When I’m at home, which is most nights, I generally like to spend a couple of hours watching movies. This is my personal compromise between needing something to do when I am too tired to read or write, and wanting to avoid the absolutely mind-wrecking shitstorm of what’s available on TV. (Also, since moving to a location below Mount Royal, in the shadow of various skyscrapers, the quality of my television reception has been brutally reduced. Yes, I still watch TV that arrives for free from ‘signals’ in the ‘air’, as opposed to what is piped in via cable for a hefty fee.) Lately I’ve been trying to cut my screen time down by getting stoned and lying around listening to music instead, but there can be no denying the powerful attraction a filmic voyage can have on my imagination.
WHY READ WHEN YOU CAN WATCH THE MOVIE VERSION?
As a writer, I’m a sucker for a good documentary on a literary figure or movement. Lately I’ve had the opportunity to see quite a few new ones, and have seen some good old ones for the first time as well. Unfortunately I had to work when Image/Nation screened Who Is Afraid Of Kathy Acker, Barbara Caspar’s documentary, and I have yet to find a DVD copy of it. But Dream of Life, the Patti Smith documentary ran at Cinema du Parc last fall, and is a definitive and very intimate film about the rock poet icon. Seeing this film was the latest in a daisy chain of Patti events in my life which started when I went to her two Pop Montreal concerts in October 2007. Following that, I picked up her latest book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence … then, stumbled upon her delerium-inducing Complete lyrics / photo book at that remaindered books place in the Faubourg (purchased at a huge saving!!) … then got her two-CD poetry performance of The Coral Sea recorded with Kevin Shields … not to mention other bits and bites, like finding her Giorno System poetry tracks at UbuWeb, checking out a 1978 performance of ‘Because The Night’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test DVD, her silly / charming interview on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder from the same year …
Dream of Life has a real cohesiveness to it because the director, Steven Sebring, had unprecedented access to Patti Smith for about a decade. Basically he was part of her gang, being a fly on the wall and filming filming filming until finally Patti put her foot down and said, “Finish the film!” I can understand the temptation to just keep filming forever, I mean, if it meant you could hang out with Patti Smith … and it is his beautiful footage that makes up most of the film – there’s very little archival footage from the 70s, for instance. Instead, the story of Patti Smith is told through anecdotes, location tours, reminisces by Patti and various friends, and still photos from childhood on up. This helps to bring what is really an extraordinary story down to earth and makes it real for the viewer. There’s little mythologizing going on in Dream of Life – there’s no need for it …
Which is where Patti Smith In Review (Chrome Dreams 2007) fails utterly. Well, it’s one of those docs where they bring in a whole bunch of ‘rock journalists’ like Robert Christgau to pontificate on her importance, and while some of them get some things right, others seem to emit howlers every time they open their mouth – leaving the viewer wondering why they were ever consulted in the first place. At several points in the film, it’s as if the producers were so concerned with promoting some notion of Patti Smith’s ‘originality’ and great rock significance that they completely missed the most obvious things. For instance, two huge influences are never discussed in any detail – that of Jim Morrison and The Velvet Underground / Lou Reed. It isn’t like Patti Smith has ever tried to hide these influences – rather, she wears them proudly. She has never pretended to be some kind of Rock Athena springing wholly-formed from the bulging brow of Rock Zeus … yet the ‘experts’ kept blathering on about the ‘wholly unprecedented’ and ‘utterly original’ ‘Birdland’ and ‘Gloria’ – never once making mention of the clear connection to Doors tracks like ‘The End’ and ‘When The Music’s Over’. Or what about The Velvet’s avowed intent to deliver what was essentially a literary form over a musical soundtrack? Like, duh!
But Patti Smith In Review does have something that Dream of Life lacks – there’s tons of vintage clips from various concerts, television interviews and the like.
