Sunday 30 December 2007

Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style and Politics


The cover and title are somewhat misleading, insofar as there is no detailed discussion of Satan's Cheerleaders and the tone of the pieces is academic rather tha sleazy. No doubt Sconce would contend that this is an ironic reflection of the kind of films featured within the volume, insofar as in his own essay he notes how our mental picture of a Nude for Satan was one that the films themselves could never hope to live up to.

Yet it also, to me, speaks of a certain lack of reflexivity about the academic game itself, that one wants to know about its conventions here in terms, fundamentally, of what sells best in its marketplaces and of a continuing gulf between the fan and academic discourses when, for instance, Kevin Heffernan's article on the changing status of Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil and House of Exorcism arguably does little more than recast the work of a Tim Lucas in more theoretical guise or where Something Weird's Blue Book catalog has as much to tell us about the history of 60s and 70s sexploitation and porn as Eric Schaeffer's admittedly impressively researched essay.

Ranting aside, the essays are the usual mixed bag, with much of interest for fans and scholars of European horror cinema.

Schaeffer's essay 'Framing the Sexploitation Audience' indicates how the marketing of sexploitation films contributed to the discourse of the raincoat audience as deviant, thus ironically creating a situation in which the films could no longer be advertised in the mainstream media thereby further contributing to their ghettoisation – unanticipated consequences strike again.

Tania Modleski's 'Women's Cinema as Counterphobic cinema' takes Doris Wishman as her test case and performs the usual feminist detournements and deconstructions to end with the slogan “bad girls unite”; as such one eagerly awaits a follow-up piece defending Lizzie Borden's Cocktails. Unless, of course, not every sister is in fact a sister...

Harry Benshoff's 'Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-military' film is self-explanatory and does what it says on the tin.

A similar predictability limits Chuck Kleinhans 'Pornography and Documentary,' insofar as exposing the base material realities of mondo and white coater films is hardly the most challenging of tasks. Late capitalism, the cash nexus, blah blah blah. Tell us the same thing as it relates to academic publishing in late capitalism...

Colin Gunckel's 'Origins and Anatomy of the Aztec Horror Film' brings out what he terms “additional, even provocative explanations for the existence of this curious subgenre,” in the form of the way it engaged with the historical and cultural specificities of Mexican identity in a way that Hollywood product could not. It makes sense but there's the rub: wouldn't it in many respects be more surprising to find a national popular cinema cycle that did not connect with a national population? But while I didn't get too much out of this essay, perhaps this is because of having read Doyle Green and David Wilt's work on much the same subject...

Kay Dickinson's Troubling Synthesis looks at the place of music in five Italian video nasties – Cannibals Holocaust and Ferox, Inferno, Tenebrae and The Beyond, arguing that the detached nature of the music, in its lack of obvious engagement with the on-screen action and use of the synthesiser, could have contributed to the negative readings afforded these films in the early 1980s. It's a piece that I think has the right ideas, in countering the dominant vision-centred approach to the film experience that stems from psychoanalytic theory in particular, but whose reading of the semiotics of the synthesiser as “cold” and “inhuman” seems somewhat essentialising. As I understand it, analog synthesisers of the sort used in these films are now commonly referred to as having “warm” sounds in comparison with the later digital synthesisers, while she also fails to discuss Frizzi's use of the Mellotron, which I've seen described as an instrument with a very distinctive personality to it (Robert Fripp: “Tuning a mellotron doesn't”) in The Beyond's score. Maybe I'm being pedantic, but pedantry is what being a cult fan is all about...

Joan Hawkins's 'The Sleazy Pedigree of Todd Haynes' does a Cutting-Edge type reading on the director's work, seeking to bring out its low culture aspects (i.e. Meyer rather than Sirk and Fassbinder) and made me wonder when / if someone will ever do straight readings of queer films that bring out their repressed heterosexuality...

