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“One way or another I’m gonna see ya I’m gonna meetcha meetcha meetcha meetcha
One day, maybe next week I’m gonna meetcha, I’ll meetcha And if the lights are all out
I’ll follow your bus downtown see who’s hanging out. One way or another…”

Blondie NYC | 1978 Photograph | Edo Bertoglio

Blondie
NYC | 1978
Photograph | Edo Bertoglio

In October of 1978 many things were changing in my life. I was soon to be 12 years old, I had an awesome new baby brother, my parents were approaching the edge of divorce, and the summer before he arrived I was making friends with a whole new breed of people. Looking back it is a miracle that I survived without ever getting into any heavy trouble. But I suspect most of us look back at 11-14 as a time when things in our lives started to take dramatic shift.

I have always love movies and music. In 1978 a new kind of music was catching my ears and eyes thanks to “FM College Radio, The Rolling Stone, Smash Hits, Circus, Creem and The Midnight Special. It was called “Punk” and it was very quickly morphing into a sort of hybrid called “New Wave” or “No Wave.”

It was around this time I first saw and heard Kate Bush. Her voice and image would stop me in my tracks. If you go to YouTube and seek out Kate Bush’s 1978 Wuthering Heights vid-clip, you will see an impossibly low-fi and over-the-top almost cheezy sort of soft-focus mess. But in 1978, if you were lucky enough to see this clip it was amazing. No one, to my knowledge, had ever heard or seen anything quite like this. The first thing that caught your attention was her voice. Almost ear-splittingly shrill — Kate Bush’s voice could soar so far into the atmosphere and then pummel back down with a low tonal quality that was at once beautiful, discordant and disturbing. The music itself was melodic and catchy. Then the visual.

"Out on the wiley, windy moors we'd roll and fall in green. You had a temper, like my jealousy. Too hot, too greedy. How could you leave me when I needed to possess you? I hated you, I loved you too..." Kate Bush Withering Heights promo vid-clip, 1978

“Out on the wiley, windy moors we’d roll and fall in green. You had a temper, like my jealousy. Too hot, too greedy. How could you leave me when I needed to possess you? I hated you, I loved you too…”
Kate Bush
Withering Heights promo vid-clip, 1978

We did not yet know Kate Bush. She would quickly become known as “reclusive,” eccentric,” “mysterious” and not an artist particularly interested in jetting her way around the globe promoting her work. When we heard she would be on MTV, it turned out to be an odd sort of vid-clip. What Kate Bush was doing would soon become a major part of our culture. This was the very early MTV kind of thing that would evolve it’s way toward oblivion.

"Bad dreams in the night. They told me I was going to lose the fight. Leave behind my Wuthering, Wuthering Wuthering Heights..." Kate Bush Wuthering Heights Vid-Clip, 1978

“Bad dreams in the night. They told me I was going to lose the fight. Leave behind my Wuthering, Wuthering
Wuthering Heights…”
Kate Bush
Wuthering Heights
Vid-Clip, 1978

 

But seeing Kate Bush in this initial video was an odd experience. You saw a thin and clearly beautiful girl. She never seemed to blink. She was constantly moving. At times graceful and at other times almost threateningly pounding the ground. In some clips she would be outside in a red flowing sort of long dress, but most times she would be in a long flowing white dress. Either time she would begin jumping, twirling, spinning and summersaulting into soft-focus blurred visual-echo-effect. At time she would twirl about that all you could really see was a blurry white mass.

"Heathcliff, it's me, Cathy Come home! I'm so cold, let me in your window. Ooh, it gets dark, it gets lonely on the other side from you..." Kate Bush Wuthering Heights Vid-clip, 1978

“Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy Come home! I’m so cold, let me in your window.
Ooh, it gets dark, it gets lonely on the other side from you…”
Kate Bush
Wuthering Heights
Vid-clip, 1978

It was altogether different and strange. It was not Rock. It was not Punk. It was not New Wave. For her first three albums Kate Bush simply did not fit in. For lack of any other label, she was assigned “Prog-Rock.” But she was a game-changer. But, although she shook me ’round. It would be a couple of more years before I would actually enter a Sam Goody and request a copy of her albums be ordered for me.

