Category Archives: cinema

Transcendental style in film Part Two: The Ecstatic Aesthetic

Part one introduced the concept of ‘transcendental style’ in cinema. It showed how various critics- most prominently a pre-filmmaking Paul Schrader- described a formal style in the works of Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer designed to put the viewer into a contemplative state. In short: films that are really slow and no-one explains anything and so that makes you think about the spiritual meaning of the film instead of how shitty the CGI is and whatnot The key stylistic choices of this mode of transcendental style are slowness, stillness and precision.

I am going to argue that a second mode of transcendental style in film exists. Why am i going to argue that? A) because I think it might be interesting and B) because I don’t get out much anymore. But anyway, much as in religious practices there are many roads to transcendence, so in cinematic style. The films of Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer might perhaps be likened to the spiritual practices of the monk or nun. An “ascetic aesthetic“. a slow life, based on contemplation, quietness, simplicity. In the history of spiritual practices this ascetic trend was countered (complimented isn’t quite accurate) by those schools which emphasized states of ecstasy as the road to enlightenment. In cinema this ‘ecstatic aesthetic‘  repeatedly manifests itself in psychedelic vistas of the cosmos. A Dionysian alternative to the Apollonian order of the first style. If Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer want to open your mind, the film makers who use the second mode want to blow it. It’s probably worth noting that this is not a clean break from the other style. Jonathan Rosenbaum cites a few letters and interviews in which Dreyer, responding to criticisms that the miracle that ends Ordet was simply a retreat into archiac religiosity, mentioned,  “recent psychic research, represented by pioneers like Rhine, Ouspensky, Dunne, Aldous Huxley, and so forth,”  and elsewhere stated that

The new science that followed Einstein’s theory of relativity had supplied that outside the three-dimensional world which we can grasp with our senses, there is a fourth dimension—–the dimension of time—–as well as a fifth dimension—–the dimension of the psychic that proves that it is possible to live events that have not yet happened. New perspectives are opened up that make one realize an intimate connection between exact science and intuitive religion. The new science brings us toward a more intimate understanding of the divine power and is even beginning to give us a natural explanation to things of the supernatural.

This melange of science, psychical research, higher dimensions, Ouspensky, Huxley and so on points towards the counterculture of the 1960s and the  emergence of new age spiritualities which sought to reconcile science and religion. Also, they did a shit load of psychedelics. As such, the ecstatic aesthetic, our second mode of transcendental style, works by trying to immerse the audience in the transcendental experience itself. Continue reading

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Transcendental style in film Part One: The Ascetic Aesthetic

I know, I know, that’s the least inviting title to a blog post ever but don’t go! There’s videos and everything!

Still here? Okay then. First of all you should know that  I adopted/poached/stole the term ‘transcendental style’ from the great Paul Schrader‘s only kind of great book Transcendental Style in the Films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. The term ‘the Ascetic aesthetic’ is all mine though, which I guess is something of a Pyrrhic victory but anyways, the point is that there exists a kind fo religious film that exhibits a certain style suited to religious topics. Sure, movies about religion and religious topics have always existed but no-one is ever going to mistake the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer for this thing, for example:

Or even for that weird-looking Heaven is For Real movie that was the number 2 box-office film in America after Captain America: Winter Soldier but not even released in cinemas here because of the UK’s general, if diminishing, trend of not being insane.

Also, I’m not arguing that there is a definitive, objective thing that we can call ‘transcendental style’ and then piss our pants when a film does or does not conform to that particular style because A) who gives a shit? and B) there already exists some debate as to the merits of Schrader’s analysis and its efforts to produce what Colin Burnett calls an, ‘hermeneutical monopoly’ which leaves no room for other interpretations. And the last thing any of us wants is to accidentally create a hermeneutical monopoly. No sir.

