Richard D. James Would Be Proud

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Violence Is Sexy

Although it had always been prevalent in cinema, violence was only becoming glorified and exploited in the early 1970s. As far back as 1903 the ending in The Great Train Robbery is that of a pistol barrel pointed at a viewer. Film noirs of the 30s, 40s, and 50s only took it to another, somewhat respectable level, while the shock-and-schlock horror films of that time slid to the opposite end of the spectrum.

The 60s, a time of radical change in the world, produced yet another breed of on-screen violence, by gradually throwing in sex, nudity and other easily identifiable exploitations to further muddy the waters. One sub-genre that was taking a firm hold of on-screen violence was the slasher film, proposing a dark reflection of society typically through one character’s actions on a number of characters who were staples or stereotypes of the rapidly evolving American and European societies.

Alfred Hitchcock was the director most notable in pioneering this sub-genre with his indelible mark on celluloid that is Psycho. But more importantly, it was little known films like The Toolbox Murders or Driller Killer which helped this burgeoning sub-genre explode into the onslaught of slasher films the 80s produced. Films like Friday the 13th maybe wouldn’t have been possible if not for the inspiration of ones like, say, Bloodbath.

There’s something intrinsically frightening to a society where only one individual is a threat. At the same time though, there’s something utterly captivating about an individual who could pose a threat to an entire society, and the 80s capitalized on this idea as well, spinning it off into Predator, Die Hard and Rambo, where one man stands as both savior and menace.

Generally, horror films appear in greatest amount during or after a time of war, so it’s conceivable that during a war such as that in Vietnam, where a society finds itself in an opinionated divide, the horror genre, always in flux, should begin to peak once again. Just look at the last seven or eight years.

In the late 60s films were trying to shape the way audiences perceived life, society — the world, and were subsequently slapped on the wrist while critically applauded (e.g. Midnight Cowboy). Gritty realism was in full swing during this time and was spilling into the early 70s, so much so one could almost feel the slime on the streets of New York (just read some of the the article below).

Politics of cinema were vastly changing during this tumultuous time, especially in the horror and drama genres; in fact, by the mid 80s horror (and its many sub-genres) would be the most produced (and rapidly produced, at that) films of any genre! 1971-72, I propose, was the catalyst for this horror film explosion, due to a concentrated collection of four films which were typically filtered out of being considered in the “horror film” genre.

Through the future articles on this blog Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) will be carefully (open to debate) dissected. Subsequent comparison of the parts to circulating ideals, morals and motifs of those years will show that society is reflected in horror films as an instrument of aversion; and therefore, this genre can thrive in times when society needs to reflect upon itself in order to find something, anything, which could be more frightening.

Gobbledigook

Sigur Rós have always been an eclectic band, but to go so far as recording an album in the states! Crazy! And produced by Flood? With words in English? Bizarre!

In the promo video for this obviously incomprehensibly titled Sigur Rós track (“Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do” anyone?) we find the band exploiting not those with gender confusion, post-apocalyptic existence or Down’s Syndrome, but instead nudism. A troupe of naked boys and girls flop around in various visual textures (water, leaves, dirt) while their exposed parts flop around with them. There is no overt explanation that I can find for this concept, but they seem to be running away from something off screen. Or maybe i’m just looking for a hidden meaning instead of acquiescing to the fact it’s likely just pure corporate promotional reasoning. Personally, I’d rather watch their earlier videos, but I have to admit I dig this track “Gobbledigook.” It reminds me of a lighter (read: less eclectic) Einstürzende Neubauten, and you can definitely pick out the Flood production traces. Check it out for yourself below.

Salò Rears Its Facist Head

There was a time when the last film ever made by Pier Paolo Pasolini was considered depraved and shocking. That time was the 70s. Then the film found its way onto DVD (no less a Criterion edition) during the 90s. After a brief run of DVDs, Criterion lost the rights to the film and the disc went out of print. Once again, the film became depraved and shocking, but also rare and collectible! Bootlegs abounded and people were selling factory-wrapped editions for upwards of $1,000.

And as if that weren’t fascism in a juvenile form itself, Criterion not only restored the film (in all its vile glory), but is now re-releasing the film in an edition chock full with special features on the making and history of the film. What’s next, a Blu-ray edition to promote their new line? As a long time patron of Criterion, with over 400 of their DVDs alone in my collection, I have to admit, it irks me the way they re-issue their films so much.

