INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS #10
This is a functional guide to territory largely neglected by the film-criticism establishment-encompassing tens of thousands of films. Most of the films discussed test the limits of contemporary (middle class) cultural acceptability, mainly because in varying ways they don't meet certain "standards" utilized in evaluating direction, acting, dialogue, sets, continuity, technical cinematography, etc. Many of the films are overtly "lower class" or "low brow" in content and art direction. However, a high percentage of these works disdained by the would-be dictators of public opinion are sources of pure enjoyment and delight, despite improbable plots, "bad" acting, or ragged film technique. At issue is the notion of "good taste," which functions as a filter to block out entire areas of experience judged-and damned-as unworthy of investigation.
Our sophisticated, "democratic" Western civilization regulates the population's access to information, as well as its innermost attitudes, through media-particularly film and video. The power to literally create desire, fashion, consumer trends, opinions, aspirations and even one's very identity is expressed through film and video. This force-power through persuasion-reaches deep into the backbrain, rendering more brutal, physical control tactics obsolete.
Since the '60s, film has ceased being a popular creative medium. The whole '60s avant-garde filmmaking, from Brakhage to Connor, was based on the cheap availability of 16mm film, cameras, etc; many of the films in this book were originally shot in 16mm. After this became too expensive, Super-8 became the medium of choice. Several years ago, the major manufacturers began de-emphasizing professional-quality Super-8 cameras, film stocks, etc, saying, "People don't really want it. Editing is too hard for most people, and everyone's switching to video, anyway." The result: the number of low-budget films being produced has dropped drastically.
The value of low-budget films is: they can be transcendent of expressions of a single person's individual vision and quirky originality. When a corporation decides to invest $20 million in a film, a chain of command regulates each step, and no one person is allowed free rein. Meeting with lawyers, accountants, and corporate boards are what films in Hollywood are all about.
So what makes films like Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore or Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies worthwhile? First of all: unfettered creativity. Often the films are eccentric-even extreme-presentations by individuals freely expressing their imaginations, who throughout the filmmaking process improvise creative solutions to problems posed either by circumstance or budget-mostly the latter. Secondly, they often present unpopular-even radical-views addressing social, political, racial or sexual inequities, hypocrisy in religion or government; or, in other ways they assault taboos related to the presentation of sexuality, violence, and other mores. (Cf. George Romero's Dead trilogy which features intelligent, problem-solving black heroes, or Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! which showcases tough girls outwitting-and even physically outdoing-sexist men.) Thirdly, occasionally films are made of such unique stature (Cf. Daughter of Horror) as to stand virtually outside any genre or classification, thus extending the boundaries of what has been done in the medium, as well as providing-at best-inexplicably marvelous experiences.
It is all too common-indeed, a cliche-for otherwise well-read, thoughtful people to deplore "violence" depicted in movies such as the ones discussed here. Yet there is not direct evidence that the mere viewing of a film causes crime; in fact, a film may well act as a "safety valve" preventing its occurrence. In any case, violence cannot be eliminated through repression of its representation; in fact, there is evidence we have a primal need to express ourselves violently, just as we do so-involuntarily-in our dreams. When there's an accident on the highway, our immediate, uncensored instinct is to stop and stare. But . . . there is a crucial difference between the artistic representation of violence and its willful commission against another person in actual life.
This volume focuses on unhailed filmmakers whose work dates primarily from the '60s and '70s. Most of the films mentioned are classifiable into two genres: gore (violence) and sexploitation, although the best transcend such facile labeling. Certain sexploitation or gore filmmakers (such as David Cronenberg, who already has had two books written about him) are absent because of previous publicity or inaccessibility. Many wonderful, more mainstream filmmakers, such as Bunuel, Polanski, Keaton, Fritz Lang and Val Lewton-and even entire genres such as Surrealist/Dada films and film noir-are not detailed for similar reasons. This is not a completist's volume-many other American movies, plus a whole other world of films from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Mexico, Spain, etc remain to be explored and experienced. Rather, it is a presentation of the continuing creative dilemma, with specific emphasis on the problems of artists counter to the status quo. Here the filmmakers themselves articulate their philosophies and histories while offering views and insights applicable to any creative medium. In the world of low-budget filmmaking, it is still possible for the imagination to reign supreme.