Film as a Subversive Art

Said Cocteau: “What one should do with the young is to give them a portable cam­era and for­bid them to observe any rules except those they invent for them­selves as they go along. Let them write with­out being afraid of mak­ing spelling mistakes.”

The doc­u­men­tary “Film as a Sub­ver­sive Art” tells the story of Austrian-born film his­to­rian and cura­tor Amos Vogel, who in 1947 estab­lished Cin­ema 16, America’s most impor­tant film club, and later the New York Film Fes­ti­val, as well as pub­lish­ing in 1974 one of the most leg­endary books on cin­ema ever, FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART, which Nor­man Mailer called “the most excit­ing and com­pre­hen­sive book I’ve seen on avant-garde, under­ground and excep­tional com­mer­cial film.”

The film has been screened on PBS and at many archives and fes­ti­vals world­wide, includ­ing Inter­na­tional House (Philadel­phia), Ciné­math­èque française in Paris, the Den­ver Film Fes­ti­val – where Vogel was awarded the Stan Brakhage Award for Poetic Film – and fes­ti­vals in Berlin, Tribeca, Jerusalem, PiFan (South Korea), San Fran­cisco, Van­cou­ver and Vienna, where Vogel‘s life and work was the sub­ject of a major retrospective.

Pub­lished in 1973, FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART is an oft-referenced, hugely influ­en­tial, land­mark text in the his­tory of film lit­er­a­ture. A book with no dis­cernible begin­ning, mid­dle, or end, it’s as ener­giz­ing, enter­tain­ing, and impor­tant a work of film crit­i­cism as any that has ever been writ­ten – a labyrinthine trek through world cin­ema via one man’s vision­ary cosmology.

That man was Cin­ema 16 and New York Film Fes­ti­val founder Amos Vogel (1922–2012), who ded­i­cated his life to sup­port­ing the pio­neer­ing efforts of inde­pen­dent artists and aes­thetic rebels. In its rad­i­cal, impas­sioned polemics and dialectically-placed film frames, FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART is the ful­crum of Vogel’s years as a film pro­gram­mer, fes­ti­val juror, lec­turer, and critic.

Cit­ing numer­ous films that have become increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to see due to the vagaries of dis­tri­b­u­tion, his book remains a Pandora’s box of cin­e­matic trea­sures and an astute elu­ci­da­tion of the artist’s role in con­tem­po­rary society.

Will we ever break out of the mold of Profit Motive, Com­mer­cial Imper­a­tive, Bot­tom Line, Prod­uct? Will the awe­some free spirit of humans ever be allowed to offer us splen­dif­er­ous visions instead of the cal­cu­lated spu­ri­ous anti-fantasies gen­er­ated by the cur­rent crop of Hol­ly­wood direc­tors and pro­duc­ers? What­ever the answers, I am con­tent know­ing that I con­tributed to the dis­sem­i­na­tion of such visions, pas­sion­ate cre­ativ­ity, and rad­i­cal chal­lenges. To ques­tion what exists and to rad­i­cally trans­form it remain our most com­pelling imperatives.”

– Amos Vogel, 1984


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Based on John Geiger’s book Chapel of Extreme Expe­ri­ence, Nik Sheehan’s FLicKeR is a fas­ci­nat­ing voy­age into the life of artist and mys­tic Brion Gysin and his leg­endary inven­tion the dream machine, a device that projects stro­bo­scopic light, pro­vok­ing a “drug­less high” and cin­e­matic hal­lu­ci­na­tions. In this Hot Docs world pre­miere Shee­han cap­tures the dynamic, super­nat­ural world of Gysin, the queer cul­tural ter­ror­ist who fused sci­ence, magic and art to expand human con­scious­ness and tran­scend mate­r­ial reality.