Matt Hills's 'Para-Paracinema' is, for me, the most useful and challenging essay in the collection. Looking at the characterisation of the Friday the 13th films amongst both the academic and cult film audiences, he identifies them as an object which both groups can unite in their hostility towards as lacking in subversive potential for the former and too mainstream for the latter, with this failure to engage being seen in frequent factual errors in the discussion of them. While I can't say that I particularly want to look at the films again – perhaps because there's no cultural or subcultural capital to really be gained thereby now that Hills has made the point – it does suggest that a more honest way for the enterprise to proceed could, in effect, be for films to be assigned to us whose value and interest we then have to make a case for, rather than choosing the films that we like in part on the basis of our pre-existing theories about them. (Yes, I'm currently in a what if Argento has been all played out and I'm just a johnny come lately; should I have made my investment in, say, Italian cop films instead and pushed them as the next big thing. Or more broadly, when territorialisation and careerism come in, where does the fun go?)

Chris Fujiwara's 'Bordedom, Spasmo and the Italian System' is one of those challenging intellectual exercises that brings Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Lenzi together. Those who have read Michael Grant's essay on T. S Eliot's The Wasteland and Lucio Fulci's The Beyond will find it right up their street, while others might consider it intellectual masturbation of the worst sort. (On the subject of Spasmo, am I alone in thinking that it would make for an interesting comparison piece to David Fincher's The Game?)

Greg Taylor's 'Pure Quidditas or Geek Chic?' examines US television show Beat the Geeks and the discoures around geekdom it explores. I haven't seen the show, but imagine it would make for an interesting comparison to the likes of Mastermind or a Radio 4 quiz programme here in the UK, insofar as they're each dealing with trivia, albeit of different sorts – i.e. my trivia is pointless shit, whereas yours is culturally validated as valuable knowledge. Of course, once civilisation breaks down we'll both be equally fucked compared to the aborigine who couldn't care less about Deodato or Derrida...

Jeffrey Sconce's Movies: A Century of Failure diagnoses the current crisis but has a predictably more difficult time finding any solutions. For my part, I was more interested to discover that the Rape of Frankenstein story Andrea narrates in Four Flies on Grey Velvet would seem to have been a borrowing from a 1971 novel by Jacques Sternberg, Toi, Ma Nuit / Sexualis '95...

Sometimes it is that chance encounter that makes it all worthwhile...



Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - a very interesting discussion - I will look out for the book. It's a pity that in academia these films often seem reduced to pegs for the theory applied to them. I don't know - it would be nice to find a film reading that brings out some sort of counterword to Lacan or Marx, instead of all the plot points and shocks filing neatly into line... I'm old fashioned/out of touch enough to get most of my genuine academic thrills from an insightful close reading or, as you say, a hard-won precious fact. If these films are not ultimately serious, the high seriousness has to be laboriously imported from political science and philosophy. I have read Michael Grant's essay in Kinoeye, and I don't think he pays enough attention to the film.

- Tom

Anonymous said...

... I think it's the capacity of the critic for rapt attention, humbling themselves at the screen almost, that I look for, and the sense that there might be something at stake for the author - something personal - like their dignity, say. Damn these references to philosophers which arrive like the outriders for some pompous dignitary. If it gets too ludicrous though, it does have the same fun, filthy appeal as a crap film - in my own line of work I have fond memories of an article on Nietzschean nursing.

K H Brown said...

The book's authors tend not to rely on psychoanalytic theory too much, which is a plus. I hope I wasn't too hard on the book, or too ad hominem - insofar as cult film scholars often cite Pierre Bourdieu, I'd sometimes like to see a bit more reflexivity in their work and whether they feel any guilt about appropriating 'cult' from 'the fans' and discussing it and them in a language that is all too often alienating and can become, in effect, its own trivia game.

Anonymous said...

For instance, I was reading the other day a decent essay on violence in art by the design critic Rick Poynor in his book Obey the Giant. Passion and close attention combined with an ethical, critical intelligence. In clear English. Genre cinema could do with some books like that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, absolutely, I've often wondered - what their personal stake in this is. Important because genre criticism sometimes seems to me to lack an ethic, an ethical approach - grounded in self-examination. It's something designers seem almost obsessed with.

Anonymous said...

I'll all for robbing the films from the fans, though - they can be so reactionary - but it's more a danger of alientating the film from itself, damming its charge with status language.

Nigel M said...

