Emancipative Disillusionment. Subversion/ Agitation/ Transgression/ Critique
By Louis Armand.
In Paul Cronin’s 2004 documentary, Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16, Vogel – whose work between the founding of Cinema 16 in 1947 and the publication of Film as Subversive Art in 1974 is central to much of the discussion of American underground cinema – spoke optimistically of what he described as the “accelerating worldwide trend toward a more liberated cinema, in which subjects and forms hitherto considered unthinkable or forbidden are boldly explored.” But the question remains as to whether the culture of permission underlying this bold new cinema hasn’t simply resulted in bankable eye candy, in place of the kind of transgressive social critique catalogued in Film as a Subversive Art, one that flew in the face of the moral majority, the quasi-police state and aggressive censorship regimes, at the risk not only of suppression but of gaol-time for its producers and exhibitors, and in some cases far worse. And while the major focus of Vogel’s work may be considered the status of “cinema” as subversive art, his approach ranged liberally from films considered as “weapons of subversion” – such as the revolutionary era of the Soviet avantgarde, the “terrible poetry of Nazi Cinema,” taboo-breaking “pornographic” gay and lesbian cinema, etc. – to cinema as the construction of a new “consciousness” at the hands of the international counterculture. He was also attentive to the perennial avantgardist dilemma: the necessity, in the face of new orthodoxies, of a “counter-subversion” (i.e. of the glibly “subversive” as a generic consumer brand), in defence of the view that only an uncompromisingly Nietzschean subversion can lay claim to being the proper criterion of art as such, of which he wrote: “In the last analysis, every work of art, to the extent that it is original and breaks with the past instead of repeating it, is subversive.” This two-fronted revolt is always tenuous, poised between a history of existential struggle and appropriative lifestyle role-play, suppression and exploitation, such that its criteria, whenever reduced to the language of reasoned argument and “art appreciation” risks becoming little more than an artefact of pluralism. As Vogel, speaking in Cronin’s documentary, puts it: “The most interesting films are precisely those that show things that have never been seen before or show things in a completely new way. This is something that upsets many people or prevents them from appreciating what is being shown to them. I, on the other hand, prefer to be upset, and one of my main criteria, in fact, in looking at films and in writing about them is the unpredictability of what I am seeing.”
1. There are certain respects in which Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance – featuring Mick Jagger, James Fox and Anita Pallenberg – is both a product of 1968 (when it was shot) and prophetic of what came after 1970 (when it was released), both in its aesthetic and existential temper, and in its politics. Made three years before Mike Hodges’s hard-edge British neo-noir, Get Carter – which borrows liberally from Performance’s editing style, its juxtaposition of unadorned realism and often surreal mannerism, its brazenly stylish explicit sex and its ultra-violence – Cammell and Roeg’s film ushers in a whole period of brooding, sinister, post-Mansonesque cinema that often fuses impulses discernible in the work of Roger Corman (with whom Roeg had collaborated on The Masque of the Red Death (1964)) and Joseph Losey (whose 1963 film, The Servant, James Fox had co-starred in) while maintaining a delicate balance between sardonic camp and pure menace (something not achieved, for example, in Brian De Palma’s 1974 The Phantom of the Paradise, which attempts a similar balance but too readily descends into farce, like a “serious parody” of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)). Much of Performance’s editing – particularly the use of disjunctive, “mosaic-like montages” – draws on the approach of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (who Roeg assisted on Fahrenheit 451 (1966)), and form a blueprint for Roeg’s subsequent work on Walkabout (1971) and Insignificance (1985). It’s a notable coincidence, too, that during the production of Performance the Rolling Stones were shooting scenes with Godard himself, who was in London to document several studio sessions in which the band developed and recorded “Sympathy for the Devil” – footage that served as the basis for the film One-Plus-One – and at one point, as Godard’s camera moves around the studio, James Fox can be glimpsed anxiously trying to stay out of the frame.
In Performance, Roeg’s use both of the camera and the editing console to deconstruct conventional narrative and instil a sense of existential menace dominate the film throughout: everything from the opening scene – a flying rocket in close-up, cutting to a black Rolls Royce driving down a motorway, cutting then to a montaged sexual encounter between Fox’s “Chas” and a nightclub worker – to one of the final scenes, when Chas shoots Jagger’s “Turner” in the head and the camera immediately plunges down the bullet hole, tunnelling through brain matter only to arrive at a photograph of Jorge Luis Borges (one of the film’s more obvious literary influences, alongside William Burroughs and Jean Genet). Along the way we’re given “Memo From Turner,” Chas’s mushroom-induced hallucination of Jagger transformed into the mob boss “Harry Flowers” in a rock video avant la lettre, while Chas’s former mob associates strip naked and dance along. It’s a sequence redolent of the “Mr Roque” episode in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: a sequence that encapsulates in thumbnail Performance’s broad synthesis of the East End London crime underworld (à la the Kray brothers) and the counter-cultural London underground, marked by homoerotic hypermasculinity on the one hand, androgyny on the other, cut across by violence, sex and psychedelia. So integral is montage to this aspect of the film’s texture and logic that the power of the individual “performances” is never allowed to grow distinct from the force of “character” of the film’s construction itself. Unlike conventional Warner Bros films, the camera is never disinterested, is never neutral; there is no pretence to the filmic medium being a transparent window through which “action” is communicated to an audience – an effect emphasised by the ruthless pursuit of hard-edge realism, interspersed with paranoiac, and at times unhinged camera angles, soundtrack disjunctions and a periodic breaking of the fourth wall (as if the camera itself were an otherwise invisible interlocutor, a “character” in its own right, like the proverbial elephant in the room that finally gets pointed out).
While the film’s title has been interpreted with regard to everything from the role-play required of individual identity, mediated by social conventions of power, masculinity, and various other conformisms, to the role of the artist, the constitution of reality, and the society of the spectacle at large in which “words still have meanings” insofar as they can be manipulated by those with authority over them (barristers, mobsters, rock stars, etc.), there is necessarily also the question of the camera’s performance, and the “action” of the film itself as, for example, performing a critique, or perhaps even a subversion, of the cinema genre itself, within the prevalent framework of the entertainment industry. That the film was initially conceived as something else entirely (“a light-hearted swinging ’60s romp” – something akin to the Beatles’s A Hard Days Night as a vehicle for stadium rock performer Mick Jagger, who was in process of recording tracks for Beggars Banquet, following 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request) also contributes to the sense of self-subversion and genre-bending at work here, in its metamorphosis into something far more complex, darker, unflinching, that follows all the way down the rabbit hole (so to speak): the kind of film it might’ve otherwise been can be glimpsed in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, shot over two days in December of ’68, though withheld from release until 1996.
