Follow Me, Boys! (1966), concerns a protagonist who is forced to take charge of a group of misfits and imprint these misfits with the protagonist’s own personality traits, thus creating a surrogate family where the protagonist belongs.  Ironically this formulaic plot is the antithesis to popular culture’s preferred depiction of Nuns since the boom of the porn industry in the early seventies.  From Boccaccio’s The Decameron to Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls (1978) to Norifumi Suzuki’s School Of The Holy Beast (1982), Nuns have been portrayed as lesbian sodomites, a far cry from the sweet and familial Nuns under Maggie Smith’s care in Sister Act.  Oddly, Disney took it upon itself to project its typical family film plots into arenas where one would hardly suspect.  Where Sister Act puts Whoopi Goldberg into a Nunnery to rejuvenate the family film genre, Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) puts Ray Liotta, Danny Glover and Denis Leary in Vietnam with an elephant to keep up interest in their live-action family films.

In short, Sister Act is the redressing of a genre to perpetuate box office receipts.  This is not always a negative trend in the cinema, and in the early to mid-nineties it was a hugely popular approach.  Which brings us to James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).  What Cameron sets out to do, and does, is to make a genre film that is absolutely about its genre without ever being openly analytical or challenging.  The film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed with director John McTiernan on The Last Action Hero (1993) the previous year, constructing a film whose concern with genre mechanics is similar to True Lies but whose “on-the-nose” execution prevents the film from ever sustaining the suspension of disbelief for very long.

True Lies

True Lies essentially casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero, but subverts the trappings of the genre by pushing the extremes one associates with action films to comedic places.  For instance a chase scene that should be a motorcycle in pursuit of another motorcycle is transformed into physical comedy by putting the hero on a horse instead.  Likewise, True Lies has as its centerpiece the narrative arc of infidelity in which the spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses his Bond-like resources to terrorize his wife’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) lover (Bill Paxton).  The subject of marital difficulty is not often a part of the action movie vernacular in this respect.  Typically, as is the case with Die Hard (1988), the male protagonist’s marriage is saved by the end of the film in the same way the world is saved.  Much of Cameron’s humor in dealing with infidelity recalls the oddball Alan Arkin comedies Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (1981) and The In-Laws (1979) in so far as the seriousness of the situation is undermined by the absurdity of the circumstance in which the situation has come to exist.  The absurdity, in the case of True Lies, is the very fabric of the action movie genre.

Listing all of these various components and stylistic tactics may give the impression that Cameron’s film is not so much reflexive with a sense of humor, but rather an incoherent mess.  This very well could have been the case if not for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence.  Arnold Schwarzenegger even being in this film becomes a means by which the genre is parodied and its hubris analyzed, almost in a parallel fashion to Tim Allen’s role in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).

What both True Lies and Sister Act are indicative of is a desire to manipulate genre to re-sell narratives and celebrities all too familiar to audiences.  The degree of innovation, however successful or not, points to the possibilities that are often overlooked in favor of remakes or adaptations from other visual media.

-Robert Curry

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Committing Masterpieces: 100 Years of Orson Welles

“Do you think I should confess?  To what?  Committing masterpieces?”

– Elmyr de Hory

“I started at the top, and have been working my way down ever since.”

– Orson Welles

A BFI Theatrical Release

A BFI Theatrical Release

Wednesday marked the one-hundredth birthday of Orson Welles, the man famous the world over for directing Citizen Kane (1941), widely considered the greatest film ever made.  In his lifetime, Welles gained a reputation not only as a wunderkind (he directed Kane, his first film, at twenty-five), but as a difficult, extravagant, temperamental maverick who was impossible to work with and left his projects unfinished.  Maverick he may have been, but in truth Welles was hardly uncontrollable; studio documents show that several of his films came in ahead of schedule and under budget.  Nevertheless, of the nine films Welles made between 1940 and 1960, four were recut by the studios without his consent or participation, and one, It’s All True, was simply dumped by RKO, who preferred to write it off as a tax loss than allow Welles to complete it.  Welles’ former colleague John Houseman once snarkily remarked “There was nothing stopping him from making more Citizen Kanes.” On the contrary, there seemed to be all manner of obstacles stopping him.  But Houseman is wrong  on another count: Welles did keep making Citizen Kanes. He just didn’t make them in Hollywood.