Keith agree with you when you say

"language that is all too often alienating and can become, in effect, its own trivia game."

i felt this when reading alternative europ at timewhen reading essays about gender politics dresed up as an essay about queen kong (!!). It occured to me reading that book that many of the essays were so way of beam. these films were made as giovanni radice informed me purely to make money by take the money and run directors (hacks or jobbing direcors). Therefor any analysis of these films that run much deeper than political economy are simply for accademics to write books for other accademics.

Far more interesting for me is to take these films on their own terms. Genre films often were made to lure auiences into the cinema by providing cheap to produce thrills and exitemmet, maybe some gore, some nudity, maybe a bit of a body count.

Anyone who writes excruiating drivel as the "cinesexualiy" one in alternative europe are a million miles off beam as johnn morghan proved in the following chapter when he states that non of his roles were written for him (roles incidentally he read for to pay the bills).

Now if this esay had gone unchallenged there every danger that such bullshit gets taken at face value.

By not applying a deeper philosophical analysis to bronx warriors I don't feel I am mising out on what enzo does best ie entertains but I am sure those who go over such titles with the accademic fleacomb are missing out on all that fun.

I would like to point out to accademics before we get some deeper analysis of Last Shark that it is not a phallus, nor any other metaphor, its just a big shark put in the film because jaws proved that big shatk films sell, besides shark movies can be done on the cheap. Nun films were made because nun costumes were easy to come by and the locations readily available.

Sadly though keith I still buy these books and read them, just can't help myself.

Nigel M said...

As an addition to what I wrote the other day.

I ve jut been reading the well researched Fulci book Beyond Terror. Aside from the research this is a fair bit of padding where the author goes off on the occasional tangent.

Then we come to the analysis.

In sucessive pages w are told death is feminine, death is anal, the tomb in city of the living dead is a womb, and the basement in the beyond is anal. Including the line we are talking shit here.... (couldn't agree more).

I was wondering if the author was taking the piss.

It seems to overlook the collborative nature of film by suggestion such bs. The person who writes directs chooses the location edits produces special effects etc will not likely be a single person with an arse or womb fixation.

I spoke with radice about this too, I was questioning in an instance the inlunc of mondo and travelogue on genre cinema- he told me not too bother with uch an analyis as producers made films that were selling well at the time and simply borrowed (stole) from their genre rules.

So when later cannibal moves were made my questioning bout the racist undertones were met with the answer that they made films like this because they were selling well at that time.

Maybe such an analyisis ould be appropriately applied to wider society and why a particular genre sells well at a particular time- but to pick he films themselves apart on these tems would be missing the point as they were simply to make money not wombs- and while the end product itself maybe an original work they were created magpie like from films that went before- thus the Beyond simply borrowed zombie genre rules from dawn of the dead etc that did well at the box office as argento's zombi.

That not to say all the analysis in beyond terror is that bad, but when thrower gets into this territory he seems to be on less solid ground.

Those who apply political analyis to film seem to be on safer ground as films are not of themselves devoid of social context,

K H Brown said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

Beyond Terror is an interesting one: In his introduction to The Eyeball Compendium, Thrower indicates that his enthusiasm for theory was something that waxed and waned, so maybe Beyond Terror represents its high point in his writing. I certainly also remember Tim Lucas's evaluation of the book in Video Watchdog, where he wasn't completely sure of the place the analysis really had in relation to the films at times.

It's one of those things that I find difficult: I would never discount the value of theory but when it is too much of an external imposition on the text, or simply becomes automatic and routine (as I think much psychoanalytic influenced theory in particular has a tendency to do) then I really don't have much patience for it.

I'm a "to the films themselves" kind of person...

The cinesexuality essay in Alternative Europe and one on the Black Emanuelle films are also too much cart (i.e. theory) before the horses (i.e. the realities of low budget filone production) for me.

Nigel M said...

I think with Thrower, the theoretical aspects are negated by his obviously volumous research on his subject (i forgive the tangents a for those with a more casual interest in the films will gain some context though it should all be quite familiar to those with an interest in genre film in general and filone in particular). Reading today was actually starting to make me a little angry.

An example woul be where Maccoll and Warbeck are discussed. We are told that actors are considered of secondary importance and largely allowed to get on with their own thing. Then we come to the analysis bit where Thrower attempts a deeper reading of the performance of same peformances in context of a film. A film incidentally i think was Warbeck states that he has just glanced over a few lines before shooting a scene, we are also old that scene is shot the minimum number of times (presumably to save money).