However,  ‘transcendental style’  seems like a useful model or metaphor for considering how certain films choose to present  spiritual and religious themes. It also gives us a way of suggesting a link between the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer that Schrader analyses, with the more recent films such as Darren Aaronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) , Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). The bridge between them being, I want to argue, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More on all that in part two. In these posts I’m going to suggest that the different forms of ‘transcendental style’ in these films is akin to the differing approaches to transcendence in various mystical and religious schools. One is ascetic, based on self-control, abstinence from sensual pleasures and deep, quite contemplation of the ineffable. The other is ecstatic, finding transcendence in sudden ego-loss, immersion in sensual pleasures like sex or drugs, and the experience of cosmic consciousness.

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Dark, Deranged and Disney

What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From  Dorfman and Mattelart’€™s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971),  Henry Giroux’€™s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward€’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:

The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.

All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.

Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror.  Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released.  The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,

awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. 

In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the  “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes. Continue reading


Special Effects Auteurs (and the particular genius of Screaming Mad George)

Freaked (1993)

Watching the documentary Fantastic Flesh The Art of Make-Up FX an idea came to me. When  auteur theory was being developed by film theorists and critics way back when in the 20th century its aim was to have film directors recognised as the true authors of a film even though film production was both a collective and industrial process. Despite these factors the true auteurs voice, style and thematic concerns could, so the argument went,  be discerned in any of their works. I had the idea that this article would present a complex theory of the special effects artist as auteur but on reflection thought it would be more fun to celebrate the work of Screaming Mad George, and watch a bunch of videos of cool special-effects on the way.

Some context wouldn’t hurt though. So it is interesting to consider which special effects artists have become more well-known to the public than others. Certainly other effects artists could recognise certain work. In  Fantastic Flesh Tom Savini (see below) describes going to see films featuring the work of favoured effects artists as, “the lastest exhibit from your favourite artist”. A potted history might start with Jack Pierce (featured in this 1933 issue of Modern Mechanics!). Pierce was in the fortunate position of being head of Universal’s make-up department when that studio inaugurated the first horror film boom of the 1930s. Counting Boris Karloff’s instantly iconic make-up as Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (both below) among his creations, Jack Pierce could arguably be said to be the granddaddy of special effects auteurs. In the Fanatstci Flesh documentary dire ctor Frank Darabont describes Pierce’s Frankenstein make-up as, “as iconic as the Empire State Building”. Difficult to argue with that really.

Jack Pierce working on his Wolfman

And working on the Monster

Here I’ve already muddied the waters though. Because Pierce was make-up artist on what perhaps remain the most famous iterations of these monsters, but does this make him a ‘special effects’ artist? Ought we to lump Pierce’s special make-up effects in the same category as, say,  Douglas Trumbull‘s effects for 2001: a Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind? And even if we broaden our definition whose Frankenstein are we really talking about? Jack Pierce’s because he designed it? Boris Karloff’s because he performed it? Or is James Whale our classic auteur by dint of directing it? If Pierce is not quite the special effects auteur we are looking for he still possessed the hallmarks of a true artist. According to Fantastic Flesh Pierce was fired from Universal for taking too long to perfect his work.

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Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave

Hello Humans.

Here to introduce this post is Pinhead from Hellraiser:

In a throwaway aside in his review of Brian Yuzna’s From Beyond (1986) in this month’s Sight and Sound the ever-incisive Kim Newman writes:

From Beyond is worth revisiting for its ambitious themes-it takes the torch from Videodrome and passes it to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, prompting sociopsychological musings on why exactly cosmic horror in the 80s was always yoked to sadomasochistic dress-up.

Naturally I thought, “Somebody need to write about that! I’m going to do it right now!” Several thousand words later I never really pinpointed why the 80s were especially conducive to the conjunction of sadomasochism and cosmic horror, or even if that’s really the case upon closer inspection. However, I do think Kim Newman’s on the money in as much as there remains a good case to be made for establishing a connection between cosmic horror and S and M. Both, I want to argue, offer ‘limit experiences’ that mirror one another as in the alchemical rule that the microcosm (human body) is a mirror of the macrocosm (universe). The bondage practitioner and the protagonist in cosmic horror are both taken to extremes of experience that open up new forms of consciousness. The article concludes by arguing that such “limit experiences” need not always end in evisceration as they do in many horror films. There are also narratives in which the iconography of fetish clubs (if not the practice) is adopted as a form of liberation from threats to reality, as in The Matrix and Return of the Living Dead 3.

