I first caught Joann Sfar's feature debut Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) (2010) at the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where SFFCC colleague Pam Grady wrote in her program notes: "Best known in the United States for 'Je t'aime ... moi non plus,' his racy duet with then-lover Jane Birkin, singer / songwriter Serge Gainsbourg packed a lot of life into 62 years. As much provocateur as artist, he delighted in defying expectations, so it is only appropriate that this offbeat biopic should do the same. In keeping with a subject who rode the waves of the pop charts, comic book artist–turned-filmmaker Joann Sfar takes a greatest-hits approach to Gainsbourg's life, concentrating on his early years as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied France, his transition from painter to jazz musician to pop superstar, his storied romances with the likes of Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, his many scandals and the behind-the-scenes stories of some of his most famous songs, including the Bardot hits 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Comic Strip.' In spot-on casting, Kacey Mottet Klein contributes a vivacious turn as Lucien, the precocious, irrepressible boy who would grow up to be Serge Gainsbourg, while Eric Elmosnino is a dead ringer in looks and mannerisms for the adult Serge. Sfar's own comic-book roots are evident in some of the drama's quirkier elements, particularly La Gueule (or 'ugly face'), a grotesque alter ego—part imaginary friend and all id—who accompanies Gainsbourg through life. This imaginative, exuberant and affectionate take on the man, his music and his times is a treasure trove for his fans and a witty introduction to anyone unfamiliar with his legend."
Joann Sfar was born in Nice to an Ashkenazi mother and a Sephardic father, a pencil in hand. He very quickly began collecting comic books and cultivating a bazaar full of quirky characters and funny monsters. After graduating from high school, he simultaneously pursued a degree in philosophy at the University of Nice (where he graduated with honors) while taking classes with Jean-François Debord at the School of Fine Arts in the Morphology department in Paris. These classes took him from autopsy rooms to the Museum of Natural History, where he found monster-like creatures floating in formaldehyde.
As a teenager, he knocked on the doors of famous comic book artists, who would later on become his guardian angels. He also knocked on the doors of publishers, who finally responded in 1994: during the same month, L'Association, Delcourt and Dargaud decided to publish his first comic books. In just a few years, the young man who had been criticized for his lack of talent became one of the leaders of the "new wave" of comic book art along with Christophe Blain, Lewis Trondheim and Emmanuel Guibert. He made less formal and less commercial drawings and made the storytelling a priority. Joann and these other leading artists manage to appeal to a much wider audience.
Sfar, either alone or in collaboration with other artists, has created over 150 comic books, some novels and animated films, amongst them a prize-winning video clip for the rock band Dionysos (Annecy International Animation Film Festival 2006). That same year, he received an Eisner Award for The Rabbi's Cat (and was previously nominated for Klezmer and Vampire Loves) as well as the Jury Prize at Angoulême International Comics Festival. He has been nominated for another Eisner Award this year in the Best Adaptation from Another Work category for his adaptation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
He is best known in the United States for his children's books, Little Vampire Goes to School, which was on The New York Times best-seller list and Little Vampire does Kung Fu! (also nominated for an Eisner Award in 2004). Sfar is currently adapting Little Vampire Goes to School into an English-language 3D animation feature. He has already adapted his award-winning graphic novel Rabbi's Cat (co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux) into a feature length animated film which was released in France in early June and features the voice of actor Eric Elmosnino (star of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life).
My thanks to Brandon Nichols and Music Box Films for facilitating an interview with the enthusiastic and charming Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens August 31 at New York's Film Forum, rolls out to the rest of the country shortly thereafter, arriving in Landmark Theatres in San Francisco and Berkeley in late October.
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Michael Guillén: Joann, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Joann Sfar: Thank you for helping me pretend I'm a filmmaker!
Guillén: [Laughs.] It's my hope to draw attention to your charming debut feature Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) / Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life), which certainly qualifies you as a filmmaker. First and foremost, however, congratulations on your multiple nominations and triple win earlier this year at the César Awards where Gainsbourg won the César Award for Eric Elmosnino's lead performance, as well as Best Debut for you, and Best Sound.
Sfar: Thank you. I was the first one to be surprised. We were very happy with that and feel that the jury made a wonderful choice. [Laughs.]
Guillén: Not bad for a first film. Clearly, French audiences have embraced the film?
Sfar: Yes, definitely, and it's possible that the movie is not responsible. There has always been a huge French response to anything concerning Serge Gainsbourg. He is beloved by the French people.
Guillén: You have admitted your boyhood fascination with Serge Gainsbourg. Do you remember the first time you ever saw Gainsbourg on French television?
Sfar: I don't remember the first moment, no; but, I think most French kids reacted as I did. He was the only French singer with an attitude when I was a kid. He was the only French personality on TV who addressed subjects like sex, alcohol, and so on and—when you're a kid and watch someone so provocative—you feel it would be fun to be a grown-up.
Guillén: I can appreciate your youthful response to his being a provocateur. How about his music? When did his music first resonate with you?
Sfar: Well, the truth is that I had been listening to much of his music without knowing it was his. I didn't know that he was the composer of many of the songs I listened to. On one side he was a singer and on the other he was writing songs for a countless number of pop singers. When I was a kid, many French songs were filled with his lyrics and I wasn't even aware that he was the composer of so many titles.
Guillén: You came to making this film after an established career as a graphic novelist. What prompted the leap from creating a graphic novel to creating a film? Was the film your idea or was it brought to you?
Sfar: It was my idea and I had to fight for it because most of the studio executives told me that it was not a good time to make a biopic. Other biopics had done terribly in France. But I told them the film was not going to be a biopic; it was going to be a musical. They said that was even worse. [Laughs.] But after 20 years as a graphic novelist, I was conscious of the fact that a movie is about time. When you read a comic, you take your time; but, when you watch a movie, time is caused by the medium. The music was useful for me because the music was the root of my movie and I have to say I was more involved with making a musical, which was equally as important as storytelling for me, especially for this particular story.
Guillén: I'm fascinated when an artist works in multiple mediums. What is the connective tissue between graphic novels and filmic adaptations? How does the grammar of graphic novels become adapted to the grammar of film?