So any deeper reading of performances within a film that the actors may not especially understand and on a shoot and move on basis must be so many miles off beam. Yet the book carries on very much in this way as thrower reads some importance to how one or two actors are sweating during the Beyond.

Now I have been guilty of all this myself at times, I spent ages pondering the meaning behind the final scenes of City Of The Living Dead- turned out to be film damage, and pondering the meaning behind a glance betwen martha and joe the plumber in the cellar/anus.

In terms of analysis of film tery Eagleton's book on Criticism of Classical literature probably has more to offer as this approach could be taken to putting film in historic context. For me this meant that in Alternative Europe one of the stronger essays dealt with Italian violent crime cinema- but that put the audience appeal in the context of political instability/violent crime and groups such as the red brigades.

So its not that I do not believe that filone is worthy of analysis, far from it. But that sometimes it seems to be a case of reading far more into a film than what is there, or even things that are there by accident- just because a location was cheap or available.

When a film was a success I could almost picture a producer (say for example Fabrizio De Angelis) looking or an available writer and director for hire to rush out a title in the same style- with much of the semiotics purely coincidental.

Anonymous said...

But then I do find it hard to watch the corpse floating up in The Beyond and not think of a turd. And it's fair to relate the 7 gates of hell to the seven orifices in the body, eyes excepted which make nine , but never mind - they come in for some damage too. I think Beyond Terror is pretty disappointing, theoretically speaking, and some genre writing (Patricia MacCormack's is a pet hate) is horrible and unenlightening, but still, although a film is a collaborative product, the viewer is one individual, and I think it's natural and useful to consider freely how these films affect us, the way our minds process them, forming speculative connections.


Nigel M said...

Your final point taken tom.

I try to not read to much of this deep theory stuff anyway for me I take the stuff on its own terms cheaply produced thrills and spills designed to mass, overwhelmingly proletarian, audience, primarily for the purpose of making money.

The point on the collaboration was to emphaise how such deep reading can just take people down dead ends in the pursuit of interlectual masturbation.

At worst it for me represents an attempt by middle class interlectuals and leather patched beard strokers to appropriate populist culture in the same way as premiership football has been colonised or city centre warehouses turned into gated enclaves- attempting to read high art into fulci etc is to render the material itself sterile.

Now funnily enough the point about collaboration gets hit home yet again in this book I am reading. Thrower spends not a few words speculating on the significane of the name freudstein, then goes on to state that fulci did not ome up with the name at all but De Angelis did.

now it is fine to speculate as to why De Angelis came up with this name but it takes great leaps of imagination to then place this in the context of fulci's vision of the film. The attrocious cinesexuality essay fell for this hook line and sinker when it read into the films of radice something that radice later went onto state clearly enough could not possibly be there since the thesis was constructed around radice's role in the films. The pattern was purely coincidental- none of the roles were written for him.

one comment above- "alientating the film from itself" is an interesting premise but also in attempting this deeper reading its also alienating the product from produtive forces from writers to camera crew to sound engineers etc.

Film, not unlike cars are the product of labour, which this almost petit bourgeois reading of film attempts to make mystical.

tom you made one comment above "I don't think he pays enough attention to the film". Now I have not read the particular essay to which you addressed this comment but it is a comment I could apply to so many essays that I have read.

The reading that fetishises symbolism of the product itself in the case of Beyond terror is resulted in a missed opportunity as a bit more of a practical and posibly proletarian grounding would give us some insight into how and why the films were made, 200 pages in and I am none the wiser. Thrower may well be on the couch here giving us his response to a cinematic Rorschach inkblot test but as to fulci in he context of his works I am still none the wiser. Its a pity. as you state tom

"It's a pity that in academia these films often seem reduced to pegs for the theory applied to them."

100% agree.

Anonymous said...

Hi Herman,

Thanks for your comments. A few things in response to your post:

I take the stuff on its own terms cheaply produced thrills and spills designed to mass, overwhelmingly proletarian, audience, primarily for the purpose of making money.

