[Essay] Subversive Cinema from Waters to Carax — Louis Armand

Nur die perverse Phantasie kann uns noch retten…

(Only the perverse imagination can save us)

– “Goethe” / Hellmuth Costard, Besonders wertvoll (1968)

In the late 1960s, before the VHS revolution, it still seemed possible to indulge the idea that a neo-avantgarde stance was sufficient to constitute a set of critical assertions about prevailing values. But if the ethnological distinction between culture and art had been challenged by historical movements like Dada, Pop, Fluxus, it was the anti-art represented by TV that posed the greater challenge to self-assertions of the cinema avantgarde’s critical privilege. If, as Guy Debord contended, “the bourgeoisie is the only revolutionary class that ever won,”[1] we might similarly propose that in the late ’60s television represented the unique victory of the post-War cultural revolution called the Marshall Plan. Despite what Parker Tyler referred to as (American) Underground Film’s excessive “tolerance,” the cinema avantgarde in this relationship represented a quintessentially conservative force, it’s “subversion” a feedback loop of neo-primitivisms in reply to the fact that cinema itself had (at the hands of the newer medium) long ceased to be a dominant socially-determining and (potentially) transformative force.[2] Thirty years further on, what had once constituted the supposed autonomy of film form (as Eisenstein envisaged it) now seemed like an ideological artefact, an object of recuperative nostalgias evoked by the word “cinema.” TV, the apotheosis of the reconstruction of Western consciousness as spectacle, inverted the entire social relation upon which film art had been premised – whose potential as subversion had always vied with its potential as propaganda, which in turn vied with its potential for radical ambivalence. More importantly, film maintained no coherent idea of itself capable of surviving the evolutionary momentum represented first by television, then by video, and ultimately by digitisation.

Appearing in tandem with the post-War birth of Pop, the analysis and critique of the electronic media undertaken by the likes of Marshall McLuhan spoke of the “propaganda value” of film’s “simultaneous audio-visual impression,” as a product of its capacity to “standardise thought by supplying the spectator with a readymade visual image before he has time to conjure up an interpretation of his own.” But McLuhan also saw film as having the potential to reverse this process: rather than paralysing the mind, energising it. “It is observable,” he wrote, “that the more illusion and falsehood needed to maintain any given state of affairs, the more tyranny is needed to maintain the illusion and falsehood. Today,” he adds, “the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but disguised as the market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort.”[3]

In the 2005 preface to the re-issue of his seminal (if selective) study, Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel writes:

Contemporary America – a late capitalist colossus, owned by large corporations while parading as a democracy and dominated by rabid commercialism and consumerism – is attempting to dominate the world via transnationals, Hollywood cinema and television, the export of American cultural “values,” the Disneyfication of the globe. It is not the dinosaurs and extra-terrestrials that the rest of the world ought to be afraid of, it is the commodification of all spheres of human existence, the seemingly unstoppable commercialisation of human life and society, the growing international blight of the theme parks, the all-pervasive malling of the world. Our fate seems to be the homogenisation of culture: an universal levelling down, an anaesthetising, pernicious blandness.[4]

When Film as a Subversive Art was first published in 1974 it announced itself as being about “the subversion of existing values,” declaiming cinema as “the potentially most powerful art of the century.” It regarded film as a Nietzschean assault upon the prevailing status quo. In doing so, it was very much bound up with the spirit of the times, the revolutionary militancy of 1970s America, characterised by the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. The continuing emergence of a neo-avantgarde carried film along with it in its revolutionary seizure of the concept of art away from the Institutions of Official Culture and its desire to dance upon the Museum’s ruins (documentaries of which were intended, of course, to be hung on its instantly reconstructed walls). In 1974, Vogel’s emphasis was upon film as subversive art. By 2005, the position had changed, at least in tenor: subversive art wasn’t enough; film, merely in order to exist, needed to subvert the programme of cultural normalisation by market forces that had made it into a parody of its 1950s self, through the transfiguring mirror of TV (which already by 1960, with one installed in ninety percent of American homes, had become the definitive form of mass culture). As Debord wryly noted, “modern society’s obsession with saving time, whether by means of faster transport or by means of powdered soup, has the positive result that the average American spends three to six hours a day watching television.”[5] Accordingly, for Vogel,

The space in which the infantalisation of the human race is most clearly revealed is in the monstrous structures of American television. For the first time in history, the most powerful mass medium of a society is entirely controlled and dominated by advertisers and the market, totally driven by commercial imperatives, saturated by ubiquitous commercials that deliver audiences to advertisers (not programmes to audiences), and an even larger spectrum of channels delivering primarily garbage 365 days a year. Thus has the marvellous potential of the medium been betrayed.[6]

Taking their cue from McLuhan, V. Vale and Andrea Juno, in their introduction to the 1985 Re/Search guide to “Incredibly Strange Films,” clearly identified the role of the subversive filmmaker as having been directed by the evolution of media. “Since the sixties,” they wrote, “film has ceased being a popular creative medium.” While the advent of video in combination with TV was seen to herald an “end” to film art (there would always be exceptions, like Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway in the UK, who both produced important work for the BBC), it also provided unanticipated opportunities for subversive film as a countermeasure to a general trend of normalisation embodied in the culture industry.

Whatever its drawbacks, the VHS revolution of the ’80s renewed the sort of possibilities which had opened to independent “auteurs” in the ’50s by virtue of the easy availability of 16mm film and Bolex cameras, etc. A new generation of portable cameras (Super-8 and, from 1982, video camcorders), cheap editing equipment and mail-order, VHS paved the way for the ’80s renaissance of “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” (Lower East Side New York filmmakers and video artists like Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Jim Jarmusch, Vincent Gallo, Amos Poe), among others. Continuing into the ’90s with the advent of handheld digicams, this reinvention of cinema from the margin-of-the-margin tended towards an attitude of ambivalence towards any objectifiable, ideological standpoint (from being a medium of mass commodification to a medium for some form of alternative social transformation or aesthetic counter-revolution), while at the same time exploiting the new technological means of extending the consciousness of the “medium” itself (such as Jean-Luc Godard’s emphatic Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98)).

Throughout this period, independent film-makers, including established maverick figures like Godard and Warhol, could now produce and distribute their work direct to an audience potentially anywhere on the globe in ways that had not previously been possible – what Nam June Paik referred to as a “video common market.” As the revolutionary temper of the 1970s ceded to the conservative reaction of the Reaganite/Thatcherite years, the medium also provided a platform for a new style of subversion: what had begun as the B-film on celluloid became the cult film on VHS (and late-night cable), encompassing a wide array of “asocial” and “antisocial” aesthetics, from gore and exploitation to porn, pretty much all of which would have attracted an X-rating under existing schemes for theatrical release.