As it became obvious to Welles that he couldn’t make his films within the Hollywood system, he ventured out on his own, living in Europe and subsidizing his own films out of the money he made from his acting jobs, traveling the continent with a fold-up 60mm editing machine.  When his own funds were insufficient to complete these projects, he often turned to independent backers, who frequently turned out to be less that trustworthy, leading to a number of films from this period being unreleased or incomplete.   Despite all of these odds, Welles was still able to complete Othello (1952), Chimes at Midnight (1965), and his final completed film F for Fake (1973), a movie that, true to his boast, is unlike any other before or since.

Orson Welles

F for Fake has been described as an essay film and as a documentary.  Neither label is quite accurate.  Perhaps it would best be described as a magic trick.  The film begins ostensibly as a documentary on the world-famous art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who after meeting de Hory went on to forge the autobiography of Howard Hughes.  The film then begins a stream-of-conscious journey involving Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio scare, the current state of Howard Hughes, a lost love of Picasso’s, and nature of art and authenticity.  Fake is like a cinematic journey through Welles’ mind, rocketing along at a fast clip that can be disorienting but is constantly mesmerizing.  Welles structures the film like a magic show and includes a number of illusions, and he continually finds bold new ways of storytelling through editing and staging, as in the famous sequence where Picasso, depicted via a still photograph, ogles Oja Kodar through his window, or when Kodar’s father and Picasso have a heated confrontation, played out by Welles and Kodar in a deserted, foggy train station.  Like all great art, and every Orson Welles movie, it’s endlessly compelling.  Right up to the end, Welles was pushing the medium as far as he could, and he did it truly independently, with only a traveling editing machine and a few loyal crew members to help him, an inspiration to regional and DIY artists everywhere even thirty years after his death.

-Hank Curry

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Jess Franco’s Eugénie de Sade

Eugénie de Sade

Jess Franco was one of the most prolific filmmakers who ever lived; completing an average of eight films a year during his most productive period in the early seventies.  Though his films are typically no more than soft-core thrillers churned out as economic commodities, there is a sense and evidence of a more sophisticated visual language in his better films.  If one takes only his best films of the early seventies into account, Count Dracula (1969), Venus In Furs (1969) and Eugénie de Sade (1970), there is a remarkable consistency in Franco’s framing and narrative techniques.  In all three of these films, when interior shots are employed, the camera is placed slightly lower so that the ceiling is visible.  This strategy for visual cues denoting a character’s dominance or lack there of is typically associated with the films of Orson Welles, with whom Franco worked as an assistant director in Spain.  The narratives of these films are also indebted to Welles in how they, primarily Eugénie de Sade and Count Dracula, assume a flashback structure derivative in stylistic execution of Citizen Kane (1941) and Mr. Arkadin (1955).  There is also, as is the case with Venus In Furs, a direct homage to Mr. Arkadin in which both films (or rather a version of Welles’ film) open with a nude woman’s body washed up on a beach.  Despite Franco’s assimilation of Welles’ stylistic tendencies he never truly succeeds in elaborating on the subtextual themes in his films, rendering them visually arresting yet hollow.

Eugénie de Sade, however, is a little more sophisticated than Franco’s other films.  There is an accidental self awareness at work in Eugénie de Sade that begs the question of its audience; “is all voyeurism exploitation?”  Franco, intentionally or not, poses this question during the opening credit sequence of the film.  As Eugenie (played by Soledad Miranda) walks onto screen approaching a blonde model with the intention of undressing her, the title fills the screen.  At this point the film cuts to Franco himself in the role of Attila Tanner, seated in a movie theater watching what is apparently a snuff film (Eugenie, with the aid of her father Albert, proceed to murder the blonde model).  This very simple opening sequence becomes a personal statement by Franco.  He is the voyeur, watching a snuff film, fetishizing the players of the film.  Then again, so are we.  Audiences who attended Franco’s films were there to be tantalized by the bodies of his female stars Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm.  Miranda in particular was Franco’s muse at the time Eugénie de Sade was made, and they would make six more films together that year including their most famous collaboration Vampyros Lesbos.  Franco’s stars were the show.  And as Eugénie de Sade continues, Attila (Franco) continues to spy on and fetishize Miranda’s character Eugenie.

