An Esotika Canon for 2015
I think the largest problem I've always had when considering the construction of a personal canon, something that I've never quite been able to articulate, is that my fascination with horror movies is tied more to the mechanics of the genre than to specific titles. Because of this, I always feel like the lists I make of my "favorite" or "defining" films or whatever are always too light on horror. I'll be the first to say that it's very rare for a horror film to be perfect in any coherent sense, but I think this necessary imperfection is an important element of the genre.
Horror is a genre dedicated to experience, in the sense that the experience of the viewer is privileged over certain elements of Film with a capital F--the experience of watching a horror film is often far more important than the film in and of itself. Similarly, experimental films--at least those that I'm attracted to--privilege viewer experience and thus suffer (if "suffer" is actually the right word) a similar consequence.
With that being said, here is a list for 2015, that I feel comfortable establishing as an "Esotika Canon," which could perhaps be considered a new "Post-Genre Canon," or a Canon for the exploration of UFOs (Unidentified Filmic Objects).
This is the first film I'd seen in ages that literally floored me, found me exhausted, totally drove me into an interior space of explosive permutation. This film is terrifying and sad, indicative of a cosmic finitude that finds us alone. There is a thought that this should be experienced again, soon, and perhaps spoken of in longer form, but as the initial experience was so corporeal, I worry about the lessening.
While the narrative of Sombre directly appeals to my taste in stories more, La Vie Nouvelle takes precedence because of what it does with the medium of film. Grandrieux is a very important filmmaker for me because he understands & has pushed forward the idea of film as a direct experience for the viewer (rather than an empathetic experience). The catalog of techniques of affect present in La vie nouvelle is astounding.
Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel)
Delphine Seyrig, perfect soundtrack, endless & empty hotel. Functioning, in my mind, as an unintended sequel to Last Year at Marienbad, this is a narrative genre film that still manages to contain a scene of such singular intensity it's rarely matched: Seyrig speaks of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory to the young couple, she holds her blue drink, reflective light takes on the shape of a diamond in the soft focus of the camera's filter, Seyrig's voice is so controlled, so modulated, it's as if the camera is circling her in a dizzying whirlwind, the story continues, and it's a story of terror, the young wife cannot take it, Seyrig is still speaking but there's an air of silence--and then the young wife actually cannot take it any more, she erupts. The tension is developed to such a point that one could, as the expression goes "cut it with a knife"--but in this case, the thickened air actually is cut, and that wound serves as the crux of the entire film.
A film I have watched only once, long ago at this point despite a repeated intention to re-visit, but a film that haunts my headspace, a confluence of memory and dream: what I really love about this movie might not even be there. But, as such, this film becomes a perfect vessel to deliver that specific idea. Film as a medium should be able to exist in interstitial space between memory and invention. What I can remember: an abandoned institute, doctors and nurses, women, high heels, running in the mud, violence, entrails spilling out, impossible colors, the perfect drone of Zwartjes' synth soundtrack, a feast, class relations, allegory or narrative, distance, the cold, iciness. Can connect in the head to several other lesser (though still worthwhile) films, overwhelmed by narrative instead of imagery: Lifespan, with its circling Terry Riley soundtrack; Footprints, with its moon-man trauma; & perhaps even to the recent Errors of the Human Body, which displaces trauma into the late-capitalist experience of greed. But what is it that unites these films? Pentimento stands far apart, but the construction of a network serves to heighten all four.