Gysin’s biog­ra­phy is dif­fi­cult to con­dense, but he grew up in Edmon­ton before rein­vent­ing him­self as a bohemian glo­be­trot­ter who went on to become the unac­knowl­edged genius behind some of the most inter­est­ing devel­op­ments in the 20th-century avant-garde. He died in 1986. Shee­han casts him as a rad­i­cal artist intent on har­ness­ing “the vision­ary poten­tial of light” (as Geiger puts it) to rev­o­lu­tion­ary ends. Gysin was not a man but, like the machine, a way of per­ceiv­ing the world — pure energy. He even tried to make him­self invisible.

It’s incred­i­ble that nobody’s made this film before,” says Shee­han, whose pre­vi­ous cred­its include God’s Fool about writer Scott Symons and the ground­break­ing AIDS doc­u­men­tary No Sad Songs.

I was sur­prised how anx­ious peo­ple were to open up and talk about Gysin because peo­ple have so many dif­fer­ent views of him.” What is so com­pelling about FLicKeR is that Gysin remains mys­te­ri­ous and ephemeral through­out, no amount of talk­ing could ever explain him.

Sheehan’s film is pop­u­lated with a who’s who of pun­dits, coun­ter­cul­tural fig­ures and Gysin con­fi­dantes, remind­ing you that rock ‘n’ roll has always gone hand in hand with the most out-there shit: Mar­i­anne Faith­full, Iggy Pop, Ken­neth Anger and Gen­e­sis P-Orridge all wax poetic on Gysin, magic and their most mem­o­rable trips, as do younger devo­tees like Lee Ranaldo and DJ Spooky. How did Shee­han land all these stel­lar inter­vie­wees? “That’s the mag­i­cal ques­tion,” quips Shee­han. “It’s a very inter­est­ing group; they go back a long time. And because they’re cult fig­ures they’ve obvi­ously built up all these defences. So it was a very com­pli­cated and long and ded­i­cated effort to bring every­body online.”

The film is also chock full of bril­liant archival footage, par­tic­u­larly of Gysin, his art and his intensely fruit­ful and influ­en­tial col­lab­o­ra­tions with William S Bur­roughs. We visit the “Beat Hotel” in Paris where these sedi­tious kooks built a poor-man’s lab to trans­form the world through all man­ner of strange exper­i­ments in per­cep­tion. “That’s one of the things about Gysin and Bur­roughs and these guys, it’s this com­bi­na­tion of the silly and the sub­lime,” Shee­han says. “We have to remem­ber how incred­i­bly brave they were. They did not accept what soci­ety was offer­ing — it was all lies. And they were very moral, good peo­ple in their way. With Nazi Ger­many they saw what could hap­pen to a gov­ern­ment [if] we get a lit­tle too trusting.

That ele­ment of rebel­lion has some­thing really serious.”

Shee­han feels Gysin’s gay­ness was fun­da­men­tal. “A shaman to me is always a pan­sex­ual being,” says the gay Cana­dian film­maker. “These guys all came out of that period where queer was really hard­core, it was part of their rad­i­cal art — and of course it was illegal.”

Shee­han says his film “wasn’t so much a biog­ra­phy of Gysin or a story of the dream machine as a story of the dream machine as a biog­ra­phy of Gysin — the way the two fuse together. I think [the pro­duc­ers] were expect­ing it was just going to be this cute story about this spin­ning lit­tle machine, not these crazy queer mystics.

The dream machine is [Gysin’s] ulti­mate work, this end-of-art thing that went beyond some­thing you made to some­thing you cre­ated indi­vid­u­ally in your own head.”

One chal­lenge that Shee­han encoun­tered was how to rep­re­sent this inter­nal, neu­ro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non on screen, so there are many shots of peo­ple pressed up close to the device, eyes closed, nar­rat­ing their expe­ri­ences in ecsta­tic tones. It calls to mind Eric Emer­son in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls who just “groove[s] on myself” as coloured lights play over his body, a tran­scen­dence through nar­cis­sism. The dream machine isn’t much to look at — sort of like a twirling lamp­shade — so you have to take people’s word for it. But whether you can imag­ine what they are see­ing or not, the ideas behind the machine are what matter.

