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I first wrote about Johan Liedgren in November of last year. If you have not read that post, check it out here.

His most recent film continues to gain momentum and with recent shifts in the United States — it has gained even more importance.  I’m quite literally pasting an interview Kate Shifman conducted with Mr. Liedgren last year. I do so with Ms. Shifman’s permission. 

"Well, there's no story without evil." Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi “Well, there’s no story without evil.” Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

“Well, there’s no story without evil.”
Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Johan Liedgren’s most recent feature film displays something very rare: a strong female protagonist who finds a very big voice in sexual controversy and moral complexity.

A witty, intense and unpredictable tale fusing rapid-fire chamber-drama with fearless acting and relentless cinematic appeal, “The Very Private Work of Sister K” starts with the story of a young nun accused of grave transgressions, who rises to battle the oldest of beliefs as the true nature of sexuality is put on trial. Award-winning director Johan Liedgren teams up with director of photography Zia Mohajerjasbi and actress Liza Curtiss as Sister K in “…a modern bar-fighting lovechild of Eyes Wide Shut and 12 Angry Men.”

I called Mr. Liedgren at his house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon in early December, curios about a male artist’s relationship to what Hollywood has been struggling with for such a long time: strong and complex female characters.

Kate Shifman: There is a scene where the female protagonist Sister K keeps telling the older male priests the sexual relationship she had was “…not just sex.”

Johan Liedgren: Sex is never just about sex.

KS: They say that it was simple. She says… it was complicated.

JL: She says it was complex. Human sexuality is complex. Not necessarily complicated. We all know how babies are made. Good sex is something very different.

KS: Complicated and complex – what is the difference?

JL: I feel like I am getting set-up to mansplain. (laughter)

KS: What’s the difference to you?

JL: One has many moving parts. The other can be simple but still mean many things on many levels. I should really look that up…

KS: It is rare to see truly strong female characters. Especially from a male director. Is this a feminist film?

Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

JL: I don’t know how much it matters that I am male. But yes, she is very strong. But for me it was never because she repeats some political line that fits an established feminist abstract narrative. Her strength is interesting because she finds her moral high ground in a very specific experience. And to make things more interesting, it’s fueled with religious context and a suitcase full of sexual taboos.

KS: But it’s different than “Spotlight” in many ways.

JL: The obvious ways, sure. And it’s more fun to watch. But even more so because it serves as allegory rather than dramatized documentary.

KS: What you describe could have happened.

JL: It did happen… I can’t find the details but I think a similar case 20 years ago in Denmark. A civil case of a nun who thought her patient needed sexual attention on a regular basis. And just as I was editing the Sister K, New York Times did an article on Anna Stubbenfelt – the therapist who fell in love with and slept with a much younger severely autistic boy. Fascinating. And complex.

“Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher. “

KS: Could this film have been done with a male nurse?

JL: Sure. But you would have to play against the cliche’s or you would be re-making Spotlight. And that’s not me. Too easy. It can’t be predictable.

KS: Could it be about something other than sex?

JL: Of course. But not for me, and not for this story. Sexuality has a absolutely singular place in our lives. It’s an everyday need and deeply mysterious at the same time. It’s giving and taking. It’s familiar and yet always new somehow. Unmatched complexity. That’s why sexuality will always resonate with divinity for me. Those hips don’t lie. (laugh) But hey, don’t forget what Sister K did to her patient.

Andrew Tribolini The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share… The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Andrew Tribolini
The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi
Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share…
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

KS: And still we root for Sister K.

JL: I agree, most people do. But you have to work for it, and you are constantly challenged in that position as the story twists and turns. And I think that is why the film turned out so well. It was not an easy project.

KS: Too controversial?

JL: Never!

KS: Are you actively staying away from politics?

JL: Sexual politics is often part of my projects. But traditional politics – yes, anything with dull and predictable categories… we are living in a world stuck in lazy narratives, selling something predictable to the already converted. Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher.

KS: More complexity.

JL: Exactly! The Hollywood machine requires simplicity and predictability. Known categories they can market too. Stories that everyone likes. It is up to independent films to dramatize more complex issues. To take real risks. Commercial and artistic. Even smaller independent film seem more concerned with making something that Hollywood likes than taking risks and breaking new ground.

KS: You don’t see much feminist film come out of Hollywood.

JL: That’s an understatement.

KS: Did you set out to make a feminist film.

JL: No. But I did set out to make a film about a woman who finds a deep female power outside the obvious, and she does so without being perfect. Clearly.

“All of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.”

Johan Liedgren

Johan Liedgren

KS: You are an accidental feminist.

JL: Love that! (laughter) – Johan Liedgren… accidental feminist. In some ways I think we can describe Sister K just the same.

KS: What would you like people to take away from the film?

JL: I would love to see someone stand up for real sexuality the way Sister K does. Bring the message home – when sex is talked about at that dinner party, as “simple”, there will be those women around the world who will push their plate to the side, empty their glass of wine, stand up and deliver the same speech Sister K did. And end it with a passionate “…Good sex, that’s where God goes to church!” Bam! Mic-drop…

KS: I can see that happening at a stale dinner somewhere.

JL: But also… I think the film – and certainly actress Liza Curtiss – does a brilliant job of having us drift deep into the complexity of what is going on long before we know we are in it. She uses all our pre-conceived notions of gender and sex to take us somewhere very different. She’s that good. You are laughing, but then suddenly realizing you are caught rooting for some very questionable behavior. Good story is a beautiful trickster – leading us to places we otherwise would not see. Film can and should do the same. I think all of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.

KS: Your film starts out with a funny, almost childlike story within the story – a rabbit who decides to stop eating his vegetables.

JL: Right. It’s a good example of how story can be a trickster – it’s not long before we fully embrace the rabbit as a brutal nocturnal carnivore.

KS: Accidental Carnivore?

JL: Nice. (laughter). But yes, Sister K in similar fashion seems harmless and benign in the beginning only to reveal incredible potency. No one sees her coming.

KS: Is she deceiving them all from the very beginning?

JL: Well, if she is, it’s not to save herself. It’s to make sure the story that survives is told right.

KS: Several times she talks about what happened to her as a story, a story to be told – told over and over again. The film eludes to the work of Eve, and the story of Eden.

JL: The value and currency of her actions is the story that will be told about her. And that is also how the rabbit story ends, with that story living on, retold over and over again, from generation to generation. I love story. The rabbit story even survives one of my films and appears in the next. Lives on… and if you end the interview now, the story of the film through this interview will live on – and it would provide for almost perfect symmetry. (laughter)

KS: What a director! (laughter). Thank you, Johan – a wonderful film and a surprising and incredibly potent female protagonist where we least expect it.

JL: It was all my pleasure.

The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Kate Shifman is a NYC freelance writer, consultant and photographer traveling the world, currently based in Portugal. Johan Liedgren is an award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant. His work with large brands, design, media and technology companies is extending narrative thinking and storytelling to products and disciplines far outside traditional application. Johan lives a relatively balanced life with his two sons in Seattle. More info  here

The Very Private Work of Sister K can be rented/purchased here

I highly recommend it.

Matty Stanfield, 1.29.2017

 

 

 

Every once in a while a movie comes along that captures a cultural moment. And, sometimes, that same movie can also offer insights into subcultures long forgotten. And, with a backward glance, the moving images and sounds seem to act as a unified predictor. A film like this becomes a touchstone to our past. A link from our current to a past that often feels foreign and alien. This is one such movie…

"This is as far as the elevator goes." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982

“This is as far as the elevator goes.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982

It was in August of 1982 that Slava Tsukerman’s notorious cult film, Liquid Sky, debuted at Montreal World Film Festival. Heads were turned, jaws dropped and the festival awarded the Special Jury Prize to the director. The film went on to receive several other key Art Film Festival awards. Sadly the movie received a minimal theatrical release. In the US it did manage to strike a chord and secure a following via its VHS release. Liquid Sky has become an essential Cult Film. The fact that it continues to be challenging to track down and watch have only added to its allure within the Cult Film Cannon.

This is not your average low-budget movie. The filmmaker, his wife and his cinematographer were fresh from The Soviet Union. They had managed to find a way to New York City to make a movie. It wasn’t long before they were collaborating with a performance artist who seemed to be on the fast track to stardom within the underworld of the Post-Punk/New Wave club scene. This history of the film’s 28 day production story can be found across the span of The Internet. The key here is understanding that this Russian filmmaker captured a moment both fantastic and scary. He may not have had a big budget, but he most certainly had a big cinematic vision filled with ideas and aspirations.

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

There are a couple of crucial elements which blast the viewer within the first three minutes of Liquid Sky:

  1. A human face framed within a sphere of neon light that reveals itself to be a mask of sorts.
  2. The music sounds vintage early ’80’s, but is just slightly off-key and deeply odd — even a bit altogether off.
  3. The Twin Towers / Empire State Building skyline (the lower midtown perspective?) is not only familiar — it is iconic. And yet, there is a myst of fog that seems sort of wrong.
  4. A flying saucer hovers toward the screen.
  5. Unhappy people in a darkly grim club jerk and dance about. The beats indicate fun, the melody warns danger and the people look more focused than happy.

Welcome to Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky. This cult film is respected for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important and immediate is the use of electronic music. The often discordantly familiar mixed with unique samplings of dialogue and other bits of music make it completely unique. We are hearing one of the earliest uses of the first true digital sampler keyboards and it is scoring the entire movie. These are the sounds of the Fairlight CMI Series 1 that pulsate out from the screen. The music manages to be at once primitive and complex. It is sinister, but with the slightest twinge of pop happy beats.This very well might be the first example of ElectroClash. The Fairlight CMI Series 1 was not actually new, but not many musicians owned them and even fewer knew how to play/use the digital sampling keyboard.

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day. EMI, London, 1978

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day.
EMI, London, 1978

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were among the first few musicians to actually purchase and pursue the use of the instrument. The Fairlight CMI gave life to Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album and his 1982 Deutsches Album. It played an even stronger role in giving Kate Bush’s sonic visions live for both Never for Ever and The Dreaming albums. And in fact it is easy to state that the sounds and looks of Liquid Sky have served as influence for a number of creative artists.

When actress, Paula E. Sheppard, takes the club’s darkly lit stage — she is straddling a cumbersome sort of electronic box. It might appear that her mic is broadcasting the inner workings of her chest, but her heartbeat has been sampled. It pulsates from her electronic box. As she lifts that microphone up towards her vexingly beautiful and malicious face she begins an odd bit of what I would call “Slam Poetry.” She seems to threaten her club audience with her words. While the verses to “Me and My Rhythm Box” might be pretentious — they are also oddly effective. In another actor and filmmakers’ hands this scene could have been painfully bad. But here, within the confines of Liquid Sky — this drone and wail of a song plays energetically and deeply weird. This is electronic music with a purpose. The cheesy happiness of 1980’s MTV is not present. Nor will you notice any of the ironic No-Wave disco-threat of Blondie. Slava Tsukerman and his synth composers — Brenda I. Hutchinson and Clive Smith — are in total and complete step with their filmmaker’s vision. Liquid Sky ‘s musical score is totally unique, worrying and unforgettable.

"Me and my rhythm box. Are you jealous, folks? My rhythm box is sweet. Never forgets a beat..." Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Me and my rhythm box.
Are you jealous, folks?
My rhythm box is sweet.
Never forgets a beat…”
Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

I suppose some might disagree, but it isn’t a far leap to realize that what we are seeing and hearing would go on to influence artists lucky enough to secure a copy of Media Home Entertainment‘s highly prized VHS tape. You should not jump to judge my assertion until you have seen this movie and compared it to early sounds/looks of artists like Fischerspoon, Miss Kittin & The Hacker as well as pop-sensation Lady Gaga.

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash "Hi Huh-I Hyper Hyper-media-ocrity You don't need to Emerge from nothing You don't need to tear away! Feels good Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too..." Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash
“Hi Huh-I Hyper
Hyper-media-ocrity
You don’t need to
Emerge from nothing
You don’t need to tear away! Feels good
Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too…”
Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Paula E. Sheppard’s Adrian is performing not on a set, but in a very real Post-Punk/New Wave NYC Underground club. The Pyramid was where Tsukerman filmed all of the movie’s club scenes. This club is legendary and has served as home to a number of NYC subcultures for decades. The lower East Village hole-in-the-wall could tell us an unlimited number of stories. At one time a home to NYC PUNKS then to their Post-PUNK / New Wave offspring and on toward to both the American Hardcore and GLBTI NYC communities.