As Michael Weldon writes in The Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film, most of these B and No Wave films have until recently “been treated with indifference or contempt” by film historians preoccupied with cinematic art[7] and proponents of “film art” and socalled Underground Cinema (“a cast,” in Tyler’s scathing critique, “of brazen boasters and self-promoters”[8]; purveyors of “fetish footage”). These underground filmmakers often sought to entertain by perverting or camping the norms established by the film “industry” and by exploiting the bankruptcy of the institutional avantgarde. Here, the subversive element also derives from a rejection of aesthetic normalisation: the Disneyfication of the planet. Vale and Juno note that most of these films “tested the limits of contemporary (middle class) cultural acceptability,” as well as that of the film art establishment, not simply in terms of morality or aesthetic vision (what Tyler called the “taboo on reality”), but also in terms of “production values” – refusing to “meet ‘standards’ utilised in evaluating direction, acting, dialogue, sets, continuity, technical cinematography, etc.” Most were “overtly ‘lower-class’ or ‘low-brow’ in content and art direction.” However, as Vale and Juno pointed out, “many of these works disdained by the would-be dictators of public opinion are sources of pure enjoyment and delight, despite improbable plots, ‘bad’ acting, or ragged film technique.” What is at issue, they argued, “is the notion of ‘good taste,’ which functions as a filter to block out entire areas of experience judged – and damned – as unworthy of investigation.”[9]

Pink Flamingos

John Waters, Pink Flamingos (1972)

  1. Pink Flamingos (1972), directed by John Waters, achieved for the new wave of “Trash” cinema what Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) achieved for American “underground film” a decade before. But while Flaming Creatures – following an obscenity prosecution for its scenes of flagrant transvestism, hermaphrodism, vampirism and cunnilingual rape – was later eulogised by Susan Sontag as a “rare modern work of art; it is all about joy and innocence,”[10] Pink Flamingos achieved cult status as – to quote a recent Museum of Modern Art (!) catalogue – “a paragon of bad taste” (Entertainment Weekly called it “shocking, nauseating, hilarious…”). Vogel, who like Jonas Mekas, had high praise for Smith,[11] doesn’t so much as mention Waters once in the 336 pages of Film as a Subversive Art (though Russ Meyer gets a brief mention), and the general impression we are given of the period in which Waters began making films is one in which B-films (as the alter-ego of commercial Hollywood) generally do not feature as “subversive art.”[12] Perhaps the most astonishing omission is Roger Corman, whose influence on independent production in the US in the ’60s was immeasurable. The artist Robert Smithson, writing in 1968, identified Corman’s style of filmmaking as paradigmatic precisely in its subversion of a studio system that had been “rotting away,” in Peter Biskind’s words, “since the 1940s”[13]:

The films of Roger Corman are structured by an aesthetic atemporality [that] avoids the “organic substances” and life-forcing rationalism that fills so many realistic films with naturalistic meanings. His actors always appear vacant and transparent, more like robots than people – they simply move through a series of settings and places and define where they are by the artifice that surrounds them.[14]

In an interview with Search & Destroy magazine in 1978, Waters credited his major influences as being precisely the low-budget “underground” exploitation films of the 1960s generally omitted from historical accounts of American “avantgarde” and “experimental” cinema such as Vogel’s – films by Meyer, Herschell Lewis and Mike Kuchar (Waters cites Kuchar’s camp sci-fi Sins of the Fleshapoids [1965] as the reason he first got into filmmaking) – as well as early work by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, like Katzelmacher (1969).[15] Pink Flamingos in this sense qualifies as antiestablishmentarian in respect both to Hollywood and the “film art” avantgarde, parodying elements of both. It features drag-queen Divine in the role of trailer-home resident and owner of the eponymous pink garden ornament flamingos, Babs Johnson, a.k.a. “The Filthiest Person Alive.” This hard-earned title is coveted by fellow degenerate Connie Marble (Mink Stole) who, with her husband and partner in crime Raymond (David Lochary), sets about trying to sabotage Johnson through a series of increasingly “filthy” acts, like a couple of comicstrip villains. The film also “stars” Edith Massey as “the Egg Lady,” a role entirely played inside an infant’s playpen, in underwear, in mid-winter, eating soft-boiled eggs supplied by the “Egg Man” (echoes of John Lennon’s cryptic menace): one of underground American cinema’s singularly most memorable roles.

Among its litany of bizarre acts, Pink Flamingos boasts a “talking” arsehole vaguely reminiscent of William Burroughs, rampant gender queering, food “sex” and furniture licking. One particularly provocative subplot involves the abduction of young women who are forcibly impregnated to produce babies that are then retailed on the “philanthropic” adoption market. The film’s epilogue, a sublime essay on the contemporary fetish economy of US consumer capitalism, shows Divine scooping up and eating actual freshly-minted poodle shit. In its very American fashion it is unsurprising that Pink Flamingos has been described as setting a benchmark for the bizarre that has never quite been equalled. Waters shot the film on the meagre budget of $10,000 and it soon became his most iconic work, earning him a national and later international reputation, largely through the emerging underground “midnight movie” scene (a scene initially focused around the Elgin Theatre in New York and largely initiated by the premier of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 masterpiece of “western enlightenment,” El Topo, and subsequently institutionalised with The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975]).

Waters’s trash-exploitation style courted immediate controversy by setting out to actively transgress all manner of industry taboos, including unsimulated “sex,” radical nihilism, incest, coprophilia, high camp and extreme weirdness. Several of Waters’s other films also achieved notoriety along similar lines, particularly Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living (1977) and Polyester (1981); all three likewise staring Divine. Polyester – which shares an almost identical central cast with Pink Flamingos (in addition to Divine, there’s Edith Massey and Mink Stole, who appears in all of Waters’s films) – reprises many of the “themes” of Pink Flamingos while “domesticating” its approach to transgression, from the world of trailer-camp hillbilly weirdness to suburban Middle America. Michael Weldon provides a useful summary:

Divine stars as Francine Fishpaw, a housewife whose life is a shambles because of her cheating porno-theatre-owner husband, her glue-sniffing, angel-dusted son, and her wild, pregnant daughter. Her only friend is her retarded ex-maid Edith Massey. She drinks herself into a constant stupor. Her dog commits suicide.[16]

As distinct from characters in Waters’s earlier movies – who “seemed totally unreal” to many viewers (their “naïve” camp too revealing of how society behaves in private) – the “suburban family” shown in Polyester was, according to Weldon, “all too familiar,” giving the film a critical edge in its anatomisation of Middle America that Pink Flamingos arguably lacked by being too strange, too subversive (an unsubtle mirror held up to Nixon’s “great silent majority”). But this is hardly to suggest that films like Polyester represent anything like a detour into the mainstream, only that their assault upon “taste” is more recognisable, because it more exactly reflects the “bad taste” of the Reaganite mainstream itself. (Waters’s films, however, did shift more towards the “centre ground”: his 1988 film Hairspray went on to become a hit Broadway musical.) Yet in certain respects, films like Pink Flamingos and Polyester, like Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), can be seen as precursors of contemporary reality TV in both its banal and bizarre manifestations.

