In the Shadow of the Sun (Derek Jarman, 1981)

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(Screened at Cafe OTO with a live score performed by Psychic TV)

In the Shadow of the Sun exists essentially in the dead-centre of a triangle made of Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1974), Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1991), and From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1987). As one might thus expect, it is an oneiric, haunting and paradoxically apocalyptic world-creation, wholly intoxicating in the well-established avant-garde-cinematic mode of queer orientalism and yet, in eschewing a good three-quarters of the campiness we would associate with Anger or Jack Smith, the contrast between skeletal ritual masks and race/class-signifying top hats allows Shadow to approach a slight critique of the colonial “magickal tourism” so often in play. Note I do say “approach,” rather than “reach,” however there is a notable absence of naiveté within the gaze of these blown-up 8mm images.

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The use of repetition and superimposition, as with Jarman’s earlier shorts (from which some of Shadow‘s footage is evidently lifted) invokes a particularly cabbalistic reading of montage – a visual praxis of solve et coagula – that demands numerous rewatching and reinterpretation. I certainly plan to oblige.

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Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)

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Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.

 

*****

As Above, So Below (Jon Erick Dowdle, 2014)

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As Above, So Below actually has quite a few things going for it. First things first: it’s a treasure-hunting adventure movie in the vein of Tomb Raider, National Treasure or perhaps most appropriately, Les Adventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc Sec done as a horror film, and manages to avoid pretty much all obvious references to films such as The Mummy and The Relic. Also, something that’s always rather important for the found-footage sub-genre, explanation for the constant filming is handled pretty well. Perhaps the most important distinction between As Above, So Below and a great many other horror films (or films, just generally) is the fact that it manages to establish every character as likeable and worthy of your attention and care for when they come to a sticky end. That’s a pretty winning formula, especially when you have a genuinely interesting premise thrown into the mix.

But good god, the ending. I’m going to avoid spoilers here, but the ending really is a brilliant explanation as to why so many writers like Arthur Conan Doyle made a habit of writing their stories backwards: a great and reasonably original first and second act does not necessarily guarantee your story will simply evolve into a great and original third. Sadly, As Above, So Below does come across as a pretty classic example of what happens when you have a bunch of good ideas, with no plan. I understand why many would simply write off the film on this basis (and, goodness knows, many have) but, just as good sex is not centred around the orgasm, perhaps a good film should not be centred around the ending, so I still enjoyed this film enough to give it a 3 star rating, and do feel really rather tempted to give it another half, out of admiration for its spirit.

There are a couple of funny flubs before the ending, but ones that I personally believe add to its charm (George translating an Aramaic script directly into a quaint AABB rhyme for instance) – whilst I certainly don’t consider it to be as good as other found-footage horrors like [REC] or The Last Exorcism I found this film a great late-night watch and I’m pretty positive I’ll do so again.

***