From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week Four: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

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Happy Halloween: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(40th Anniversary of a genuine, true art-house, horror classic!)

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Now it begins…Aleister Crowley died in 1947…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered in 1974…just months prior, in 1973, over-the-counter ‘cough syrup’ (more importantly the psychedelic-dissociative) Romilar made it’s ‘final bow’ from pharmacy shelves and ’70s teenagers everywhere mourned…but a new Aeon was in bloom; as the character, Pam, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre says: “[in the summer of 1974] Saturn is in Retrograde!” Saturn, in astrology is the King of Karma and retrograde is Karma meted out…so indeed, something wicked this way comes…

Of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, right?
But…
Why ‘art-house’ film?
Because, quite sincerely, in my opinion: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is and always has been, more than a horror film…though it’s that too! But, the film transcends the genre and that label. I truly find it to be an ‘art film’ of the most visceral variety.

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The film resides in the Museum of Modern Art’s film archives and is lauded by such esteemed filmmakers (as far afield) as: Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin. I don’t know of one modern experimental/noise musician/artist who hasn’t cited the film’s score as an “influence” on their work. I can hear shades of the soundtrack in songs like “Hamburger Lady” by Throbbing Gristle and much of the early British power-electronics scene. But it’s not just because of the above facts, but oh so much more, that it’s clear to me the film has much more to express and offer than just really good “shock-horror”…though it has that too!

In my opinion, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is a film that’s more than the sum of it’s parts. In fact, It’s described by the film’s editor and director’s assistant Sallye Richardson as ‘being born’ when they finished the absolute final mix of the film. She states* “I got scared, I got really scared, because it became something other than what it was, it went to another dimension, it was like a spirit went into it, it became that entity that people now look at. A spirit went into that thing–it wasn’t always there, but after [the final mix] it was always there…it was that magical thing, it wasn’t just a piece of film any more–that’s when I got scared.” I can’t think of a better way of describing the brilliance of this film. It can’t be codified and any attempts to explain what makes it so effective and ‘genius’ falls apart in your hands, disintegrates before you can get a grip on it…the film is ineffable, one cannot ‘pin it down’. There’s something intrinsic to the film, perhaps there’s something ‘in’ the celluloid, as Sallye Richardson alludes to? It can’t fully be explained and I won’t even try.

I’ve stated on many occasions (and still maintain) that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is “the best American film ever made”** not the best American “horror film” ever made, no, the best American film ever made…period! I usually avoid even naming “favorite films”, I don’t even like to compare favorite films…but the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for some strange reason, I feel I can safely say, is my favorite American film! The film is SO quintessentially “American” too. It personifies just about everything American one can think of: the break-up of the family unit, barbecue, ‘mom and pop jobs’ squashed by ‘big corporations’, youth culture, taxidermy and most importantly chainsaws!

The film has something about it that cannot be ”re-created” either. Lord knows “they’ve” tried! The number of sequels and remakes alone, make this pretty clear. The film gives people the impression it would be ‘easy’ to tap into. It seems deceptively simple to recreate…but it’s not…many have tried, all have failed. Even the director of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper, could never recreate that same level of cinematic genius. I firmly believe it’s a film that could only have been created at that time, could only exist at that particular period in history. Ironically, the film never seems ‘dated’. It exists inside it’s own universe, a universe that reflects the real world, but is distinctly separate from it. It’s what I believe the best films all contain, to one extent or another. The film also seemed to have spilled forth directly from Tobe Hooper’s “Id”, which is what makes it the ‘art-house/horror film’ I believe it to be. It’s also what makes it look like a beautiful piece of surreal art and a disciplined crafting of pure Id. I don’t think Hooper himself could tell you why the film works as well as it does? Could it be that it was created by a group of young Austin filmmakers, artists and performers heroically charged with mega-doses of enthusiasm who all wanted to help create the best low budget movie that they could? Well, we could explore all these elements and I could write about them all, but I think it would ultimately be a fool’s errand. Clearly, it’s not any of those things, neither individually nor combined, that make this film the genius work of art that it is. Plenty of other films have contained the same or similar ‘elements’ but did not produce an end product anywhere near the kind of final results we see from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The essential plot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is ridiculously simple (a group of young people travel to an unfamiliar locale and are killed off by a family of cannibals…that’s it! That’s the extent of the ‘plot’) as I said already, this is a film that’s far more than the sum total of it’s parts. In fact the ‘simplistic plot’, I think, helps make the rest of the film come to life and move to the fore as graphically and creatively as it does. There’s a vast amount of information, data and details packed densely, yet economically, into this rather paltry plot of a horror film. It does everything a good film is supposed to do. It puts you, the viewer, into the place of the protagonists. Makes you feel what they feel, brings their fear and terror directly to you…but subtly. It doesn’t beat you over the head (pun fully intended) with what it’s trying to express. In fact many a modern filmmaker could learn a lot from this little low budget film from Austin, Texas.