In a sense that isn’t usually attributed to directors such as Waters (Žižek reserves the honour for David Lynch and co.), there’s something in these films – perhaps because of their proximity (as in the work of Ed Wood) to a set of studio models which they sought, however weirdly, to emulate – that is often far more subversive than self-consciously avantgarde or experimental films which simply rejected the idea of “entertainment” outright. As with Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970; a benchmark in this respect), here we have precisely that “id monster” of the US military-infotainment complex: the “materialisation of the terrifying,” as Žižek says, the “forbidden domain” of the American psyche. Like elements of No Wave (which, in many respects, his work anticipated), Waters’s films can be seen as part of a continuing dissident tendency within American cinema infused with a kind of “outlaw” culture in drag and operating on the radical fringe of both the film and “culture” industries – especially when measured against those earnest attempts at zeitgeistology paraded by the socalled New Hollywood of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) (to paraphrase McLuhan: social criticism you can buy).


Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Holy Mountain (1973)

  1. While Alejandro Jodorowsky had been courting controversy since the release of his first feature film, Fando y Lis (1967) – which was immediately banned in his adopted Mexico – it was the “acid western,” El Topo (1970), that brought him to wider prominence. Credited with inaugurating the underground “midnight movie” scene in America, El Topo soon came to the attention of John Lennon, who reportedly offered Jodorowsky a million dollars towards the production of his next film, The Holy Mountain, which was initially slated to feature Ringo Starr in the lead role (there were objections to some of the planned scenes) and was released in the US in 1973, after failing to make much of an impression at the Cannes Film Festival (where Marco Ferrari’s comedy La Grande Bouffe was that year’s main attraction).

Lennon had also introduced Jodorowsky to Allen Klein, the Beatles’s manager who also managed the Rolling Stones and had interests in film production. Klein immediately bought the distribution rights to Jodorowsky’s backlist. When The Holy Mountain failed at Cannes, his approach was to focus its US release on the growing underground market and, after its premier at New York’s Waverly Theatre, made theatre bookings for the film to be screened during midnight slots on Fridays and Saturdays. The strategy was a success and the film soon attracted a cult following, playing to full houses for its16-month run. Jodorowsky’s relationship with Klein may well have developed into a collaboration of major significance, at a time when the American film industry (and American society in general) was undergoing a sea-change. However, when Klein tried to push Jodorowsky into directing an adaptation of Pauline Réage’s Story of O for the burgeoning porno industry (waving significant financial incentives), Jodorowsky walked out. The resulting recriminations between producer and director meant that both The Holy Mountain and El Topo were not screened again (other than in pirate editions) for over thirty years, until a reconciliation was mediated in 2004. (Klein might easily have been the model for the Lederhosen-attired proprietor of the “Pantheon Bar” – a decadent necropolis of pseudo-visionaries who’ve traded their “quest” for instant celebrity, located at the foot of the eponymous Holy Mountain – when he cries out after Jodorowsky’s departing band of “pilgrims” as they turn their backs on his establishment: “You could’ve made history and already we’re forgetting you!”)

The Holy Mountain is in certain respects a more visually lavish restatement of many of the themes already present in El Topo. In both films Jodorowsky himself plays the lead role: a kind of spiritual guide, leading us through the desert of the real (or the labyrinth of the “spectacle”) towards enlightenment in the form of “disillusion.” Both films employ an episodic, allegorical structure. If The Holy Mountain represents a more expansive critique of materialism and the savagery and cultishness of New World capitalism, it is also more self-referential and self-critically aware of cinema’s role in the mythopoetics of power. Notably the featuring of bodily mutilation and deformity calls to mind scenes originally cut from Tinto Brass’s 1976 exploration of Nazism’s rampant sexualisation of power, Salon Kitty (with echoes also of Visconti’s The Damned (1969), also starring Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger). Jodorowsky employs a broadly “dialectical” structure to contrast and examine the relationship between the illusionistic ideologies of corporate greed, state authoritarianism, psycho-sexual normalisation, and the possibility of attaining a level of consciousness transcending these – employing various shock tactics in order to affect a critical awareness in the audience of their own complicity in this generalised “spectacle” (including the rampant industry in false enlightenment that had grown out of the Flower Power “revolution”). Through the confrontation of the grotesqueries of spectacularism and the disillusionments of the cult of the “real,” Jodorowsky achieves a powerful anti-aesthetic, whose at first apparently mystical allegorical form comes to enact a powerful demysticifaction by way of an autocritique with ends with the director announcing that he and his pilgrim companions are not yet real but only characters “in a movie,” commanding the camera to “pull back” so as to reveal the machinery of the locational shoot atop the “Holy Mountain.”

The first half of the film is lushly visual, irreal; while the latter parts of the film adopt a visual austerity and almost documentary “realism” in an effort to undermine any reductive, programmatic interpretation of its “quest” narrative (easy enlightenment for the price of a cinema ticket). In this respect, the film has close affinities to Ken Russell’s 1975 film Tommy, with its miracle cures and gurus of instant self-attainment, from Eric Clapton’s Church of Marilyn Monroe to Tina Turner’s Acid Queen). Jodorowsky famously stated that he was not interested in depicting any kind of “psychedelic” reaffirmation of middle-class counter-culture-ISM (he makes an amusing swipe at Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary in the “Pantheon Bar” scene towards the end of the film), but rather a transformative experience – with all the attendant discomfort. “When one creates a psychedelic film,” he insisted, “he need not create a film that shows the vision of a person who has taken a pill; rather, he needs to manufacture the pill.”


Dušan Makavejev, Sweet Movie (1974)

  1. Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev, described by Amos Vogel as a “revolutionary Cubist,” came to international attention with his early black and white films, Man is Not a Bird (1965: starring Milena Dravić); Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967: an “unpredictable, ironic, and erotic ‘love story’” centred on a “bizarre affair between a switchboard operator and a rat exterminator”[17]); and Innocence Unprotected (1968: a collage of the first Serbian sound film, a 1942 melodrama directed by Dragoljub Aleksic; interviews with the film’s surviving participants; and WW2 documentary footage). These films employed classic “neo-realist” and “new wave” tropes alongside the use of found footage and collage, but within a broadly narrative framework. With the realisation of his 1971 film, WR, Mysteries of the Organism (also starring Dravić and half-comprised of a documentary about the inventor of orgone therapy, Wilhelm Reich), Makavejev embarked upon a far more radical type of “political,” “psychosexual” filmmaking with which he is most associated today. About W.R., Vogel writes:

Banned in Yugoslavia, hailed at international film festivals, this is unquestionably one of the most important subversive masterpieces of the 1970s: a hilarious, highly erotic, political comedy which quite seriously proposes sex as the ideological imperative for revolution and advances a plea for Erotic Socialism.[18]

The film also included excerpts from the 1946 Soviet film, The Vow, along with an interview with the editor of Screw magazine, a pantomime by Tuli Kupferberg (of The Fugs) “masturbating” a toy M16, and a cameo by Warhol Factory superstar Jackie Curtis. There are also formal references throughout to the work of Sergei Eisenstein.

