Today, Thursday, May 11th Wonders in the Dark will be hosting a 16 day Allan Fish Online Film Festival (Allan Fish OFF), of which I am a part of. The rules are simple; each day will see a new chairman host the festivities and select a film that is available to be watched by anyone, online for free from a popular streaming site (youtube, vimeo, dailymotion, etc.). The host for that day will decide how the film they chose will be presented; an essay, a sparse teaser introduction, or ‘other’ (the creativity seen on the blogosphere for film commentary knows no bounds as we all know). Thus, conceivably the film festival could be nearly real; people anywhere on the globe watching the same film, at roundabout the same time. It’s named in honor of our dear friend and film scholar Allan Fish, whose birthday was May 11th, and will be an annual event from this day forward. He found so many of his treasured Obscuro’s doing just what we’re setting out to do with this Festival, so it seemed the most fitting way to remember him. More information on the festival can be found here, with the first post here.
Let me exploit the existence of Heat (1995) on screen a little further. As written and directed by Michael Mann, it is an absorbing picture, a suspenseful narrative for its full 171 minutes. I watch it a lot, and I can tell myself it is for the craft, the art or the performances (it is one of De Niro’s last good pictures). But I know I am drawn to it by the licensed fantasy of watching cops and robbers strutting their stuff—with guns, but with talk, too. It is a potent males dream. The women in the film are often intriguing, but they are not permitted to rival the male ideology. And Heat is a fire that doesn’t burn me. I can watch its immense street gun battles with excitement; I can be carried away by the notion that De Niro and Pacino are alike in their characters. But my wife once was mugged and I know that their suggestion of parity is insane. A brush with violent crime in lie can be searing and traumatic. Yet on screen it is indulged. Film only works in the dark, and because of safe distance from life.
The intrinsic deal in the movies was to say, Look, for a very modest sum—a nickel, say—we’ll give you an opportunity to see no just the wonders of the world, not just people who are beautiful beyond your dreams, but a set of conditions to which we know you aspire; sexual splendor, thrilling violence, clothes, decor, space, timing, and ultimate happiness; in short, the chance to bathe in the light. It’s the treat of the new age, and here’s the kicker: you can watch the sex and violence without ever being identified, or known. …
-David Thomson, How to Watch a Movie
Opening a piece on Quentin Tarantino’s new snow Western The Hateful Eight with this passage from David Thomson’s new film book seems serendipitously apt, the passage leapt to me as I read it days after receiving the small book for Christmas, the same day The Hateful Eight appeared in limited release. The passage cuts right into much of the random thoughts I’ve had bouncing around in the snow drenched atmospherics of Tarantino’s new film. As such, I’ve decided to write a piece entering Tarantino’s catalogue and specifically this new one in much the same way as I’ve done several Recent Cultural Happenings pieces. Continue reading
What follows is my part in a correspondence with friends who do an annual Horror film binge during the month of October. Years ago it was dubbed ’31-in-31′ where we attempted 31 Horror films in the months 31 days. In recent years, various events in our lives have greatly lessened the scope and attempts made, but alas, this year was a return of sorts, which saw me complete 26 films. I cheated a little, Queen of Earth and Rosemary’s Baby were watched mid-September but counted towards my list here. I didn’t think it that much of a cheat since both works—which speak to each other wonderfully—really got me in the mood for the coming splatters, shrieks and scares. For my thoughts on Queen of Earth, please go here. Without further ado… Continue reading
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
Book of Revelations, 6:7-8
In a film that borrows its title from the words spoken by the beasts of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, it’d be interesting to note that as the phrase is continually uttered by the beasts (I count no less than four times, once each time one the Horseman open a seal) it’s meant to coerce anyone of shaky faith into belief by the threat of plagues and Armageddon that are surely to come. But, just as each (potential) action implies an opposite (potential) action, there is the promise that if these riders are avoided, or not followed, that a paradise for eternity awaits. One not of the flesh or air, but of the afterlife, a reality in need of a tremendous leap. The ‘come and see’ adage as much a fearful warning as a hopeful promise.