One of the things I really wanted to do is put things in the present tense, to give it some rel­e­vance,” says Shee­han. “The idea of try­ing to build a machine to change your world, we’re doing that all the time, aren’t we?

The Beats came to fruition in the late ‘50s in the Eisen­hower years where the world was pet­ri­fied by the bomb and con­for­mity was every­thing. Well, where are we now? We live in this time when we recently had this rightwing Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, which turned into a tor­ture state. There are weird par­al­lels. It was the old mes­sage: Don’t trust the man, he doesn’t always have your best inter­ests at heart. And the dream machine is the per­fect metaphor for this: Get rid of tele­vi­sion, get rid of cin­ema, make your own inner movie, be your own per­son.”

In its enthu­si­asm for this long-gone cul­tural moment and its most beguil­ing cat­a­lyst, FLicKeR has great poignancy. At one point P-Orridge sug­gests that the con­trol that Gysin and his com­rades were fight­ing against is now dif­fuse and all-pervasive, and that rather than deserv­ing to be lib­er­ated by the ulti­mate mind trip, the inert pub­lic now “deserve to have their bot­toms smacked.”

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Sam Buttery Plays Leigh Bowery In Taboo

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In Jan­u­ary 1985 Leigh Bow­ery started the now infa­mous poly-sexual Thurs­day disco club night “Taboo”. Orig­i­nally an under­ground ven­ture, it quickly became London’s Stu­dio 54, only much wilder, extremely more fash­ion­able, and with­out the masses of celebri­ties – although these came flock­ing in later. For every­one step­ping through the doors it was a truly unfor­get­table experience.

Mark Davies wrote a book which later became a stage musi­cal with lyrics by Boy George, and music by George and Kevan Frost.

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Set in an aban­doned Lon­don ware­house, the partly imag­ined story takes place in the loca­tion of what was the city’s most fash­ion­able night­club, the now-legendary Taboo (1985–87) of the title. Boy George is fea­tured as one of the club’s reg­u­lars. The show also focuses on George’s life prior to and after achiev­ing fame.

The show pre­miered in London’s West End at the Venue The­atre on Jan­u­ary 29, 2002. Now in Sep­tem­ber 2012, Direc­tor Christo­pher Ren­shaw revived the show in a “site spe­cific” form in Brix­ton Club­house in South Lon­don. The pro­duc­tion was based on the orig­i­nal show with book by Mark Davies, but included sev­eral changes to the orig­i­nal soryline.

In this revival, Sam But­tery plays iconic 80s per­for­mance artist Leigh Bow­ery in Taboo, the story of bill-topping per­form­ers who defined a gen­er­a­tion, includ­ing Steve Strange from Vis­age, the inde­fin­able phe­nom­e­non that was Leigh Bow­ery, the one-man entre­pre­neur extra­or­di­naire Philip Sal­lon. And then of course, there’s Boy George, trav­el­ling from squat to super-stardom  from rock to rock bot­tom. The show inter­weaves some fan­tas­ti­cal facts of the 80s with a clas­sic love story of ambi­tion, pas­sion and betrayal.

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Watch below a doc­u­men­tary about the FABULOUS Leigh Bow­ery and the orig­i­nal Taboo for your enjoy­ment. Shown dur­ing the spring of 1986 while Leigh Bow­ery was run­ning his infa­mous night­club Taboo, this doc­u­men­tary put Leigh on the map. A witty, provoca­tive and inspir­ing film that includes a Bodymap fash­ion show, rare footage of Taboo, and inter­views with Michael Clark and Lana Pil­lay, this doc­u­men­tary also reminds us what Leigh was like before he met Lucian Freud.


Europe In 8 Bits

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A film about reusing out­dated tech­nol­ogy in cre­ative ways to revamp the music scene.

