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When 19th Century writer, Jules Michelet, wrote La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) his goal was not limited to providing a history of Medieval European Witchcraft. In truth he was seeking to do something far more interesting — his intention was to reveal that history as a cultural rebellion against the oppressions of the Roman Catholic Church and Feudalism. Michelet was sympathetic to the plight of peasant women of this era. What culture and history named as Satanic or Witchcraft, he attempted to redefine from the other side of a largely unrecognized side of this phenomenon: Paganism.

An impoverished woman doesn't quite fit into her community is to be judged as an Evil Witch. Illustration by Martin van Maele from Jules Michelet La Sorcière, 1911 Edition.

An impoverished woman doesn’t quite fit into her community is to be judged as an Evil Witch.
Illustration by Martin van Maele
from Jules Michelet La Sorcière, 1911 Edition.

The idea, as presented by Michelet, was to look underneath such dark practices as Devil Worship and discover its true origins. In fact, he viewed this with an eye to where non-prescriptive spiritual beliefs might lead to something of beauty and goodness. Was the cultural magnifying glass obstructing the goodness to propagate the fear of the people? His sympathies were given to the oppressed and victimized. Paganism was not necessarily Evil from Michelet’s viewpoint. His book would assist in laying out a model for modern Pagan Wiccan Ideologies.

Were these men afraid of Witchcraft or simply afraid of a women refusing patriarchal control? "The Witch, No. 3" Joseph E. Baker, c. 1890

Were these men afraid of Witchcraft or simply afraid of a women refusing patriarchal control?
“The Witch, No. 3”
Joseph E. Baker, c. 1890

Michelet reconstructs and reimagines a situation in which a coven of desperate women push their unique forms of social protest into darkness by the use of decadent rituals performed under the power of the moon. Black Sabbaths performed by witches. It was not the strength found in nature that was the problem. The problem was when these spiritual and empowering rituals sought to do harm. He then devotes the remainder of the book to reconstructions / imaginings taken from the horrific European witch trials. Michelet’s writings were debunked as inaccurate and problematic long ago, but he is responsible for turning a sympathetic light toward oppressed women and scorn on irrational societal fears. If nothing else, La Sorcière speaks to a very different kind of revolutionary danger that goes far beyond the simple political. If a society chooses to push large groups into oppression and misery, there is simply no telling what those groups might form to rebel.

Entering the 1970's society felt that parents had control of their children. Cue a masterful film about a pretty little girl possessed by The Devil. Linda Blair The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Entering the 1970’s society felt that parents had control of their children. Cue a masterful film about a pretty little girl possessed by The Devil.
Linda Blair
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

As the world crashed out of the 1960’s and slammed into the resulting gains and damages of the 1970’s, Japan’s Mushi Production was looking to take on a bigger slice of the Animated Movie Pie. They instructed their animation team to create three adult-oriented projects referred to as The Animerama Trilogy. Mushi Productions and legendary animator, Osamu Tezuka, were looking to keep up with an ever evolving and reactionary era. The Animerama Trilogy would be Anime / Manga with a difference. These three films were to be full-on erotica and they would also adhere to psychedelic animation.

"All those lonely people..." Taking animation into the psychedlic. Yellow Submarine George Dunning, 1968 Art Direction | Heinz Edelmann

“All those lonely people…” Taking animation into the psychedlic.
Yellow Submarine
George Dunning, 1968
Art Direction | Heinz Edelmann

Perhaps it was worries about trying to push ahead of the coolness / originality created within the animated Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine, combined with rumors of hardcore content about to explode within mainstream cinematic entertainment. This was the era of Last Tango in Paris, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist. It was at this time that two truly pornographic films enjoyed mainstream success. Deep Throat and Beyond The Green Door were not limited to creepy porn cinemas. Whatever propelled Mushi Productions to push the cinematic envelope, this was The Sexual Revolution and Liberation moving in full-tilt-boogie mode. Mushi Productions was ready to make X-Rated pornographic animated films. The sexuality was to be both erotic and graphic, but equal attention needed to be applied in the areas of plot and artistic quality.

The original movie poster Belladonna of Sadness / Tragedy of Belladonna Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

The original movie poster
Belladonna of Sadness / Tragedy of Belladonna
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

Belladonna of Sadness was actually the second of the trilogy. Tezuka assigned Eiichi Yamamoto to serve as Belladonna‘s director and visionary leader. He quickly convinced painter, Kuni Fukai, to helm the film’s art direction duties. Artistic freedom and quality were of upmost importance. Astro Boy was the money maker for Mushi Productions. This trilogy was to be creative. Concerns regarding commercial success were to be pushed off the table.

The oppressed victim transforms into a magically powerful Witch... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The oppressed victim transforms into a magically powerful Witch…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Yamamoto understood the importance of story and the importance of artistic quality. Fukai was not particularly interested in Anime or Manga, but he did want the freedom to pursue his artistic vision. He was also drawn to the idea that Tezuka was not particularly interested in movement. His goal was to focus on the detail of illustration. In other words, traditional ideas of animation were out the window. Fukai found the film’s development and production to be an enjoyable artistic experience. Based upon interviews, it is clear that Fukai captured the director’s ideas onto scrolling murals. The film’s cinematographer, Shigeru Yamasaki, then set the framing as his camera moved along the murals and other illustrations. Belladonna of Sadness took two years to create using less than ten additional animators. Masahiko Satoh was hired to provide the musical score. It is a jazzed-fused mash-up of experimental synthesizers with syrupy pop ballads. The musical score works incredibly well. Like the film itself, Satoh’s score has a large number of fans as well.

Defying conventional ideas of Anime and animation... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Defying conventional ideas of Anime and animation…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

By the time Belladonna of Sadness was ready for release, Mushi Productions was about to fall into bankruptcy. Their Japanese distributor, Nippon Herald Eiga, was at a loss when it came to marketing the movie. Even though the strange film was well received at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival, it received a limited release in Japan without any success. Having now seen this infamous movie, it seems all the more odd that it came and went with little to no interest.  It was never officially released outside of Japan. In the late 1970’s it was discovered that Belladonna had gained a minor female following.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

An attempt to re-cut the movie so that it might hold a more immediate appeal to female viewers only resulted in muting the film’s power. Much of the hardcore sexuality and sexual violence was trimmed away. It is easy to understand why the director decided to remove some of these elements as they have and continue to cause problematic issues, but those original choices still make sense to the overall reach of the film. However Yamamoto had the idea of incorporating a scan of Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix to serve as a potent closing image.