Sfar: You know, after 20 years people still tell me I don't know how to make a comic book. Maybe I don't know how to make a movie either? But I'm sure that one of the common elements is drawing. I make drawings all the time. I love the idea of performing and storytelling through pictures and putting the words afterwards. I love to be shocked by a picture, whether it's tender or violent or brutal and I love to leave a book or the theater with an image in my mind. So perhaps the connection is about drawing.
Guillén: Did you film your own hands making the watercolors within the film?
Sfar: Yes. It was quite difficult because we needed to pretend they were a child's hands so I had to hold the brush by the top and there was a camera weighing 200 kilos over my hand—the camera needed to be very close to the sheet of paper—and everyone kept reminding me film was expensive so we couldn't film a take that was longer than 40 seconds. I had to draw very quickly. But I'm a total megalomaniac so I wanted my drawings all over the place. Also, it's an interesting problem to see, "How do we shoot drawings?" It's as tricky as shooting music.
Guillén: The film excels at suggesting Gainsbourg's persona was a deeply rooted reaction to his childhood during WWII. And though I will be praising Eric Elmosnino's remarkable performance as Serge Gainsbourg in due course, I'd like to shout out first to Kacey Mottet Klein's equally brilliant performance as Lucien Ginsburg (Gainsbourg as a child). How did you find Kacey?
Sfar: This was tricky because I found him in Switzerland. He's a wonderful actor but we had a problem with his Swiss accent. He had to work a lot to lose the accent before making the movie. As I am a mad person, I always considered Kacey and Elmosnino to be the same actor. In my perception, I didn't differentiate between working with a child or a grown-up. I have to say that most of the lines from the movie come from real interviews with Serge Gainsbourg. Even the stories about his childhood are stories he told so we made the whole movie with the idea that everything was true, even if it was a fairytale or a story told by a drunk person. We pretended everything was true.
Guillén: When you have both a child actor and an adult actor portraying the same character, how do you maintain a through line in their characterizations? Did you ever have the two actors interact to coordinate the character?
Sfar: I guess from a psychological point of view you could say that Kacey and Elmosnino are clearly two separate people, yet both of them are extremely charming and fragile, and both of them are egotistical (as actors often can be) and they both possess the same temperament, which made it easy to develop that through line. The only true issue was legal. In France, you cannot shoot a child actor for longer than four hours a day so we had to divide every day of shooting between the first half of the day with Kacey and the second half of the day with Elmosnino. That was completely mad! We were shooting two separate moments of Gainsbourg's life every day.
Guillén: Which enforces what I would term the "longbody" aspect of your portraiture of Gainsbourg. I refer to longbody in its Amerindian sense, whereby the meaning of a life is contained within the span of a lifetime, specifically through the mutually-aware stages between childhood and old age. Psychologically, that's what the Jungians would probably term the puer / senex dyad. More simply put, you present the elder Gainsbourg as an eternal child, but I especially appreciated Kacey's performance as an adult child.
Sfar: That was exactly my point. I didn't want Kacey to be a true child. I wanted him to be the child you remember yourself as when you are old and drunk and referring back to your childhood. It was as if I had met a totally drunk Serge Gainsbourg in a nightclub where he began telling me about his boyhood. But it's possible he doesn't really even know who he truly was as a child—he says, "I did this and I did that"—and because the movie is not really a biopic, you're correct when you say these scenes are not really about his childhood. He is the same as a child as he is as an adult, in the sense that he is a boy mature beyond his years and an adult who is childish. It balances out to be the same.
Guillén: The film's subtitle is "A Heroic Life", yet you've mentioned elsewhere that French heroes never learn, in contrast to American heroes who redeem and heal themselves.
Sfar: The movie is more about the fact that Gainsbourg (as the hero) is unable to learn anything. He doesn't change. He doesn't have a character arc. There is no resolution. It's as if he is simply walking through life until he is old. From a psychological point of view, the meaning of the movie is that life has a meaning. The whole point about Serge Gainsbourg is that, I think, he was a happy person in a meaningless world. The fact that everything is meaningless and nothing is to be resolved is essentially Russian. In my perception, this is who Gainsbourg was. He had a way of being joyful and tragic at the same time.
Guillén: Would you say Gainsbourg was more Russian than Jewish?
Sfar: He pretended to be Russian and French, but Jewish first. He didn't come from a religious family. They didn't care about being Jewish; but, when he was nine years old, he was called in by the French police to register as a Jew. They gave him a yellow star. So his is a peculiar story of a guy who became Jewish because of the French police. [Chuckles.] In the way that he told that story, it turned all of his relationships with French women into a love story with France. I cannot forget that when he met Brigitte Bardot it was a symbol. When he wrote to his father, "I am dating Brigitte Bardot", he was in a sense saying, "We belong to this country now."
Guillén: That's fascinating and confirms Philip French's observation in the Observer that Gainsbourg's Jewish background was, in essence, his "Rosebud". Can you speak to pivoting your portrait around his negotiation with Jewishness and French anti-Semitism? And your creative decision to render racial caricaturing through full-body puppetry?
Sfar: There were two reasons. From a storytelling point of view, if I was going to refer to WWII I wanted it to be through the eyes of a selfish and solitary child who sees the tragedy of the war through the lens of what he can get. He assumed that he looked like the Jewish caricatures of the time. He presumed he was ugly. Maybe that propaganda had a part in that.
From a creative and somewhat egotistical point of view, I love puppets. While making my movie, I thought, "Maybe this will be my one and only movie. Maybe they will never let me make another one and I don't want to quit the movie business before I've had the chance to put puppets in a movie." So I decided to put puppets in the first movie I made. I also love monsters. My favorite movies would be the horror films from Universal or the Hammer Studios or Roger Corman's movies. I couldn't imagine making a movie without a puppet in it.
Guillén: How intriguing that you think of your puppets as monsters. La Gruele / "The Mug", Gainsbourg's Double, his Shadow, is played by one of my favorite character actors Doug Jones. As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian: "This bizarre, long-nosed caricature expresses [Gainsbourg's] self-doubt, but also his exuberance and flamboyant flair, his bohemian sang-froid, his confrontational quality, which is bound up with Jewishness and differentness." Your casting of Doug Jones in this role is remarkable. Can you speak to why you chose him?