But that reading implies what’s to come, and while as a title to a film you’d be about to see that seems fitting (this reading prompts visions of red velvet curtains being drawn as we’re led into the horror show theater, think Dario Argento’s intro in Deep Red), the title here implies to current events (to the films World War II setting) and probably what always has happened and always will happen (especially during war). That’s the scary connection to the Book of Revelations; a book prophesying the coming end, here is read as implying it has come and our contemporary post life is akin to nomadic forsaken souls wondering an earth with only sinners. Put differently, the Book of Revelations is pure fantasy, or at the very least, something that is promised to come just don’t hold your breath, while here is an accounting of events born from actual historical truth. If we are only continually reminded of these horrors, perhaps we’d be struck into action to insure they never happen again. The meek shall inherit the earth that same book says elsewhere, but then who wants to be born and come of age in a burned out husk? Come and See accounts for two choices and they aren’t heaven or hell, but only a life of agony, or death. A title that is an urging to watch this collectively and strike to see this never happens again.
Time and time again I knew what I was doing and
Time and time again it just made things worse
It seems you see the most of what is really true when
You’re stepping into your hearse
Only time can write a song that’s really really real
The best a man can say is how its play on him does feel
And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals
—’Time’, Richard Hell (Destiny Street, 1982)
Time, it’s said of in the opening sequences of Alain Resnais’ 1968 sci-fi Je t’aime, je t’aime, is something that scientists can explore the past of but not the future of, and even then, only at intervals of a minute at a time. It seems a safe enough enterprise, a white lab mouse is shown to have safely made the excursion in one piece, but then, as the scientists readily point out, a mouse is unable to verbally recount the voyage, so a human is necessary to make the experimental trip. But, time is also a creator of feelings and memories, often darkly sad or painfully repressed, not merely a void with which to experiment and observe, so our hero’s journey might not be the seamless excursion we’re being sold.
If I had to state what the most prevalent theme of 2014 was in film, in the most base terms, I’d probably be urged to probe somewhere within the idea that a very tangible groundswell is building in response to ever growing pressures of control. This idea, both large and small, that there are powers that be—in whatever realm—that are finally existing in such a way that there is no longer a possible passivity in relation to our reactions to them has seeped into the consciousness of contemporary film (to a lesser extent, 2014 could also be the year of the glitzy blockbuster, but in the age of over done CGI and media conglomeration, that’s a charge that can be made for almost any year post-Burton’s original Batman). It’s become an over-arching theme across so many genres that it can be seen very explicitly (citizenfour, Snowpiercer, obviously Selma, the final season of the disappointing Newsroom, etc.) and in a more covert way (The Grand Budapest Hotel has fictitious Nazi’s and the growing threat of WWII, and several of our popcorn romps did it to; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and to a lesser extent Godzilla). In the wake of very recognizably visible movements like Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, to the NSA leaks (which citizenfour is explicitly about) and countless wiki-leaks this could be the capturing of a very real building resistance. It’s an idea that has been prevalent in very specific films for some time, say the espionage spy-thriller, where paranoia goes as hand in hand as singing would in a musical. That it is in such a litany of different films suggest that all these movements and headlines are impacting people in a very real way, coupled with the fact that social media is taking away additional people’s privacy every second of every day (best picture contender Birdman has several instances where the seeping predatory nature of social media is very real, and its not just because our characters hold the additional cache of being celebrities).