A poisonous flower? Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

A poisonous flower or a source of magical healing?
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The additional mix of Delacroix’s style makes sense given that the movie pulsates via a number of various stylistic influences. But the most logical piece of this idea is that the painting better conveys the film’s closing lines. Belladonna of Sadness has always enjoyed a strong reputation among fans of the Anime / Manga genres. Various and inferior versions of the movie floated around for years. The folks at Cinelicious Pics worked hard to secure the rights to restore and distribute an uncensored version of the movie to the world. All of the eroticism, depravity and sexual brutality has been returned. But the 1979 inclusion of Delacroix’s painting remains. Belladonna of Sadness is now available in 4K remaster.

How to describe this film without giving too much away? I’m not confident I can do that so I will keep my summary simplistic and utilize shots from the film to indicate the beauty, complexity and ultra-weird world it portrays. The over-all look of the film is tied to an idea of glam beauty that you might expect to see in illustrated adverts of the early to mid-1970’s. The film’s protagonist, Jeanne, is rendered as a slender and sublimely perfect nymphette. Her appearance is the one consistent element of the movie’s imagery. Jeanne‘s beauty does not match the world in which she has been born. She is simply too elegantly beautiful to belong here.

The identity finds no solace or safety in marriage... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The identity finds no solace or safety in marriage…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

She is a peasant girl who has just married a humble but handsome man. Only minutes into her marriage, Jeanne is raped by the land’s Feudal Lord — and his entire court including Church leadership. This might sound silly, but that animated / painted sequences of rape and sexual torture are truly horrific. Kuni Fukai and his team found ways to render this human cruelty that go well beyond the boundaries of living actors. The sequence is traumatic and may prove to be more than some are willing to watch. When the film was screened in San Francisco more than a few people opted to leave the cinema. If you thought the killing of Bambi‘s mom was harsh, that classically upsetting animated moment is rendered sweet in comparison.

Believe it or not, this film's animated depiction of rape is disorienting, visceral and horrifically disturbing. Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Believe it or not, this film’s animated depiction of rape is disorienting, visceral and horrifically disturbing.
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The ability of this film to capture both the act of rape and the consequence of the attack is nothing short of brilliant. As horrible as these sequences are — they are essential. The rape of Jeanne is not presented as erotic, but it does force forward an uncomfortable issue. While Yamamoto is clearly not looking to excite the audience, that doesn’t mean that this depiction of rape is above reproach. An argument could be made that his film goes too far. Somewhere in the synapse of the depicted horror there registers a worrying sense of the sadistic.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Is the explicit manner in which these brutalities are depicted meaningful or exploitive? While I think a case could be made, ultimately I was moved by the way the film managed to present the sheer trauma and damage of rape. Even still it must be noted that these sequences are so repulsive and shocking — they push it all so far that the viewer’s mind and body are both required to react.

It is a manipulation. It is a tough watch. Maybe too tough to be considered as an “entertaining” experience — and, no matter, this movie’s intentions are to entertain.

Draw your own conclusion.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness is obviously surrealistic, but it is persistently grounded in realistic logic. Jeanne‘s life and marriage are ruined. As she attempts the impossibility of healing and restoring her identity she falls into a spiraling depression. Pushed past the edge of sanity, Jeanne appears to retreat into an attempt at calming through sexual self release. Or at least this is how I interpret it. Instead of finding peace, she discovers The Devil. Playful and ever-ready to flirt, The Devil never attempts to hide his identity. He repeatedly points out that Jeanne has summoned him.

Evil has not come to Jeanne without invitation. 

Jeanne makes a pact and gives her body and soul for as she phrases it, “something bad.” The something bad is actually empowerment and full claim of her sexual liberation.

Surrendering to Satan... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Surrendering to Satan…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Our protagonist is angry when she awakens from her surrealistic fuck-fest with Satan. She has anticipated that she would wake in Hell. She thought her hair would have turned into snakes. She expected to be a scary old hag. Instead she wakes refreshed, clean, energetic, healed and surrounded by flowers that seem to radiate energy.

"You had already died, anyway." Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

“You had already died, anyway.”
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

I want people to turn away in horror when I pass by in the street. I don’t want to forget anger and hatred!” Jeanne seethes to The Devil.

You have become beautiful, Jeanne. Like a young girl in love. Radiant. You are even more beautiful than God,” The Devil replies.

The One who owns her soul explains that a woman can be angry, scary and raging with hatred and remain beautiful. Why? Because she does not fully understand the power of her own self and beauty. The Devil teaches her that she can channel her beauty, charm, intellect and intelligence to do good or utilize those same powers to cause righteous evil. Nature will bend to Jeanne‘s will. Why? Because she is woman.

Meet Jeanne, The Witch. Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Meet Jeanne, The Witch.
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Yamamoto’s vision of The Devil is a penis of various sizes and compulsions. Evil is represented by the penis. It is comical, but it is also oddly effective in depicting Jeanne’s initiation into the sensual. The vagina is used to symbolize a wide range of ideas and aspects of life, but the key to Belladonna of Sadness‘ use of yonic symbology are related to joy, pleasure and life.

"Are you The Devil?" "Yes," replies the cock along with an opportunity for empowerment... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

“Are you The Devil?”
“Yes,” replies the cock along with an opportunity for empowerment…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Welcome to Eiichi Yamamoto’s take on Feminist Theory. As Jeanne allows herself to shed inhibitions — she evolves into a powerful sexual predator. She seduces and gains strength as the men begin to lose theirs. Jeanne has long left her former life, she is now surrounded by beauty. She finds creative and magical ways to return to her fellow peasants.

Jeanne magically creates food and wine. She brings sexual education to her fellow peasants. She turns the poisonous Belladonna flower into medicine that stops pain — most importantly notes is that her magic flower  takes away the pain of childbirth for the women of her village. And she pulls the peasants back to her Sexual LSD’d-like trip’d out home for orgy sabbaths. All of which are depicted in stunning ways and in a multiple manner of styles. Some of the film’s stylings are truly beautiful, others are crude, some are silly, some profane and all are aiming to shock.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Eventually Jeanne must decide how she really wants to use her new found power.