This self-subversion initially resulted in Performance being refused theatrical release by Warner execs, and numerous accounts exist of scenes being cut and re-edited, resulting in several different versions of the film finally making it into circulation (in a joint letter to Warner Bros, Cammell and Jagger wrote: “You seem to want to emasculate the most savage and most effective scenes in our movie. If Performance does not upset audiences, it’s nothing”). Its release in 1970 was as much due, however, to the changes occurring in the studio system after the release of Easy Rider in 1969 and the emergence of the so-called New Hollywood, but its delay served to obscure the truly radical nature of Roeg’s cinematography – seemingly pre-empted by Dennis Hopper’s New Orleans “acid trip” footage in Easy Rider (which nevertheless remains less compelling than Roeg’s, and is too reminiscent of Corman’s stock phantasmagoria in The Trip with its de rigueur backlot graveyard sets and LA gothic).
2. Promoted as a “fantasy thriller,” The Final Programme (1973: a.k.a. The Last Days of Man on Earth), is a loose adaptation of the first of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, directed by the late Robert Fuest. In fact, it’s the only film adaptation to date of any of Moorcock’s work. Fuest is probably best known for The Avengers and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971: with Vincent Price), and The Final Programme had – until its UK release on DVD by Network Distributing – been out-of-print in the English-language market for a decade, available only through online bazaars at prices around the £100 mark. The film itself is a retro sixties sci-fi parody, with Jenny Runacre (who also appeared in Jarman’s 1977 Jubilee) as “Miss Brunner” and Jon Finch, who’d just appeared in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, as “Jerry Cornelius” (supposedly the role was offered to Mick Jagger first, who turned it down on the grounds the script was too weird). The blurb on the Studio Canal edition goes: “How to fabricate a new Messiah, harbinger of a new era? A gigantic computer, augmenting the brains of illustrious scientists, gives birth to a hermaphroditic monster capable of reproducing itself.”
The brains concerned, of course, are suspended in vats, wired up to a giant mainframe designed by Cornelius’ dear old dad, lately defunct: in fact the film opens with the scene of Professor Cornelius’ funeral pyre in Lapland, attended by hoary Laplanders in animal furs. Dr Smiles (Graham Crowden), the late Prof’s right-hand-man officiates, before son Jerry makes an unscheduled entrance like some Notting Hill pop star before making an equally peremptory exit in his private helicopter. The Prof’s former expert assistants resemble Dutch burghers cut from a Rembrandt group portrait, anticipating the sort of characters found in Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982); we encounter them a little later on in the company of the mysterious Miss Brunner, plotting to retrieve a secret microfilm (containing the eponymous “final programme”) hidden by the late Prof on the family estate (a Cormanesque gothic pile on an island surrounded by a misty lake, replete with loyal butler (Harry Andrews), pathological brother (Derrick O’Conner), and Byronesque sister trapped in perpetual drug-induced sleep).
The film’s doomsday scenario is duly sketched via a series of flashbacks to playboy Jerry’s private philosophy tutorials with “Professor Hira” (Hugh Griffith) on the Hindu belief in Kali Yuga or the “dark ages” of the world in its final days, soon to end (coincidentally, it need hardly be said, with the activation of the dead Prof’s “final programme”). Griffith’s “Professor Hira” is strongly reminiscent of Milo O’Shea’s “Duran Duran” in Barbarella (1968), and the whole cod-profundity imparted by his dialogues with Cornelius jnr similarly recalls the satirical musings of O’Shea’s “Leopold Bloom” in Joseph Strick’s 1967 adaptation of Ulysses. From the Kali Yuga we are promptly transported into a series of genre-mashes set against the backdrop of a vaguely drawn World War Three. We get a view of a post-apoc Trafalgar Square piled with car wrecks as Jerry makes his way to meet arms trader “Major Wrongway Lindbergh” (Sterling Hayden) to place an order on an F-4 Phantom jet fighter, before rendezvousing with international political assassin “Shades” (Ronald Lacey) in a giant inflatable pinball parlour to set up a deal on some napalm (for the purpose of incendiarising the family house). Eventually agreeing out of a mix of curiosity and boredom to assist in the recovery of his dead father’s microfilm, Jerry leads Miss Bruner, Dr Smiles and Co on a raid against his psychopathic brother, “Frank,” who has barricaded himself behind a battery of mind-altering defences. Frank escapes with the microfilm, and so Jerry and Miss Bruner fly after him in the F-4, tracking him down at a meeting with a fence for industrial secrets called “Baxter” (Patrick Magee, in all respects identical to his role as Anthony Burgess’s doppelgänger in Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange). From here the film races to its dénouement in an abandoned Nazi submarine base somewhere back in Lapland, where reside the brains in fish tanks and a supercomputer parodically made to resemble a washing machine (“Does it spin dry?” Jerry asks).
From the outset Chic Waterson’s camerawork is quite stunning and the entire opening sequence could easily have led to something tense and elegiac, Sibelius fused with a broad Nordic existentialist sweep, were it not for the fact that Fuest overlays it (after a few counts of windswept field-recording) with an upbeat “jazzy” (read, “satirical”) soundtrack (Moorcock reportedly wanted space-rock band Hawkwind for the jo, to no availb). A great deal of tongue-in-cheek art deco kitsch follows, from gothic to sci-fi, via nuclear apocalypse, mystic psychedelia, high camp, spy thriller, action flick, sexploitation, and übermensch fetishism – the film weaving ever-more cartoonish satires around the contemporary myth of the Organisation Man and the cult of informatics, while relentlessly parodying Hollywood’s infantile “superhero” anodyne in the face of mass political disillusionment, commodification of the counterculture and carpet bombing in Laos and Vietnam. “It’s the easiest way to run the world,” Jerry’s brother proclaims at one point, “with all the people asleep.”
From this perspective, the film’s “narrative structure” can be read as a self-conscious collage of House of Hammer, Barbarella, Modesty Blaise (1966) and John Huston’s original Casino Royale (1967), ending with a full-on parody of the James Bond franchise with Finch and Runacre screwing under a giant solar-accumulator in the late Prof’s aptly situated lab in Lapland (the brains are bubbling away excitedly next door in their vats). With the aid of the eponymous “final programme,” Jerry and Miss Bruner conjoin in a blast of solar radiation, and in the process evolving to a higher plane, in the form of a single, immortal, self-reproducing post-human organism that – Übermensch as it is – ends up resembling a hunchbacked, hermaphroditic ape-man. Emerging from the de rigueur spontaneously combusting lab, this hairy amalgam of the film’s protagonists winks at the camera, salutes, says “See ya round, sweetheart” and slouches out into the great unknown, as the muzak pipes, a new age dawns, and the credits optimistically begin to scroll.
3. In her February 6, 1975, review of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba and Jack Pia’s SS Regalia for the New York Review of Books – entitled “Fascinating Fascism” – Susan Sontag wrote “If the message of fascism has been neutralised by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualised. This eroticisation of fascism has been remarked, but mostly in connection with its fancier and more publicised manifestations, as in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and Storm of Steel, and in films like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Visconti’s The Damned, and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.” Sontag was well aware that the relation of sexuality to power is symbiotic, and that the aestheticisation of power (as famously argued by Walter Benjamin) goes hand-in-hand with fascist ideology. It is, in fact, the dominant “romanticism” of the twentieth century, in which technology and the cult of death are beautifully and performatively intertwined in the “discipline and punishment” of a mass sexualised agonism costumed by Hugo Boss.
