This dossier brings together a collection of articles on a number of filmmakers and filmmaking practices a little beyond Senses of Cinema’s typical focus. This serves as an introduction to and consideration of figures including Bruce LaBruce, Usama Alshaibi, Jamaa Fanaka, Crispin Glover, Roberta Findlay, John Waters, New York based No Wave feminist filmmakers and directors involved in the American ‘Hardcore Horror’ movement.
Collaborating on an interstate editing process necessitated a large amount of email communication, and it was agreed that any introduction or editorial stance should be collaborated on through these communications. What follows is an edited exchange between the editors exploring their personal interest in extreme cinema, their writing of extreme cinema and the following dossier.
Jack Sargeant: I’ve just come back from the Chicago Underground Film Festival, where they have Bar Talks, which feature people discussing various topics around underground and (arguably) independent film. I sat on three of these discussions, one on the changes in the underground since the festival started 23 years ago, one on surrealism and underground film and on beauty. Obviously all topics that emerge from my books, and are especially my most recent book Flesh and Excess On Underground Film (published by Amok Books). The second two discussions (surrealism and beauty) both struck me as exceptionally important to the topics of this edition of Senses of Cinema, because both strike me as offering the potential for exceptionally visceral responses.
I’ve been fascinated with Georges Bataille’s dissident surrealism for many years, and especially the interest he and those around him shared in the base elements and the heterogeneous, and the visceral possibilities of the slaughterhouse, the writings of De Sade, bodily fluids, and so on. These strike me as a key element to the formations of extreme cinema, which perhaps begins with the knife on the eyeball in Buñuel and Dali’s film. It was interesting to me that these areas, given the discussions I participated in and this issue, still seems so pertinent in thinking about cinema.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: There’s so much going on here in terms of extreme cinema as you say, Jack – underground film cultures (both in terms of reception and creation) of course figure in often explicit ways with the kind of cinema we’re interested in looking at here, but I agree wholeheartedly that both surrealism and beauty are just as integral. The legacy of the eye-violence so famously associated with Un Chien Andalou manifests in later European extreme cinema in particular, I think most immediately of the films of Lucio Fulci, but also of course the ‘origin story’ behind the iconic eyepatch in Bo Arne Vibeneus’s They Call Her One Eye – so much of the controversy around that scene relied on a conscious quarantining of the extreme violence in the (lowbrow) rape-revenge film from the (highbrow) art cinema of Dali and Bunuel. But I would argue – and I am sure I am not alone – that They Call Her One Eye is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful in an aesthetic sense (and simultaneously conceptually ‘ugly’) rape-revenge films ever made. As, I think, are many US rape-revenge films: Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) offering a key example. I wrote a book on rape-revenge film in 2011, and was surprised at how many critics tend to consider it uniquely an American phenomenon, even though its history is broadly international. In relation to this dossier, Jack, I’m wondering if there is a particular kind of approach or aesthetic or underlying conceptual mantra that you would dare to draw across American extreme cinema? Or is it – like I see rape-revenge – marked precisely by its diversity and contradictions?
Jack: In terms of some of the underground and independent filmmakers I am drawn to, there seems to be more of a space to operate without restrictions regarding narrative structure and representation, boundaries that perhaps define too much mainstream cinema, but that can be crossed in other forms of cinema. To bring it specifically to manifestations of an extreme cinema, I think an extreme cinema embraces a corporality, but it does more than this, it relates to how that visceral sense of the body (or the body under assault) is created and aestheticised within the individual works.
But, to finally address your question. I find the idea of a single aesthetic strategy or device to be problematic, and there is, as you allude to I think, a plurality of manifestations that are diverse and contradictory. I think that if there was only one aesthetic of extreme cinema it would rapidly become conservative and ‘safe’, and by extension could no longer be read as extreme because of an overfamiliarity. The essence of extreme cinema, to me, is that it changes, mutates and multiplies, spinning out into different ideas. Of course, I use the word spinning deliberately for its web-like implications.