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A perfect example of what I’m talking about is when the first victim in the film steps into the decrepit ‘old house’. He stumbles, tripping, through a doorway with a blood red wall covered with horns, antlers, animal skulls, pelts and other bits of odd deathly detritus behind it. The sound of a pig squealing can be heard among the rattling of animal bones that hang from the ceiling, like primitive ghastly mobiles. Then, suddenly and without warning, a big hulking ‘humanoid’ wearing another person’s face for a mask and a bloodied butcher’s apron, just appears from behind and stands, looming, before him. A low guttural pig’s squeal is heard once again and “It” raises it’s hand-held sledge hammer, brings it down on the young man’s skull and cracks it. The body drops to the floor and lays in the doorway, shaking, twitching and convulsing…the hulking thing drags the rest of the young man’s body inside his lair and slams the sliding metal door closed with a metallic ‘kelang!’ and a harsh, dissonant musical chord thunders across the soundtrack at the same time. It’s the only bit of music in the entire scene, which expertly serves to heighten the mood and add to the creepy, stomach churning fear and anxiety of the scene. It’s brilliantly executed! Young filmmakers could learn an important lesson from this one scene alone…restraint! Restraint, which is sorely lacking from most films today.

The last scene of the film is another example of exactly why the film is sheer genius! I defy anybody to deny that Marilyn Burns doesn’t look like she has, quite literally, lost her mind while she sits, crouching and clutching manically for something to hold onto, screaming her head off in the back of that pick-up truck, as it drives her away to safety and away from the bizarre horrors she’s just endured. Leaving Leatherface, with his chainsaw swirling about in the air like a child throwing a temper tantrum, a shamanic dance in the dawn’s early light. But, it’s that look on Burns’ face in the last scene that proves to me the film exceeds it’s meager limitations and achieves a level of transcendence (?) that seems, to me, beyond B-film, beyond exploitation, beyond horror…beyond acting. It’s like: This isn’t a film “…this is really happening!”

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It is said, and I believe it to be true, that it’s a miracle any films get finished at all. After one factors in all the problems that can and do arise while making a film, it’s truly miraculous that one can even complete a film! Let alone create a masterpiece like this…

Happy Halloween…one and all!

*from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion” by Stefan Jaworzyn, an absolutely excellent source for all things TCM related.
**of course I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but I’d certainly say TCM is the best film of the second half of the 20th Century!

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From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week Two: Twentynine Palms)

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Countdown to Halloween: Twentynine Palms

This is Bruno Dumont’s bizarre homage to late 60s, early 70s drive-in cinema: road film-cum-horror film. It’s so unlike the bulk of Dumont’s oeuvre. Twentynine Palms is generally ignored, rarely considered or discussed even by his fans. When put beside his other work, it’s almost like a ‘forgotten film’.

We examined Claire Denis’ foray into the realm of horror with “Trouble Every Day”, her 2001 “horror film”. But, she’s not the only French filmmaker who’s recently interested in exploring these realms. I could go into the work of Gaspar Noe, for instance, but I’d say all his work is influenced by and steeped in American exploitation, genre and horror film? Recently, there seem to be a whole clique of French filmmakers who’re making films that utilize exploitation film elements. Instead, I’m more interested in these art-house filmmakers who rarely, or barely, tread in those waters. For instance, Claire Denis and the brilliant Bruno Dumont.

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Generally, Dumont’s films deal with the sublime, the transcendent and the spiritual. They exist in a halfway house, somewhere between religious and philosophical. Some even deal with religion, specifically, as their subject matter. Dumont, an avowed atheist however, seems to be drawn to and fascinated by the spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say “Twentynine Palms” does not contain any interest in this realm, but it certainly hides it more than the rest. But, “Twentynine Palms” isn’t really one of his naturally spiritual films. Instead, it seems a meditation on America. Even perhaps, an ode to American exploitation films of the “psychedelic” period-road films and shock horror specifically.