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia... No wave here. The Radicts and The Bruisers Pyramid Club advert, 2006

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia… No wave here.
The Radicts and The Bruisers
Pyramid Club advert, 2006

Adrian’s musical performance and jaded delivery hold up to the likes of Miss Kittin and The Hacker. While she may not have the ability to fully utilize her rhythm box as well as Miss Kittin or Fischerspooner — both owe this film a nod for their sounds that would lead us into the ElectroClash sound of the early ’00’s. And it makes sense. Adrian is attempting to thrive within the dystopia of post-70’s NYC. This is Ed Koch’s nightmare of a city. As grim as it was — it did provide some surprisingly cheap housing options and opportunities.

Liquid Sky inspires... "Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra. Do you know Frank Sinatra? He's dead..." Miss Kittin & Hacker The First Album, 2001

Liquid Sky inspires…
“Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra.
Do you know Frank Sinatra? He’s dead…”
Miss Kittin & Hacker
The First Album, 2001

It was not off the Manhattan grid, but it was not an area that most would have cared to have roamed after sunset. The club offered risk of danger and lent an edge to an evening of clubbing before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the cruel leadership of Ronald Reagan. As Debbie Harry sang on her 1989 album:

“Darkness falls like a black leather jacket and melts into the sidewalk like a sleeping drunk. In the streets, the wind throws yesterday’s headlines around.
Another night comes and goes. So, for awhile back then there was someplace to go.
Somewhere more home than a house. A family of choice, not an accident, but sometimes as soon as something gets started it’s over.

Now the days are much shorter and the people from the good part of town all come around, but the something is missing even though there’s more there now.
I shrug off my attempts to explain how a torn T-shirt made it all danger again…” Debbie Harry, End of the Run, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave Debbie Harry Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave
Debbie Harry
Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

Now Ms. Harry would have been referring to CBGB‘s or MUDD Club, but it is important to note that Pyramid Club might not have been on the radar of the darlings of the NYC PUNK / POST-PUNK or New Wave of 1981 — but in perhaps an even more important way — Pyramid Club was home to the many clubbers who couldn’t quite make it to the big rooms of those more anti-popular clubs. And it was within Pyramid‘s walls that some very real shit went down.

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her. Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her.
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

It is likely that Blondie’s lead singer walked through Pyramid doors at some point. Most certainly it is likely that Madonna ventured there. Liquid Sky features Otto von Wernherr in the role of the German astrophysicist who is the only person aware of an alien presence that has invaded the home of the film’s two main characters. Wernherr was a musician / actor / artist and fixture of the late 70’s / early 80’s NYC Downtown Scene and an early Madonna collaborator. That collaboration was already happening as Liquid Sky was filmed.

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky... Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000 Cinematography | John McNulty

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky
Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat
Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie
Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000
Cinematography | John McNulty

If Liquid Sky‘s Adrian character is the symbol of artist, then the character of Margaret is more closely tied to the artist who yearns for success and validation that is almost impossible to secure. We know immediately that Anne Carlisle’s Margaret is a model. She is also Adrian‘s promiscuous lover and flatmate. As Adrian performs with her rhythm box, Margaret is backstage prepping for a fashion show. A show that will be taking place in the club. The other models seem only to be in background of Margaret‘s beauty. The only model who challenges her is an effeminate gay man, Jimmy.

"Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?" Anne Carlisle x 2 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?”
Anne Carlisle x 2
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first glance he seems to be Margaret‘s doppelgänger. The then up and coming performance artist, Anne Carlisle, is playing both Margaret and Jimmy. To Slava Tsukerman’s credit, the dual roles are only obvious when the film wants it to be. Tightly and cleverly edited, Margaret and Jimmy are two very different characters. Margaret and Jimmys’ fashion show takes place within minutes of the film’s beginning.

Striking a pose... Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Striking a pose…
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

This fashion sequence serves as not only a set-up for the film’s oddly complex world, it also pulls us into the era in which the film was made. While these models look like what we might associate with the very early 1980’s — it is important to note that these “looks” were ahead of the cultural curve in 1981. When I first saw this movie in 1983, these models/actors looked absolutely other-worldly. Their painted faces, geometric clothing and posing were all new to my eyes. While they might have shared some similarity with Adam Ant, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow, Boy George and Flock of Seagulls — the people on the screen offer no semblance of charity or fun. This clique is hard-edged and seemed almost intent on menace.

"Something strange is going on here." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Something strange is going on here.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

These hipsters want your attention, but they are not willing to beg for it. Just the opposite, these models and their respective looks are daring us not to give them our attention. The colors may be bright neon and they might be covered with make-up, but these danger boys and girls are out for blood. This is not just a fashion show — it is almost a declaration of war.

Dare you not to look and love me... Benjamin Liu Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Dare you not to look and love me…
Benjamin Liu
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Also within minutes of the film’s start we figure out that there is a lot more going down than performance, fashion and clubbing. Adrian is an established heroin dealer. That human face mask hangs in she and Margaret‘s penthouse apartment. This work of art offers dual meaning. It is the same face shared by both Margaret and Jimmy. It is also not a mask — it is the holding/hiding place for Adrian‘s supply of heroin. A supply that she sells to everyone from uptown artsy folks but to everyone within her orbit. Margaret might be the only person in Adrian‘s world who has no interest in the power of her powdered sky just waiting to be heated into milk for injection.

So here we have a film that is about clubbing, strutting and drugs. Where does the Sci-Fi element come in?

"Are you sure this has something to do with UFO's?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you sure this has something to do with UFO’s?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No one can ever accuse Slava Tsukerman of constructing a slow-moving film. We witness the arrival of invaders from space within minutes of the movie’s beginning. Liquid Sky‘s construction is tight and unusual. Things happen simultaneously. They also happen with minimal explanation or character development. In most cases this approach would stunt a film, but it is one of Liquid Sky‘s magical elements. I should note that I first saw this film when I was 16 years of age. This might seem a great trip movie, but it is not. As trippy as the film is it is not conducive to positive altered state viewing. The paranoia, cruelty and perversities work against the fun aspect of a stoned age viewing. It is most likely due to my state at the time I first saw Liquid Sky that I did not understand the invasion from space plot twister.

"In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures -- punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures — punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

We see the alien flying saucer arrive at nearly the same time we meet Adrian, Margaret and Jimmy. We also are given the alien’s perspective as it approaches the rooftop of Adrian and Margarets’ penthouse apartment. Most cleverly we are also given a view of the alien itself. The alien and its space ship interior. Both perspectives are truly psychedelic. But how does the introduction of alien invasion, surveillance, fashion, music, drug use/abuse and sexuality anchor Liquid Sky to the subcultures within which the film is placed?

"Where are the drugs?" Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Where are the drugs?”
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Most likely it was never Tsukerman’s intention to create a film that we can now view as a sort of chronicle of the NYC Post-Punk/New Wave subculture. And it is most certainly sure that he never intended the movie to serve as a signal predicting the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Wether intentional or not, there should be no denying the film’s ability to do both things. Liquid Sky is a low-budget film with big budget aspirations. It is essentially a science fiction horror movie, but its genre goals are almost buried beneath a polarizing depiction of the New York City Underground Club scene of 1981. It is a depiction that stings and slips under the viewer’s skin.

"Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first, in 1981, it seemed that a disease was being caught / spread by members of the gay community. It was quickly becoming an outbreak. Initially the sicknesses was coined as The 4H Disease as the syndromes seemed to be inflicting homosexual men, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Despite some obvious signs, that initial name did not catch on as well as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) It wasn’t long before the CDS realized this was not an illness restricted to any one segment of the population. Certainly those living in cities like New York were realizing this long before the tragic epidemic was assigned the name AIDS in July of 1982. But in 1981 the young people populating the New York City Underground had not yet fully grasped the meaning of what was beginning to strike their respective communities. Paranoia and fear were already running rampant for a number of socio-political reasons. Liquid Sky captures an artistic world caught in the magic and the horror of the era.

"Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn't depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don't you think? Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don’t you think?
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The world of Liquid Sky takes place in the rag-tag world of the Artist as Outsider. More specifically, the world of Tsukerman’s film is concerned with outsiders and misfits. As in reality, the world of the arts is populated with youth, creativity and sexual experimentation. Sexuality is either fluid or leaning toward homosexuality. The Post-PUNK/New Wave NYC subculture is tightly connected to the pulse of the NYC Gay subculture. And both are freely connected to sex, drugs, music and art. Liquid Sky has a morality, but it is based in humanism rather than in the political.

Early on we watch Margaret attempt to seduce her male counterpart, Jimmy. It is here we are granted a cruel view of misogyny. It isn’t that Jimmy is just turned off by the idea of fucking a woman  — he makes it fairly clear that he detests women across the board. He treats Margaret as if she were nothing more than a link to drugs. Margaret has a tough shell, but something about Jimmy‘s cruelty eggs her on toward him. This seems to be a girl who is not used to being turned down. Despite his cruelty she is unwilling to write the mean queen off.

The only character who seems concerned with any other’s sexual preference is Adrian‘s uptown client. A failing artist who seems to have once clung to the idea that heroin will spark his artistic vision is now just uncomfortably numb. He finds Margaret’s androgynous beauty alluring, but he is far too concerned regarding her sexual preference. To Margaret and Adrian this junkie is normal and dull.

"What kind of drugs will you have?" Anne Carlisle Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“What kind of drugs will you have?”
Anne Carlisle
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Adrian clearly identifies as lesbian and seems to be disgusted by Margaret‘s promiscuity. And like Margaret she too has dreams of fame and success. Both women are damaged, but while Margaret has soaked up her sadness — Adrian funnels an insane level of sadness and rage into her work. Theirs is a dysfunctional relationship beyond reason, but they seem to cling to each other. Sex is merely fun and a tool. All of these characters trade in sex and shared works. Adrian is repulsed by the idea of her client wanting to have sex with Margaret but is totally cool with sharing her spoon, syringe and rubber band. Margaret attempts to procure cocaine by snuggling up to straight dude at the club. In the end she is brutally raped. She seems to accept this act of cruelty as a dark part of her life with which she must deal. She also seems totally committed to being mistreated by her girlfriend.

"I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?" Otto von Wernherr Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?”
Otto von Wernherr
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Both Anne Carlisle and Paula E. Sheppard are highly effective in their respective roles. We may not know these two characters but they feel genuine. The same is true for much of the cast. Otto Von Wernherr would never win an award for acting, but he is believable as the befuddled West German scientist trying to understand what these space aliens are doing in this circle of artists. At first he suspects the aliens are only interested in the heroin which shoots so freely among these characters, but soon it is revealed that these invaders are even more interested in the chemical reaction that orgasm creates within the brains of these humans. The interesting trick of the film is that while the film is never formerly concerned with character development, it fully utilizes the skills and charisma of the actors.

"For me it's easy. Hell to Hell. I'm not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing  the world. I don't lie to myself that love can cure because I know I'm alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well."  The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep. Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“For me it’s easy. Hell to Hell. I’m not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing the world. I don’t lie to myself that love can cure because I know I’m alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well.”
The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep.
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Sex has become an empty act. It no longer means anything to Margaret. So when the people who force their way with her sexually begin to die at the instant of orgasm she has little to no concern for the deaths. She is more curious than concerned. When an older artist brushes aside her need for conversation, she barely puts forward an argument as he rapes her. Thing take on a perverse edge when Adrian walks in do discover the nude male body. She slips into a sort of trance and begins a grim sort of rap to the beat of her fist on her thigh. When she reveals her deepest sexual fantasy is to have sex with a dead man, Margaret is repulsed. However it takes a good deal of necrophiliatic  attempt before she tries to stop Adrian.

All the more upsetting when we realize that Margaret mistakes the aliens murdering her sexual partners to be a sign of power. For the first time in her life she thinks she is found her awakening. Her sex is no longer something to be traded or abused. Alien intervention has allowed her sex to become a threat. A threat she is more than happy to put to work.

"How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?" Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?”
Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The characters of Liquid Sky are sick, twisted and sad. And yet we feel compelled to watch. This is not the sort of interest one experiences while watching a John Waters movie. Despite a few goofs and a low-budget, Liquid Sky is an interesting film. Once the movie begins, the viewer is going to be in for the long haul. The alien aspect of the film is largely secondary. We are concerned with the people. Margaret‘s misguided interpretation of the strange events that have started to happen all around her lead her down a very dark alley of self-examination.

