All posts by Caleb Moss

366 UNDERGROUND: ALEISTER CROWLEY’S THE RITE OF MARS: A ROCK OPERA (2014)

Eleusyve Productions

FEATURING: Jon Sewell, Sunnie Larsen, Kristin Holsather, Richard Cardone, Leith McCombs

 PLOT: Part of a larger series of works, this installation features an ensemble of leather clad, deadpan, sexually androgynous and glittering cast members who act out Aleister Crowley’s “Rite of Mars” on a darkened sound stage as a rock opera.

Aleister Crowley's Rites of Mars
COMMENTS: Theater can be a difficult medium in which to stage ambitious concepts, especially when the form has been grossly over-saturated with trite, treacly fare targeting audiences looking for some token of tourist prestige when sightseeing on Broadway. This type of creative environment could engender creative stagnation, but due to a lack of lavish budgets, theatrical performances often rely on their own intuition and invention to flesh out their imaginative designs.

Initially, what caught my attention about this filmed performance was the sheer nuttiness of its concept: Aleister Crowley’s “Rite of Mars” re-imagined as a rock opera a la Roger Water’s The Wall or Queensrÿche’s “Operation MindCrime” (which, by the operatic vocal stylings and shredding 80’s progressive metal guitar riffs, seems to be where Rites‘ sonic influences lie). The jams can sound kind of goofy, but your reaction depends on whether you find the musical design endearingly nostalgic or insufferable (I found it amusing, yet impressive in its technical prowess).

Before I begin my critique of the recording of the performance, allow us to review the thesis of this production. The following statement of intent appears on the producers’ website:

Our goal at Eleusyve Productions is the presentation of the seven plays comprising Aleister Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis as musical theater pieces in a manner that will render them more fully accessible to a broad and discriminating audience, using music, light, dance and drama to enhance the poetry and symmetry of the original works. It is further our goal to make these completed productions available in as many formats and to as many markets as possible, in order to more widely circulate our artistic interpretations of this material.

The Rites of Eleusis (a series of invocations, penned by the most wicked man dead, Aleister Crowley) are elaborately designed to instill religious ecstasy into the audience. By its very nature, it is intended to be a metaphysical provocation to the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie, calling upon occult theology and decadent subversion to titillate and bring about a spiritual awakening in the viewer—in Crowelian terms at least.

Although the story is not conveyed directly to the audience through a conventional form, it could be described as a piece of inspired storytelling told through bombastic imagery, gestures, kick-ass guitar riffs, and Wagnerian tableaux. Militaristic motifs recur, often spliced with inspirational cues from S&M fashion design (God, do I love me some artfully-crafted sleaze).

All of this makes it all sound rather dreary and humorless, but here’s where this particular passion project delivers: it’s pretty goddamn funny.

Straddling a median between camp and deadpan, the acting ensemble should be commended for displaying a quiet sense of humility about their performance. The gender-bending make-up design was also very attractive and always delightful. The set design, bare and minimal, uses the blackened negative space to eliminate the excess layers of artifice between the audience and the performance—Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect,” similar to the gutted, chalk-etched set designs of ’s Dogville. A dystopian science-fiction influence is also present, and the  juxtaposition of military uniforms and violent acts with archival war footage—images of bloodshed, conquest, and advancement—have a hypnotizing effect upon the viewer.

The music ranges from interesting to very good, even kickin’ at times. For those who prefer their rock & roll with a little flair, flamboyancy and delicious kitsch flavoring those tasty tunes, you might find yourself doing air guitar while you’re alone and no one else is watching.

The performers are obviously indebted to the Crowleian experiments of , the seminal American avant-garde pariah and homoerotic poet of independent cinema (and basically the inventor of the modern music video medium); especially to the mind-meltingly trippy works Invocation of My Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising.  Both Anger and Eleusyve Productions strive to inspire a controllable chaos in their audiences and attempt to render vast esoteric mythologies and personal obsessions in a digestible form. The liberated sexuality, free-form slipstream of imagery, experimental impulses, and dalliances with rock-and-roll culture as a medium to present occult theology is also akin to Anger’s early works.

I wouldn’t say that there is anything here that is conceptually radical or deliberately offensive to Juedo-Christian sensibilities, but if you don’t mind some decent 80’s inspired jams, want to grab a beer after a long day, smoke some grass, and relax, then why not watch a low-budget rock opera? It sure beats having to watch “Cats” or some other sanitized dreck.