Europe in 8 bits is a doc­u­men­tary that explores the world of chip music, a  musi­cal trend that is grow­ing expo­nen­tially through­out Europe. The stars of this musi­cal move­ment reveal to us how to reuse old videogames hard­ware like Nintendo’s Game­Boy, NES, Atari ST, Amiga and the Com­modore 64 to turn them into a tool capa­ble of cre­at­ing a new sound, a mod­ern tempo and an inno­v­a­tive musi­cal style.

This is a new way of inter­pret­ing music per­formed by a great many artists who show their skills in turn­ing these “lim­ited” machines designed for leisure in the 80’s into sur­pris­ing musi­cal instru­ments and graph­i­cal tools.


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Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks

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Angelo Badala­mente and David Lynch found the per­fect syn­the­sis of Hol­ly­weird meets bohemian Euro-jazz set against an Amer­i­can North west­ern every town that could never exist out­side of a fever dream! With sickly cool blues-scapes dron­ing under snap­ping fin­gers and sleep­ily brushed snares, Badalem­nte and Lynch paint a dis­turb­ing por­trait of small town America.

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The Music Of Black Orpheus

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Win­ner of both the Acad­emy Award for best foreign-language film and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, Mar­cel Camus’ Black Orpheus (Orfeu negro) brings the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eury­dice to the twentieth-century mad­ness of Car­ni­val in Rio de Janeiro. With its eye-popping pho­tog­ra­phy and rav­ish­ing, epochal sound­track, Black Orpheus was an inter­na­tional cul­tural event.

The fes­tive and haunt­ing sound­track to the film intro­duced Brazil­ian bossa nova to an entire world who quickly fell in love with its roman­tic themes of melan­choly, and, to this day, it remains one of the most pop­u­lar forms of world music. The sound­track fea­tures the three main fig­ure­heads behind bossa nova, those being Anto­nio Car­los Jobim, Luiz Bonfá and João Gilberto.

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Brian Butler’s Magick Act

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For the Los Ange­les artist Brian But­ler, magic (or “mag­ick,” as the case may be) is as mod­ern as tech­nol­ogy. Cer­tain teach­ings may be ancient, he notes, but that doesn’t make them any less rel­e­vant. “In the mod­ern world of com­put­ers, the same ener­gies are still oper­at­ing,” he says.

But­ler was pre­mier­ing his film, “The Dove and the Ser­pent,” at the LAXART Annex in Hol­ly­wood last year, and a gritty, glam­orous crowd had gath­ered to watch a live musi­cal per­for­mance fea­tur­ing the leg­endary under­ground film­maker Ken­neth Anger.

Ini­tially drawn together by a shared inter­est in Aleis­ter Crow­ley and the occult, But­ler and Anger have worked together for more than a decade, But­ler pro­duc­ing Anger’s last few films and act­ing as cre­ative direc­tor of the trippy short he made for Missoni’s fall 2010 cam­paign. Anger appears with Vin­cent Gallo in Butler’s film “Night of Pan,” and the two also formed the band Tech­ni­color Skull.

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The Dove and the Ser­pent is a med­i­ta­tion on alchemy; the title ref­er­ences the Her­metic prin­ci­ple “as above, so below.” Filmed at a cas­tle in Nor­mandy, France, with some friends he rounded up dur­ing Paris fash­ion week last fall, includ­ing Dash Snow’s sis­ter Car­o­line and the cin­e­matog­ra­pher Edouard Plon­geon, whose fam­ily pro­vided the locale, the two-and-a-half minute piece is beau­ti­ful, hyp­notic and vaguely sinister.

Shad­owy fig­ures shape-shift and meld with the ele­ments, occult sym­bols flash and fade, and there is some cov­etable fash­ion on dis­play, includ­ing a Masonic robe and an ivory silk gown by the Lon­don designer Qasimi.

