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.

Andy Warhol’s “Kitchen” (1965)

This Saturday, Andy Warhol’s Kitchen (1965) will kick off our MoMA American Indies film series and screen as part of our Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913>>2013 Opening PartyCulture Shock: Inspired Pop-Ups. A classic of the Warhol / New York / Factory Scene / Experimental genre, Kitchen documents a group of Warhol stars whose vague attempts to follow a script completely unravel once a stoned Edie Sedgwick burns herself on the stove. If you’re anything short of a Warhol film enthusiast, at some point during Kitchen you may be asking yourself: What are these strange, langorous bodies doing in this kitchen and why are they listing the appliances that surround them and, above all, why should I care?
These are reasonable questions.
In fact, questions which so unabashedly acknowledge the difficulty of this type of film often lead to a more honest engagement with it. At least for this veiwer (cinematic and pesonal biases here on display), there is something insurmountably alien in watching a frail Edie Sedgwick smoke cigarettes and sneeze around fluorescently lit linoleum for 67 minutes. For me, asking the most basic questions of this kind of film (What do these people think they’re doing and what am I doing here watching them?) help steer my unavoidable alienation away from downright boredom and toward honest investigation.
With this most earnest posture toward Kitchen, the film becomes an invaluable historical document–not because it records the organic happenings of a bunch of people in a 1964 kitchen, but because it testifies to a distinct historically bound and culturally produced moment when making this movie seemed like a radically good idea to a certain group of people. Kitchen, like so many other of Warhol’s films, evokes a precise time and place when Warhol and his cadre of characters made a certain amount of sense in the rapidly unfolding cultural schema. They were uniquely modern constructions, icons-in-the-making in fact, and they were running wild through American culture and creating art history in the process.
So let’s lean into their absurdity and see them in their “natural habitat”–a kitchen, sure, but also a distinct modern moment in artistic and cultural history. To get in the right headspace for Saturday, check out these clips:
Image credit:Andy Warhol, Kitchen, 1965, 16mm film, black and white, sound, 66 minutes, ©2012 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.

Reserve tickets for the Saturday, October 13th, screening of Kitchen here. Film is free with Culture Shock ticket.

Culture Shock Presents: Taxi Driver

Screening: Saturday, August 11, Free and Outdoors on the Sifly Piazza. DJ Set and Video Projections by Ben “Bean” Worely Begin at 8:15 p.m. with Taxi Driver (1976) to Follow After Dark.

Taxi Driver was not just a hit but…an event in American popular culture—perhaps even an intervention,” wrote J. Hoberman just last year in the Village Voice. His essay, written on the occasion of Taxi Driver‘s restoration and 35th anniversary, contextualizes the film within New York history, film history, and American collective consciousness with the kind of linguistic and conceptual economy reserved for paradigm-shifting films. Like all of the movies in this summer’s Archival Gotham: NYC on Film series, Taxi Driver affords us the chance to see that city through the mediations of cinema and history, through a character’s eyes, and through our own eyes. Given Taxi Driver‘s groundbreaking content and landmark status, the rewards of re-watching and re-thinking this movie ever renew themselves.

As Hoberman points out, when Taxi Driver was released in 1976, we knew about Hitchcock and Godard and we knew about Robert Bresson’s ‘tortured loner’ film, Diary of a Country Priest (1951), but we didn’t know that an array of US filmmakers would combine and distill these cinematic influences (among others) to produce a string of ‘tortured man in a room’ films and an American New Wave.

In 1976 we knew about the 1972 shooting of presidential contender George Wallace (and the shooter, Arthur Bremer, whose meticulous journaling would in part inspire Paul Schrader to write the Taxi Driver script) but we didn’t know that in 1981 John Hinckley Jr. would watch the film 15 times and then attempt to assassinate President Reagan, all in an effort to win the affections of the film’s young star, Jodie Foster.

In 1976, we struggled with the omnifarious aftermath of the Vietnam War but we had yet to see wave after wave of veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1976, film critic Vincent Canby could write of Taxi Driver’s protagonist Travis Bickle, “he is a projection of all our nightmares of urban alienation” with a certain immediacy. He was, after all, writing from a desk in the New York Times Headquarters building at Times Square… the same Times Square which Travis Bickle obsessively circles, attracted and unnerved as he is by its prostitutes, hoodlums, chaos, and filth. We didn’t yet know Times Square would be scrubbed of a particular grime, only to have the distopic fear pulsing through Taxi Driver still ring true 35 years later.

As Hoberman so succinctly concludes, “The movie is Scorsese’s hometown farewell… Like Nero, he torches the joint and picks up his lyre. Taxi Driver is a vision of a world that already knows it is lost. A third of a century later, the Checker cabs are gone, as are the taxi garages at the end of 57th Street and the all-night Belmore cafeteria. Times Square has been sanitized, the pestilent combat zone at Third Avenue and 13th Street where Iris peddles her underage charms has long since been gentrified. New York is no longer the planet’s designated Hell on Earth…No nostalgia, though: In other aspects, the world of Taxi Driver is recognizably ours. Libidinal politics, celebrity worship, sexual exploitation, the fetishization of guns and violence, racial stereotyping, the fear of foreigners—not to mention the promise of apocalyptic religion—all remain. Taxi Driver lives. See it again. And try to have a nice day.”

Second Screening of “The Water and the Blood”

This Thursday, August 2nd you will have a second chance to see Micah Stansell’s video projection The Water and the Blood. Even if you saw it last Saturday at Culture Shock, you may want to come back on Thursday from 9:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m to revisit this masterful work projected across the High Museum of Art’s exterior. Last Saturday was the first time The Water and the Blood had been projected outside and on such a massive scale, yet it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for these dreamy Southern images than a hot summer night in the tranquility of Sifly Piazza.

The Water and the Blood: A Video Installation by Micah Stansell

This Saturday July 28th, the white walls of the High Museum of Art will become a screen for artist Micah Stansell’s stunning projection, The Water and the Blood. Specially formatted to cover the Museum’s exterior, this is the first time the video installation will be screened outdoors and it will take a full 8 projectors situated on the roofs surrounding Sifly Piazza to pull it off. Even the still images from Stansell’s piece are rather breathtaking and put into motion on such a large scale, the aesthetic effect alone is sure to be overwhelming. As the Art in America review describes, however, The Water and the Blood offers some narrative reflection as well as it “explores the way in which information is pieced together to create a narrative. Rather than develop a plot, Stansell constructs character sketches and allows viewers to connect the dots.”

The projection will run from dusk to midnight as part of the High’s Culture Shock: Homegrown event, which will celebrate the work of a variety of Southern artists. The night will feature music from The Whiskey Gentry and Ashanti “the mad violinist” Floyd and will also highlight exhibitions currently on display in the galleries, including Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals fromTalladega College, Picturing New York/Picturing the South, and Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley.

*Image courtesy of Micah Stansell