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

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