Monday, March 16, 2009

Martyrs and Some Notes on French Horror's Recent History, part I

After premiering almost a year ago at Cannes, "Martyrs" has generated perhaps the most horror fan interest over any other film this year (maybe after Sam Raimi's excellent-looking return to the genre, Drag Me To Hell). Countless early reviews have chalked it up to be what is now a semi-annual gift from France's very fruitful horror film industry: the most viscerally shocking film...ever (which I personally didn't find the film to be...more on that later).

However, before I discuss Martyrs in particular, I find it useful to consider some of its contextual
precedents. After some of the country's most decidedly art-house directors (Claire Denis, Francois Ozon, Catherine Breilliat, Bruno Dumont) immersed their high-brow filmmaking in increasingly brutal (and occasionally brilliant) exploitation fare throughout the nineties, it wasn't until Gaspar Noë's first feature, "I Stand Alone" (1998), and his very popular follow-up, "Irreversible"(2002), did the grindhouse posturing seem indistinguishable from the real thing; ultimately tearing open a new niche market in American audiences that then readily swallowed up Alex Aja's "High Tension", which opened just one year later in '03, thus commencing this semi-annual cultural ritual.

While I find
Aja's follow-up, a remake of Wes Craven's prototypical horror masterpiece, "The Hills Have Eyes"(2006), a far better film; both films exploit a dangerously conservative understanding of sexual politics in order to provide the shock-value that its advertiser's claim--"High Tension" is in fact exceptional in its misogyny and homophobia. This of course is a complete about-face from the new genre's pre-Noë art-house precedents with those films clearly reflecting much of France's pre- and post-'68 intellectual culture. Curiously, "High Tension" even builds its narrative arc and "surprise" ending on one of that era's intellectual cause célèbres: Schizophrenia! By the end of the film, we learn that the film's meat-headed, family-destroying psychopath is in fact the film's sexually-frustrated lesbian protagonist who psychologically sublimates her role of victimizer into victim.

While this is a nifty structural trick to play on the audience, the narrative movement from victim to victimizer and the resultant shock that it communicates to the viewer is true harbinger of France's Sarkozy-fication, with its increasingly conservative politics and Bush-inspired invocation of inner threat. By identifying "evil" not only as a threat to the paternal familial order but in a figure whose otherness is grossly defined by an archaic conflation of homosexuality and mental-instability; the protagonist's "psychotic" metamorphosis occurs when she is interrupted masturbating, clearly identifying homosexual desire and its fulfillment as a threat to our society of wholesome families--code red at that. Basically, the film is a phantasmagoria of the paternal order run amok by a "useless" female. ( In a contemporary art aside, I find Sterling Ruby's invocation of this protagonist's threat in some of his collages clarifying of the rudimentary thought behind in his work. ) As for Aja's second film, thankfully there are no schizo-lesbians. However the entire "Hills" remake project goes a step further by seeing that the paternal order fight back and master the politically abject inverse of the "American family": mutant rednecks. This oedipal farce is even witnessed by the economic desire to instate a "legacy" of horror, a passing of daddy's torch down through the generations.

After "High Tension," America's horror industry staged a successful power grab with the one-two punch of "Saw"('04) and "
Hostel" ('05). While I haven't seen any of the "Saw" films, from cultural osmosis alone, the franchise seems to be the perfect cultural vehicle for two of Bush's favorite political bedfellows: born-again Christianity and secret torture camps. As for "Hostel," much ado has been made of the film's depiction of libidinal violence with the generic criticism of "violence for violence sake" mentioned more than necessary. But in truth the film is a revelation; a rare instance of a genre film effortlessly pairing a social commentary with cheap thrills.

Perhaps, not since John Carpenter's masterpiece, "They Live"(1988)--with its all-out critique on the social reality of Trickle-Down Economics--has a film so clearly mocked the murky morals of today's economic and political realities, in this case showing us exactly what neoliberalism's "accursed share" (to borrow Bataille's term) entails. I should note that the franchise is not without its faults. Like Aja (and Craven before him), director Eli Roth lets the latent misogyny of the first film run wild in the second, resulting in three things: castrating bitches, tramp stamps and a number of catfights. Oh...I forgot, he also included a lesbian murder scene...