Sfar: Oh yes! Doug Jones is the most handsome monster I've ever met. [Laughs.] I was very lucky because I knew his face but most of my crew never saw his face until the end of the shoot. He came every day at 4:00 in the morning to get into his heavy make-up. Everyone on the set only saw him as a creature. Even when my children visited the set, they thought of him as a monster and I explained to them that—if they looked through the nostrils of his mask—they could see Doug's real face. One day when Doug was asleep during two shots, my kid wanted to feed him and brought him pancakes, which he shoved up through the nostrils.
Guillén: Oh no!
Sfar: [Laughs.] Doug Jones was so charming. I guess he was grateful that I allowed him to show that a monster can do something different, not only frighten people, but have a psychological moment where he can dance with a woman and play the piano. Both for Doug and all the makeup and prosthetic crew, it was a wonderful moment. We also had wonderful support from Guillermo del Toro during the shooting of the movie because most of his crew from Pan's Labyrinth was with us and he sent a memo and so on.
We also had the support of Jim Henson's company. The ugly face that steps out of the propaganda poster that you see early in the movie is the biggest animatronic face ever made. Usually when you make such a character, you make it at 20 centimeters and pretend that it's big; but—because we were totally mad—we made him two meters tall, which required a huge oven to bake the skin of this creature. The crew who made the prosthetics received help from Jim Henson's company and their friends at Industrial Light and Magic. A lot of nice people were involved in creating those moments for the movie.
Guillén: Well, even if you think of those creatures as monsters, they're quite beautiful and nuanced and you do genre fans a great service by incorporating them in your film. Another bit of whimsy that I appreciated in Gainsbourg was the talking black cat at the entrance to Juliette Gréco's apartment. Can you speak to that?
Sfar: Yes. That was my simple tribute to the Hammer films of my childhood. As with most movies about vampires, the hero arrives at a castle, accidentally cuts his hand on broken glass, and the reaction of his host to the sight of blood exposes (or announces) him as a vampire. I needed someone to announce the vampire—that is, Juliette Gréco—and the cat was perfect for that. I have to say that I don't like a movie where—through CGI—cats are made to look like they're talking. You know there's a computer involved. But in my movie I felt the cat really talks because you're seeing the cat and you hear a voice.
Guillén: It's a telepathic communication.
Sfar: And we were very lucky. The whole day was scheduled around that scene and the cat did everything we wanted in the first take. Not because he was in love with me but because we put food on a spoon and put the spoon on the top of my head. Animal handlers say cats are the most difficult animal to work with because you can't teach them anything; but, for us, for that scene, everything occurred within the hour. So that was one of the film's lucky moments.
Another lucky moment was when nobody died during the scene where we set fire to the painter's studio because, there again, that effect was not computerized. The wardrobe and the monster actually caught on fire. We were happy that no one was injured during the filming of that moment.
Guillén: So am I! Let's talk a bit more about your casting, which is key to this project and exquisitely executed. You've indicated that you never intended your film to be a biopic, and I'd agree that it's more a musical fantasy, but can you talk about the creative decision to cast actors who looked like their real-life counterparts, and who sang like them? How was that negotiated?
Sfar: It was not really negotiated. We wanted to pay a tribute and we wanted to pretend that all the characters came from my comic books. That may sound pretentious but it was a way of getting rid of the burden of reality. We didn't want to build a museum. We wanted to create a live performance and we wanted to have fun. People have asked me where I found such wonderful comedians for my film and the answer would be that I found them on the stage. I have to say that I am very close to stage actors and most of my actors come from live theater.
Guillén: Can you speak to casting Yolande Moreau in the role of Fréhel?
Sfar: Oui! It could have been no one else. She was happy with her makeup and it was tender during the wardrobe moments because I explained to her that Fréhel had to be always drunk. She comes through the door dressed in her nightgown and fur coat and, yes, she's like that but she also has to be elegant in a way. Of course, she is elegant. I told her, "She's big but she doesn't want people to know she's big" and that's how Moreau played the character. Also, during the WWII sequence, I needed one nice face from France.
Guillén: How did you score casting Claude Chabrol as Gainsbourg's music producer?
Sfar: That came about because Claude Chabrol was the person who made me enter moviemaking in the first place. He was the first director to invite me to visit a movie set. He wanted me to make comic book sketches during the making of one of his films. We met and became friends. When I asked him to be in my film, he was happy to come and perform. He refused money and asked only for champagne and good cigars. We were happy to provide them. We had a wonderful moment. Later he complained, "You tricked me. You obliged me to play with a dog, which is one of the worst things you can do to an actor." During filming, Chabrol was nice enough not to tell me how to make my film and I was grateful for that.
Guillén: Gainsbourg is the rare example of a beautiful film unexpectedly caught in the grip of the death horizon, with the tragic death of Lucy Gordon, who plays Jane Birkin in the film. I understand the film is dedicated to her and I commend you for eliciting such a charming performance out of her, all the more notable for being her last. What is it you want us to remember about Lucy Gordon?
Sfar: She was a wonderful archetype. We had seen 600 British comedians before we found her. My point at the beginning of the casting was that Jane Birkin should look like a British girl, but—when you go to London—you don't see a single British girl that looks or behaves like Jane Birkin. Lucy called me, told me she would be briefly in Paris, and asked to meet me. I saw this nice lady who behaved like a boy and talked like Cardinal Ratzinger. Her father was a teacher at Oxford (he told me that her name means "light"), she excelled at the modeling profession, and was just a wonderful person. We had so much fun during the making of the movie. She came to the set even when she was not scheduled to work and we were very upset when she died. The day before she died, I was at the Cannes Film Festival and we talked on the phone. She said, "I've just changed my hair color and I will join you tomorrow." But there never was a tomorrow. She was a strong person. Most of her girl friends, many of them models like her, often threatened suicide and she was the one who would argue, "Life is beautiful." We lost a friend when we lost Lucy and I'm sure that the movie industry lost a wonderful actress.
Guillén: And then there's Laetitia Casta as Brigitte Bardot. I understand that you sold this film less as a biopic about Serge Gainsbourg and more as a love story with Bardot as the love interest? Particularly with Laetitia as Bardot, the relationship between the camera and the female bodies in your film are markedly sensuous. Her entrance into the film as she walks down the hallway to Gainsbourg's apartment is one of the most voluptuous entrances in film I've ever seen.