Sweet Movie (1974) belongs to the same period as W.R. and is perhaps the most radical of all Makavejev’s work. His later films, like The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), adopt mostly conventional structures and production values while nevertheless continuing in a satirical-critical vein, though all of Makavejev’s work can be seen as addressed to the relationship of ideology to commodification, particularly of sexuality, as a dialectic of repression and liberation. In WR, Makavejev employed a parallel narrative structure which he further develops in Sweet Movie. In WR the pairing is between a fictional story, set in Yugoslavia and centred on a character played by Dravić who advocates the necessity of sexual revolution in tandem with political revolution, and a “documentary” about the psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were banned in America and who died in FBI custody in 1957. The narrative of Sweet Movie likewise employs a parallel structure, this time based around two women: the “most virgin” Miss Monde 1984 (a supposed reference to Orwell’s novel) who, via a contest staged by the “Chastity Belt Foundation” (replete with live telecast gynaecological examination) wins the dubious prize of being married to a grotesque, hygiene-obsessed milk industry magnate (Mr Dollars) who declares her to be “a purified sanitation system for unchecked waste” (the consummation of their wedding consists of him fastidiously washing her from head to foot with distilled water before pissing on her with his gold-plated cock), before she is dispatched to Paris in a suitcase and then finds herself on a strange odyssey of liberation and exploitation; and Anna Planeta, the pilot of a river barge (named “Survival”) whose prow is decorated with a giant head of Karl Marx and is laden, like some witch’s fairytale house in the woods, with candy (a reference to the “bitter pill” of Revolution and the sugar-coating of consumerist ideology) – Planeta is a seducer and murderer of romantics and innocents (and quite literally of children), “those who starve,” she proclaims at one point, before knifing her “proletarian” French-speaking adorer (“Potemkin”) in a bed of sugar, “know how to make love.”

While WR had resulted in Makavejev’s forced exile from Yugoslavia, Sweet Movie was immediately banned in just about every country on the planet or else subjected to heavy censorship. The film is not only explicit and in many places disturbing, but its construction (particularly the use of montage, but also its jarring soundtrack in Russian, Greek, Italian, English) is designed to heighten the effect of psychological and emotional violence, disorientation, and so on. The film famously includes footage of the Katyn Massacre victims being exhumed (Polish officers whose execution by the Red Army during WWII was blamed on the Germans) echoing Makavejev’s use of Nazi newsreel footage in Innocence Unprotected, juxtaposing the blatant ideological/propagandistic ends that the Red Army’s staging of a Nazi atrocity with the ambivalence of revolutionary terror and the false consciousness of “libertarian” commodity fetishism. Echoes also of the genre of atrocity documentary that emerged after WW2, such as Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1965), and later found an outgrowth in the exploitation genre. Few critics at the time, however, succeeded in recognising Makavejev’s contextual framework for the Katyn footage, or in making “sense” of its being in the film at all – but then, from a “rational” point-of-view, it would be easy to suggest that very little in Sweet Movie does make sense, since what we’re given – in a parody of the usual Cold War virtues and the various cults of self-realisation (whether egoistic or communal) is a kind of “portrait” of reason perverted by ideology (or rather, Reason exposed as ideology).

Carole Laurie, who played the role of “Miss Monde,” reportedly left the set half-way through production in protest against Makavejev’s direction (causing Makavejev to fall back on the device of a parallel narrative as an expedient in order to complete the project). The crisis arose during filming at the Friedrichshof Commune run by artist Otto Muehl, a leading figure and co-founder of Viennese Actionism who was later imprisoned in 1991 for paedophilia and drug offences (elements of which are disconcertingly present in the film, literally in the scenes of Anna Planeta’s child-seducing striptease (“you can fuck, if you think you’re in luck”: they die, of course, like all the other revolutionary “schmucks” who longed to fall on the “field of honour”), and figuratively in pervasive theme of ideology (capitalist or socialist; deathly in either case) as the opiate of the masses). The scenes at the Friedrichshof Commune involved unsimulated coprophilia, vomiting, urination, etc. – frequent elements in Muehl’s early Actionist “happenings” (a number of which – O Tannenbaum and Leda mit dem Schwan (both 1964) being two famous examples – were recorded by filmmaker Kurt Kren) posing questions about the status of what is “real” and what is “performed” – what is a revolutionary action and what is merely a participation in the ritualised consumption of ideology (questions likewise addressed Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain – whose pageant of disillusionment it sometimes resembles – and notably also in Peter Greenaway’s 1993 film, Baby of Mâcon, in which reality and simulationism are grotesquely intertwined in the mass on-stage judicial rape (208 times) of a morality play’s central character and the simultaneous “actual” rape of the actress who plays her (Julia Ormond) – all under the impassive gaze of Sacha Vierny’s camera).


Ken Russell, Lisztomania (1975)

  1. During the period from 1964 to 1991 Ken Russell completed some 26 feature films, many of them controversial. His best-known films include: Women in Love (1969: for which Glenda Jackson received an Oscar for best actress and Russell received a nomination for Best Director); The Devils (1971: based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, with set design by Derek Jarman); and Tommy (1975: an adaptation of The Who’s rock opera of the same name, starring (as in 1975’s Lisztomania) Who-frontman Roger Daltrey, alongside Keith Moon, Pete Townsend, John Entwistle, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margaret and Russell stalwart Oliver Reed).

Russell’s film production was frequently grouped around the work of, or personality of, individual authors, artists and composers – such as D.H. Lawrence, Debussy, Liszt, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Mary Shelley, Isadora Duncan, Henri Gaudier-Breszka and Oscar Wilde. Several of these films explicitly address Nazism, in the typical style of all Russell films, which is to say, grotesque parody and high camp. Three films in particular can be seen as related in this way: Lisztomania, towards the end of which Richard Wagner is resurrected as a type of Nazi golem, rampaging through a Jewish ghetto with an electric guitar-cum-machinegun in the company of a troupe of Hitler-saluting Wagnerjugend (and from whom Liszt saves the world, flying down from Heaven in a pipe-organ spaceship to laser-blast this zombie Wagner from the face of the earth); Mahler (1974), in which Liszt’s daughter and Wagner’s wife, Cosima, is portrayed as a Brunhilde in SS uniform who conducts the Jewish Mahler through the rites of Catholic conversion in order that he may gain acceptance by the Viennese establishment; and The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), in which a troupe of SS men torture a Jew to strains of Richard Strauss’s music (a scene that ostensibly resulted in the film being suppressed by the Strauss estate).

