When the mass public’s idea of “avant-garde” film is something like Rocky Horror Picture Show or Donnie Darko, or when their idea of a “cutting edge” auteur is someone like Tim Burton, then when (and if) they do get exposed to the real thing, the inevitable happens: shortly into the film, one hears grumbling, perhaps even aggressive anger, impassioned charges of pretension, and eventually, the sight of patrons heading for the nearest exit.
For those inclined, take this as a good sign to stay for the challenge.
“Elitism” in artistic taste has become a dirty word. Frequently, one hears the excruciatingly lame defense for not being to handle it, “Well, it’s just my taste and it doesn’t really matter”.
Actually, it does. Because your “taste” is a reflection of your willingness to confront and evolve past tradition, and that takes balls.
Even the so-called “cult crowd” has its limitations, and usually this crowd consists of mainly under thirty geeks who will inevitably become tomorrow’s conservatives.
Dispensing first of preconceived notions of “what film is” and “what film isn’t” and mantling an attitude of being “boundlessly expansive” undoubtedly helps in shedding the possibilities of conservative infections. In the true spirit of October 31st, this list celebrates a provocative nature in the medium of film.
1. E. Elias Merhige‘s Begotten (1990) has a texture of intensity unlike any other film. The fact that this silent, punk retelling of creation, passion, and apocalypse even made it’s way into the so-called art house circuit and festival scene amounted to a minor miracle. At nearly an hour and a half, this film admirably refuses to follow the arc of narrative ground rules and, therefore, will tax the post-Matrix crowd. A few amateurs feebly attempted to compare it to Eraserhead. Unfortunately, Merhige’s follow ups have been noble failures.
2. A.I. (Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick) (2001) was already an extinct dinosaur when it was released, being, quite possibly, the last of the epic art films. It is a film that will not pay phony homage to its viewers, nor satisfy cursory cravings. Spielberg fans expressed disappointment and even outrage, which is understandable since their god, along with George Lucas, considerably helped reduce the art of film to happy meal-styled movie making. A.I. disturbed many viewers and, although it is not a perfect film, put no trust in the opinions of those who hate it. Despite rumors to the contrary, Kubrick wanted Spielberg to direct it and he was right in this assessment, as the film, a hybrid of both filmmakers, has a sublime, elegiac, static quality.
3. 1940 audiences were no more receptive to dispensing with preconceived notions than audiences at the turn of the 21st century. When Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) was released, it was considered an abysmal failure. It took the experimental 1960s audience to give this film its due. When I first saw it in a theater, in the early 1980s, half of the audience had walked out by the intermission with one woman loudly grumbling, “This ain’t no movie for kids!” This ambitious, noble experiment cost Disney much heartbreak. Looking at it now, some 70 years later, it is the opening, abstract sequence of the Stokowksi arranged “Tocatta and Fugue” that most captivates. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain” (with a Lucifer modeled off actor Bela Lugosi), and Dukas’ ”Sorcerers Apprentice” are equally superb. However, the Disney animators handling of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” is almost unforgivable, rendering the film a flawed masterpiece. Fantasia 2000 is even more of a mixed bag and is far too polished in comparison.
4. Kenneth Anger: The Complete Magic Lantern Cycle. The grandfather of dazzling, experimental cinema and author of the infamous “Hollywood Babylon”, this 83 year old gay Aliester Crowley disciple is still occasionally making films, such as My Surfing Lucifer (2009) about Clark Gable’s short-lived stepson, but his work since the Magick Lantern Cycle has been anti-climatic. Scorpio Rising, Lucifer Rising, Rabbit’s Moon, Eaux d’Artifice, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and Invocation of My Demon Brother have become legendary. All of these films abound in 1960s psychedelia, even though most of them, such as the evocative Fireworks (1947), pre-date the flower power period. Highly influenced by Jean Cocteau, Anger barely managed to complete the films he did (some, such as Rabbit’s Moon and 1949′s Puce’s Moment are fragments of what Anger intended). Financing and personality quirks were problematic to say the least (Anger is as much charlatan as he is maverick). Absolutely guaranteed to offend fundamentalist Christians, Playstation fanatics, reality TV fans, and the bourgeoisie.
