Conforming to Type: Film as Subversion – Louis Armand

Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014; longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012; described by 3:AM’s Richard Marshall as “a perfect modern noir”). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015), The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015), & Synopticon (with John Kinsella, 2012) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He currently directs the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague.

 

Conforming to Type: Film as Subversion

The term “experimental cinema” has been highly contested virtually from its inception. In the context of British and American filmmaking, there has been a strong tendency to link the term to the kind of formal work being produced in the wake of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger and others associated with Dada and Surrealism – which is to say, with avantgarde art. The relevant genealogy usually begins with Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and includes work by Willard Maas, Marie Menken, James Broughton, Sidney Peterson, Joseph Vogel, Gregory Markopoulos, Stan Brackhage, and so on down through the 1950s. Subsequently, terms like Beat, Underground, Independent, No Wave, Cinema of Transgression and Exploding Cinema, evolve out of – and frequently in conflict with – what at a certain point became an experimental orthodoxy. The films of Andy Warhol are especially significant in this respect, as is Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and Jack Smith’s 1963 Flaming Creatures, as well as the films of Hollywood fringedwellers on the B-slate like Ed Wood, Ted V. Mikels, Russ Meyer and Roger Corman, New York and Chicago genre mavericks like Frank Henenlotter and Herschell Gordon Lewis, and underground directors like the Kuchar brothers, John Waters, Richard Kern and Nick Zedd whose work was largely ignored or tacitly rejected by such upholders of the experimental tradition as Amos Vogel and Parker Tyler. We can add to this list British filmmakers like Bruce Lacey, Ken Russell and Robert Fuest, among others. And yet, in almost all of these cases, there’s an explicit appeal to an idea of experiment as subversion: of “existing values, institutions, mores and taboos” (as Vogel puts it[1]), as well as of the formalism and institutionalising of “experimentation” within the evolving corporate hegemony of the Culture Industry. In Tyler’s discussion of “Underground Film,” for example, we see the likes of Jonas Mekas and the New York Anthology Film Archive fighting both a rearguard action against accusations of laissez-faireism from the more formalist, craft-orientated Tyler, in addition to their own vanguard assault on the normalising forces of Hollywood and commercial TV, etc. Such internecine strife obscures the dynamic and contingent character of experimentation and reduces it to a set of dogmas, cliques, and so on. It is necessary, rather, to suspend all competing definitions and to examine the works themselves on their individual (de-) merits and within the (anti-) social bias of concepts and actions that may be deemed “subversive.

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1. Amos Vogel, a long-time admirer, once described John Cassavetes – whose filmography includes Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence(1974) and Gloria (1980) (all starring his wife Gena Rowlands), as well as the 1976 film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Love Streams (1984) – as “the master of fictional ‘cinéma vérité’ who subversively reveals us to ourselves in others.”[2] He was widely considered, with the release of his debut film, Shadows (1959), to be one of the pioneers of American Independent cinema. The film itself evolved out of a workshop with actors at the Variety Arts Theatre in Manhattan, focused on improvisation and in opposition to the dominant school of “method acting” purveyed by Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasbourg (all variants of the Stanislavskian technique), with the cast also including Anthony Ray (son of Nicholas Ray). The film likewise evolved around a soundtrack by Charlie Parker, though in the form in which it was finally released most of the recorded music was provided by Mingus’s saxophonist Shafi Hadi). Consequently, on its release, Shadows was billed as an improvisational/jazz film, though in fact it was only the first cut of the film – initially released in 1958 – that was improvised; this version was then largely re-shot and re-edited according to a script and screened in its definitive version in 1959. In the interim Cassavetes received extensive support from the Mekas brothers and the film received the first Film Culture magazine “Independent Film Award.”

Shadows was hailed by Tyler as “extraordinary,” and subsequently compared it favourably to Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Warhol’s Chelsea Girls as an example of the synthesis of spontaneity (drawn from a cast of “inexperienced actors and nonprofessionals”) and the approximation of regular plot logic. The film, according to Tyler, “Aiming at an effect of cinema vérité… belongs to the avantgarde because of its success in avoiding commercial cliché and the positive case it displays in catching people so realistically in dialogue scene that one might suspect a hidden camera.”[3] In recapping the film’s plot storyline to his readership, however, Tyler is more concerned with how the question of race dynamics avoid seeming to be a “sham” (to a presumably white audience) rather than considering Cassavetes melding of cinematic “verity” with a kind of social realism that is also social critique. There is a certain resonance here in the question of “passing for white” and passing for “regular plot logic,” and in the refusal of the characters to reject their black identity and the film’s attempt not to compromise its improvisational aesthetic (questions, we see, that are in no manner unambiguously resolved). While critical of the fact that Cassavetes himself pursued a career in Hollywood subsequently (though continuing to produce independent, or rather “underground” films in the interim), the major criticism Tyler reserves, particularly for Faces – released ten years after Shadows – was that Cassavetes’s “relentlessly explorative” method should have been pursued “less experimentally and more consciously, more with a dominant idea in view.”[4]

Reflecting on the “general inclusiveness” of Faces (by which he means, the lack of discrimination in the editing) – a fault that had been levelled at the original version of Shadows – Tyler concludes by saying, “I think Cassavetes has a lingering documentarist fault, a desire to accept human nature in a dimension where it is too commonplace, too passive, and above all he should cultivate a more filmic sensibility.”[5] It is, however, precisely Cassavetes’s rejection of filmic sensibility that, for his part, Mekas regarded as the director’s defining ethic. For Mekas, the original cut of Shadows – along with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s 1959 short adaptation of Kerouac’s play “Beat Generation,”  Pull My Daisy – “marked the end of the avantgarde experimental cinema tradition of the ’40s and ’50s (the symbolist-surrealist cinema of intellectual meanings),”[6] and the beginning of a new movement – corresponding to Mekas’s own December 1959 manifesto “A Call for a New Generation of Film Makers” – though in a subsequent Village Voice article from January 1960 he rejected Cassavetes’s re-edited version as “just another Hollywood film.”