Alexandra: I love this emphasis on its volatility – not just of content, but of form. We see that across a lot of the works we focus on in this dossier: while they generally hover around the lower budget production contexts of course, there are a remarkable range of aesthetics on display. For example, Crispin Glover, Roberta Findlay and Fred Vogel would be very difficult filmmakers to comfortably position under the same stylistic umbrella (and thematic, for that matter!). My experience of extreme cinema certainly pertains precisely to your idea of mutation here, and a loose category that relies in many ways both literal and poetic on a bleeding outwards, a kind of aesthetic and conceptual seepage. Extreme cinema is about a “frenzy of the visible,” sure, but I think it goes much further than merely showing for showings sake: it calls into question all the cultural baggage we bring to notions of taste, acceptability, legitimacy, etc.
Jack: I’m interested that you evoke the rape-revenge genre and the notion of the ‘real’ both of which strike me as areas that debates on extreme cinema frequently go to – by which I mean the representation of specific kinds of brutality and often sexual violence and the belief in, or the marketing of a film as, somehow authentic. Of course this urge for authenticity and seeing the ‘most extreme’ manifestations of violence can be found in the tag line for Last House on the Left which stated: “to avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie”. So even linguistically the marketing of the film plays on these elements of authenticity, the visceral and the affect associated with extreme imagery as manifested in this instance through the process of fainting (not the only response – vomiting, nausea, screaming and so on are also evoked by extreme cinema).
Alexandra: Rape-revenge is a useful point of reference to begin thinking through extreme cinema because it so aggressively privileges the intersection of sex and violence, and this question of the ‘real’ underscores much of the experience of watching these kinds of movies. In 2004, I saw the uncut version of I Spit on Your Grave at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, just after it had (finally) been removed from the ‘denied classification’ list that had seen it effectively banned here. Professor Angela Ndalianis from the University of Melbourne introduced it, and I remember feeling almost like I’d been struck by lightning with one observation she made of that gruelling 25-minute rape scene: that it looked like it had been filmed by someone who had dropped the camera on a paint can in the corner of the room and let it roll. In films like this and Last House on the Left, sure, we’re dealing with low budget filmmaking, but it’s so much more than that. Films like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left are certainly extreme, but they are still very different movies to something like – say – the films of Bruce LaBruce. What they all share for me at least is a kind of presence, immediacy and real urgency, quite unlike any other kinds of cinema experience.
Extreme cinema – especially North American instances – always bring me back to this great John Landis quote from Adam Simon’s documentary The American Nightmare (2001):
When you are watching a Hitchcock movie and you are in suspense, you are in suspense as a direct result of being in the hands of a master: a master craftsman who is manipulating the image in a way to lead you where he wants you to go. And I think that’s a kind of comfortable scary feeling, whereas in some of the film’s were talking about … the people making the movie are untrustworthy. …You’re watching it and you’re not in the hands of a master, you’re in the hands of a maniac.
This applies not only to horror but all kinds of extreme cinema – this issue of trust is absolutely fundamental to the experience. I would argue that there are absolutely extreme filmmakers who are “master craftsmen” (and, of course, master craftswomen), many of who we cover in this dossier. But that feeling of not knowing where you will be taken is extraordinarily powerful, and it is probably the reason I return to this kind of cinema time and time again with the same intensity and fascination.
Jack: There are several points you make that I find both interesting and problematic about the writing of extreme cinema in a context such as this dossier, and in relation to the notion of the kinds of extreme cinema being evoked. While I agree that some filmmakers can be seen as ‘masters’ (as you put it), I also feel that the term ‘master’ is loaded, and many filmmakers who have been exiled from even the alternative cannon create works that are essential, (and may only create one or two movies then never work again). Fundamentally I have always rejected the notion of high and low culture because to me it touches on the creation of the canonical and I am sceptical of a canon because that which is excluded may always be more exciting than that which is somehow deemed to be worthy. I am far more interested in the unworthy. The evocation of the ‘maniac’ is precise, but for me contextualised merely as the other of ‘master’ the term fails – rather I would like to suggest the maniac-as-individualist-auteur exist free of determining binaries that implicitly mark it negatively.
