Saturday, March 22, 2008

TRAITEMENT DE CHOC (ALAIN JESSUA, 1973)



I first read about director Alain Jessua in FAB Press's Eyeball Compendium, in which he's described as the "Orson Welles of French cinema[...] he made a big splash, critically and commercially, with his first two features, but then seemed to lose his way and has never really fulfilled the promise he once showed." However, I of course derive much more pleasure out of Welle's later, less polished, less "canonical" films, so I made a mental note to check some Jessua films out.

Jessua is virtually forgotten in discussion of cinema today, and completely unknown in the US. His only film with a domestic DVD release is the 1984 horror-comedy Frankenstein 90, released by Anchor Bay around 2002, only to find itself once again quickly forgotten.

Traitement de Choc is most notorious (although, that's a relative word in this instance) for the fact that famed French actor Alain Delon appears in a rather extensive full frontal nude scene. That seems to be what it's initial selling point was, even being imported and released in the UK by Anthony Balch as Doctor in the Nude, which, in the context of the film itself, seems rather absurd, but hey, I'm sure it sold a few more tickets that way.

The film itself is a fairly conventional dramatic thriller, but it's moral positioning (done in a not-totally-heavy-handed sort of way) and genre elements make it stand out. The story follows Helene Massan's (Annie Giradot) visit at Dr. Deviler's (Delon) "rejuvenation" facility, a closed community which is three parts spa and one part mad-scientist laboratory. At the clinic, Helene encounters a group of vapid, rich men and women who convince her that after the treatment she will feel infinitely better, and that she will be "one of them." Being "one of them" seems to imply nothing more than lounging around a pool sunbathing, frolicking naked on the beach, and talking about how great it is to look and feel young. Nothing of substance constructs the group's relationship, but that's partly the point.

Eventually Helene begins to question some of the facility's techniques, especially as members of the Portuguese help she grows fond of repeatedly get sick and disappear. She later starts sleeping with Dr. Devilers and soon has access to some of the facility's secrets. However, nobody else seems to care about anything other than how they look.

Parts of the film found me thinking of Luigi Bazzoni's Footprints, as well as Robbe-Grillet's L'Immortelle, and occasionally Frans Zwartjes' Pentimento. The first two are evoked due to the first half of the film featuring the female protagonist wandering around by herself, interacting more with the architecture of the facility than the other patients. The latter comes from the interiors of the treatment facility: cold, unresponsive metal and international style white decorate the intensely modern buildings.

One of the more interesting elements of the film is Helene's fairly ambiguous moral stance. She's even asked, several times throughout the film, what is is exactly that she's after. She's obviously after some sort of answers, but she's not quite sure why. On one hand, she clearly feels bad that something is happening to the Portugeuse workmen--but on the other, she is insistent on recalling her physical and mental "youngness" (due only to the fact that she was recently dumped, for the first time ever, for a younger woman). The conflicting interests of Helene help to ease what appears to be Jessua's conviction of the bourgeoisie: he is not flat out condemning them in a heavy handed way (as many political genre films tend to do), rather, the protagonist (whom we inherently identify with as viewers) is placed in a position of confusion. By the end it becomes clear that the treatment is "questionable" (to say the least), but we also understand the desire for youth, a desire that undoubtedly exists in some shape or form in all human beings.

Helene's moral positioning is challenged even further as she takes a plane ride with Dr. Devilers, and he flat out tells her that he finds his patients ridiculous. He states that he would prefer to live with "the so-called savages," but his attempts to do just that have failed due to his outsider status: in this context, he is the other. And so he is now dependent on the wealth brought to him by his wealthy clients.

The climax of the film brings all of the sensational elements that one would hope for in a genre film, and Jessua's creativity doesn't disappoint. It's a fairly abrupt ending (in terms of narrativity), but a bizarre coda posits even the police as shallow, vanity obsessed individuals who place the self over the group, ending the film on a fairly depressing note.

Overall, the film isn't perfect, but is still a very worthwhile watch, if only for the fact to understand how you can make a subtle politically charged film that remains compulsively watchable and entertaining.

Friday, March 14, 2008

MAJOR UPDATES AT ESOTIKAFILM.COM


Major updates over at the Esotika website:

-Three new reviews (two by me and one by Eric Cotenas)
-My choice of the Top Ten DVD Releases of 2007
-The Library section is now up
-I've started to put up the People section; though the only entry there so far is on Alain Robbe-Grillet (including--I think--the most complete filmography and English-language bibliography on the internet, as well as poster images from ALL of his films except for N. Took the Dice

Also, I have a couple of questions for readers of this blog:

1.
Has anybody had a chance to see Rollin's latest, La Nuit des horloges yet? I know it's played at a couple festivals. If anybody has seen it and would like to write a review of it for the Esotika website, please let me know, as I'd love to have a review of it up there. Same goes for Robbe-Grillet's latest, Gradiva.