Sfar: Maybe because that's what I love? [Laughs.] And maybe because I love the temper of this actress? Laetitia has a very bad temper, and so do I, so our relationship has been wonderful. Before making a movie, I make a comic book and that comic book is filled with heavy sexual content, extremely pornographic, you name it; but, I never want to have my actors doing the same things. I want my actors to keep something to themselves, to create something evocative and abstract, and I feel there's a true tension between the sexual content of my drawings and the naïve and childish way in which I make movies. Maybe the tension between the beautiful pictures in my movies and the dirty drawings brings out something sensual?
I have one story about a moment with Laetitia that says everything about working with her. She is aware of her unearthly power over men. The way men react whenever she enters a room. The way when she wants to take power, men give it up. We were discussing about hiring a dance teacher for the scene where Bardot dances in a bedsheet around Gainsbourg at the piano. Shortly before the scene, she told me, "Okay. You want me to give the audience a hard-on, right? So fire the dance teacher and let's get to work." In that moment I knew what it was going to be like to work with her.
She's very smart as an actress. It's all about what do you want to get? As Bardot, she's the most famous woman in the world but with her man she is just a girlfriend who wants to give him a dance. It doesn't have to be a perfect dance, but it should be a charming dance, and that's how she and I built the choreography for that scene. I love that my actors know I'm willing to let them try something on set. My only job as a director is to give them the space to try something. The way I look at Laetitia is not just male desire; it's more admiration and fascination. In one way, I feel extremely gay because I want to be her in that moment. In this way, Gainsbourg relates more to a movie like American In Paris or those kinds of movies, which had a way of depicting women as poisonous and harmless at the same time.
Cross-published on Twitch.
June 2011 brought the fantastic news that—come September—the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) would be transforming Japantown's New People Cinema into its very own year-round venue. Well summer's almost over and true to its promise, SFFS has revealed an auspicious line-up of September movies with which to inaugurate this new venture. This is exactly what I was hoping for: week-long runs of acclaimed films with limited distribution that were passed over by the likes of Landmark Theaters, the Roxie, YBCA and others. I'm doubly impressed by the commitment to daily matinee and evening showtimes.
While the Official Grand Opening doesn't happen until later in the month, programming unofficially gets going on Friday, September 2 with the Bay Area premiere of Jean-Luc Godard's Film socialisme. This latest polemic from France's cranky, 80-year-old master provocateur is purportedly about the decline of Western civilization, vis-à-vis a Mediterranean cruise and portrait of a provincial French gas station-owning family—with purposefully oblique / misleading subtitles to boot. While the 1985 Hail Mary riots outside the Roxie Cinema are a lovely memory, I need to think back 40 years to come up with a Godard film I unequivocally "liked." Through the decades I've dutifully slogged my way through each new work that's come to the Bay Area (and not all of them have), so I'm feeling no less compelled to see this, the director's first new feature since 2004's Notre musique. My reticence is lessened just knowing Patti Smith is in it. Here's a Film socialisme trailer that appeared several months before the 2010 Cannes premiere. It appears to be the entire movie fast-forwarded in 4 1/2 minutes.
While Godard might be a hard pill for some, the following week brings a surefire crowd-pleaser to the SFFS / New People Cinema with the September 9 SF premiere of Natalia Smirnoff's Puzzle. I missed this Argentine film when it screened at last autumn's Mill Valley Film Festival, eventually catching up with it at January's Palm Springs fest. It was the most rapturously received of the three dozen movies I saw there. Puzzle is an accomplished, low-key charmer about a put-upon Buenos Aires housewife who finds personal validation and companionship in the world of competitive jigsaw puzzle tournaments. (Who knew?) It features a captivatingly understated performance by María Onetto, whom we last saw in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman. Furthering the Martel connection is that director Smirnoff, making an assured directorial debut with Puzzle, served as Martel's assistant director on La ciénaga and The Holy Girl. My only complaint with Puzzle is a late-film plot development which rings so completely false, it might have derailed a lesser work. See the film and let me know if you agree.
On Friday, September 16, the SFFS Cinema ping-pongs from crowd-pleaser back to hardcore art film with Cristi Puiu's Aurora. This three-hour, slow-burning Romanian character study cum crime thriller screened at this year's SF International Film Festival and is Puiu's follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It was my favorite narrative feature of the festival and has an assured place in my year-end Top 10. While I anticipate seeing it again, Aurora's SF return will be especially welcomed by those who attended a fateful screening late in the festival. The 35mm print broke just before the crucial event at the film's mid-point, resulting in a canceled screening and a room of traumatized cinephiles.
The less informed you are going into Aurora the better. Simply know that your patience for the mundane "events" which frontload the film will be amply rewarded and that the film's peevish protagonist, who appears in nearly every frame, is portrayed by the director himself. There's a note on the SFFS website advising that the September 20 and 21 showings of Aurora will be on Blu-ray, which I assume means the first four days will be 35mm. On Thursday, September 22, following Aurora's six-day run, the SFFS / New People Cinema will celebrate its Official Grand Opening with an open house reception. Festivities will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony, sake ceremony and a selection of short films.
Beginning Friday, September 23 the cinema shifts gears with a week of special events, starting with SFFS' first ever three-day mini-festival of recent Hong Kong Cinema. As mentioned in the press release, "SFFS has played a pioneering role in introducing Hong Kong cinema to Bay Area audiences through the SF International Film Festival, which has shown over 70 Hong Kong films, beginning in 1959." The seven films in this series range from opening night indie Merry-Go-Round (partially set in San Francisco) to the latest from veteran Johnnie To (an atypical romantic dramedy, Don't Go Breaking My Heart). Other recognizable Hong Kong directors in the fest include Ann Hui (All About Love, in which pregnant, lesbian ex-partners re-connect) and Benny Chan (sci-fi actioner City Under Siege).
Benny Chan's most recent film, martial arts epic Shaolin, screens later that week for two days (September 28 & 29), separate from the Hong Kong mini-fest. Set in early 20th century China, this tale of a warlord's spiritual redemption boasts a cast of HK superstars (Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan) and fight sequences performed by real Shaolin monks. In between Hong Kong Cinema and Shaolin, SFFS hosts a special screening of the documentary The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan on Monday, September 26. Directed by Henry Corra (who will attend the evening shows), this doc is about the mysterious 40-year-old disappearance of an African American G.I. in the jungles of Viet Nam and Cambodia.