So by the time we get to the end of 2007, America has now seen 5 Saw films and two truly great works of horror are simply straight to tape. While this is not necessarily an outrage; straight to tape titles are no doubt responsible for the obsolescence of the now mythologized
grindhouse theatres. It is but a slight melancholy... However, back to these two knock-outs: Xavier Gens' "Frontière(s)" and Alexandre Bustillo's and Julien Maury's incredible, "Inside." Another significant factor that may have accounted for the hiccup of French imports were the 2005 racially-tinged riots against the country's growing police presence that spread throughout the country's poor, primarily immigrant suburbs. While the political repercussions of such events are of too great a magnitude for this cursory little cultural blog, it is almost needless to say these riots only bolstered a conservative public's belief in Sarkozy's police state and his conservative views toward immigration policy, later voting his iron-fisted state of exception into presidential office in 2007.

Both "Frontière(s)" and "Inside" address this social reality as narrative foil, "Frontière(s)" explicitly and "Inside" obliquely. "Frontière(s)" begins with a group of Muslim teens escaping the riot's certain juridical doom for the (Belgian? German? I can't remember) border, only to find themselves marooned in the French countryside whose politics are more backwards than what they are escaping. While the conceit is pure formula, "Zabriskie Point"+"Texas Chainsaw Massacre"+"Boys from Brazil"="Frontière(s)," given its political context the formula works exceedingly well and most importantly, in the context of this discussion, the film avoids the blatant misogyny so rampant in its precedents (What a novel idea? Women are shown to cooperate over the extinction of evil!). There is even a twisted sense of farce over Sarkozy's tightened immigration policy when the film's abject Nazi patriarch reconsiders racial purity so as to fend off his family's rampant inbreeding. While it might seem to have more in common with "TXCM" (formally it does), by the bleak and uncertain end of the film, you may feel like Pink Floyd is playing to repeated images of explosions.

"Inside" is whole '
nother beast entirely. While I staunchly believe that horror is highly subjective in its method of cathexis, I will still insist that "Inside" is perhaps the single most brutal film you will see in your life. Like I mentioned before, the 2005 riots are not the core of the film but instead a narrative background for the "interior" drama that ensues between a prospective mother who, thanks to the recent loss of her husband, is ruing her pregnancy and a mysterious women who insists the soon-to-be child is hers. While the film at face value amounts to the goriest catfight I have ever seen, there is a more probing set of social relations at play given the film's deliberate ambience of political unrest. As the mysterious woman goes to increasingly inhuman lengths to physically coax a child out of the protagonist's body, it reaches an astonishing point of clarity as we come to view her desperation to realize her personal desires (and its promise of ontological wholeness) as a disturbing social reality; reminding the viewer of how conservative politics thrive on the privileging of middle class psychological interiority and private property over the social conflicts central to the democratic conception of public space.

This woman, who is never named, is played by the ever-so talented party animal, Beatrice Dalle. By bringing an incredible amount of sympathy to the contemptable role, Dalle's acting never condescends to the "hysterical" depiction so common to the horror genre's female villains. Her presence in this film and as a Claire Denis regular incidentally raised a potential parallel between "Inside" and Denis' pre-riot, 2004 film, "The Intruder." Based on Jean-Luc Nancy's autobiographical text about his experience receiving a heart transplant, Denis' film constructs similar overlapping themes of parental responsibility, domestic intrusion, internal organs and the struggle for a complete sense of self; conceptually drawing the films closer together than one might think at first glance. While I won't go into this comparison at great length (I still have yet to discuss "Martyrs"), I will say that both films offer a look into the violent discomfort of upper-middle class life in France when the parental signifier is at question. In "Inside" the protagonist dreads the responsibility of being a single mother after the recent death of the child's father (perhaps the burning banlieues have something to with it as well). In "The Intruder", the protagonist's refusal to reconcile with his role as a father leads to a "heartless" murder. "The Intruder" even prefigures the political ambience of "Inside" as illegal immigrants fill the shadows of its rural setting.