Two additional 2014 films could very easily be compared by starting here, within an additional, even tighter parameter. Micheal Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper are both stories centered on real life protagonists, both now deceased, who saw pivotal political movements change them in distinct ways after thrusting them into urgent action. Kill the Messenger shows Jeremy Renner’s Gary Webb react in an altruistic way when he has the story of his journalistic life thrust onto him in a roundabout way, but when he perceives the kernel of Truth in it he seems to instinctively meander towards a just path no matter the cost to him or those in close proximity. Eastwood’s American Sniper, Chris Kyle perceives his threat in the rise of late 1990’s Islamic terrorism and he in turn, enlists in the military, eventually becoming a highly decorated sniper in Iraq. Considering that when Kill the Messenger‘s Webb starts uncovering the CIA link to Nicaraguan cocaine smuggling into the US by the Contras he immediately knows the score and takes a befuddled and quite scared lawyer into South Central LA to show the magnitude of the story. At that point he’s just at the beginning, but he knows that the harder he works the more he can positively alter and the scene plays like him recharging his batteries. It’s a move that shows Cuesta showing a very definite point-of-view, and he’s sure to portray the eventual fall out from the story as little more than inevitable, complete with several very clearly spoken forewarnings. Webb is a pawn in the ordered status-quo when the story quickly turns its focus based on the whims of those that generate content. Watching the film while thinking about citizenfour, we could start to see the films as grotesque, horrific films, each upping the ante of obfuscation and collective protection the majors are willing to afford their most powerful sources. Comparatively, Chris Kyle in American Sniper repeatedly seems befuddled or unsure of his actions and attempts to largely skirt responsibility to those above him, as he time and time again claims to just be “doing his job”. Those that have defined just what the job is are shown to have earned Kyle’s complete devotion and trust. Continue reading
d Marco Ferreri p Vincent Malle, Jean-Pierre Rassam w Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona s Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, Andréa Ferréol m Philippe Sarde e Claudine Merlin, Gina Pignier c Mario Vulpiani
original release May 17, 1973 (at Cannes Film Festival). 130 minutes color, 1.66:1. Italy/France.
First, here’s an aperitif that’s to be chugged (against normal decorum for the procedure):
A film of virtual unrivaled acceptance of an outcome, never have I seen four characters so saintly (or is it merely a shared look of placid indifference) accept chosen finality—in the early setup scenes we meet each central character; a pilot (Mastroianni), a chef (Tognazzi), a judge (Noiret), and a TV executive (or is it ‘choreographer’ as many say online?)(Piccoli) easily packing and preparing for what’s to come. When it’s realized what is coming—and this is realized quite early—what can explain these droll looks and reactions? So un-energetic as to make old paleface Buster Keaton a virtual rubber face with the facial subtly of Jim Carrey in comparison. Ah, they’re the solemn looks of chained men walking the long corridors to their executions but not before quickly stopping off to have a last meal(s). What can be a better protest against hedonism and excess than to demolish yourself to bloated oblivion in the most lavish and hedonistic way possible? The age old Buddhist maxim, delivered by an entire culture en masse, my lifestyle determines my deathstyle.
Now, a small hors d’oeuvre, something ostentatious and hopefully cooked in something useless and blatantly posh, like duck fat:
In The Exterminating Angel the mansion inhabitants can’t leave, in La Grande Bouffe they don’t want to; it’s the difference between a culture oblivious to its excesses because it feels it deserves these, and one that is rightly willing to accept its punishment for their abuse of these same privileges (a self-imposed sentence if you will). It’s the difference of a pre— and post— ‘something’ film, maybe ‘realization'(?). Either way, an understanding of opportunity and elevation (class, social, privilege, etc) is the central first step towards an authentic progressive class change. (Another difference between these two films and filmmakers is Ferreri’s unabashed Marxism, a side Buñuel only showed in moments.)
Both films, featuring characters locked away and estranged from civilization, echo Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, but it seems to me that the Ferreri—with his choice to have his characters willingly move into a torturous exile and having the story center around 4 central characters of affluence—is closer to de Sade’s tale. Many others have claimed all these works are operating on a probable truism described in Freud’s monumentally influential Beyond the Pleasure Principle where he explained that beyond simple pleasure seeking in the subconscious is a destructive impulse that drives a certain personality to fulfilling a death craving by excessive repetition, aggression and overindulgence. That individual desire, multiplied to the level of a societal norm and suddenly preying on conscious actions, is as dangerous a concept as one can imagine.
