Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Three times food: Czech surrealism in cinema

Fetishization/obsession with food is one of the leitmotifs of the Czech New Wave kind of surrealism. It has definitely a lot to do with the legacy of Czech surrealism, which had some of the most interesting art and artists in that spirit. Food gains new meaning within socialist economy and culture: it's precious, you're not supposed to waste it or play with it. Waste is a crime against the working people and ultimately against the state. 

Yet there's also no excuse for wasting food within capitalism, at least according to the early, protestant ethics, which can be also traced paradoxically in American Pop Art, with its gigantisation of food, a specific "food porn", where within the mass market, consumerist capitalism becomes monstrous and breeds all sorts of pathological relationships we have with it - especially women, whose activities have been endlessly associated with preparing/making/eating it. Maybe in this, in denying the food the usual meaning it has (including sacredness!) there lies a power to subvert both systems, or any system? The anarchic food waste and obsessing about it finds also amazing effects in Czech feminist art. In communism, famous for food shortages, gathering food was often extremely difficult, and it was also on women, where lay the responsibility for keeping the family alive. In capitalism, we have no shortage of food anxiety and insecurity.

Resulting from the physical, oral, "wet" contact with food is its sexualisation, pornography of food, where both the sex and the neurotic activity of capital are present. Food as fetish, and woman as an object to consume, an 'edible woman' is a renowned motif in feminist art, including the difficult relationship between food and woman's body. Which, according to the punishing, coercive beauty ideals, simply can't have a proper relation with the food, she can never do right.

This and many other uses is at play with the outstanding "food art" or food anarchism we encounter in Czech experimental cinema.

I will highlight only a very few here. In Jan Svankmajer food becomes basically "existential" and stands for the general hopelessness of human existence; the hopeless mundanity, the routine and repeatability of everyday activities, such as eating three meals a day; which is deeply felt also in the 'Meat love', a motif of which he repeats in his late film Lunacy, or The Loonies, which was partly inspired by Marquis de Sade, a huge influence present also, in a sardonic way, in his Conspirers of Ecstasy. The world in Svankmajer is always impossibly twisted and distorted to the degree we merely recognise any familiar elements, stripped down to the libidinal rudiments of id, all consuming, violents and unpredictable:

Quite different is food for Vera Chytilova. Daisies features a lot in my future book, Poor but Sexy, so here only briefly: Daisies is and isn't about working/not working, laziness and boredom; it also hints at the all encompassing futility of existence, but with much stronger feminist and anarchic/(anti?) socialist accents. It questions what the citizens do and not do under socialism, it also questions the seeming liberalisation in Czechoslovakia and possibilities for womens' lib. It's a praise of laziness and boredom as reclaiming of time from under the political regime, and at the same time it questions this as means of feminist or any other liberation. And it's dedicated to those, "who cried over the potato salad". Women laughing, women eating, women destroying:

The two Marias do a lot of feminist transgression: they not only waste food, burn meat etc, they also cut their dresses, ‘deconstruct’ them, the necessities for women’s fashion. They walk on food, crush it with their high heels (an analogue scene is repeated by Ulrike Ottinger in her Portrait of a Drunkard, with the character walking on broken glass). They want desperately to break free, but it’s always illusionary what they do, it lasts two seconds and then the jouissance goes away, much like under capitalism.

After the disaster they promise to themselves: “We will be hard working and everything will be clean, and then we’ll be happy”.

The screenplay for Daisies was developed together with Pavel Juracek and Ester Krumbachova, two amazing artists in their own right. Especially Krumbachova, a strikingly original costume designer, writer and director, interests us here, as a somehow tragic, unfulfilled figure, who made several astonishing films with Chytilova, like Fruits of Paradise, and co-wrote The Party And The Guests by Jan Nemec, Karek Kachyna's The Ear and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromir Jires, but then, as a self-relying director didnt have similar success. Watching her only film, Murder of Mister Devil (1970) we already see, what in Daisies belongs to Chytilova, and what to Krumbachova and that only by working together these women could bring the best in their art.