Kate Bush The Kick Inside, 1978 Photograph | Jay Myrdal Art Direction / Design Splash Studio, John Carder Bush & Del Palmer

Kate Bush
The Kick Inside, 1978
Photograph | Jay Myrdal
Art Direction / Design
Splash Studio, John Carder Bush & Del Palmer

 

It was also around this time that I began to pay closer attention to the this band called The Patti Smith Group. Of course, KISS was already in my subconscious and my mind was constantly in battle over Disco vs. Rock. This debate was a heavy topic on my “newfriends‘ conversations. The movie, Grease, was immediately deemed “uncool.”

"Do ya think I'm sexy?" Rod Stewart holding tightly to Cher, slips into disco, 1978 Photograph | Claude Mougin

“Do ya think I’m sexy?”
Rod Stewart holding tightly to Cher, slips into disco, 1978
Photograph | Claude Mougin

The Bee Gees were “soul-less hacks” and Rod Stewart has “sold out.”

I hid my Captain & Tennille, Andy Gibb, Saturday Night Fever and Donna Summer records. I did not mention them. Everyone knew I loved Barbra Streisand. This was accepted. In some way my defense of Streisand earned me points. I didn’t care what anyone thought. I was possessed. And it was considered very cool that I was the only one of the “clan” who had seen The Exorcist, A Star Is Born, Saturday Night Fever and Carrie in the cinema. I was asked to discuss all three movies in depth. The idea being that if I explained what I saw, then they too could claim to have seen them.

If you have a taste for terror... Carrie Brian De Palma, 1976

If you have a taste for terror…
Carrie
Brian De Palma, 1976

Being 11 going on 12, it was not always easy to find or secure the records of these new voices. The same was true for some of these cool people who were a few years older than me. I had known them for years. This were the kids who chased me and other friends around the local park and elementary school yard. Now they were in Jr. High and a couple had siblings in high school. These connections were not solid, but they offered adventure and access to the sonic treasures I needed. I was considered cool because I already had a Blondie album, Plastic Letters, and Radio Ethiopia by The Patti Smith Group. I can’t even recall how I landed these albums. I also had a growing collection of both Creem and Circus magazines that I had wrangled both my Grandmother and strange father into buying for me.

Pissing in the River and Poetic Rebellion -- Welcome to NYC PUNK. Patti Smith Group Radio Ethiopia, 1976 Photograph | Robert Mapplethorpe

Pissing in the River and Poetic Rebellion — Welcome to NYC PUNK.
Patti Smith Group
Radio Ethiopia, 1976
Photograph | Robert Mapplethorpe

Yeah, man. I was a cool 11 year-old. Though, I had The Patti Smith Group album since I was 9.

One night something came on The Midnight Special, Wolfman Jack’s voice introduced what would turn out to be a video of Blondie. The impossibly cool group of people seemed trapped in some sort of empty dance studio with a big disco ball being passes about. This was totally cool and yet disturbing. Of course this was the very early days of the music vid-clip that would soon take over my generations’ lives. The disturbing element was that Debbie Harry and friends were lip-synching to a disco song! Debbie Harry’s once-heavily sprayed hair was now sloppy-cut shorter. She still seemed sullen and teasingly bored as she “sang” that what had been a gas was really nothing but a Heart of Glass.

 

"Once I had a love and it was a gas Soon turned out had a heart of glass Seemed like the real thing, only to find Mucho mistrust, love's gone behind..." Blondie Heart of Glass, 1978 Photograph | Martyn Goddard

“Once I had a love and it was a gas
Soon turned out had a heart of glass
Seemed like the real thing, only to find
Mucho mistrust, love’s gone behind…”
Blondie
Heart of Glass, 1978
Photograph | Martyn Goddard

 

I shall not lie. I loved it. But I was hesitant to openly admit it. The next day, a Sunday I believe. Me and my actual friend, and the only other person under 13 were huddled with the others. Scoring cigarettes, beer or weed and the topic of Blondie’s Heart of Glass were the main conversation points. One kid spouted out an angry opinion that Blondie, like Rod Stewart, had sold out and only KISS and The Stones were truly cool. When a couple of others mentioned Led Zeppelin  and Fleetwood Mac, they were “shhhh’d.”

But then the coolest of us all (and the eldest) stood up, pushed out her ever growing boobs harnessed in by a way cool and far too-tight Who baseball jersey and stated, “Heart of Glass is a reaction against the stupidity of Disco. It is New Wave. It is even cooler than anything KISS will ever do!”

