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 thesplitscreen.wordpress.com, 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.

Lovers & Lollipops (1956)

Screening: Friday, November 2, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

By Drew DeVine

There’s something appropriate about Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s first films — important as they are to the artistic maturation of American independent film — being about children. In the case of Lovers & Lollipops, the central conceit of the film, helpfully announced in the title, seems to be in how it compares and contrasts seemingly innocent and childlike modes of behavior with supposedly mature and adult modes of behavior. Peggy (Cathy Dunn) attempts to care for her goldfish like a good “play” mother, but in her youthful, casual inattention almost leaves one out to die. This is set up as a contrast with the competence with which real mother Ann (Lori March) looks after Peggy, but as is soon revealed by her reaction to Peggy’s troubling comments about being bullied due to a lack of a father, in her own way Ann is no more of an all-knowing, all-competent God of creature-rearing than her daughter. Instead, Ann’s something like a more responsible, more aware, higher functioning version of the same necessarily limited way of existing.

The Engel/Orkin films, much like the Cassavetes films they helped to inspire, are predicated on a non-idealized (if not bleakly realist) envisioning of their subjects. It’s not so much a matter of a coldly calculating, Altmanesque debunking of idealized Hollywood visions as it is an embrace of life in all of its slippery, messy, beauty. For the Engel/Orkin team, a grainy black and white shot of Peggy’s dirty feet is as interesting and worthy of being filmed as an otherworldly, Technicolor sunset. One of my favorite sequences of the film shows Peggy’s response to the Museum of Modern Art. Like her mother who uses the museum not to contemplate artworks but to get reacquainted with an old love interest, Peggy imagines it as a playground to dance through, an indifferent backdrop to her sailboating adventures. Next to strange statues, she is neither as idealized nor as abstracted as any of them, but part of the film’s implicit claim may be that she and her forms of behavior are just as worthy of museum-aided appreciation. Now, thanks to the High, we all have an opportunity to test that claim.

Drew DeVine is a MA student in Emory University’s Film and Media Studies Program, a Cassavetes enthusiast, and smart as a whip. Screens on High is honored to have him as a guest-blogger!

Reserve tickets for the Friday, November 2 screening of Lovers & Lollipops here.

A Closer Look at John Cassavetes’ “Shadows”

Screening: Friday, October 26, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

By Drew DeVine

How do we make sense of something like Shadows? You see the grainy black and white cinematography and the lack of editorializing Hollywood camera angles and your brain’s first response is to begin an inner dialogue about questions of “realism” and all of its aesthetic pros and cons. Or maybe you start to think about this small film as a kind of American parallel to the contemporaneous lo-fi films of the French New Wave (which Cassavetes was apparently unaware of during production). These are all tempting initial reactions, but for my own part they have never helped me come to grips with why this early, unpolished debut resonates so deeply in the memory.

Anyone looking for so-called realism will find themselves immediately confused by gang’s first run-in on the street. The dubbed dialog is shrill and distancing. The bodily movements of the actors are too stylized and cartoonish to create the feeling that we are seeing something like real people interacting with one another. I would argue that to get inside what Shadows seems to be doing, we have to make the same sorts of imaginative leaps we make when watching conventional Hollywood forms of representation. We accept that these characters are not meant to be engaged on the level of documentary subjects, but as highly exaggerated accumulations of motivation, gesture, and expressive surface. For me, despite what may have been Cassavetes’ intended goals, it is not a matter of de-styling Hollywood to get to something truer. It is a matter of stylizing cinematic experience in a way that is just as extreme to get to another place that is (at least potentially) just as true or untrue. The only difference is that where Hollywood’s stylistic extremity depends upon clarification, Cassavetes’ extremity depends on complication, confusion, and hitting the unknowable blue notes. These characters develop not in euphonious pop song arcs, but in dissonant solo jazz breaks. Characters are not unlockable treasure chests, but a conglomerate of interacting, conflicting shadow identities.

What are the pleasures of Shadows? I will first admit, in the most base sense imaginable, a strong attraction to Cassavetes’ very specific brand of grainy, wild cinematography (which is more earthy and sensual than the intellectualized approach of the French New Wave). Is there anything in cinema like the wild, tactile presentation of dancing in the title sequence, thrown into complication by Hugh’s posturing moodiness in the corner? Yet even more than these moments of filmic rough beauty, I love Ray Carney‘s claim (made in all of his occasionally problematic tomes on Cassavetes) that we are here being forced to deal with these characters on their surface, the same way we have to attempt to understand and respond to the unreachably complex motivations and needs of the people we encounter in our daily lives. But because Shadows is not real life, and instead an extremely stylized film, it is almost harder to parse than real life. In coming to terms with these characters, we have to look closely at their movements, think deeply about the inconsistencies in their behavior, and remain sensitive to their bewildering gestural patterns on a confusing, moment-by-moment basis. We try in vain to cling to every facial microexpression, hoping to make it yield motivational clarification. But just when we think we’ve figured them out, they seem to be coming from a different place entirely. It is hard to follow them, because the film refuses to give us Godlike access to their goals. In fact, the more I watch this film, the more I agree with Carney that the film does not even believe in stable goals in the first place. These characters are fundamentally confused about what they want. If we try to understand them by pinning them down to one goal or one perspective, in the end we will walk away as confused as they are. Ultimately, it is we who have to yield to their extreme singularity, forced to choose between qualified appreciation or simplistic denunciation. Some cannot stand to undergo this process. I find it exhilarating.