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The beginning of something resembling a main-course; several dishes served in countless plates, bowls, and platters whose sole intent is for this single food type otherwise skirting normal commonsense utilitarian function. Think ‘gravy boat’, ‘salad fork’, ‘escargot plate’, ‘fondue pot’, or virtually any platter used for a single ceremonial function. An escargot plate would be great, by the way, for mixing watercolors:
1973 seemed as good a year as any to offer a blistering critique of societies ever increasing debauchery towards its culture and overall hypocritical way of life (meaning the debauchery was also directed at the society itself as well). The events of May 1968 must have felt like eons past, its main cogs depressingly beginning to accept the devastating effects of its ultimate failure, while in America, the conclusion of the Vietnam War was finally offering its participants the lessons of an unnecessary and unwinnable war. Taken side by side the indication was clear; liberation thwarted for no other reason than a desire for most to maintain the little comfort they had, and those that had it in surplus were willing to send others to any corner of the globe to maintain it irregardless of cost or genuine legitimacy. It would seem natural that for many on these losing sides that a frontal assault on these very comforts had rapidly become priority number one. Suddenly it (must have) seemed the desire to have a small two seater or eat imported cuisine (damn the artistry of either) and maintain these abilities (or rather luxuries) at all costs was more applicable to a long life than standing alongside another in genuine social upheaval. Call it pacifying or atrophying but a sensibility, not a revolution, was squashed more than anything else in those years making those children of 1968 begin to (again) attempt answering the call for real shocks to the system. They wouldn’t be marching in the streets anymore, or striking, but offering full on artistic assaults on the spectacle of the everyday. A new tactic for a new day.
In back to back months of 1973 (May and June) audiences saw two very different releases though not dissimilar in confrontational execution style. The later (June) was the first-edition publication of J.G. Ballard’s seminal Crash. Crash, later made into a feature film by David Cronenberg, is the story of several people completely removed from society emotionally while simultaneously deeply engrained in the creation and continued upkeep of this very societies restricting pop-culture mantras. The resulting eventual release comes in the form of a violent automobile accident that spurs the central characters to seek these releases again and again in this manner while also blurring the line towards eroticism. Soon a sexual intercourse and car collision fetish is born and furthered with the addition of celebrity culture worship. Ballard offered this scathing work in what he saw as the increased technological fetishizing of the day, a deep rooted disdain of a culture so reliant on these pieces that so often maim, scare, or kill their users (with no great effort ever being made to lessen their horrific power). Ballard summed up the book as, “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror”, a statement that could certainly be attributed to the other 1973 work, Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe. Granted the vomiting would be the result of extreme overindulgence at the dinner table but, jokes aside, the comparison fits perfectly.
Ferreri is also looking over the state of affairs with increased disgust. Where Ballard saw scars, severed limbs and twisted chassis, Ferreri ruminates over ever expanding waist lines (as waste lines, but more on homonyms later); where Ballard sees the unfortunate elevation of cheap celebrity glamour shot and clean lined roadster as ‘high art’, Ferreri sees a culture without even the time for that, what with it being so hellbent on turning all art to erotic or tactile indulgence to slovenly consume. Both artists (Ballard and Ferreri) meet back at the middle, or rather at the bottom, seeing art being groped, fucked (or used in fucking), or derided as one would a stripper in a go-go club (Le Grande Bouffe has a fantastic early scene where the main characters eat before bed as they look at snap shots of famous art nudes mixed amongst snapshots they’ve taken of women they’ve slept with). Art, and in reality the point is anything held to an elevated status it actually deserves (so please don’t read sanctimonious virtues like, say, religious piety), no longer holds any meaning in a culture such as this because at its core it respects nothing. Most of all, it ceases to respect the self, and those around it, making its destruction or violent aggressive annihilation the obvious, and probably necessary outcome. (It’s why when Ferreri made a sci-fi film where all the inhabitants of the earth are wiped out but one couple they spend much of the films running time debating, to openly arguing, if they should begin to repopulate the species, an act most would see as a task needed to be done without question.) Ferreri’s great turn is the saintliness he gives the characters I spoke of earlier; sure these are men to loathe, but they’re surely archetypes who at the very least see their responsibility and make sure it’s done properly and with a bit of panache.
Adolf Hitler, the joke goes, wasn’t such a bad guy. After all, he did kill Hitler.
