Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film, by Jack Sargeant
Jack Sargeant’s latest book Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film is, as he says in the introduction to the volume, a return to, or re-articulation of, “fascinations, idées fixes and simple raw mania[s]” that he has engaged with throughout his career as a prominent writer and commentator on the most transgressive and heterogeneous forms of cinema of recent decades. While earlier volumes – for example, his Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression (1995) and Naked Lens: Beat Cinema (2008) – are well-articulated accounts of specific histories and forms of that “other” history of the cinema (often barely recorded in written form outside of fanzines or less than well-preserved journals), Flesh and Excess manages in its six major chapters to offer a broader picture.
Sargeant employs a whole array of practical insights based both on an active involvement as well as an intelligent engagement with Underground cinema (as curator, teacher, writer, scholar and even actor) into what deserves to become a seminal work in this field. A cinema with no particular beginning nor end (the author convinces us that underground film has not met its death by refinement) but one which has found a way to perpetually resurface and re-emerge in new forms, and often breaking new taboos. In the early chapters, Sargeant carefully deploys a fascinating topographical narrative focusing on a uniquely material vision of the environment in which this other cinema operated (and attention is paid to localities in which new undergrounds emerged). He then expands the story to wider themes linking the narrative depiction of these transgressive films onto a much broader historical and philosophical canvas. The narrative moves back in history too, for example to the ocular assault of Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien andalou (1927) situating transgressive/underground/shock cinema within an array of philosophical stances while also revealing how a defence of the underground can incorporate a cogent stance on contemporary concerns. If there is a stance (ethical or political) that is taken throughout the book one could depict it as a dogged resistance to what Sarah Schulman has termed the “gentrification of the mind” – a gentrification going hand in hand with an evisceration of the city landscape.
While concentrating on a relatively small number of individual films, the author of Flesh and Excess steers clear of any auteurist snobbery, and brings to the subject a joyfully amorphous critical stance, deftly avoiding the canonising practices of much film criticism. After all, underground cinema is less in thrall to the establishment of a name (filmmakers may often either move on to independent film or into other areas of activity), and much more likely to be a scene of greater experimentation. The particular nature of Sargeant’s film writing has much to do with insisting on the material as less the object of film criticism (criticism, too, must undergo a thorough expurgation if one is to think through underground film and write about it), and more an attempt to situate it within a wider context of describing its performance upon the audience. History, philosophy and a material topographical analysis are brought into play, and Flesh and Excess is especially adroit in incorporating these fields into a convincing narrative. This makes for an intensely readable experience – there is no turgid academism that needs excising in these tautly-rendered two hundred or so pages. Equally, Sargeant applies a wide range of theoretical perspectives from Georges Bataille to Paul Valéry, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Foucault, from Walter Benjamin to Gilles Deleuze and from Julia Kristeva to Félix Guattari. Moreover, this is done at the same time as engaging in a powerful intellectual combat, offering counter-arguments to those who see transgression in art as having outlived its purpose, or intimating that it should be policed. Several pages, for example, are devoted to polemicizing with Anthony Julius’ arguments for placing boundaries and borders not to be crossed 1. Against control (another title of Sargeant’s) is the author’s watchword here too.
In line with its subject matter, the writing of the book itself reveals a contamination of styles. The relatively small size of this work (with its ample photographic accompaniment) belies the sheer amount of insight it contains. Underground cinema, subversive cinema, shock cinema, transgressive cinema – the borders between these are porous and more often than not overlapping. While early chapters concentrate on what might be called more specifically ‘Underground’ cinema, later chapters claim as their theme explorations of “Shock” and “The Body”, but all these forms and types of cinema contaminate each other thus eradicating any strict borders. While much of the book reflects Sargeant’s emphasis on what has been called American Extreme,2 it acknowledges and often foregrounds many other transgressive, underground movments outside of the Anglo-Saxon world.3
After the first two chapters treat us to a historical tour of Underground cinema (as well as what Sargeant calls “the Undergound after Underground”), the book centres on the theme of the Body (medical fetishism, wounds and bodily functions). 4 Sargeant starts his exposition of this subject matter with a consideration of Paul Valery’s text Some Reflections About the Body where he posits a trio of bodies: the body of the self and of experience, the aestheticised body enrapturing and seducing us, and the body as known to science and opened to the medical gaze, and which for Valery is a body of “bloodied organs, stinking fluids and viscous substances […] exist[ing] beneath the flesh” (cited on p. 98). These are supplemented by a speculative fourth body which is unknowable and exceeds thought and reason. A consideration of Valéry’s text is then accompanied by a historical narrative drawn from Adam Lowenstein, which places the transformed cinematic and artistic body in the context of the large-scale mutilations of the First World War, as well as medical developments whereby the “sanctity of the flesh was radically destabilised.” (p. 99) This historical contextualisation is clearly a productive exercise, helping to orient the reader to grasp some of the key cinematic texts of shock and transgression, rather than becoming trapped in timeless moralistic platitudes. Moving through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first via Franju, Craven and mondo shockumentary films we arrive at the “dissident bodies” of 1990s Underground cinema, as exemplified by Mark Hejnar’s documentary Affliction (1996), in which chaotic flesh reigns and there is no conceivable return to any state of “wellness”. The film is read through a Bakhtinian concept of grotesque realism. A further element influencing the shock cinema of recent years is what Sargeant calls “visceral performance art”, as exemplified by the works of the Viennese Actionists, whose art was a reaction to the Second World War.
