Thursday, 7 February 2008

Nekrofile: Cinema of the eXtreme

This 1997 publication from Midnight Media, written by British genre writer Alan Jones, presents a selection of 20 reviews organised around the notion of cinema of the extreme: disreputable, marginal and envelope-pushing independent productions like Anthropophagous the Beast, Expose, Friday the 13th and Mark of the Devil.

Jones characteristically breathless reviews are entertaining and pleasurable to read, even if inevitably you don't always agree with his evaluations.

The things that are to be savoured most, however, are the obscure little nuggets of information and the personal angle that he brings: the reminiscences of seeing Blood and Black Lace at the age of 13 or a double bill of Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Toolbox Murders on its first release; memories of having dinner with Mariangela Giordano, the dining room decorated with a nude portrait of her; or just the 'I'm not telling' Cinecitta Babylon type scurillous rumours as to various unnamed individuals sexual orientations and off-set activities.

It's also fascinating to see how the scene around these films has changed over time. The digital revolution, in the form of DVD and file sharing, has made it comparatively easy for us to see these films, putting them almost literally at our fingertips.

Ten years ago I had only read about most of the titles in the book, today I have all of them bar a couple, Mother's Day and The Fiend, and could doubtless add these to my collection and watched list with minimal effort.

Yet, our culture around extreme cinema has also changed as a result. Viewing that uncut, beautifully presented DVD of Cannibal Holocaust in the comfort of your own home cinema is a fundamentally different experience from watching a beaten-up print in that sleazy fleapit, grindhouse or drive-in with an audience of like minded types or via that nth generation video obtained from some dubious source. Whether this is all for the better, the worse or a mixture of both is, of course, a matter for debate.

Another factor here is the emergence of the arthouse/grindhouse crossover, already perhaps implicit in a film like Abel Ferrara's MS .45, but apparently growing in importance with the likes of Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day and Gaspar Noe's Irreversible. The challenge here is that of bringing the two non-or anti- Hollywood mainstream cultures, and the larger part of their audiences, together to cross-pollinate/contaminate...


Anonymous said...

I never found the thesis that there is an emerging crossover between arthouse and grindhouse particularly convincing. The few instances where such a crossover might exist (out of the examples you mentioned I'd only list the Ferrara one - Denis and Noe are strictly arthouse and are actually considered to be some of the most odious examples of arthouse directors considering the fact that their work has no commercial/mass appeal already as an achievement in itself in France (and also frequently mentioned in the discussion about state funding for the movie industry being directly responsible for the steadily declining marketshares of French productions)) are usually entirely due to circumstance - some upcoming director with "arthouse tendencies" being forced to work in the exploitation genre to pay some bills (perhaps not coincidentally, almost all examples I can think of are Americans) or someone who fancies himself being an artist simply ending up doing grindhouse stuff because he's not as good as he thinks (Fulci maybe ?).

The bigger and more interesting trend is the crossover between grindhouse and mainstream movies IMO, with Hostel or Saw being prime examples. People defending Roth often point out that the Hostel movies aren't supposed to be horror, but grindhouse and all criticism directed at them is therefore misguided.Personally, I think both movies suck, but the argument is nevertheless interesting, leading to the question just how audiences have changed in the last few years (a similar phenomenon is the rise in attendence at B-Movie-Festivals - even four or five years ago the idea to watch "bad movies" with a group of like-minded friends had no mainstream appeal whatsoever, but things seem to be changing here too (as evidenced by "Snakes on a plane" perhaps?)

K H Brown said...

A fair comment, and perhaps a reflection of my desire to elevate 'trash' to the status of 'art', rather than lowering 'art' to a 'trash' level and really demonstrating that there is no difference between them, that one man's art (forgive the sexism) is another (wo)man's trash?

Ferrara does, it seems to me, have than unapologetic "fuck you" attitude, which I also get with Zoe Lund with regard to drugs and the hypocrisy around them, rather than a studied, intellectual, distanced response.

I think Noe is that bit more genuine and visceral than Denis there, but undoubtedly he is still constrained by the likelihood that trash fans won't see his work and its contextualisation as art (Kubrick rather than H G Lewis). But so long as he makes people aware of Gerard Kargl, that's enough in my book...

As far as Roth and co. go, is it a quality versus quantity argument, that we can have a text which is theoretically correct but only attracts minority interest, against a text which is theoretically compromised but which can engage a greater audience? (Have just spent three hours talking about Adorno, Benjamin, Kracauer and so forth...)

I think Roth's films suck, but are American; I couldn't take Hostel II seriously because the casting of Fenech, Deodato and Merenda made me think of the real thing.

I have little time for Snakes on a Plane and other films which try, in a too calculated way, to be cult, but that could be my elitist snob aspect showing through: I have a tendency to exclude the middle and love Dziga Vertov, Godard, Bresson, Fulci, Franco and whoever for this. (Franco seems to me the epitome of someone who could make 'good' films but who chooses not to.)

Anonymous said...

I haven't really thought this out, but it seems to me that the difference between arthouse and grindhouse today is that grindhouse (or grindhouse-like or -inspired) movies are essentially vernacular cinema made for an audience that is no longer vernacular, whereas arthouse movies tend be non-vernacular movies made for what is basically a vernacular audience (with education, social status etc. rather than location, customs, etc. being the decisive characteristics). This is almost a complete reversal compared to the 70's and 80's and one of the most remarkable trends of the last few years IMO.
The instances where a crossover between exploitation and arthouse seems to exist, are therefore mostly movies that are being interpreted from a perspective that still adheres to perspectives that were valid 10 or 20 years ago, but -while still being valid as far as the interpretation of the actual movie goes- fail to take the changes in general reception into account.

I didn't like "Snakes on a plane" and hated the marketing campaign for it, but in a way it is exactly the fact that these movies are made in such a calculated way that makes them worthy successors to yesterday's exploitation fare. If Deodato, Martino, and Fenech were active today, they'd be making "Snakes on a plane (or train)" too, instead of doing pale imitations of previous exploitation stuff (you didn't see Martino et al. trying to pay hommage to the poverty row horror movies after all).
We've come to associate exploitation with "extreme" movies, but that's really misleading, exploitation is mostly about exploiting whatever's popular at the time (in as visceral a way as possible).
What Denis and Noe are doing, is therefore no exploitation at all, but probably as arthouse as you can get, merely utilising techniques that are "shocking" within an arthouse context, but otherwise old news and without any (general) commercial appeal.
Roth on the other hand is simply someone that doesn't understand exploitation at all and is contend to cater to a niche market (and thus trying to play it as safe as possible) that likes his movies exactly for the fact that they're merely imitations of exploitation movies from the past instead of genuine attempts to exploit what's current today. Hostel was a fluke IMO, tapping into some fears around at the time more or less by accident (Guantanamo and a general uneasiness about Eastern Europe joining the EU in Europe) and Hostel II is the best proof of this.