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2. Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966) began, so the story goes, as a “commission” by Mekas for his Film-Makers’ Cinemateque. Warhol and Paul Morrisey then went about producing a series of twelve roughly thirty-minute shorts, comprised of relationship “vignettes” between various Warhol characters (like Nico, Mary Woronov, Brigid Polk, Ondine, Gerard Malanga, Mario Montez, Marie Menken, Ingrid Superstar, et al.) filmed in a mix of fixed camera, violent zoom (or “jerkoff”) shots, jumpcuts, black-and-white and colour stock, and featuring sexual frankness, nudity, drug use, etc.,[7] all initially centred around the Chelsea Hotel, which were later combined into a single three-hour-long film. “All that summer,” Warhol later said, “we were shooting the short interior sequences that we later combined to make up Chelsea Girls, using all the people who were around. A lot of them were staying at the Hotel Chelsea, so we were spending a lot of time over there… I got the idea to unify all the pieces of these people’s lives by stringing them together as if they lived in different rooms of the same hotel. We didn’t actually film all the sequences at the Chelsea; some were shot down where the Velvets were staying on West 3rd, and some were shot in other friends’ apartments, and some at the Factory—but the idea was that they were all characters that were around and could have been staying in the same hotel.”[8]

The completed movie opened at the Cinemateque on a makeshift duplex screen, with parallel scenes running simultaneously and a single soundtrack switching between them. The effect was compared by Tyler Parker to Able Gance’s use of a triptych screen for final act of Napoléon. “The film’s actions,” Parker wrote, are “to all intents and purposes… simultaneous in time if separate in actual space. This spatial separateness and contiguity is expressed by the side-by-side reels being simultaneously run off. Although they are related in mood… there is no conscious ‘musical’ relation between the two units, any chiming between them being, presumably, accidental. But of course there do occur certain amusing coincidences that, while the two scenes are technically in competition with one another, give off mutual rhyme and reason…”[9]

Following its initial run, Chelsea Girls moved to the Cinema Rendezvous on West 57th street and then to the Regency on Broadway, unprecedented for an underground film and provoking a violent backlash from the mainstream press, whose columnists (like the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther) seemed determined to keep Underground Cinema underground (“It has come time to wag a warning finger at Andy Warhol and his underground friends,” Crowther wrote, “and tell them, politely but firmly, that they are pushing a reckless thing too far. It was alright as long as [they] stayed in Greenwich Village or on the south side of 42nd Street… But now that their underground has surfaced on West 57th Street and taken over a theatre with carpets… it is a time for permissive adults to stop winking at their too-precocious pranks.”)[10] For his part, P. Adams Sitney lauded the fact that it was precisely this “terrifying childlike quality of Underground films [that] emerges proudly and with some effect in The Chelsea Girls,” adding that “neither the child nor the madman can be overlooked as valid dimensions of Underground aesthetics.”[11]

Coming two years after Mekas’s arrest for screening Jack Smith’s Flamming Creatures at the Cinemateque, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls represented a high-water mark in Underground Cinema’s challenge to the film and art establishment (in 1967, for example, Hollywood was bankrolling Midnight Cowboy with John Voight and Dustin Hoffman, which included in one scene its own “Warhol movie”). Soon after, Chelsea Girls was invited to Cannes, with Mekas hailing it in the September 29 issue of the Village Voice, somewhat hyperbolically, as “comparable only to Joyce”: “The lives that we see in this film are full of desperation, hardness and terror… It’s our Godless civilisation approaching zero point. It’s not homosexuality, it’s not lesbianism, it’s not heterosexuality: the terror and hardness we see in Chelsea Girls is the same terror and hardness that is burning Vietnam and it’s the essence and blood of our culture, of our ways of living: this is our Great Society.”

In his study of American avantgarde cinema from 1943-2000, Stanley makes the claim that, more than Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka and other now canonical figures associated with the movement, it was Warhol who represented the major precursor of what he calls the “structural film,” of which Chelsea Girls is a kind of apotheosis.[12] According to Stanley, Warhol’s genius is in part a result of parodic view of avantgarde film itself, beginning with work like Empire and Sleep (which is a six hour-long fixed-camera shot of a man sleeping). “Theorists such as Brakhage and Kubelka,” Stanley notes, “expounded the law that a film must not waste a frame and that a single filmmaker must control all the functions of the creation. Warhol made the profligacy of footage the central fact of all his early films, and he advertised his indifference to direction, photography and lighting. He simply turned the camera on and walked away.” Warhol’s “anti-romanticism: has been compared to Duchamp’s use of readymades and to his “Anaemic Cinema,” but where Duchamp employed found objects to upset the dogmas of avantgardism as well as the art establishment, Warhol appeared to go further by transforming himself into an object[13] – a depersonalised, ironic “machine” conspicuously comprised solely of “surfaces.”

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3. In many respects a precursor to the 1969 cult film, Easy Rider (directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson), The Trip (1967) is a psychedelic “drugsploitation film” / “acid movie,” directed by major independent American film producer Roger Corman, written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, among others. Corman, known as the “Pope of Pop Cinema,” had been a trail blazer in low budget independent movie production in the US since the mid-50s, at times producing up to nine films a year. He is perhaps best known for his 8-part series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, made between 1959 and 1964 at American International Pictures (AIP), who also produced The Trip. Corman worked broadly within the framework of socalled “genre” cinema, from horror to gangster films, and made his first biker movie in 1966, The Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. The film established Fonda as the “John Wayne of biker flicks” and earned AIP $10 million on a $360,000 budget. It was while doing publicity on The Wild Angels that Fonda first conceived of what was to become Easy Rider and proposed Hopper as the director and co-writer. The opportunity to develop some of these ideas, as well as to give Hopper his first hands-on experience with direction (with one of the film’s acid sequences).