Now, I and my friend were only allowed into this circle because we were willing to run errands and stuff. We were allowed cigarettes and some weed but that was all. We were seldom allowed to speak. We were just lucky to be there. Everything grew very quiet.  This girl, I shall call her “X” had just made an assertion that threatened the cool of KISS!   Everyone sat slack-jawed at the 15 year old girl scowled at the the 14 year old boy who the self-imposed leader of this lame little gang. Even the leader didn’t know how to respond to X.

For those of you too young to remember or too old that you might have forgot:

KISS was starting to lose some cred. They were on the same record label as The Village People. And while we knew it was coming — nothing could prepare us for the serious “lame” of their infamous TV Movie, KISS Meet the Phantom of the Park. It was with this television special that KISS would seriously loose it’s cool for quite a while and became more popular with little kids. KISS was about to fully “sell out.”

The KISS Solo Albums are on the way! And don't miss the spectacular Action Movie, "KISS Meets The Phantom" ...wished we could have missed it. KISS was about to stop being cool for a very long time.

The KISS Solo Albums are on the way! And don’t miss the spectacular Action Movie, “KISS Meets The Phantom” …wished we could have missed it. KISS was about to stop being cool for a very long time.

At any rate, there was a growing vibe against the cool of KISS, yet it was not fully articulated. Although we were eagerly awaiting the TV Movie and the solo albums that we knew were headed our way.

I remember taking a deep breath. I was the first one to speak after X made the shocking statement.

“X is right. I mean, Circus and Creem are calling Blondie the coolest. Creem even called their new song ‘No Wave.'”– this was particularly bold of me because I didn’t understand the difference between New Wave or No Wave — and, to be honest, Heart of Glass sure sounded like standard Disco to me. I had already sort of worked my way up the ladder of this group of older kids. Largely because I had a big mouth and refused to show fear or intimidation. I, alone, had stood up for Fleetwood Mac’s TUSK and boldly stated that no one should ever speak against Led Zeppelin. And, I still stand by those opinions. However this debate would continue for a few weeks.

Then at the beginning of fall of 1978 a major event took place:

The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, The Kiss Solo Projects and Blondie’s Parallel Lines albums all came out at about the same time! And none of us had them!

The Columbia House ads had not yet posted these three albums to their loop of “Get 11 albums for a Dollar!” campaign.

13 Records or Tapes for only $1!!!!!!!

Would you believe? 13 Records or Tapes for only $1!!!!!!!

This was a marketing gambit that all of us, and probably you, took full advantage of with fake names hoping your parents would not beat you to the mail. Columbia House would attempt to chase us down well into the 1990’s to no avail. Odd marketing strategy that escapes reason even all these years later. How many record collections were started thanks to Columbia House? Anyway, The Stones & KISS & Blondie were not yet articulated as a part of the Columbia House Marketing Concept.

You're in for something fresh...

You’re in for something fresh…

A few days later, my same-aged pal — I will call him “J” — and fellow member of this mis-formed clique,  was at Albertsons with his mom he made a magical discovery! Now our Albertsons was obsessed with stamping out all competition. They even opened up a “Record Department” for a shot while. J grabbed me and we went straight over to let everyone know what J had discovered.

Albertsons was selling The Stones’ Some Girls, 2 of the 4 Kiss Solo albums and Blondie’s Parallel Lines for $5.99 each!!!

KISS Gene Simmons  Solo Album, 1978 Painting |  Eraldo Carugati Featuring the likes of Helen Reddy and Donna Summer. KISS just lost it's cool...

KISS Gene Simmons
Solo Album, 1978
Painting | Eraldo Carugati
Featuring the likes of Helen Reddy and Donna Summer. KISS just lost it’s cool…

Now at this time my brother had just been born. My house was in a constant state of confusion. So it was easy to slip out and do things I wanted to do. X arranged to get a ride in her older brother’s car. It was decided that she and I would go and purchase the records. X held the money, but I already had a $5 bill and almost $2.80 in change. I was determined to get a copy of Parallel Lines.

X’s brother was a jerk. X declared him lame. True enough, he was playing the Mary MacGregor 8-Track as we drove to Albertsons. As she crooned about being torn between two lovers I innocently told X’s brother than my mother had this tape. X started laughing and slipped her hand back for me to give her “five.”

Like only a little sister can, she leaned forward to her brother and teased, “Wow, you are sooooo cool! Matty’s mom likes this too!

