Friday, April 12, 2013

Jesus Franco: The Sorrows of Perversion

“I think a censor is a kind of dictator. The thing is so old-fashioned. They try to cut our wings. It's a pain in the ass. I hate that. I like freedom. I have always liked freedom. I left Spain because I liked freedom. Someone who says to me, ‘You have to cut that because you can see the feet!’, Fuck you! I never went along with that. No, when I say I never went along with that, I left Spain the second time because of that and I went to see the head censor and I told him, ‘You know I am leaving this country because you are here. You are an asshole! You piss me off. I'm leaving.’ Then I left and took my plane. What does it all mean? Who judges? Who is the judge? Who decides? Who has the truth? Who holds the truth with a capital ‘T’? No one! So there's nothing worse than bullshit that cuts people's wings.” – Jesus Franco

Jesus “Jess” Franco aka Jesus Franco Manera aka David Khune aka Frank Hollman aka Clifford Brown aka James P. Johnson aka Dave Tough. May 12, 1930 to April 4, 2013. Film director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and actor.

What normally is a cursory listing on my obituary blog isn’t. While Franco had a couple of conventional credits to his name (assistant director on Bardem’s “Death of a Cyclist” and second unit director on Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight”), his fame/infamy comes from his enormous output of cinematic sleaze.

Strangely but appropriately, this person bears the names of the two men who shaped modern Spain – Jesus Christ and Francisco Franco.

Somewhere between 160 and 200 completed films bear his name (he was working on “Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Women” at the time of his death). Helpfully, his Wikipedia editor summates his career in this succinct manner: “Franco's themes often revolved around lesbian vampires, women in prison, surgical horror, sadomasochism, zombies and sexploitation (including several films based on the writings of the Marquis deSade). He also worked in other exploitation film genres, such as cannibal films, spy films, giallo, crime films, science fiction, jungle adventure, exorcist films, war movies, historical dramas and nunspoitation.

Transgression was his lifeblood. He was proud of working outside studio constraints and with financial resources he put together himself – a prototypical DIYer.

But to what end? His most recognizable film is the cult horror classic “The Awful Dr. Orloff,” a variant on the theme essayed in Franju’s “Eyes without a Face” two years before, and not nearly as good. 

Later films that merit a mention in some cinema textbooks include “Venus in Furs,” “Vampyros Lesbos,” and a “Count Dracula” with Christopher Lee. These are bookmarked primarily for the fact that they pushed the boundaries of censorship back (and made money doing so) so that other filmmakers could express themselves more fully.

Franco worked quickly, stayed in budget, stuck to exploitation themes, and made enough money to create continually, prolifically. Wallowing in sex and death, he could remain formulaic, providing the viewer with bloody frights and hardcore action, and still exercise his auteurist impulses.

Franco’s leading ladies, Soledad Miranda and Lina Romay, embodied projections of his mind. Miranda, transformed by Franco into an erotic, gothic figure, died in 1970 after only a few films with him. 

Romay, a self-confessed exhibitionist, was a central figure in his films from that point on, collaborating with him for three decades.

Like other underground moviemakers of the period, who found their worked both banned and more marketable due to its dark, perverse, graphic, and suggestive elements – Radley Metzger, Walerian Boroczyk, Jean Rollin, Mario Bava, Russ Meyer, Lucio Fulci, John Waters, Dario Argento, Ken Russell, Fassbinder – he was often accused of being a hack (too prolific), of a conscious attempt to destroy the audience morally or bring it to its knees or provoke revolution (too subversive . . . of course, today in America the only subversive cinema is that of the right wing). Of course, the subversives of yesterday become the honored masters in time – the examples of Fassbinder, Almodovar, and Lynch all testify to this.

But is there anything uniquely “there” about Franco’s work? Like any conscientious and somewhat perverted cinemaphile, I once dived into Franco’s work to see if there was something redeeming about it. Alas, no. To understand his films, we would have to track backwards through and peel away the layers of post-modernist irony and appropriation of stereotype, liberal openmindness, and the ‘60s impulse to overstep all bounds flagrantly, and see them as just as Franco did – as a way to get off, as a means to an end.

They are precursors of torture porn, stroke reels expanded to feature length, reflexively violating taboos like a drive-by shooter spraying bullets into a neighborhood. He is the filmmaker your parents warned you about, the one who made the film that, if you see it, will poison your mind and turn your life into an abysmal nightmare of depravity!