Regardless of this curious relation, it remains possible to see "Inside" through the
de rigeur misogynist lens of recent horror; with its disturbing vision of the maternal run amok in the place of the paternal's death guiding the plot (perhaps "The Intruder" is also guilty of this?). Yet might this apparent misogyny be a deceptive ploy to interrogate the conservative politics that, at their bottom, rely so heavily on the narrowly defined role of matronly responsibility? I find a level of farce in its depiction of a woman murderously trying to steal a baby from another who doesn't want it, all while an immense political crisis is submerged in the background. This narrative conflict almost seems to be a satirical riff on Angelina Jolie's interpretation of politics to be a strange hybridization of baby lust, facile humanism, cosmetic surgery and western luxury. On the other side of this coin, there is also Jolie's biggest fan, Nadya Suleman, whose desire for children makes many want to emigrate. Both figures are clear examples of the socially conditioned role of motherhood prescribed by conservative politics. Curiously, both inhabit the same social role of publicized mother yet their public reception couldn't be anymore different: Jolie's celebrity acts as an unchallenged vehicle for its transmission given her economic mastery of this role. Meanwhile Suleman's habitation of the same role foregrounds motherhood as a political problem given her economically lumpen origins. It is worthwhile to additionlly note that Jolie's children do have an active father in Brad Pitt, unlike Suleman's 14 kids, further pushing the political problematics of motherhood in the background of a paternalized society (consider the tabloid's jaundiced coverage Mia Farrow's adopted spawn in this light). While Jolie is too ethically high brow these days to star in the rumored remake, if she were to inhabit Dalle's role it would be a truly political event.

After all of that long winded exposition, I come to Pascal
Laugier's "Martyrs" ('08)--please note all the horror films that I've discussed have been authored by men, for in France, it seems, women are only capable of directing for the arthouse (thank god America has Lexi Alexander on their side...). Perhaps in comment on these other films, this film is an accumulation of fragments from the others I've mentioned: a mélange of Hostel's neoliberal satire, High Tension's psychological unease, Frontiere(s)' take on France's latent racism and Inside's murderous take on bourgeois familial comfort.

To be continued in part two...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Josh Smith @ Luhring Augustine

Josh Smith has made several appearances on this blog as an irreverent (and dumb) tag, but here is his real coming out ball on NYFAL. He has a
zesty new show of paintings and mixed media works currently on view at Luhring Augustine. There's been a somewhat tepid response to this current show (appropriately called "Currents" on the exhibition poster) compared to his 'big-budget' debut, "Abstraction"-- a good example is Ken Johnson's pissy review the show for the Times instead of senior critic Roberta Smith (who, I admit, only mentioned Smith in a multi-show review). But still, after leaving the opening a week or two ago, I couldn't help but feel the enthusiam dialed down to a modest hum compared to the "Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" sentiment felt as Smith was carried over Chelsea's threshold a little over a year ago.

Is under two years too quick for an artist to have another exhibition? Has his oversaturated presence turned into ambient rattle? Michael Krebber famously (to grad students) held two exhibitions within months at Greene Naftali back in 2003. Has Smith tried a similar conceptual maneuver? Maybe...The title, "Currents," points potentially in this direction. As does the quick vascillation from abstraction of then to the representation of now--harped in the press release begins to set the work in a conceptual dialogue--not to mention the previous show's jump from his 'signature' name paintings to abstraction.

Is there not a telling narrative to be read by an artist who, before they found the requisite attention needed to be a "contemporary artist", painted only their generic name as if each (of the hundreds) of painting was uncertain proof of a non-spectacularized artistic existence? This same artist, when given the opportunity to show at a high profile gallery, defers such signature recognition under a conceptual gesture of formal abstraction. Thanks to the hooplah of art media write-ups and gallery marketing, this artist's name precedes now himself, acting now as a sublimated sign up for exchange on the open market (not too mention now something to be ranked higher and higher on a website like rank: 1341). As paint is abstracted into commodity so is the artist's catchall name; the name ceases to be a formal presence in the work but rather
a free-floating conceptual precedent to the work; which attaches itself, in this case, onto 'abstraction'--another precendent to the show given the professional relationship between Smith, Christopher Wool and Luhring Augustine.

And now is it also telling that, in a little over a year, we leave abstraction and return to reality? Is it not an overstatement to think of abstraction as a key conceptual component of '07-08's economic (sur)reality? Texte zur Kunst devoted a whole issue to the topic of abstraction as an economic reality half way between Smith's two shows. And now look at the magazine: "AFTER THE CRISIS." Clearly, it's a big deal... And so it is back to reality we go, from market-abstracted precedence to the uncertain presence of individual experience...

Similar to my distinction of artistic precedence and presence, employment is always a movement "in" to a larger social body and a temporality of future possibility, where unemployment is simply returning outside to an isolation of the self and a temporality of immediate circumstance. While he's not quite unemployed, there is a deep feeling of return in Smith's current work. His name is back and multiplied thousands of times across the show in the form of announcements and catalogue proofs collaged together in a manner that would make Villeglé blush. Furthermore, previously executed paintings have now been printed out and turned into new works. It is as if Smith's digital bio and portfolio, the "currency" of the artist's accumulated past, were immanently transfigured into contemporaneous art objects. Where perhaps Smith once painted his name to tell himself that he might never be an artist in the marketed sense of the term, he now prints it out ad infinitum to remind himself that he is now an artist in such a sense, even if this market doesn't last.