And that takes us up to Friday, September 30 and a one-week run of Passione, John Turturro's valentine to the music and people of Naples which opened this year's Cinequest in San Jose. The month of October also finds SFFS into the full swing of its Fall Season, so save these dates: Taiwan Film Days (Oct. 14-16), NY/SF International Children's Film Festival (Oct. 21-23) and French Cinema Now (Oct. 27-Nov.2).
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.
Back during the 13th edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, while researching Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927), I chanced upon Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare's provocative essay " 'Even a Man Who is Pure in Heart': Filmic Horror, Popular Religion and the Spectral Underside of History" published in the June 2005 issue of Journal of Religion and Popular Culture and republished in "The Werewolf in Visual Culture" in the Journal of the Imaginary and Fantastic, Vol. 1., No. 1. I was hooked by his theological perspectives on the horror genre. Imagine my delight when Mario noted my upcoming visit to Montreal for Fantasia 2011 and suggested we finally meet after years of corresponding online.
Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare completed his Ph.D. at the University of St. Michael's College (University of Toronto), working in the area of liberationist and postcolonial hermeneutics. His research focused on religious syncretism, interreligious collaboration, the popular religious practices of marginalized peoples, and liberation theologies. He has written extensively in the area of film and religion.
DeGiglio-Bellemare is a native Montrealer and "monster kid" who teaches courses on genre cinema and monsters in the Humanities department of John Abbott College. He began to watch monster movies at the age of nine, staying up to watch Hammer films on late-night television. He has been an independent filmmaker with the Volatile Works collective for several years, working primarily in super-8 and 16mm. His films combine a love of silent cinema, "exploitation films," the horror genre, and agit-prop sensibilities. He has published articles for Golem: The Journal of Religion and Monsters, as well as for the Journal of Religion and Film and for the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. He is also an occasional writer for the Canadian horror genre magazine Rue Morgue.
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Michael Guillén: The more I experience film festivals, the more I try to find a guiding focus to appreciate what has been offered in the programming. With this year's Fantasia Film Festival, I am borrowing heavily from the current issue of Film International (issue 50; 9:2) and its thematic focus on adapting national identities, specifically a fascinating case study "Hunting High and Low: Notes on Nazi Zombies, Francophiles and National Cinema(s)" authored by Jo Sondre Moseng and Håvard Andreas Vibeto. The gist of their argument is that—in the effort to promote a national cinema to an international audience—it is genre films that are succeeding over arthouse cinema. Within your own work I'm aware of your keen sense of highbrow and lowbrow culture or—to put it another way—mainstream and marginalized culture. Do you agree with the thesis set forth by Moseng and Vibeto that genre films are the way that nationalized product is being understood and assimilated by an international market, namely the United States (let's name the monolith for what it is)? Generally, do you find this true?
Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare: Yeah, actually, and I don't think it's only true now. It's been true forever but we're only figuring that out now. If you think about how the notion of a national cinema was being developed in the '60s, let's say, out of France and Italy through the art film—the French New Wave, for example, with Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer—the art film was the way by which a national cinema would gain an identity as it was being defined at the time. Some of the films that were not perceived as national cinema—Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face, 1960), for example—were disregarded not so much because they were genre films but because they were actually dealing with aspects of French culture that were much more cutting edge than those films that were supposedly politicized. Franju is dealing with the trauma of World War II and the difficult situation of post-liberation France and its trials against traitorous Nazi collaborationists. We forget that "little" films like Eyes Without A Face had a real impact, though they were dismissed at the time. When we look back at them and see how they link up to these issues of national cinema(s), they carry a lot of weight.
Another example would be Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, another film from 1960, from England. The critics didn't know what to do with Peeping Tom because, in some ways, it represented the kitchen sink realism that was coming out of the British national cinema; but, it was doing things differently. It exposed those aspects of British culture that people didn't want to see, like pornography and violence. Critics asked, "What is Michael Powell doing?" Critics have always had problems with Michael Powell because his films are so over-the-top. His films are beautifully poetic and surreal. Anyway, Peeping Tom is another example of a film that—at the time—people were calling rubbish and insisting belonged in the sewer, as someone wrote at the time. But that's also, again, an instance of a film bringing out aspects of a culture that people didn't want to see at the time.
Guillén: You've written quite eloquently about genre's capacity to reveal national anxieties. Do you suspect, perhaps, that the unwillingness to accept such anxieties is precisely why films like Eyes Without A Face and Peeping Tom were categorized as low culture? And was that categorization a handy way of keeping these films out of the cultural discourse on national cinema(s)?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: But now these films that I'm talking about are interesting because they straddle both the low end and the high end. There are filmmakers who have done this since then. Abel Ferrara, for example, whose film The Addiction (1995) I've written about ["Vampires Reading Feuerbach: Catholic Orthodoxy and Lines of Flight in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction"] has an art house quality. Ferrara is a filmmaker who straddles both those sensibilities. The black-and-white film stock, the long takes, suggest art house and the theology informing that film is serious—The Addiction is about the nature of sin—but then the vampires themselves are from the grand guignol tradition.
What I'm working on now are the so-called "torture porn" films. I'm looking at some of them, critiquing them—I like some of them more than others—but, I'm looking at them as grand guignol history. I'm exploring the ways that the traumas of history are taken up in these films and refracted in many ways. My own recent film Main Attraction (2011) is also trying to do this. It's a little bit experimental, a little bit art house, but then it has this grand guignol sensibility that adds another dimension. Effectively, this is what genre films do. George Romero has said that the affective response to genre opens audiences up to some of the politics involved. Maybe not consciously, maybe not right away, but certainly that's going on.
Guillén: When I spoke to Colin Geddes at last year's Toronto Film Festival, he brought up the concept of "elevated genre", which precisely addresses this merge between art house and genre. I appreciate your comment that what genre might actually reveal are theological and political underpinnings and that audiences who favor genre are, in their own way, negotiating how they want to situate themselves against these larger issues. Case in point for Fantasia would be last night's screening of Xavier Gens' The Divide.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: What did you think of it?