And it doesn’t take deep thinking to discover that Slava Tsukerman’s film serves most effectively as horrific predictor of the AIDS epidemic.

"I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn't it fashionable?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn’t it fashionable?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky is not a movie for the squeamish, but neither is it actually an example of “shock cinema.” Much of what we think we see is never really shown. And what is shown is potent. This is a horror film, but it is less a horror film about alien invasion than it is a horror film about human nature. Before everything goes inside out and upside down, Margaret is offered the chance to be interviewed for a cool underground fashion magazine. The reporter who would appear to be totally linked in with the whole gang takes a cruel turn when she interviews the would-be model. The aggressive reporter informs Margaret that her style of dress, make-up and living are tacky. Even though she is able to put the reporter in her place, her privilege is not granted or acknowledged. Margaret dares to be different, but ultimately she only finds power in what she thinks is her ability to kill.

"You wanted to know whom and what I am? I'm a killer." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“You wanted to know whom and what I am? I’m a killer.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky finds a surprising, clever and fitting conclusion. But the film’s resolution is not so easy that it makes the viewer comfortable. As low-fi as it sometimes is, Liquid Sky disturbs. It also entertains, informs and inspires. Going on 35 years, it continues to enlarge its following. Over the last couple of years there have been screenings held at BAM, MOMA and other venues. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle have always made themselves available to discuss the film, their work and their hope to find funding to restore and preserve Liquid Sky‘s original negative print.

It is decaying. Literally.

"This subculture is not like 'The Mods' or 'The Rockers.' The punks don't need help from the outside to kill themselves..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“This subculture is not like ‘The Mods’ or ‘The Rockers.’ The punks don’t need help from the outside to kill themselves…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The VHS tape still fetches a good price on the market. Several DVD’s are floating around, but the quality is not good. Unlike most film art, Liquid Sky has actually managed to become more controversial with time. It also has the rare distinction of having aged like fine wine. This movie is more interesting every time I see it.

Despite the film’s strong following and the fact that it continues to inspire new generations of audience, there have been no takers to restore, preserve and redistribute. When the 1970’s slasher film, Alice Sweet Alice, began receiving some delayed glory there was hope that it might help Liquid Sky find a new life. After all  Alice herself is one of the key stars of this movie and Paula E. Sheppard has a cult following of her own.

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was "Alice." ...And she was scarier than the mask. Paula E. Sheppard Alice Sweet Alice Alfred Sole, 1978 Cinematography | Chuck Hall

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was “Alice.” …And she was scarier than the mask.
Paula E. Sheppard
Alice Sweet Alice
Alfred Sole, 1978
Cinematography | Chuck Hall

However she has always run from attention and rumor is that she found the experience of Liquid Sky negative. And sadly, Alfred Sole’s under rated horror film is still more famous for featuring a young Brooke Shields than it is for being an interesting and unusual genre film.

Liquid Sky continues to flow... "I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, "is it right or is it wrong?" If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here..." Lady Gaga Applause, 2013

Liquid Sky continues to flow…
“I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, “is it right or is it wrong?”
If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here…”
Lady Gaga
Applause, 2013

Even still, there is always hope. Tsukerman and Carlisle have even scripted a sequel that is ready to roll. No matter what the future holds for Liquid Sky, it is a movie that deserves attention. Seek it out if you dare.

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

"Killing all the teachers..." Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Killing all the teachers…”
Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

“A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

How can it already be so close to 2017? Where does time go? Before I drift into an existential ramble — there is really only bit of 2016 left. And judging from the movies that will be released prior the year’s closing I feel comfortable in listing my favorite 2016 films. I saw a couple of them in 2015, but they didn’t get out the gate until this year. This time I am going for simplicity. I am just going to list them out. They are in no particular order. Art being subjective and every bit of it being unique, I’d rather not assign one as better than another. If you’ve not seen some of these — then I urge you to seek a viewing out.

Royalty Hightower The Fits Anna Rose Holmer, 2015

A magical film… Royalty Hightower
The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer, 2015

 

Deeply disturbing, but often comical -- there is a whole lot going on in this surprisingly unique film. Do Won Kwak The Wailing Hong-jin Na, 2016

Deeply disturbing, but often comical — there is a whole lot going on in this surprisingly unique film.
Do Won Kwak
The Wailing
Hong-jin Na, 2016

 

Unexpected take on Jewish folklore regarding dybbuk. Tragically this marks the final film of a brilliant young filmmaker. DEMON Marcin Wrona, 2015

Unexpected take on Jewish folklore regarding dybbuk. Tragically this marks the final film of a brilliant young filmmaker.
DEMON
Marcin Wrona, 2015

 

A full feast of imagination... Tale of Tales Matteo Garrone, 2015

A full feast of imagination…
Tale of Tales
Matteo Garrone, 2015

 

" A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad." Do not miss this exceptional film. Moonlight Barry Jenkins, 2016

” A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
Do not miss this exceptional film.
Moonlight
Barry Jenkins, 2016

 

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" Allegorical symbolism is seldom this dark or finely crafted. Robert Eggers, 2016

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Allegorical symbolism is seldom this dark or finely crafted.
The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016

 

"What about the oil on his floor?" Profane, terribly wrong and impossibly entertaining. It's not for everyone, but for some of us it is brilliant! The Greasy Strangler Jim Hosking, 2016

“What about the oil on his floor?”
Profane, terribly wrong and impossibly entertaining. It’s not for everyone, but for some of us it is brilliant!
The Greasy Strangler
Jim Hosking, 2016

 

Today's tantrum could be tomorrow's bid for world domination. The Childhood of a Leader Brady Corbet, 2015

Today’s tantrum could be tomorrow’s bid for world domination.
The Childhood of a Leader
Brady Corbet, 2015

 

Familial dysfunction can be horrifying... KRISHA Trey Edward Shults, 2015

Familial dysfunction can be horrifying…
KRISHA
Trey Edward Shults, 2015

 

"Anything you want. The sky is the limit." A film that is close to perfect... The Handmaiden Chan-Wool Park, 2016

“Anything you want. The sky is the limit.”
A film that is close to perfect…
The Handmaiden
Chan-Wool Park, 2016

 

Colin Farrell ponders his choices... The Lobster Yorgos Lanthimos, 2016

Colin Farrell ponders his choices…
The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2016

My Fave Films of 2016

The Fits

The Wailing

Demon

Tale of Tales

Moonlight

The Witch

The Greasy Strangler

The Childhood of a Leader

Krisha

The Handmaiden

The Lobster

And then some honorable mentions:  

Darling, Swiss Army Man, High-Rise, The Love Witch and Elle. 

An ode to a genre that somehow manages to be unique. Lauren Ashley Carter Darling Mickey Keating, 2015

An ode to a genre that somehow manages to be unique.
Lauren Ashley Carter
Darling
Mickey Keating, 2015

 

"OK Manny is not about sex!" What's more surprising: The fact that this movie is entertaining or the fact that it manages to inspire? SWISS ARMY MAN Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheitert, 2016

“OK Manny is not about sex!”
What’s more surprising: The fact that this movie is entertaining or the fact that it manages to inspire?
SWISS ARMY MAN
Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheitert, 2016

 

So it doesn't quite work, but where this film fails it makes up for by aiming to do so much. A brilliant cinematic error. Tom Hiddleston High-Rise Ben Wheatley, 2015

So it doesn’t quite work, but where this film fails it makes up for by aiming to do so much. A brilliant cinematic error.
Tom Hiddleston
High-Rise
Ben Wheatley, 2015

A great ode to movies long gone plus a fascinating study of female fantasies and the cost of extreme narcissism. The Love Witch Anna Biller, 2016

A great ode to movies long gone plus a fascinating study of female fantasies and the cost of extreme narcissism.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller, 2016

 

"I have something to tell you all. I was assaulted at home..." Yes, but is Isabelle Huppert all right? Somehow the combination of the director's sick humor firmly attached to a remarkable cinematic presence manages to make this film work. And it works very well. Elle Paul Verhoeven, 2016

“I have something to tell you all. I was assaulted at home…”
Yes, but is Isabelle Huppert all right?
Somehow the combination of the director’s sick humor firmly attached to a remarkable cinematic presence manages to make this film work. And it works very well.
Elle
Paul Verhoeven, 2016

Matty Stanfield, 12.1.2016

I shall tell of another adventure that is all the more strange...” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

A film by Andrzej Zulawski Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A film by Andrzej Zulawski
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

This sentence was more or less lost in a late 1960’s translation of Kosmos. Sadly it would be that sentence that served not only as my introduction to a novel but to the Polish writer. Memory is a funny thing. While I forgotten most of the novel, it is that first sentence that stayed forever branded into my mind. I decided I needed to revisit  When I learned that Andrzej Zulawski was about to shoot a film adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s Kosmos, I decided to refresh my memory beyond a single sentence. I expected to be confused as I did remember it had been clunky regarding translation. I was excited to discover that the novel that had been warded the 1967 Prix Formentor Award for literature had been re-translated from Polish into English. Yale University Press published Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Gombrowicz since I had last thought of it.

Kosmos Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Kosmos
Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Witold Gombrowicz has always interested me. While he was a fiction writer he is equally known as a diarist. Where does his fiction merge into his reality and experience? How does the English reader know he/she is able to understand his prose’s complexity? German and French readers had better access to his work thanks to more accurate translations. My introduction to his work came with an understanding that he had to firmly defend his most popular work, Ferdydurke, from critics who felt it was satire. Satire had not been Gombrowicz’s purpose. His novels are known for exploring issues of identity and existentialism under the pressures of Nationalism and fast social change. But these explorations were made with a sense absurdity that tied closely to dark humor.

His characters are not fully developed. Their identities are fragmented by the repression, oppression and tyranny imposed by both culture and society. These characters roam about trying to formulate understanding of self/life under the strain and disturbing acts that forever alter the circumstances of being. And while there is a grim level of pessimism that leans against established institutional rule — Gombrowicz disagreed that his work was connected with nihilism, but the darkness is most definitely waiting.

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz's often mistranslated "Kosmos" is resurrected through another lens. Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz’s often mistranslated “Kosmos” is resurrected through another lens.
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Revolutions, wars, cataclysms — what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? …My literature must remain that which it is. Especially that something which does not fit into politics and does not want to serve it. I cultivate just one politics: my own. I am a separate state.” — Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Published 1988.

The improved translation helped me in understanding that much of my frustration was something Gombrowicz intended. The characters navigating within his Kosmos are never fully fleshed out. We know that our protagonist, Witold  has trouble waiting to crush him back in Warsaw. We also know that Fuks hates his boss. But we never know what the trouble is or why the boss is hated. In fact we are given limited information about every character. The novel’s extremes and paranoias begin to feed the reader’s imagination. Every action and decision seems to be a reaction to matters we can never fully understand. This vastly improved translation offers more insight into Gombrowicz’s complexity but it also grants permission to not second-guess the awkward phrasing.

The new English translation for Kosmos provides an entirely different read. In the novel two young men seek refuge from the pressures and hardships they experience in Warsaw. They escape the city to what they anticipate will be the nourishing warmth of the country, but they arrive with mutual respective existential crisis and life fatigue. They will soon face a series of random incidents that begin to shift Wiltold further into paranoia, existential crisis as he feels threatened. Gombrowicz brings humor into the equation. Paranoias, fears and angst begin to leap off the charts of rationality. The characters magnify the situations and incidents. They soon feels less coincidental and can be assumed to be intended threats. Witold is unable to consider these incidents as “random.” The unexpected chaos signals pending doom.  His ideas of existence and identity are as fragile as they are extreme.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'the pretty' with 'the good.'" Jonathan Genet Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘the pretty’ with ‘the good.'”
Jonathan Genet
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Isn’t it true? I thought, that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a halfhearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings.” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Boris Neleop interviewed Zulawski after Cosmos had received its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival receiving the Best Director honor. Neleop discussed the difficulty of finding accurate translations of Kosmos. The director agreed and pointed out that the film was based from the novel’s original Polish language.