Before reaching that final destination though we must embark upon a strange journey that takes in H.P. Lovecraft, Michel Foucault, Hellraiser, Nietzsche, Alisteir Crowley, and the X-Men and more along the way. It is also a companion piece of sorts to my previous post Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex which also dealt with new forms of posthuman sexuality in horror films. Continue reading


Liquid Sky: Lipstick Traces and Alien Races

Guess who finally watched Liquid Sky? No, not her, she died years ago. It was me actually. As will soon be seen in great detail.

A quick warning from the off, Liquid Sky is an unusual film with some unusual themes and ideas. So there are going to be big swears (like c-bombs and everything), hard drugs, grubby new-wave synth music, a dash of necrophilia, aliens that feed off of the pleasure secretions of the human brain, androgyny and neon lighting-lots of neon lighting-from here on out. It will be worth it, but if that stuff doesn’t sound like your bag then I’d jump ship now. Why not try a taster with the opening minutes from the film? If you don’t like it you can read something else. I won’t mind. The rest of you, see you in five minutes.

INTRO TO LIQUID SKY

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Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex

David Cronenberg’s new movie A Dangerous Method is out now. I haven’t seen it yet, this isn’t a review. But thinking about the film led me, naturally, to thinking about sex in Cronenberg’s movies. Specifically, about how Cronenberg’s films offer up images of posthuman sexualities, of erotic experiences beyond the bounds of what human bodies are normally considered capable of. So this post is about Cronenberg’s new flesh. The erotic flesh. The philosophy of which is illustrated in the speech in the video below. Fair warning though: although this audio-visual tour through posthuman sexuality will be stimulating and enlightening, you probably don’t want to be reading this post at work or in front of your Granny. Unless she’s very adventurous.

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Lizzie and Sarah: The Comedy of Pain and Desperation

Well, this is a find. Knocking about online in the uncommisioned pilot episode of Julia Davis and Jessica Hynes sit-com Lizzie and Sarah (video at the bottom of the post if you just want to scroll down!).  Starring and written by Hynes and Davis, the cast is rounded out by reliable comic talents like Mark Heap (Brass Eye, Big Train) and the actor Kevin Eldon (pretty much every great comedy series of the last twenty years.  Also, Hyperdrive).

Here’s the official BBC synopsis:

Lizzie and Sarah are two fiftysomething suburban housewives, perpetually mistreated and ignored by unloving, selfish husbands. The highlight of their otherwise dull lives is their role in an amateur dramatic society, The Borking Players. In the aftermath of a tragic accident which causes the death of a popular local teenager, emotions run high, and following a dismal birthday lunch for Sarah, the two friends embark on a spur-of-the-moment shopping trip. As the day unfolds, they find a way to wreak their revenge.

As Richard Metzger quite rightly points out over at Dangerous Minds (which led me to the video, thanks DM!), “Although there is nothing untrue in the above synopsis, don’t think for a second that you know what this piece is about…” This is a dark, dark show. Hilarious certainly, but bleak. And bleakly hilarious is a rare and pleasing juxtaposition. Continue reading


The Jon Brion Diversion

Of course, I should be doing some proper work. But I started thinking about Jon Brion. Brion  (born December 11, 1963) is “an American rock and pop multi-instrumentalist,singer, songwriter, composer and record producer” (much like the splenetic and rumbustious musical savant Craig Jeffery). I’m not massively au fait with his solo work but I am familiar with his soundtrack work as it forms part of several of what I  consider (often loudly and at length) some of the best films ever made. So this is really just an excuse to post some videos of highlights from those Jon Brion soundtracks.

I might get round to writing longer pieces on these films in the future but in the meantime its worth saying that although we each have our own reality-filters so the merits or otherwise of these films lies in the eyes of the beholder, while I understand that, if you don’t like these films then it would be remiss of me not to seriously consider either snubbing you forever or smothering you with a pillow to put you out of your tasteless idiotic misery. If you haven’t seen these films then go now and find them. Stop conversing with friends and loved ones, or whatever it is you do, and find these movies. It’ll be worth it. Continue reading