This last point brings up an important relation in the new work, the printed work and the painted work. Within the previous distinction I've made between presence and precedence, Smith's new paintings--nominal representations of dead things: fish and a single leaf--offer a return to a presence that didn't exist before his departure to abstraction--nor is it found in the byzantine collaged works. Is Smith offering a new lease on dead methods? Certainly to Smith's contemporaries--Kelley Walker, Wade Guyton, Seth Price, Alex Hubbard, etc.--painting an earth-tone still-life is one step away from necrophilia. Yet I find that in their deep simplicity (some of my contemporaries have mentioned a high-school quality to their formal handling), their everyday-ness (am I perverse in thinking there is something Ashcan about these works? probably...), these paintings
present a desire for representation that is not opaque in its intentions--in constructing precedence; communicating reality as a set of perfunctory relations between a transient being and the spectacularized world of which it has no permanent claim, drifting as it might in the disinterested ambience of a still employed (spiritually that is) art world--tit for tit, tat for tat.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Midnight Meat Train

What a great movie! After what seems like years of American horror films being remade from either the genre's conception (see the new Jason movie, My Bloody Valentine, Last House on the Left) or rough translations of foreign goods (Quarantine, Mirrors, etc.), this film rolls out and reminds why you fell in love with Clive Barker in the first place. Which is not to say that this movie is totally exempt from such a remake/remodel obsession. It was directed by veteran Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura, whose previous films I haven't seen (I'm not the biggest J horror fan in the world...reasons I may or may no discuss later...) and adapted from a Clive Barker short story written back in the '80s. The film's depiction of urban depravity does have a distinctly Reagan/Thatcher-era patina, reminding one of the countless urban slashers and actions films of such a time and place by William Lustig, James Glickenhaus and early-to-"Bad Lieutentant" Abel Ferrara (or my personal favorite, the almost neorealist hobotopia of "Street Trash"). The social reality is that white people aren't as scared of urban streets (or subways in this films case) as they were twenty five years ago, but I do treasure the nostalgia this film conjures.

And let me tell you, Bradley Cooper is white! While I've enjoyed this slimy-as-shit actor in romantic comedies such as "He's Just Not That Into You" and "Failure to Launch," he's really hit the dirtbag goldmine on this one as a sexually repressed paranoiac photographer on the fast track to oblivion. I should note that his repression is a not so deep subtext that only really emerges in the film when, after proposing to Lesley Bibb's character, this old goat lets his "midnight meat train" fly totally off the tracks--reminding one of the "that's not where you put it, honey" scene between Michael Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn in "Basic Instict."

Yet Cooper's sleaze, as great as it is, isn't what I love most about the movie, which is basically how the story unfolds, or to use the proper word: narrative. MMT basically starts as totally brootal yet predictable urban slasher until the narrative reaches a staggering pitch and reminds you that you aren't playing with babies and puppies here, you're playing with Barker...Clive Barker.

The film, slowly and beautifully, morphs, like the best of Robbe-Grillet, into a phantasmagoria the likes of which only Lovecraft could muster. I'm not gonna spoil this for all y'all, but by this flick's end, the words "Midnight Meat Train" will actually make sense (and not as a sexual euphemism). If only more American studios had the courage to make more of these flicks, flicks that not only satisfy a gorehound's bloodthirst (check out the essential Ted Raimi death early in the flick) or the teenagers who love that J horror (who come to think of it probably wont like this movie...), but for all of us got into this horror thing in the first place, those of us who just want that unpredictable descent into the nether regions of otherworldly possibilty.

One more thing... If you watch this one on DVD, be sure to catch the profoundly entertaining featurette on Clive Barker's life as a painter. Surrounded by an amount of paintings that puts Josh Smith to shame, he offers profound insight on expressing psychic reality and, my favorite part, discusses the why some paintings fail. If I could I would post a clip of it, but sadly it dont dwell on no interwebs.

One more other thing... Brooke Shields is wonderfully predictable as an outspoken art dealer. My favorite line: "Punctuality is for the mediocre. I first knew that Basquiat was a genius after he was 3 days late for a lunch appointment."

4 out of 4 bonch stabs

About Me