Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: The Most Challenging Films I Saw This Semester

After a long absence, I'm finally back! I'm happy to report that I survived my first semester of grad school, and I've come away from my four classes with a renewed appreciation for a number of films, both old and new. And what better way to return to the blog than by sharing some of those films with you? I'll publish my favorite films, both previously-seen and new to me, later this week, but for now I'm going to start with the films that were the most challenging for me. "Challenging" means films that I felt conflicted about, either in the content they presented or the way that content was presented (or both). These are films that I am glad to have seen, but I don't know that I would watch them again or recommend them to others.

I've organized these films by the class I viewed them in: American Masterworks (a survey history of cinema in the United States), Avant-Garde Cinema (an examination of the avant-garde), and Horror and Gender (a study in how gender is represented in horror films - not just Final Girls). My fourth class, Television Theory and Criticism, didn't require many viewings, so I've left it out.

And so, here are six films that I found challenging this semester.

From "American Masterworks"

The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915)

I consider this one challenging because of the place in film history that it occupies and my personal conflict with appreciating it. Griffith's film is a breathtaking spectacle of the silent era, spanning a sweeping historical era and employing a number of then-innovative techniques such as cuts that alternated between two spaces and expressive acting. From a purely filmic standpoint, the film is a phenomenal achievement. It is also, however, deeply unsettling in its racism, hailing the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of American morality and depicting its black characters (most of whom are white actors in blackface) as lascivious brutes incapable of human characteristics. This is what makes the film a challenge: it's a hugely important film in the development of cinema, but it comes with monstrous baggage.

Avant-garde and horror films after the jump.

From "Avant-Garde Cinema"

The Chelsea Girls (dir. Andy Warhol, 1966)

The Chelsea Girls is frequently considered one of Warhol's cinematic masterpieces, and a viewing of the rare film demonstrates why. Over three hours in length, the film is double-projected - one reel is projected on one half of the screen, while the other reel is projected on the other half - and features many of Warhol's regulars at the Factory play-acting in various ways. It is because of these qualities that film is challenging. The film really should be seen at a screening, since Warhol's directions on when each reel should begin playing in relation to its complement make the projectionist a performer as well. But the film also can be difficult to watch thanks to the over-the-top amateurishness of the performances: Mary Woronov, playing Hanoi Hannah (pictured above, right) can be particularly grating, while the famous "Pope" scene features poet Ondine viciously beating his female counterpart. The film is fascinating, but it can be tough.

16/67 September 20th - Gunter Brus (dir. Kurt Kren, 1967)

The London Film-Makers Cooperative calls this the "Eating, Drinking, Pissing, and Shitting Film," and that's fairly accurate. Kren, an Austrian filmmaker involved with the "action art" collective Viennese Aktionists, films performance artist Brus doing all four of the aforementioned actions, including very graphic defecation on film. In keeping with the Aktionists' violently confrontational aesthetic, the film is a visually-appalling affront to cultured taste. Yet it's difficult to turn away from, as the viewer seeks meaning in images whose sole meaning may be to offend.

From "Gender and Horror"

Inside (dirs. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, 2007)

Honestly, this is the film that inspired this entire article. Bustillo and Maury's New French Extreme horror film begins with a horrific car accident that takes the husband of Sarah (Alysson Paradis) as well as an embryo (shown via CGI). Flash-forward to Christmas Eve: Sarah is set to give birth to her child the next day, only to be harassed by a mysterious woman (BĂ©atrice Dalle) who wants the baby for herself. For the next 70-odd minutes, the body count mounts to ridiculous numbers as people enter the house only to be maimed in increasingly graphic and bloody ways. The film is now permanently etched into my brain; as I told one of my classmates, "there's not enough mental floss or liquor in the world to unsee that." For gore aficionados, this is heaven. For me, it was a stomach-churning experience that I had to view through my fingers.

*I should note the circumstances surrounding this film. The professor was flying to a workshop in Helsinki, and so instead of the scheduled screening of The Exorcist, he chose to have us watch two films that scared him. Inside was the first to be screened, at 10 in the morning, and without any kind of introduction or fanfare. Perhaps it was because I saw this film with absolutely no knowledge of it that it had such an impact on me. Though I know that I will not watch this film again, I will always remember the experience.

The Entity (dir. Sidney J. Furie, 1982)

Apparently, The Entity is a beloved horror film among cineastes: Martin Scorsese lists it among his favorites, and Quentin Tarantino sampled its score for Inglourious Basterds. The film is supposedly based on a true story in which a woman (Barbara Hershey in an admittedly great performance) is repeatedly raped by a supernatural force, and though researchers find evidence to support her claims, they cannot find a way to stop it. It's an effective set-up for a horror film, and there's an interesting tension between Hershey and Ron Silver's skeptical psychiatrist. It is, however, difficult for me to truly praise a film that confirms that when a woman can't definitively prove to authorities that she's being abused, her best option is to learn to live with her abuser. It's a fine horror film, if not particularly scary, but that particular theme just doesn't work for me.

I Spit on Your Grave (dir. Meir Zarchi, 1978)

Finally, there's I Spit on Your Grave. The film's notorious reputation likely precedes it, but for those not in the know, it concerns a young woman (Camille Keaton, a distant relative of Buster Keaton) who is viciously raped by four men in the New York countryside and exacts her bloody revenge on them. Zarchi's low-budget film feels every bit as scuzzy as its material suggests, emphasized by an extended rape sequence that goes on for over 20 minutes. The amateurish acting prevents it from feeling too real, but it's no less brutal. When Jennifer (the woman) starts taking revenge, the blood gushes in increasingly graphic ways. No matter how you feel about the film's material, it's a tough watch.

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