Lisztomania, which draws varyingly on the biography of the “randy Hungarian” composer, exploits a typical Russell trope of creative anachronism to present Liszt as a type of pop star, conjoining the “Beatlemania” of the ’60s and “Lisztomania” – a term invented in 1844 by Heinrich Heine to describe Liszt’s celebrity status as a virtuoso concert pianist “idolised by fans and chased all over Europe by mobs of aristocratic groupies”[19] (hysterically screaming women were said to mob his solo performances; here, he responds to their adoration by repeatedly drifting into renditions of “chopsticks” by popular demand, for which he earns a zealous young Wagner’s undying contempt). Ringo Starr makes an appearance in the film in the person of the Pope, while Roger Daltrey plays Liszt (he also wrote the lyrics to the Liszt songs: “Liebenstraum” no. 3 is thus turned into the kind of dreary obnoxious repetition of the word “love” which for so much pop music represents the apogee of emotional depth). The film was the first to use Dolby anamorphic sound (on the insistence of producer David Puttnam) and, along with Tommy, helped to revolutionise the entire approach to soundtrack production (it also failed to make a profit, contributing to the industry view of Russell as “unbankable”). A number of the more extravagant sets in Lisztomania also managed to feedback into mainstream pop culture, such as the giant inflatable phallus Mick Jagger rode on-stage during the Rolling Stones’ 1975 concert tour version of “Starfucker” which borrows from a farcical penile amputation nightmare scene in Russell’s film (Daltrey gets to be buckled onto a man-sized prosthesis, ridden by a chorus of five cancan girls, before presenting to a symbolically vaginal guillotine (operated by Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein) – at which point he himself substitutes for the giant phallus in yet another of Russell’s orgies of Freudian phantasmagoria).

Russell succeeded in bringing out remarkable performances in his actors, particularly those with whom he developed a close relationship over several projects, such as Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Helen Mirren, but also with more conventional actors such as Richard Chamberlain, Anthony Perkins and Kathleen Turner. He directed films across many genres and frequently produced work that defies categorisation – and also (unsurprisingly) defied box-office success, particularly in America where his films seem to have been almost wilfully misconstrued, with many of them suffering unsympathetic re-editing prior to release. Critic Roger Ebert famously gave one of Russell’s now best regarded films, The Devils, “zero stars.” Russell’s last feature, Whore (1991; starring Teresa Russell, who’d famously appeared as Marilyn Monroe explaining relativity to Albert Einstein in Nicholas Roeg’s Insignificance (1985)), was given an X-rating in the US despite lacking explicit content (unlike 1984’s Crimes of Passion, starring an unlikely Kathleen Turner as “China Blue,” which Whore otherwise resembles in many respects), while theatre chains prudishly refused to advertise the film’s title – resulting in it being re-christened: “If you can’t say it, Just see it.” Russell, whose work (like Jodorowsky’s, Jarman’s and Waters’s) receives no mention at all by the otherwise encyclopaedic Vogel, died in 2011.


Derek Jarman, Jubilee (1978)

  1. Like Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman came to cinema from a background in the arts – in Jarman’s case, having spent four years studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Along with film he worked in design and video art, particularly the emerging genre of pop music video. He famously designed the stage set for Russell’s The Devils (as well as Savage Messiah (1972) and Russell’s opera production of The Rakes Progress at the 1982 Maggio Musicale festival in Florence). Both as a director and outside cinema, Jarman was heavily involved in gay rights and throughout the ’80s with AIDS awareness. He himself died from an AIDS-related illness in 1994. Many of Jarman’s films set out to be provocative, challenging the remaining social taboos of the time and exploring countercultures and ideas that lay outside the mainstream film industry in Britain. He engaged explicitly antiestablishment themes around homosexuality, punk, even philosophy – as in the case of his 1983 film Wittgenstein (for which the noted Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote the script) featuring a Martian debating logic à la the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on a blacked-out sound stage with virtually no props.

Jarman’s first feature film, Sebastiane (1976), was “about” the martyrdom of St Sebastian, filmed with dialogue entirely in Latin and with an explicitly depicted homoerotic relationships between 4th-century Roman soldiers. Jubilee, Jarman’s second feature (1978), starred Jenny Runacre as Queen Elizabeth I and Richard O’Brien (creator of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) as her court alchemist John Dee, who transports the sixteenth-century monarch four hundred years forward in time to the world of Sex Pistols London. Billed as a “punk movie,” it featured appearances by a number of contemporary musicians, including Wayne County, Toyah Willcox and Adam Ant. Other cameo appearances included The Stilts and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Brian Eno wrote and produced the score. The film was planned to correspond to the silver jubilee of Elizabeth II – also the occasion for the release of the Sex Pistol’s most infamous recording, God Save the Queen.

The setting of the film is a kind of post-apocalyptic, allegorical double of late 1970s pre-Thatcherite Britain in the grip of economic and political turmoil. Nihilism and chaos reign (the present Queen Elizabeth II, for example, is shown being killed in a street mugging). The film also draws on “punk” aesthetics in its use of low-definition and grainy colour stock. On its release the film courted controversy less within the main stream than within the emerging “punk industry,” famously prompting fashion designer Vivienne Westwood to denounce Jarman in an “open letter” produced as a T-shirt (“Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman”) in which she wrote: “I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen…”

Along with Malcolm McLaren, Westwood (who together operated the infamous “Sex” boutique at 430 Kings Rd and in 1992 accepted an OBE from the real Queen Elizabeth II) is one of the principle figures identified with the commercialisation of punk while seeking to maintain control over the “authentic” representation of its history. In this way, Jarman’s film is not only a critical comment on the social-political character of Britain at the time of the silver jubilee, deeming the monarchy to be an irrelevance for contemporary life, but also a critical comment upon the commercial machinations behind the emergence of punk itself, and the manufacture and marketing of new pop-counterculture “icons” like the Sex Pistols (what Jarman called “petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners, and who are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility”).