The universe that Duras constructed in the 70s and early 80s--through a network of novels, plays, films & short texts--is an endlessly fascinating narrative universe. The Vice Consul as a novel, India Film as a play, L'Amour as a text and La femme du gange as a film, feel, to me, like the most important elements of this universe (despite, perhaps, the fact that The Ravishing of Lol V Stein is literally the launching point). While it is perhaps India Film or The Truck that get the most attention out of Duras's oeuvre, I think there's a calm and quiet brilliance--an intensity in the sense of light--that haunts this film. We move back and forth between the beach of S. Thala & the interior of a hotel--is this the ballroom where it happened? There's whispering, questions... Also, I believe this was the first time that Duras articulated what would become her trademark technique in film, allowing the voice-over text to not always match up diegetically with the events on screen, though there is always a tension present that helps create meaning. There's something to be said of, perhaps, the necessity to experience Duras's films without subtitles, as she developed an idea of narrative based around the idea of hearing someone read in opposition to reading--something, of course, impossible without being to speak French. This is where the problem comes from with India Song, and why La femme du gange takes precedence above it.
Elements: a mystery, perhaps a murder; isolation, brought about by snow storm; secrets, perhaps cosmic secrets; and above all, a hotel--a beautiful and impossible hotel of black walls decorated by neon, ballrooms filled with Krautrock tinged synth-prog--together this is a narrative space that I want to spend time within. This film is pure joy on an aesthetic level, and perfect melodrama in how the plot develops--and the movement from mystery to sci-fi works perfectly instead of at a level of denigration to the plot.
My interest in this movie seems to repeatedly surprise people--or at least it's seen as a 'questionable' opinion, but since it's pretty much positioned itself into my brain and stayed there for like.... 7 years? I'm willing to recognize that it belongs on a list like this. There's so much I like about this. On a formal level, I love that it literally uses the archetypes of genre to pull a 'bait and switch' coming at the almost-exact half-way point--which I also would maintain continues to function beyond the level of "first viewing experience twist" (if considered as movements as in a musical score, the latter is of course informed by the former but redirects expectations and, more importantly, on the level of affect it provides a disorientation). Again, on a formal level, I also love how the second act borrows from historical incidents of JOY IN THE FACE OF DEATH, even tweaking reality (which seems to be something I've seen people complain about, despite the fact that movies are not real) to fit the current of the film (this is also perhaps a very Bataillean movie when considered with any sort of gravitas). It is imperfect (for example, the montage scenes in the second act accompanied by very over-the-top "emotional" music threatens to disrupt how well the film works), but it is important and brilliant.
I love everything about this movie. I saw it three times in theater during the two weeks it was playing San Francisco. I have watched it multiple times since then. In terms of aesthetics this is 100% Perfect. Colors, Film Quality, Architecture, Music, Dialogue. The narrative exists exclusively in the realm of atmosphere, which is the mode in which I most appreciate plot. The heshers at the end arguably break the diegesis, but there's also a pleasure in how entirely unnecessary the scene is. While I recognize this movie exists exclusively in consideration of cult genre films that came before it, Cosmatos learns from the films he's clearly obsessed with instead of just stealing scenes & ideas from them (in the way someone like Tarantino does)--as such, the movie is entirely his own. It has a lineage, but it is entirely contemporary to the present.
I refer to this, when I'm asked, as "my favorite movie of all time." The way I view film makes putting a singular film into that position difficult, but after a few years and countless re-watches, it seems that the sentiment remains. I was asked, once, why it was this film, more than any of Zulawski's others, that I loved the most. It's a complicated answer, but there are two key points, I believe, that offer some sort of explanation. First, perhaps moreso than any other film like it, everything in the diegesis of the film occurs at a limit. As such, it's perhaps one of the most important limit-texts in all of film. There is an extremity, a desperation present. The mise-en-abyme of the film also speaks worlds about the nature of art and performance, while this is weaved into an impossible relationship that drives the core of the film: the impossible love that Fabio Testi's character feels for Romy Schneider's character. Movement in a Zulawski film always feels choreographed like dance, but here the choreography is an emotional choreography. Secondly, Fabio Testi's character/Fabio Testi himself is just so unbelievably attractive to me on such a deep level, both physical an in terms of actual Character. I would like to note, however, that save for a few details (some not explained here), much of Zulawski's work could sit in this position: Possession, La femme publique, Szamanka or perhaps even L'amour braque.
Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
It's always a bit of a toss up between this film and Kurosawa's Cure--on any given day I could perhaps give a different answer. However, there's something that feels so overarching about this film, it feels like it extends into everything. Much of Kurosawa's work has this feeling, but in Kairo it's incredibly fine-tuned. This came out in 2001, but the ideas of the film (if not the technology) feel so utterly contemporary--for what has been discussed more in philosophical circles lately than the state of the anthropocene & the development of AI? I regularly find myself drawn to films which carry a simultaneous "iciness" and heavy emotional core at the same time. Kairo is a masterpiece because it manages to flatten out any hierarchy of importance between the characters--they're all interchangeable, virtual players in the geocosmic trauma of the world: humans are unimportant when considered in the larger picture, and I can't think of another film that manages to say this so well without being explicitly didactic.
EXPORT's film is revolutionary in its refusal to settle into anything definable. It's markedly queer while maintaining a heterosexual female as its protagonist, it's narrative driven despite the fact that there is no Grand Narrative dominating the film, it explodes into moments of EXPORT's performance art. I find it shocking that so few people tire of male-dominated cinema at times, and EXPORT's film is a perfect antidote to this exhaustion.
This is, on a deeply personal level, the perfect cinematic manifestation of desire. It manipulates lust and desire with more intensity than any pornographic film. It creates a longing, an ennui, with narrative. The artifice is necessary and perfect, for how else could a citadel of eroticism be constructed within film? Fassbinder's final film, similar to EXPORT's film, is a stringent revolt against both lazy eroticism and the inherent binaries that drive a commonplace understanding of desire. Which is to say: this is an explicitly queer movie that traffics in masculinity without positing it as a supremacy. Even the captain, played so perfectly by that other stud of Italian genre cinema--Franco Nero, in his longing, displays a variant eroticism: self-driven eroticism that is not repressed, but rather dependent upon the object being unattainable.
Sato is a director I have a bona fide obsession with. As such, there are many many films of his that warrant mention, so one might question why I chose his (arguably) most well-known film for the list. Before I re-watched this last year (as half of a brilliant double feature, paired with The Kirlian Witness) I remembered it as little more than a gore-fest. But the strange--for want of a better word--"art house" elements that pepper much of Sato's pinku films are on full display here, to devastating effect. A woman deep frying and eating all the parts of her own body, a woman who becomes orgasmically responsive to piercing her flesh with jewels, these set-pieces actually recede into the ether in comparison with the story that drives the film here. A father disappears into a burst of light on a family trip, and the son he leaves behind spends his life trying to attain a scientific success out of debt to the absence. Life is incomplete until a woman who communicates telepathically with a cactus is introduced. It all ends in death, as everything does, but the route we're taken on to arrive there is beautiful and strange.
Breillat wanted to adapt Duras's The Malady of Death (which is one of my favorite books) but could not get the rights, so instead she wrote her own book based on The Malady of Death (Pornocracy) and then turned it into a film. It's a beautiful film--I feel like this is a movie that reveals more about women than anything else. Accusations that the movie is "homophobic" are so entirely off point and only reinforce a patriarchal structure of understanding: the man in this film (played by the beautiful & well endowed Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi) is not important. This is a film about women, for women. Breillat refuses to let men into the film. And for that reason, this film is not only necessary, but also brilliant.
There's a reality to Cavallone seeming infinitely more interesting in theory than in practice, but when his films work, they work exceptionally well. Blue Movie tackles trauma from so many various angles, while simultaneously masquerading (and at times, performing as) an exploitation film. The film is a nightmare of closed spaced, amped up because the only exterior scenes are scenes of violation: as such, there is no space to feel safe. There can be no difference between inside or outside. As a structural metaphor of the inescapability of trauma, this is brilliant. And the film collides such desperation and intensity with a smartly considered (and apparently completely missed by most viewers) critique--another example of a cinematic limit-text.