Ultimately there is a reason Yamamoto named the protagonist “Jeanne.”

Jeanne d’Arc, anyone? Did I mention the story takes place in France? 

Do ya wanna hold me? Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Do ya wanna hold me?
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Regarding the film’s X-Rated ideologies — Belladonna of Sadness aims to sexually excite. This is eroticism. To be more specific, this is experimental eroticism.

Why is it experimental? For more reasons than I care to list, but this is an animated film. Depictions of the human body morph from realistic renderings to the profanely abstract. This is even more true when applied to genitalia.

Is Belladonna of Sadness actually erotic? I guess that depends on what winds your clock. Personally, I do not find illustrations all that sexy. But that is just me.

Eroticism morphs... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Eroticism morphs…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

I should also point out that I’ve no interest in animated film, Anime or Manga. The fact that I wanted to write about Belladonna of Sadness indicates a great deal regarding how I feel about it. I loved the experience of this movie.

I admire the artistic audacity, experimentation and the epic go-for-broke approach. And I take great pleasure in seeing something totally new and unique. I have never seen a movie like this one. It is unique. It is also a problematic film and it doesn’t always work. But when Belladonna of Sadness does work — it compulsively pulls us into its own astounding world.

Erotica Abstracta / Fascinating to watch Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Erotica Abstracta / Fascinating to watch
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Belladonna of Sadness has been gyrating for over 43 years. It isn’t going anywhere. For more info: http://www.cineliciouspics.com/belladonna-of-sadness/

Matty Stanfield, 8.25.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Definitions, categorizations and comparisons fill the world of art theory. When it comes to Film Art there seems to be an almost endless stream of terms. Defining “cinema” and determining what films truly achieve “cult” status is not always as easy as it would seem. A great Cinematic Master gave a definition that I’ve always found inappropriate and insulting. However I am forever returning to his definition in much the same way I am constantly re-watching one of his many masterpieces.

"Oh, you ARE sick." Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

“Oh, you ARE sick.”
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

Federico Fellini once described the art of cinema as “...an old whore, like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure.”

There is a good deal of validity to this definition. Film has become an integral part of our culture and is quite possibly the most valued art form which screens 24/7 all over the world. It is also based on a model so firmly grounded in marketing and profit earning that is impossible to talk with any filmmaker and not end up discussing the costs to make them and how much they earn. Of course even while money is the requirement and the goal, it takes a backseat to the pleasures it provides to us, its John. And we are a constantly returning customer.  No matter how bad the weather or strapped for cash we might be. This is one service most of us seem to need and we constantly run the risk of being disappointed.

Lonely, isolated and sad. Donald Sutherland Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Lonely, isolated and sad. Mid-1970’s audiences did not know what to think of this strange Surrealist take on Casanova. Three decades later, a whole new audience eagerly awaits a refreshed print. Criterion Collection?
Donald Sutherland
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Sometimes one of the these movies seems to pull us back again and again. We can’t get enough. This of course is not a hooker. This is a film that develops a loyal following no matter its profit margin. And no matter how hard it is to locate. We pursue it. Welcome to the Cult Film. David Lynch’s Eraserhead is an exceptional Cult Film. It is not a bad film. I would argue that this 1977 film represents years of work, dedication and is ultimately a fine work of American Art. But how can a films like Eraserhead and Grey Gardens be lumped into the same category as Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row or Mark Robson’s painfully bad, Valley of the Dolls? Well, it is pretty easy actually.

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me." Valley of the Dolls Mark Robson, 1967

“They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.”
Valley of the Dolls
Mark Robson, 1967

Wikipedia prefers to apply the term “Cult Classic” instead of “Cult Film.” The definition provided is “…a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Inclusive definitions allow for major studio productions, especially box office bombs, while exclusive definitions focus more on obscure, transgressive films shunned by the mainstream. The difficulty in defining the term and subjectivity of what qualifies as a cult film mirror classificatory disputes about art. The term cult film itself was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, though cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that. Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, occasionally for their camp value…

"A good football coach can get away with murder." Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than... Pretty Maids All In A Row Roger Vadim, 1971

“A good football coach can get away with murder.” Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than…
Pretty Maids All In A Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

The definition goes on to discuss the fact that Cult Classic is not limited to the campy or the failed. It is often reserved for films that are acclaimed but never quite move into mainstream success. There are some exceptional Cult Classics, or Cult Films as I prefer to call them. These are artistically solid works of Film Art that may not have broken box office records or secured the false acclaim of The Academy Award. In fact there are some fairly new films that are brilliant and are already achieving Cult Film status. There are also a number of God-awful movies that have over the past decade have begun to return to our attention as Cult Films.

Both Roger Vadim’s deeply odd Pretty Maids all in a Row and Mark Robson’s big-budgeted major studio Valley of the Dolls have enjoyed the status of Cult Films for decades. These are both examples of unintended camp. When it comes to Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s hugely successful novel, the idea of Cult Film is turned every which way but loose. This film was actually a huge box office hit. When watching this infamous movie it boggles the mind that our parents and grandparents were rushing to local movie theaters to watch this astoundingly bad film. But they did. Drag Queens should be given credit for catching the camp value of this film first, but over the past couple of decades those of us who love a great bad movie have come to love it just as much. At once shamelessly lewd and contradictorily innocent, from start to finish — VOD is continually amping itself up to a seemingly endless escalation of camp.

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film's star. Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film’s star. Another painfully bad film that is so desperately horrible it becomes an endless source of fun! 
Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids was designed to cash in on the idea of the T&A movie merged with once major Hollywood Players. Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson quickly tossed cautiously crafted on-screen personas to prove they were hip to the grooves that had spread across middle America. Keenan Wynn, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowell were also eager to strap it on for the ride. None seem to be embarrassed as they romp about with semi or fully nude nymphettes. Nor do any seem to be bothered by the fact that the sexual teases were also mixed with serial murder killings. The film was also intended to be a dark comedy. The film flopped. It was decidedly not hip and most certainly far from cool. It was not particularly funny. It did however open a door for Telly Savalas by inspiring the idea of what would become Kojak. After the tragic death of Rock Hudson, this film began to be re-evaluated. It was still bad, but oh so much mind-blowing fun to watch.