2.
Does anybody have a copy of Midi-Minuit Fantastique #13 (November, 1965)? There's a still in it from a "lost" Mario Mercier film that I'd love to include with the Mercier article that will be published soon at the site; if you have a copy and could scan that image for me I would be eternally grateful.

3.
If you have a film blog that talks about films that deal with Esotika themes, please leave a link for me here, as I'm going to update the blog links on the website (and on here) in the next few days.

And finally, an anonymous individual made an RSS feed of this blog for Livejournal. It is available here:
http://syndicated.livejournal.com/esotika/profile
There is also an Atom XML feed available here:
http://esotika.blogspot.com/atom.xml

I will be linking these from the sidebar in the future as well.

LOFT (KIYOSHI KUROSAWA, 2005)



"I had to do something that was a horror films, but at the same time I wanted to destroy horror films."

-Kiyoshi Kurosawa, taken from a talk given after a screening of Loft at Yale University



Loft is a very peculiar movie. It maintains Kurosawa's trademark eye for atmosphere and horror, yet, as occasionally happens, it feels like a very disjointed film. I don't necessarily find this to be a bad thing, but when sitting down to write about a disjointed film, I find it more difficult to organize my thoughts into something coherent. And coherency, well, that's what one hopes to accomplish with a review. Coherency is also something the movie itself wants to accomplish, and surprisingly, it does.

At least, in a very indirect way. The movie is an odd hodgepodge of terror, atmosphere, melodrama, and subtle comedy. In some ways, the movie is a response to the current state of the Japanese horror film--at least, the Japanese horror film as viewed by the Westerner. A couple of weeks before watching Loft, I had the pleasure of viewing Sion Sono's Exte: Hair Extensions, which maintains a totally different tone from Kurosawa's film, but also subtly ridicules the array of omnipresent cliches that abound in contemporary J-Horror. While I think Sono's film succeeds more in calling attention to the sorry state of J-Horror while still delivering an intelligent and entertaining film, Kurosawa's film works better divorced from the satire. It's there, and it's done fairly well, but if the satire is the only thing the viewer fixates on in the film, he or she is missing out on a lot.

Before I segue away from the satire; it is worth discussing. Most of Kurosawa's satire in the film isn't so much straight up satire in the vein of Month Python or popular television, rather, it's more a subversion of the archetypes that permeate J-Horror, revealing why exactly it is that these cliches are lacking. The long haired ghost, which exists as the most present archetype known to Western audiences, is present in the film. But the "ghost" doesn't move jerkily, is rather just another character on screen, and Kurosawa allows the ghost to remain present uncomfortably long once she has been revealed. By allowing the (expected) source of terror to remain on screen, the terror is diffused and any emotional response the character/signifier would elicit is crushed.

As Jerry White points out in the chapter on Loft in The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear, Kurosawa also subverts archetypes by allowing his female protagonist (his first since 1992's Guard from the Underground) to, through a lack of anchored identity, take on all the roles generally offered to females in J-Horror: the victim, the monster, and the hero. These roles are ostensibly established by three characters (Reiko: the hero, the mummy: the monster, and the ghost: the victim), but all there characters have overlapping personalities-they are essentially three parts of the same whole. By collapsing all of these archetypes into a single character (who, let's face it, in the scope of the movie is an empty shell, a simple signifier for Kurosawa's ideas) he reveals the lack in depending upon the archetypes.

But aside from the subversion of cliches, the film is also a narrative. The story finds Reiko struggling to churn out a pop-romance novel to satisfy her publisher. She moves into a house in the middle of the country to get some peace and quiet. She discovers her neighbor is a scientist working on a mummy. Her publisher goes nuts and tries to kill her. She falls in love. A dead girl pops up. All this implies, of course, is that there is a narrative in the film, the narrative is far from straight-forward.

As usual in a Kurosawa film, the progression relies on the creation and sustenance of atmosphere. Atmosphere, which Kurosawa is always wildly successful at building out of location, is what propels the film forward. There is no central conflict (well, we think there is at first, but that central conflict is utterly abandoned half-way through) to carry the narrative, so we have to give ourselves over to ideas and aesthetics. Also as usual in a Kurosawa movie, it is the atmosphere that makes the movie worth while: sound and image work together so well in the film that it's impossible to not be totally absorbed into the locations on display. Several abject "jump shock" scenes make perfect use of the natural light and old house that Reiko is living in, and the heavy atmosphere manages to approach a climax without plummeting immediately afterwards. The intense atmosphere is sustained throughout the entire first hour and a half of the film.