Drew DeVine is a MA student in Emory University’s Film and Media Studies Program, a Cassavetes enthusiast, and smart as a whip. Screens on High is honored to have him as a guest-blogger!

Reserve tickets for the Friday, October 26 screening of Shadows here.

John Cassavetes’ “Shadows”

Screening: Friday, October 26, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

We continue our fall film series, MoMA American Indies, with John Cassavetes’ groundbreaking 1959 film, ShadowsCassavetes is such an icon of American independent cinema and this film is so revered, that looking at the already existent adulation over this film provides great preparation for our Friday screening. With that, here is a brief collection of quotes about Cassavetes and his remarkable work, Shadows:

“All would-be hipsters know Cassavetes is revered as the grandfather of modern indie cinema. With his five-and-dime budgets, his mix of amateur and professional actors and crew, his hand-held camera and grainy film stock, today’s pauper stylists may crib extensively from his movies. And they do. But what set Cassavetes apart, in addition to being the first, is that his movies are saturated in matters of the heart. Those coarse products of a bygone era aren’t rants against an unjust world, or empty exercises in style. They’re not even particularly antiestablishment. Lo and behold, they are all about love. It seems Cassavetes was foremost a humanist who lived to record our crazy, mad ways. He more than any filmmaker merged life and art into one, or rather redefined the artifice of movies to approximate life as it is lived.”

“To watch Shadows today is to rediscover the pleasure of seeing actors doing what moves them in the moment.”

Matthew Kennedy, Bright Lights Film Journal

“The Beat generation espoused a rejection of mainstream American values, and John Cassavetes’s Shadows feels like a relic from that movement, with its improvisatory bebop jazz feeling, cameras in the street, method-style performances, frustration about accepted social norms, and an interracial romance between a hipster white guy (Anthony Ray) and a light-skinned black woman (Leila Goldoni) that eventually takes over the episodic narrative. Cassavetes was pushing the envelope at the time, reacting to the formulaic techniques of Hollywood movies. Shadows will forever have the novelty of coming first—frequently credited with being the pioneer American independent movie. The rough-around-the-edges aesthetics and occasional “let’s hit the nail on the head” earnestness is made up for by scene work that is cheerfully goofy, spontaneous, aggressive, and inventive.”

Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

“’I have a need for characters to really analyze love,’ [Cassavetes] said. ‘That’s all I’m interested in—love and the lack of it.’ Shadows exemplifies the obsession, which is perhaps the main reason it remains as fascinating and powerful as it does. A work of its time that honestly captures its time, it is consequently a work of our time as well. It has no hero, no villain, no linear plot line, no gerrymandered suspense, no practiced comedy, and only as much sex and violence as just about all of us have encountered. Like any honest work of art, Shadows shows that life’s costumes, settings, and slang change, but human situations remain relentlessly constant.”

Gary Giddins, Criterion Collection

“[Shadows] is fitfully dynamic, endowed with a raw but vibrant strength, conveying an illusion of being a record of real people, and it is incontestably sincere. Some of its crude compulsion is in the poignancy of the story told, some of it is in the vigorous acting, virtually all of which is good.”

Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 1961

Reserve tickets for the Friday, October 26 screening of Shadows here.

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947)

Screening: Saturday, October 20, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

Director Jules Dassin marries prison drama and film noir in his 1947 film Brute Force, screening this Saturday as the second installment of our MoMA American Indies film series. As it turns out, film noir’s dark shadows, existential quandaries, and futile human suffering within an amoral universe finds a fitting home in the prison drama, where men wile away life’s hours fueled only by the hope of escape. Brute Force performs a kind of second chapter to every film noir of the period–as if the men behind bars in this film were once the doomed protagonists wandering the rainy streets of the noir genre. As Michael Atkinson describes in his essay for the Criterion Collection edition of the film:

“Singularly among prison film characters, the cons we meet (escape plotter Burt Lancaster, romantic Whit Bissell, centrist gang leader Charles Bickford, urbane playboy John Hoyt, manly martyr Howard Duff, huddled as if in a tribal tent) are all morally righteous men with large hearts, either guilty of a harmless crime, of thievery in the  name of love, or not guilty of anything we’re told about at all.”

Like most prison dramas, Brute Force revolves around the prospect and plans of escape, but by picturing a noir world that put away such good men, Brute Force’s bleak, leading question becomes, what exactly are these men escaping to?

That this film invokes this question in 1947, pushes the concept of escape onto the metaphorical ground of global politics. The world was just assessing its own “escape” from WWII after all, and the unparalleled evil of the war’s atrocities left many wondering what kind of a world was waiting for them on the other side of conflict. Brute Force insists ever more fervently on bearing the weight of this global metaphor by aligning its vermin-esque Captain (Hume Cronyn) with the aesthetics and rhetoric of Fascism. Amidst an unforgettable, gritty finale that must have shook audiences in 1947 even more than it rattles us today, Brute Force begs the loaded question, what does it mean to truly escape?

Reserve tickets for the Saturday, October 20 screening of Brute Force here.

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.