Three Old Art-house Films

Film is all but dead as a medium of artistic expression, wouldn’t you say? I see it petering out even sooner than the novel. On the one hand, you have a hollywood system entrenched in formula, far far away from ever dealing with matters of form again. And on the other, staggering pretentiousness (consider the rise of artsy Chinese cinema, which, instead of offering anything much in terms of aesthetic impact, takes the two fastest shortcuts to art credibility: portentous slowness and social conscience). And because these are the choices critics have at this low tide moment, they find it in their hearts (and they find it in their best interests, careerwise) to support both.

The bright side, for those of us trying to ignore, if not accept, what we cannot change, is that some old films, as they sink back underground, are starting to look fresh all over again, and perhaps more poetic than ever for being out of reach to us. 

In the last couple of years, a few old art-house films I’ve seen have really stuck with me: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Michael Snow’s Presents (1981), and George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966). All three are cheap, seat-of-the-pants affairs, and there’s a loose, handmade feel to each of them. You can sense the materiality in the editing - a certain coarseness and imprecision in the cutting - and, in Hold Me While I’m Naked, you can see it - the film is gorgeously pockmarked. This isn’t a virtue in itself, but it’s a relief from the slickness of mainstream product, in which there is no evidence of a free hand, of a spontaneous choice.

Hold Me While I’m Naked feels like a divinely inspired aesthetic accident. Campy Hollywood nostalgia, melodramatic music copped from B-movies for a C-movie where it works better, and extremely abreviated scenes combine to poetic effect in a thin story about loneliness, sexual frustration, and art as a place to put it all. The imagery is concentrated and almost always interesting, which has something to do with Kuchar’s eye for it, but it’s also because scenes are compact, choppily segmented, and because a lot of the in-between film grammar is taken out; you’re left with a lot of visual nouns. A few of them - a window being closed, a guy kissing a fake bird, a guy in the shower knocking his head against the tiling - insist on being remembered. Kuchar is a savant when it comes to knowing what is working, what can be made to work with music, and when to change to the next thing. This is outsider art so good, so nimble and spunky, it makes you suspicious of the insider stuff.

Presents is quite another kind of film - backyard structuralism instead of the campy primitivism of Hold Me. It’s a film made up of two dissimilar halves (some people see it as having a three-part structure) in which, like an early Flemish diptych, the panels are so unequally weighted, so unbalanced in a way, but where nonetheless there is a kind of compositional rightness to it, though in this case pushed to an extreme that makes you wonder if any two things, no matter how minimal the connection, can be aesthetically reconciled just by virtue of their being put together.

In the first part, after an introduction in which it seems like someone in playing with the vertical and horizontal hold on an old tv, a woman walks back and forth on a very plastic-looking barbie doll set (all pink and aqua). The camera is stationary but the set moves back and forth, troubling the actors somewhat and giving us some artsy, mind-the-medium comedy. Over the sound of the actors speaking and music from a record player that skips as the set lurches, we hear the sound of a director giving direction to, presumably, the driver of a flatbed truck. The culminating event is the camera, which we find out is shielded by glass and on some motorized vehicle of its own, driving forward onto the set somehow, and plowing destructively into the cardboardish props. End of part one. Part two, much longer than the first, is a series of camera movements, quite short, most of them - like a second or two, filmed outside where the color is quite opposed to the artificial pastel look we’ve just come from. Each camera movement (the camera is always in movement) traces a line or motion made by things moving (a bird, say) or static (a line of house rooves against the sky), and each cut is marked by the sound of a single snare drum hit. It’s actually a little hard on the eyes, since the camera is always moving, sometimes quite rapidly, and because of the perspectiveless jumping from one line to another. It’s rigorous but not uptight, and not without wit, though after a while one starts to tune out. 99 mins.

Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures is so aggressive in imagery and sound that it seems (only seems, says Susan Sontag) completely naive. One eventually sees that there is something to it besides reeling energy, drag masquerade, and chaotic pansexuality. It’s hard, granted, to see anything else for a good chunk of its orgiastic three-quarters of an hour. So, what is there besides? It’s hard to say what, but I think it’s got something to do with its density, its of-a-piece-ness. Everything in this short film - the writhing bodies, the overdriven music, the screaming, the cultivated foreignness, the swirling, unmoored camera - everything seems pressurized into a solid where you can see the individual components but you’d be hard pressed to break it down. It’s been punched into a rock-hard thing.

Also, there’s this sense of excess, an uncontrollable and incorruptible quality permeating it. It doesn’t slow down or let you get your bearings and there’s nothing in there to help the uninitiated feel at ease. You’re never going to be able to sell a film like this; you’re never going to be able to make a formula out of it - it’s so ill-mannered and distasteful. I don’t mean to say that its this that makes it art. A lot of things are uncontrollable, excessive, ill-mannered, and distasteful that are just that and nothing else. Flaming Creatures screams and kicks, admits to no learning or refinement, sticks its tongue out at everything, and yet it has something about it that strikes of a weird, pagan sophistication, as though dressing up and (playing at) abandoning oneself to wild ritual were, for this imaginary decadent underclass, a substitute for world-weary laughter.

MAYBE NOTE: Flaming Creatures contains, among other perversities, the odd flaccid penis, lots of play with a big flaccid boob, something pretty close to a stylized, multi-party rape scene, and a camera bent on giving you motion sickness. If you think it might be too silly a thing to watch, don’t do it.



Saint Passionate

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