Luckily, I’m Polish so I can read it. More luckily still, words like “bleurgh” in Gombrowicz mean nothing. What is it? Alban Berg, the composer? A cliff maybe? But in French it means the retching sound—bleurgh. Meaning you want to vomit. If you see a bad movie and someone asks you how it was, that’s what you say: bleurgh. So, it’s a happy coincidence.

Neleop attempted to engage the artist into a discussion regarding what he perceived to be a shared sort of spasmodic manner in both Gombrowicz’s novel and the great filmmaker’s work. Zulawski disagreed with the connection and seemed intent on avoiding the spasmodic with either work.

I don’t agree with you. I don’t think Gombrowicz is spasmodic: he’s quick, he’s rapid, he’s short and extremely rhythmic and… Do you know the word “caustic”? His writing is never hysterical. It’s caustic. It’s galloping but dry. I don’t think the actors are spasmodic at all. They are in their own delirium, but for them this delirium always has a profound logic. It’s not a bunch of mad men in an asylum. They are petit bourgeois. Witold wants to write a novel until he falls in love with this girl, who never has anything intelligent to say. His relationship with his young friend is really close, almost homosexual. So, it’s a complicated little cosmos.”

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014 Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014
Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

In answering a question regarding his decision to lift the novel out of its pre-war Polish context and moving it to 21st Century Portugal where a group of French people are living, Zulawski responded:

If Cosmos had been filmed according to the novel, it would’ve been a very depressing and ugly film. Why the hell should I see those terrible people? Sounds like a basically stupid question. It’s not. It’s like life. Why should I spend my life with ugly stupid petit bourgeois people? I won’t. I won’t spend my life in Hollywood either. I don’t like these people, I don’t like their stories. So it leaves you to stay alone for fifteen years. In my forest.”

Zulawski’s rejection of cinematic norms is nothing new, but after he made La fidélité he retreated. That film was released in 2000. He never retreated into a forest of seclusion, but it would be fifteen years before he made Cosmos. His return to cinema was not a safe one. Adapting a complex work like the Polish novel, Kosmos, was never going to be an easy cinematic proposition. And while his final film does articulate itself with some newly discovered levity, Cosmos has a great deal in common with some of his key works.

"Love me." Romy Schneider That Most Important Thing / L'important c'est d'aimer Andrzej Zulawski, 1975 Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

“Love me.”
Romy Schneider
That Most Important Thing / L’important c’est d’aimer
Andrzej Zulawski, 1975
Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

This film’s title is actually translated as The Most Important Thing is Love and Romy Schneider’s performance would have been enough to secure the film’s place in French film history. But there is far more continued within the frames than an iconic actor’s work. The film marked a new turn in filmmaking. Zulawski’s examination of the artist finding fulfillment in France’s mid-1970’s theatre scene leaves a mark. It is not so much the point of the movie that matters but they way in which that point flows off the screen. Visceral, angry, obsessive, compulsive and often frantic — L’important c’est d’aimer takes the concept of a tragic love story to poetic heights. The film’s fever-pitched passion and energy haunt the viewer long after the film ends. A contemplation regarding abysmal cinematic opportunities, the protagonist is often looking directly into the audience. While the film is realism it wants to push itself off the screen, into the theatre and run rampant. The characters Zulawski presents are not really all that odd, but the way in which they move, speak and propel is most assuredly eccentric.

"It doesn't hurt." Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance... Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“It doesn’t hurt.”
Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani gave Zulawski the performance of a lifetime in one of the most confounding films of all time. No one was prepared for 1981’s Possession. Adjani’s work on this film was so taxing that it triggered a very real emotional break. It only takes one viewing to underscore this as valid truth. Adjani was dancing on a high wire without a net. Zulawski was able to inspire her to start her performance with emotional hysteria set at Level 5 and then required her to turn it up to Level 21 before the experimental film comes to a crashing end. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Possession remains a testament to the talents of both the leading actor and its creator.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s 1981 film. At its most obvious level it is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to turmoils of the psycho-sexual. And, from another perspective, it is a metaphorical depiction of divorce. And it is a matrimonial breakup that takes on apocalyptic proportions. Possession is completely unique, surreal and metaphorical study of identity it extreme crisis. And it is fueled by an inhuman and intolerable repression of control. This control might be that of a stifling marriage or one propelled by government control. Or it could be a combination of both. It doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession — it works from any vantage point.

The passage of time has not dulled its sharp edges. The special effects and gore are still jaw-dropping. This is an Art Film that has become Cult and it continues to spark provocative reaction. It took decades for this very personal film to find its audience. There are several different versions of Possession floating around — all the result of censorship. Mondo Vision beautifully restored this film several years back. It is an essential film for any fans of Surrealism and Horror.

"Are you lost?" Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love. L'amour braque / Mad Love Andrzej Zulawski, 1985 Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

“Are you lost?”
Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love.
L’amour braque / Mad Love
Andrzej Zulawski, 1985
Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

Andrzej Zulawski’s adapts Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a neon-drenched fever dream. 1985’s L’amour brace’s characters, sets, cinematography, editing and acting indicate that we might have landed in some alternate world. The film moves as if it was pulsating forward via an amphetamine, cocaine and whiskey fueled injection of psychotic convulsions. Zulawski’s experimental film is a twisted Neon and most certainly avant-garde. The film is violent, but the violence never feels “real” and the graphic sexuality is presented in paradoxically restrained ways. The only time the film seems to be able to slow down is when Sophie Marceau and The Idiot consummate to a point of erotic “enjoyment” — And, even then, it almost feels like the camera is so jacked-up it can barely wait to continue it’s frenzied trajectory.

Easily one of the most stylistically influential films to ever come out of French cinema — Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan among them. And it had an impact on music videos of the day. This world of thieves, addicts, artists, whores, drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, anarchists, perverts and lovers is chaotic but somehow organized. Mutually-conflicted screeching rants, dances and terrorism form into a sort of dancing race against time. Zulawski seems to be inspecting everything from political activism, perversion, addiction, insanity, rage, the theatre, criminal motivation, rebellion, sex and love — but through a camera that is dependent on hallucinogenics for vision. Like PossessionL’amour braque is completely unique unto itself. It is safe to state that no other filmmaker will manage to make a movie remotely like these two.

"That's why there are common saints. God's morons with a soul but empty brains." Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity... Szamanka / She-Shaman Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

“That’s why there are common saints. God’s morons with a soul but empty brains.”
Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity…
Szamanka / She-Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland for 1996’s SzamankaShe-Shaman. Filmed in the newly freed Poland, the director brought the level of intense sexual obsession beyond expectation. It earned the nickname The Last Tango in Warsaw. While it is true that this film pushes further with graphic sexuality, it is seldom actually erotic. Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry push themselves to the extremes that are defined within the script. This might very well be the most challenging of Zulawski’s work. The cinematic provocation is not within the frantic obsessive actions and sheer frenzy, but lies far deeper within the film’s political and philosophical context. The two protagonists pursue their sexual and existential needs toward a deeply nihilistic end. Szmanka aches toward a brilliance that is almost impossible to endure.  Inexperienced actress, Iwona Petry, is near brilliant in her role, but she opted to end her acting career after Szamanka‘s release. Another interesting example of an artist agreeing to join the director on his journey but emotionally exhausted to the point of breaking once arriving at the destination.

Capturing "reality" in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame. Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory La fidélité / Fidelity Andrzej Zulawski, 2000 Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Capturing “reality” in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame.
Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory
La fidélité / Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Zulawski’s La fidelity / Fidelity was released in 2000. The film’s plot is more conventional, but once again his characters burn with almost convulsive urgency. This film forges a path that left many viewers cold. Its highlight is Zulawski”s great love and former muse, Sophie Marceau. She is brilliant in the role and her director understands how to capture not only her beauty but her energy. Years later I remember thinking that it seemed a pale sort of entry to serve as this filmmaker’s final work. Luckily it wasn’t.

Available from Mondo Vision La femme publique Andrzej Zulawski, 1984 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Available from Mondo Vision
La femme publique
Andrzej Zulawski, 1984
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

My admiration for Andrzej Zulawski runs deep and it is based within the realm of the personal. He was a brilliant artist who refused to be repressed, suppressed or held to any strict rule when it came to his art. And despite what some have attempted to insinuate, Zulawski was an admirable and kind person. His heart and passion shine through all of his films. Zulawski was always reaching into, under, over and well above the human need for love and understanding.

Even within the bleakness of Possession and Szamanka beats the heart of a very human filmmaker. I’ve decided not to touch on Diabel, La femme publique or On the Silver Globe  — these three films are unique masterworks that I am unable to address in a short blog. I will note that these three films are not really the best starting points for a Andrzej Zulawski neophyte, but then again — maybe they exceptional places in which to take that first plunge.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Boris Neleop’s attempt to engage Zulawski in a conversation about “spasmodic” characters is valid. Nearly all of Zulawski’s characters are extreme. While everything around them might be pushing inward to restrict / oppress — his characters refused to stay within the bounds of circumstances had designed. The need for knowledge, satisfaction, love and understanding leave them no choice other than to be extreme.

This auteur was always a bit sensitive when pressed to discuss the hyper energy or over-the-top passion found in his films. A word like “spasmodic” would make Mr. Zulawski recoil. He shut this sort of commentary so far out of his mind that consideration was no loner possible.

Mr.Neleop is correct: Witold Gombrowicz’s characters are a bit, well, spasmodic. And I suspect that it was their very nature that attracted the great director.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Zulawski had grown up with Gombrowicz’s literary work. My initial knee-jerk reaction toward Zulawski adapting Gombrowicz was that these two thinkers formulated thought in direct opposition to the other. I do not think Gombrowicz liked people. He thought and wrote about the existential, but these pursuits seemed formed from an essential repulsion toward humanity. This is interesting because his fiction is more than a little autobiographical. The way in which Gombrowicz creates the characters of his Kosmos is not kind. Zulawski’s entire film career was focused on the darker aspects of human nature — yet he loved people. He was a fighter and a rebel, but he was never anti-social. And he most certainly was not a pessimist. And, unlike Gombrowicz, he was not vain or concerned when it came to criticism or reward.

decorating lips. Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

She paints her lips as if with blood because she really wants to be an actress…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

I’m scared of the forests. In the midway of this mortal life I found myself in a gloomy world, astray. Gone from the path and even to tell, that forest, how robust its growth, which to remember only, my dismay. Renews in bitterness not far from death. All else will I relate discovered there.

Witold is frantically walking through the edge of a forest. Jonathan Genet has the look of someone from another era, but we already know that Zulawski’s Witold is a 21st century character. At first glance he could be a European fashion model, but his behavior is based within panic. He seems to be consistently on the verge of a mental break. When we meet Zulawski’s Fuchs, played by Johan Liberia, we discover they have traveled in a nice car. Fuchs’ name has been altered in spelling but he is still trying to escape the tyranny of two horrible bosses. In this new universe we know that his employers are high-end fashion designers.

While Wiltold is fragile and paranoid, Fuchs is robust and seemingly up for just about anything. Both behave in ways that lean toward the aberrant. Wiltold wants only to study, but he detests what he studies. Fuchs is primally focused on off screen violent sexual conquests. He reassures his friend that he plays safe, but bleeding wounds, bruises and other bodily issues are scars to his masochistic tendencies. And while it is never fully stated, these two friends would appear to share a bond that goes further than brotherly love. There are hints of a mutual sexual attraction and romantic fondness.

Something sinister is going on! Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Something sinister is going on!
Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Here, in Zulawski’s Cosmos, the two friends have run from France to Portugal. Fuchs is more lighthearted but still aches. Witold’s neurotic need to examine every move / object under his philosopher’s magnifying glass fractures his grasp of reality. The first thing Wiltold experiences after he secures his navigational balance is an encounter with a forest. It is one of the aspects of the world he hates most. As he rushes through the wilds of this forest he encounters the first of many grotesque encounters — a dead sparrow dangling from a string laced noose.

Soon he will discover ghost-like stains upon his rented room’s ceiling. These stains seem to be point toward something.

Fuchs also notices but is more curious than repulsed. The shape of a rake appears in the stain — and soon they discover an actual rake that directs their gaze upward to two small planks of wood hanging from a tree. The planks are tied together and hang by the same string from which the sparrow hangs. They hear talk of a chicken that was spotted hanging not too far away, but they never see it. And thus Wiltold and Fuchs begin to play a paranoid sort of game to attach meaning to these seemingly random signs. The game leads to an axe, a hammer, murder, death and metaphysical omens.