X’s brother exhaled, ripped the tape out and replaced it with a Leo Sayer 8-Track. This reaction made both X and me laugh.

Blondie Parallel Lines, 1978 Photograph | Edo Bertoglio

Blondie
Parallel Lines, 1978
Photograph | Edo Bertoglio

We rushed into the side entrance of Albertsons past the huge magazine and book racks and went straight to the shiny new Record Department. I grabbed my copy of Parallel Lines as X grabbed several copies of each album. I rushed to the cashier stand. The lady rang me up. I paid her. She then took out a box-cutter and sliced the shrink wrap open and placed a huge blue “Albertsons” sticker on my valued treasure! I was outraged!

“No! I don’t want that sticker!”

“Sorry, Kid-O. Store policy.”

X stood up for me, “Hey, he paid for that and you’re ruining the record!”

“Hon, it’s just a sticker. That way we know it was paid for.”

X stood her ground. “He doesn’t want that record now. He wants a different copy without your lame sticker. He is paying. We are going to leave right after you ring me up.”

“Look, Miss Smarty-Pants, any record anybody buys here is going to get a sticker on it! Now you stop giving me lip, Missy!”

X signaled for me to take my “damaged” album. She handed her slew to the bitch behind the counter.

“My oh my! This is a lot of records!”

The demented shrew proceeded to slash the shrink wrap and place the blue sticker on each copy. She even tore the Stones’ specially designed album cover’s cut-outs. But she didn’t pay attention to X’s protests.

As we walked back outside toward her brother and his suspicious music tastes, X turned to me. She took my cope of Parallel Lines and ordered:

“Go back in there, pick up a new copy of the Blondie record and pick up a new copy of the Gene Simmons record. We’ll be waiting outside the side door. That bitch is not gonna mess up our albums!” 

I told her no. That I didn’t want to get into trouble for stealing. Clearly, X wasn’t going to do this. She was going to make me do it for her.

“You are not stealing. You are taking what is ours! She won’t notice you. You’re a kid. You look innocent. Just do it”

“NO!”

And then she hit me where I lived.

“If you don’t do it, I will make sure that you and J are miserable until I graduate from high school! No shit! I mean it!”

This served as a sort of Tipping Point toward the pending teenage rebellion.

I was terrified. But as I walked into the store, passed the magazine and book racks my fears turned into a sort of dared energy. I was walking fast, but with purpose. I suddenly saw the sweet looking Albertsons lady at the counter as My Enemy. This is probably the biggest trick to shoplifting: I didn’t hesitate or act like I was trying to hide anything.

I simply walked up, pulled both of these albums out of their respective cubbies, turned and walked out of the store. X, her brother and his car were waiting just outside the side entrance. I got in and handed her the Gene Simmons album. I held my Blondie album close to my chest. I was not caught and my cool prestige was knocked up several notches.

12 Pulsating Tracks! Parallel Lines is circulating round in circles at your nearest record shop!  Blondie  Parallel Lines Advert 1978

12 Pulsating Tracks! Parallel Lines is circulating round in circles at your nearest record shop!
Blondie
Parallel Lines Advert
1978

I would soon start working for a donut shop and would lose touch with everyone of X’s team. I’d also lose contact forever with J.

And, about 12 years later I would present my baby brother with the the few albums I did not sell to pay for my voyage out of Texas to Boston. It was January of 1991 when I sat down with my brother and explained the importance of The Beatles, John Lennon, Fleetwood Mac and Blondie. I was worried he might face the wrath of our mother if I left him with any Patti Smith, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Who albums. I sold those. Although, I might have given him a Stones, Doors and maybe even one Pink Floyd album. I can’t remember.

Anyway, I think the records I gave him pushed him toward the Greater Cool.  At least, it felt like it. I hope they did. And I hope he never had to steal. That one time in the early fall of 1978 was the last time I stole. Well, sort of. Leave me alone! 