A subsequent chapter highlights trauma and wound fetishism through the works of Usama and Kristie Alshaibi, with Sargeant linking the theme to J.G. Ballard’s early 1970s literary work, as well as Cronenberg films later in the same decade. Sargeant discovers a similar interest in the visceral body in a form of Japanese dance, butoh (translatable as “dark dance” or “dance of utter darkness”) which emerged in the 1950s. This dance form was associated with Hijikata Tatsumi, who intended to create a form which confronted audiences with “its so-called nonpeople: the vagrants, prostitutes, whoremongerers, drunks, homeless and impoverished” (Kurihara Nanako, cited on p. 132). He informed his art with aspects going beyond the limits of the acceptable with two central performative concepts of “rotting space” and “dribbling candy” at the forefront (as Sargeant points out, this pairing is very much in the vein of the 19th century author and precursor of the surrealists, the Comte de Lautréamont). For Sargeant, it is the short films of the Iraqi-American filmmaker, Usama Alshaibi, along with his partner Kristie Alshaibi (who very much form a creative duo in forging their films), which most fully explore those visual and even sexual pleasures “associated with defilement, blood, wounds and suffering” in an utterly “unflinching manner” (p. 135).
The final chapter explores the South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof and his 16mm short film The Dead Man 2: Return of the Dead Man (1994), by using Georges Bataille’s concept of the heterogeneous. The film explicitly owes very much to the pornological or pornographic writings of Bataille, the most excremental of philosophers, and excess and moments of transgression are central to Kaganof’s Bataillean vision. Sargeant also brings in Pasolini’s Salò (1975) to compare the two films, not aesthetically, but for their “similar engagement with film as an artistic medium and exploration of extreme pornographic philosophy.” (p. 158) For the author, Kaganof’s film is a case study in how Bataille’s potential communication (which he sees through acts of violence and through the profane) is realised. Because Dead Man 2 “understood in terms of sensory excess, sense memory and of an excess of affect […] can be read as a text that subverts cinematic narrative and viewing to the point at which the body itself responds to the action that is witnessed […] creating a response that exists in a realm beyond language.” (p. 170)
By focusing on these often scabrous, obscene, perverse, visceral, shocking and transgressive cinematic and performative visual texts and searching and finding a language that does them justice, this volume manages to issue a challenge to the very ethos of writing and thinking about cinema. In response to it, one longs for a whole new history of cinema which does justice to the insights that Sargeant has given.5 A more honest history of what could be called “the Other cinema” or “heterogeneous cinema”. The twentieth century was, after all, a century of trauma, gore and viscera. One could imagine it as a century of evisceration. Something powerfully displayed in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949), and which could be connected to an earlier, topographical evisceration which, for example, Louis Chevalier spoke of when referring to the disembowelment of the area in Paris known as Les Halles in his book The Assassination of Paris.6
Curiously, three centuries ago, evisceration in the English language also denoted the revelation of secrets, as in the compound phrase “the evisceration of the truth” used, for example, by Coleridge. Many of the films that Sargeant mentions, and the forms of cinema he has been writing on for the past few decades, play on this double meaning. At times provoking “vomiting, nausea, screaming”, they often eviscerate the mind too. In terms of “canonical” cinematic names it is, arguably, Pier Paolo Pasolini came closest to this cinematic embodiment of evisceration by his attempt to grasp and reproduce the Real through the exploration of the visceral in Salò. When a major reimagining of film, and a rewriting of the “other history” of cinema is undertaken, Flesh and Excess will surely be seen as an urtext of this grand alternative history.7
Jack Sargeant,Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film (Gardena, CA: Amok Books, 2016).
- Anthony Julius, Transgressions: The Offences of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002). ↩
- See http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/american-extreme/introduction-american-extreme/ ↩
- Of course, American Underground (or Extreme Underground) film was not, of course, by any stretch of the imagination, a strictly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. ↩
- While Sargeant, as noted above, suggests Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou as a central early filmic text there is also the curious moment at the very beginning of cinematic history in Melies’ Trip to the Moon marking the arrival of a space rocket on the eye of a personified planet, and the consequent goo or blood resulting, as though this theme of ocular assault is in the very DNA of cinema. ↩
- One of the joys of Sargeant’s text is discovering cinematic texts which lead back to my own “pathological obsessions”. The work of Eric Mitchell, for example, who the author mentions in connection with the “No Wave Cinema” movement in the late 1970s, is full of motifs relating to the Italian 1970s. In the middle of his Red Italy (1979) there is a scene from Pasolini’s first feature film Accattone (1960), where Mitchell inserts one of the high points of Pasolini’s “contaminated” art (mixing sublimity and squalor), thereby assaulting the division between high and low brow, an assault for which the Italian Catholic state and bourgeoisie would exact constant persecution in the legal trials that Pasolini was forced to bear prior to his assassination, and even afterwards, in the guise of an obscenity trial against Salò. ↩
- Louis Chevalier, The Assassination of Paris, trans. David P. Jordan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). ↩
- One of the few other books I can think of which offer another direction in which this other history of cinema may branch into is the Russian film writer Mikhail Trofimenkov’s extraordinary account of the subversive political history of cinema entitled The Film Theatre of War, (Kinoteatr Voennikh Deistvii, St. Petersburg: Séance, 2013) a work that unearths and brings to light a submerged post-war global cinematic history of anti-colonial and revolutionary cinema and film-makers. Sadly, this volume is yet to be translated into English. I have briefly reviewed it here: http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-film-theatre-of-war-by-mikhail.html ↩
written by Giuliano Vivaldi