With this in mind, my second point is about the viewing of I Spit On Your Grave at ACMI which you mentioned. You frame the experience via an introduction to the screening by an academic, and I have to ask, is this a form of justification? Not perhaps for you as an audience member going to see the film, but for an institution screening a work like this. Another example that comes to mind is Salò, where, in Australia, the various DVD extras had to be included with the film to get a release, because somehow the work is deemed ‘too dangerous’ if not explained and contextualised.1 These examples suggest an attitude that extreme cinema can somehow contaminate an audience if it is not – for want of a better term – ‘policed correctly’.
It could be argued that the work of your cinematic maniac is never given free reign on the screen, but rather contained as historical artefact, the true conditions in which these films should be viewed – the grindhouse for I Spit On Your Grave, for example – are themselves ‘too unhealthy’ so many people only know these works retrospectively.
There is, of course, an irony here, because I regularly introduce screenings of films and through collaborating with you on a dossier such as this, all suggests that my work here could be seen as an explanation for extreme film, and I think there has to be a nuance in which explanation does not become justification. This isn’t because such works can’t be justified, but because they shouldn’t be justified, and audience interest in such works does not need to be justified either.
Alexandra: I’m fond of your phrase here about a model of exhibition/distribution that implies a desire to make sure extreme cinema is ‘policed correctly’. I guess at stake here is the desire to validate the kinds of movies we’re talking about: I am fascinated especially with the increasing privileging of this kind of material by boutique home entertainment companies with paratextual documentation (essays, commentaries, booklets, etc), shifts that in many cases move towards the creation of art objects as much as commodities. And as you say, this all exists in a significantly different environment the exhibition contexts of these films historically.
In terms of the dangers of legitimising extreme cinema, the very existence of this dossier on Senses of Cinema – a journal aligned typically with very different kinds of screen culture to what we are focusing on here – could potentially be seen as functioning in the same way. How you and I choose to frame this is therefore essential: what we are saying here has to be explicitly (for me at least) trying to open up a space rather than trying to quarantine or lock anything down.
Jack: If we are to somehow define a form of extreme cinema for this dossier, we need to recognise that such definitions are contingent, negotiable and fluid.
Alexandra: For me that means moving towards the double meaning implicit in the “senses” of “Senses of Cinema”: rather than seeking to “make sense” of extreme cinema, this collection rather focuses on material that can often provoke a series of potential physical reactions to extreme cinema that you mentioned earlier – fainting, vomiting, nausea, screaming. As a viewer just as much as a critic, I have no desire to “make sense” of American extreme cinema, as to do so would not only work against this desire to keep definitions contingent, negotiable and fluid as you say, but would also in pure spectatorial terms kill the thrill of what I get out of these movies. I like the idea of allowing critical space to acknowledge that something like Slaughtered Vomit Dolls simply has an effect on me at all. These films provoke my senses through cinema in wholly unlike anything else, even though I have zero desire to “make sense” of them per se.
Jack: Yes, I don’t understand a need to validate or justify works and turning it into a bespoke DVD, retrospective screening, or auteured work, is on one hand of little interest to me, but of course I also participate in all three – buying DVDs, attending retrospectives and excitedly celebrating some of these directors. The idea of opening-up a critical space is fascinating yet simultaneously flawed, because the very notion of the critical space strikes me as a problem. At their best these films – with their visceral and potentially transgressive qualities – should defy a critical space.
I’m interested in your self-description as both a critic and a viewer, I always see myself as an audience member and a writer, but never as a critic. Although I’m not sure if these definitions matter to anyone but me and you.
Alexandra: I think they matter hugely, even if it is only to us! Like “mastery,” the words like “critic” and “author” come heavily loaded with a huge amount of cultural and ideological baggage. I like that this very conversation is pushing me towards rethinking the language I use to talk and think about film on a quite fundamental level, and if we do anything with this dossier maybe that’s enough?
Jack: The critic has a purpose, but I don’t see my writing as trying to judge a work, trying to communicate its good or bad points to a reader. To me, my hope is that this dossier may open-up new areas of cinema for readers, and point at new avenues for investigation, which is all I would hope for. If it merely defined any emergent orthodoxy-of-extreme-cinema I would feel it had failed.
- “Film Censorship: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975),” Refused Classification: Censorship in Australia www.refused-classification.com/censorship/films/salo-or-the-120-days-of-sodom-1975-2.html. ↩