* * * * * *
Thus diminishing erotic and intensifying sexual energy, the technological reality limits the scope of sublimation. It also reduces the need for sublimation. In the mental apparatus, the tension between that which is desired and that which is permitted seems considerably lowered, and the Reality Principal no longer seems to require a sweeping and painful transformation of instinctual needs. The individual must adapt himself to a world which does not seem to demand the denial of his innermost needs—a world which is not essentially hostile.
The organism is thus being preconditioned for the spontaneous acceptance of what is offered. Inasmuch as the greater liberty involves a contraction rather than extension and development of instinctual needs, it works for rather than against the status quo of general repression—one might speak of “institutionalized desublimation.” The latter appears to be a vital factor in the making of the authoritarian personality of our time. [73-74]
This socialization (greater degree of sexual freedom in advanced industrial civilization) is not contradictory but complementary to the de-erotization of the environment. Sex is integrated in to work and public relations and is this made more susceptible to (controlled) satisfaction. Technical progress and more comfortable living permit the systematic inclusion of libidinal components into the realm of commodity production and exchange. But no matter how controlled the mobilization of instinctual energy may be (it sometimes amounts to a scientific management of libido), no matter how much it may serve as a prop for the status quo—it is also gratifying to the managed individuals, just as racing the outboard motor, pushing the power lawn mower, and speeding the automobile are fun. 
Has it attained a degree of normalization where the individuals are getting used to the risk of their own dissolution and disintegration in the course of normal national preparedness? Or is this acquiescence entirely due to their impotence to do much about it? In any case, the risk of avoidable, man-made destruction has become normal equipment in the mental as well as material household of the people, so that it can no longer serve to indict or refute the established social system. Moreover, as part of their daily household, it may even tie them to this system. The economic and political connection between the absolute enemy and the high standard of living (and the desired level of employment!) is transparent enough, but also rational enough to be accepted. [78-79]
-Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. First published in 1964, page numbers indicated are in reference to Beacon Press 1991 edition.
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In a film where dirty pillow talk is uttered as “Your mouth smells like borscht” after a loving smooch (complete with embrace) that becomes itself a near perfect poetic homonym to the just as apt, “Your mouth smells like bull shit”, where can one begin to discuss the sexual dynamics at the heart of the film? Initially it’s quite easy (much like the earlier compared Ballard book Crash is), it was obvious to me from the early stages of this extravagant weekend that prostitutes would feature in the smorgasbord (paying for boatloads of sex is the easiest way to show indulgence in this act), but even here Ferreri has another trick up his sleeve. He introduces a bookish marm school teacher (Andréa Ferréol, who plays the necessary slobbish eroticism to the hilt) into the mix, almost off the cuff, who—and this was one of my most immediate reactions in my most recent viewing— is turned into a sexual object, easily swapped amongst the boys like a regular ol’ whore, in less than a day in the films shown few days. The immediacy and speed at which this happens is a devastatingly accurate and crushing point: here is a society that takes the pure, the innocent, and the otherwise ‘normal’ and turns them into monsters with a desire that resembles a bottomless landfill that no amount of garbage can fill. That, or she isn’t pure, or innocent, or otherwise ‘normal’ and Ferreri’s point is even more dubious towards our culture; no one is as they appear and everyone is in on the take. Some just don’t run with the right circles, but once they do, a remarkably short amount of time is needed for them to be brought up to speed.