"Well, I've been haunted in my sleep. You've been staring in my dreams. Lord I miss you. I've been waiting in the hall. Been waiting on your call. When the phone rings. It's just some friends of mine that say, "Hey, what's the matter man? We're gonna come around at twelve with some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin' to meet you! We're gonna bring a case of wine. Hey, let's go mess and fool around. You know, like we used to..." The Rolling Stones slip into a bit of disco... Some Girls, 1978

“Well, I’ve been haunted in my sleep. You’ve been staring in my dreams.
Lord I miss you. I’ve been waiting in the hall.
Been waiting on your call. When the phone rings. It’s just some friends of mine that say,
“Hey, what’s the matter man? We’re gonna come around at twelve with some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin’ to meet you! We’re gonna bring a case of wine. Hey, let’s go mess and fool around. You know, like we used to…”
The Rolling Stones slip into a bit of disco…
Some Girls, 1978

When does art go too far?

Monica Bellucci embarks on short walk to savage and misogynistic human cruelty in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

Monica Bellucci embarks on short walk to savage and misogynistic human cruelty in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

We all know that the debate regarding when works of art become “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” is not new.  Most of us jump up to fight censorship and the right of the artist to express his or her “self” in any manner their vision requires. And most of us would equally agree that each individual is free to critique or express their disgust with anything the artist creates. These are two key rights of the audience and the artist.

Christians protest outside the Ziegfeld Theater against the screening and attendance of The Last Temptation of Christ,  Martin Scorsese, 1988 outside the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC, 1988 Photograph by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Christians protest outside the Ziegfeld Theater against the screening and attendance of The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese, 1988 outside the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC, 1988 Photograph by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

When we see an organization pull its resources in an attempt to block an artist’s work many of us pull together in protest. I proudly remember skipping school so I could drive to Houston and cross through the mob of protestors to pay and see The Last Temptation of Christ. For the two of us, it was essential to protect that core belief of free speech. The level of Baptist and Pentecostal anger was more than a little scary, but me and my pal were very proud to support the movie. We went on opening day. Good thing we did. Nearly all the cinemas located in Southeast Texas pulled the movie with the first 4 days of screenings. Those angry Christians (very few of whom I think ever bothered to read the book or see the movie) succeeded in shutting the movie down in The Bible Belt.

To protest a work of art is very different than prevent it from being displayed or shown. It is a never ending conflict that artists will always face. The rights of artists and the audience must be protected.

Brooke Shields was 12 when she appeared nude and played a child prostitute in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Brooke Shields was 12 when she appeared nude and played a child prostitute in Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

But it is the rare individual who can honestly state that she/he has never felt the need to scream out from the highest mountain, “This is wrong! This must be stopped! This is inappropriate!” For me, any work that is created to or even unintentionally stirs up hate against marginalized people compels me to draw the line. Unless the artists’ hatred is aimed at Hitler or The Manson Family or any segment of society that I feel intrudes on the rights of another. Then, I’ll support that hate full tilt. Another area which I refuse to accept is art that sexually exploits children.

Or work that misuses violence. For me, there is a difference in using violence as method for exploring human psychology, history, realism or even as way to access horror. It is when violence is utilized in a manner of titillation instead of provocation that it goes too far for me. And nothing angers me more when I see a work of art that uses violence against children or women for no other reason but to shock us.

Many people were unaware that they were objects of satire and many were not paid. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, 2006. Cinematography | Luke Geissbuhler & Anthony Hardwick

Many people were unaware that they were objects of satire and many were not paid. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, 2006. Cinematography | Luke Geissbuhler & Anthony Hardwick

Ultimately the basic guidelines for unacceptable art is art in which anyone is actually harmed, any inappropriate exposure of people under the age of 18 or anytime that an individual is pushed into any level of cruel depiction without consent.

Now a true ethical dilemma for me is when I fail to apply my own guidelines. Because whether I like to admit it or not — there have been more than a few films that slip into some very murky ethical waters. And, I must confess that some of them I found myself not only supporting, but enjoyed. The two films represented by their major studio poster campaigns above are films that I like — both crossed my personal ethical lines or standards. 

But often I do fuel my ethical concern into logical critiques or I simply refuse to give money to offensive work.  What pushes us to create that sort of critique or hide our wallets varies. Such was my reaction by the time Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q reaches about the ten minute mark. I demand a full refund of my ticket and left the cinema.