I find it interesting as well that the DVD (which people were previously ready to pay one month’s rent for) is now retailing for $39.95, when if you stop and think about it, Criterion probably could have just made a Special Collector’s Limited Edition Numbered Box Set complete with a door-size poster, 5 full color lobby cards, a film cell from an original print and a maybe a replica of the infamous final scene’s binoculars with which to watch the 120th day of sodom safe in your non-BDSM living room. Had they went this route, I bet they could retail ’em at like $999.95 and still make a profit.

Grindhouse

Before I heard that the Weinstein’s wanted to separate the conjoined filmic twins that are Death Proof and Planet Terror, I had almost forgotten I’d even saw and thoroughly enjoyed the exploitation opus. But to split the children up and take them away from their parent? For shame. The whole idea behind Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature was to bring back the advent of the grindhouse theater.

A grindhouse theater was generally the name for a badly run theater which played numerous low budget, B-movie or exploitation films in such copious amounts and so often, that they were said to “grind” out of the projectors. Most famously found in New York City or Los Angeles, these theaters are (according to both directors) where they grew up, other than the drive-in theaters.

So, little explanation is needed to realize that Tarantino and Rodriguez’s idea for this film, was one of completion, even going so far as to fill the space between both films with fake trailers for horrific goodies such as “Werewolf Women of S.S.,” “Don’t,” and a fake commercial for the chicken restaurant down the street from the theater. Without the experience of watching these films as a double feature, the films themselves would be too disposable in the haphazard cinema of today.

Death Proof in the grand scheme of things really cannot be removed from this film because, unless Tarantino re-edits it, the pace is too meandering to be a palpable audience pleaser. There’s a nice payoff at the end, but the wait for it would be too long for an audience which only sat down thirty minutes ago, however, within the roomy confines of a three hour feature, it offers a great come-down from the preceding kill-fest Planet Terror.


Planet Terror
is the real “grindhouse” throwback here though, with its Hollywood actor cameos, excessive gore, dopey end-of-the-world plot, unusual-but-hip love story, stylized comedy and great use of distressed film stock. Rodriguez’s Terror could almost be cut from the same cloth as many of the late seventies, early eighties horror flicks which became so coveted during that time. But Tarantino’s entry with Death Proof is an important dissertation on women in exploitation films around about that same time.


There were a large number of exploitation films that tried to be serious or realistic. Likely inspired by the cinema of the time, largely handheld, avant-garde, gritty and realistic, these exploitative films just went the extra mile. Some were steeped in story and dialogue, losing all hope for being truly crowd pleasers even with the sporadic jaunts of sex or violence. Tarantino’s film takes the best of those and rolls them into one with his jazzy blend of Reservoir Dogs roundtable dialog, shifty chapter-like narrative, and blunt, plausible, ultra-violence.

Bottom line: See these films together, or don’t see them at all.

El Topo

I was told the word “el topo” in the Spanish language translates to “the crazy,” and after seeing the 1970 film El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky, I believed this translation was correct. However, after careful research I have discovered 1.) I have a friend who either lies or doesn’t know as much Spanish as he thinks and, 2.) “el topo” actually translates to “the mole.”


While a title like “The Crazy” would have been very fitting, I can also understand the reasoning behind the fable-like title of “The Mole.” If the (supposedly) lone gunman all clad in black and traveling through the desert in a spiral path is not the first giveaway, there’s always the more obvious association, when the gunman buries himself in the thick, hot sand of the desert plains. However, it is also said the film’s name was due to the way such underground films in the late 60s and early 70s were finding their way to the surface and becoming commodities. Although somehow I believe this may have been a post-interpretation of the title.

This film became popular (if one can call it that) after its initial underground release, but when one Beatles’ member (namely John Lennon) watched this film for the first time, he loved it so much that he encouraged businessman Allen Klein to buy the rights to the film and distribute it. Allen Klein’s company (ABKCO) was primarily intended to distribute records, and there is much debate over the motive behind Klein’s ownership of many recordings and especially of this film. The story even goes that due to a dispute between ABKCO and the filmmaker Jodorowsky, the film never received distribution until just this year.

Now a deemed cult classic, El Topo is anything but refined Hollywood filmmaking, yet still holds water with the best of today’s independent cinema. While most stories today take more straightforward narrative approaches, there are still filmmakers striving to append to the genre Jodorowsky fits in. Take a look at Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog, Elias Merhige, and even Gus Van Sant.

Definitely not a film for everyone, the intent is for viewers to take their own meanings from films like this. I couldn’t help but draw conclusions to the Vietnam war throughout this film, most assuredly at the end when the “reincarnated” mole sets himself on fire much in the tradition of Buddhist monks in protest of the Vietnam war (most famously, the one who did this directly outside the US Embassy circa 1963). In fact it almost seemed kind of a rip-off of that associated press imagery that everyone now knows thanks to not only the media, but more recently the rock band Rage Against the Machine.