In Murder, which I only watched in Czech, the visual means overshadow the actual content. We see a perfect bourgeois woman in a perfect flat preparing a real feast for her rather unimpressive functionary partner/husband. The feast is completely unproportionate to the small scale of the evening, yet the dishes just keep coming and coming, more and more breath-taking, and the whole film reminds me rather of Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe or any transgressive anti-capitalist 70s fantasy. Yet given the title, and the superb poster, in which the screaming man is to be drowned and eaten in a ice-cream sundae by a smiling Medusa-woman (by Eva Galová-Vodrázkováin the best traditions of Czech and Polish school of poster, with excessive irony and surreal/dada spirit, from where Linder Sterling must've learned some of her technique too), it was a strongly feminist statement playing with anti-feminist semtiments, of a woman who's using her only 'weapons' - food, as a way to make everything in the world implode.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Going on the Wild Side - Jean Rollin

(on thye basis of a review for The Wire, April 2012)

Various Artists
The B-music of Jean Rollin
Finders Keepers CD LP

Philippe D'Aram
Finders Keepers CD LP

Pierre Raph
Requiem for a Vampire
Finders Keepers CD LP

The 1970s were a splendid era for a certain kind of auteur cinema, not exactly in the patchy category of art house, though definitely being an art of some sort: the exploitation movie. From that the gerat moments of giallo, art horror and thriller emerged. Jean Rollin, author of an absolute cult artsy soft porn horrors mostly featuring beautiful female vampires and a lot of unashamedly bright red blood, just as much as feminine breasts and kinky gothic S&M outfits, was one of the titans of that genre. Similarly to Dario Argento (and gialli as such), Walerian Borowczyk or even John Carpenter, Rollin fearlessly realized his own private vision of the sublime, which in his case meant some tremendous rewriting of the vampire’s classic metaphysical/physical drama, caught between life and death. Also, all those directors had a taste for some best music of that era, now being rediscovered: prog rock or heavy synths aren’t anymore a sign of cheese, but rather a full-on gripping aesthetics. And however ridiculous the plot/plotlessness was in Rollin’s films, the clothes, the colors, finally, the music, were always stupendous and unforgettable. Let’s take Pierre Raph’s Requiem for a Vampire, one of three just re-released by always treasure-seeking Finder Keepers’ Andy Votel, for the first time in full.

Like Argento, who had the best curious musicians of his era by his side and was even a part of the band Goblin which provided the trademark synthetic terror to his films, Rollin had great musicians of his era by his side. he knew everybody in the Parisian underground and took prog bands like Acanthus, otherwise hidden in complete mystery (they provided the soundtrack to Le Frisson de Vampires and feature heavily on the compilatory B-Music) or musician Raph, who replaced them on Requiem. If Antonioni knew their music, he would never have taken Pink Floyd to his Zabriskie Point. The ease of Raph’s improvisations combined with the flamboyant panache, ease and sexiness of the proggy, airy sounds, have something sincere and straight-forward about them. Audibly influenced by Neu!, they also are in the same veneer as Ennio Morricone’s giallo and spaghetti western soundtrack classics. Similarly on Fascination, Philippe D’Aram’s daring synth choral masterpiece of a soundtrack, as synths became so popular as a horror movie music. Accompanied with droning guitars yield a spectacular, wide and dreamy sound, provocatively interluded with sounds of menace and bloody dialogues from the film, expressing usually final dread or going over to the wild side, which sums up the drama of a newly-bitten vampire.

Music from both soundtracks and a few more Rollin films is collected on the compilation The B-Music Of Jean Rollin. The sadomasochistic horror, the toll of passion beyond comprehension, the consummate fear and sexual liberation and the final inevitable pitiful death – all is expressed in special effects and synths, that may be typical or generic for the era, but refreshing today. B-Music proves that Rollin’s films had some of the finest free rock of the 1970s. It’s not about conscious kitsch, but a grainy, blood and flesh beauty, with meaty riffs, dreaminess and sexual mystique – a letter from a lost era that eclipses any notion of irony.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Telly as a prefiguration of death: on Susan Hiller

Susan Hiller
Matt’s Gallery, London

(on the basis of a review written for The Wire)

Apparently all of us project sometimes our own death, and the best art often makes us realise its inevitability as well as grasping its meaning, and maybe more importantly, the meaning of what precedes it. Contemporary culture is yet playing perfectly on something that Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle described as Sex/Death conundrum: that is, what happens when capitalist visuality involving a multiplication of spectacular effects, at the same time serves our morbid exposure. Contemporary culture is morbid, surrounds us with macabre images of death everywhere, yet the last thing it does is prepare us for dying as such, suffocating in a cult of fitness and youth. The impressive new work of Susan Hiller, occupying a good part of the gallery room, is precisely addressing this paradox. Hiller is an increasingly canonised contemporary artist, with the recent retrospective in Tate Britain as only one of major events. Channels are a much more chamber event, which in turn makes one focus on one work only. Her works often require (and make at the same time possible) a total immersion within the mulitisensory experience. It's no different this time.