Obviously in a world such as this everything (non-objects) would become thoroughly objectified, and in turn the actual objects would have no real value or loss the specific function of it as an object. Crash considers this point too, with everything become a fetish of a fetish (often when no fetish is inherently there), and La Grande Bouffe works in much the same way. I’d further connect the Ferreri and the Ballard with the numerous ‘car-as-sexual-portal-or-conduit’ threads that run through both. Crash is largely about this, while La Grande Bouffe it is such another in a long line of points to consider. The pilot character (Mastroianni), sporting a profession mirroring a love of the technology of transportation, learns of the existence of an old, very rare Bugatti racer in the garage on the grounds (of course the Italian in the cast would be given a love of a Bugatti). His love and appreciation of the classic automobile seems genuine, (and he’s often heard lamenting that its creator Ettore Bugatti was a ‘real artist’, and his eventual toil to get it up and running one last time exhibits this. But it’s ultimately down to how genuine love or appreciation is shown in a culture devolved to this point. His love of the automobile becomes initially a dissection of its moving, utilitarian parts (such as the manifold) that are then used as a dildo in one early sexual escapade. Soon the orgy that has been happening inside the mansion (both eating and fucking) is now happening on the car’s chassis, on its back fenders, and finally inside its twin bucket seat. Something that is genuinely appreciated and respected in the highest matter must be shown this respect by pulling it down amongst the trash and squalor, never can it remain above, teaching and worthy of awe. If it remained on this perch it might still have value as a symbol of just how deficient everything else is in neglect alongside it (horrid culture, above all else, doesn’t want to scrutinize itself and realistically ponder change). Ferreri has a classicists sense of beauty (god bless), while Ballard, also correctly, sees the visual beauty and adornment of an automobile as somewhat irrelevant when ultimately the safety of traveling inside it—its chief function—is so arbitrary to its creation.
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Deciphering the most vile exchanges in this very funny film then become rather indiscernible to virtually irrelevant (though once decided could produce a means to exploring excess and its possible remedies). Everything is stacked atop itself like endless pancakes at your local iHop, producing layers upon layers of barbarism. I recall Moodysson’s heartbreaking extreme film from 2004, A Hole In My Heart often as I conjure up my thoughts on La Grande Bouffe. They are films that work in virtually opposite ways, Ferreri, as I’ve already said, works in satires and politics, while Moodysson works within a world of expressive emotive yearnings. A Hole in My Heart is unlike anything he’s done, the polar extreme of rawness his other films only meandered in for moments, or used as minimal atmosphere (by this I mean there is a certain rawness and depression to Lilya 4-ever, no doubt, but it never approaches the visual depravity and bleak bluntness of A Hole In My Heart). But every time I watch A Hole In My Heart, and surprisingly I’ve done it three times, amidst all the games of sexual dominance and utter personal destruction, it’s one small scene about half way through that painfully turns my head most. It’s the scene where the films core ensemble attempt to have dinner which quickly turns to holding each other down, shoving food into each others mouths (and other assorted orifices) eventually drawing the Tess character (played fearlessly by Sanna Bråding) to near blackout for lack of oxygen. It’s this violent impulse amidst a skewed normal sense of intake that characters put to themselves and those around them when a society becomes this detached from its real wishes and fulfillment. Ferreri at times is making a gleefully sardonic film, but he (and Moodysson definitely intends this) is at least as repulsed by what is on screen as any moral brigade challenger. Both artists are repulsed enough to offer urgent, modern films.
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Dessert, which you’d see as (the numerous) death(s) in this films story. Hopefully it’s something as least as garish and pointless as a multi-tiered wedding cake. Imagine implementing structural engineering to build a measly confection.
Has a famous, respected actor ever had a more nauseatingly self-effacing death than Michel Piccoli here? We get to look upon his soiled slacks, in all their glory (from behind of course) as he keels over like a proud patriarch and wheezes out. Cause of death: shitting. Oh, and the shit looks frighteningly similar to those baked beans that get hawked on television by a talking dog threatening to sell the family secret recipe (as if anyone would really be in the market to buy that shit). I’d like to double dog dare that dog to sell that secret, so he can get a refresher in how quickly he’d go from star commercial talent to just another pooch with sad eyes hoping to get adopted in three days so he doesn’t get gassed. That’d be the lesson, you screw with the hand that feeds you in this culture, and you get the biggest rug imaginable pulled from right under your furry ass.
Another apt metaphor; the hand that feeds you. Itself an implied power structure; someone above feeding those below, and the saying has a built in submissive quality. You’re supposed to never question those that provide you sustenance and life, no matter how unhealthy or destructive those meals, and lodgings are. Never feed yourself, and always feast hand to mouth without a care for yourself beyond today. Here I suppose, could be Ferreri’s epilogue: four men, who became the ‘hands that feed’, then, simultaneously, bit down hard.