Elements of The Trip resurfaced in Easy Rider in the New Orleans mardi gras scenes towards the end, and there are likewise parallels between the “journey” of the acid trip and the cross-continental USA road “trip” that provides the basic narrative of Easy Rider. But where Fonda and Hopper’s character in Easy Rider is a quasi-outlaw drug dealer cutting loose from the whole idea of “American society” at the end of the 60s, in The Trip Fonda plays a TV ad producer on the rebound from a break-up who gets his first introduction to LSD – brought to more popular American consciousness in 1964 by Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters” and their series of road-trip psychedelic school bus, immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The “exploitative,” voyeuristic element of Corman’s film in certain respects marks the obverse of what Hopper and Fonda later project in Easy Rider as a generational insider’s view: with Corman, there’s still a predominant sense that, even in independent cinema, there is an assumed audience of primarily prurient interest: a grey zone in which independent films had long existed side-by-side with arthouse, grindhouse and porno. The story of Easy Rider – as marking the birth of a New Hollywood and (as with Nick Ray’s 1955 Rebel Without a Cause for the post-war generation) of a emerging 60s film audience uninterested in seeing themselves portrayed through the lens of a parasitic film industry.

For all its belatedness (though it was still arguably the first film of its kind), The Trip nevertheless disconcerted establishment critics, like Crowther, whose New York Times review spoke very obviously to an audience assumed to have no direct personal experience with LSD. Crowther himself treated the film as a type of advertisement for psychedelic experience and, writing from somewhere on-high (so to speak), dismissed the film for its incomprehensibility and lack of developmental structure. “Is this a psychedelic experience?” Crowther asked. “Is this what it’s like to take a trip? If it is, then it’s all a big put-on. Or is this simply making a show with adroitly staged fantasy episodes and good colour photography effect?” Crowther’s bemusement can be taken as summing up what was, in effect, an insuperable division between those who were “experienced” with LSD and those who tried to intuit what psychedelia was all about on the basis of “wavy lighting” and “weird music and sounds.” It was the ultimate generational distinction: you either got it, or you didn’t, and there was no point listening to anyone – like Crowther – who didn’t, because their lack of qualification in speaking on the subject was glaringly obvious.

Arguably the Trip represented the first of a series of major assaults (along with films like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider) upon established attitudes around cultural permission and cultural authority that went on to cause something of a revolution in American life, not as a fringe phenomenon, but at the core of the culture industry itself, producing a seismic shift over half a decade in the operations of the Hollywood studio system. Notable also is that by the time of the film’s release, LSD, which had previously been legal in the US, was criminalised (6 October 1966). It is perhaps the element of “criminalisation” that makes Corman’s film more “democratic” in its appeal than it might otherwise have been. The fact that criminality is placed front and centre in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider brought those films into direct communication with a generational experience in late ’60s / early ’70s USA that was one of increasing alienation from the State and increasingly authoritarian responses to everything from the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, to gender and racial equality, and myriad other “non-conformist” tendencies at that time (including the attempted resurrection of the “dope panic” movie genre). What we see, too, is that for the first time independent cinema spoke beyond the theoretical confines of the arthouse cinema to an actual process of generation and social change – more so, even, than avowedly militant and avantgarde cinema had been able to do.

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4. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) was conceived as a parodic sequel to Mark Robson’s 1967 film, The Valley of the Dolls after Twentieth Century Fox rejected scripts proposed by Jacqueline Susann, author of the novel on which the original film was based. The title, Valley of the Dolls, referred to “downers” like dolophine (“dolls”) that became prevalent in the US after the War, a follows the careers of three ingénues who in one way or another “lose their souls” in LA. It was this aspect of the showbiz morality tale that Ebert and Meyer chose to exploit and satirise in their anti-sequel (for which Fox was successfully sued by Susann for damages to her reputation as an author). Though the film was issued an X-rating, the film nevertheless grossed more than ten times its budget in the US and contributed to Meyer’s cult status as a “sexploitation” director.

Ebert and Meyer co-wrote several other films together (including Meyer’s last – and most sexually explicit – films, Up! [1976] and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens [1979], as well as the unfinished Sex Pistols vehicle, Who Killed Bambi?). Ebert was better known, however, as the first film critic to win a Pulitzer prize and to receive a star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.” By 1970, Meyer was already an established independent director with a reputation as the “King of Nudies” whose filmography included titles like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Vixens! (1968). Like Corman, Meyer’s success stemmed from low-budget production of commercially viable “entertainment,” but with an added element of auteurism, signature-styled and all self-financed, directed, co-written, edited and distributed by Meyer himself.