The fact of this “compromised” ménage-a-trois of aesthetics, politics and sexuality has presented a particular dilemma for social historians, critics, and so on, from the Busby Berkeley spectacularism of Riefenstahl’s 1935 masterpiece of Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will, to Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgarden” routine from his 1968 film The Producers (or similarly Brooks’s lesser-known 1984 video clip “The Hitler Rap (To Be or Not To Be)”). As Jean Genet says, “Fascism is theatre.” And sadomasochistic sexuality, as Sontag adds, is more theatrical than any other – and by virtue of its excessive theatricality, never far removed from camp, self-parody and kitsch (out of whose sensibility it was arguably born in the first place). To read Cavani’s The Night Porter in this kind of context as “such a superficial soap opera we’d laugh at it if it weren’t so disquieting,” as did Roger Ebert in his excoriating review, is to miss an essential point: a point very strongly reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s unpopular reaction to the Eichmann trial, out of which she formulated her thesis on the “banality of evil.”
For the truth is that fascism and the psychosexual sado/maso drama that enfolds it, is nothing if not banal: the “perversity” it describes belongs to everyday kitsch – the kitsch sentimentalism and irrationalism of whole nations in thrall to their own bondage (to a Führer, a god, an idea). It is a drama of ethical dissociation, of role-play, of mass alienation, ameliorated through the gratification of a collective rite, in which “pleasure” is agonised, and in which desire is directed within a regime of harsh regimentation (hence the conventionalised vocabulary of the so-called “perverse” practice of S&M: the “more or less Nazi costumes with boots, leather, chains, Iron crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas” and other “lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism” as Sontag notes). Just as we see in Riefenstahl’s film the stirrings of mass sexual “catharsis” afforded by the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their various cognates, achieving a kind of apotheosis in Goebbel’s orgiastic Berlin Sportpalast address in February 1943 demanding “total war.”
Ebert’s complaint, that The Night Porter – which depicts “a sadomasochistic relationship taken up again 15 years after the war by a former SS concentration camp officer and the inmate he raped and dominated when she was a young girl” – is “as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering,” veers away from any sort of acknowledgement of the inherent rationale of precisely such a titillation. Which is not by virtue of its deviancy, but rather its banality: its appeal to a fatalistic authority which, until the Vietnam War brought about its widespread public rejection, formed the unacknowledged basis of the social contract in America as elsewhere. And there is indeed much to be said about the parallels brought to bear between Nazi Germany and the Cold War decadence of the late sixties and early seventies: from the psychopathology of mass collaboration (Hitler’s “willing executioners” refigured as Nixon’s “silent majority”) to the transformation of an aesthetic of power to an aesthetic of commodified revolt (from Elvis to the mods to glam rock to punk).
Cavani’s film isn’t alone in exploring this previously taboo subject, and there are good reasons to consider The Night Porter as integral to a broader critical reappraisal of fascism’s sex-and-power aesthetic, not as historically discontinuous, but as something with which “spectacular society” (to borrow Debord’s term) remains complicit. It fits within a wider body of work that includes Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned, Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and Tinto Brass’s Salon Kitty (1976), all of which – by exploring the socalled perversions of power (if this is not in fact an oxymoron) – expose the paradoxes inherent in the logic of transgression and conformity. Additionally, they pose – like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – the question of cinema itself: fascism was the only major ideology to be born of a cinematic consciousness – it was (and is) cinematic to its core. Its subtle expansion into all aspects of daily life, via the evolution of TV and new media, the pervasive seductions of advertising and the omnipresence of computing algorithms designed to reinforce our collective narcissism, represent an almost insurmountable dilemma. It is possible to see in Cavani’s film something of an allegory, along the lines of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” For as Ebert makes clear, it isn’t the “subject matter” per se that offends, but the seduction of form married to an aesthetic banality – one that chimes so closely with the soap opera of our self-enclosed, paranoid cinematic condition that it provokes a kind of narcissistic revulsion at the same time as it fascinates.
4. “Under cover of darkness, while an unsuspecting city sleeps, an alien life form begins to sow the seeds of unspeakable terror.” So runs the tag for Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a remake of (or possibly “sequel” to) Don Siegel’s 1956 original: a sci-fi noir filmed at the height of the Cold War, based on the novel of the same name by Jack Finney, published two years earlier and corresponding to the first US hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. Kaufman’s version (in which Siegel has a cameo) – released in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Nixon era and the Apollo lunar programme, and coinciding with Jimmy Carter’s deferral of neutron bomb production (resumed under Reagan, then dismantled in 2011) – was one of a slate of ’70s sci-fi films, including The Andromeda Strain (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and Logan’s Run (1976), in which the political paranoia-and-conspiracy theme explored in popular movies like The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976), is fused with atom-age obsessions about mutating alien life-forms disguised as human doppelgangers: the McCarthyesque “enemy within.”
This theme, which has direct antecedents in the evolution of film noir, can ultimately be viewed as a product of the post-War “information” revolution, in which particularly TV contributed to an increasingly phantasmatic social reality, mediated by simulacra. The world of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is disturbing less for the prospect of being cloned in your sleep by interstellar seedpods and turned into an obedient, affectless vegetable (vide Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) when he’s lobotomised at the end of that film), than for the dawning realisation that this “invasion” is already endemic and has gained control of every stratum of society, that it is employing the existing social hierarchies and organisational systems to propagate itself, and that there is ultimately no escape. Where the prevailing mood of the 1956 original was that of communist infiltration (the Rosenbergs had been executed in 1953 for selling nuclear secrets to Russia, while the film itself was released at the very height of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s “Hollywood Blacklist”), Kaufman’s remake more subtly insinuates the sort of corporatised police state take-over of America that had been occurring up through the sixties under the cloak, precisely, of the kind of Cold War propaganda central to films like The Manchurian Candidate (1959), where the threat of “alien invasion” takes the form of hypnosis and brainwashing, creating remote-controlled sleeper agents whose task is to sabotage the free world (i.e. market capitalist USA) – a genre that reaches something of an apotheosis at the end of the Reagan presidency with John Carpenter’s satirical They Live (1988).
Where Kaufman’s film particularly succeeds is in the tension it builds between an all-pervasive conspiratorial claustrophobia and the classic theme of the fugitive “individual-against-the system.” Donald Sutherland, who (with love-interest Brooke Adams) leads an isolated effort to “expose” the alien seed-pod conspiracy – as the indignant “eyewitness” of phenomena that are officially denied by government agencies already “infiltrated” (echoes of Richard Carlson’s astronomer and love-interest Barbara Rush in It Came from Outer Space (1953)) – plays the sort of libertarian role typical of the American cultural obsession with the one-man army. (In Siegel’s version, this “everyman hero” is a small town doctor; in Kaufman’s he’s a San Francisco health inspector.) This role of the little-man-who-overcomes is then boldly inverted in what is perhaps The Invasion of the Body Snatchers most striking sequence, which comes at the very end film, when we realise that Sutherland’s character has become “one of them” and is now an agent of the clone invasion – depicted here in terrifying banality of regimented office work. Kaufman’s technocratic alien society is effectively an expression of Arendt’s “banality of evil” by other means: the dehumanisation represented by collective acquiescence to the “capitalist conspiracy” and its fiction of “individual liberty” through the labour of conformity.