Except that, if your momma raised you right, it won’t. Franco was hooked on his puerile pleasures, and enough people share them to have made his oeuvre possible. You will find them wearisome after a while and move on to better things. And if you don’t, you’ve got almost 200 gaudy, obscene, gross, anti-woman, anti-life, anti-sensical very strange movies of dubious quality to collect.

So why spend so much time on Franco? He’s an instructive example of where, for me, the artfully transgressive shades into the gratuitously perverse. Where’s the line? At what point do we get up and walk away from work that insults us?

The big-time, snootiest and most inside of movie cognoscenti, raised during the glorious post-World War II years of the flood of foreign film into America and the following New Wave in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, reacts violently to horrible mainstream fare but keeps the gate open for weirdness that is often as mediocre, exploitative and self-indulgent as the mainstream fare it seeks to supplant. Independent does not mean significant.

So, don’t be afraid to look at Jesus Franco’s movies. It’s just a phase. He was content to be enslaved and fulfilled by genre.

“I feel that cinema should be like a box of surprises, like a magic box. And in that world, anything is allowed to enter, as long as it's always treated with a spirit of ‘Pop!’. Not in the spirit of ‘Now you understand the problems of society in 1947’. No, I don't give a shit about that. I think cinema should be like magic, a surprise, that's all. That's why, to conclude, I love movies . . . and stories.” – Jesus Franco

Friday, April 5, 2013

In memoriam: Roger Ebert

The death of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert yesterday has prompted a flood of condolences and tributes, myself included. I interviewed him in 2003, but did not post it until yesterday, on my Obit Patrol website. I repost it here as well.

Obviously, Roger was not an undiscovered gem. Most everyone liked his work. He spoke and wrote in a clear and straightforward manner, and in doing so brought film and film criticism to a broad swath of people who otherwise might have missed out on all the fun. He taught us all about film and writing, and his generous, self-aware, and essentially humorous self did great things -- including taking time to talk to and later write to me, to review and endorse my work, and just generally to be a good guy.

Here's the interview, originally published on April 3, 2003. Thanks for everything, Roger.