Another eye-opening literary doc is Gonzo: The Life & Works of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, directed by Alex Gibney. Now, Thompson fell off my radar quite a long time ago, but back in the early eighties, when I was gobbling as much acid as I could lay my hands on, he was certainly one of my heroes. And yet I don’t think I really understood why he was my hero, then … I just liked the idea of any adult being that out-of-control and still getting paid to do what he was doing. The early eighties, when the waning glow of the setting sun of sixties radicalism was still visible (if you were stoned enough), and the looming Eclipse of Hope aka Reagan / Thatcher was not yet all-consuming … I actually had a chance to scope out Hunter Thompson in March of 1983, when he deigned to make an appearance at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He didn’t deliver a talk – he sat at a table, drank scotch, and fielded questions from a packed auditorium of rabid fans for a couple of hours. I wish I could tell you more, but I was so high on mushrooms, it was all I could do to just stay in my seat and not start turning cartwheels around the room …
Anyway. The film confirms all the salient portions of the Thompson legend. His tremendous capacity for drugs and liquor. His idiotic fascination with firearms and other Hemingwayesque masculinist tropes – like misogyny, like just generally freaking people out of their minds with elaborate head trips. His foray into electoral politics when he ran for Sheriff – that’s right, Sheriff! – in Aspen on the ‘Freak’ ticket … certainly a precedent was set for future Gonzo politicos like Jello Biafra (who ran for mayor in San Francisco). His prescient deconstruction of the corrupt and corrupting American political realm, as refracted through Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and his clear-eyed comprehension of the soul of Richard Nixon seems, in the film, almost to prophetically foresee the Watergate revelations. What I was most impressed by, though, was the weird fact that Thompson discovered an obscure Georgia peanut farmer turned truth-telling Democrat politician back in 1974, and insisted on writing a cover piece about him for The Rolling Stone … thereby propelling Jimmy Carter into the American National Consciousness and, in 1976, the presidency.
The last book by Thompson I read was Generation of Swine, a collection of directionless rants from the 80s, after he’d definitely hit the skids as a journalist and writer. Like many casualties of the American cultural meatgrinder, Thompson didn’t know how to handle the huge fame that came his way after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So he kind of imploded. At least that’s what the film seems to say … check this one out, I ‘highly’ recommend it.
I’ve been making my way through any number of ‘Beat’-related films … documentary titles include the 1997 Ginsberg biography No More To Say & Nothing To Weep For by Colin Still, featuring the ubiquitous Patti Smith delivering an elegiac poem on Allen Ginsberg’s passing, and Constanzo Allione’s Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds. The 1978 film documents a summer session at the very new Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, featuring just about everybody from the founders, ebullient Ginsberg and hyperkinetic Anne Waldman, to an irascible Burroughs, poised Diane DiPrima, puckish Gregory Corso, hilarious Peter Orlovsky … Allione’s film has stood the test of time and is a pretty sweet document of a very brave and hopeful time in American cultural history. I also watched the completely cutting-edge short films of Anthony Balch with Burroughs, Gysin and Somerville from the early sixties … and, as a low point, a painfully stiff feature based on Burroughs’ accidental shooting of his wife June, called Beat (2000), starring a very lost-seeming Kiefer Sutherland, and Courtney Love as June! This is certainly a story that deserves cinematic treatment, but it would help if the scriptwriters actually brought some insight to the events.
The 1969 Sel de la semaine episode featuring Henry Miller speaking his Bronx-accented French for an hour is pretty good, although there were no grand revelations that I could detect … the DVD version of Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen, the 1964 NFB film by Donald Brittain and Don Owen, includes four Cohen-related shorts by other directors, but you won’t be able to find them unless you watch the main film first, because there’s no way to access their menu otherwise (at least not that I could figure out). The three sixties-era short films – ‘A Kite Is A Victim’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Poen’ – are well worth watching, but the cheezy 80s cartoon version of ‘I’m Your Man’ is ultra-painfully bad.
There’s also a DVD available of Jean Genet’s one and only foray as a film director, which resulted in the silent, black and white short Un chant d’amour (1950). It’s a beautiful film, and really, the fact that it exists at all staggers my imagination – almost as much as the mere existence of Balch’s early sixties cut-up experiments. Today, despite being in black-and-white, with no sound or dodgy sound, these films come across as absolutely contemporary. As if their authors had seen through and utterly rejected their own milieus, choosing instead to project themselves forward into some less terrible time … the Genet DVD comes with a 1981 documentary by Antoine Bourseiller, and an incendiary 1982 interview of Genet by Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, in which Genet mercilessly attacks and flogs the middle class (in the incarnation of Poirot-Delpech), while Poirot-Delpech responds in the most supercilious and sneering manner possible.