And that's when things change.

Out of nowhere, Reiko and Yoshioka begin speaking to each other as if they're living in a Douglas Sirk melodrama: music swells, and the two run to each others arms professing their love for one another. An empty grave lies in the background. It's jarring: in the same way "jump shocks" work within the realm of generic J-Horror, this change is constructed to be surprising. From this point on, Reiko is no longer the films center; she's thrown to the background and Kurosawa's camera starts to linger on Yoshioka instead. An attack mars their brief foray into the land of emotions, and soon everyone is back to their apathetic and empty selves.

But, it is the fact that these characters are completely empty and apathetic that allows this melodramatic interlude to occur without distorting the film into something incoherent: when you have nothing, the first chance to attach yourself, fill yourself, achieves a sense of epic proportions. The overly dramatic scene really fits perfectly with the rest of the subtle, understated, and almost silent film. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis. Kurosawa's realization of that is wonderful, and the cinematic approach to his revelation is even more impressive.

If there's anything that needs to be said about the film it's this: in an interview Kurosawa mentioned the film being an "experiment in terror." And for that, I applaud. Loft doesn't get tied up trying to maintain itself in an overdone, unnecessary plot. One of the primary perks of making films is the ability to both establish emotions and inspire emotions in fairly straightforward way (when done well)--and that is what Kurosawa does here. It's an experiment in atmosphere, and experiment in applying theory to practice, and overall it's a stunning aestheticized experiment. A fulfilling one, at that.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

I WAS A TEENAGE ZABBADOING (CARL ANDERSEN, 1988)


aka Vampiros Sexos

While the Cinema of Transgression movement had peaked in the mid-1980s with the work of Richard Kern and Beth B., across the Atlantic, director Carl Andersen began making films clearly in the same vein in the late 1980s. His debut film, I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing... (full title: "I Was A Teenage Zabbadoing And The Incredible Lusty Dust-Whip From Outer Space Conquers The Earth Versus The 3 Psychedelic Stooges Of Dr. Fun Helsing And Fighting Against Surf-Vampires And Sex-Nazis And Have Troubles With This Endless Titillation Title") is clearly situated within this movement, combining Vampire archetypes with hardcore sex all set to a soundtrack of post-punk and no-wave music.

In this hour long, starkly lit black and wide feature, plot takes a sidestep to the depiction of angsty counterculture, fights, obsessive sex, and lusty vampires. What little plot is found follows, apparently, "A female vampire from the planet Arus [who] tries to vampirize the descendants of Dr. Fun Helsing."1 The vampire infects her first victim by way of "infected" olive oil (?!), and then the vampire virus spreads itself via sex and biting. This all takes place among 20 something kids clad in black and leather, who hang out at a bar (The Video Teque) and don't really do too much with their lives other than fuck.

For being what could be considered an ostensibly empty plot, the film moves at a rapidly entertaining pace, with occasional bouts of humor (as two characters are driving along the street on their hunt for the vampires, they keep passing couples fighting for no apparent reason). Parts of the film also are tailor made to fit the excellent music that's decorating the scenery, but the film plays these "music video" scenes in a way similar to the aforementioned Cinema of Transgression, never delving into something that seems out of place (in the way quite a few contemporary straight to video horror flicks do).

It's remarkably trashy but stylish; a perfect visual accompaniment to the no-wave music scene that prevailed in America (and to some extent, Europe)--far more fitting, in my opinion, than many of the films of Nick Zedd (who authored the Cinema of Transgression Manifesto).

There are, however, two particularly interesting elements of the film that merit mention. The first is a particularly potent twenty second scene where two of the main vampires get into a brief fight as one of their soon to be victims plays an acoustic song with lyrics about dancing in the background. It's bizarrely poetic in a very low-rent sort of way that totally fits the tone of the film. The second interesting element comes by way of what the vampires are weak against: instead of garlic and crucifix's, the vampires cannot cross the border of--wait for it-- Tarkovsky films! It's a bizarre jab that once again fits the punk spirit that pervades the rest of the film.