Michael Gambon in Peter Greenway’s The Crook, The Thief, his Wide and her Lover (1989)

  1. Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover courted controversy during its initial theatrical release by virtue largely of the final scene, in which the titular thief (Michael Gambon) is forced at gunpoint by his wife (Helen Mirren) to eat her lover, who Gambon has brutally murdered and who the cook (Richard Bohringer) has elaborately prepared in the kitchen of his restaurant, which is also the setting for much of the film. Cannibalism, routine sadistic violence, rotting carcasses, etc., are, however, not the principal source of the film’s “disturbing influence” on many of its viewers, rather it is the lush visual setting in which each of these elements is presented that subverts the way the viewer is conventionally orientated (emotionally, intellectually, ethically) towards them – a bold aestheticisation drawing heavily on the convention of the Flemish “still life” and the group paintings of Franz Hals. Michael Nyman’s soundtrack and Sachy Vierny’s cinematography accentuate the highly mannered character of Greenaway’s tableaux, cutting across the grain of the sort of easy moralising sentiments that might attach to the film’s narrative.[20]

Greenaway brought to this film the same disinterested fascination with “form” that we find at work in the forensics of A Zed and Two Noughts (1985; with its themes of apotemnophilia, depicted against the variable aesthetic backdrop of the Gilbreth’s time-and-motion photo studies and the still lives of the Dutch masters, specifically Vermeer and the well-known forger of his works Hans van Meegeren). Cook, Thief borrows standard tropes from the infidelity-revenge genre largely in order to provide opportunities for visual staging, utilising a large cut-away set to allow frequent continuous crabbing shots and extended takes by means of which a lush panorama (evocative of Tinto Brass’s Caligula [1979], also featuring Mirren) is constructed. While other films, like Drowning by Numbers (1988), operated with a macabre sense of comedy in which murder is both de-sensationalised and de-sentimentalised (as a kind of numerical game-function: an elliptical comment, perhaps, on the bureaucratic terror of the Nazi extermination machinery), Cook, Thief examines what Georges Bataille referred to as “sovereign” excess. Even Gambon’s vulgarity in the film is elevated to aesthetic heights that expose something of the nature of those “masterworks” upon which the institution of art (and those of political power) are founded. We are also reminded of Walter Benjamin’s chiding of fascism as an “aestheticisation of power”[21] – whose sex-appeal in the film is heightened by Jean-Paul Gautier’s costuming and Giorgio Locatelli’s food art.

All this is in keeping with Greenaway’s tendency towards a certain type of mannerism and staging (often quite literally – as in his 1993 film, Baby of Mâcon, whose theatre-set is highly evocative of Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1988), with echoes also of Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) and Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986)), frequently constructing the “action” of his films around tableaux in which the drama is self-consciously visual. We find this to be already the case in his first feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), which exploits period drama conventions to similar ends as those achieved via “allusion” in Cook, Thief. At its furthest extreme, this results in the sort of pageantry of Prospero’s Books (1991), but at all times Greenaway is concerned with asking questions about our relationship to the ethical dimension in art and the aesthetic dimension of morality. It’s also for this reason that, beneath all the lushness and apparent excess, it is possible to detect an intellectual austerity in Greenaway’s work that is somewhat at odds with that of Russell, whose work is perhaps less philosophical and more overtly (excessively) satirical in the manner of a latterday Aristophanes.


Miike Takashi, Gozu (2003)

  1. Quentin Tarantino once called Miike Takashi – whose films include Thirteen Assassins (2010), Ichi the Killer (2001) and Audition (1999) – “the godfather” of “ultraviolent, get-under-your-skin movies.”[22] Born in 1960, Miike is perhaps the most prolific of the Japanese post-New Wave directors, credited with some seventy film and TV productions, and widely regarded as an “extreme auteur” in many senses. His films routinely cross genre boundaries, ranging between serious gore and unbridled parody, in ways that are frequently without parallel in any other contemporary film-maker. His 2001 The Happiness of the Katakuris, for example, was billed as a “horror-musical,” combining elements of The Sound of Music (1965) with Horror Hotel (1960; a.k.a. City of the Dead), while his 2007 Sukiyaki Western Django (produced in English) rerouted Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti western back through its Kurosawa original, Yojimbo (1961), with a cast of gun-slinging samurai. Dead or Alive (1999), part one of a series of spectacular “Yakuza” films, was described by one critic as a hybrid (unlikely as it might sound) of Martin Scorcese and John Waters, combining styles drawn from hard-rock music videos, 1970s TV cop dramas and manga. The “Mexican” standoff with which Dead or Alive concludes is a masterclass in comic brinkmanship that evolves from a standard cop/gangster shootout to nuclear Armageddon. Likewise the opening scenes are a stylish commentary on Hong Kong-inflected Hollywood action-drama, punctured by a moment of brilliantly-conceived bathos when, after a hit on a Yakuza boss, the cop character, Jojima (Show Aikawa), visits the crime scene and digs into a pile of undigested noodles (sprayed on the floor from a stomach wound) with a pair of chopsticks, identifying the victim by the kind of sauce (“Su Chi noodles? Must be Chan Feng.”) The intervening hour of film is taken up with a straight-faced parody of stock Japanese family melodrama – if you discount the dog-sex and the prostitute drowned in a paddle-pool full of shit.

Gozu (2003), on the other hand, has most often elicited comparisons to the work of David Lynch, although perhaps early Cronenberg or Buñuel might be more apt. The film, also known as Yakuza Horror Theatre: Cow’s Head, is less “psychosexual horror” than a surrealist Yakuza road movie which, like Seven Samurai, is built on a foundation of Greek legend, most explicitly the story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, but there are a dozen others besides. Its questing, episodic structure is built around the story of a Yakuza sub-boss’s disappearance on his way to being involuntarily “retired” at a kind of Yakuza meat factory (where the tattooed skins of past retirees are meticulously preserved in a cold room), and his subsequent and equally mysterious re-appearance in the form of a young woman, who at the end of the film gives “birth” to him, fully grown.

Gozu’s “classicism” puts Miike’s hard-edge weirdness into something of a regularising context: with nauseating big budget productions like Alexander the Great (2004) dominating our historical perspective, the extreme “weirdness” and carnage of the classical source-texts underwriting much of Western culture has been ostensibly nullified or expunged, like the meat section in American supermarkets. It should not, in fact, be especially controversial to suggest that Miike’s cinematic vision, if we can call it that, is ultimately a highly conservative one, if we accept that word in its proper meaning (like Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967)). And this points to one of the central issues surrounding questions of the director’s “auteur” status: Godard in Pierrot le fou (1965) and La Chinoise (1967) come closest to the wholesale abandonment of the cinematic high-mindedness we find in Miike (the abandonment, not the high-mindedness), but Godard’s one-man avantgarde never quite gives it up (the high-mindedness, that is).

Indeed, the very idea of the “auteur” evokes a type of neo-classicism redolent of archaeology. Which is to say, a certain austerity of vision (early Antonioni verses Jess Franco; the austerity of Winckelmann’s white marble statuary versus historical Greco-Roman blood-and-guts kitsch, etc.). Hawks, Welles, Ford in their various manners were all masters of this. Miike is instead drawn to a type of proto-, Homeric classicism, in which the epic blood-baths of Troy sit side by side with transformations of men into swine, deadly mermaids, descents into the underworld and interminable wanderings. And there is the pervasive element of the grotesque, which is the basis of its humour. In place of the esoteric we find the excessive and outlandish, which are in fact the starting conditions under which the imagination operates when it hasn’t been completely normalised by the pharmaco-entertainment complex or the institutional “avantgarde.” Miike’s own comments about Gozu are typically disarming: “If you were a child and rode on a bike to a place you’ve never been, you’d feel like it’s real but not real. Gozu is like that. You go to a place you’ve never been but you don’t have to make any sense as to why or how you are there.”