In this, the film situates itself somewhere between Huxley’s Brave New World and Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, to the extent that it poses the dilemma of a “no exit” under conditions of pervasive conspiracy – whether mediated by alien organisms or the military-industrial complex (as in They Live, or David Bowie’s “World Enterprises Corporation” in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)) – but also in the film’s dramatic function, precisely, as entertainment, reinforcing the sense we get from the film (and pervading Abel Ferrara’s subsequent third remake, The Body Snatchers (1993)) of a world of alienated, socially narcotised individuals already “withdrawn into their own isolation cells.” It is most telling that, at the film’s end, with the colonising of the city virtually complete, the “Body Snatchers” themselves appear enslaved to their own simulation (like the Tyrell Corporation motto, “more human than human”), continuing the now-meaningless charade of 9-to-5 office-worker servility, as if trapped within a paranoiac “total” vigilance: a group portrait of the “security state” whose only raison d’être is suppression and self-perpetuation.
5. What do government agents, a vaporised highway cop, the “United Fruitcake Outlet,” a sleazy televangelist (“God wants your money”) and a lobotomised nuclear scientist have to do with the $20,000 bounty that’s set dusted-to-the-eyeballs “repo men” Harry Dean Stanton (“Bud”) and Emilio Estevez (“Otto”) on the trail of a hot ’64 Chevy Malibu, in competition with the notorious Rodriguez Brothers? This is the question that drives Alex Cox’s spoof 1984 conspiracy film, from the opening scene in the Mojave Desert to its climax in the parking lot of the “Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation,” where – in the midst of carnage and confusion – idiot-savant mechanic “Miller” (Tracey Walter: “There ain’t no difference between a flying saucer and a time machine”), with Estavez at his side, pilots the dead-aliens-in-the-trunk-powered Chevy up and across the LA sky like a green-glowing UFO.
Released the same year as box-office dross like Beverly Hills Cop, The Never-Ending Story, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Romancing the Stone, Cox’s low-budget satire was described by Roger Ebert as “the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn’t made from any known formula and doesn’t follow the rules.” More than conscious of this itself, the film exploits movie stereotypes and foregrounds the social pervasiveness of “generic” consumer products (stripped here of their brand identities), while slyly patterning the background with anti-establishment in-jokes (“Dr Benway to surgery”; “Mr Lee, please return the scalpel Mr Lee”), L. Ron Hubbard gags (“Dioretix”) and mock-acid-damaged profundity (Miller: “A lot of people don’t realise… there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything”). Unlike the endless studio and independent ’80s exploitation flicks that posed varieties of vigilante action against a dystopian urban backdrop, Repo Man’s synthesis of West Coast car culture, the LA punk scene (there’s a cameo by the Circle Jerks posing as a dysfunctional lounge band), retro sci-fi and Hoover-style government conspiracy (all the agents look like Donald Trump clones, while their female boss sports a mechanical hand), produces a lampooning “social critique” that – in addition to everything else – reaches to the heart of the film industry’s active normalisation of suburban America: part of what commentators in the ’80s began referring to as the Military-Entertainment Complex.
Like Bill Fishman’s Tapeheads (1988), Repo Man is as much a product as a parody of the Reagan era, MTV and the cult of the “instant cult movie.” But though Michael Nesmith produced both films, Repo Man (shot by regular Wenders collaborator, Robby Müller, and with an obscure title-track supplied by Iggy Pop) is a film that flips-off the late ’70s Lucases and Spielbergs whose money-grabbing “blockbuster” viewpoint on the cinema-going middle classes was the product of first vampirising and then unceremoniously terminating the industry’s dalliance with “New Hollywood” – while Tapeheads, on the other hand, is a cynical backdoor effort at working the “cult” formula into a big-budget studio franchise (financed by NBC and beefed-up on pseudo “street cred” with a slew of cameos by the likes of Jello Biafra and DEVO and a chart-ready soundtrack by Fishbone). It’s possible to regard a film like Tapeheads as signalling the accomplished fact of the corporate expropriation of Repo Man’s subversive tropology – just as Star Wars ripped off John Carpenter, Sergio Leone and Joseph Newman – posing yet again the question of how to escape the inevitable tractor-beam of the industry deathstar: a cycle repeated in the ’90s with the Disneyfication of Miramax and the founding of the Tarantino franchise (Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992, was instantly branded by Empire – the UK’s biggest selling film magazine – as the “Greatest Independent Film of All Time”). Like Carpenter’s They Live, which pulls the mask from a corporate-infested pop culture, Repo Man’s most distinctive and least assimilable element is its own self-deprecation (Estevez’s “Otto” is an ex-punk who dons a grey polyester suit to join the “high intensity” of the nation’s parasitic debt-enforcement economy) and its antagonism to precisely the sort of plastic consumer critique that turns pre-packaged “cult films” like Tapeheads into a lifestyle manual for yuppies on the make.
6. In a typical effort at understatement Roger Ebert once described Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989) as “one of the greatest” horror films ever made, a work of “true psychic horror” combining “poetry, surrealism, psychological pain and wicked humour.” The film explores the classic Oedipal power-triangle, centred – like Hitchcock’s Psycho – around “the perverse emotional and physical enslavement,” as Ebert puts it, “of a son by his mother” (“Concha”: Bianca Guerra, whose character’s name is also slang, incidentally, for vagina). For her part, the mother here has been mutilated by her tyrannical circus-ringmaster husband, “Orgo” (Guy Stockwell), who cuts off both her arms after she effectively castrates him by pouring sulphuric acid on his genitals – revenge at having caught him in flagrante delicto with the “Tattooed Woman” (Thelma Tixou). The Tattooed Woman happens, in turn, to be the mother of deaf-mute tightrope walker “Alma” (Faviola Tapia), with whom the son, “Fenix” (played by two of Jodorowsky’s own sons) falls in love, and she (the Tattooed Woman) is also the first victim of Fenix’s metamorphosis into a Norman Bates-style serial slasher – performing the role of his mother’s vengeful “hands,” her demon meanwhile having taken possession of his generally disturbed and hallucinatory mind.