A second viewing of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Querelle (1982) was decidedly less off-putting than my first viewing … maybe because I tuned into the campy humour of the film this time around. I also plowed through the box set of Fassbinder’s television adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on the novel by Alfred Döblin. I thought that Fassbinder didn’t seem to really ‘get’ the author’s original intent, which was to demonstrate the modern German’s helplessness in the face of a growing deluge of advertisements, propaganda and media of various ‘spins’. Instead, Fassbinder was more intent on the play of violence in a society such as Weimar Germany, where citizens are set at each other’s throats by scarcity and repression. Over the course of thirteen episodes it all seems a little overdone – how many flashbacks of a brutal domestic homicide must we see before Fassbinder will think we’ve ‘got’ it? But some things he gets very well – such as the protagonist’s dunderheaded loyalty to the scumbags who have ruined his life. You think this can’t happen in real life? Check out the current banking crisis in the States, and its ‘solution’.
The most impressive aspect of Fassbinder’s television series is that it exists at all – that it was not some underground gem, like Genet’s film, rarely seen and only clandestinely screened. No, Berlin Alexanderplatz was a TV series, running on a mainstream German television network at around the same time that North American audiences were ‘enjoying’ such cutting-edge, incisive social commentaries as The Love Boat and Dallas. (The wild experimental phase of socially-progressive television in the States in the seventies, which spawned All In The Family, Good Times!, Kung Fu and M*A*S*H – and which helped shape my political and moral views – was definitely over.) Certainly Berlin Alexanderplatz went over like a lead balloon with Mr. and Mrs. Deutsche-average – but at least it was made available to them. North American audiences, meanwhile, were treated like lunkheads, which perhaps partially explains why, a quarter of a century later, they would lunk-headedly keep voting for someone like George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Germany has the most advanced ‘green technology’ industry on the planet. It’s a powerful argument for the education of the masses, if we’re to stand any chance of surviving this century.
… AND THEN SHE BIT ME
My fascination with vampires in nothing special. It’s a fairly widespread phenomenon these days, what with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Anne Rice and all that goth stuff. I got into vampires early, with such classics as the many and various Christopher Lee Hammer Horror vampire films, and Mario Bava’s 1965 cheapo classic Planet of the Vampires. I picked up a video copy of this latter film at the Chainons thrift store not very long ago, and upon re-viewing it I was astonished by the plot parallels with the much bigger-budget Alien (1979). I also recall carrying on an intense discussion of the film with my eight year old friend as we walked home from the movie theatre. As I recall, the conversation focused on the scene – it only lasts a split-second – where one animated corpse reveals a decayed, blood-encrusted rib cage beneath his smock. “That was so cool!” Etc.
It seems obvious to state it, but I’ll state it anyway – the fascination with vampires is simply a subset of all humanity’s ongoing fascination with the mysteries of death. The vampire embodies the amorphous, devouring nothingness of death – that non-being which, paradoxically, stalks us all through our lives, and which will eventually, inevitably defeat us in our individual struggle to exist. The vampire, like all demons, brings the active life-principle to death – personifies it as Death. This is what makes the supernatural so uncanny – this impossible melding of life with that which is anathema to life. And it isn’t just the supernatural that partakes of this quality – think of deadly viruses, invading and occupying living cells. Think of carnivorous beasts. We shiver at the thought of a vampire’s teeth in our neck, perhaps recalling atavistically the crunch of the wolf’s jaws.
Recently I’ve watched several films that portray specifically female vampires. While the classic vampire story Dracula had a strongly sexual element – the male monster corrupting and consuming innocent virgins – these more recent explorations of the female vampire seriously complicates the usual formula. Of course my favourite vampire film of long standing, Abel Ferrera’s The Addiction (1994) stars Lili Taylor as a brilliant, sharp-tongued New York City philosophy student whose induction into vampirism serves as a metaphor for her helplessness against and complicity with Evil in modern society. It’s beautifully shot in high contrast black and white, shadows and light reminiscent of the best of Ingmar Bergman’s earlier films. Taylor’s acting is particularly fine – clearly she relishes the role. Christopher Walken also turns in one of his best performances as a sort of Elder Vampire. The hunting and killing scenes will satisfy the most demanding of gore lovers. The only problem with the whole film is the resolution, which posits Catholicism – or some form of Christianity – as the only path out of the darkness. Okay, sure, it’s a vampire movie, and the tradition of the vampire story generally posits the creatures of the night against ‘the light’ of Jesus … but after the rather well-played arguments around existential angst, and especially in the urban setting of New York, it just seems facile.