Leos Carax, Holy Motors (2012)

  1. Released the same year as David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis – in which a significant part of the action also takes place in the back of a stretch limo – Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) traverses a world saturated with the “anaesthetising, pernicious blandness” of Hollywood spectacularism and soap-operatic normalisation. It is less a narrative film, by conventional standards, than an essay in cultural abjection and alienation. Reviewing Holy Motors in The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes the film as “a movie that arises after the end of cinema, a phoenix of a new cinema.”[23] Perhaps.[24] But it is certainly a “cinema of end times,” in much the same way as Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), to which Carax’s film makes more than a passing nod (there is one scene in particular from the third “act” (Monsieur Merde), of migrating populations in the sewers under Paris, which strongly echoes a recurring trope in Kusturica’s film).

The central protagonist of Holy Motors is an “actor” (Monsieur Oscar – Carax’s middle name – played by Denis Levant, whose frequent collaborations with Carax began with Boy Meets Girl in 1984). The action takes place over the course of a single day – a veritable Joycean Odyssey played out in 10 acts between departure from one “home” and “return” to another, whose “vehicle” is a white stretch limo piloted by the ambiguous Madame Céline (Edith Scob, star of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959) – and true to the recursive, multi-referential character of Carax’s film, it end with Céline, having returned to a depot for dozens of similar cars, donning a green mask, so that all that’s left visible of her face are her eyes). None of the action is given any particular rationale, rather it is all presented as part of a abstracted routine, structured around a set of dossiers that Levant’s “character” receives at the beginning of each new “act” – ironically riffing on the theme of Mission Impossible. What the overall mission is, and the nature of its impossibility, is the question to which the “action” most appears to be directed.

The film itself begins hors texte, in the form of a prologue: we see a room in a highrise hotel, a man asleep on a bed (Carax, in fact) who is awoken by the sound of a ship setting out to sea: the ship’s horn, the sound of gulls, water, etc. The man listens at the walls to discover where the sounds are coming from, discovers a secret doorway, and with a (phallicly long) ratchet-key that he has somehow grown in place of the middle ringer on his right hand opens it to find himself in a passageway leading to the upstairs balcony of an old cinema in which an audience of sleepers sit in front of the screen. On the screen, a girl is gazing from what appears to be a porthole window. The ship sounds grow louder. A naked child wanders down the aisle, followed by a sinister mastiff stalking along the red carpet in slow-motion.

We’re invited, of course, to construe all of this as a kind of dream: the “dream” of the director of the film which begins as the camera moves in on the screen just as the girl in the porthole pull away – as it were (one camera advancing as another camera, in this parallel/mirror world, pulls back) – revealing not a ship but a modernist villa, down whose driveway we see Monsieur Oscar, an elderly industrialist flanked by security, approaching a white stretch limo. As the limo drives off, Monsieur Oscar engages in some innocuous financial talk on the phone and briefly discusses the threat of kidnapping. A dossier on the back seat contains details of the day’s first “appointment.” Monsieur Oscar reads it, then unaccountably takes out a wig and begins brushing it. Moments later he has transformed himself into an old beggar woman. Soon, abandoned by his bodyguards, he is standing on a sidewalk panhandling among passersby, reciting (as in a voiceover) this new character’s tale of misfortune. The inversion of roles could hardly be more precise.

This routine is repeated in varying forms throughout the film, leaving the viewer to assume (in place of any straightforward connecting thread) that Monsieur Oscar/Denis Levant is some kind of “actor,” whose performances however occur in the absence of any audience or camera – other than that, of course, of Carax himself – and that Holy Motors represents something of a genre machine, a comment upon the ungrounded relativity of the film industry we all inhabit, as well as upon the nature of acting in general. “Does an actor without an audience even exist…?” for instance. And: “What is the relationship between the cinema and the world?” “What is performance and what is ‘real’?” etc. Equally it poses the question of what constitutes an actor as such? The perverse subject who requires the real unreality of his experience in order to authenticate/ameliorate the unreal reality of his existence. Of one who, in the guise of initiating his own actions, of effecting spontaneous decisions, and so on, is in fact – as the saying goes – conforming to a script, a schedule, a set of performative conventions, etc.: a ”worker in a dream factory.”[25] Which is to say, a producer of the spectacle in the form of his own alienation. (As Debord says, “Workers do not produce themselves: they produce a force independent of themselves. The success of this production, that is, the abundance it generates, is experienced by its producers only as an abundance of dispossession.”[26]) A point brought home sublimely in the third “act” of Carax’s film, where we see Lavant’s “Monsieur Merde” character stalking through Père Lachaise cemetery, in which all of the names on the tombstones have been replaced by web addresses.

In this sense, Holy Motors is more than simply an allegory of cinema, it is an examination of how a collective consciousness is constituted (perhaps it is even a manifesto of sorts). Just as the dreamer imagines himself to be the active agent (and simultaneously passive spectator) of his own dream, so too the subject-as-actor imagines himself to be the vehicle of his embodiments, his characterisations, while it is they that constitute the vehicle of “his own” existentiality. (The pun in the title is made clear, here, since in the Greek philosophical tradition an automobile is in fact a kind of “god,” a self-motivating agency, a holy motor, so to speak – like the ego we all mistake ourselves as being centred in). The dilemma, however, is that what we believe to be the dream is really a dream-within-a-dream – or better, a dream disguised as a dream.

This play of disguise, permutation, alienation, separation is nowhere more explicit than in the second “act” where Levant, dressed in a motion-capture suit, “performs” a series of choreographed moves – fighting, running, fucking – in a CGI studio (what has been described as a straight male fantasy space). These performances are really a set of physical indexes for a computer algorithm: actions mappable in the way Taylorism mapped and industrialised the human body-as-machine. Lavant’s instructions are delivered by a robotised voice, emphasising the sense of his being a “merely human” proxy for some digitally enhanced epireality, whose graphic analogue to Levant’s performance are ironically underwhelming yet appropriately alien (this epireality, product of a cult of simulationism, in turn produces an unreality effect, here exaggerated at precisely the point where the verisimilitude of “reality capture” advertises its possibility in unprecedented ways). By way of counterpoint, the film’s final “act” shows Monsieur Oscar/Lavant being handed a pay packet by Céline (towards whom, in a moment of unbidden and “pathetically” human sentimentality, he demonstrates the awkward emotions of someone who does not expect to actually see her again “tomorrow,” despite her assurances that their daily “routine” will continue as usual) and – exhausted, coughing – returning home to his family in some anonymous outer-Parisian suburb. His family, it turns out, are in fact chimpanzees: the “actor” has indeed returned home, in some vaguely evolutionary sense, and the scene ends with this proto-nuclear family looking out their window at the stars and contemplating a bright future.