Basing Channels on numerous accounts of so called near-death experiences, she constructs a wall-sculpture of TV sets, blinking to us in uncoordinated series of colours, static and transmission signals, interrupted by the voice recordings sharing the clinical death experiences, their timbre indicated by the pulsating green line, like on a heart rate monitor. To increase the feeling of chaos the voices recorded are in different languages (apart from English, I detected Spanish, French and Chinese), augmenting the blurriness of the undelivered message, until we feel like we want to fall asleep, much like at an airport, surrounded by communiques in unknown languages.

Susan Hiller, Witness, 2000

 Screens do evoke better than anything our subconscious, or better yet - for the post-war man, they simply create it. Staring into the screens all day, maybe this is what we also see when closing our eyes, when dreaming, maybe also when dying (today computers or iPads would be more apt than TVs, perhaps). But it’s this seemingly old fashioned medium that in its function is the closest to hypnosis. And this way, like a patient etherized upon a table, despite the moving aspects of the stories told: concerning car crashes, suicidal attempts, cardiac attacks and other such stories, what we grasp from the installation is the overwhelming, calming noise of the machines. White noise fills the gaps between the otherworldly stories, pulsating, even scary. And despite the beauty of the blinking screens, forming a splendid De Stijl-esque pattern, it makes us close our eyes. Because it seems the real piece can be seen only after shutting your eyes and just listening to it, even asleep.

This way, Hiller gets to the core of the experience of her characters, not because but in spite of them. Deceitfully designed in a manner instantly recognizable for any 20th century art history aficionado, in the style of the “new media” movement of which Hiller, born in 1940 in New York, was a part, it almost nostalgically recalls the works of Fluxus, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Nam June Paik or Yoko Ono. Yet if their art served partly as a critique of the media manipulation and use of information, Hiller uses it in a much more intuitive way, as she demonstrated in her Dream Mapping, the light visual installation Belzhazzar’s Feast, to name only a few and in her lifelong interest in Freud. Commonality of watching TV can serve as some sort of prefiguration of death even; another thing that we definitely have in common. It is not like this work doesn’t have it’s limitations: we're still obviously not even close to feeling what it is like to be nearly dead and the multi-language audio resembles too much a special breed of twee "globalist" artworks telling us "how we are different and yet the same". We aren't and whereas I agree that life is a chaos, it's maybe a different kind of chaos, than can be viewed on telly. Still, Channels remains a bold work, a modern, Ballardian urban lullaby.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Leaving the logic of a victim - on Femen

In the latest issue of the EuroStar lovely little unpretentious magazine, also charmingly titled: "Metropolitan", which I had the guilty pleasure to read during my recent London-Paris-London venture, the cover story and the major "article" concerns FEMEN - the lately media-ubiquitous Ukrainian collective, who are now also taking over France. As I recently written an article about them for the New Statesman in response to their critics (which unexpectedly got either a positive response or the firm silence from basically all women and feminists I know, which I still strruggle to interpret adequately), I feel growingly ambivalent both about the subject of my article (also discussed in my book) and their actions, and especially the coverage they get all over the place.

The Metropolitain magazine coverage is expectedly stupid, at some point making also the comparisons to the Mai 68-ers (what? when? how?) as if: the former protest and the latter protested; we're in France; look, there's a connection!; nevermind this: I was also struck by how the movement, whose defence I strongly sustain, especially a la Francais, again, offers a limited version of feminism, where showing yer tits is just a bit punky, sexy activity, in the article at least, speaking mostly through privileged, well off women (asistant director, "singer and journalist"), "whip-smart, funny and in no obvious need of rescuing". You can see, what is happening, if you transfer your message from an impoverished, postcommunist Ukraine to affluent France.