This wildly entangled psycho-sexual drama forms the basis of an equally complex allegory of symbolic violence and relentless, atavistic passions on a classical plane which – like Jodorowsky’s masterwork, The Holy Mountain – reflects also on the disillusionments of the contemporary “cinematic” myth: the myth, as Bataille says, of the “absence of myth.” Like the classical pre-cinematic “horror films” of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides – who at times seem to be Jodorowsky’s closest contemporaries – allegory here is never far removed from burlesque: its tragic reach frequently extends into farce of an even more “tragic,” exuberant, excessive symbolic force. Appropriately the film opens in a somewhat theatrically staged psychiatric institution, with Fenix perched atop a dead tree trunk beside a window, something between a delusional birdman (his initiation into manhood was to have the image of a “phoenix” tattooed on his chest by his father, with an inked throwing-knife) and a primitive stylite. The scene and much of what follows is as much evocative of the Spanish and Italian surrealist, neo-realist and horror directors (Buñuel, Arabal, Fellini, Argento – whose brother, Claudio, in fact produced the film) as it is of Pasolini’s 1967 Oedipus Rex, Ken Russell’s Salomé’s Last Dance (1988), and Peter Greenaway’s later Baby of Mâcon (1993). Such comparisons aren’t short in supply, while Santa Sangre itself makes repeated allusions to James Whale’s 1933 film of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man – with a faceless Claude Rains in the title role.
Much has been said about the film’s autobiographical aspects – four of Jodorowsky’s sons appear in the film (two in the role of Fenix (Axel and Adam), one as a psychiatric doctor (Brontis), one as a pimp (Teo)) – while the childhood “flashback” narrative, which constitutes most of the first half of the film and is set in a Mexican circus (“El Circo del Gringo”), has been taken to allude to the fact that Jodorowsky’s own father (Jaime, depicted in the director’s accounts as a brute who conceived his son by rape) worked in one. Likewise the film alludes heavily to Jodorowsky’s previous work, particularly Holy Mountain and El Topo (in which Brontis accompanied Jodorowsky’s titular character throughout). Jodorowsky himself spoke of his mother (Sara) as cold and remote: “My mother is dead,” he said in an interview, “I had a terrible relationship with her. She had many problems with my father, and she never caressed me. So I didn’t have a mother who touched me.”
But while aspects of the film might draw from Jodorowsky’s reservoir of childhood experiences (as is explicitly the case with 2013’s The Dance with Reality), the film itself is far more universal in scope, in the caricatured, archetypal way of a “human abstract” theatricality rendered against the backdrop of collective neurosis: an effect harking back to Jodorowsky’s “lost” early film, Les têtes interverties (1957: about a head-swapping merchant, adapted from Thomas Mann’s novella, Die vertauschten Köpfe), and likewise heightened by the film’s phantasmagoric wanderings through the realms of circus performance, cultish ritual, funeral rites, magic shows, mime (Jodorowsky had once toured with Marcel Marceau’s theatre troupe), and schizophrenia, in search of emancipation from the obscene, tyrannical operations of the maternal spectre. A spectre whose irreality – more primitive and less subtle than Debord’s “spectacle” – nevertheless permeates the very substance of Jodorowsky’s “real” (born as it is of cinema).
In its allegorical form, the promise of emancipation is like a child’s toy on a string, there to distract the mesmerised little ego from seeing how it, too, is nothing but a Caligari puppet. What, after all, is more insidious than the illusion of subjective agency, if not the illusion of its disillusioning? As in Holy Mountain, the emancipative disillusionment enacted in Fenix’s ritual destruction of his mama’s effigy, mutely directed by his (equally imaginary) childhood sweetheart, Alma, before an audience of clowns (like the becoming-invisible that Fenix earlier craves in order to escape from this theatre of mortification) is – miming some Dantesque morality play – just one more sleight of hand in the never-ending manipulations of The Spectacle. If the film ends with Fenix finally in possession of himself (of the instrumentality of his own hands, in which he now realises he “holds his destiny,” by substituted one Oedipal surrogate (the mute Alma) for another (the mutilated Concha)), it is merely in order that he may – in a gesture identical to the miming of a captive bird’s flight into the sky – surrender.
7. Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) has been described as “historiographic metafiction” – “a rearticulation of national memory and […] rewriting of Yugoslav history” – though in the realm of critical terminologies it would make more sense to call it metacinema, in the Godardian sense of cinema as “the registrar of History.” In Godard’s thesis, from the vantage-point of the end of the twentieth century, “cinema is… the image of the century in all its aspects.” For Godard, echoing Benjamin, cinema – the manifestation of the dialectical image par excellence – in the twentieth century displaces history, which doesn’t wait for Fukuyama to signal its “end.” Where some critics see Underground defined historically – against the background of the Yugoslav Wars up until the Dayton Peace Accord – within a local Balkan matrix, its cinematic reach infuses it with the broader atavistic delirium of 20th century Europe and its global repercussions, seduced by the spectacle of power.
Based on the play Springtime in January (Prolece u Januaru; 1977) by Dušan Kovačević, Underground – subtitled “Once Upon a Time there was One Country” – traces the fraternally antagonistic relationship and ménage-à-trois of two men, “Marko” (Miki Manojlović) and “Blacky” (Lazar Ristovski), and their mutual love-interest Natalija (Mirjana Joković), from Belgrade during World War 2 (the film opens on the morning of 6 April 1941, the date of the commencement of “Operation Retribution,” the Nazis’s ground invasion and aerial bombardment of Belgrade, anticipating Yugoslavia’s surrender 11 days later), through the period of the Cold War, to Bosnia in 1992.
Marko and Blacky, former racketeers, become leading members of the Communist resistance, and following an escape from a Gestapo prison-hospital, Marko hides Blacky in a cellar and keeps him there even after the actual war has ended by pretending that it is still going on. Marko marries Natalija and becomes a close political ally of Tito and later an arms dealer, selling weapons manufactured by Blacky’s underground community. Eventually, Blacky escapes – onto the set of a film in which he himself is the central character – and eventually the two fraternal rivals encounter each other again in the 1990s in the UN-policed noman’s land between Bosnian and Serb forces where a now wheelchair-bound Marko is negotiating an exorbitant arms deal: he’s captured by Blacky’s militia and Blacky unwittingly radios in an order to execute Marko and Natalija as “profiteers” (but not before Marko gets in the line: “A war’s not truly a war until a brother murders a brother”). Their corpses are doused in petrol and set alight: the image of them turning circles on a burning mechanised wheelchair, around an upturned crucifix, is emblematic of the “cosmic” vicious circle within which the protagonist’s (and Europe’s) fate appears to be bound. Later, Blacky himself drowns in the well back in the cellar where he’d spent twenty years underground. The whole things ends with a posthumous, carnivalesque reunion at the marriage of Blacky’s (also drowned) son, “Jovan,” on an island adrift in the Danube, with Marko’s zookeeper brother delivering a soliloquy, ending with the words “Once Upon a Time, There was a Country…”
“In the film,” Daković writes, “which has been widely described as kind of visual pandemonium, a Felliniesque spectacle successfully mirrors the complicated image of national history and cinema with ‘the world above ground [quoting Kusturica] portrayed in the full colour of everyday reality’ and ‘the world below […] seen in the faded colours of manipulated lies’” – a conventionalising trope framed, we might add, by an overarchingly “Gnostic” mythopoeia in which the absurdity of all such dualistic “historical struggles” mirrors the idea of an inherently dysfunctional universe created by an imbecile God, that can only be made sense of dialectically because it is in fact nothing but a fabric of contradictions. And it is in this sense, too, that Kusturica’s filmmaking can be considered broadly “dialectical” – in the same way that Menippean satire is dialectical, in its mythic burlesque by highly “physical-satirical” means and its inversion of precisely the kind of historical fatalism Daković ultimately accuses Underground of being (or the act of Serb propaganda other critics at the time considered it as being). What’s more, we’re given the sense that it is in fact this “underground” world, teaming with whole nations on the move, migrating beneath Europe, east and west, in a vast complex of subterranean tunnels, that is the “true” theatre of History-with-a-capital-H: the operational never-centre, you might say, of the “spectacle” above.