As bad as these two major studio films are, neither can top Berry Gordy’s ill-advised star-vehicle for Motown’s own, Miss. Diana Ross.  That film is Mahogany. A hit song did not a hit movie make. When news that the film was being released to DVD, fans rushed to pre-order it. So unwilling to have to even think about the movie, Diana Ross herself held up over 500,000 newly printed DVD’s hostage (!) until someone convinced her it would be cheaper to let the film out. Those of you who know the fun that is Berry Gordy’s Mahogany hold that DVD close to your hearts. Of course it was this film that inspired Rupaul to become the persona she is today! But Mahogany merits its own post. There is not enough room here.

"Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!" Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” An example of profound Surrealism that verges toward that of Cinematic Masterpiece is now considered a Cult Film or Cult Classic. As well as a beloved member of The Criterion Collection.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

In the early 1980’s David Cronenberg finally secured a modest, but decent budget when he made Videodrome. Featuring Pop-Icon, Debbie Harry, in a pivotal role — this controversial and surreal examination in body horror and paranoia was acclaimed and achieved a slight success in cinemas. Far too grim, graphic and controversial to achieve major box office success — this film was admired. By the time it was released to VHS, Cronenberg’s dark vision had already built a solid fan base that would continue to grow. Videodrome is now rightly viewed as somewhat of a cinematic masterpiece. It is also a member of the esteemed Criterion Collection. This is a Cult Film that is brilliant and some 30 years on — it still threatens to bite. Despite the fact that the technology key to the film’s plot has long been left behind in the dust, this movie remains disturbing, visceral and horrifying. Interestingly, this film also remains controversial in its depiction of BDSM.

But I’d like to shift focus forward to a couple of more recent films that are quickly establishing themselves as Cult Films. One such movie is Evan Glodell’s 2011 independently produced, Bellflower.

"Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland." Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011

“Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland.”
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011

From the first moment Evan Glodell’s writing/directorial debut, Bellflower, starts – – the audience knows that they are about to watch something at once slightly familiar and yet remarkably unique in almost all aspects. Bellflower is not quite like any movie you have seen. Without giving away any spoilers the film begins as a rather humorous and sad take on a relationship between two late twenty-somethings one of whom is a man obsessed with apocalyptic movies and creating weapons in preparation for the end of times.

The main character fill his days and time with his best bud day dreaming about the ultimate apocalypse in which they will each play roles of the Mad Max/Road Warrior types. These two men share a child-like joy in the planning of playing these roles in the Hell that will be left after the world as they know it ends. All the more interesting is the fact that these two “dudes” do not even have any sense of their own immaturity or the irony that their adult feet are planted so firmly in adolescence.

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow's mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow’s mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

The plot takes a turn for the romantic when Woodrow, played by director/writer, Evan Glodell, meets the beautiful and equally odd, Milly. Like Woodrow and his close pal, Aiden, Milly seems to be stuck in a rut of narcissistic immaturity. Milly and Woodrow fall in love but both lack the maturity to navigate the wild woods of a romantic relationship. It isn’t long before their relationship takes a dead end turn. At that point Bellflower pulls the audience into the darkest corners of damaged heartbreak and rage. Bellflower becomes a devastatingly disturbing apocalyptic journey filtered through the eyes of drug-fueled insanity. Glodell has cleverly created a highly artistic and powerful study of the Love Wounded Boy-Man Walking. As this metaphor that when merges with the stunted emotionality of the character, Bellflower comes close to the trajectory of Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. In fact, Bellflower almost manages to make Apocalypse Now seem like a Disney movie. This impact is quite a cinematic feat.

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken -- Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken — Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Evan Glodell’s film deals with pain and frustration that every young adult feels in his/her first loves and quite literally blows them to oblivion. It is a gut punch that would make the strongest of people bend over or, at the very least, squirm in their seats. While this film garnished Film Festival attention, it did not fare so well at the box office. Since it was released to DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD, this film has emerged with a fierce following. While it is about as dark as any film can get, it resonates.

This movie is tapping into a current vibe shared by many as we enter the 21st Century. So much is unknown. So much is uncertain. Uncomfortable change and misadventure seem to be in the air. Bellflower plays with that creepy societal feeling to an extreme that turns to an almost manic glee of vengeance. The failure of the characters to have grown into mature/adjusted men and women is presented as a reflection of a generation weaned on TV, bad movies and low expectations. Bellflower grinds into the psyche as a blistering reminder of our shared creation of a generation of people largely misplaced and lost.

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Bellflower, like Woodrow’s amped up car called Medusa, speeds, twists, turns, shoots out the very flames of fury and spins out of control into crashing oblivion. Horrible heartbreak speeds through the veins of Woodrow without the boundaries of emotional understanding to know when to put on the breaks or slow down at corner. This is spectacular feature film debut. Fingers crossed that Glodell will emerge with a new film soon. But no matter what he does, this dark film lives on in the minds of those who see it. And see it again.

In the Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Shelley Duvall gleefully informs Sissy Spacek, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Duvall explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!” Her delivery of these improvised lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, some are not sure how to react, but many viewers feel the need to go fetal with dread. This film was inspired by a dream Altman experienced. He assembled his cast out in the desert and began filming. While there was a very loose form script, he encouraged both Duvall and Spacek to come up with their own voices for their respective characters. The entire film feels like a hazy dream that offers a glimpse into the psyche’s darkest corners of loneliness, insecurities and unsure identity.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977

The majority of film critics of the time loved the film. Sadly there was one exception. That exception caused a great deal of damage to the film’s potential for success. This would be the first Robert Altman film that Pauline Kael would dismiss. The film’s initial release was fairly limited to major cities and on to the Art House screens. Kael’s odd disconnect to this brilliant film kept many intellectuals away.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste. Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste.
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Before any sort of “word of mouth” regarding Robert Altman’s surreal experimental film had the chance to spread, it was pulled out of circulation within 8 days. Over the following two decades 3 Women became not only a “Cult Classic” but was largely considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s. Robert Altman’s study of identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is pure cinematic magic. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are pitch-perfect. The cinematic experimentation employed is fully realized. His two lead actresses’ visions blend, but most importantly they successfully morph into Altman’s disturbing dream world. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director's dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here... Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director’s dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here…
Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Despite the fact that the film was available on only inferior VHS tapes and in loose fragments online — much of which focused on Duvall’s scenes featuring only the eccentricity and comic aspects of her performance — 3 Women has never been short of devoted fans. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, the film was beautifully remastered and issued for all those devoted to grab. And of course, the film has since snared an even bigger audience and reappraisal. Some like to frame this film as an American answer to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but that is a poor framing device. 3 Women is far less tight in construction. It flows over the viewer. While Duvall may make the audience laugh, she also slips in under the skin. Millie‘s awkwardness feels a bit too familiar. Spacek’s Pinky slowly begins to take on a sinister edge. By the time we become aware of the third woman played by a mute Janice Rule, the spell has been cast. This Cult Film goes deeper with each viewing.