Follow this link for clips from Rite of Mars, and other performances in this cycle.

366 UNDERGROUND: A KILLER CONVERSATION (2014)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: David V.G. Davies

FEATURING: Ryan Hunter, Melanie Denholme, Rudy Barrow

PLOT: When Karl inadvertently invites a burglar inside his home, he has to rely on his ex, Pauline, to help him worm his way out from his rapidly escalating and increasingly dangerous predicament.

Still from A Killer Conversation (2014)
COMMENTS: So, here’s the thing: I thought this film (80 minutes overall in duration) was complete garbage by the time the stereotypical hoodlum barges into Karl’s house and begins a tedious exercise in post- crisis-scenario filmmaking. Or maybe the movie is a specially designed weapon manufactured to induce an existential crisis in the audience?

I found the casual racism explicit in not only the characterization of the burglar, but in the sheer lameness in how the film rehashes the hostage trope and depicts the hapless bourgeoisie family—which I found not only extremely offensive, but just plain uninspired and contrived. I might have been able to appreciate the dialogue and the professional lighting and idiosyncratic camera angling if the main ingredients didn’t taste so poor.

Maybe I would of been less repelled by the clever-for-clever’s-sake approach to depicting the burglar if the satire didn’t feel so disingenuous. Or maybe I would of been less aggravated by the situational dynamic if Karl wasn’t just another white domestic victim, minding his own business.

Perhaps there might be a cultural misinterpretation in the way I am viewing this. But, as an American, I’ve seen what media depictions of racial hysteria can do to fuel tension this past year. And seriously, the last thing we need right now is someone who thinks they’re being edgy and cool when handling sensitive, potentially incendiary material.

Here’s a full-breakdown of the paper-thin plot (a whitewashed retread of the home invasion trope with obnoxious post-Tarantino stylization):

A man of ebony hue bursts in the door and casually lays out the plan for Karl. This being a Tarantino clone, strained attempts at edgy banter ensue. Karl whines in a obnoxious tone. Since this is a British Tarantino clone, we are treated to pointless quips trying to underline the absurdity of the mundane elements of a domestic invasion scenario. Har-har. So we get some stupid jokes about the length of rope, and other pitiful exchanges so we, the audience, are constantly reminded just how clever and absent of responsibility the creators are for any of the content displayed. The film goes on like this for the rest of the film and just never lets up. Talking and empty threats ad nauseum ahead.

I would go so far to not only deem this film racist and misogynistic, but dangerously boring and stupid. If it was edited down to maybe 5-10 minutes, I would of been like, “eh.” But at its current length, it is unbearable to watch, and possibly a public mental health risk. If there is any stylistic contemporary to this film that I can think of, it is yet another film that I absolutely loathe: The Boondock Saints. Without further elucidating my particular distaste for that film, it made me realize something: Tarantino is dead. The sooner the independent movie scene throws off his shadow, the better. So if the filmmakers intended to offend me, then congratulations. I would just state that in light of what has actually been achieved by this short film, that it is a hollow and meaningless victory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY

“…[an] absurd dark comedy, where the burglar and Karl philosophize about life, love, and proper manners around Karl’s kitchen table.”–Levi Anderson, Rogue Cinema

366 UNDERGROUND: HEART ATTACK! THE EARLY PULSE POUNDING CINEMA OF KELLY HUGHES (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Kelly Hughes

FEATURING: Betty Marshall, Ernest Rhoades, James Peterson, Sarah Katherine Lewis

PLOT: We are introduced to the work of Kelly Hughes, the creative guru behind the assaultive public access series “Heart Attack Theatre,” through the words, experiences, and memories of the cast and crew who worked with him.

Still from Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes

COMMENTS: Kelly Hughes is an underground director who hails from Seattle. He established his prominence through “Heart Attack Theatre,” a series broadcast on public access airwaves from 1991-1993 that most bourgeois viewers would dismiss as trashy, reprehensible, or simply “shock for shock sake.”

I resent that last tautology the most. When pinned on an artist’s work, the cliche is frequently used to imply that the artist’s work is disingenuous, exploitative, and that the labor and the blood and sweat that they invested in it wasn’t meaningful as anything other than a cheap novelty to amuse a select few.