Typically, however, critics sought to distinguish the type of B-genre/exploitation films associated with Meyer from other forms of “independent,” “underground” and “avantgarde” cinema associated with the arthouse scene. Also like Corman, and later John Waters, Meyer’s status has been seen as a product of economics rather than genuine “authorial vision.” As Jonathan McCalmont complains, “Both directors arrived on the scene after the collapse of the studio system and TV’s wholesale annexation of cinema audiences. Corman and Meyer made money and brought in younger audiences by filling cinema screens with sex and violence and so have come to be hailed as pioneers but the directors of the American New Wave did much the same and yet produced art rather than the grubby, stupid and lacklustre nonsense that we have come to associate with Corman and Meyer.”[14]

Meyer’s attachment to the Valley of the Dolls sequel was in part a reaction by Fox Studios to the commercial impact of Easy Rider in the wake of a series of big Hollywood studio flops and the social upheavals of the late sixties, perceiving Meyer’s independent credentials as a prospective boon for the Studio. Meyer considered the result his “definitive work,” and in many respects – not least its major Studio backing – it represents a signal achievement of film industry and cultural criticism as well as subversive exploitation of the culture industry itself and its normalising influence in society at large as cinematic valium and tabloid sensation. As such, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with its convoluted celebrity soap-operatic plot and post-Manson Killings climax (Sharon Tate starred in the original), can be regarded as a highly ambiguous melodramatic satire on the pervasive social and economic logic of melodrama – not least because it poses as a sequel. It is, to paraphrase Marx, the tragedy of American social history repeated as moralistic farce.

Ebert himself described the film, ten years after it’s release, as a “satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn’t know whether the move ‘knew’ it was comedy.” In hindsight, he wrote, “I can recognise that the conditions of its making were almost miraculous. An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte-blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was made as a time when the studio’s own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble none of the studio’s executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognisance) from the Front Office.” It seemed, Ebert noted, as if the movie “got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum.”[15]

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5. Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro first collaborated on a black and white student film, co-directed with Wilford Leach, entitled The Wedding Party, shot in 1963 but not released until 1969. In the meantime, De Palma directed De Niro in his first major screen role, as “Jon Rubin” in Greetings (1968), a film about dodging the Vietnam War draft. It was also the first film to receive an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, while nevertheless going on to win De Palma a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Ebert described Greetings as “not, properly speaking, a feature film at all, but a string of episodes in the Laurel and Hardy tradition,” something it shares to some extent with Hi Mom! (1970; originally conceived as “Son of Greetings”), in which De Niro reprises his role as Jon Rubin, by now a Vietnam vet who, returning to New York, sets out to be a porno-conceptualist filmmaker (“Peep Art”), veers into underground Black social-criticism theatre, and ends up as a “domestic terrorist.”

Like Godard’s 1967 film, La Chinoise, Hi Mom! can be read as a biting satire on middleclass “social consciousness” and late ’60s “radicalism.” The film’s title comes from de Nero’s parting line, addressed to a live TV camera at the site of a NY apartment building that he’s just bombed: but in addressing the camera, De Niro is also addressing the film’s audience, who are as much a target of de Palma’s satire as the white middleclass theatre audience in the film’s most controversial sequence: “Be Black, Baby” (in which the audience is subjected to the experience of “being black in America”), including being painted with shoe polish and beaten and robbed (and one female “audience member” raped) by black actors in white face, before De Niro’s character bursts in dressed as a New York cop and arrests the audience “for being black” and ending outside the “theatre” when the actors applaud the “audience” for their performance, and the “audience” break down into “rave reviews” of their recent “living theatre” experience. The whole thing, meanwhile, has been shot in guerrilla documentary style in black-and-white Super-8, to heighten the tension between cinematic irony and cinema vérité.

Styling himself as the “American Godard,” De Palma’s early films represent an effort to establish a revolutionary cinema capable of expressing the revolutionary character of the period – both in terms of its subject matter and technique. His collage of radical jump-cuts, split-screen, interpolation of black-and-white, sped-up footage, in addition to an overall narrative fluidity and interchangeable points-of-view, situate these films within the experimental fringe of the emerging “New Hollywood” – as well as situating the work in relation to contemporary theatre (such as the New York Performance Group) and art (in 1965, De Palma produced a documentary for Pathé on MoMA’s “The Responsive Eye” exhibition of Op Art). De Palma has said of his approach: “First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it.”

This critical-reflexive posture is thematically reflected in the film, in the relationship between film itself and its object (including a series of film-on-film quotations, the most obvious being Hitchcock’s Rear Window), between voyeurism and performance, between reality and simulation, between the alienating normality and normalised alienation, between sex and terror, etc. Themes that, in one way or another, play out across de Palma’s otherwise diverse filmography, from his first avantgarde, Brechtian experiments with genre, like 1967’s Murder à la Mode, to later Hollywood studio productions like Carrie (1976) and Scarface (1983).

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6. Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971) was adapted from James Mills’s 1966 novel of the same name, about the heroin culture between Verdi Square and Sherman Square, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, at 72nd and Broadway. It stared Al Pacino in his second screen appearance, and his performance in the role of “Bobby” (a small-time heroin dealer), which led directly to his being cast by Francis Ford Coppola in the first Godfather film, against the wishes of Paramount head of production Robert Evans. Like later New York films that paralleled the emergence of the socalled “New Hollywood” – like Billy Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street (1972), Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1972) and Taxi Driver (1976) – Schatzberg employs a gritty urban realism and cinéma vérité camera style, along with a stark frankness in depicting Manhattan’s burgeoning heroin culture; an effect heightened by the decision not to include a musical soundtrack.

In a column published on September 9, 2014, New Yorker film critic, Richard Brody, has referred to the composite effect of Schatzberg’s approach as “tremulous visual palette of briskly panned telephoto shots and macrophotographic intimacy that unfolds a city within a city and reveals a second world of experience that shows through New York’s abraded surfaces.” The film is utterly unlike the fringe psychedelia of Easy Rider and reflects the big comedown from ‘60s Flower Power counter-culture during the Nixon era and the systematic expansion of heroin imports into the United States from Vietnam and Cambodia by a consortium of organised crime and the CIA. In this respect, The Panic in Needle Park is also a direct antecedent of the political “paranoia” films of the mid-seventies, like Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), as well as later reprisals of the same theme such as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000).