Madame is just overexcited... Sabine Azema Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Madame is just overexcited…
Sabine Azema
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A murdered cat hangs in the courtyard of the Bed and Breakfast. An eccentric married couple have been renting two of their rooms to keep up with mounting expenses. The wife, called Roly-Poly in the Polish novel, is played with goofy  nervous energy by the ever stylish Sabine Azema. We never hear her referred to with the novel’s cruel nickname. Here she is known as Madame Woytis. We soon notice that the female head of the house has a tendency to abruptly shut off in mid speak / movement. Frozen like a photograph. Her beautiful daughter explains, “Oh, it happens to her when ever she gets overexcited.

The daughter is Lena who is married to a seemingly successful business man. He seems to be in constant meetings with a mysterious Russian client. Wiltold is immediately vexed by Lena. But it is her niece, Catherette, with whom he is smitten. Catherette has taken the position of housekeeper. She is devoted but worries her aunt, Madame Woytis, because she refuses to have her mutilated lip cosmetically re-defined. We are told she was in a bus crash. But her mutilation looks more biological in origin. Her lip holds an entrancing mix of disgust and erotic curiosity for both Wiltold and Fuchs.  The male head of the home is Lena‘s stepfather, Leon, played with unhinged lunacy by Jean-Francois Balmer.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'The Pretty' with 'The Good.'" Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘The Pretty’ with ‘The Good.'”
Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Interactions with the family are beyond eccentric. This is a house of organized lunacy and chaos. When Wiltold meets Lena they shake hands maniacally and for an extended time. Soon they are “secretly” copying each other’s animated hand movements. But their odd flirtation is painfully over-the-top. Yet everyone around them is too preoccupied with their own strange non-senscial conversations that only Fuchs notices. The antics of this family appear and sound like something one would see in a  slapstick comedy. There is only one catch: none of it is funny. It is simply strange.  

Unlike Gombrowicz, Zulawski has no interest in making us laugh. He aims to throw his audience off balance. As frantic action and illogical dialogues ape the gestures/sounds of Keystone Cops — the film quickly forms into absurd surrealism. And yet, the film’s cinematography and musical score tease that we are watching some fucked-up romantic mystery. And these are romances and mysteries that seem unsolvable.

As omens of sinister consequence begin to mount the two visitors only become more confused. Wiltold takes a worrying turn when he starts to adapt to sinister cruelty. Ants roam through their food, slugs slither in butter, creepy beetles crawl out of Madame Woytis‘ soup, animals are killed, midnight axe chopping, mutilated lips, fever dreams and a priest who lets loose a swarm of flies when he drops his pants — all of which formulate a sense of doom. Witold is certain that this pending doom threatens to push him into The Void.

When tragedy does strike it fails to register as anything of consequence to the family. Leon takes to the wilderness singing out into what he points out is The Void.

"Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?" Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?”
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

At the film’s mid-point Wiltold has abandoned his studies. Instead he obsesses over Lena and her family. He becomes a willing participant in the sinister happenings that bother him. He turns to philosophical rhetoric for comfort, but begins to chart ideas into some vague sort of story. When we finally see a bit of his writing it is presented on his laptop screen. It is in French and not translated for non-French speakers, but it translates as:

The weight of here and now has become, like the beurk, decisive.

This is in reference to the nausea that begins to overpower Wiltold. Of course we think that Wiltold is writing a story, but there are more than a few hints that he is as motivated by cinema as philosophy. Zulawski has Wiltold and Fuchs poke fun at his own films. At one point it is mentioned that all of these strange happenings might make a good book, but Wiltold disagrees and figures it wold serve better as a movie. Zulawski’s cinematic puzzle ultimately tosses us into meta-film, but this is not an easy-out. It is the only resolution available for Witold, Fuchs, Lena and all involved.

Zulawski takes a poke at Gombrowicz. Of course he has been poking all along. When Fuchs offers a suggestion to the mysteries that have taken place, Witold pulls a bit of met-fiction by explaining his name:

“There’s a reason I have Gombrowicz’s first name. He never knew how to finish his novels nor their meaning.”

 

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski's Universe... Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski’s Universe…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Andrzej Zulawski has said that Cosmos was not only his weirdest film — it was one of the strangest films he had ever seen. I do not agree, but his Cosmos does indeed present an alternative universe. And it forms and is presented in a bizarre range of ways and manner. There is an offer of love, but this universe refuses understanding. Zulawski’s Cosmos is simply idiosyncratic and would far prefer to leave its inhabitants with their own conclusions. But they should never give up or jump off into The Void. This universe is simply too magically odd to skip.

Find Boris Neleop’s interview with Andrzej Zulawski —  here

Mondo Vision’s restored Andrzej Zulawski’s films http://www.mondo-vision.com

Matty Stanfield, 11.22.2016

 

 

 

 

As to be expected Freud and Jung took different psychological views regarding why humans enjoy scary entertainment. There will always be debates regarding psychoanalytic reasoning, but I think most would agree that we like horror movies for fairly obvious reasons: catharsis, adrenaline rush, emotional intensity, curiosity, and the sheer fun of forbidden excitement. The pleasure found in being scared is often contradictory to common sense. One thing is for sure — the popularity of horror films will never cease.

"The Night He came home..." HALLOWEEN John Carpenter, 1978

“The Night He came home…”
HALLOWEEN
John Carpenter, 1978

I was not yet a teenager when my father bought me a ticket to see John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween. I’m not sure if the movie scared me as much as what happened within the darkness of the cinema.  It was a sold out theatre. I remember noting that I was the smallest person there. I opted to sit in a chair directly next to the wall. This was an old-school cinema that had been converted to include an additional screening room out of what had once been a balcony.

"It was the boogeyman..." Laurie is almost certain she is being followed. Jaime Lee Curtis Halloween John Carpenter, 1978 Cinematography | Dean Cundey

“It was the boogeyman…”
Laurie is almost certain she is being followed.
Jaime Lee Curtis
Halloween
John Carpenter, 1978
Cinematography | Dean Cundey

Halloween was playing in the main cinema. Even though a good portion of the movie theatre had been annexed into a separate space — the main room was still fairly big. Red curtains were draped over the entire space. That late afternoon the cinema seemed menacing to me. I slipped my hand toward the curtain. I pushed and pressed against the curtain covered wall.

OK. Nothing hiding there,” I thought to myself.

This would turn out to be a big mistake. Most likely it was an older teenager who noticed me inspect the side wall to the right side of my seat.

John Carpenter’s movie started. It was fairly early into the film. The protagonist, Laurie, was looking out the window of her home. Was that a masked monster looking up at her?

Uh, oh... Halloween John Carpenter, 1978 Cinematography | Dean Cundey

Uh, oh…
Halloween
John Carpenter, 1978
Cinematography | Dean Cundey

Just as Michael Myers appeared between the flying bedsheets a man pushed through the red curtain and pushed me in the shoulder. “Boo!” he screamed. A cinema full of people jumped and laughed. I didn’t so much jump as imploded into myself. This little October  scare literally horrified me. I remember being confused. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to scream, shout, cry or just run for my life. Instead I sunk deep into my seat. My small cup of soda had flown up into the air. The contents had landed all over me.

There was a grown-up sitting next to me. “This kid just spilled his Coke all over me!

I could feel her eyes glaring at me. Upset, wet and cold I cringed in my over-sized chair and spent the remaining duration of the movie looking more to my right than on the screen. This was to be a cinematic experience I would never forget.

I hated Halloween. And I’m referring to the holiday. I disliked the holiday before my father had left me to see the same-named movie. It is impossible to over-stress the importance of childhood experiences. What we experience and live as children forms our identity almost more than genetics. I had already survived gruesome abuse by the time I was 8. Of course that has informed the way I manage through my life, but other things have as well. As a survivor I have spent a good deal of time thinking about Jung’s Archetypal psychoanalytic theories.

How much of what I enjoy in film or entertainment has been informed the abuse I survived? I think those experiences have had a profound impact on the stories that appeal to me. A film that focuses on dark human themes often seems to offer me relief and often abstract validation. It is as if I often find comfort in seeing situations that depict something more horrific than what I lived. I also suspect I enjoy discovering that I can find a “safe place” to experience extreme emotions that I have often fought to suppress.  And these “safe places” found in cinemas have been able to confirm that I can experience horror without folding into myself. The stress of cinematic horror offers a decompression of my own internal fears and stressors.

But there are aspects of experience which take hold in a more sinister way. I do not really remember the following examples of human cruelty as much as I remember the resulting behaviors. This is a key component when I attempt to think out why I dislike Halloween and yet love horror movies.

From 1970 to 1973 Dean Corll AKA "Pied Piper" brutally tortured and murdered at least 28 children in southeast Texas...

From 1970 to 1973 Dean Corll AKA “Pied Piper” brutally tortured and murdered at least 28 children in southeast Texas…

I was aware that the horrible odor we had often encountered at the beach was caused by rotting human bodies. The devastating details of what I believe is often called The Pied Piper Killings were certainly not shared with me, but all of us who were kids at this time knew more about it than we should have. I knew that the victims had been kids. I knew that had died horrible deaths. This incident would serve as fodder to scare many of us into not speaking to strangers or enter stranger’s homes.

Looking back on this it seems almost mean that our parents and teachers used these real-life events to scare us away from the idea of talking with or taking candy from strangers. It seems to me that most children already know to be wary of strangers. I don’t think a child needs to be told a gruesome reality to prevent tragedy. However this real horror was used as a tool to reinforce that danger was ever lurking to kills us.

"What Wendy just saw them do will make you sick to your stomach if it doesn't make you faint first!" Devil Times Five Sean MacGregor, 1974

“What Wendy just saw them do will make you sick to your stomach if it doesn’t make you faint first!”
Devil Times Five
Sean MacGregor, 1974

But the real-life incident that forever warped my view of Halloween would take place a bit later and I knew exactly what had happened. It probably didn’t help that these Pied Piper Killings took place in the same area of Texas in which I lived, but it most certainly added to the impact of what happened when I was 7 years old. A Houston father decided to murder his children on October 31, 1974.

I was always told he was respected within his community so it was even more shocking that he would mix poison with the sugar powder contained within Pixy Sticks. I don’t think my friends or I fully understood how a father would get money for killing his son — but that is how I interpreted it at the time. He wanted to kill his children to make money. Obviously the goal was to collect on insurance. In order to protect himself from getting caught he tried to have other children to eat the poison Pixy Stick candy. Luckily, his other child and the other children to whom he gave the candy failed to eat it.

The headline that made urban legends seem all too real...

The headline that made urban legends seem all too real…

It is easy to understand why this horror would strike fear in parents. I had not been trick’d or treating much by the time this act of unspeakable filicide took place. At the time, the idea of dressing up and roaming about for candy seemed incredibly fun. But all of that changed shortly after the Halloween of 1974. As it turns out I loved Pixy Stick candy. I was no longer allowed to have it, though I never wanted it again anyway. It was also after this incident that new attention was given to the treats I secured. I was not allowed to keep or eat them. My Halloween loot was tossed and replaced with a candy bar my mother had bought. A candy bar is not the same as a bag of candy.

But the far deeper fear that lurked within my mind was actually not all that strange. After everyone from my Grandmother to my teachers had told me about the Houston father who had poisoned candy to kill his little boy — I became terrified that my own father was planning to kill me for money. Suddenly the idea of Trick-Or-Treating was not only not fun — it became a profoundly deep source of fear. I began to dread Halloween.

I am fairly certain it was around this time that me and my friends began to hear stories about razor blades being hidden in apples. I can remember coming up with the idea that of saying that biting into apples hurt my teeth. It would be years before I was comfortable with biting an apple. I still don’t like doing so. It was also around this time that I realized my fear of clowns was grounded. Somehow the lore of serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, had morphed into the identities of both the evil Houston father and the insane Pasadena Texas Pied Piper.

"I'm Pogo." Oh, shit. Creepy Clown painted by serial killing clown... John Wayne Gacy

“I’m Pogo.”
Oh, shit. Creepy Clown painted by serial killing clown…
John Wayne Gacy

In my head — and the in the head of many of my friends — all three were Killer Clowns. Soon an image of the way Gacy painted clowns would emerge into our cultural consciousness. I’m Pogo The Clown would spark psychological insights and inward horrors. I was (and still am) terrified of clowns. Of course, I think many people are afraid of clowns. Coulrophobia is the official term for fear of clowns. But I really think much of my fear comes from the idea that a clown is somehow connected to these horrors.