When I picked up Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito (2005) at the library, I was nervous. I’d recently viewed Takeshi Miike’s Gozu (2003) from the same source, and it left me wondering if Japanese horror is just too gung-ho for my tastes. Ostensibly a ghost story, Gozu turned out to be sicko misogynistic torture porn reminiscent of those Canadian-produced Ilsa movies of the late seventies. Whatever my own sadomasochistic proclivities might be, they recoil from such out-front sickishness – no no, Nanette, I’m much too refined for such rotten, stinking meat. Fortunately Marebito, while deeply disturbing, did not revolve around this basic body-pain and dismemberment fantasy that seems to have such a deep attraction to so many people these days. See Saw I through Infinity for details …
Shimizu, director of the original Japanese version of The Grudge as well as the American re-make, has other, much more disturbing fish to fry. In Marebito, the protagonist is Masuoka, a typical Lovecraftian character … a recluse with a deep attraction to ‘the dark side’ – reading moldering old texts, consorting with demons known as ‘Dero’, muttering to himself, that sort of guy. Shimizu brilliantly works this New England formula into the ultramodern Japanese city, as said hero, in search of the very source of fear, eventually follows his nose down into the bowels of the city. Into basement and sub-basement of highrise, and then into subterranean steam plants, tunnels, finally into forgotten passages from centuries past, where – chained by her ankle in a sort of brick-lined grotto – he finds the love of his life. And this character, dubbed ‘F’ by Masuoka, is the real piece de resistance of the film. Like many such vampire flicks, of course the mortal guy falls for the vampire girl – but in this case it is a truly horrific love, as ‘F’ displays virtually no human characteristics at all. Rather, she’s like a nightmarish cross between a helpless baby and a wild carnivorous beast.
The film follows the protagonist’s descent into total madness – because what else could possibly result from forming an attachment with a supernatural being that drinks the blood of humans to live? Over the course of time, as he serves her needs by murdering people and draining the corpses, feeding his beloved with baby bottles full of blood, there is even a transference of the spark of humanity itself. By the end, he has become an automaton, while she has mastered the art of walking erect, and using a computer.
At first blush, Marebito seems almost too basic a horror story to yield any of the philosophical fuel of The Addiction. While watching it, what occurred to me, over and over again, was the purely symbolic character of the horror. Here, the stereotypical image of Asian woman as sweet, passive, obedient to male wishes, is not reversed so much as pushed far past its normal boundaries, to the point where it implodes in upon itself. The vampire woman of Marebito is passivity incarnate – if not for its appetite for blood, presumeably ‘F’ would never stir from its lair at all. The Asian male stereotype – inarticulate, incapable of expressing emotion, sexually repressed – is it full force with the protagonist, and it is his insane, aching need for contact with his beloved monster that causes him to further and further degrade himself in service to her appetite.
After seeing Marebito, Thomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) comes across as little more than a cute boy-meets-girl vampire fable. The problem with Eli, the vampire character in this film, is that she is not monstrous at all – this, despite the fact that she regularly slaughters random victims and feasts on their blood. The basic plot device of Let The Right One In is that the vampire is simply a young girl who happens to be a vampire … there’s nothing fundamental about her vampirism, it’s merely an affliction, a tragedy, as if she were, say, a thirteen year old girl infected with HIV. This is made clear by her attachment to Oskar, the lonely mortal boy, whose incipient violence and frustration with bullying classmates endears him to her. In a sense, Let The Right One In destroys the Evil / Good opposition implicit in traditional vampire narratives. While it still deploys certain outward signs of The Vampire – sensitivity to light, lust for blood, superhuman strength – it seems to say that even a vampire can have a heart of gold, even a vampire can have typically human feelings of love and friendship.