5. By Brakhage-Anthology Volumes I & II (various dates). The late Stan Brakhage made over 400 films before his death a few years ago. Possibly, the most well known of these, Dog Star Man, is included here. It consists of a prelude, filmed in 1962, followed by four sections which were filmed from 1963 -64. The prologue begins with the universal elements—air, fire, water, and earth. In the four sections that follow, we travel with Brakhage through the cosmos and the intimately personal, which includes his pets and, sensuously, his wife.
Alas, Brakhage is more talked about than seen, or he was years ago. I am not sure if he is still as discussed in film school circles, but it’s telling to hear wannabe filmmakers complain about the “excessive” length of Brakhage’s films, which are normally well under the ten minute mark. In the essential and prolific 8 mm Songs (1964-1969), Brakhage lenses everything from graphic sex to autopsies, from physically scratching into the film emulsion to Vietnam War protest, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink (the kitchen sink being narrative). This challenging filmmaker should be required viewing, but he’s not for aesthetic wimps.
6. Derek (2008). Two great artists, director Isaac Julien and writer Tilda Swinton, pay homage to another great artist, Gay Liberation filmmaker Derek Jarman. Jarman studied under and worked with Ken Russell, and it shows. Russell’s flamboyant influence was apparent when Jarman struck out on his own and made such opulent films as Jubilee (1978), Caravaggio (1986) (see below), Brittan’s War Requiem (1989) and Blue (1993) before tragically dying of aids in 1994. Jarman was provocatively forthright about the homoerotic experience in his films, and he mixed that theme with rich spirituality in the superb Sebastiane (1976), about the third century saint and martyr.
In Derek Julien and Swinton (who was a close friend and collaborator) view the world through a renegade’s eyes. Jarman’s stubborn defiance shines through the lenses of Julien, who treats his subject with sensitivity and respect. Jarman’s final years were indeed tragic, as he was slowly dying in Margaret Thatcher’s oppressive Britain, but Jarman faced his setbacks with honesty and humor. Julien assembles his collage homage around Swinton’s “Letter to an Angel,” but Jarman himself, expectantly, elicits the most interest. He is unflinchingly forthright, so much so that many viewers may find themselves squirming in their seats. Jarman would be amused, seeing that as the highest compliment.
7. Caravaggio (1986). Nigel Terry gives the performance of his life as the controversial artist in Derek Jarman’s poetic, lushly colored film. Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean are memorable as lovers of the bisexual artist. This may be Jarman’s most accessible film, but it’s frank and idiosyncratic enough to get under the skin of homophobes and those religiously attached to hyper-narrative. Sex, God, and death are Jamran’s themes. Of course, one could persuasively argue that all art is about those three subjects, but Jarman serves them up on his usual, charmingly stubborn, film-as-art, brass knuckle platter.
8. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006). Unfortunately Smith’s film-as-beat-poetry, Flaming Creatures (1963, and his only completed film), still evades us, but this documentary, by Mary Jordan, nearly canonizes this Low East Side performance artist who influenced icons such as Andy Warhol, Frederico Fellini, and John Waters. Waters is among those interviewed in the film, as is free jazz torchbearer John Zorn. Smith was yet another AIDS victim, one who actually wanted to contract the disease. He was successful enough that it killed him in 1989.
Smith considered his art his life, was passionately anti-capitalist, and was just as passionate in his resistance towards showing his work. When promoter Jonas “Uncle Fishhook” Mekas took Creatures on the circuit, he earned Smith’s enmity forever (despite the fact that Mekas was arrested several times for exhibiting the film, which was banned and labeled pornographic). Fortunately, after hearing the late Smith castigate Mekas, Jordan allows Mekas to tell his side of the story.
Nearly everyone who worked with Smith eventually (and understandably) fell out with him, yet Smith also inspired intense loyalty and devotion. His sister, who is the (hotly debated) executor of his estate, is not one of the devotedly loyal. She calls her brother out as a weak momma’s boy, belittles his sexual preference and, possibly, was responsible for the glaring omission of critic J. Hoberman (who curated the first retrospective of Smith) among the interviewees. This doc is a tantalizing and long overdue portrait of a provocateur who preferred the anonymity of the catacombs. Undoubtedly, there are those who would have preferred Smith remain there, including Smith himself.