"Dreams can't hurt ya." Or maybe they can... Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“Dreams can’t hurt ya.” Or maybe they can…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

In many ways, Altman’s 3 Women almost seems more tied to the American Underground Film of the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s. So many interesting works emerged from this Underground. One of the most interesting is also a film which has attracted a huge following over the past 20 years is a notorious epic called Thundercrack!.

"And don't go telling me it's some kind of a popsicle!" Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“And don’t go telling me it’s some kind of a popsicle!”
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Thundercrack! is truly one of the oddest films ever made. An odd mix of dark humor, surrealism and hardcore pornography — it can be a difficult viewing for some. A movie never intended for all audiences, this movie aims both cerebrally and very much below the belt. This film is a tripped-out work of art by the most bold artists’ of The 1970’s Bay Area. The level of Surrealism and Absurdism should not be denied. And on top of everything else, this twisted epic of a movie is often very funny.  This is a film that makes John Waters’ early films seem tame. Make no mistake, this film plunges into the full-on hardcore porn found in the mid-1970’s. It is like an experimental theatre company gone to seed and given a camera.

The thing about Thundercrack! is that while it is all of these things, it manages to step up toward a twisted version of Art House Cinema. This may be a part of The Underground Trash Cinema subgenre, but it is clearly an artistic venture. Directed by Curt McDowell and co-written with Mark Ellinger (who also serves as the film’s composer and sole musical instrument player!) — the script would also feature some added ideas from the infamous George Kuchar. McDowell was a Queer Artist going places. Tragically, AIDS would steal him away from the world far too soon.

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert's. Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert’s.
Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Marion Eaton is the film’s “star.” She plays sad Mrs. Gert Hammond. A wealthy, constantly drunk/drugged eccentric, we find Gert drunkenly yelling at her radio. A horrid storm is raging and she soon opens up her home to a wild and often sordid bunch of strangers who need shelter from the raging storm. Each character has a dark secret, but none have a secret that tops the two Mrs. Gert Hammond is keeping. Gradually each secret is revealed until the film builds to its insane crescendo when Gert’s secrets are revealed. Interestingly, this motley crew is willing to accept every secret except for the two belonging to their host. Mrs. Gert Hammond simply goes too far.

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970's Sexual and Cultural Revolution. ...with plenty of lube. Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970’s Sexual and Cultural Revolution. …with plenty of lube.
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

 

All manner of things happen. Conflict and melodrama run amok. In between strange scenes of banter, the film features a wide range of sex acts. Leading us back to The Bay Area of the 1970’s when sexual experimentation and exploration were still free of dangers, nothing appears to be off-limits for these characters. This is fluid sex at it’s most hairy. Never actually erotic, the sex scenes seem to serve more as an empowering statement of sexual rebellion and freedom. These actors don’t just go for broke, they are out to break. The most impressive member of the cast is Marion Eaton. Every movement, line and gyration is delivered with theatrical sincerity. The late Ms. Eaton even finds moments of poetry which she delivers as if her life depended upon it.

"Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?" Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?”
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Heavily censored and often difficult to find, Thundercrack! has a running time of close to 2.5 hours. It will be too much for many, but for many it is an unexpected, strange and wild trip. Thundercrack! ‘s road to restoration and Blu-Ray/DVD has been a long one. But Synapse Films has finally released it to the Cult that has been waiting patiently. This film is not for everyone, but if you’re feeling adventurous you will discover a movie that can still leave a viewer God-smacked some 40 years since it first screened. This is a film that defies categorization, time, space and your judgement. It does not care what you think. 

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations... Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations…
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

As Spencer Susser film begins a middle grade teacher tells his class, “Now today we’re going to talk about ‘metaphor.’” Welcome to the world of  TJ played by Devin Brochu. TJ’s father (played exceptionally by Rainn Wilson) has fallen into a deep depression following the death of his wife and TJ’s mother. They are now living with TJ‘s elderly Grandmother. Piper Laurie delivers a touching performance as an elderly woman who feels helpless as she sees her son vanishing and her grandson losing control.

"Today, we are going to talk about 'metaphor.'" Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010

“Today, we are going to talk about ‘metaphor.'”
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010

Everything takes a very fast change for “the better” when a stoned-out, psychotic, metalhead and ‘pyromatically’-inclined dude named Hesher appears. At first he is a threat to TJ, but soon he becomes a hero. Hesher takes it all on for TJ. Spinning wild tales of drug-fused adventures and sexual escapades. Hesher is sort of like a very sick and twisted id personified. Hesher quickly leads the boy into a string of dangerous, profane, violent and sexually charged situations. Essentially this film is about rage. In fact, it is one of the most interesting explorations of rage I’ve ever seen.

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child's world vacant of hope. Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child’s world vacant of hope.
Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

TJ has seen his mother killed in a violent car crash, his father is fading away, his Grandmother seems to be on the verge of dying, he is bullied, he is lonely and he is lost. This child is in a deep grief that he can only express through rebellion and righteous anger. Small and unsure, he needs a way to channel his rage.

Enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher.

This film is full of strong performances. The mix of realism and surrealism is intentionally vague. It is also one of the key reasons the film begs for repeated viewings. Each revisit reveals a bit more of something that we either did not notice or interpret correctly. Sadly the film’s use of the perverse and its steadfast refusal to hold the audience hand, seemed to cause indifference from film critics. Some dismissed the film as “unbelievable” and others accused it of being unnecessarily offensive. These opinions were short-sighted. It’s valid R-Rating also kept Gordon-Levitt’s mass of young girl fans from gaining access.

