December 22, 2006

Fatal Extractions

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Imagine the most macabre show possible in which young naked girls are brutalized and murdered on stage by a bloodthirsty, horny maniac dwarf. Our most perverse fantasies are still possible in Joel Reed’s The Incredible Torture Show (1976), a.k.a. Blood Sucking Freaks. The movie takes place in a lawless, seedy Soho that predates its high-fashion makeover in the New York ’80s art boom. It is in this downtown world of freaks and degenerates, shrouded in darkness, desolate and otherwise abandoned, that the most abominable imagination can flourish without restraint. Among the many ironies of the movie is the fact that the sadistic theatre of cruelty is supposedly located in exactly the same neighborhood in lower Manhattan where punk counterculture and the real artworld were at the same time germinating. Reed has a field day with psychic disjunctions like these between fantasy, reality and desire. Master Sardu, the story’s sublime antagonist, along with his evil assistants, are the embodiment of the most repressed nightmares of an un-policed unconsciousness humanly realized: Sardu’s real business is white slavery and the girls are kept starved, naked and caged in the cellar beneath the stage. His merciless theatre recalls a time when artists defined themselves outside cultural and market restraints, when they wanted to distinguish themselves from the status quo of morality and good taste. Yet the master of ceremonies wants desperately to gain critical recognition for his art. And, there’s also the flipside to consider: our fear of our own deepest secret desires of consumption. The movie is chock full of these kinds of contradictory motives. Sardu’s deception is that his repulsive spectacle is no trick at all. Patrons simply can’t bring themselves to believe that the mutilation and gore they find so thrilling is actually going on right before their eyes — that the severed limbs, oozing brains and spray of warm blood on their faces aren’t just a clever put on. Such a display of butchery is way beyond the audience’s rational comprehension. Much to Sardu’s unending consternation, the critic pans the show as nothing but a disgusting, retrograde mockery of a theatrical performance, totally unworthy of a newspaper review. The complication between creative fantasy and market desire is only further confounded by the fact that the real audience is the one watching the movie. Not only is the blood finally fake, TITS is actually pretty funny, even if its depraved sense of humor is undeniably black. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in dealing with the subject of sadomasochism, is, by contrast, cruelly expressive. No doubt anyone who watches the movie knows that the smeared shit stains are really only chocolate pudding, but that doesn’t detract from its sickeningly bleak atmosphere. Salo is unapologetically repulsive. The Italian Communist wanted to make the strongest statement he could about the almost unparalleled decadence and vulgarity of the Nazis. He never looks away from the black heart of his evil subject. The film is so disgusting it could easily have provided the template for Abu Ghraib. TITS approach is much different. Like many of the B-movies that informed it, the picture drastically departs from former countercultural strategies. It’s as if a subject as gruesome as sadistic violence can no longer get treated head-on the way it is in Salo, never mind the way it appears in the hyperrealist approach of an earlier old-school avant-gardist like, for example, Georges Franju. Probably most famous for Eyes Without a Face (1960), Franju’s less known 1949 Blood of the Beasts, in which the director filmed the abattoirs in the suburbs of Paris, unflinchingly documenting the slaughter of livestock, is a landmark in ruthless objectivity. (You really have to like meat not to go vegetarian after that). TITS definitely wants to take up the same kind of controversy as these older movies. There’s a similarly strong morbid curiosity about who ultimately controls desire. The major difference in Reed’s depiction of counterculture is the way radicalism is dealt with as an historical phenomenon, relegated to a nostalgic fantasy only accessible through cool irony. Reed’s is a jaded world where the brutal innocence of Franju’s pure representation is longed for after the fact. The movie’s conceit is that we are all the children of media spectacle, far too sophisticated about the paranoid structures of our consumer society’s visual culture to feel anything so directly. It is supposedly impossible to relive the earnest shock of objectivity we once found so powerful in a documentary like Blood of the Beasts without the need for knowing restraint. In the art that came afterwards the same forced pose of hard-hearted logic applies. The past is intellectually romanticized. Benjamin Buchloh has been a leading force in setting the stage for how art has tried to recover its radical past. His October essay “The Primary Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde” is an awkward attempt to reclaim the mantle of early 20th-century art for latter day artists who wished to shroud themselves in its progressive tradition. Buchloh is a Marxist inspired ideologue. The essay essentially argues that in its day it was necessary for avant-garde art to shake up a thoroughly entrenched middle class sensibility. Buchloh takes Alexander Rodchenko’s monochrome paintings as his prime example. But, according to him, the rise of the highly industrialized world changed all that. It was no longer so important for art to alienate its audience. Industrialized culture was doing the job just fine all by itself. Instead, what was now called for was art that could placate the middle-class desire to feel special again. Buchloh maintains that Yves Klein’s late ’50s blue paintings are a redemptive quotation of the avant-garde monochrome because that’s exactly what they do; they make the dehumanized middle class feel unique again. In the spirit of full disclosure, Buchloh uses the word “bourgeoisie” which