In Underground, the conventional representation of “truth” and “lies” – of the “real” world and the ghostly underworld – are effectively turned on their head: and it is here that the film most succinctly develops its critical tension with the easy moralism of its times. Its perversely engrossed archetypes – a “kind of eternal orgy” (as Slavoj Žižek says) of parodic national traits – go beyond a simple “carnivalesque transgressive model” and demand that we confront precisely the “call to order” on which historical judgement is founded: something that, in refusing the kind of didactic function Godard identified with pseudo-militant “Internationale” cinema, has provoked Žižek to call Underground “one of the most horrible films that I’ve seen.”
8. A few years ago (2014), when the Nobel laureate and author of One Hundred Years of Solitude died, the international press orchestrated an outpouring of uncritical admiration for the “father of magic realism” which glossed over his close personal ties with the former Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro – who has now also very recently passed into history. Not only was Gabriel García Márquez a personal friend of Castro, he also acted as an informer, and it is known that his intercessions resulted in a number of anti-communist dissidents in Cuba being gaoled and tortured. He also operated as a type of éminence grise of the left émigré publishing scene in Europe – effectively blocking the publication of anti-Castroists in France and Spain – before, of course, being awarded for his efforts with a Nobel Prize in 1982.
The Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas, who in contrast died in semi-obscurity (diagnosed with AIDS, and lacking health insurance, he committed suicide on 7 December 1990 in New York), accused Márquez of being “an unscrupulous propagandist for communism who, taking refuge in the guarantees and facilities which liberty provides, set out to undermine it.” In addition, Arenas made the point that, “although not without merit,” Márquez’s work was “not at the level of… writers who have either died in oblivion or been ignored.” In Arenas’s view, Márquez and others like him represented the real power of ideological, cultural normalisation in the Cold War period and the substitution for the “revolutionary” discourse of the avant-garde by a central committee romance.
Under the Castro regime, Arenas had suffered imprisonment and the repeated destruction of his manuscripts (one novel, Farewell to the Sea – eventually published in Spain in 1982 – had to be re-written three times). In August 1980 he was among the approximately 125,000 refugees permitted to leave Cuba for the US as part of the Mariel Boatlift. His autobiography, Before Night Falls, on which Julian Schnabel’s 2000 biopic of the same title is based, was written during the highly prolific last years of his life and posthumously published in 1992. In a personal memoir originally printed in the PEN Newsletter, Jaime Manrique described Arenas’s situation at that time:
‘Last September, I found out his health was deteriorating. I went to visit him, and he indicated that he wished to apply for a grant from the PEN Fund for Writers and Editors with AIDS. The air in his apartment was stagnant, and the vases in the living room were choked with rotten flowers; on the dining-room table lay copies of the two manuscripts he had just finished – thousands and thousands of pages, and Reinaldo a shipwreck disappearing in a sea of paper. His handsome face was hideously deformed by the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma; he was very weak, and pale, as if all his blood had been consumed by the disease. He was, in fact, able to speak only with great difficulty, because of a painful sarcoma in his throat. Even so, he wanted to talk. Almost in a whisper he spoke at length about the sadness of being a homosexual in the context of Latin America’s machista culture; about the AIDS epidemic and how it had set back the progress of the gay movement in Hispanic culture, how it was putting us back in the Dark Ages; and about the tyranny of Fidel Castro.’
Unlike his previous film, Basquiat (1996), which was assembled from indirect accounts of the artist’s life, Schnabel’s script for Before Night Falls is heavily grounded in Arenas’s own text (and with the exception of a fictional episode centred on a makeshift hot-air-balloon – intended as a means of escape by members of a dissident commune – remains largely faithful to it). Shot in Veracruz, Mexico, the film begins by tracing Arenas’s childhood and coming-of-age during the Cuban Revolution in broad painterly strokes that match Arenas’s lyric prose, producing what Roger Ebert describes as “a rich canvas of dream sequences, fragmented childhood memories, and the wild Cuban demimonde” (there’s a scene, for example, of the young Arenas receiving a blowjob in a Holguín brothel while fantasising about his best friend). The focus then shifts to Arenas’s development as a serious writer while studying in the School of Planification and later Faculty of Letters at Havana University (the adult Arenas being played by Javier Bardem) and the resulting publication of his first book in 1967, Singing from the Well, when Arenas was only twenty years old.
The remainder of the film focuses on the period of the Cuban Revolution’s “betrayal” of its radical democratic ethos, including the suppression of “sexual liberty,” specifically homosexuality, and a concerted, systematic attack – by way of a series of Stalinistic showtrials, imprisonment and constant police harassment – on “dissident” writers. Arenas’s own “internal exile” is initiated with his first arrest in 1973 on trumped-up charges of sexual molestation, from which point the film charts a failed attempt to escape the island and Arenas’s uncertain existence within an increasingly “underground” culture, on the fringes of a society by now riddled with opportunists and informers, as well as the transformation of literature into a form of contraband to be smuggled out of the country – as in other Soviet satellite states at that time – in order to achieve any kind of publication. Farewell to the Sea was written during an eight-year stretch at the notorious El Morro prison: in Schnabel’s film, Johnny Depp is given a dual role as the sadistic prison officer Lieutenant Victor, and as resident transvestite “Bon Bon” who smuggles out one of Arenas’s manuscripts up his arse. The subsequent publication of the manuscript abroad caused Arenas to be brutally punished (we’re given extended scenes of solitary confinement in the film) and forced to denounce his own writing.