As the first interviewee, Ernest Rhoades, says as he recollects his experience working for Hughes’ “Lucky Charms Productions,” some artists simply create ugly and nasty things from pure love and passion. Some artists are just destined to be dismissed as ugly misfits. Despite being penniless, starving, and painstakingly filming under what most professionals would deem as intolerable conditions, they still work because they truly believe in what they are creating. I strongly emphasize with that warrior-like commitment.

And I’m sorry, Kelly Hughes, that you never were able to create the explosive-laden, cacophonous action film that you secretly always wanted to create.

But I do appreciate that you made something.

Heart Attack! gives us glimpses of the lo-fi, brazenly transgressive style of Kelly Hughes’ brief filmography. Obviously, the initial comparison that emerges is to the early films of  (though to be honest, I think that comparison is just inescapable for a lot of low-budget filmmakers like Hughes, as pointless a criticism as when people carelessly fling around the descriptor ian when reviewing weird films). Anyone familiar with the filmography of   will definitely notice the strange effect that Hughes gets from lo-fi VHS recording tape technology, the grainy texture and subtly abstract, impressionistic colors that making the visual aesthetic as tenuous and degenerative in form as the perversely grotesque content on display.

Though if we’re going to spend this much time pretentiously discussing art, I say let us recall the words of transgressive art’s intellectual forebearer, Antonin Artaud: “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.”

Here is a brief listing of some of the films featured within Heart Attack!‘s breezy hour-long survey of Hughes’ lo-fi inventions in the public-access television medium:

• “Shot In Hughes’ kitchen”: A woman and a man stare in horror at the open kitchen cabinet. The man crawls inside it. It inexplicably consumes him. The woman screams.
La Cage Aux Zombies: An “upscale Grapes of Wrath lady” (played by a very handsome man) stares out of a rusting, dilapidated door window. S(he) has a cartoonishly shrill groan and an amputated arm, and salutes Hitler fashionably. More happens, but it is challenging to say where the other clips fit into the larger narrative. Looks cool, though.
• “Say My Name Before I Die”: A nude man and woman stand in front of a bathroom mirror. They are discussing monetary concerns. They begin to copulate lovingly.
• “An Inconvenient Whore”: A nude man stretches over the edge of a bed, moaning. A woman leans over his face and informs the strapping young prostitute that there is another client waiting. Moaning resumes.
• “Gut Reaction”: A grizzly man in the middle of the woods wields a chainsaw. His potential victim screams in terror. Hilarious Benny Hill-esque antics ensue. The woman escapes and is picked up by a good Samaritan driving a dingy pick-up truck. The grizzly man appears and straddles the truck, blocking the view of the front windshield. She admits that she previously had an affair with her gynecologist. We discover that the man chasing her was her former lover. And then there is dismemberment. Afterwards, she spontaneously gives birth to a gigantic lime-green toy serpent. Then her snake baby chases them off.

From what I saw of Kelly Hughes’ films, I genuinely liked them. The ensemble didn’t act poorly, either, for being mostly unrecognized and technically amateur by conventional standards.

But I won’t say anything definitively on Hughes’ cinema until I actually watch his films. In their entirety.

Because as a fellow misfit, and as a young reviewer, I believe he deserves my respect when I approach his films.

So until that day I see his films, I consider any opinion on the early cinema of Kelly Hughes as merely tentative.

Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes is exclusively available online at vhx.com. Watch Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes ($3.99).

READER RECOMMENDATION: KILL BILL (VOLS. 1 & 2) (2003-2004)

Reader recommendation by Caleb Moss

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox

PLOT: A woman known only as “the Bride” awakens from a coma and sets off to wreak revenge on Bill and the team of assassins that betrayed her.

Still from Kill Bill
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: By the sole merit of being Quentin Tarantino’s most self-indulgent, ambitious and proudly artificial film. Not only is this Tarantino at the height of his formalistic film-making capabilities, this kinetic and entertaining work of ultraviolent pornography may perhaps be the most aesthetically alienating and divisive in his filmography, even to the adamant Tarantino fanbase. It’s therefore worth considering for the List not only as representative of Quentin Tarantino, but as being the seminal representative of the postmodern exploitation genre at its tautest and most entertaining.