Familial dysfunction has never been depicted with such de-tached cruelty and satire becomes inverted in Takashi Miike's addition to Japan's "love cinema", Visitor Q, 2001. Videography | Hideo Yamamoto

Familial dysfunction has never been depicted with such de-tached cruelty and satire becomes inverted in Takashi Miike’s addition to Japan’s “love cinema”, Visitor Q, 2001. Videography | Hideo Yamamoto

Yet it is hard not to catch some smart film references in this twisted chapter of the Japan banned series of Direct to Video series called “Love Cinema” — This movie enjoyed some praise in the US while on the festival circuit. Visitor Q remains a cult classic for many. Just for the record, I’m not one of them. In 1999 Miike created Audition. There were more than a few times I found myself feeling I should leave, but the interesting twists in tone, artistry and sheer audacity were far too interesting for me to dismiss. My guidelines shifted for this movie.

"Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!" Children, women and men are all tortured to extremes so over-the-top it becomes surreal in Audition. Takashi Miike, 1999. Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

“Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!” Children, women and men are all tortured to extremes so over-the-top it becomes surreal in Audition. Takashi Miike, 1999. Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Takashi Miike’s Audition utilizes torture and gore as not only as an “attraction” to horror film fans but a clever metaphorical tool to explore his lead character’s inner-most fears of women, grief and sexuality. It took me several years before I was comfortable in recommending it to friends and discussing the idea of securing Takashi Miike as a festival guest. The festival’s board admitted to the artistry involved in much of Miike’s work, but they were equally offended by it as well. To be honest, I never found a way to defend my opinions of many of his films.

But very few films have ever made me as uncomfortable and repulsed as Gaspar Noé’s experimental film, Irréversible.

"Take the underpass. It's safer." Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

“Take the underpass. It’s safer.” Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

The film’s narrative deconstruction, cinematography and acting were so polished and unique. I have never worked out how I feel about Gaspar Noé’s depiction of his lead female character’s suffering at the hands of a rapist. The line between valid depiction and grotesque exploitation is not just blurry — it appears to have been erased. Did Noé go too far or did he go just far enough to capture the all-too-real horror that seems to be ever lurking for women? I do not have an answer.

Irréversible was one of many French Films which began to emerge as we entered the 21st Century. Prior to Irréversible, Gaspar Noé shot I Stand Alone. This was another deeply disturbing film which follows an emotionally damaged horse butcher as he contemplates the misery of his life, his threatening visceral cultural rage, suicide and his uncontrollable sexual desire for his daughter. …who happens to be living in a sort of insane asylum. Aside from being grimly nihilistic, I Stand Alone also approaches every aspect from a visually graphic perspective. The film was widely praised and Gaspar Noé received The Mercedes-Benz Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Despite my repulsive reaction I also consider it an important film.

Catherine Deneuve as the  somewhat perverse mother in Leos Carax's experimental re-working of Melville's "Pierre, or, the Ambiguities", Pola X, 1998.  Cinematography | Eric Gautier. Deneuve was one of the few actors who did not engage in unsimulated and penetrative sex.

Catherine Deneuve as the somewhat perverse mother in Leos Carax’s experimental re-working of Melville’s “Pierre, or, the Ambiguities”, Pola X, 1998.
Cinematography | Eric Gautier. Deneuve was one of the few actors who did not engage in unsimulated and penetrative sex.

It was these films that also included Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Leos Carax’s Pola X, Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day and Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension that led then Artforum Critic, James Quandt, to coin the intentionally derogatory term, The New French Extreme. Quandt defined the The New French Extreme in Artforum with a nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975’s highly polarizing Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom serving as a turning point in Film Art that is only growing more perversely articulated by French film artists who are suddenly “…determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”

James Quandt  and Artforum created a term for French cinema's graphic focus on the transgressive.

James Quandt and Artforum created a term for French cinema’s graphic focus on the transgressive.

Interestingly, rather than create an aversion toward these filmmakers and their work — he actually ended up drawing more attention to it. And, only a few of the French filmmakers were even vaguely offended by the label. Catherine Breillat was the only film artist I can remember being at all perplexed with Quandt’s label. Catherine Breillat has built a distinguished film career around her obsession with the ways in which sexuality impact an individual’s life. Most often, she pursues psychological and physical sexual themes that are nearly always graphic, perversely cerebral and unsentimental. Her career in the arts started at 17  when she secured a publishing deal for her first novel, Early Man, in 1965. The French Government quickly banned the novel from any readers under the age of 18. Almost immediately as the novel was published it was optioned by two film producers. It would not be until 1976 that the producers had the funds, but Breillat was allowed to adapt her book and to direct it. It is interesting to note that the producers went bankrupt as the movie, A Real Young Girl,  was too controversial to secure a distributor in the late 1970’s. In fact, the French Government banned the film. It would not be until 1999 that the film would be released.  The history of this novel and subsequent movie is an early and accurate summation of her entire career. Breillat’s interests and the manner in which she portrays them are often received with interest, but almost consistently create such controversy that success is somewhat limited. Despite the challenges of making profits, her skill as a filmmaker are indisputable. Catherine Breillat has always followed her vision and made it very clear that the audience will either reject her films or not. So, I remember being surprised that she even bothered to address the appointed label of being a part of The French Extreme. She felt that her work was more aligned to that of David Cronenberg and she suggested that she felt they both made films that fell into the realm of Cinema of the Body.