Harmless ghost stories, tricks to scare and horror movies took on a strange power. I might have known that these things were fictional but there was always a lingering suspicion that maybe I was wrong. But the paradox of fear was and remains very much apart of my life. As a child I was terrified and simultaneously addicted to scary movies and stories. I was repulsively fascinated.

“The child was slender as fleeting hope.” The Exorcist William Peter Blatty, 1971

“The child was slender as fleeting hope.”
The Exorcist
William Peter Blatty, 1971

The cover of this book which resided in our home intrigued me. I would sneak it off the table and/or shelf to see if I could read it. I never had much luck, but the image on the cover seemed both endlessly cool and scary. But the movie was a mysterious source of curiosity. I saw the movie long before I should have. I didn’t really understand what was going down, but it freaked me out.

At some point I became aware that both were linked to reality. These were based on true stories. Suddenly the concept of a Devil became a source of anxiety. The trains that endlessly ran behind our home often made the house shake. I began to worry that the shaking was caused by a devil instead of a train.

No worries. It's just a movie... "In that room. In that bed..." The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

No worries. It’s just a movie…
“In that room. In that bed…”
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

The Exorcist film was particularly creepy. It didn’t seem like any horror movie I had ever seen. It looked like some grown-up movie that would bore me, but then something deeply disturbing would happen — and the characters on the screen and the people in the audience were reacting as if all was real.

Later I would finally read that book. I would worry that I could hear sounds in the attic. …truly odd as we didn’t have an attic.

But to be clear, The Exorcist was endlessly interesting to me. I was afraid, but felt compelled to explore any information I could gain.

"You May Be the Target... of the Next Phone Call... I Saw What You Did William Castle, 1965

“You May Be the Target… of the Next Phone Call…
I Saw What You Did
William Castle, 1965

One night a late movie was on that told the story of two girls making prank phone calls. Things take a very sinister turn when they make the error of dialing the number of a man who has just committed murder. It was all quite silly and over-the-top. I knew that as I watched it. It would be later that the conceit of the film would haunt me. A pretty lame movie quickly took on horrifying aspects within my mind.

"Every babysitter's nightmare becomes real..." When a Stranger Calls Fred Walton, 1979

“Every babysitter’s nightmare becomes real…”
When a Stranger Calls
Fred Walton, 1979

I was a 13 year old at the time When a Stranger Calls came out. Of course I saw it in the cinema. I remember the adrenaline rush when the babysitter is told that the scary calls she has been getting are coming from within the home she is sitting.

It was most definitely a potent moment. Sadly Fred Walton’s film slipped into a strangely dull second half. As I left the cinema and stepped into the sunshine outside I remember thinking that the whole movie was stupid. Later that night and for years to come that filmed situation in which a babysitter realizes that the creepy “prank” caller is actually upstairs with two dead children would become a deeply disturbing idea. Of course, I was not alone.

"Listen to me. We've traced the call. It's coming from inside the house. Now a squad car's coming over there right now, just get out of that house." Carol Kane When a Stranger Calls Fred Walton, 1979 Cinematography | Don Peterman

“Listen to me. We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house. Now a squad car’s coming over there right now, just get out of that house.”
Carol Kane
When a Stranger Calls
Fred Walton, 1979
Cinematography | Don Peterman

I was an adult by the time I finally saw Dario Argento’s pretty neon bloodbath, Suspiria. The special effects were fake. The actors’ voices often didn’t match their lips. Worst of all, the plot didn’t make much sense. All of that being said, the oddly masterful movie has never left my psyche. Some of the images and sounds that make me laugh when I watch it — often haunt my nightmares.

A snoring witch? Suspiria Dario Argento, 1977 Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

A snoring witch?
Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977
Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

The first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was at a midnight movie. I was with some of my closest teenage friends. None of us were yet 17, but we had managed to get tickets. As Tobe Hooper’s horrifying movie unspooled we all pretended to make fun of what we were seeing. It was as if we were daring each other to not be afraid. But by the time the movie reached it’s final act none of us were joking around anymore. All of our eyes were clued to the screen in horror.

"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Tobe Hooper, 1974 Cinematography | Daniel Pearl

“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
Tobe Hooper, 1974
Cinematography | Daniel Pearl

The fact that we were all living and have grown up in southeast Texas where we were surrounded by suspicious looking BBQ shacks only added to the fear the film invoked. It was also alarming how much the whole movie felt like it was taking place within the surrounding counties of our homes. I do not think any of us knew the movie had actually been shot near Austin. We just knew the title by infamy. Gaining the understanding that it was very loosely based on true stories only added to the movie’s horror.

As I was entering my last year of high school I saw an old movie on videotape. It was called Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. A film so quiet we had to blast the volume to understand what the film’s protagonist was saying. The special effects were low-fi and not all that much happened in it that was scary. But this film has haunted me ever since. It still fascinates and horrifies me. The idea of a fragile person dealing with mental illness finding herself in situations which she not distinguish as reality or nightmare holds a repulsive fascination.

"Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don't know which is which." Let's Scare Jessica to Death, John D. Hancock, 1971 Cinematography | Robert M. Baldwin

“Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don’t know which is which.”
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,
John D. Hancock, 1971
Cinematography | Robert M. Baldwin

I was a grown-up and functioning adult when I saw David Lynch’s experimental video nightmare, Inland Empire. An epic proportioned examination of identity becomes unhinged and often horrifying. Laura Dern plays her role(s) with realistic conviction. David Lynch paints the movie more than he films it. Inland Empire operates within various genres and plot themes so much that the viewer will either become enthralled or totally confused. Either way it is impossible to imagine that anyone could experience Inland Empire without falling into the sense of horrific doom.

An actor loses herself somewhere between reality, imagination and a director's vision... Laura Dern Inland Empire David Lynch, 2006

An actor loses herself somewhere between reality, imagination and a director’s vision…
Laura Dern
Inland Empire
David Lynch, 2006

I always fought against my personal fears to participate in Halloween “fun.” However, by the time I was 30 I had decided that I would no longer take part. I lock the door and close the lights. I turn down all Halloween gatherings. I just find the idea of adults hiding their identities and roaming about drunk, stoned or just high on life creeps me out. On top of that, nearly all of it is used in ways to tap into our mutually shared fears. In the last two years many of our cultural and societal fears/paranoias have been manipulated into our realities.

As if our current shit show of an election were not amping up hostilities, rage and bullying enough — we have something new to worry about! People dressing up as Scary Clowns with intent to either cause harm or make us believe they are planning to do so. The idea of clown costumes and these new Scary Clowns mixing in the merriment of a San Francisco Halloween fills me with dread.

A time of surging terrorism, human cruelties, a nasty political election adds a new layer of threat: scary clowns roam about...

A time of surging terrorism, human cruelties, a nasty political election adds a new layer of threat: scary clowns roam about…

Of course I’ve allowed my paranoia to get the best of me, but Halloween remains a holiday I prefer to avoid. Paranoid or not, I do not enjoy it.

So why, then, do I love horror films? And make no mistake, I do love a well made horror flick!

While I might hide from Halloween the holiday, I will always take up the opportunity to see John Carpenter’s Halloween on a big screen.  But please — do not hide and attack me as Michael Myers appears on the screen. I’m no longer a little kid and I’m likely to attack back!

Most of the things that can go bump in the night are imagined, but they are all somehow based upon truths that none of us want to believe. Some might actually really be bumping about.  This is the spark that offers fun for most, but more than a little dread in some.

Matty Stanfield, 10.31.2016

" Demi, why you leave me, Demi?" The Devil taps into the darkest corners of psyches. The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

” Demi, why you leave me, Demi?”
The Devil taps into the darkest corners of psyches.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

 

 

Master cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, was asked to comment on the way neon lights and lighting have impacted his work. As as part of the online exhibition from Mobile M+ and NEONSIGNS.HK, he revisited some of the locations in which he and Kar-wai Wong filmed some of iconic work:

The films we made at a certain period in the 80’s and 90’s wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for the space in which they were made…

Beauty hides in the shadows... Carina Lau Days of Being Wild Kar-wai Wong, 1990 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Beauty hides in the shadows…
Carina Lau
Days of Being Wild
Kar-wai Wong, 1990
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

…And our space is a neon space. It’s a light space. It’s a space of energy that is electric. It’s the way people move. It’s the energy of Hong Kong. It’s the excitement of the encounters on the street. And it’s lit by neon, basically. Especially at that time.

 

Surviving in a Neon World Tony Leung Chungking Express Kar-wai Wong, 1994 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Surviving in a Neon World
Tony Leung
Chungking Express
Kar-wai Wong, 1994
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

It’s a garish, exuberant possibly empty world if you’re not careful. I think that’s what neon is representing.” — Christopher Doyle, Filming in the Neon World.

For the full film/interview click here:

"Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don't know how long she'll stay." Fallen Angels Kar-Wai Wong, 1998 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don’t know how long she’ll stay.”
Fallen Angels
Kar-Wai Wong, 1998
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s work for Kar-wai Wong is some of the best cinematography one can ever expect to see. As he explains, it is exuberant — It is also erotic, unique, sensual, dangerous, disorienting and staggeringly beautiful. The shot posted above takes place in a space few of us would want to actually spend time. Much of Fallen Angels seems dirty and possibly even sinister, but eyes do not want to part with the visuals Doyle has captured. Less than a year later he would make his debut as a feature filmmaker. Away With Words featured one of Japan’s hottest  actors, Tadanobu Asano, and an impossibly cool use of music. Most importantly, it was visually amazing. The images of Away With Words imprinted on my brain. Sadly Doyle’s movie was never lucky enough to receive adequate distribution. But for those of us who did see it — the movie lives on.

The criminally neglected and forgotten... Tadanobu Asano Away With Words / San tiao ran Christopher Doyle, 1999

The criminally neglected and forgotten…
Tadanobu Asano
Away With Words / San tiao ran
Christopher Doyle, 1999

The world contained within Away With Words is magically infused with neon light. The movie actually seems to radiate much of the time. This film can still be found via DVD, though it has never received a proper transfer. It is still worth seeing. It is also almost impossible to find any screenshots that do it justice. I must disclose that Christopher Doyle is my favorite cinematographer. For me to write this is a big deal. I love cinematography and there are many artists I admire — but it is usually hard for me to pick out one artist above all others. I do not have this problem when it comes to cinematography. No one shoots a film like Mr. Doyle.

"Turns out that lonely people are all the same." Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Turns out that lonely people are all the same.”
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The use of neon lighting for film has been going on for some time. It’s seem obvious that lighting is as key to a movie as editing, but it is far more complex than simply providing enough light to capture an image. Lighting allows the filmmaker and cinematographer to not only guide but to literally shape a film’s meaning. Cinematography incorporates all essential elements to form the essence of a movie. When one thinks of neon lighting for film, it would seem it best for creating either a sterile environment or a world of shadows with the intention of menace or horror. But the use of neon lighting is almost limitless in what it can convey. It all depends on how well the cinematographer understands lighting, is able to collaborate with lighting technicians and how creative he/she is in bringing a personal vision that highlights the essential one belonging to the film’s director.

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer. Jessica Harper suspects witchery. Suspiria Dario Argento, 1977 Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer.
Jessica Harper suspects witchery.
Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977
Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Argento’s Suspiria is a neon lit nightmare. Luciano Tovoli’s camera gives the gratuitous violence and paranormal horrors a sinister sort of beauty without getting in Argento’s way. The cinematographer works for the director, but he/she can bring forth magic that the director is often only able to imagine.

In a passive chronological order, take a look at the following shots that incorporate The Neon World into the frames and meanings of the respective films.

"How much?" American Gigolo Paul Schrader, 1980 Cinematography | John Bailey

“How much?”
American Gigolo
Paul Schrader, 1980
Cinematography | John Bailey

Bailey’s use of neon reds and blacks is the perfect concept for dark eroticism and ever-present danger and paranoia.

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous Rutger Hauer Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous
Rutger Hauer
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

I was too young when I first saw Blade Runner to be able to own the language of film, but when I noticed it was referred to as “Neo-Noir” I do remember thinking “Neon-Noir” seemed more sensical. A few years later I would begin to make the connection. I still like the term “Neon Noir” even if it isn’t real.