COMMENTS: Have you ever been curious what kind of film  would direct if he was perpetually stuck with the brain of a hyper-intelligent, hyperactive 14-year old and had an obsessive penchant for wanton violence, manga, and endlessly deconstructing pop-culture ephemera? This is your movie.

Adhering to the already well-established standard on this website in which the quality of the film discussed can merit inclusion on the List when the degree of weirdness is more or less questionable, I will waste no further time on exalting the blood-drenched beauty of this film, and instead shall provide three reasons why this is Tarantino’s weirdest film:

1. Aesthetic Design: If you’re the film-obsessive type, then every frame of this movie will feel as if you’re being treated to a Nouvelle Vague-themed candy store whose wares are arranged in an array of colorful nods to exploitation and B-movie cinema (see the crimson skies inspired by the Certified Weird film Goke in Volume 1!) The film alternates so frequently between different cinematic modes and filters ranging from anime (a segment animated by  of Funky Forest fame!) to black and white to the striking image of the faces of Uma Thurman’s enemies superimposed over hers in a garish red hue.

2. Unreal and Hyperstylized Violence: Tarantino, a renowned purveyor of aestheticized violence, slices and dices himself a place within the annals of such maestros of perverse, arty carnage among the likes of Sam Peckinpah, , and Sergio Leone. Blood spurts out like ribbons from expertly cut limbs. Our revenge-bent protagonist literally survives a gunshot to her temple simply through the revitalizing force of pure hatred. Uma Thurman dismembers over eighty-eight Yakuza grunts—and then some—effortlessly. A custom-made katana can literally tear down both man and deity alike.

3. Non-Linear Chronology: As in Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill series structures itself after postmodern narrative, preferring to splice up its epic story as if the entire film was being projected as the murderous fever-dream of an over-caffeinated geek.

Unlike Pulp Fiction, however, the Kill Bill series manages to achieve what its widely-loved predecessor only aims at: rendering pure, unadulterated pulp into a cinematic showcase for gloriously nihilistic Pop-Art. Motifs of blood, sharpened steel, and fantastical dismemberment recur frequently until it all blurs together, a savage yet strangely mesmerizing poetry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange, fun and densely textured work that gets better as it goes along… Few filmmakers have ever had the freedom and resources to make such a piece exactly as they wished, and Tarantino takes it so far that it becomes a highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal excursion into a world of movie-inspired unreality.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (Vol. 1, contemporaneous)

 

READER RECOMMENDATION: STEAK (2007)

Reader recommendation by Caleb Moss

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ramzy Bedia, Johnathan Lambert

PLOT: After he is released from being institutionalized in a mental ward facility for seven years because he was accidentally framed for the murders committed by his high school friend Georges, Blaise is flung into a strange, incongruous near-future where 1950’s kitsch a la “Happy Days” and extreme body modification mingle together swimmingly.

Still from Steak (2007)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Quentin Dupieux, as readers of this website are fully aware, has a young, idiosyncratic film career replete with odd meta-humor and other peculiarities. This sadly maligned debut feature is no different: it distinguishes itself through its mixture of ageless plastic surgery disasters, masochistic cricket bat gang rituals, wryly absurd dialogue, and very warped buddy comedy dynamic.

COMMENTS: Blaise is a very unfortunate, albeit slightly dimwitted, individual to be friends with the likes of Georges, who is by all accounts a superficial opportunist who carelessly places Blaise into predicaments that cause his mind to slowly unravel until he becomes a disfigured shadow of the loser Georges once was. If the previous description makes it sound as if Quentin Dupieux created something along the lines of a heart-wrenching melodrama, then fret not: this film is incredibly funny, sporting strange conversational oodles which skewer humor trends, clique culture, and even a few self-referential jabs at Quentin’s own career as an electronic musician. Also noteworthy is what may be some of the finest use of shallow focus framing in Quentin’s output, quietly transforming the bandage-wrapped, post-op profile of Georges into something distorted and rather unnerving.

This film features some of Quentin’s most ambitious sound production as well, pulling together fellow French electro collaborators Sebastian Tellier and SebastiAn on board to produce a consistently eccentric and addictive soundtrack which fades and swells in and out of the film’s oddity-rife tapestry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In many ways Steak is a much weirder film than Rubber.”–Rich Haridy, Rich on Film (DVD)