Due to its realistic depiction of drug use, particularly by white addicts – like Bobby’s Midwest girlfriend “Helen,” played by Kitty Winn, who also procures an illegal abortion in the film – The Panic in Needle Park was issued an X-rating on its release and banned in the UK. Winn nevertheless went on to receive the Best Actress award for her role at the Cannes Film Festival. In part, the controversy surrounding The Panic in Needle Park stemmed from the studio’s attempt to market it as a lurid examination of underground drug culture, rather than as a generational “love story” – which was how scriptwriter Joan Didion preferred to characterise it. The film also touched on contemporary sensitivities about the breakdown in the American social fabric, most particularly through its depiction of the false sense of community built up around “Needle Park” as a microcosm for a false sense of American “community” founded on post-War consumerism, which is in certain respects exposed here as equivalent to heroin addiction: both are founded upon an illusory access to personal and collective fulfilment through consumption while masking the industrialised profit-making machinery that relentlessly exploits the consumer class.

In this way, The Panic in Needle Park is also an essay on alienation and the ongoing erosion of social solidarity in the face of any threat posed to so-called individual liberties: just as libertarianism was hijacked in order to sabotage the welfare state, so too the junkies’ addiction is exploited to manufacture a culture a betrayal – played-out on the most intimate level between the film’s two protagonist’s, Bobby and Helen, whose relationship is exploited and debased by undercover narcs – in just the same way that secret police operate everywhere under totalitarian regimes, leveraging the most humiliating forms of self-interest. In this sense, the film’s major controversy has nothing to do with drug culture, but with the tacit collusion of the heroin “industry” and the Police State.

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 7. The Who released the concept double-album on which Ken Russell’s film Tommy is based in 1969 (having taken two years to complete), driven for the most part by songwriter Pete Townshend’s desire to break from what he perceived as the formularisation of rock music by the record industry and the creative restrictions represented by the standard radio airplay 3-minute single. The rock-operatic form offered Townshend broader scope for the creation of an extended, cohesive work—and in this the Who were pioneers, producing what Rolling Stone magazine called “the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania.”[16] While it has been suggested that the basis of Tommy was Townshend’s personal experience of childhood sexual abuse, Russell’s enlarged screen interpretation (for which Townshend extensively re-wrote the original, with the addition of a substantial amount of new material, and which featured appearances by Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Robert Powell and Oliver Reed) has broader social implications, concerned as it is with an age of instant gratification and pseudo-enlightenment, the mass commodification of individual experience and the cynical pursuit of “authenticity” under the sign of the sacred dollar. As Townshend expressed it in an interview with Rolling Stone:

 

In general terms, man is regarded as living in an unreal world of illusory values that he’s imposed on himself. He’s feeling his way by evolution back to God – realisation and the illusion is broken away, bit by bit. You need the illusions until you reach very pure saintly states. When you lose all contact with your illusory state, you become totally dead – but totally aware. You’ve died for the last time. You don’t incarnate again; you don’t do anything again – you just blend. It’s the realisation of what we all intellectually know – universal consciousness – but it’s no good to know until you can actually realise it.

 

There is a particular poignance to the casting of The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltry, in the title role, as the “blind, deaf and dumb kid” transformed into a “pinball wizard” Messiah of a disaffected, disenfranchised generation hungry for belief – in the midst of a period of violent radicalisation in the UK, Europe and the US. With the original album’s release, Daltry identified with the character “Tommy” to the point of “becoming him” on stage, representing a kind of spiritual breakthrough for the singer and for the band as a whole, while the film role brings with it the fact of Daltry’s enormous stardom at the time, and the singer’s hugely ambiguous situation within the general cultural framework as a kind of messiah-destined-to-fail. The monumentality of this failure is conveyed, however, not through the role itself, or even through the music, but by Ken Russell’s masterful instinct for cinematic excess. Yet it is precisely the excessive character of Russell’s directing that exposes a certain “realism” at the core of his 1975 film “adaptation”: in part Tommy’s sophistication stems from the fact that the post-60s world really was that parade of kitsch, of cynical self-parody, of capitalist nihilism and the all-pervasion “society of the spectacle.” As Daltry, Townshend and Russell all knew, rock and roll wasn’t there to save anyone the way most people seemed to want to be saved: despite the film’s exuberance at times, there is an overwhelming pessimism about music’s ability to “break the mirror” of industrialised narcissism. It isn’t the catastrophic pessimism of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with which both the album and the film of Tommy have often been compared: it’s rather a critical pessimism – in the sense that rock (and cinema too) must contend with its own self-seduction if it is to transform consciousness rather than simply transform décor.

If the film’s anti-realism represents, in fact, a more incisive “realism” than the informercialised pap dished out as pop “social reality” in the seventies (and today), its rock-video allegorisation of failed enlightenment is also its most effective critique of the idea of enlightenment as such, by way precisely of the mechanics of disillusionment. At no point in the film does Russell ask his audience to suspend disbelief. It is rather as if he is daring us to do the contrary: to believe in our disbelief. and to do so in full self-awareness. Or as Townshend says about the “Pinball Wizard” episode (in the film, the role is played by Elton John in a pinball beanie, glitter sunglasses and enormous platform boots – which he reportedly kept as his fee): “Tommy’s games aren’t games. They’re like the first real thing he’s done in his life.” It’s a difficult proposition at times to grasp, inducing something of a condition of denial in the viewer that may account for the fact that the film achieved huge box office success as entertainment. Like Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which satirised America’s addiction to melodrama while succeeding, precisely, as melodrama: Tommy turns disillusionment into spectacle, by way of a critique of exactly that, the “spectacle’s” ability (as Guy Debord says) to assimilate anything, even its critique.