Guillén: I appreciated it for what it was; but, admittedly, it has not been well-received critically; but, that doesn't really mean much to me because—just as we've been discussing— many of the films I've liked have never been received well. Oddly enough, some of these films seem to require a displacement in time in order to be appreciated on their own terms and for what they've actually accomplished. The Divide basically reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode The Shelter (1961) where a proverbially American neighborhood becomes uncivilized in the face of a nuclear threat. But what I found arresting in The Divide—which is undeniably brutal, rough and even unpleasant—is something Michael Biehn culled out in my conversation with him about the film. Biehn said that The Divide can easily be criticized (and dismissed) for being exactly the way it is—as I said, brutal, rough, unpleasant, uncompromising, irredeemable—but critics fail to carry through with the admittance that such horrific reactions are taking place around the world. People, under crisis, treat each other like this all around the world. Films like The Divide force audiences to consider the reality of these global atrocities humankind commits against itself and of the tendency within each of us to behave deplorably under pressure.
But let me step back a bit. You're a trained theologian?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Trained, yes. Well, religious studies. I have my feet in both.
Guillén: But then you shifted into genre studies?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Yeah, actually. Genre has always been my great love. I'd long written about cinema and religion, but I did my research mostly on Latin American religious social systems.
Guillén: Liberation theology?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Yes, those things. So my dissertation was not on cinema. Even though I've written and published more on cinema than on Latin American liberation theology.
Guillén: How have your writings on genre cinema been received within theologian circles?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Let's put it this way: when I wanted to include a more personal approach to my dissertation with cinema underlying some of my approach, my supervisory committee said absolutely not. It wasn't because they were super-conservative or reactionary; it was just because it was too out-of-the-box. I struggled with that a little bit but I finished my dissertation.
Guillén: Which was the important thing? To get it behind you?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Exactly. But, yeah, in everything I do I'm always inbetween two different worlds.
Guillén: Perhaps because I have done a decade's worth of work in Central America, primarily Guatemala, and been made aware of that country's tumultuous history with liberation theology, I was especially pleased when reading your work of your understanding of the linkage between what is thought of as lowbrow or genre culture(s) and marginalized and politically disenfranchised culture(s). Can you speak to what drew you to that understanding?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: This was actually what I wanted to be part of my dissertation but I ended up having to pull it out and publish it on its own in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture [" 'Even a Man Who is Pure in Heart': Filmic Horror, Popular Religion and the Spectral Underside of History", republished in the Journal of the Imaginary and Fantastic, Vol. 1. No. 1.: "The Werewolf in Visual Culture"]. Having been trained in Latin American libertation theology, my starting point has always been what some bishops have defined as this "preferential option for the poor"—I don't know if you know that term?—but, it was developed in the late '60s after Vatican II when the bishops came back from Latin America and asked, "How do we do theology from our own context that will critique the European styles of theology that are brought to Latin America and considered universal when, in fact, they're not; they're just European and colonial? How do we do theology in the Americas that is ours?" The starting point was a focus on the poor because that was their context and their historical reality; the history of colonization, especially from the perspective of religion. The notion of the option for the poor is huge in liberation theology and informs everything that I do.
I looked, then, at the ways in which ordinary people also have their own knowledge systems, whether they be popular religious practices that were often condemned by progressives as parading the church in a way that promoted passivity instead of active change (which is what the liberation theologians wanted). I tried to rewrite that history a little bit to suggest that marginalized people have their own epistemologies. They have their own way of knowing. They have their own cultures and their own logic, in a sense; their own forms of reasoning. I felt that—if we wanted to take that seriously—then we had to take their knowledge of production seriously as well.
I became interested in "low" culture in genre cinema and started reading such film scholars as Linda Williams and Carol Clover. Williams had a feminist pro-sex reading of pornography—pornography's massive, right? And generally dismissed. It's so easy.—but, Williams pulled out interesting nuggets from '70s pornography especially, which was an interesting time around sexuality, as you know. I didn't want to dismiss that. I wanted to find out what it was about "low" culture that's important here? Since the '80s, there has been a kind of movement to recognize the ways in which the definition of "low" culture places how you can be subversive and do what can't be done in the mainstream.
I would say that the first anti-Vietnam film to hit the screens in the U.S. was not Coming Home (1978) or Apocalypse Now (1979), but Bob Clark's Deathdream (aka Dead of Night, 1974). Deathdream is this low B-movie horror film that has a strong anti-Vietnam message. The Vietnam War was said in the U.S. to be the first televised war—and that may be oversaid, but nonetheless—in Deathdream we have this dead soldier in the living room of a middle class home disrupting the American Dream and bringing the trauma of the Vietnam War into the living room. This zombie film made cheaply by Bob Clark in Florida and then finished in Canada has a bi-national feel to it. Bob Clark then stayed in Canada and made Black Christmas (1974), which is a sort of proto-slasher film.
So what I'm trying to say is that these "low" genre films provide the space in which the critiquing of the culture can take place, long before mainstream cinema catches up. If you look at many of the films made from the '50s and '60s, they were always pushing boundaries around taboos. Of course, two big taboos are sexuality and violence. Herschell Gordon Lewis was pushing boundaries with his drive-in films, with Blood Feast (1963) and gore and so on, and Doris Wishman and Russ Meyer were also pushing boundaries around sex. All of this took place outside mainstream cinema but had an impact. If you read Linda Williams' recent book Screening Sex, which is about the representation of sex in American cinema, she beautifully outlines how these films impacted a whole new wave of films made in the '70s where audiences were finally seeing sex in mainstream films: like The Graduate (1967) and Coming Home, which I've already mentioned. Later on it would be David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), which shocked audiences with its stark depiction of fetishistic sexuality.
Carol Clover says the same thing about mainstream Hollywood. Mainstream Hollywood cannot survive without "low" culture. Hollywood is constantly remaking horror films. In terms of originality and creativity, Hollywood is always somehow tapping into "low" culture but not calling it that when it finally releases its films. Clover uses the example of Thelma & Louise (1991)—which is a very good example—to illustrate what she calls a rape revenge film for yuppies. It's domesticated, not as intense, but comes from the rape revenge subgenre in horror films. As I said, Hollywood is always tapping into this creativity but then dismissing it at the same time.