It is Attila who questions Eugenie on her death-bed.  He extorts Eugenie by promising that he will end her suffering in exchange that she share the story of her father with whom she was engaged in an incestuous affair.  This is the catalyst for the Wellesian flashback structure of the film.  Within these flashbacks Attila also appears.  Attila is a famous writer and a tremendous fan of Eugenie’s father Albert (Paul Muller).  But he suspects that Albert and Eugenie are not only incestuous, but are responsible for a number of murders (which the audience knows they are).  It is in this scene where Attila confronts Eugenie and her father that Attila begins to fetishize Eugenie, promising the pair that he “will be watching”.

Eugénie de Sade

In the context of the narrative of Eugénie de Sade Jess Franco is Attila, whose relationship to Soledad Miranda is one of distant observation, congruent to the relationship between Soledad Miranda and her relationship to the audience.  The reality of it is, as Miranda’s director, the writer and editor of the film, and as Miranda’s lover; Franco’s relationship is more akin to that of Albert, Eugenie’s father.  Franco could touch Miranda, the audience could not.  The audience’s position is locked into one of voyeurism, into Attila’s perspective.

In many respects Eugénie de Sade is Jess Franco’s Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) or Peeping Tom (Powell, 1961).  There is even a scene in homage to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in Eugénie de Sade where Albert and Eugenie, dressed in clothes that actually recall the design of Antonioni’s film, strangle a fetish model during a photo session.  Like Michael Powell, for Franco the act of voyeurism is violent.  But Franco goes further by fetishizing his subjects with a heavy-handed masculine gaze, his camera endlessly caressing Soledad Miranda’s body through an active zoom lens.  Powell was a dramatist in the classic sense and never gave way to camera moves and shots that did not adhere to the objective reality of his story.  Powell preferred moments of subjectivity be reserved for POV shots or scenes that took place in Mark Lewis’ (Karlheinz Bohm) studio.  This gives these moments a sense of threat in Powell’s thriller.  By contrast, Eugénie de Sade is so wrought with Franco’s fetishization of his female protagonist that the shots themselves are meaningless without the correlation of other signifiers specified above.

Eugénie de Sade, Blow-Up, and Peeping Tom are concerned with issues extending beyond thematic readings, functioning, each in its own way, as a commentary by the film’s author on the nature of direction.  Powell, for instance, alludes to the function of the filmmaker as an illusionist whose plastic fictions, be they tragedy or comedy, offer in human terms and experience an escape to an audience.  Powell’s primary investigation in Peeping Tom is into the nature of manufacturing artificial or staged violence to the delight of a sadistic minded audience bent on escapism at any cost.  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up proposes that the director, Antonioni, and the film’s protagonist Thomas (David Hemmings), share a purpose in utilizing their visual art in an investigation.  Where Thomas investigates a crime, Antonioni employs Thomas’ investigation as a means to determine an abstract existential truth about the human condition or the film’s audience.  Jess Franco is interested in neither existential truth nor in the inherent theatricality of the film medium, but instead revels in the superficial delight his images offer, totally aware of the fact that the viewer will share in these delights with him.  This puts Franco as a filmmaker on the same philosophical level of participation with his audience as opposed to the dominating roles Powell and Antonioni hold over their viewership.  In other words, within the visual strategies and context of Eugénie de Sade Franco is both author and participant; a participant in so much as he is quite literally, given the Wellesian structure of the film, the instrument through which we perceive the narrative action.