In this way, Russell’s film represents something like a dissertation on the postmodern condition: what Francis Fukuyama later famously called “capitalism’s masterstroke” of universalising Marx’s “false choice,” where “anything goes” because nothing that isn’t already part of the “spectacle” (Debord) is any longer possible. Which is to say, nothing “authentic” outside its representation as commodity: no “aura” (Walter Benjamin) after the “end of history” (Fukuyama). We are, so to speak, caught inside the mirror, in which even the act of “breaking the mirror” is already nothing but a reflected action that will only ever accomplish itself as an image. In this way, the film seems to pose a fairly trivial dilemma: are we to regard the entire second half of the film, after Tommy “breaks the mirror,” as a narrative of freedom, or as Tommy’s “real” nightmare – the nightmare that confirms his vegetative state – the nightmare inside the merely apparent nightmare that seemed to constitute his being up until then. Yet at the same time, the films poses a more difficult dilemma: about the status of cinema itself, about the logic of depiction, that is itself inescapable, even as the film’s excess seems to push that very logic to its limits. If there is an ambivalence within the film, perhaps it derives from this, from the always provisional and contingent character of any critique of spectacularism.

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8. Amos Poe is widely regarded as one of the founding figures of New York punk and No Wave cinema, with films like The Blank Generation (1976; with Ivan Král, filmed at CBGB’s and featuring Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Talking Heads), The Foreigner (1978; featuring Eric Mitchell, with Anya Phillips and Debbie Harry) and Subway Riders (1981; featuring John Lurie, Robbie Coltrane, Susan Tyrrell). Writing about Subway Riders in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert observed: “this movie isn’t a narrative, it’s an environment. You do not analyse this movie. It doesn’t matter how the plot turns out… Subway Riders is a hymn to style. It is not an imitation of old Hollywood B pictures and dopers. It is a meditation on them. There are eight million stories in the city, and this is one of them.”

Like Subway Riders, The Foreigner constitutes something of a style manifesto, constructed around a noir armature in which the conventions of the B-film are distributed like pieces of collage to produce camera opportunities for its characters (of which New York is itself the foremost) to perform themselves. Every cameo, like Debbie Harry’s appearance in an alley singing Kurt Weill’s “Bilbao Moon,” thus becomes a pillar in the film’s overall construct, just as the central role of “Max Menace” (“European secret agent,” Eric Mitchell) is really an amalgam of peripheries and an occasion for some of the film’s most striking moments of pure style, including the long take of Max running down Broadway to Battery Park. If Max represents a kind of moving target, it’s so that the frame itself can remain constantly in flux, becoming part of the tempo of the streets, both hectic yet paradoxically detached, cool, ironic – what you might call an overstated minimum of gesture, a type of frenetic “mannerism” and pulsing entropy.

In a way, The Foreigner is all about the emergence of a New York scene in the ’70s that refused assimilation into the preceding cultural/social code, including that of the institutional avantgarde. This “No Wave” included such underground filmmakers as Vivienne Dick, Eric Mitchell, James Nares, Becky Johnston, and Beth and Scott B. Its post-punk aesthetic developed partly out of the approach of people like Warhol, cross-referenced with the French New Wave and B-directors like Ed Wood, while both “parod[ying] and celebrat[ing] 1960s Underground cinema, film noir, European art cinema and trash exploitation movies.”[17] It prioritised “style” over production values and identified with the “outsider” status of the “blank generation” that gave rise to bands like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Ramones, Television, Wayne County, etc. There’s a moment in The Foreigner when Max is in a hotel room watching TV and a programme about the Sex Pistols comes on air – caught by chance while Poe was filming – zeroing in on the punk mantra of “no future.”

In a way, Poe’s film can be a partial exploration of this emerging “no futurism,” in which the dominant existential mode is one of pervasive, undirected menace. But it is the undirectedness of this menace that is most telling in its, so to say, “naïveté.” Poe’s “No Wave” aesthetic is really something like Situationism minus the critique: it verges on conceptual art, while rejecting the intellectual preciousness Fluxus and other institutional avantgardisms, yet its apparent “nihilism” remains more modish than “punk,” while its eschewal of political critique signals a substantial difference between Poe and the “new wave” directors like Godard he sought to emulate. In part, this has to do also with a general disillusionment with ’60s social critique and socalled revolutionary cinema: “no wave’s” address to style is also an address to a certain rejection of the whole rationale of “critique,” equivalent to a rejection of a political process that, in any case, is rigged against it. As if to say, in response to Debord, that “critique” is just as much a part of the “spectacle” as anything else, just as servile to the economy of alienation, etc. As Nick Zedd writes in his memoir Totem of the Depraved, “underground films do exist, and as we who have been suppressed by the indifference of the bastards in the clouds are well aware, there have always been alternatives to the bubble gum of the mind peddled by Hollywood and Europe for our consumption.”[18]

No Wave’s eschewal of the kind of explicit social critique regularly found from the mid-60s in the work of their New Wave precursors, and in particular Godard, is perhaps better seen as a defence against expropriation by the “liberal left” conscience industry (and other permitted forms of pseudo-dissent): the “menace” in Poe’s film is pervasive and directionless because it represents a general symptom of “spectacular” existence once it has become disconcerted by its own inauthenticity. Max’s paranoia, in a sense, mirrors the breakdown in the narcissistic general economy of the “spectacle.” Which is to say, Max experiences his own being as this breakdown, which is everywhere reflected but nowhere represented, so to speak (no one in the film knows who he is or why he’s there, his “purpose” for being in New York thus appears as what Emma Hacking in No Ripcord magazine calls an “existential search and destroy mission”[19]). His own existence (and thus the real purpose of this mission) is only confirmed by his assassination at the end of the film.