Of the following three French films only one of them was not considered a part of The French Extreme.

Catherine Breillat’s À ma sœur! was released in 2001. It remains my favorite example of The French Extreme. The title of the movie actually translates as “To My Sister!” but for some inane marketing reason Canal+ assigned it a new title for non-European release. And, so I once again find myself ignoring my guidelines as I enter the world of Fat Girl.

Anaïs Reboux stars as Anaïs Pingot in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Anaïs Reboux stars as Anaïs Pingot in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

In 2001 I wrote that Fat Girl was a controversial, provocative and potent examination of female adolescence. Without even the slightest hint of empathy or sentiment for her lead character — or any others in the movie — the movie is unflinching in its commitment to perversely turn the film against the audience rather than to provoke the audience against the movie. Breillat seems to be lensing the entire film with a driven by the same adolescently stunted emotional confusion, rage, jealousy and loneliness of the main character, Anaïs Pingot. Adolescence is never easy, but is proving to be even more so for Anaïs. The US/UK/Canadian releases for this film have been changed from To My Sister! to Fat Girl. As inappropriate as this new title is, it is a great example at the way our society views females. Even at the hands of the movie’s distributor poor Anaïs is reduced to being nothing more than a fat girl. She is already judged.

Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography |

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography |

Far more graphic than it needs to be, Canal+ has made it clear that this time out Breillat did not require her actors to have sex. But give the fact that the movie utilizes prosthetic penis hard-on’s and full frontal nudity and graphic simulated sex scenes, it feels real. Breillat films her lead character played by a 13 year old non-actress partially nude and places her in not only sexual situations but in truly disturbing scene of sexual violence.  While it is on many levels inappropriate, it never feels like Breillat is trying to exploit this little girl. It often simply feels tragically real as this young girl is only beginning to seriously contemplate her sexuality and the way her body is actually perceived.

Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux are sisters at once as one and then next as enemies. Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux are sisters at once as one and then next as enemies. Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Her sister is her best friend one minute and her enemy the next. Her parents do not seem to really pay much attention or care about her. One gets the feeling she is evolving into an angry misfit. The movie takes a very blunt and shocking turn in the last few minutes. The audience at the screening I attended sat in silence as the credits began to roll. Some were offended. Some thought the experience was amazing. Several of the people gathered together in the cinema lobby. I attended the film alone. I listened as each person gave their perspective. Everyone seemed a bit disoriented and upset.

 "If you don't want to believe me, then don't." Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

“If you don’t want to believe me, then don’t.”
Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

When it came to my turn to express my thoughts I could only say that I was certain we had just seen a brilliant bit of cinematic art that is both unforgettable and unforgivable. 14 years later, I still feel the same.

What to do when everything that happens seems to reflect the way you feel? Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat. Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

What to do when everything that happens seems to reflect the way you feel? Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat. Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Whenever someone asks me about this film, I always warn, “It is not for all tastes.”  — I should probably add that this is one of the points of every film Catherine Breillat has ever made. Fat Girl takes no prisoners. She refuses your judgement. She will not break.

Christophe Honoré’s 2004 film, Ma Mere, has also been labeled as an entry into The French Extreme.

Isabelle Huppert as Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Isabelle Huppert as Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

It is actually rather surprising that it took so long for Isabelle Huppert to take a role in one of these films. If ever there were a fearless female actor is it Isabelle Huppert. This actor is an essential part of this controversial movie. In many ways, it seems as much her film as it’s director, Christophe Honoré. Unlike Fat Girl, this film never really puts me at odds my guidelines. It does something far worse. It actually fascinates me. Christophe Honoré simplistic aesthetic is often curiously mismatched to Huppert’s nuanced but harsh performance. It is this simplistic and minimalist mode of storytelling merged with a deeply layered performance by Huppert that seems to provide the fuel to both the plot and to the characters. Huppert’s Hélène is a puzzle of a character that is never fully put together to answer questions. But Huppert is somehow able to play this perversely cruel woman with not only a lingering sort of sadness. It is also much to Huppert’s credit that she is able to interpret Honoré’s almost “camp” level dialogue in unsettlingly believable ways.