Guillén: That leads me to wonder how conscious are these subversive cinemas? I haven't seen Deathdream, but—taking you at your recommendation—have you read anywhere where the director acknowledged that he was making an anti-Vietnam War film?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: In the case of Deathdream, it's definitely an anti-Vietnam War film and Bob Clark intended that.
Guillén: I ask because sometimes the critique can only be retrospective and shaped by hindsight. It could never have been conscious or intended. For example, are you familiar with the work of William E. Jones? He took '70s gay porn and took out all the sex, so that all that's left to focus on are the environments and settings, which calls attention to how public common space was back then in contrast to how privatized it's become. Jones' work is a searing indictment of what's happened to common space since the '70s, which I consider a brilliant analysis of gay porn from the '70s.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Actually everyone says that Deep Throat (1972) is the film that started the porn chic revolution, but that's actually not true. It was Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand the year before.
With regard to the specific question you asked me about how conscious these subversive films are, this is a question I get asked by my students a lot. I teach a course called "Genre Cinema Ideologies", which deconstructs the notion that genre films are mere entertainment and that horror films cater to adolescent taste. The course explores the way that genre films are reflecting something larger and telling audiences something about the world. The word "monster" comes from the Latin word monstrare, meaning "to show", and is cognate with the English word demonstrate, meaning "to show clearly". So monsters are not just evil creatures; they show, reveal and point to something. But what are they pointing to? Deathdream is a perfect example. It has a creature that is pointing to Vietnam and the trauma of history.
So I tell my students—who seem a bit obsessed with this question of whether a filmmaker is conscious or not—to take the example of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). When Romero is asked if he and Duane Jones, who plays the African American character Ben, were thinking of the radical aspects of the film when they made it, he always says no. In fact, when he wrote the script he originally wrote the character of Ben as a white man. What's interesting for me in Romero's admission is that it's fine that he disavows a political consciousness, but what's important is that Romero is open to letting those things flow through him and through his work and through his vision anyway. Because if he wrote the script for a white man, and then had a different perspective, a more racist perspective about the place of an African American in U.S. society, he would have rewritten the script; but he cast the Black man without rewriting that part. Ben in Night of the Living Dead is not only a Black man in the lead; but, he's a Black man who explosively takes over the household, which is a microcosm of society. He is taking over the house and reflecting very aggressive stances vis-à-vis the U.S. That's what's so shocking about the character of Ben in Night of the Living Dead: he shoots a white man point blank, and he slaps a white woman at one point....
This was unbelievable in 1968! In fact, when they were shooting the film the actor felt uncomfortable and asked Romero, "Are you sure you want me to do this?" And Romero said yes. But just because he wasn't consciously thinking it, his politics were in the right place to let that work. He was open to what was going on and let that work through his vision. Even I make films that—when I look back—I see stuff and think, "Oh yeah. I wasn't really thinking about that back then but that makes sense because somehow the context was influencing me and I was open to that and it plays itself out through my work."
Guillén: As if just the effort to show the monster reveals to the filmmaker what the monster actually is. It's not like the filmmaker always arrives with a storyboard of what the monster is. The monster reveals itself in the filmmaking.
Guillén: I liked how earlier you talked about the poor having their own epistemologies and their own way of knowing things, because I found that to be true among the years I worked with the Maya. Just this morning I discovered a subsidiary website of yours that chronicles when you went to Cuba?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Yeah, I went to Cuba one year.
Guillén: What fascinated me from that experience was the piece you wrote on San Lazaro, the syncretized form of Babalu Aye ["Cuba: Santeria, scarcity and survival"] because one of my favorite folk Catholic saints is the Mayan Maximón, who I consider a comparable syncretized icon. Can you speak to religious syncretism as a device of articulating the negotiation of these competing systems of knowledge?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Because people don't take the knowledge systems of ordinary people seriously, one of the things that isn't understood very well is how the poor and excluded—in order to survive hostile conditions—take the tools of the colonizer and throw them back in their face. They take the language of colonizing systems and make it work for them. This is what syncretism does. For African slaves, for example, voudou is a syncretic religious system that comes from Africa and mixes with Arawak indigenous world views. The Arawak disappeared and were wiped out, and then Christianity came along, but the slaves had absolutely no problem using these different systems of knowledge for their own benefit and their own survival. The language of the colonizer takes on a whole different meaning because it's shot through their experience. This involves what I was writing in my thesis about popular religions. This process of syncretism is what is constantly being done in popular religious ceremonies. For example, a beautiful image from Haiti is how the voudou ceremony that traditionally takes place on Saturday night tends to go overnight and sometimes really early into the morning when the sun is rising. The early church service on Sunday morning is about 7:00 or 8:00 and the voudou worshippers go straight from the voudou service to the Catholic church, without a problem! They see themselves as Catholic and see themselves as voudou and there's no contradiction there for them because these knowledge systems are fundamentally tools for them to survive the kind of world that they live in. They bring these systems of knowledge together in a beautiful way. I love these hybrids of two different cultures, one that's obviously more powerful than the other.
An anthropologist who writes on this in a way that I like is James C. Scott. He writes about "backstage resistance"; that there's a lot going on backstage among the poor and the oppressed that we don't see. What Scott means by this is that it's very dangerous for poor people to resist directly in the face of power because they get crushed. So they find different ways of resisting. Ways that are "backstage" that the powerful don't recognize. Syncretism, popular religious pageantry and practices in Latin America, are this kind of backstage resistance. They may on the surface seem like a little party or festival but these fiestas are important to indigenous people. That's a knowledge system, right? They understand the world through fiesta and the celebration of life and death, right? Behind the scenes there are ways in which people are resisting dominant discourses that are not always available to the powerful. The peasant will bow when the emperor goes by and then, after he passes, the peasant farts. The ways in which ordinary, poor people resist domination is not taken seriously because it's not always organized in the way that many people like to see social movements organized and so it's dismissed.