Holy Motors is notable for having been entirely shot in digital format – by Caroline Charpetier, Godard’s cinematographer in the 1980s. Indeed, much has been implied from Carax’s association with Godard: like Godard, Carax began his career as a critic at Cahiers (in the 1970s) and his earlier work, like Mauvais Sang (1986; starring Juliet Binoche), clearly exhibits the influence of Godard’s mid-career anti-naturalism (Carax himself appeared in the minor role of Edgar in Godard’s 1987 film, King Lear). The film of Godard’s to which Holy Motors is perhaps best compared, however, is Passion (1982), in which the status of cinema, of the “auteur,” of acting, of alienation, of human obsolescence and the obsolescence of the cinematic medium, are all explicitly addressed in the context of a certain impossibility of representation (aesthetic, political, subjective). It is also concerned with a certain technicity, of the status of the image as such, of its technological condition – from cinematograph to video and to its post-analogue condition. Perhaps, in this light, Carax’s film is also a comment on humanity’s own technological condition, or as some critics suppose simply a maudlin reflection on the “end of cinema” in the vein of Godard (one of its “ends” in any case). Or, in a restatement of the Freudian dictum: Where cinema was, ego will be. Such are the evolutionary conceits of what we call consciousness.

Holy Motors concludes with Céline returning the limo to its depot: the lights go out, and – in a kind of epilogue to mirror the opening prologue – the cars, left finally to their own devices, begin talking to one another, among other things about their immanent obsolescence. Like celluloid, they represent an anachronism: the conspicuous manifestation of an image in a world in which the power of signs is diffused throughout (or rather as) the fabric of “reality” – not as some ubiquitously visible counterpart, but as the very possibility of seeing. Carax’s narrative is in a sense one of perturbations, in that it “exposes” (if only through its expropriations of genre), the permissive character of this “possibility,” which points rather to an impossibility. As Debord writes, “The modern spectacle… expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible.[27] And if the spectacle is the “preservation of unconsciousness,” then is cinema as envisaged here – or even the (im)possibility of cinema (a cinema after the “end of cinema”) – the perturbatory form of its dream?

Presented as a series of lectures, “Film & Critical Culture,” Philosophy Faculty, Charles University, Prague, February – May 2014.


Louis Armand is Director of the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. His books include The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey (2013) and the novel Breakfast at Midnight (2011) described by 3:AM magazine’s Richard Marshall as “a perfect modern noir”. Armand’s latest publication, The Combinations (2016) has been longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize.

  [1]   Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995) §87.

  [2]   As Tyler says: “the hardest thing for a very radical idea to do is to stay very radical. The dialectical movement of history in process tends towards numerous compromises, if only because of the latent inner human contradiction which seems to abide in the most ambitious, world-defying philosophies. Pop Art, with its reliance on photographic processes for its plastic effects, has been very close in spirit to the popular fiction film according to that film’s own ambiguous but deep affinity with the comic strip… Pop art revived the caricature of the common, the making of a potential fine art into the campy sort of sport initiated by the Dadaists in the early twenties.” Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Da Capo, 1995 [1969]) 13.

  [3]   Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Boston: Beacon, 1967 [1951]) vi.

  [4]   Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: d.a.p. / C.T. Editions, 2005 [1974]) 5.

  [5]   Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, §153.

  [6]   Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, 5.

  [7]   Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film (New York: Ballantine, 1983) xii.

  [8]   In a letter to Charles Henri Ford, qtd in J. Hoberman’s “Introduction” (1994) to Tyler, Underground Film, viii. Hoberman goes on to paraphrase Tyler to the effect that, “Where the old avantgarde was ‘exclusivist,’ the new avantgarde… thrived on publicity and aggressively sought foundation subsidies, even while evincing a desire to infiltrate and overthrow the so-called establishment.”

  [9]   V. Vale and Andrea Juno, “Introduction,” Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films (San Francisco: Re/seach, 1986) 4-6.

[10]   Susan Sontag, “Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,” Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1966) 226f.

[11]   “In Flaming Creatures Smith has graced the archaic liberation of new American cinema with graphic and rhythmic power worthy of the best of formal cinema. He has attained for the first time in motion pictures a high level of art which is absolutely lacking in decorum; and a treatment of sex which makes us aware of the restraint of all previous filmmakers.” Jonas Mekas, “Fifth Independent Film Award,” Film Culture 29 (1963): 1.

[12]   “Subversion” very much in the eye of the beholder. Vogel’s discussion of “counterculture,” for example, is wrapped up in under three pages (“Woodstock, the Beatles, Zen Buddhism”) and mentions the work of not one single filmmaker (merely quoting Hans Richter to the effect that “contemporary commercial cinema represents nineteenth-century realist art”). Instead we get Shakespeare, Breton, C.S. Lewis, and a still from Jud Yalkut’s Self-Obliteration [1967]).

[13] Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex’n’Drugs’n’Rock’n’Roll Generation saved Hollywood (London: Bloomsbury, 1998) 20.

[14]   Robert Smithson, “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art” (1968), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 89-90.

[15]   V. Vale, “John Waters: Pink Flamingos, Manson & the JFK Kill,” Search & Destroy: New Cultural Research 7 (1978): 7.

[16]   Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film, 556.

[17]   Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, 140.

[18]   Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art, 153.

[19]   Ken Russell, A British Picture: An Autobiography (London: Southbank, 2008 [1989]) 143.

[20]   Due to it’s depiction of nudity and violent themes, the film was given a non-theatrical release in the US to avoid receiving the X-rating usually associated with porn (which speaks volumes about US film censorship). But having said this, there are also aspects of Greenaway’s work that can be directly interpreted as a kind of analysis of precisely the pornographic economy inherent in mass market “aesthetic” commodification (as represented by the Hollywood Dream Factory).

[21]   Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1995).

[22]   “Even Tarantino was Shocked,” Logan Hill interviewing Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino, The Telegraph (12 February 2006).

[23]   Richard Brody, “Leos Carax’s Astonishing Holy Motors,” The New Yorker (14 October, 2012)

[24]   The pseudo-controversy, around the “death of cinema”, while it aspires to a certain universalism, will soon doubtless come to resemble what it is: a footnote to the aesthetics of the second industrial revolution.

[25]   Denis Lim, “Holy Motors,” Cinema Scope 51 (2012).

[26]   Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, §30.

[27]   Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, §25.

1 Comment

  1. A very Well written, fascinating piece. I wish the writer would’ve mentioned Russell’s The Music Lovers by name. I think it’s one of his best, but least appreciated films…

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