I was very late to the game with Dumont, but as I've now seen all of his films except for Humanité, he has firmly established himself in my head as a completely necessary director. While he's often compared to Bresson for his philosophical & political underpinnings and use of non-actors, I find Dumont much more rewarding (which is not to sell Bresson short by any means) in perhaps his contemporary subjects--this is a man who is making films about what it means to be alive right now. Outside Satan was my introduction to his work, and as such holds a place of importance. Also, since in many ways Dumont has made the same film multiples times, Hors satan is perhaps my favorite permutation of that narrative (it should go without saying that not all of his films are the same film, but Life of Jesus - Hors satan - P'tit Quinquin seems like variations on a theme).
Consider this film as a signifier of Franco's entire Golden Productions period, which for me is without question Franco at his best. I literally love work from all points of his oeuvre, and there are still so many more films of his I've yet to see, but in considering what I'm interested in film doing, the Golden Productions serve that mode best. Mil sexos tiene la noche is perhaps my favorite due to two things: 1) set almost entirely within a hotel, 2) the dominating theme of hypnosis. The entire film is carried by through a somnolent ennui: peaks never quite peak & the entire film flattens into fugue. The first time I saw this was on a non-subtitled transfer that had bizarrely blown out & hyper-saturated colors--these elements helped serve the disorientation the film offers. Franco is someone regularly deserving of attention.
These two films, for me, stand in for all of the films of the Zanzibar film group. It perhaps could be seen as a sin to praise the Zanzibar group without mention of Philippe Garrel, but while I love La lit de la vierge, Pommereulle's elliptical and hermetic Vite, along with Raynal's astutely smart & challenging renegotiation of materialist film each bring something unique to cinema. I feel a similar joy and attraction with the films of Franco Brocani & Marcel Hanoun--these are all films that are located in some unnameable quadrant where feature-length narrative films collide with pure experimentation & the political/philosophical play of the late 60s and early to mid 70s.
I know very little about either half of this power-couple, but I know that the films both were making individually, and the films they made together, are unquestionably beautiful and hermetic. Like fever dreams of affect, the fugue of aesthetics. At some point I will spend more time and perhaps figure out something more specific, but this is all I can speak to for now.
These films are all dark and nasty, yet they exist in the liminal space of an early 80s New York City that is dripping with... something. I can't articulate precisely what is about Phil Prince's bizarre low-budget sleaze-epics that appeal to me, but there's such abjection and vitriol present on screen that a hyper-space of eroticism is recreated as something no one could slide into without any sort of traumatic introduction. It's the bizarre nature of his films that I find appealing: they're simultaneously cheesy and sleazy, disturbing and hilarious. But, what makes the films work best of all is the presence of George Payne, who inhabits the sadistic characters found in Prince's films so perfectly. There's an energy that I want to compare to that of Klaus Kinski--it's that sort of screen presence [note: I also find Payne almost Paynefully (get it) attractive, a corporeal response is always almost guaranteed]. Watkins pornographic features function differently, as they're far more narrative than Prince's. Corruption and Midnight Heat hold as much pathos and revelation as any of Abel Ferrara or Paul Schrader's films. Corruption specifically offers a sensual derangement that leads to a nightmarish journey through the self as visualized with corridors and secrets behind hidden doors. Probably half the stories in my book Slow Slidings are in some way or another indebted to Watkins.Related films that offer indications to an expansive sense of this personal canon:
- And Then There Were None (Peter Collinson)
- Manhattan Baby (Lucio Fulci)
- The Taking of Deborah Logan (Adam Robitel)
- The various permutations of the films of the Vienna Actionists
- Institute Benjamenta (Quay Brothers)
- Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais)
- Gradiva Esquisse 1 (Raymonde Carasco)
- The specific position of Eurohorror, though perhaps weakened in any sort of guiding notion, is still occupied by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jose Benazeraf, Jean Rollin, Renato Polselli, Vicente Aranda, Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava, Álex de la Iglesia & Eloy de la Iglesia