"This is not a marketplace." Thief Michael Mann, 1981 Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

“This is not a marketplace.”
Thief
Michael Mann, 1981
Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

Michael Mann had great luck bringing the neon world to Thief, but the same can’t be said for One From The Heart. Even still, it is a beautiful looking mess of a movie.

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow -- and nobody came to see it? Nastassja Kinski glowing... One From The Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1982 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro / Ronald Víctor García

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow — and nobody came to see it?
Nastassja Kinski glowing…
One From The Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1982
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro /
Ronald Víctor García

Tony Scott’s The Hunger is seamlessly beautiful — the film’s opening moments/credits are unforgettable and immediately set the stage. Shadowed, cool, stylish and throbbing with electricity and hyper eroticism — this world is beguiling, but we all know that Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

"Nothing human loves forever..." Peter Murphy The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“Nothing human loves forever…”
Peter Murphy
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Ken Russell may have not had a big budget, but he understood how he exactly how he wanted to capture China Blue’s surreal world of fantasy, cheap thrills and escape.  Dick Bush was a master, but it was usually his director’s who pushed him forward. And he never failed them.

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue... Kathleen Turner Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue…
Kathleen Turner
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Wim Wender’s Paris Texas seems an odd fit for utilizing the idea of a Neon-drenched world, but Robby Muller brings the idea to glorious use more than a couple of times within Wender’s concept.

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot... Paris Texas Wim Wenders, 1984 Cinematography | Robby Muller

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot…
Paris Texas
Wim Wenders, 1984
Cinematography | Robby Muller

David Lynch’s collaborations with the great Frederick Elmes never fail to seduce, hypnotize and repulse. Blue Velvet is a classic example of Neo-Noir …and Neon-Noir Surrealism.

This is not your grandparents Film Noir... Isabella Rossellini Blue Velvet David Lynch, 1986 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

This is not your grandparents Film Noir…
Isabella Rossellini
Blue Velvet
David Lynch, 1986
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

Finding the image from Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct was not as easy as I had expected. Most remember this film for Sharon Stone’s brave and no-hold-barred performance (and flash!) but I always think of that amazing scene where the detective enters a raving dance club to find his Femme Fatale. This is not a good example of the way Jan de Bont was able to capture the electric energy of this nightclub, but you can get the general idea. It was too masterful to leave out.

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist's adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club. Basic Instinct Paul Verhoeven, 1992 Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist’s adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club.
Basic Instinct
Paul Verhoeven, 1992
Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Michael Mann had already established a magical sort of neon energy for the protagonist of Thief, but he found new ways to utilize it for the visually dazzling, HEAT.

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection. HEAT Michael Mann, 1995 Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection.
HEAT
Michael Mann, 1995
Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

Terry Gilliam and Nicola Pecorini bring neon, chaos, paranoia and delirium to Las Vegas of the late 1960’s.

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Terry Gilliam, 1998 Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam, 1998
Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

Skipping ahead a few years and even Jason Statham gets the neon touch…

"Now I go back to the street and disappear." This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors. Jason Statham Steven Knight, 2013 Cinematography | Chris Menges

“Now I go back to the street and disappear.”
This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors.
Jason Statham
Steven Knight, 2013
Cinematography | Chris Menges

Yorick Le Saux adds a whole new context of meaning to Jim Jarmusch’s already cool vampiric world…

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston  Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch, 2013 Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch, 2013
Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Just as one should never attempt to mention neon lighting in film without a discussion of Christoper Doyle’s masterful work — it would be tragic to not highlight Benoit Debie’s cinematography. Harmony Korine has always been astute regarding his cinematic visions, but Debie brings a hue to Spring Breakers that only he could create.

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps... Spring Breakers Harmony Korine, 2012 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps…
Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine, 2012
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The critics may have dismissed Ryan Gosling feature film directorial debut, but I still contend they were wrong. If nothing else, Benoit Debie added neon drenched meanings, mystery and surreal horrors forward in Lost River. The film is not perfect, but it arches forward in simultaneously borrowed but eccentric uniqueness. In its own way, Lost River, if almost brilliant. This is no one’s standard coming of age movie.

"Live" Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn... Eva Mendes Lost River Ryan Gosling, 2014 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“Live” Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn…
Eva Mendes
Lost River
Ryan Gosling, 2014
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Just as Christopher Doyle will forever be linked with Kar-wai Wong — so will Benoit Debie with Gaspar Noe. It is a supreme compliment to both directors that they have been able to collaborate so beautifully with two distinctly brilliant cinematographers. While all four are linked respectively together — Wong and Noe have never been hesitant to share the credit for the power of the fieldwork.

Strong case in point, Noe actually shares cinematography credit with Debie for Irreversible. It says a great deal that I am never sure who is behind the camera in this deeply disturbing film. Irreversible is a remarkable work of cinematic art, but it is almost as problematic. One thing is most certain, the quality of the camerawork and use of lighting can only be praised. Even if you have opted to not put yourself through the inhumane horrors of this film — I suspect you will recognize this image.

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film... Irreversible Gaspar Noe, 2002 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film…
Irreversible
Gaspar Noe, 2002
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And when it comes to the power of neon lighting within the context of filmmaking, one would be hard pressed to think of a better example than Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. Intentionally a trip of a film experience, Benoit Debie’s mark is ever-present.

"It's fucking cold." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

“It’s fucking cold.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

 

"I can't believe this is real." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“I can’t believe this is real.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And while Love may not be much of a movie, it is often amazing to watch for visuals alone. Once again, Debie infuses neon light throughout.

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release... Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock Love Gaspar Noe, 2015 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release…
Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock
Love
Gaspar Noe, 2015
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And if there is one director who has spent a career studying and utilizing neon for filmmaking it would be Nicolas Winding Refn. Even under the constraint of a limited budget, his focus was on capturing the energy, insanity and terror of the drug underworld via lighting. The Pusher Trilogy shows what a skilled artist can do with very little.

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn PUSHER Mads Mikkelsen Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996 Cinematography | Morten Soborg

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn
PUSHER
Mads Mikkelsen
Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996
Cinematography | Morten Soborg

The film itself may be flawed, but Fear X is of note because it marks the first collaboration between Refn and Larry Smith. Paranoia, fear, rage, mystery and horror benefit from a very neon-ed space.

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia. John Turturro Fear X Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia.
John Turturro
Fear X
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003
Cinematography | Larry Smith

2008’s Bronson is a cinematic marvel on more than a few counts — one of them is the way in which Larry Smith pushes neon to the limits to merge reality with the fantasy of Surrealism.

 

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow. Tom Hardy BRONSON Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow.
Tom Hardy
BRONSON
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Nicolas Winding Refn and Larry Smith use Drive to serve as the perfect synthesis of their shared vision. It is all about style and manipulation of light.

"Is he a bad guy?" Drive Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

“Is he a bad guy?”
Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

The envelope got pushed off the table and then blown toward the door for their next collaborative effort, Only God Forgives. While it is not a perfect movie, it is certainly not the flop that so many critics wanted us to believe. Only God Forgives is a metaphorical nightmare that often looks more animated than real. Odd and completely unforgettable — another exorcise in style and manipulation.

"Time to meet The Devil." Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn't worried. Nicolas Winding Rein, 2013 Cinematography | Larry Smith

“Time to meet The Devil.”
Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn’t worried.
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Sadly Larry Smith was not involved in Mr. Refn’s next experiment, but it is unlikely that Refn would have budged even the slightest. The title says it all. The Neon Demon is a cinematic error. This time Refn didn’t even bother to push the envelope. He simply refused to acknowledge that an envelope existed. Beautiful, seductive, twisted and so cool it is almost frozen  — The Neon Demon stands indignant and absolutely lost in the garishness of its own neon glow.

And, cue the tipping point... The Neon Demon Elle Fanning Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

And, cue the tipping point…
The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Jenna Malone is the only actor who manages to walk away unscathed. Of course this Demon is so very neon, we sometimes can hardly see her.

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing. Jenna Malone is full of beauty... The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing.
Jenna Malone is full of beauty…
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

It may not work, but Natasha Braier is certainly up for the challenges her director presents.

The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Matty Stanfield, 9.20.2016

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch's debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art. Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch’s debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art.
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

It’s been building for almost 15 years now, but many of the cinematic treasures buried under the title of Cult Film are currently being re-examined and re-evaluated. There are still plenty of cinephiles who shudder as classics like Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, One-Eyed Jacks and Carnival of Souls are taking their deserved seats within The Criterion Collection.

As my generation moves toward half century mark, the younger generations of movie lovers are feeling less self-conscious when it comes to fully owning their love of Cult Films that have never quite fit into the restrictively defined Cinematic Masterpiece.

I’ve never worried much about what people think of me. As a teenager I would often snare unsuspecting friends into watching a VHS copy of a movie I deemed as essential. I remember some of my pals squirming through a movie like John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs or Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. I myself placed in a defensive position. I would attempt to list the cinematic virtues of a numerous cinematic oddities that had been relegated to midnight screenings and discarded as Odd, Smut and ultimately Cult Films. I began to formulate excuses for these movies I loved. These were offered up as self-defenses to shield my ego from the those harbingers of The Cinematic Elite.

  • This movie is so bad it comes around to exceptional
  • A movie we must love to hate
  • There is a certain level of artistry to create a film so entertainingly bad
  • It’s fun to watch
  • It is one of my guilty pleasures

The opinion regarding Cult Films has come a long way since I was in high school. I was the only one who had ever rented All Star Video’s VHS copy of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. In fact, I rented it a lot.

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare -- This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection. Carnival of Souls Herk Harvey, 1962

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare — This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey, 1962

There was a period of time when I would enter All Star and the lady behind the counter would say, “Look y’all! It’s that kid who rents Eraserhead!” Turns out they had acquired the tape by accident. Some of my friends enjoyed some of what they saw in David Lynch’s surreal movie, but more than a few were bored or disgusted. Some of my pals discovered that it was a great movie with which to get stoned. Gradually a few others began to rent All Star’s VHS copy. In less than a decade Eraserhead would finally begin to garnish the respect it deserved. It would take a whole lot longer for Carnival of Souls to gain appropriate recognition, but this year it was remastered and issued as a member of The Criterion Collection.

After I had finally begun to find a place within the ranks of a respected Film Festival my knowledge and love of French and Asian cinema would be put to some good use, but even as we entered the 21st Century there was still passive annoyance at films that dared to color outside the lines of societal ideas of Cinematic Art.

"Love really hurts... Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001

“Love really hurts…
Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001

I first saw Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer at a limited screening not too long after the tragedies of 9/11. It took me several minutes to ground myself back into the real world as I stumbled out of the theatre. I found it difficult to articulate what it was that so strongly appealed regarding this sick and twisted movie. In many ways it was a cartoonish orgy of gore that never let up. The special effects were not so much realistic as they were insanely creative. The film was far more interested in following a sadistic and comically twisted thug following Ichi‘s bloody trail of violence than in Ichi himself. Each passing scene seemed to propel the audience into higher levels of audacity and shock. This was a needless exercise in the excesses of violence and aberrantly cruel behaviors. But all of it was presented in such silly and innovative ways, it was almost impossible not to watch.

Surveying the carnage Tadanobu Asano Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001 Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Surveying the carnage
Tadanobu Asano
Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001
Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

I was not new to the over-the-top genre of Japanese Shock Horror movies, but this was something a great deal different. I had already been caught in Miike’s web the year before. His 1999 Cult Film, Audition, was in many ways a far superior film. It had been a surrealist take on a widowed man’s sexual fears. The gore utilized in Audition was far more realistic in look and the film’s exploration into self-hate, human cruelty and misogyny was a bit more than the average viewer would ever be able to approve. It was a smart and exceptionally well crafted movie that would only ever have a limited audience. Ichi The Killer was not nearly so dire. Ichi took no prisoners, but it also allowed the audience a “pass” regarding its violent nature.

"Everything I'm about to tell you is a joke..." This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here. Hideki Sone GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke…”
This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here.
Hideki Sone
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

From my perspective, both Audition and Ichi The Killer were destined for consideration as films of note. But if I had to place my bet, I’d venture that it would be Ichi The Killer that would manage to achieve mutually agreed regard. Interestingly it would be Audition that was the first to be recognized as something more than simply Cult. But the time of Ichi The Killer will soon arrive. Let’s hope that Ichi is ready for the validation. He is kind of sensitive.