9. Stalker (1979). Andrei Tarkovsky may just be the most challenging filmmaker for American Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome film audiences. Stalker, at nearly three hours, is a meditative, hypnotic, ambiguous, poetic, post-apocalyptic parable which demands the viewer’s complete attention and interaction (to quote Tarkovsky himself). It is written about more extensively on this site by 366 Weird Movies.
10. Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Charlie Chaplin, the lovable tramp, as an older, wiser… serial killer. Audiences and critics pounced on this when it was released. James Agee wrote a famous four column defense, but the film was yanked and Chaplin, who had been irking the status quo for some time, was sent packing as an artist in exile. Of course, Verdoux seems a bit tame now, but that hardly diminishes its bleak, subversive tone, especially when compared to much of Chaplin’s latter, saccharine output (Limelight-1952).
Of course, Chaplin rails against American capitalism, consumerism, and the radical right, as he would again in the vastly inferior King of New York (1957) , but in Verdoux, ideological cause does not trump narrative. This dark and lonely satire is Chaplin at his latter day, biting best.
In the Halloween spirit, as a bonus, here’s an extremely brief list, of 13 conventional scary films for those who can’t take the above. This is hardly an all-inclusive list, avoiding previously covered films, such as Dracula (1931) and The Black Cat (1933).
* It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). Still, the best animated film on the subject. The Peanuts grew real stale, real quick—surprisingly so—but this and its Christmas companion are justifiably considered classics.
* Vampyr (1931). The uncompromising Carl Theodore Dreyer never paid heed to the rules of filmmaking. His unsettling tone poem casts a spell not intended for the roller coaster school of thought. This is expressionist horror for adults only.
* Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Rouben Mamoulian’s version remains THE adaptation of the classic story. Frederic March is no chaste Hyde, thanks, in large part, to Miriam Hopkins.
* The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The best classic monster movie, bar none (note, I did not say horror film). James Whale directs this superior sequel. Boris Karloff is absolute perfection, but even he cannot withstand the scene-stealing of Earnest (“Have a cigar, it’s my only weakness”) Thesigar. The tragic Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, and the inimitable Una O’ Connor also star. Franz Waxman’s score perfectly compliments the film.
* The Old Dark House (1932). Whale, Karloff, and Earnest (“Have a potato”) Thesigar again, along with the late Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas and Eva (“Beds, we have no beds”) Moore. It may be too British for some, but it’s Whale at his most delightfully black and witty.
* The Invisible Man (1933). A third Whale film and another Universal horror classic. Gloria Stuart again, here with Claude Rains in a star-making role and Una O’ Connor even more charmingly grating than in Bride.
* The Mummy (1932). Karl Freund and the writers of Dracula (1931) weave a poetic re-working of the Count into Egyptian garb. Karloff is mesmerizing and Zita Johann is the most sensuously compelling anti-heroine of the Universal horror classics. Make-up man Jack Pierce tops his previous work here. Edward Van Sloan and David Manners return as well.
* Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Don Siegel’s classic has inspired numerous remakes/squeals, all of which, surprisingly, have something going for them. The late Kevin McCarthy invests nervous energy into this whopper of a tale, which, like all good art, is not limited to its medium or genre.
* Night of the Demon (1957). Jacques Tournier classic. Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins do not stand a chance against Niall MacGuinness, who is so slimy evil that he leaves a trail.
* The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964). Still the yardstick by which all TV series can be measured. Rod Serling’s reputation is wholly deserved. Sure, there has been quality television since, but little as imaginative as this. Besides, Serling gets extra points for being just too damn cool, for being an alarmingly skilled, suave maverick who consistently tripped up the censors and beat them at their own game.
* Psycho (1960). Forget the imitators (including John Carpenter’s good, but overrated Halloween). Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Bernard Herrmann, and Mother. ‘Nuff said.
* Nosferatu (1979). The inimitable collaboration of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski remake the Murnau classic into an arresting horror classic in its own right. Dracula has substance again.
* John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Again, forget Halloween, this is badass horror, 80′s style (the 90′s would usher in a decade of manufactured blandness). A critical and box office flop when first released, audiences and critics eventually came around to this one (to which I would add an “I told you so“).