 

This interesting diminutive film, always struck a deep chord with me. I find it to be Dumont’s strangest, most peculiar work in an otherwise consistent filmography. Most viewers, I think, didn’t know what to make of this thing? It’s clearly Dumont’s least popular work, even considered a ‘failure’ by many. In my opinion, however, it’s at least as good as his next film: “Flanders”. A film that always generated far more respect because its subject matter, the current mid-east conflict, will always generate more gravitas. Whereas a sexually graphic road film wrapped round a shock-horror core, tends to be looked upon with jaundiced eye by those in the “art-house community”. A snobby group, in case ya didn’t know (no surprise to exploitation fans, I’m sure?)? But for someone like myself, who’ll view any cinematic offering from any source, these ‘politics’ are just plain annoying. In fact, another ‘secret’ is that most exploitation/horror film fans are just as snobby. Many of them are probably scoffing right now, at this discussion of a ‘foreign/art-house film’ on a page for exploitation/horror films and think me ‘pretentious’, I’m sure?

“Twentynine Palms” begins like a standard road film. A couple drive through Southern California and finally into Twentynine Palms, California. The male lead is an American photographer scouting locations, the female half is the photographer’s French girlfriend who seems to be along for the ride as; part concubine and partially to keep him from getting lonely while he scouts his locations. I can’t help but think that this may have an autobiographical element to it? I can easily see the photographer representing Dumont himself and a girlfriend or wife as they look for locations, perhaps even while scouting for this very film? It has a strong feeling of coming from some place real and personal.

At this point the film too gets literally personal. The two main leads engage in rather graphic sexual activity across various exotic locals throughout Southern California. They engage sexually at their barren motel swimming pool, inside their cheap, tawdry motel room, out of doors, on rocky formations and atop desert mesas, in their SUV, hell, Just about every place they end up for an extended period of time. Their rutting seems to reflect a better way for them to communicate with each other, since their verbal communication seems highly problematic (he speaks a little French, she hardly speaks even a little English). Perhaps Dumont is representing sex as the one way these two can more freely and easily communicate with each other? At times, it even seems like their sexual act has distinct ‘personalities’ to it; loving and gentle, as they express love to each other. At other times, when arguing and fighting with each other, their sexuality expresses ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’. It seems Dumont is showing us the transformation from verbal to physical with scenes of sexual intercourse taking the place of their lack of verbal skills.

As the sex between the couple begins to disintigrate and decline, the film takes on a more paranoid, brutal and anxious tone. It’s here the film seems to remind one most of the 70s film, “Deliverence”. There seems to be a feeling of menace, coming from without. One can feel a palpable sense of dread, that there are ‘others’, out there and that they’re (more than likely) not benevolent. Just as it’s revealed in “Deliverance”, it’s also revealed here. In fact it is revealed in a strikingly similar way. I get the feeling that, much in the way many people in America were haunted and disturbed by what can happen in the most rural areas of the south in “Deliverance”; Bruno Dumont seems to feel the same about the United States in general? I may be wrong, perhaps he’s trying to express something else entirely, but the feeling I take away from the film is one of a certain fear of location.

The ending of the film works on one’s mind in a most shocking and transgressive way. The first act of violence blindsides us, just as the proceeding act of murderous brutality does. The first act of violence makes me sense the filmmaker gets the feeling America is chock a block with utterly warrantless, random acts of violence. While the second act of violence seems to be making a comment on the effects of the first. In reality nearly all violence is random and it’s rarely, if ever, well thought out. Violence is what happens when verbal communication breaks down. Which leads me to think the film may be about break downs in communication. First, between the couple, then by the world at large and finally between individuals. I don’t see the film as an indictment of America*. Instead, it seems to summarize the fear and paranoia inherent in open and wild landscapes and the violence that comes from the inability to articulate oneself.

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*It should also be noted that Twentynine Palms, CA also happens to be the locale of a known Marine base…there may be something to that?