Two years after I saw Ichi The Killer in a cinema, I pitched the idea of having the film festival host a retrospective of Miike’s work. I had put out “feelers” and his camp was more than willing and the director was open to attending. He did not speak English, but he had someone who could join him as his translator. In addition, his 2003 film, GOZU had only enjoyed one US screening at this point. I had been lucky enough to receive a promotional copy of that film. GOZU is an experiment into Yakuza thriller gone the way of Lynchian fever dream. GOZU is artistic, comical, beyond strange and unforgettable. I was excited as I pitched the idea to the committee. Only one of the ten members shared in my enthusiasm. My idea was nixed. GOZU and Miike went to Chicago.

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood. Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey LISZTOMANIA Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood.
Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey
LISZTOMANIA
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

My pleas for the committee to consider Ken Russell’s The Devils and Lisztomania fell prey to closed minds and snobbery. Appreciation for Ken Russell’s brilliant The Devils has existed since the film’s debut through to today. The problem is that many have never had the amazing opportunity to see this important film in Russell’s original cut. Warner Bros. continues to hold that film hostage thanks to the powers of The Vatican. It is the only reason that seems to explain Warner Bros. refusal to relinquish the movie. It continues to sit in exile within the confines of the Warner Bros. vault. Although not blessed with the masterful artistry of The Devils, Ken Russell’s surreal comic book take on Franz Liszt is also due for reconsideration. Rumors continue to fly about regarding the resurgence of both films. Back in my teen years I was constantly pimping Ken Russell to the unconverted. It is impossible to understand, but it has only been in the last decade that Ken Russell’s brilliance has begun to receive the recognition that so very many knew it and he was due. And the rally call for both of these films — most especially for The Devils — is growing stronger.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin Production Design | Derek Jarman

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin
Production Design | Derek Jarman

A couple of years ago I got into a disagreement with someone of “standing” within the world of Film Restoration. A seminal film was at stake. Was this beloved and profoundly odd but brilliant film damned to be restored by a well-intentioned but tech limited distribution company? As it became clear that my opinion meant nothing to this individual who is actually a bigger Film Snob than me — and that is saying something — I took one more consideration regarding concerns of bombast, overly silly presentation, perverse articulation and Grindhouse residue. I ended the conversation with the following sentence:

I will watch Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, The Godfather or Casablanca as often as I watch this film.

As it turned out, this almost forgotten cinematic gem was restored brilliantly by the great team at Vinegar Syndrome. One of my favorite movies, The Telephone Book, was restored and re-issued to an unsuspecting public. Sadly their efforts did not result in many sales.

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn't a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn’t a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

This type of discussion became a sort of staple of my Movie Lover’s Life. It was also a discussion I was nearly always bound to lose. But something is in the air. I’d like to think it partially thanks to my generation, but it is equally indebted to the generation that arrived just after mine. There are a number of people now in their mid-to-late 30’s who recognize the importance of many films that cause life threatening eye-rolling by most serious cinematic scholars born before 1972.

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography. Jill Clayburgh The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971 Cinematography | Leon Perera

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography.
Jill Clayburgh
The Telephone Book
Nelson Lyon, 1971
Cinematography | Leon Perera

Another highly valuable movie that had been thought long lost is Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter. A neon-drenched world awaits the viewer who allows themselves to slip into this strange film. While it is most certainly flawed, it is equally most certainly fascinating. Cinema Libre Studio restored and reissued the film to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2011.

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas,  Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.  The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.
The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

They also did the same for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s infamous Betty Blue, but opted to issue only the theatrical version of that film. Sales for Betty Blue were strong, but The Moon in the Gutter is no longer in print. Seek it out.  Meanwhile the director’s cut of Betty Blue is out there and will most likely be re-issued soon. Which paves the way for a restoration of that director’s successful but largely forgotten art film, Diva. An unforgettable hybrid film that is experimental to say the least. We are likely to see this film receive an upgrade within the next year or so.

"Her voice was his calling." Diva Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

“Her voice was his calling.”
Diva
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

It had been a fairly tight secret when The Criterion Collection decided to pursue the distribution rights for both The Valley of the Dolls and its dirty little sister, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The announcement created a bit of grumbling, but many are thrilled to finally see these two cultural relics restored.

 

"This is my happening and it freaks me out!" Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more -- Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts' 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Russ Meyer, 1970

“This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more — Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts’ 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Russ Meyer, 1970

Kino Lober and Olive Films have also been doing a great job of rescuing lost or forgotten cult films. This month KL released Otto Preminger’s all but forgotten Cult Film, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon Junie Moon. Olive Films has just released three other treasured Cult Films, Wild In the Streets, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and Modesty Blaise.

"You said she was going to eat us." Strange and surprisingly effective... Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Curtis Harrington, 1972

“You said she was going to eat us.”
Strange and surprisingly effective…
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
Curtis Harrington , 1972

Get ready. Here are but a few other films up for reconsideration beyond the realm of The Cult Film

"Eventually stars burn out..." This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation. Map to the Stars David Cronenberg, 2014

“Eventually stars burn out…”
This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation.
Map to the Stars
David Cronenberg, 2014

 

"Why don't rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday's? Well, it's hard to rape with a stomachache." The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic's ego deconstructs. Gregg Turkington ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2014 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

“Why don’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday’s? Well, it’s hard to rape with a stomachache.”
The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic’s ego deconstructs.
Gregg Turkington
ENTERTAINMENT
Rick Alverson, 2014
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

 

"Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before." Berberian Sound Studio Peter Strickland, 2012 Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

“Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before.”
Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland, 2012
Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

 

" Everything is more complicated than you think..." Coming up close to a decade -- is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman's ever undulating surreal epic? Philip Seymour Hoffman Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, 2008 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

” Everything is more complicated than you think…”
Coming up close to a decade — is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman’s ever undulating surreal epic?
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman, 2008
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

The film I am most excited about is John Schlesinger’s strange and surreal forgotten bit of dark magic, The Day of the Locust. The Hollywood Dream is reduced to absolute metaphorical nightmare. It also features some of Conrad L. Hall’s best cinematography work.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We're speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman's Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California..." John Schlesinger, 1975

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We’re speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman’s Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California…”
John Schlesinger, 1975

And, of course, Takashi Miike’s odd trip into Surrealism — GOZU.

"There's no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!" GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“There’s no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!”
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

Matty Stanfield, 8.16.2016

It was an odd question.

Let’s say you must lose all material possessions except for ten of your Criterion Collection Blu-Rays. Which ten titles do you keep?

key_art_criterion_collection

I rolled my eyes and shrugged the question away. There is no way I could ever limit myself to only ten Criterions! But the silly question inspired me to really think about the movies I have via The Criterion Collection. Which are my absolute favorites? Which titles do I watch the most? Which do I value above others? Could I narrow it down to only ten movies? Would I have to organize them in some order of preference? No. I would not be able to rate one more valued than the other.

My friend did not frame her question with the context of a desert island. If she had I would have countered back with obvious challenges of having a monitor, BluRay Player and electricity to run both. No. The question was simply which ten I would keep above all others. Ideally I would smuggle a few more titles with me. Yes. I would most definitely find a way to sneak a few more under protection under my hoodie. No one would be the wiser. Most certainly not the friend who posed the question. After much contemplation, here are my most treasured members of my Criterion Collection

 

Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1974 Cover Design: Fred Davis

Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1974
Cover Design: Fred Davis

I think there tends to be one common thread in the choices I have made from my Criterion Collection: Identity. It seems to me that the idea of identity is at the core of all we pursue in life. One could easily argue that food gathering, sex and conflict are the shared drivers for the beings called human, but it is within the pursuit of these needs that much of our respective identities take form. It is both amazing and a little horrifying how identity is challenged and altered by drivers, circumstances and experiences. Films that delve into the psychology of identity vary in genre and philosophy, but often provide endless interpretation.

Surreal films like Buñuel’s Belle de jour, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Polanski’s Repulsion, Altman’s 3 Women and Breillat’s Fat Girl find new ways of exploring the inner workings of how our identity forms, survives and sometimes crumples. Allegorical, metaphorical and symbolism reign supreme in these films. Repeated viewings offer fresh perspectives and understanding. A documentary like Grey Gardens works brilliantly in the hands of the Maysles Brothers. The use of Direct Cinema offers insights into mother / daughter dynamics as well as a humanistic study of adapted survival. Altman’s Nashville is satire, but as this experimental epic unwinds the ideas of damaged identities are pushed by societal and cultural pressures that have only become stronger in the 40+ years that he made his film. Don’t Look Now is far more than a horror film. It does haunt and stirs dread, but it also captivates in its eloquence of exploring human nature under the sway of reawakening hope.

  • Don’t Look Now
  • Nashville
  • Belle de jour
  • Repulsion
  • Grey Gardens
Antichrist Lars von Trier, 2009

Antichrist
Lars von Trier, 2009

 

"But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman..." Little Edie makes a stand. Grey Gardens Mayflies, Hovde, Meyer 1976

“But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman…”
Little Edie makes a stand.
Grey Gardens
Mayflies, Hovde, Meyer
1976

 

America caught in a scary moment points us to an even more horrific future... NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975

America caught in a scary moment points us to an even more horrific future…
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975

Two other common elements are the uncomfortable mixture of humor and horror. Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist offers up skin-crawling levels of disturbing images that are almost impossible to watch — yet the elements of dark humor and surrealism move our attentions away from the grotesque. If we look, listen and think — the strange film offers perspectives on a number of topics from cultural misogyny, the intimacy of marriage and the tragedy of grief. Nashville, 3 Women, Fat Girl and Grey Gardens allow us to chuckle as much as they make us squirm.

  • Antichrist
  • Fat Girl
  • 3 Women
"1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1..." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977

“1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1…”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977

 

No one's victim... Fat Girl / À ma soeur! Catherine Breillat, 2001

No one’s victim…
Fat Girl / À ma soeur!
Catherine Breillat, 2001

  • Persona
  • Black Moon

I am not assigning these titles in any particular order because I am unable to really rank one of these films over another. Each film is exceptional, but some do work better than others. Louis Malle’s experimental and surreal Black Moon is of interest despite itself. This film is very much a reflection of European tension and confusion resulting from sociopolitical revolutions, challenges and fears of its time. Much of the political has been lost over time. What remains is a tipsy and uncomfortable take on Alice in Wonderland. The film may be flawed, but it is extraordinary.

"Just a minute, please." Black Moon Louis Malle, 1975

“Just a minute, please.”
Black Moon
Louis Malle, 1975

As for the other beloved titles that I would creatively find a way to retain…

  • The Innocents
  • Videodrome

It would be challenging to think of two films that are more hinged to the times in which both were made. And yet, both of these Cult Film remain powerful and equally unsettling. Repeated viewings are never dull. Revisiting these two movies is as much fun as it is disorienting.

"What are you waiting for, Lover?" Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

“What are you waiting for, Lover?”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

  • Band of Outsiders
  • In the Realm of the Senses
  • Wings of Desire

The ideas of identity are taken to whole new levels with the three films listed above. Each of these movies are totally unique. And each of these iconic films offer three very different experiences. The only one I feel the need to defend is Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. Does he push the use of unstimulated sex and violence too far? Yes, but that is also his point. If you are over 18 years of age, this movie offers an astounding and masterful study of the horrors of sexual obsession and repression.

"Now is the time for a digression in which to describe our heroes' feelings..." Band of Outsiders Jean-Luc Godard, 1964

“Now is the time for a digression in which to describe our heroes’ feelings…”
Band of Outsiders
Jean-Luc Godard, 1964

It hurts my feelings to imagine my world without Dressed to Kill, Harold and Maude, Satyricon, 8½, Jules et Jim, Red Desert or Valerie and her Week of Wonders. But I can only get away with sneaking so much. Even if I were to slip into my Large sized hoodie — it would most likely be obvious if I had more than 5 titles hidden behind the zipper.

"But no sooner was she back on shore, when..." Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964

“But no sooner was she back on shore, when…”
Red Desert
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964

But who am I fooling? I would most definitely try to sneak Gates of Heaven into my ownership. Hell, I would also grab Branded to Kill and Eraserhead. I would then make a run for it. I’m sneaky like that.

"You’ve been badly trained." Branded to Kill Seijun Suzuki, 1967

“You’ve been badly trained.”
Branded to Kill
Seijun Suzuki, 1967

Matty Stanfield,  7.21.2016