Thanksgiving Marathon: GANJA & HESS and ERASERHEAD

Screening: Saturday, November 24, Rich Theatre

To wrap up our series of American Indies from MoMA, Culture Shock is throwing a post-Thanksgiving double-header with cult classic Ganja and Hess (1973) playing at 7:00 p.m. and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) playing at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are 2 for 1 and you can purchase them here.

7:00 p.m. Ganja and Hess

By Matt Smith, Guest Blogger

Ganja & Hess (1973), Bill Gunn’s utterly unique, confounding and lyrical art house horror, is a true American cult film. It was originally funded in an effort to cash in on the Blaxploitation craze, namely the success of Blacula, but the production company had no idea what to do with it. After its successful premiere at Cannes (where it was named as one of the ten best American films of the decade—perhaps a bit presumptuous so early on), the film was cut into a Sexploitation flick and marketed under at least six different titles: Black Vampire, Black Evil, Blood Couple, Double Possession, Vampires of Harlem, and my personal favorite, Blackout: The Moment of Terror.  At this point the film was lost and available only in a severely edited form for decades. The restored version, available thanks to a miracle of archival research and restoration technology, is an experience worth having for any serious cineaste.

Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones in his only other lead role) who has been studying the mysterious culture of Myrthi, is murdered one evening by his assistant George (writer/director Bill Gunn) with a ceremonial dagger taken as an artifact during one of their archeological visits. In a depressive state, George commits suicide, and Hess rises from the dead and takes advantage of his friend’s corpse to feed. Sometime after George’s suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for him and falls in love with Hess, eventually begging him to turn her into a vampire as well.

This plot itself, however, is not where the film’s interests lie. Arriving at the intersections of addiction, sexual desire and spiritual decay, Ganja & Hess treads similar waters to George Romero’s Martin (1976), Larry Fessenden’s Habit (1995) and Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), reworking the tropes of the vampire sub-genre of horror (and largely ignoring the Dracula mythos) for modern day believability. The desire for blood is the same as an addiction to alcohol or heroine or sex. But unlike other contemporary formulations of vampirism, a key component to Ganja & Hess is its commitment to portraying Hess Green’s convictions as a Christian and the tie that vampirism has with ancient pre-Christian cultural rituals. Hess is torn between the sacred nature of blood in both cases— its life-giving flow and its spiritually affirming shedding by Christ. The struggle over Hess Green’s soul is the tether keeping us attached even during the film’s most elliptical moments.

And while the vampire film has always been about the souls (or lack thereof) of its monsters and their prey, the struggle between good and evil has rarely been treated as one so unspectacular as it is here. By making Hess’s vampirism a common addiction, the film leaves open the possibility of the full repentance of his sins. His spiritual decay due to his vampirism is a clear parallel to the decay of society, which the film hints at in other oblique ways.  Hess is a victim of his condition as much as anyone else, though Ganja presents a real problem once Hess decides he must take his own life.

What are we to make of this woman, who forsook her husband and fell in love with Hess, deciding to be with him in his eternal un-death even after she discovered her husband’s head in the freezer? Now a vampire, and having created her own progeny, Ganja is left alone in the world, out there among us. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. The implications of this creature’s existence, however, are wide open. While some viewers will no doubt find the final moments of Ganja & Hess a frustrating experience, the eyes of evil loosed upon the world without the spiritual guidepost of Christian existence that Hess Green had—this stays with us nonetheless. There is no God, only the death of society and of the spirit.

[Matt Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Emory University. He writes about international art and horror cinemas and maintains, a blog which features essays on all types of films as well as reviews of current releases.]

9:30 p.m. Eraserhead

David Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, pushed his fillmmaking ever more towards the obscure logic, imagination, and dark acknowledgment of human performance which would become his trademark. Partially due to its visceral black and white aesthetic and partly because of the way its surrealism and absurdity bends toward dark comedy, Eraserhead has become a cult classic. Like all of Lynch’s films, Eraserhead seems uniquely rooted in its historical moment yet has proved capable of casting its particular, deeply strange spell for audiences across time. For a teaser, check out the trailer below as well as the interview with David Lynch about the making of Eraserhead.