Belonging to a reviled subclass of the new Cuban social order, this was euphemistically the only opportunity for Arenas’s “rehabilitation”: to recant and/or incriminate others – a form of public humiliation tantamount to suicide. In an interview, Schnabel explained his casting decision by the fact that “in Reinaldo’s writing, one character can be two, three different personages; somebody can be a man and a woman at the same time,” combining the gender fluidity in Arenas’s writing with the perversity of the political system under Castro and the ambivalent sexualisation of power we find in Genet: “I like to think that Reinaldo would imagine that Lieutenant Victor and Bon Bon could be the same person – that Cuban State Security would go to such extravagant lengths to undermine the stability of the prisoners. The fact that Bon Bon/Lieutenant Victor could be Reinaldo’s vision of beauty and his destruction is a constant in Reinaldo’s body of work…”
9. Sometimes described as an allegorical retelling of Hungarian history from WW2 to the present, György Pálfi’s 2006 film Taxidermia constructs a generational triptych around the descendents of a servile, hair-lipped, masturbating, voyeuristic, pig-fucking military orderly called Morosgovanyi, who winds up being shot in the head by his own commanding officer on a remote outpost, after phantasmatically impregnating the officer’s wife. The resulting progeny, a son, “Kálmán,” born with a pig’s tail (duly shorn off), is raised by the officer (“Öreg”) as his own and becomes (in the film’s second part) a champion Hungarian speed-eater. Kálmán’s marriage to the national women’s speed-eating champion, “Gizi” (sabotaged on their wedding night by Kálmán’s team-mate and romantic competitor, “Béla”), produces the eponymous taxidermist, “Lajoska,” who later (in the film’s climactic third part) – when the ex-champ Kálmán’s all washed-up and middle-aged – serves as his chair-bound father’s keeper: emptying Kálmán’s toilet tray and bringing the daily supply of chocolate bars that he snarfs at the rate of 150+ per hour, wrapper and all, and the kilos of lard he feeds to his pet cats (three caged oversized felines that Lajoska keeps at bay with a cattle prod) as part of their “training regime,” while spending his days doing nothing else but sleeping, farting and watching competition speed-eating on cable TV.
Being thoroughly immobilised by obesity, when Lajoska – after being abused by his “father” as a “human cyst” and (ironically) “carcass-stuffer” – exercises a bit of petulantly wilful negligence, Kálmán is a sitting duck for his meat-starved cats the moment they find their cage left unlocked. Lajoska stuffs Kálmán’s partially-eaten corpse, along with the pet cats, and mounts them in a tableau of surpassing kitsch, before strapping himself into a purpose-built apparatus and committing suicide-by-taxidermy. The film concludes with an epilogue of sorts, in which Lajoska’s “archaic art” – having duly been discovered by his last customer, a doctor, who’d requested Lajoska produce a key-ring from an aborted foetus – is placed on exhibition at an upscale gallery, while the doctor delivers a lecture to a voguishly mannerist audience dressed entirely in white. These human mannequins of commodity aestheticism, juxtaposed to Lajoska’s crude (headless) personification of Michelangelo’s “David,” provide a final, incisive act of grotesquery on the director’s part (presaging the film’s own reception as cinematic “art” on the festival champagne-and-canapé circuit).
Three generations of ritual and unrelenting “self-abuse” thus provide a staging of a nation’s pathological descent through communism (and revolt) to free market economics, each presenting variations of a “degenerate” spectacularism (voyeurism, exhibitionism, alienation, etc.). There are strong echoes, both in its cinematic pathology and visual lushness, of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), as well as the sometimes lyric grotesqueness of Jan Švankmajer’s Otesánek (2000) – in which, as Pálfi says of Taxidermia, “naturalism is overcome by surrealism,” not by an act of transcendence but rather by way of immanence: the encounter, in place of an ideologically ordered, heroic “realism,” with the grotesquery and obscenity of naked power and powerlessness – whether we call it libido, super-ego or the State. In this regard, Pálfi’s vision is like that of a present-day Hieronymus Bosch disposed towards what we might call “dialectical parody.” Dialectical in its play upon a certain historical materialism: parodic in its grasp upon an overstuffed sublimity (both aesthetic and ideological).
Just as the nation state pursued its “manifest destiny” as monument, cadaver, war machine, pageant, slaughterhouse and concentration camp, so too this “story about men who hunger, men who have desires that seem boundless and impossible to satiate” communicates a private and collective delirium whose cinematic ejaculations reduce that socalled historical perspective designed to induce a prophylactic distance between modernity and, for example, the barbarity of the Inquisition, to mere ideological abstentionism. As Althusser says, the true manifestation of ideology is always to be found in those areas most seemingly remote from it: in the bestial, spontaneous, orgiastic, perverse, on whom the subterfuge of a Rousseauesque “naturalism” bestows the aura of innocence. Here the entire abject cornucopia of bodily fluids is precisely an excess of ideology. The biological, “animal” destiny inscribed in these stigmata, is the no less legitimate offspring of the vertigo of power in all its most narcissistic, pervasive and resilient forms – in its most primitive, visceral symptomatology, and thus its most spectacular – as that ideally untreatable and fatalistic neurosis called “the human condition.”
10. In 1965, following an attempted coup allegedly backed by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), army general Mohammad Suharto led an anti-communist purge which ultimately resulted in the ousting of the country’s first president, Sukarno, and the institution of a 31-year dictatorship which formally ended with Suharto’s resignation in 1998. The purge, led by the army and local “vigilante” units, was responsible for the death or disappearance of over a million people, and was described by the CIA (who would support almost identical tactics themselves fifteen years later in El Salvador) as “one of the worse mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.” While the present Indonesian government (under Susilo Yudhoyono – whose father-in-law, Sarwo Wibowo, is considered responsible for initiating the mass murders ) has recently considered bestowing the title “National Hero” on Suharto, Transparency International has named the former dictator “the most corrupt leader in modern history,” having been accused of embezzling between 15 and 35 billion dollars during his presidency; likewise, in 2012, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights described “gross human rights violations” directly or indirectly ascribable to the Suharto regime and its proxies in the liquidation of the PKI, handing down recommendations (never acted upon by the country’s Attorney General) of legal action against those responsible.
Suharto’s anti-communist stance throughout the last 20 years of the Cold War ensured his regime of tacit western support, and with the end of the Cold War little has been accomplished in exposing and prosecuting the crimes of the Suharto era, whose long shadow provides the backdrop for Joshua Openheimer’s two documentaries on the subject of Indonesia’s death squads: The Act of Killing (2012) and Look at the Silence (2014). Oppenheimer’s documentaries are unique and disturbing for several reasons, and subvert a great deal of documentary convention in treating subjects like mass extra-judicial murder and genocide: above all, because the films blur the conventions of the genre itself – particularly The Act of Killing (produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris), in which members of a death squad re-stage their crimes in highly-theatrical appropriations of American genre cinema (western, noir, musical) that happily blur distinctions between “verity” and “kitsch” (“play-acting with murderers,” is how one review described it ).
In doing so, the films poses an ethical dilemma, of presenting a crime of staggering dimensions from the “point-of-view” of the perpetrators. But this points to another and slightly unique problem. Unlike, for example, Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984) – a dramatisation of accounts by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian journalist and interpreter Dith Pran during the Cambodian civil war in 1973 and the subsequent exposure of the Khmer Rouge “killing fields” where as many as 3 million Cambodians (or 25% of the population) were murdered by Pol Pot’s regime – the orchestrators of Indonesia’s 1965 mass murders remain part of the country’s political elite. While Pol Pot’s government effectively collapsed in 1979, and members of the Khmer Rouge have been prosecuted for war crimes and their role in the country’s terror period, no such judicial scrutiny has occurred in Indonesia, where the 1965 killings continue to be presented as an official victory over communism. Like Chile, where investigation and attempted prosecution of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet for human rights violations was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the United States, it has been shown that Suharto’s regime was actively supported by the CIA, who have been revealed to have provided extensive lists of “communists” to the death squads (the New York Times hailed the overthrow of pro-Chinese Sukarno government as “A Gleam of Light in Asia” ).