A creation of rage and survival. Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

A creation of rage and survival.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Of course, Hesher is almost all metaphor. It is doubtful that any aspect of Gordon-Levitt’s character is even real. Spencer Susser created a surreal film that many didn’t seem to realize was surreal. Much of this film is in TJ‘s mind — and the rest is propelled by bravery he finds in his imaginary Death Metal Hero. This is an angry and defiant movie told from the perspective of a very sad and traumatized child. This was not a sanitized cineplex movie. This is an Art House Cinema with unexpected edges. Sharp and threatening potential danger, Hesher continues to attract fans. The film is already being reevaluated and gaining a rightful Cult Following.

This year saw the release of some original, innovative and amazing films. One of the best films to find its way to cinemas this year was John Magary’s feature-length debut, The Mend. Magary’s film presents itself as one thing, but works its way under the skin. A brilliantly conceived and constructed film, The Mend is not simplistic. Always potent, the film’s power grows with each viewing. It has been gathering a following since it’s first screening.

"Hey! Can we go get ice cream?" The Mend John Magary, 2014

“Hey! Can we go get ice cream?”
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

John Magary’s feature length film debut is so impressive it is hard to believe that this is his first movie. Despite a low budget, this is a masterfully constructed work. Assured and rigid in its refusal to dumb itself down or fall back on cinematic trope, this odd dark comedy is sharp. It is cutting and it cuts so fast you do not realize you’re bleeding until well after the closing credits. Josh Lucas, an accomplished actor by any standard, delivers the performance of his career.  Essentially an incisive character study of two brothers. Both are miserable. One represses everything and attempts to force his way through. The other seems to have slipped into an empty world of rage and damage.

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA? Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA?
Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

As cruel as it is often deeply and artistically insightful. The brothers are caught in vicious cycle of dysfunction that may or may not have been “passed-on” or pulled into their own psyches. This idea of being genetically dysfunctional hoovers over the brothers. While it is often very angry and dark, it is also somehow always funny. The Mend feels a bit like a French film in the way it applies intellectualism and unexpected comedy. The film also has no problem of utilizing an often off-kilter style that doesn’t seem to match the content. Yet as we follow the eccentric narrative of these two broken men, the obscure stylistic leanings begin to make sense.

The Mend automatically lends itself to repeated viewings. Ideas and scenes haunt the viewer long after seeing the film for the first time. The second viewing offers a more firm understanding of what we have already seen. This is not a flaw. This is a brilliant move by Magary. There is nothing surface or easy about this smart film. So much is presented that it is hard to take it all in.

Giving an e-cig a run for it's money. Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

Giving an e-cig a run for it’s money.
Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

What could have easily turned out to be yet another in a long line of familial dysfunction and tormented boy-men who refuse to grow up, is actually a brutally realistic glimpse into the human instinct to survive. It is this same survival instinct that trips our two lead characters up as they each realize that they want so much more from life than what they are receiving. While each comes to realizations, it is unclear if either has the ability to escape each other or even their respective selves. Cynical but never satirical or unrealistic, these two brothers know they are sick and getting sicker, but getting well is easier discussed than achieved.  This movie works brilliantly.

A man on the verge... Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015. The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

A man on the verge…
Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015.
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

The Mend is still new enough to be seen before it reaches full Cult Film status. However you better hurry or you will be joining the party late.

I realize I should end this rambling post on positive note. I could easily discuss Alejandro Jodorowsky, Slava Tsukerman, John Waters, Andrzej Zuławski, The Coen Brothers, The Brothers Quay, Ed Wood, Peter Greenaway or Terry Gilliam. But instead I would like to turn my attention to the ultimate in my favorite type of Cult Film: The major studio cinematic error and the film that most best embodies the endless possibilities of its results. Yes, I must discuss the demented alchemy of Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest.

"I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt." Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level... Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981

“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”
Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level…
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981

Shortly before the movie premiered, Faye Dunaway gave a couple of interviews in which she explained that she felt as if the spirit of Joan Crawford had possessed her. At that time one thought this was just an actor marketing her latest film. Who could have known that there was more truth to Ms. Dunaway’s statement than anyone could have imagined. Unless you are old enough to have sat in a crowded cinema during the first several days that Frank Perry’s legendary Mommie Dearest, you have no way of understanding the way in which this film hammered its way into the film viewing experience. I was still somewhat new to being a teenager as I sat next to my mother watching this doomed movie unspool.

"The meanest mother of them all..." Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

“The meanest mother of them all…”
Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

It was jarring, odd and it often almost scary. There were smatterings of laughter, but mostly it was a communal jaw-dropping two hours of shared confusion. Mommie Dearest is essentially an epic cinematic error. Constructed in a clumsy manner with dialogue more fitting for a bad 1940’s melodrama and almost all of it delivered with mind-numbing bad performances.

There is a major exception to the bad acting.

That exception is Faye Dunaway. Stuck in a mediocre script better suited for an ABC Made-for-TV Movie of the Week and being led by a director who was clearly in over his head — Dunaway delivers one of the most memorable film performances of all time. That might sound like a good thing, but this is a performance beyond unrestrained.

Part impersonation mixed with passion, theatrical by the way of Kabuki Art and fused with a level of adrenaline that would have killed most athletes — Faye Dunaway goes to a place I’ve never seen another actor go. Fearless and with no net, this is an operatic show of force that threatens to melt the film on which it was captured.

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway's performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net. Faye Dunaway Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net.
Faye Dunaway
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

This transformative take on one of the most iconic movie stars to ever splatter on the screen, Faye Dunaway’s take on Joan Crawford is all persona and moves itself into what can only be called Avant-garde Performance Art. Sure it is funny to watch, but there is an artistic spark here that simply does not allow the audience to dismiss it. Faye Dunaway is more Joan Crawford than Joan Crawford could have ever hoped to be. There is no way this actor can fit nuance or even hint at vulnerability. This is a bold experimental sort of acting turn.

Dunaway is playing it legit, but totally untethered and constantly running it in high gear. And as she held onto balance in spike high heels, there was no net waiting to catch her if she fell. As campy as it gets, this is powerful performance. Her career would never recover. The damage was done, but this is the stuff of legend. Even all these years later, Ms. Dunaway continues to refuse to discuss this movie. And while this is a bit of a bummer, it also adds to this Cult Classic‘s credentials.