Decasia: The State of Decay

Screening: Saturday, November 17, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

We’re honored to have MoMA’s Associate Curator of film Anne Morra back at the High on Saturday to introduce this weekend’s American Indie, Decasia (2002). Critics who have had the chance to see this abstract, haunting opus of a film all sound almost desperate in their reviews, as if they cannot believe what they just saw and are imploring us to just witness it for ourselves. To prep us for this beautiful meditation on celluloid decay, a few quotes from these awe-struck critics:

“There are camels, geishas, nuns, factory workers, schoolchildren, Ferris wheels, seascapes, airplanes and parachutes. If you see Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) without knowing exactly what you’re looking at, you may not appreciate its strange beauty. This is nothing but decomposing nitrate film stock. This is the horror that film preservationists have talked about — the amoeba and ink-blot shapes appearing in the image, the flashes from light to dark and light again, the black-and-white accidental psychedelia — and it has taken Michael Gordon, who did the music, and Mr. Morrison to find the art in it.”

–Anita Gates, New York Times

“Morrison is not the first artist to take decomposing film stock as his raw material, but he plunges into this dark nitrate of the soul with contagious abandon. Few movies are so much fun to describe. Heralded by a spinning dervish, Decasia‘s first movement seems culled from century-old actualités: Kimono-clad women emerge from a veil of spotty mold, a caravan of camels is silhouetted against the warped desert horizon, a Greek dancer disintegrates into a blotch barrage, the cars for an ancient Luna Park ride repeatedly materialize out of seething chaos. Decasia is founded on the tension between the hard fact of film’s stained, eroded, unstable surface and the fragile nature of that which was once photographically represented.

…The solarization, the morphing, the lysergic strobe effects on which the movie thrives, are as natural as the photographic image itself. As Decasia continues, the calligraphy of decay grows increasingly hallucinatory and catastrophic. The sea buckles. Flesh melts. A boxer struggles against the disintegration of the image. Wall Street is half consumed in flames. A dozen little parachutes dot the cracked sky. A group of nuns traverse a courtyard that frames an Italian landscape in severe perspective, evoking a Renaissance vision of the Last Judgment.”

–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

“The effect of the nitrate film’s decay is to make everything seem fluid, while creating a weird landscape of grotesque, pulsing shapes. It’s all scarily counterpointed by Michael Gordon’s soundtrack: feedback music, rising at the most intense moments to a screech. In fact the music begat the film. Decasia was commissioned for a multimedia performance of Gordon’s symphony of the same name.

…Sometimes the effects are so expressive you can’t believe chance did this. But it did. Morrison’s editing is so emotional that he makes you see, always, something behind what is on screen, shadowy back stories. Gradually the power of it mounts and from mild pleasure in seeing something so unusual you become involved, tense, menaced.”

–Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

For tickets to the Saturday, November 17 screening of Decasia, click here.

Ten Minutes To Live (1932)

Screening: Saturday, November 10, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

As the first major African American feature filmmaker and the most accomplished producer of race films, Oscar Micheaux’s career is perhaps the epitome of American independent cinema. Yet it’s important to note that in a time when the greatest technical and stylistic achievements in cinema were shrouded in white supremacist ideology (see D.W. Grifith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, for the definitive example) and an emergent Hollywood system espoused racism both narratively and institutionally, black filmmakers had no choice but to be independent filmmakers. Micheaux was not just an independent filmmaker because he was working outside Hollywood, however, he was also an artist of distinct vision within the race film context and an author, director, and producer of his own making. When the Lincoln Motion Picture Company–one of the few race film production companies of the period–wanted Micheaux to cede control over the adaptation of his novel, The Homesteader, he took the project into his own hands, creating the Micheaux Film and Book Company in the process. Micheaux cultivated a world of African American cinematic representation so that this marginalized, distinct cinema soon became the fully-fledged mainstream of African American cinema. Many of the films of this era are lost to us today, but Micheaux’s Ten Minutes to Live (1932) has survived and has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. We’re lucky to have Ten Minutes to Live for any number of reasons, but especially as a reminder of American independent cinema’s greatest potential–to carve out a space for divergent visions and voices that otherwise might not be seen or heard.

Read more on Micheaux and Ten Minutes to Live here and reserve tickets for the Saturday, November 10, screening of Ten Minutes to Live here.