Eugénie de Sade

The irony of Jess Franco’s relationship to Eugénie de Sade is that he shares his audiences’ pleasure from their perspective.  Not only do most filmmakers measure and derive pleasure from their completed films via their audience, but few directors who produced exploitation films revel so openly and communally in the act of voyeurism with their audience.  A filmmaker like Jean Rollin was obliged to include scenes of gratuitous sex, as was Terence Fisher.  Franco, on the other hand, catered his projects to the fetishes of both his audience and himself.  This fact imbues Franco’s films with a personal touch that could account for his sustained popularity within the genre of European sexploitation and horror films.

-Robert Curry

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Walerian Borowczyk: Exploitation In The Avant-Garde

Goto, The Island Of Love

Between April 2nd and 9th, the Film Society Of Lincoln Center has been engaged in a near completest retrospective of Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk.  Between his numerous shorts and his exploitation features one is struck by not only Borowczyk’s stylistic diversity, but by the fact that, despite his reputation in the popular consciousness, he is a tremendously gifted filmmaker.  One could say that these misconceptions of Borowczyk are born out of his inconsistent branding in the home video market.  Films like The Beast (1975) and Love Rites (1988) have found a “cult” notoriety via releases through distributors like Cult Epics.  Thus, on online media platforms and social media, fans discuss his films exclusively in the context of the exploitation genre, drawing comparisons to other filmmakers such as Jean Rollin and Jess Franco.  Yet, unlike Rollin or Franco, Borowczyk is an Eastern European with a decade long background in experimental animation and political filmmaking; an alignment in sensibilities far removed from the neo-gothic stylists Franco and Rollin.  Borowczyk’s background plants his sensibilities closer to the European avant-garde of Chris Marker (a sometimes collaborator and champion of Borowczyk’s films), Luis Bunuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, and Jacques Rivette.

Unlike other members of the avant-garde, Borowczyk’s features are distinctly exploitation films.  But this anomaly is one of necessity.  As censorship lapsed with the advent of a mainstream commercial adult film market in the late sixties there was, for a brief opportunity, a means by which a filmmaker could produce a film with content that, even today, could not normally find its way out of the exhibitors of adult films.  Combine that with the fact that a mainstream producer or government grant would balk at the prospect of financing a film like Goto: Island Of Love (1968), and you have a filmmaker seeking funding where he knows he can get it; exploitation films.

Even as an avant-garde filmmaker Borowczyk is not typical.  If one were to compare The Beast to the works of Bunuel or even David Lynch it would be apparent immediately that, of the three filmmakers, Borowczyk has the least amount to express in a single shot.  That is to say that, unlike the high styles of his contemporaries, Borowczyk opted to present his images in flat, brightly lit compositions, avoiding the dark moodiness of Lynch, the playfulness of Jadorowsky, the headiness of Bunuel, the reflexivity of Marker, etc.  For Borowczyk it is enough that the narrative exists.  It is enough to present that narrative to an audience, with all of its social and political subtexts in tact, as bluntly as possible.  This is why so many viewers tend to complain about how uncomfortable Borowczyk’s films make them.  And this is clearly his intent.  The matter-of-fact style with which he presents the ravishment of the Duchess by the Beast in The Beast is what heightens not just the absurdity of the image and the narrative, but also the audience’s association with the reality of that world.

La Bete

Avant-garde stylistic tactics in feature-length narrative films have been well established since the twenties as an outcropping of  the Surrealist, Expressionist, and Dadaist movements.  Therefore a film audience is accustomed to a particular approach, a thread in the compositional element of the image that connects a majority of these films together.  When Borowczyk inverts that tendency by denying it, the audience is left without the immediate comfort that what they are collectively sharing is “only a movie”.  This prompts the audience then to evaluate the film in terms of their own subjective reality in a dialogue with the film that they are unaccustomed to.

The “lack of style” as style makes perfect sense when one considers Borowczyk’s background as a political filmmaker and animator.  The primary goal of any political art is to find a way to subvert the audiences’ preconditioned expectations by realigning their relationship to the concept via the visual presentation of said concept.  That is precisely what Borowczyk succeeds at in his films post Goto, Island Of Love when he has transitioned into the exploitation film market.  Just instead of political messaging, he has opted for a Freudian analysis of human sexuality in the post-modern age.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2015