As a chaser to my female vampire blood feast, I watched Carl Theodore Dreyer’s first ‘talkie’, Vampyr (1932). Apparently it was his attempt to produce a ‘popular’ film after Joan of Arc flopped at the box office, but its sheer obscurity and artiness condemned it to even greater commercial failure, and Dreyer didn’t make another film for nigh on a decade. In Dreyer’s story, we are propelled back to the classic notion of the vampire as Evil Incarnate. Again, the vampire is a woman, but there is no toying with (or wallowing in) vampire as sexy siren. In Vampyr she is a very old woman, and a grumpy old demon at that! Shrieking and yelling for all she’s worth, waving around her cane like everybody’s nightmare landlady …
Dreyer’s film is suffused with a dreamlike melancholy, a filmic fog where the characters wander in hopeless confusion as Evil enfolds them one by one … Despite Dreyer’s efforts to the contrary, I think the greatest attraction of the female vampire figure remains its aura of transgressive sexuality. It isn’t an entirely negative role – the female vampire is empowered, certainly, endowed with supernatural strength and will. She wrecks the traditional mythic character of the female as nurturing, as a life force, and instead channels male desire into a horrific cul-de-sac where the victim is destroyed, body and soul. The attraction of the female vampire as filmic icon is precisely this – it explores the possibility of the female embodiment of Evil. She is precisely the Shadow every man fears even as he is falling in love. But of course, unless the female vampire finds her inner niceness, like the heroine of Let The Right One In, she will always be alone, isolated by her appetites, surrounded by nothing but shadows of her own will, and mortal slaves to her supernatural powers.
One interesting probe into the psychological fall-out of female sexual agency versus male expectations is Peter Watkins’ 1976 biopic Edvard Munch. I can’t speak to the accuracy of Watkins’ intense, three hour portrayal of Munch – I’m not exactly an art historian – but it’s a fascinating exploration of the artist’s tortured sexual relationships. The primary relationship is between the young, impressionable Munch and a somewhat older married woman, Karen Bjølstad. They become acquainted as two members of an avante-garde coterie of Norway’s artistic demi-monde in Christiana, who gather round Hans Jaeger, a compelling anarchist theoretician and novelist. It is his concept of the supremacy of emotion and of free love between individuals that allows Munch and Bjølstad to engage one another in the first place, but while the intellectual concept serves Bjølstad’s requirements well enough, it proves inadequate to the boiling maelstrom of male jealousy that engulfs Munch. Rather, his violent emotions concerning the insouciance of his beloved – who carries on any number of other affairs outside her staid bourgeois marriage – fold into the generally morbid character of Munch’s upbringing. In his art, his portrayals of women evolve from the melancholy but loving portrait of a beloved sister who died of consumption, to increasingly inhuman, monstrous female figures, exemplified by the painting that became known as Vampire. A woman bends over a supine man, her mouth on the back of his neck …
A FEW MORE OF THE BILLIONS OF FILMS I’VE WATCHED IN THE LAST YEAR …
I was so impressed by Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biofantasy I’m Not There, I watched it for a second time only a few weeks after my first viewing. I watched it on the level of a long, elaborate music video – a sort of filmic love letter to Dylan’s genius. It’s enjoyable as a series of stunning and astonishing images, too. I’m not a big fan of the rest of Todd Haynes’ output after Safe, really, but this film is great.
Frankly, the pairing of director Catherine Breillat with actor / film-maker Asia Argento should’ve generated a lot more heat than is found in Une Vieille maitresse (2007). But it’s not all bad – Breillat quietly subverts the usual bodice-ripper plot, as her sympathies clearly lie with the raven-haired ‘bad girl’ who can’t help capturing a young aristocrat’s desire. Repeatedly. Unfortunately the plot is too long and almost too conventional for either actor or director to work with. Plenty of gorgeous costumes, settings and sex, though.
Two-Lane Blacktop, directed by American B-movie master Monte Hellman (1971) is one of those films I picked up at the library solely because it was released by the Criterion Collection. It’s just another sumptously shot black and white American masterpiece, that’s all. If you like the moody pace and panoramic eye of Terence Malick, the mythology of hot rod road races and nearly silent men of action (and the runaway teenage girls who love ‘em), the vast landscapes of the southwestern USA, check this one out.
Purely random curiosity about Diane Arbus led me to a 1972 documentary by John Musilli. Going Where I’ve Never Been: The Photography of Diane Arbus is freighted with the artist’s recent death by suicide; it’s a good start but I’ll have to look farther afield for a more indepth documentary, or else delve into her biography.
The surreal classics Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age D’Or (1930) are simply ageless and beautiful to look at, not to mention howlingly funny. Luis Bunuel co-directed the first film with Salvador Dali, and was the sole director of the second. There’s an interesting bonus interview with Bunuel’s son Juan Luis Bunuel about his father’s working relationship with Dali on Un Chien Andalou, and their subsequent falling-out when Bunuel became fed up with Dali’s willingness to cowtow to Spain’s fascist elite.