The Bartz­abel Work­ing is a per­for­mance based on a cer­e­mo­nial evo­ca­tion of the spirit of Mars, first writ­ten and per­formed in Lon­don in 1910 by Crow­ley, the rit­ual later became part of Los Ange­les his­tory in 1946 when Jack Par­sons con­ducted his own ver­sion of this rite with the inten­tion of plac­ing a Mar­tial curse on a pre-scientology L. Ron Hubbard.

For his rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of this his­tor­i­cal per­for­mance, But­ler con­jures Bartz­abel, the spirit of Mars, evok­ing on the site that was once home to late sci-fi author Ray Brad­bury and cur­rently com­prises L&M Gallery. And bel­low is also a lit­tle gem of a video by Mr. But­ler for The Black Lips



Breaking the 4th Wall Movie

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The fourth wall” is an expres­sion stem­ming from the world of the­ater. In most mod­ern the­ater design, a room will con­sist of three phys­i­cal walls, as well as a an imag­i­nary fourth that serves to sep­a­rate the world of the char­ac­ters from that of the audience.In fic­tion, “break­ing the fourth wall” often means hav­ing a char­ac­ter become aware of their fic­tional nature.

Here’s a  com­pi­la­tion of scenes and moments from films that all acknowl­edge that they’re part of a movie. The mon­tage includes 54 dif­fer­ent films (some used more than once) from per­haps the very first exam­ple of break­ing the fourth wall right up to today.


Dirty Girls: 1996 Teen Riot Grrrls YouTube Sensation

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In high school, Michael Lucid was an artsy, friendly kid who floated around from one cam­pus clique to the next. “I was more approach­able and kids felt com­fort­able talk­ing to me,” he says of his time at Santa Monica’s Cross­roads School, where he grad­u­ated in 1996.

Because Lucid was like­able and trust­wor­thy, his teenage peers granted him the kind of insider access into their lives that most film­mak­ers only dream about cap­tur­ing on film. Film­mak­ers like Larry Clark (Kids, Was­sup Rock­ers), Cather­ine Hard­wicke (Lords of Dog­town, Thir­teen) and Pene­lope Spheeris (Decline of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, Sub­ur­bia) all launched their careers by mak­ing films that depicted the harsh real­i­ties of Amer­i­can teenagers’ lives, but Lucid had an advan­tage over all of these film­mak­ers: he was him­self a high schooler when he shot his gritty, painfully inti­mate doc­u­men­tary Dirty Girls, which has now become an instant cult sen­sa­tion ever since it was uploaded to Youtube this month.

It was ini­tially shot by a 17-year-old dur­ing the course of just two school days. Maybe you’ve seen the still frame of two messy-haired young girls being inter­viewed in a high school audi­to­rium — an image that’s become ubiq­ui­tous after hav­ing been reblogged thou­sands of times by fans on Tumblr.

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Lucid’s short doc­u­men­tary starts out with the fol­low­ing text: “In Spring of 1996, my senior year of high school, I doc­u­mented a group of 8th grade girls who were noto­ri­ous for their crass behav­ior and allegedly bad hygiene.…” The eighth grade girls he’s refer­ring to are the film’s epony­mous dirty girls, a clique of fem­i­nist riot grrrls led by sis­ters Amber and Harper, who became cam­pus leg­ends when they put on a punk rock show at the school’s beginning-of-year “alley party” and smeared lip­stick all over their faces. Lucid remem­bers the per­for­mance being provoca­tive and angry, so much so that it sparked an ongo­ing flurry of gos­sip — and the coin­ing of the term “dirty girls” — that con­tin­ued through­out the school year of ’96.

That Dirty Girls is Lucid’s biggest Inter­net suc­cess is ironic, con­sid­er­ing his day job writ­ing, per­form­ing and upload­ing web videos for World of Won­der, the pro­duc­tion com­pany behind shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and fea­tures like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Party Mon­ster. And, in an oddly fit­ting twist of fate, he’s returned to inter­view­ing and report­ing — but through his drag per­sona, Dami­ana Gar­cia, whom he refers to as “an intre­pid lady reporter,” appear­ing in World of Won­der videos online.