My main point of interest to the films of Carl Andersen, aside from the fact that they're delightfully entertaining and earnest in a way that most cinema has forgotten about, comes from the fact that ever since seeing Andersen's most notorious film, 1990's Mondo Weirdo, I've been a bit obsessed with the band that does the soundtracks for what appears to be his entire oeuvre, Model D'oo. There's a track that I absolutely love from Mondo Weirdo that also appears in this film, albeit in a stripped down version. Regardless, liking the music of the soundtrack significantly helps to enjoy the film.


1The intertitles of the film are in German (I think), so the "details" provided in this sentence come via the Vampyres-Online website.

March Update: Another Entry Without Pictures


Once again I'm sitting in front of my computer posting yet another update about how it's been "a bit quiet" around here lately. I could blame this on the fact that I've been busy with schoolwork (which is ostensibly a truth), but in reality I've hardly watched any movies that would qualify as something that I'd want to write about for a while. The reason? It's a bit embarrassing, but I got sucked into prime-time TV show Lost.

I should clarify that while I obviously own a TV and make use of it regularly to watch flicks, we don't have cable at my house, and I don't even have an antenna on my TV so I get literally zero channels; hence, it's not a fallacy when I proclaim that "I don't have TV." This is for a number of reasons, the main being that it's very rare that I watch TV, so it would be utterly superfluous to pay for cable, despite the fact that a few of my roommates wouldn't mind being able to tune in and tune out ever so often.

But, I do occasionally "watch TV" via DVD rentals, streaming episodes, and online downloads. For some reason, at the beginning of February, something convinced me to start watching Lost. And then, since February 9th, I've watched the entire first three seasons, plus the five episodes of season four that have aired so far. This amounts to 76 45 minute episodes. That's about 3420 minutes. Which, presupposing that a majority of the movies I watch are around 90 minutes, comes out to be 38 movies. Which, in retrospect, is fairly depressing.

It's not a bad show, it's fairly entertaining, and, all things considered, it's relatively smart. But, while reading Raoul Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema this last week I encountered an explanation for why I was finding it so hard to do anything but what a relatively empty show. In the first chapter of Poetics of Cinema, Ruiz discusses Central Conflict Theory, and, in a round about way, his aversion to it. Central Conflict Theory ostensibly posits an A vs. B position, and generally manipulates the audience into siding with one side over the other. This central conflict is the only thing driving not only the show, but the audience's desire to see the show: the audience wants nothing more than to see how conflicts resolve. Here's what Ruiz says in his own words:


Let us return to films that are not boring. Films provoked by the noonday demon. Central conflict theory manufactures athletic fiction and offers to take us on a journey. Prisoner of the protagonist's will, we are subjected to the various stages making up a conflict of which he, the protagonist, is at once guardian and captive. In the end we are released and given back to ourselves, a little sadder than before. There is only one notion in our heads, which is to go [on] another journey as soon as we can.

(It's worth noting that Ruiz is using "films that are no boring" a bit ironically; he has a preference for what, viewed with the core idea of Central Conflict Theory, are boring; he quotes Ozu, Snow, et. al. as examples of "boring" film.)

This awareness frustrates me but is also fairly enlightening; and these emotions arise from the fact that it's an utterly accurate observation. I was never reflecting on events from the show (which has quite a vaguely interesting mythology built up around it to be honest), I was just voracious ready to devour solutions to my athlete's problems. It also made me more aware of the fact that most of the films I tend to prefer and applaud are (mostly) lacking Central Conflict, or at least feature a decentralized plot.

The perks of watching a Robbe-Grillet film are not cause and effect; it's not really important who you side with or even what happens to the characters--rather, it's the context that the plot is playing out in and the ideas that are coming forth via the character-signifiers. Etc., etc., I could probably elaborate with a long list of my favorite films and directors, but I wouldn't have any more work done that I did to begin with.

However, as I said, I'm now completely caught up. Despite my still naive desire/necessity to see whether team A or team B wins, there are no more episodes for me to satiate the empty hunger with, at least until next week. But, that means I can finally get things done!

As of tonight I am officially on my Spring Break, and I've already begun working on content for the Esotika website. I have a new review that will be up later tonight once I resize the screencaps, I've begun working on the Library section of the website (which is actually a much smaller undertaking than I anticipated), I have 80% of my "Best DVDs of 2007" list written, and I will be helping my friend/translator do the final edit on the Mario Mercier article on Wednesday. So, it's update time!

I've also finally gotten around to updating my monthly screening log (linked from the right panel), adding December, January, and February.

Also, I'd like to thank Jeremy from over at Moon in the Gutter for pointing out the
Wikio Top Film Blogs list which I was delighted to find my own humble blog at #37. I'm not sure how it works, but I just wanted to take the opportunity to once again thank all the readers of this blog!