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9. Querelle, the last film to be made by Werner Rainer Fassbinder before his death in 1982 and released posthumously several months afterwards, was largely (if not “faithfully”) based on Jean Genet’s anonymous 1947 queer psychodrama, Querelle de Brest, and was sneeringly described by Vincent Canby in The New York Times as “humourless” and “witless,” a “detour that leads to a dead end,” a disappointing coda to the lifework of “the most important European filmmaker of his generation.” The film is characterised by a certain ambivalence toward Genet’s text – particularly what Fassbinder considered its fascistic elements and Genet’s penchant for poetic transcendentalism, which he countered by means of a Brechtian anti-realism that breaks with much of Fassbinder’s familiar melodramatic style. In certain respects, the only other work of Fassbinder’s that Querrelle significantly resembles on a stylistic level is World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), a sci-fi film produced in 1973 for German television.

Featuring Brad Davis, Jeanne Moreau and long-time Fassbinder collaborator Günter Kaufmann (who Fassbinder cast in a total of 14 films), Querelle is also Fassbinder’s most explicit engagement with the subject of male homosexuality, further heightened by a highly stylised set design and theatrical, non-naturalistic staging and lighting, reminiscent of the work of British director Derek Jarman (in particular his 1986 film, Caravaggio). With Querelle Fassbinder produced a lurid, homoerotic noir that translated Genet’s original text into the realm of expressionist, almost psychotropic, hardboil. And as with all of Fassbinder’s work, Querelle challenges orthodoxies, but perhaps above all the orthodoxies of the self-proclaimed underground of the “New Wave” and the dogmatism of much contemporary counterculture, particularly the gay liberation movement. In many respects, Fassbinder’s work is all about betrayal, sabotage, the acte gratuit, and a general libertine philosophy that, by its very nature, runs contrary to the “rules of engagement” either of the film industry establishment or of the socalled avantgarde.

In certain respects, Querelle itself is a “betrayal” of the increasing devotion Fassbinder’s work had attracted during the 1970s, with its deceptive naturalism and political engagement (however conditional, however much parsed with irony and scathing critique, however much disillusioned with the selfsame counterculture that made such a show of being approved by, and approving in turn, Fassbinder’s cinematic “vision”). Tauntingly prescient (though we will never know just how much), Querelle flaunts its transgressive character in every direction, especially (in light of the emergent AIDS crisis) in its outré depiction of male homosexuality in the wake of the failed radicalism of the ’70s and its mawkishly pornographic obsession with the era’s Bonnie-and-Clyde, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In doing so, Fassbinder finds more in common here with filmmaker’s like Hans Syberberg (Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972)) and Ulrike Ottinger (Freak Orlando (1981)) – among German directors – and Jarman, Ken Russell (Salomé’s Last Dance (1988)) and Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising (1964)) – among the British and Americans – whose at times violent embrace of kitsch and antisentimental melodrama put them very much at odds with the trend towards normalising the old “New Wave” as the film-art wing of the ’80s culture industry.

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10. King Lear, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (1987), invites comparisons to its historical antecedent that run wildly against the pieties of canonicity to which Shakespeare’s work has long succumbed. Yet for all its iconoclasm, Godard’s film is most radical in its “return” to those primordial impulses to which Shakespeare himself was very much arguably responding. From Shakespeare’s play Godard derived the central tropes of power and incest, staged between a short opening prelude – featuring Norman Mailer (as himself, the “scriptwriter”) and his real-life daughter Kate Mailer (as herself, the “great writer’s” daughter), comprising two versions of the same scene of Mailer typing and reading back part of the supposed script for Godard’s film, before sitting down to breakfast on the balcony of his hotel room, where he is joined by his daughter who glances over the script and questions Mailer’s obsession with the mafia (“Don Gloustro? Don Learo?”), to which Mailer replies that the mafia is “the only way to do King Lear” (this being the sum total of a single morning’s shoot before both actor’s, in “a ceremony of star behaviour,” quit the set) – and two intersecting narratives centred around a Swiss lakeside hotel in Nyon (the Beau Rivage), being: 1. the story of mafia boss Don Learo (played by Burgess Meredith; who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era) and his daughter, Cordelia (played by emerging Hollywood star Molly Ringwald, whose name at the time, following her lead role in the 1986 comedy-drama Pretty in Pink, was – Godard argued –synonymous with the paying public’s idea of a “princess”); 2. the story of Shakespeare’s descendent, “William Shakespeare Jnr the Fifth” (played by Peter Sellars), seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s work in the aftermath of Chernobyl, in a post-apocalyptic world from which all cultural memory has disappeared. Godard himself makes a cameo appearance as “Mr Pluggy,” along with Woody Allen, who plays the role of a film editor called “Mr Alien,” the two of whom rediscover the idea of “cinema.”

Speaking for the guardians of official culture, Vincent Canby in his January 22, 1988 column in the New York Times described the film as a “Godardian practical joke” in which Shakespeare’s text is not subject to adaptation but is instead the excuse for an exercise in amateurishness, “sometimes spiteful and mean, sometimes very beautiful, sometimes teetering on the edge of coherence and brilliance… and, finally, as sad and embarrassing as the spectacle of a great dignified man wearing a fishbowl over his head to get a laugh” (the irony of this portrait, not of Godard but of Lear, did not appear to dawn on Canby). With such (predictably) ill-tempered and ill-construed criticisms in view, Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing three months later in the April 8th edition of the Chicago Reader aptly described the film as Godard’s “latest monkey wrench aimed at the Cinematic Apparatus” (if not the cultural apparatus in general) – of which view the New York Times’s reaction was nothing if not a vindication. From its first screening at Cannes, there was indeed the impression that Godard had exceeded himself in this film in seeking to offend the expectations and sensibilities of most critics who, expecting a more or less faithful Shakespeare adaptation, or at least some sort of canonical “Godard” clone, were bound to be dissatisfied. Add to this Godard’s insistence upon subverting the conventional filmic treatment of his subjects: Molly Ringwald, for example, is almost always underlit, or shot against backlighting that renders her facial features (the stuff of celebrity magazine covers) virtually invisible much of the time. The entire film, in fact, can be read as a demystification: of cinema, of the idolatry of Shakespeare and “memorial reconstruction,”[20] and an insistence on a kind of return to or rediscovery of the Shakespearian text itself, in its cognizance of writing-as-experiment (which is to say, writing-as-experience), and not as promulgations from Mt Sinai. Or, as Godard himself put it, channelling the spirit of Lear, “words are one thing, and reality is another thing, and between them there is nothing.”