The mole is on a quest for enlightenment (get it?), and during this quest he encounters four “masters” of who each he will have a duel with. The mole generally cheats during these duels, and thereby wins, but the last “master” commits suicide before the mole gets a chance to duel with him (is this a statement to the banality of dueling?) I have read many interpretations of this film which call it a Biblical allegory; however, I don’t buy into this interpretation, because it’s too simplistic. Everything in art (and especially surrealistic art) seems to always be interpreting or alluding to some type of religious icon. That’s too easy. Jodorowsky was certainly into the religious iconography, but I do not believe that he was trying to allude to the Old or New Testament here intentionally.

War is what this film is about, and the banality and vanity of it. Atrocity is something we are faced with in the first few shots of the film, and along with a disjointed soundtrack, this makes for a film that is meant to keep us annoyed, even edgy but still interested at all times, much like following the day-to-day reports of a war through the media. The “masters” appear to be no more than various types of politicians, and the razed town that he encounters at the beginning feels too much like it may have been a town he was familiar with at one time. In this way the film could almost be a story of revenge in which the viewer is just not fully aware of the mole’s ulterior motives. We are let on at the beginning that the mole at one time did have a wife, who is now dead (as his young son buries her picture with his stuffed animal). His wife was also a mother to the young son which the mole eventually leaves with monks at the onset of the story. Was his wife killed by the outlaws that massacred everyone in this desert town? Does he leave his son with the monks because he plans to seek his revenge on the killers?

For me the imagery in the film is what’s most striking, and the soundtrack has a quality not unlike another cult classic Eraserhead. I believe Jodorowsky, in the grand tradition of other primarily surrealistic filmmakers, was simply trying to shock and appall audiences in 1970. But unlike the Luis Buñuel’s of the filmic world, whose surrealism is not nearly as simplified, but more convoluted and oftentimes more of an examination of religion, Jodorowsky examines the advent of war, by stripping down its main players (the politicians, high-ranking military officials, middle class promoters and innocent by-standers), and dissecting it for signs of a catalyst, purpose and realistic resolution.

Black Snake Moan

In the 1970s exploitation films seemed to take hold of America (maybe even Europe) by surprise. In today’s cinema we don’t often see the exploitation film as a genre-defined “exploitation film,” but rather a “summer movie” or “teen movie.” Unless it’s marketed as being exploitative (i.e. a Tarantino film), this genre is primarily defunct. Until now.

I believe that director Craig Brewer has brought to audiences the first true exploitation film in a long while. Not since the early 80s have I seen anything quite like Black Snake Moan, and honestly, I only hope I can see some more. I think this is an exceptional sign-of-the-times, mainly because a large part of the catalyst to exploitation films becoming so rampant and even popular in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, was the declining state of affairs in the nation and the general wanton outlook of cinema’s primary seat-filling audiences: the youth (a.k.a. the next generation). So have we come full circle?


If Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, had of just been a little scratched on a few frames, or dusty throughout the entire negative, or even missing a scene or two, it would have been a direct throwback to the 1970s exploitation genre.

Black Snake Moan is a film that while taking itself very seriously, also panders to the viewer without remorse. Take for example, the fact that Christina Ricci’s character is a nymphomaniac. At times we are made to feel distaste for her character by the way she knowingly and excitedly flaunts herself through the town, and writhes around immediately after her “steady” boyfriend leaves her to join the war. Then at other times we are made to feel a sorrow or pity for her, finding out the potential root cause(s) for why she has become the way she is, and we are forced to endure her painful flashbacks which consequently ail her now.

Similarly, there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character who with Biblical name and all, pledges to “cure [her] of [her] wickedness,” and we appreciate the fact that he’s a seemingly harmless individual who wants nothing but to help this young woman. However, he leaves her chained to the radiator (the one thing his freshly estranged wife hated the most about their drafty old house) in nothing but a strategically ripped sweatshirt and a pair of white panties. Not to mention he feels the need to bathe her.

So, in typical exploitative fashion, this movie toys with every fiber of decency we choose to acknowledge in ourselves, it wants us to feel conflicted about it, and thereby begs the question, who in this world (or film, anyway) really does anything out of pure, un-ulterior motivated decency? Brewer has shown in the few films that he’s made that he has a special knack for being able to show raw sides of life, the internal conflicts in human beings, and their everyday motivations, all while still producing feature films that are hip, edgy and marketable. That’s the reason to watch Black Snake Moan, and mark my words; this is the beginning of a new era of cinema.