doesn’t really translate to the US middle-class too well because it also includes the nouveaux rich and the upper middle classes. The self-contradictions in Buchloh’s essay are almost embarrassing if it hadn’t turned out they provided a lot of the cover for the last few generations of artists to play up to market desires while, simultaneously, claiming a place for themselves in radical art tradition. Among the most bizarre aspects of the persistence of quasi-Marxist rhetoric in art criticism is its insistence on trying to make taste the primary issue. Buchloh tries to partly break out of the mold by changing the subject from artistic autonomy to consumer fantasy. All told, it’s a pretty weak argument. Writing in 1986, Buchloh somehow completely overlooked the very active counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. There’s no doubt that B-movie makers from that period believed that by appealing to the obvious hunger for nudity, sex and violence they would trump the stayed epigones of popular culture by giving the people what they really wanted. Although these moviemakers thought their films were going to find a place in mainstream consciousness the reality is it never happened. Despite their ambitions, these pictures, like much of the art from the ’60s and early ’70s, are much more akin to the kind of old school radical art that was trying to force its audience to reconsider its repression. It is exactly this confusion of what desire really is that many artists have lately tried to exploit. What makes TITS particularly compelling is that it is a period piece. The movie is so removed from the high-water mark of its low-budget B-genre inspirations in time — by nearly ten years — it could almost be described as mannered. Art that was inspired by the persistence of countercultural mythology, exemplified in a TITS-level love for the past, definitely flies in the face of Buchloh’s total acquiescence to the marketplace. Still, the humor and theatricality of the movie aside, radical experience, however ironically, is dealt with largely as an academic subject for cerebral contemplation. The problem folks like Buchloh ran into was that any argument that makes its claim of being progressive solely by way of taste can only do so by means of outdated social theories that ignore the singularly enfranchised sensibility that mainly supports such art. The reality is sensibility is not a fixed category. No matter how lazy the art world has become, associating with past radicalism doesn’t automatically bestow it on one’s own artistic practice. What Buchloh was forced to acknowledge in his attempt to coin something so clumsy as a “neo-avant-garde”, was that taste is always changing. What was low art yesterday, like rock ’n’ roll, for example, is high art today. As far as class-consciousness is concerned, at any rate, the categories are politically meaningless. TITS might expose the shortcomings of Buchloh on some levels, but the movie is itself twice dated, not only because of its nostalgic reminiscence of the B-genre it is so thoroughly indebted to, but also because the definition of accepted taste it relies upon has changed dramatically since then. From the beginning there have been many shared aspects of modern art and low budget movies. On a subtle level, there’s a strong correlation, for example, between the way in which expressionism appears in each; in the way Wilhem de Kooning, for example, rudely thrust his fingers into the crotch of his nude sculptures to cleave their vaginas, and the similarly crude way in which horror movie makeup is applied to the face of the monster in a movie like, say, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). Instead of thinking about how folks like Reed have read back into B-movies, by way of an analogy to art, it might be more revealing to look at the way the directors who actually made those pictures have reinvented themselves over the years. Two of the greats, Jess Franco and Ted V. Mikels, are thankfully still at it. With time and success in art, production values tend to go up, even in practices that specifically make claims on counterculture’s low-fi legacy. One might expect the same from these moviemakers, but no: turns out, the exact opposite is true! Franco’s Incubus (2002) or Mikels’ The Cauldron: Baptism of Blood (2004), a remake of his now classic Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973), are some of the most low budget movies ever made, more so than anything else they have ever done before, and these guys are kings among the shlock-meisters. Incubus, in fact, has no set decoration to speak of and is blankly videotaped mostly in non-descript hotel bars and foyers. Cauldron, on the other hand, is practically only one extended take of witches rhythmically chanting and dancing on a stage-set that is sparely dressed in the kind of Halloween tchotchkes you can find at just about any party supply store. Theatricality is sought out in mundane elements, on hand and easy to find. Both movies are very abstract in that way. A real do-it-yourself ethos is at work in them that only makes them seem that much more oblique, opaque and self-involved, almost without a care for the past or, for that matter, anything else. All the standard issues about “who’s desire is it anyway?” are still in play, but the degree to which these movies are so willfully difficult to penetrate intellectually makes it clear that they are trying to operate on a more visceral, emotional level, and desire still starts with some sense of autonomy. Neither director has ever been particularly interested in shocking their audience. Franco, in particular, has from the start been much more involved with creating a subtle, often poetic, mood. Buchloh’s repetition of the past applies, but, then again, it could describe just about any selective revisionist history. If there is some kind of politics to be read into any radical proposal by these old B-movie warriors, it probably has more to do with their reluctance to look backwards for their inspiration than with anything else.

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