Like Joyce in Ulysses, Godard’s orientation towards Shakespeare is one of devotional iconoclasm – a combination of Oedipal patricide and re-embodiment, evoking that line early in Ulysses where Joyce writes vis-à-vis his protagonist Stephan Dedalus, “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father” (page 15). In a sense, Godard is showing that in order to “read” Shakespeare it is necessary to rediscover the text in precisely such a recursive, contingent and disillusioned way (the “nothing” which confounds the incestuous tyrant Lear, and which in turn confounds the keepers of Shakespeare). It’s precisely for this reason, too, that we can consider Godard’s film a kind of perversion, not only in its “deviation” from cinematic norms and the classic texts of Shakespeare, but in the Lacanian sense of perversion as père version: the Oedipal action of “translating [sublimating] the father.” The ultimate act of iconoclasm here is not the repudiation of the father, but the return to the empty symbolic kernel of the paternal authority – of the “nothing” in place of ideology, the contained vacuum at the heart of power. And this is nothing if not the core of the “original” Shakespearean text (which, after all, was already a compendium of preceding versions of the story of “King Lear”) – and if Shakespeare’s text can already be read as an allegory of text and of the authority of language, Godard’s film is thus also an allegory of allegory.

What is perhaps most interesting in all of this is – if we accept Rosenbaum’s proposition that the film “puts us on the spot” in a way that “prevents us from redeeming ourselves” – is how Godard’s refusal to venerate, or to take the situation of the film “seriously” (in the manner of those expectations aroused by the “classics”) – in other word’s, his irreverence (or what critics have called his “silliness”) – not only subverts a conventional idolatry (of Shakespeare, of “cinema”), but also subverts the act of subversion: the mystifications of iconoclasm raised to the ideological spectacle of an avantgardism. This is perhaps the most upsetting feature of Godard’s King Lear: its refusal to accommodate the romance of subversion, any more than it accommodates the romance of cinema or the romance of the cult of the author. As Rosenbaum says, “whatever might turn into ‘a Shakespeare play,’ ‘a Mailer script,’ ‘a story,’ or even ‘a Godard film’ in the usual sense is purposefully subverted. The film aspires, like Cordelia, to be (and say) ‘no thing…’”

Godard’s subversion of this literary “personality cult” parallels Shakespeare’s own often misrecognised deconstruction of “Tragedy” as the romanticism of power – and it is this that lies at the “heart” of Godard’s “rediscovery of Shakespeare.” Here we also find Godard at his most incisive with regard to Shakespeare’s text, in which the demystification of sovereignty always runs the risk of descending into a nostalgic romanticism for the personal tragedy of Lear, whose “end” is in fact infused with sinister connotations of incestuous desire and authoritarianism’s claim upon collective pathos. Godard shows us that the perversity of Shakespeare is in keeping his audience witless to the fact of experiencing sympathy with a tyrant’s thwarted desire to exercise incestuous authority over his own daughter, and thus symbolically over their collective “subjectivity,” too.

Citations

[1] Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: d.a.p. / C.T. Editions, 2005 [1974]) 9.

[2] Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, 183.

[3] Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Da Capo, 1995 [1969]) 201.

[4] Tyler, Underground Film, 203.

[5] Tyler, Underground Film, 203.

[6] P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 203.

[7] David Curtis, Experimental Cinema: A Fify-Year Evolution (New York: Dell, 1971) 179.

[8] Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ‘60s (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980) 180.

[9] Tyler, Underground Film, 198.

[10] Warhol and Hackett, POPism, 185.

[11] Sitney, Visionary Film, 199-200.

[12] Sitney, Visionary Film, 349.

[13] Sitney, Visionary Film, 350.

[14] Jonathan McCalmont, “Review of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970),” Film Juice: http://www.filmjuice.com/beyond-the-valley-of-the-dolls-review

[15] Roger Ebert, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/beyond-the-valley-of-the-dolls-1980

[16] Rick Sanders & David Dalton, “Townshend on ‘Tommy’: Behind the Who’s Rock Opera,” Rolling Stone (July 12, 1969).

[17] Duncan Reekie, Subversion: The Definitive History of Underground Cinema (London: Wallflower, 2007) 188.

[18] Nick Zedd writes in his memoir Totem of the Depraved (Los Angeles: 2.13.61, 1996) 78. He adds: “At the New York Film Festival Downtown, all the boring and unclear films got the usual polite applause. Then they showed my film, Kiss Me Goodbye, and some people in the crowd began to produce hissing noises which pleased me, since to get any response other than polite applause from a group of art fags is a major accomplishment” (80); “As filmmakers, we of the Cinema of Transgression must never forget we’re at war with everything Hollywood and the established avant-garde stands for…” (84).

[19] Emma Hacking, “The Foreigner,” No Ripcord (17 October 2010).

[20] Lianne Habinek, “A Question, an Answer, and a Death,” Open Letters Monthly (1 June, 2011): http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/ a-question-an-answer-and-a-death/

 

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