- I understand this absolutely - sometimes I just want to be entertained, and Bond films do it for me more than anything - switch off brain: regress to age 9. Zombie Holocaust for sure has the same appeal, but you know, I have always approached Argento and Fulci (and D'Amato!) as food for the brain. That's partly a product of how I got to hear about them - from books like Killing for Culture or the Headpress things - they were always contextualizing it, making it out to be something heavy, something that cut deep.

At worst it for me represents an attempt by middle class interlectuals and leather patched beard strokers to appropriate populist culture in the same way as premiership football has been colonised or city centre warehouses turned into gated enclaves- attempting to read high art into fulci etc is to render the material itself sterile.

- I must be the only middle class man these days who's never attended a football match! And that's on class principle, you understand... I still remember a time when people like me got off the train if we heard there were football fans on board. The thing is in academia, in my experience at any rate, they are all half-guiltily wavering or committed middle class Marxists, and for Marxists reading popular texts, close reading and the smashing together of high theory and low culture is a way of liberating these texts' revolutionary potential - time and again, it comes down to a reading of horror as "subversive", "radical", a "critique", etc, and this is repeated so often that it is actually quite shocking to consider that maybe these films are politically far from radical - perhaps even radically pessimistic and apolitical, or God help us - Conservative! I know Cronenberg and Lynch came in for some criticism from Robin Wood in this respect.

In response to your other points, I basically agree, and nowhere near enough attention is paid to the craft and the form - partly because unless you really know your stuff (and I don't) it's hard to say anything very enlightening. Having said that, I still feel that Fulci and most of the rest had huge distinctive impacts on their movies. I mean, compare Terence Fisher's stuff to most of the Hammer dreck.

Michael Grant's essay is here:

if you want to raise your blood pressure.

Cheers, Tom.

Nigel M said...


good point about the conservative thing. this is maybe where middle class sometimes marxist accademic types making a slight error in understanding the working class orientation of a lot of genre cinema- they key bit is the orientation. This is not proletarian cinema as such it is a product of the class system but its market is clearly working class just as the daily mirror and the sun play good cop bad cop while targetting the blue collar and service sector worker. Not always ultimately reactionary either- its too big field to
really generalise but this is where I have long ben interested in Eagleton's distrorted mirror idea with literary criticism. The distortion not just the fiction itself but the prejudices of those involved (not just directors but writers and others).

I guess I return to the collaborative nature of all this, and Throwers Beyond Terror- he rejcts the notion of Fulci as the auteur at the end of the book, but his analysis seems to rest on just this auteur approch- not recognising that the film may come from a whole host o collaborative and at times competing angles. With writers, screenwriters,directors and actors etc all trying to say something different based on their individual interpretations of the source material.

Now what I have pondered is if this represents an attempt at an apropriation of an aspect of working clas culture- as this does happen in so many spheres- football is a biggie these days with working people priced out, the new lad phenomena based ona characture of working class life, even lads mags being the new tabloid for those with a bit more money. However the social, economic and poliitical conditions no longer exist to replacate the golden age of Italina genre cinema, the world has moved on, for better or worse.

So how can a working class culture be appropriated (and here I mean popular culture with its orientation towards working class rather than necessarily a product of the class itself, though remember the division of labour within a production there is a case for recognising working class input)- now I would suggest that working class entertainment becomes appropriated wheh the terms of debate get taken away from the product itself and moved into some accademic circle where it becomes almost the opposite of what it supposed to be.

It is in essence then telling the audience of populist cinema that they do not understand genre cinema. This to me seems almost like an attempt to claim it for the arthouse, the ultimate gentrification of genre cinema. There was a bit more I wanted to say on this and the classic novel but I have to go to work now.

Nigel M said...

Oh and I've just read the essay linked above. Didn't understand much of it to be honest, Skipped the bit about Vampyr. The synopsis of the Beyond was okay but completely ignores what Fulci himself says about the film and he attempts to constuct a meaningful narrative where it seems Fulci himself was attempting the opposite-

now on this the stronger bits from Beyond Terror are enlightening, for example the bit explaining how thee films were pitched on the basis of a brief synopsis, secured distribution, funding and a deadline.

Can't wait to find out what Grant thinks of Bronx Warriors. Betthats a real hoot.