Pushing into it’s 35th year, Mommie Dearest remains a film that is impossibly entertaining and is forever cemented as the ultimate in Cult Film. Dialogue from this movie is firmly imprinted in the shared Pop Culture Brain. Wire hangers, rodeos and warning “‘Barbara, ‘PLEASE!” stay with us in darkly comic ways.

While John Water’s Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s Eraserhead or The Rocky Horror Picture Show might have created the concept of The Midnight Movie, there can be no doubt that this is most likely the most important example of a big budget mainstream movie gone so far off the rails it offers endless hours of viewing. It is fair to call Mommie Dearest a bad film? Yes, but there is no denying its power and entertainment. Sometimes a bad film can come around to a whole new definition of good.

A different kind of Chorus Line... The Rocky Horror Picture Show Jim Sharman, 1975

A different kind of Chorus Line…
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jim Sharman, 1975

If cinema is as Fellini perversely defined it, an old whore, then I’m more than happy to get lost in the magic of an ever-evolving aged sex worker. Dim the lights and start the movie.

Matty Stanfield, 12.10.2015

 

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets -- there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway's iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets — there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway’s iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

 

 

By 1995 Communist Poland was long gone. The state no longer restricted the artist or oppressed it’s people. Capitalism was to be embraced. Along with this sudden shift in economy and freedom came many challenges. For the Film Artist, there seemed to be a freedom. A cinema without restriction.

In reality, the entire Polish infrastructure was unstable. The state no longer funded the arts. Film had to be funded privately. However, there was no real film studio or film producers wiling to fund much beyond silly comedies, biographies and other projects that criticized the former Communist regime. When Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland to film Szamanka (She-Shaman), he had to secure funding from France and Switzerland in order to bring his vision to the screen.

Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Those of you reading this most likely know who Andrzej Zulawski is, but despite his genius and success he remains a largely marginalized film artist. Best known and accepted in France, he obtained some degree of success there. In the US and the UK he is best known for leading Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil into the dark, disturbing, twisted and innovative cult film, Possession. If that controversial and infamous 1981 film is his most personal work, where does that place Szamanka?

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This might be one of his more philosophical films, but it is unquestionably his most sexually obsessed film. Looking at the movie from a strictly surface perspective (a mistake when it comes to the films of Andrzej Zulawski) this could be interpreted as a frantically impulsive sexual relationship between a wounded and angry Anthropologist and a clearly disturbed young woman. A sort of demented take on the battle of the sexes. However, this is far too simplistic a way to watch or understand this erotic film that hinges on apocalyptic horror.

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

If you’ve not heard of Szamanka or seen it, it is likely due to the fact that upon its release it faced an incredible amount of rage from the Polish Catholic Church. Censorship by the State of Poland may have ended, but a new form of repression had sprung up in the form of Post-Communist Catholic Poland. This tale derived from the ideas of Polish writer, Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his controversial coining of the phrase, Naked Soul and Zulawskis’s desire to wake up the Polish masses with his own sort of “Santanic Antidote” to his two contemporaries of Polish Cinema. While both Kieslowski Krzysztof and Zanussi Krzysztof were both brilliant filmmakers, from the ideology of Zulawski were playing into some spiritual idea to which he took exception.

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Filled with contradictory ideas around Catholicism, good, evil, sexuality and love this film faced a whole new level of censorship that Zulawski had never faced. Communist Rule was tough, but the unbridled adherence of Religion truly knows no bounds. The film is so graphic sexually that it probably would have been banned anyway, but the controversial ideas of this philosophical, mystical and erotic journey remain blasphemous. The Polish community almost immediately began to call this film The Last Tango in Warsaw. Even though they had not seen it, this was and remains the oft-mentioned joke about Szamanka.

The film has been compared to Lars von Trier’s controversial, Antichrist, in that it depicts a male who suffers the wrath and sexual rage of his female wife. Antichrist plays with ideas around cultural misogyny and grief in equal measure. Like Lars von Trier, Zulawski has been accused of misogyny. The problem with this accusation is that it doesn’t hold up when one watches Szamanka with some knowledge of where it’s maker is coming from and where the film ultimately takes us. It is also important to note that the screenplay was written by Manuela Gretkowska, a young Feminist and acclaimed writer who played a key role in founding The Polish Women’s Party. Certainly Andrzej Zulawski pushes forward his own agenda, but he never veered far from Gretkowska’s script.

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of "The Last Tango in Warsaw" Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of “The Last Tango in Warsaw”
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda was an established Polish movie star when he was cast as Michal, the unhappy and profoundly conflicted anthropologist who has just come into the job of investigating the rarest of anthropological finds. There are more than a few stories about the casting of the female lead. Zulawski was not known to work with “unknowns” or “untrained” actors, but something about Iwona Petry’s beauty and presence deeply fascinated Zulawski. She was just barely twenty years of age when he saw her ordering a cup of coffee. Described as a bit eccentric and a strict vegetarian, Zulawski convinced her that she was meant to be his star and to play the role of Wloszka / The Italian.

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras. Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA "The Italian" Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras.
Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA “The Italian”
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

While Szamanka was a huge critical and commercial failure in Poland — largely because the Polish Catholic Church. Honestly, the film was never even given a chance to screen much at all due to protests and the ultimate banning of the film. However the film scored incredibly well in Italy and France. It was expected that Petry would be a major and perhaps first true Polish female movie star. She didn’t. In fact she has become a huge part of this movie’s infamy. During production the Polish media had a frenzy in reporting that Zulawski was manipulating, forcing and abusing the young woman. Rumors ranged from beatings to forced sex to psychological torture.

Looking back at the situation, it would seem that Zulawski’s dark sense of humor had some fun playing with what were clearly rumors. When the film finally screened to great acclaim at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, Zulawski answered the charges with his typical blunt intellect. There was no truth to any of it. Yet another ploy to set the film up by the oppressive Polish Catholic Church.

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

However, Iwona Petry failed to show up for the premiere. She actually went missing for a short while. Apparently exhausted from the tough shoot and terrified by the media attention she took her money and ran off to India. In 1998 she gave a few interviews and admitted that the sudden brush with fame was far more than she had bargained. A roll of eyes to the rumors that continue in Poland to present day. She returned to university and is now a published fiction writer. She has no interest in returning to the world of acting.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This is a shame as her performance in the film is quite impressive. Iwona Petry had the presence of a movie star and she played the role of the She-Shamen with an almost insane level of erotic energy. One hardly has time to notice the well-trained middle-aged Boguslaw Linda. When Petry is on screen, it is she you watch. And, no. She is not nude the entire time. It is an interesting and terrifying performance. Once you see this odd film, you will never forget her.