Also, not a single mention in this article about any debacle with Islam or Arab world, they're also incapable to make any critique or awareness of the media: "Our body is our message that's why we write our slogans on our bodies. You just can't help seeing it!". "the aim is to be rockstars of sorts, to generate the image of an ideal woman, so that when a 14yo opens up a magazine, she wants to be a warrior woman, like the Femen, rather than a passive thing who only wants to seduce the guy." Because "an ideal" woman is of course the thin gazelle with nice boobs. We get it. So far, so good. (Btw, I'm also thin, FYI, and so what). In the contex of French libertinism though, they say "It's still a big deal here. because we're not using our boobs in the right context, to sell something. Using your naked body to support a cause and demand freedom as a woman is unbearable to some people. It makes them really angry, the proof being that they hit us, send us death threats, insult us every day on Facebook. Woman's body (...) is still extremely taboo."

Yes, the negative male response, including (funnily, in Poland too) also the emergence of pathetic male groups "fighting the women's supremacy", in France Hommen and Masculinistes, Masculinum in Poland, who steal the collectives tactics, ensures me Femen are necessary. This leaves no doubt that we should protect Femen, but at the same time, we should demand from them and criticise them.

Recent FEMEN protest in Wallonie, belgium, against the homophobic archbishop Leonard. Another photo, send to me by Alex Harrowell, contained the guy in grey suit "dancing" like a peasant from the famous Breughel painting. Alas, it wasnt reproducible. See comment box to this post.

Here is the addition that should be read together with my New Statesman article, which came to my mind recently:

Yet,  another level of FEMEN  is its undecision, whether they want to be a political or only cultural movement. Are FEMEN the movement, which is going to realise the dreams of a leftist movement for the former East, and also, acting beyond the nation borders? Or is is only a political parody of EuroTrash (erstwhile trashy erotic British TV programme), pour epater le bourgeois, a caricatural liberalised moral police?

The problem is that within patriarchy, this is the only thing they can count for: to fight via controversy. Politically it remains unfocused, and sometimes, despite showing ytehg elftist approach, they incline towards teh right: apart from the "topless Jihad" scandal, they also got into racist action against Turkish footbal fans, carried out together with the ultra right in Lviv.

I was told later that I may have suggested in the article that the Femen's racism and the intersectional feminists unawareness of Femen's context are in certain balance. Of course not: and I'm not excusing Femen. I was basically saying: think twice before you criticise/mock/reject a movement consisting of women. Also, FEMEN aren't restricted to women's right fight, the also fight homophobia and for LGBT people's rights.
Still, they manage to activate women all over the world, they hit onto something. Since they have such power, they need to recognise themselves politically and identify which side they're on.

The only thing that keeps bothering me is whether, by undressing, femen really regains the power over their bodies, escape commodifocation or to the contrary, submits it to the authorities, who are arresting them and abusing them?

Several things would support this thesis: for one, the success of their actions would be null precisely without the abuse they get. Imagine that an action by Femen went unnoticed or wasn't aggressively treated. That the police or security wouldn't violently take them away.

Without the resistance, Femen would loose their point of existence.

Yet, as we know, this is impossible: those policing the public space within the patriarchy will be eternally brutally removing any unruly women's behaviour from there. As long as this order will exist, Femen's actions will be making-visible the activity of patriarchy within the society.

It is a perfromative difference: are Femen merely embodying the poor, "disciplined", opressed, coerced bodies within the patriarchy or is their goal just simply too shallow, not politicised enough, not thought through-enough, that they merely still depend on the opressor?

I do not expect Femen to be some kind of Foucaldian-Butlerian intellectualised combo, with philosophical, esthetical performances - that'd be much worse than what they ever do. The thing is they may still empowerise those, who beat them and hate them.

Femen's actions should be less like a "sacrifice", less about exposure to danger and more about political goals. And we know how the logic of the victim ends (so excessively used by the right wing politics actually).

Femen, the way it now goes, remains powerless and it can thematize this powerlessness forever, until they will feel a need to change their logic of failure into political success, ie, instead of willing to be caught and punished they will want to win. Can this be said of most of the leftist politics, not only in the Eastern Europe, today?