Roger Ebert’s life at the movies is full of sound and fury

Colorado Daily Entertainment Editor

Roger Ebert is arguably the most influential film critic in America. The Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times is a nationally syndicated film commentator, and the author of a continuing series of film reference works and collections of cinematic criticism and evaluation, including last year’s “The Great Movies.” In addition, his quarter-century-long presence as co-host of the popular “Sneak Previews/At the Movies” movie review television program imbedded his image indelibly in the popular consciousness.
      This week, Ebert returns to the CU-Boulder campus for his 34th consecutive year as a participant in the annual Conference on World Affairs. He took the time to talk to the Daily about film, his writing, the Conference itself - and the cheeseburgers at Tom’s.
      Colorado Daily: What is it about the Conference that has brought you back year after year?
      Roger Ebert: Well, it’s kind of like an annual milestone in my annual journey through life. I came as a very very young man, I was in my twenties, and I just find it to be unique among anything I’ve ever encountered in that you gather these assorted people from all over the world and put them on panels with each other, oftentimes moving them loose from their specialties so that they have to think on their feet about things. This is not where you listen to a bunch of experts giving the same speeches they give every time they go to a conference. Because it’s not academically or professionally oriented, the people have to use actual spoken English in order to communicate, so you can tell pretty quickly whether they know what they’re talking about. Particularly in this time, when most academic writing is written in a code determined primarily to deflect comprehension, it’s really refreshing that this conference is held in spoken, vernacular English. And apart form that, I always find out something I didn’t know. It was at Boulder that I was first confronted with feminism, gay liberation, the Internet - I actually surfed the Web for the first time in Boulder. It wasn’t even the Web then ... every year, there’s something new in our society and the Conference invariably will be right on top of it.
      CD: Why are you attracted to doing an Ozu (film) this year?
      RE: Well, I think he’s one of the three greatest directors who ever lived.
      CD: Who would you accord the other two positions to?
      RE: I’m not going to reveal that - I may reveal that at Macky. I love Ozu. Sooner or later, everyone who loves films gets to Ozu. He is a person who deals with deceptively small topics, usually having to do with domestic situations - parents and children, husbands and wives, three generations, sometimes. Frequently his films and even the titles of the films seem similar. You have “early Autumn” and “Late Autumn,” “Late Spring” and “Early Spring.” Yet the control that he has over his camera, over the placement of his camera, his attention to the people that his films are about, is so perfect that it’s like a cleansing of cobwebs compared to the busy styles of modern films.
      CD: Does his seemingly static style, that’s so antithetical to what people have been trained to see, serve that purpose?
      RE: What he does is he demonstrates something that I’ve long believed, which is that action films are more boring. Because, you see, if you’re cutting all the time, it doesn’t make the film go more quickly, it just exhausts your mind more quickly. A film is usually more absorbing if you really are drawn into the characters and into their situation - and if the scene is working, there’s also no need for a cut. Frequently, movies with a great many cuts in them have got to build up some kind of tension in the editing room to conceal the fact that nothing is really happening on the screen... Donald Ritchie, who is the leading Western scholar on Japanese film ... was told by the Japanese that Ozu would not travel because he was “too Japanese,” and no one who wasn’t Japanese could understand it - and of course Ozu is the most universal of directors. His (Ozu’s) “Tokyo Story” is one of the few films that I’ve shown to my film classes that invariably makes people cry. So we went through (“Floating Weeds”) a shot at a time, and I was simply amazed by how well it works with this approach. You know, there are some films that are resistant to shot-at-a-time - the approach just doesn’t work for them. But because Ozu has so much intelligence and thought that goes into his camera strategy, there’s a lot to be found and a lot to be talked about. This spring is kind of an Ozu spring for me, because later in the month ... I’ve got my own Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, and we’re going to show one of Ozu’s silent films there, called “I Was Born, But...”. It’s going to be a performance with a benshi...
      CD: The on-stage narrator? (Used in the days of Japanese silent film, these professional “explainers” outlined the plot and provided insight for viewers - ed.)
      RE: You know what a benshi is, you’re well-informed. We’re bringing a benshi in from Tokyo ... so I’m going to get a lot of Ozu in during April.
      CD: Considering the sheer volume of work that you’ve seen in your career, how do you come to any given film with a freshened set of sensibilities?
      RE: Well, my sensibilities aren’t necessarily fresh, they may be seasoned. I just go in, sit down ,and the movie starts. I hope I know more about movies now than when I started...
      CD: Would you still advocate filmgoing as a communal experience, as opposed to an increasing move to ... viewing in isolation?
      RE: Yeah, I would. Light your celluloid in a big room with a lot of strangers is the best way to see a movie. The better the picture and the better the sound at home, the better off you are ... that’s better than looking at the movie on some little TV set with a crummy VHS tape. But going to a theater is the best way to see a movie.
      CD: Do you feel like you were spoiled in the period of the late ‘60s and the ‘70s, the independent age (of American cinema)?
      RE: Yeah, I feel kind of that way. The studios are now are interested primarily in “product.” That ‘s what they call it. There was a very revealing comment by a studio executive during the last month in connection with the Oscar race for Best Director. He was explaining why he wasn’t going to vote for Scorsese, and he said, “Scorsese really hasn’t contributed. He ‘s not interested in making money for anyone.” That’s almost like an emblematic statement. It shows that this man at least, to him the financial success of a movie is totally indicative of its artistic success.
      CD: After having done it, and presumably, at least early on in your career, kind of having to see everything that comes down the pike, do you try to exercise a bit more control over what you watch?
      RE: I go to just about everything. Last year I reviewed 272 movies... I like to do the big, commercial pictures, and I also like to do the independent films and the foreign films. That’s kind of my mission, because I bring out a book every year called the Movie Yearbook, which wouldn’t really function if it didn’t more or less have every movie of interest in it.
      CD: The schedule is just crazy all that (Conference) week-
      RE: Yeah, but I always find time to get a cheeseburger at Tom’s Tavern ... a bunch of us always go up to the Red Lion, I always makes my rounds of the used book stores in town. I’ve spent about nine months in Boulder, one week at a time.
      CD: I very much appreciate your most recent book, “The Great Movies”...
      RE: I intended it as kind of an entry point. I became aware that a lot of younger filmgoers just had no idea at all of film history. They’d all seen “Casablanca,” and the next-oldest was probably “Star Wars,” and I started the “Great Movies” series ... really to kind of open up other titles and other directors and other countries to people. Hopefully, they see one of those movies, they can investigate it further and find out more about that director, and so forth.
      CD: Do you have any instructions for those who are starting their careers as film critics?
      RE: Write in the first person - not only stylistically, but emotionally. You really have to be writing not just from the first person, but also - it’s gotta be you. There is no such thing as objective truth in criticism. There’s no right or wrong, there’s only how you feel and why and how you can justify it or explain it.