Most importantly, you will never forget Szamanka.

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman  covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda’s Michal is a frustrated scientist about to marry a woman for whom he feels no love or passion. During an unseen excavation with his students, a mummy is discovered. It is determined that this mummy is close to 2,000 years old. Michal’s interest in this mummy goes far beyond the academic or scientific when he discovers this is the body of a Shaman.

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God
Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The body is incredibly well preserved. Covered in mystical tattoos, they also find a pouch full of what turns out to be  hallucinogenic mushrooms. While Michal and his team try desperately to understand the cause of the Shaman’s death, there is only one clue: the back of the Shaman’s skull is crushed. This does not signal the cause of death but an ancient pagan ritual in which after death, the Shaman’s skull is opened to release the potent spirit free.

Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s camera seems to be drawn to offering us views of the Shaman’s rather pronounced penis. And Michal is unable to hold back. He breaks protocol and touches the Shaman with his bare hands. Clearly there is a sense of connection for Michal, but the reason for this is not entirely clear to us or him. It is as if he wants to find a way to truly connect with this ancient dead being. This need verges toward the sexual.

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?  Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The Anthropologist and his mummy are a a constant subplot of the film. The main interest is on the strange young woman who captures the lustful attentions of the scientist almost as strongly as the mystical-pull of the Shaman. A rude and socially inept, but beautiful woman. We first see Petry’s The Italian as she lunges and plunges her way along a buffet of food which she shovels into her mouth and down her throat as if her hunger can never be satisfied.

Erotic desire beyond reason... Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Erotic desire beyond reason…
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

She is to rent an apartment owned by Michal. The modest flat was formerly occupied by his brother. The Italian wants the apartment. The deal is done, but signed with a frantic and brutal sort of sex that feels as angry as lust-driven. Like the mummy, Michal seems to want to somehow merge more into this beautiful girl than sexual penetration will allow. And like with her food, The Italian’s erotic desire seems to be unhinged and impossible to satisfy.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Between the ever-mounting frenzied levels of brute force, kink, domination, submission, pain and pleasure, Michal attempts to communicate with this woman of his sexual dreams. She, however, seems more concerned with her consuming passion and seeks more to “commune” than communicate. She is obsessed with him and seems to ache to form a possession of his desires. Not articulate, but psychical in her nature.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal is becoming more and more obsessed with her. He attempts to discuss philosophy with her but to not ready interest. He discusses religion with disdain. Here she seems a bit more interested, but it always comes down to sex. Our Anthropologist suspects his fever-pitched lover might be no more than a beautiful idiot. The Italian seems unable to offer him nothing more than hot sex. He wants more.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

You see, that’s why there are common saints, just God’s morons with a soul. No brains.

This sort of comment seems to cause a pulse within the ever-sexually-rabid woman. And as hard as Michal seems to want to walk away from her, he simply can’t. She mystifies him. Occupies his thoughts. Drives him to rage-fueled sexual encounters. The sex becomes desperate. Yet for her, the sex is almost magical. A sort of erotic ritual.

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more? Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

He finds himself more miserable with her than he had been with his loveless marriage potential. The mummy no longer holds the power over him. This crude, intolerant, polymorphously perverse, tyrannical and hysterical woman seems to offer an inexplicable power over him.

This is not just unrestrained passion, this is something sinister.

Or is it possibly something that offers our Anthropologist a meaning to his existentially challenged existence. He no longer fits in. Poland offers opportunity, but it seems a false promise. His mummy holds no answers. But there seems to be something bleakly powerful in these cruel sexual encounters. The Italian becomes transformed. Already beautiful, during sex she seems to become transformed to the level of sexual goddess. But the orgasm appears to be more like gasoline tossed on some spiritual fire.

There is no pay off or hope in this sex.

Defile. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Defile.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And as this deeply odd but impossibly fascinating Art House film pulls us deep into this mire of confusion, identity crisis, sexual obsessions, perversions and religious conflict. It is also as the film enters it’s third and final act that Zulawski and Manuela Gretkowska push us into the dark theatrical thinking of Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his outright Satanic symbolism.

For Przybyszewski there is no such thing as “love,” it is nothing but a magical illusion. When Michal meets The Italian he his helpless. There can be no free will here. Michal cannot turn away from his She-Shamen even when he seems to realize this girl’s insanity is something of a mystical and most-likely demonic nature. He is rendered to the state of the somnambulistic when it comes to this darkly magik lover who seems to have access to fully influence him to the very core of his being. This “love” is truly apocalyptic. It does not seem to matter if the She-Shaman influences for good or evil. If her ritualistic sex is served for healing or wounding. For Michal has no choice in the matter.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And, here is the clear separation from the Nihilistic turn of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Unlike the husband in that film, Michal is not meeting a mere symbol of angry female energy oppressed by centuries of human cruelty, Michal has fallen prey to a demonic sort of force. He is nothing more than a sort of life-force for the She-Shaman. He is one of those common saints. He has been deceived. His nothing more than brains for the She-Shaman‘s food.

As Stanislaw Przybyszewski might have appraised it, for this man survival is not an option. He must submit to the illusion and power of love. In a strange way, this intellectual is taking part in a consensual murder. In this odd bit of socially conscious cinema, everything is fucked.

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Without love. Without hope. Szamanka must be satisfied.

Even to write about this true cinematic anomaly makes one feel a little loopy. By the time Andrzej Zulawski’s grim film comes to it’s conclusion the viewer is left spent and more than a little dazed.

The folks at Mondo Vision have done an outstanding job at restoring this deeply weird but exceptional film. Sadly, there are no plans to issue it to VOD or Blu-Ray format. It is only available from them on region free DVD. But they have loaded it with extras. If you’ve an interest in Eastern European cinema or the work of Andrzej Zulawski, you really can’t afford to miss it.

You can find it, and several of Zulawski’s titles here: http://www.mondo-vision.com/szamanka.php

Matty Stanfield, 9.15.2015

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

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.