"The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit." Isabelle Huppert & Louis Garrel in Christophe Honoré's Ma Mere, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit.” Isabelle Huppert & Louis Garrel in Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mere, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Her son is played by Louis Garrel who manages to keep up with both his director and the iconic actress with whom he shares the screen. We learn that Hélène and her much older husband lost custody of their son and were essentially banished to the Canary Islands because her husband’s wealthy family wanted to keep there lifestyles as far from the family as possible. Though never clearly stated, we quickly learn that subversive and the kink of BDSM is far less about pleasure as it is about punishment. The son is desperate to connect with his mother. Hélène is not so interested in that. Instead, she is hellbent on manipulating his innocence to push him through a constant bombardment of challenges to his mannered way of life. And she does so in an almost ritualistic planned events. So eager to please his mother and also worn down from his grandmother’s Catholic influence he pushes through each challenge until his humanity is completely debased. While Christophe Honoré’s film earned an NC-17, it is actually visually reserved for a film considered as French Extreme.

Dominique Reymond knows far more than she lets on to the son in Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004   Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Dominique Reymond knows far more than she lets on to the son in Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Not that Honoré doesn’t push the envelope on graphic nudity and graphic moments involving domination. But he never really takes the visual to the level of extreme I was expecting. The truly offensive and controversial aspects of this film come from the tone and the manner in which the actors, particularly Huppert, are so genuine in their convictions to hedonism. By the time Honoré actually brings us the mother and son to the final challenge of incest, Hélène chooses to deliver her cruelest to her son. We don’t actually see what the son is doing as he looks at a corpse, it is all the more shocking that we don’t. And as he runs away from the morgue in a state of total panic it almost feels like it is his mother has somehow taken control of the film’s soundtrack.

"Wrong isn't what we're about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it." Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004  Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Wrong isn’t what we’re about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it.” Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Suddenly, as this broken son runs all we can hear is “Happy Together” by The Turtles. Much like Leos Carax’s controversial “epic” reworking of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or, the Ambiguities in Pola X, Christophe Honoré has used Georges Bataille’s controversial cultural critique novel, My Mother, as the source for his film — he is far less concerned with providing a cultural / societal commentary as he is in exploring the depravity of a parent and the way it can eventually can pull the child to an even darker level of perversity. And, just as The Turtles hit the last chorus — “...so happy toge-”  Honoré cuts them off mid word and his screen immediately switches to white. Ma Mere ends with a thudding silence that lingers long after it has been viewed.

"This goes to your mother. The Mediterranean bitch." Isabelle Huppert & One of her Disciples in Ma Mere, Christophe Honoré, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“This goes to your mother. The Mediterranean bitch.” Isabelle Huppert & One of her Disciples in Ma Mere, Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Over the course of the last decade, The French Extreme had de-evoloved to mostly disgusting torture porn. The goal of these films seems to shock the audience with an assault of savage gore.  The original French artists who are most associated with The French Extreme have pretty much all changed gears. Even Catherine Breillat has started to look at other aspects of human life. Her greatest challenge is the fact that she suffered a stroke. But this only seemed to push herself harder to craft a film loosely based on her experiences during and after her stroke.

" I've sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I'll be an atomic bomb." Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat Cinematography | Alain Marcoen

” I’ve sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I’ll be an atomic bomb.” Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat
Cinematography | Alain Marcoen

Certainly powerful stuff, but not so extreme.

The last film of the genre I saw that displayed incredible skill and intelligence was simultaneously the most unpleasant torture porn I have ever seen. Particularly appalling was the fact that it simply was too well made for me to question it. It was Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs. Which Hollywood has been trying to re-make in a “less dark way”?!?

"Keep doubting." Martyrs,  Pascal Laugier, 2008 Cinematography | Stéphane Martin,  Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky & Bruno Philip

“Keep doubting.” Martyrs,
Pascal Laugier, 2008
Cinematography | Stéphane Martin,
Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky & Bruno Philip

But, that would be a whole other sort of post.