This raises the disquieting spectre of the Nuremberg principle, whereby the “victors” of the major ideological struggles of our time have stood in a whitewashed ethical relation to the crimes committed by the vanquished. At Nuremberg, the Soviets’ acts of aggression after the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact were never cited, nor were the allies’ revenge bombings of cities like Dresden late in the war. The events of ’65 that are the subject of Oppenheimer’s films exists in this irreal zone of non-avowal. No-one disputes the killings occurred, the question is whether or not they are to be regarded as crimes. It helps, of course, that the events occurred in a remote south-east Asian archipelago nation, at an obscure distance from Western Consciousness (notably most of the filming takes place in the largely impoverished and endemically corrupt northern area of Sumatra, amid typically “third world” scenery, juxtaposed at key moments with shots of the McDonald’s “golden arches,” boutique shopping malls and collections of “limited edition” bling). And as the film’s epigraph, culled from Voltaire, proclaims – with heavy-handed irony that fails in any way to abate as the narrative unfolds – “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
But we might easily construct analogies that are more readily sensible at least to western minds. We might consider a present state of affairs, for example, with Bosnia still dominated by Radovan Karadžić, in which a film-maker like Oppenheimer interviews members of the Bosnian-Serb militias responsible for the Srebrenica massacre and for implementing the order to terrorise Bosniak populations – “to create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival of life,” as was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – and have the perpetrators gladly give a detailed and theatrical account of their actions in front of the camera: not only with an attitude of impunity, but with a dramatic sense of nostalgia for acts worthy of celebration. Or a Spain still dominated by the party of Franco and populated with forces labour camps. Or a South Africa still under Apartheid, with no Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Or a successor state to Nazi Germany – it almost goes without saying – with octogenarian ex-members of the Einsatzgruppen paraded about as quasi state heroes.
This is the realm we enter in The Act of Killing, whose apparent surreality and disorientating power stems precisely from this ethical rupture in the representation of history. It disturbs because it implicates: not the protagonists, among whom we at least get to witness a performed “cinematic redemption” of sorts at the end, but its western audience, unaccustomed to naked depictions of their own historical violence (it’s one thing to produce revisionist accounts of the genocide of American Indians or Australian Aborigines, but to do so from a position of the unabashed kitsch of contemporary chauvinisms, etc. – this is an act of masterful subversion of both amnesiac nationalism and the liberal niceties content to patronise it). “War crimes,” Adi Zukadry, one of the mass murderers interviewed in Oppenheimer’s film, tells the camera when questioned about the Geneva Convention, “are defined by the winners,” adding: “There are people like me everywhere in the world.”
Among the many scenes of bizarre and pathologic brutalism, the Bonnie-and-Clyde-type cinematic adoration of heroic criminality, the rampant corruption and knotted sophistry, etc., etc., etc., there is one scene in particular in The Act of Killing which stands out. It isn’t the elderly Anwar Congo (a leader of the most powerful death squad in northern Sumatra, personally responsible for the deaths of approx 1000 “communists”) demonstrating his garrotting technique, or his collaborator Herman Koto singing in drag, nor their enlistment of villagers (including children) in a re-enactment of a massacre fifty years previously in that same village, of members of the same families, or the occasions in which the ex-gangsters portray their own victims. Rather, it is a scene split between the beginning and end of the film, in which Anwar Congo – dressed in black clerical robes, stands at the foot of an “emotionally expressive” waterfall surrounded by dancing girls, overdubbed with John Barry’s “Born Free” – acts out his redemption: the ghost of one of his garrotted victims presenting him with a medal and saying, “For executing me and sending me to heaven, I thank you a thousand times.” It is a scene that encapsulates what Slavoj Žižek calls “a case of obscenity that reaches to the extreme.”
It is the obscene fantasy of power according itself the ultimate alibi: that its crimes are not only not-crimes, but are in fact self justified, above all by their theatricality. As Congo himself explains early in the film, after describing his transformation from “movie theatre gangster” to deathsquad leader (whose crimes were inspired by and modelled on the big screen personae of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Wayne, among others), “Why do people watch James Bond? Why do people watch films about the Nazis? To see power and sadism.” “We were,” he concludes – pointing to a rupture in the cinematic fantasy – “more cruel than the movies.” Consequently, Oppenheimer’s film is as far from the conventional form of “exposé” as we might care to imagine, since its meshing of documentary realism and melodrama abolishes both the filmmaker’s and viewers’ claims to neutrality (and to its implied ethical exceptionalism, the one that allows us to pass judgement: Oppenheimer has stated in interviews that the cinematography of the “re-enactments” sought primarily to meet the viewer’s expectations in filmic terms, in order to involve them in generic “realism” of what they were seeing). It consequently invites us to recognise in it all the theatricality, radical ambivalence and (above all) license, of a medieval morality play, in which ethical alienation – done-up as cinematic postmodernism – is presented as the mode of contemporary entertainment (“Our souls,” Congo says at one point, “have become like soap opera actors”). In doing so, it stages the real dilemma of that cinematic conscience which has grown up with the twentieth century and has so easily given the impression of allowing us, the chosen ones, to absolve ourselves of history.
Kim Newman, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Empire (14 October 2015): www.empireonline,com/movies/empire-essay-invasion-bodysnatchers/review/
Roger Ebert, “Santa Sangre,” www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-santa-sangre-1989
Neveva Daković, “‘Remembrance of the Things Past’: Emir Kusturice’s Underground,” European Cinema: Inside-Out, eds. Guido Rings & Rikki Morgan (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 2003).
Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour, Cinema (Oxford: Berg, 2005) 87.
Slavoj Žižek with Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Violence and the Left in Dark Times: A Debate,” For a TV (16 September 2008).
At the time of Márquez’s death in April 2014 one critic wrote: “No amount of moral and intellectual wretchedness will earn an artist even the mildest rebuke from most of his professional peers and their related institutions – so long as the wretch hires himself out to communists” (Humberto Fontova).
Roger Ebert, “Before Night Falls”: www.rogerebert.com/reviews/before-night-falls-2001
Caroline Cooper, “The Act of Seeing The Act of Killing,” Guernica (13 June 2013): www.guernicamag.com/caroline-cooper-the-act-of-seeing-the-act-of-killing/
Bob Mondello, “In Indonesia, a Genocide Restaged for the Camera,” NPR (18 July 2013): www.npr.org/2013/07/26/198439933/in-indonesia-a-genocide-restaged-for-the-camera?ft=1&f=1045
James Reston, “A Gleam of Light in Asia,” New York Times (19 June 1966).
Slavoj Žižek, “Capital,” Symposium: Until the End of the World,” Nuit Blanche (29 September 2012): www.publicjournal.ca/symposium-until-the-end-of-the-world/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louis Armand is director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory. His books include Videology (2015), The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey (2013), Cairo (shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s Not-the-Booker Prize, 2014) and The Combinations (2016).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 25th, 2017.