These Are a Few of My Favorite Films…That Never Existed (Part Two: Cocaine)

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IMG_3108A year before German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder died: an obese, hard living, chain-smoker slumped over his writing desk with blood from his nose clotted to a script he was working on at the time, he was preparing a film based on a book by Pifigrilli during the German Weimar Republic called, Cocaine. Coincidently, it was at least partially cocaine (daily intakes for decades) that ended his just 38 years on earth (leaving a body of work of over 40 films(!) with only a scant few failures), well it was cocaine and in the end heroic doses of barbiturates (not to mention obesity, chain smoking and making more films than the number of years he lived, which probably didn’t help his body all too much either?) Needless to say however, cocaine was his true ‘love’ of choice, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that the final film he was planning had that drug as its title.
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But Fassbinder was not some dilettante here, he wasn’t going to make a film merely about his obsession with cocaine.

Fassbinder was an inveterate sadomasochist; gay leather bars, leather jackets, leather boots, military outfits, the works. In fact he lived something closer to the life seen in the film “Cruising”. Predominantly an aggressive homosexual (quasi bi-sexual as he was married to two women, whom it should be stated he was quite sadistic with; for an example of his outlook on marriage see his film: “Martha”) who took a lot of chances in his short existence (in his teen years, he was the pimp to a young Udo Kier). I’ll also add here that, personally, I believe nearly all his films were about sadomasochism, and yet they weren’t simple S&M falderal, you didn’t see films full of the usual veneer of S&M: leather, chains, whips, boots and straps. You almost never saw any of those things in his work and yet, his films were clearly and entirely about the psychological and sociological hidden events which involve sadomasochism and exist everywhere in society. He showed what sadomasochism looked like, for real, everyday and in everything; not just simple “sex play acting” and “sex games”. There were always those who called him a bastard (and no question, he could be). But he was as much a sadist as masochist, as he had not one but two lovers commit suicide on him, at least partially, due to his sadism and yet he lived for years in perpetual torment over the unrequited love for the half African-American, half German actor Gunter Kaufmann whom he cast in nearly every single film he made from his first work to his very last-keeping Fassbinder himself in a near constant state of despair. Although, even those who called him a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, bowed down to his genius and vowed utter loyalty to the filmmaker. He always had a near cult of actors, artists, musicians and technicians all ready and willing to work with him on his films.
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This film “Cocaine” he was planning to make was going to be, essentially, a psychedelic labor of love about the drug he loved, used, abused and that eventually ended his life and its effects and its use. This was not going to be some simple, easy trope on cocaine and cocaine use, with easy moral questions and answers. Certainly not going to be either a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ drug film and certainly not an exploitation film. He seemed especially concerned in this film with displaying how a daily cocaine user makes the decision to live a heightened, more exhilarating life, while at the same time knowing it will eventually shorten it. Fassbinder himself was well aware of this fact and stated it in a number of interviews, saying he chose to live a shortened life using cocaine, in exchange for giving up depression, the mundanities of life and the utter banality of existence. He felt his choice was worth it. And as individuals do we not all have the right to make that choice? It was a choice he lived to the hilt. Fassbinder was not just a ‘talker’ of things like this, he lived it.

The film, “Cocaine” he proposed, sounded like it would have been one of his most original, interesting, daring and oddest films to date. True he had been headed more and more into areas of expressiveness rather than reality in his work. But this film sounded extremely bizarre, interesting and exceedingly different than anything he’d attempted prior. For example he talked of his plan to show the ‘freezing of the mind’ which takes place under the influence of cocaine by having the entire film depict the fogged breath of all the actors, as it would be in freezing climes even while it was warm. He was also going to show ice crystals and frost forming on all the windowpanes, as when it’s freezing outside, even when it’s not. He also gave the films that were to be his visual cue on this work; films which included the expressionistic work of Visconti’s “The Damned” and the 14th part of his own magnum opus: “Berlin Alexanderplatz” a 14 hour film, who’s final 14th chapter is a heightened and highly expressive externalization of an internal mental crack being experienced by the film’s main character Franz Beiberkopf (where during the rise of Hitler, Franz is stuck in a horrid mental asylum, tortured daily while the sounds of Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen and various krautrock songs play in the background). Simply the most chilling and disturbing chamber-piece in the whole series!

As is always the case, with films like this, one can only imagine what the film might have been like. The book by Pifigrilli still exists, so one can read and at least gather an idea of what this film might have contained. Though Fassbinder stated his film would veer quite aways from the main plot of that book. It’s one of many films, where we’ll never know exactly what it would have turned out like. But what a wonderful and beautiful concept he had in mind…and by such a brilliant filmmaker. I can only imagine it would have been exceptional!
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