Guillén: I can apply what you're saying to the running debate in film culture between "high" and "low", between art house and commercial, and add that the general audience that some critics often seem to hate have effectively syncretized critical systems and taken them over. Perhaps this is why critics resent them? They sense their privilege has been usurped? That their system of knowledge has been subverted? The standing of the film critic—which at one time was firmly entrenched—is now on weak footing because the specialized position of the film critic has been supplanted by growing trends in cinephilia. The readily-available strategy of defense is for critics to belittle cinephilia or to deminimize blogging and relegate both to a "lower" endeavor; again, the tension between "high" and "low" art. This categorical strategy is a last-ditch effort to keep a certain heirarchy in place, specifically to keep upstart bloggers in their place, even though many bloggers are incredibly creative, inventive, circuitous and, perhaps at their best, even subversive in their use of the tools of the dominant culture.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I agree. And sometimes those tools get taken up again by dominant discourses so that a subversive movement loses its edge.
Guillén: Which is happening even as we speak. Bloggers are already bemoaning shifts in the medium as social networking has taken over the popular imaginary. Let alone that the film festivals who had to (however begrudgingly) admit bloggers and online journalists into their press corps, are now using the selfsame blogging tools to create their own festival blogs, obviating the need of independent bloggers to cover same. I consider this a calculated, perhaps even conscious, effort to defuse the so-called democratization of the net, and rein it in under some kind of institutional practice and control.
Shifting to your review of Caelum Vatnsdal's They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, you speak of the difficulty of creating a Canadian identity when there's an ongoing conflict between Québecois and the English-speaking Canadian film community. "Finding a common national thread within a genre that has been undeniably marginal and unambiguously marginalized in the history of Canadian cinema is no easy task," you wrote, recognizing that Canada's "national cinema suffers from an ambiguous sense of national identity." All the more so for being shoved through the funnel of genre. I didn't fully understand your statement until Fantasia, where it surfaced full force in my experience of the Cinepix tribute which was conducted unapologetically in Québecois with no translative effort whatsoever. I left because I felt deliberately excluded.
Now, granted, I will be the first to admit that I am a typical American in not being fluently multilingual and, in this instance, ignorant of French. But then no one warned me that I would need to know French to enjoy the festival. Again, I admit my own cultural presumptions, even as I recognize a cultural presumption being placed upon me. Does regional fervor trump international communication? It's the question as hydra, where each severed head sprouts multiple answers.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: You've experienced firsthand the intense debate in Canada around the sovereignty of Québec. Federalists call it Québec separation. Québec has a real film industry. Québec films make money, millions of dollars, and has its own movie stars. Québec audiences go out to see movies to see their stars. English Canada has none of that. English Canadian films never bring in money, ever. English Canada has a few auteurs like David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin and Atom Egoyan but their films never make money. Attempts at English Canadian mainstream commercial cinema always flop. The biggest money-making movie a couple of years ago was made here in Montreal and was about a murder that happens on the Québec / Ontario border, it's in half-English and half-French, and it did extremely well in Québec; but, it didn't do very well in the rest of Canada. This is the reality of our system here and it has to do with a strong sense of national identity in Québec. By contrast, Canadian identity is weak and also negative. English Canadians understand themselves as Canadians against the U.S.: "We're not like the U.S. because we are peacekeepers." It's always a definition by way of the negative. It's an interesting clash that happens and you saw this going on the other night at the Cinepix tribute. Behind the scenes you don't know what's going on but....
Guillén: I felt it.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: So you have Cinepix, which is a Montreal Québec-born Roger Corman style production house. I love them. I was really so moved. And I love Shivers (1975), which was shown after. It's a brilliant underrated film. Everyone talks about Cronenberg and his later films but his best films are Shivers, Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). Fantasia has its more anglophone side and they're always trying to balance that with the festival's more francophone side.
Cinepix produced Valérie (1969), which I consider the most important film in Québec history. That film changed everything. It was also important to acknowledge that film; but, politically, there were people thinking, "Well, we're going to do this in French because this is our culture and this is who we are." When people go to Cannes, they speak French, right? Though there's more translation there, more resources to do that. So you had then some people who were more on the anglophone side, and then you had the local, much more politicized people speaking French. Montreal is a bilingual city. We are used to this!
Guillén: All that being said, as an introductory tribute it went on far too long and should have been offered as a separate panel for those more equipped to handle its Québecois pride, perhaps even with translative services to assist the American-impaired.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I agree. You're absolutely right. Especially if they come from other places, people need to be told what to expect, especially if a program is going to be predominantly in French.
Guillén: I was also really looking forward to the program on the Hammer Films mythology and was disappointed when I discovered it was being conducted wholly in French. Will you be attending that?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Probably, yeah. I love Hammer films. I actually just taught a course at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, which was a part of Blue Sunshine.
Guillén: The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Are you familiar with H.P. Lovecraft?
Guillén: Of course! I knew the name rang a bell. Just this morning I watched a screener of Sean Branney's The Whisperer in Darkness (2011), whose narrative takes place at the Miskatonic Institute.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Is it good?
Guillén: For a Lovecraft adaptation, it's not bad. As you know, most Lovecraft adaptations have a purposeful datedness, which signifies Lovecraft. Without that temporal signifier, it's not really a Lovecraft narrative, it's just a contemporary riff on Lovecraft. But The Whisperer in Darkness holds the Lovecraft mythos close to its chest and skillfully emulates the feel of a '30s / '40s Universal horror film, especially in its opening credits. I wasn't sure at first if I was watching a revival screening of an older Lovecraft adaptation and I liked that feeling of momentary dissonance.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I was excited to see it and now I'm even more excited to see it.
Guillén: I think you'll find it a solid adaptation.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Anyway, Miskatonic Institute is in reference to Lovecraft and I did a course on the monsters in Hammer films and their social and political context in the late '50s when Hammer Studios exploded on the scene with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). So, yeah, I'm a big-time fan of Hammer Studios.
Guillén: Well, shoot, I would have loved taking that course or reading your take on those films. How are we going to gain more access to your written work?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I have to publish more. Because I've been teaching so much the last couple of years, I haven't been writing as much.
Guillén: Do you write for Rue Morgue?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Yes. But, not a lot. My writing can be a little academic. I tend to write the classic cut at the end of the magazine.
Guillén: But isn't that the challenge for writers like you and me? I like to think of it as a portfolio of audiences and the necessity of writing to each. I've spoken to Chris Fujiwara about this....
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I love his book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall!
Guillén: Who doesn't? Chris and I agree that there is a middle ground of film criticism that hasn't been explored enough, somewhere between the academic and the populist, which is where I find my challenge as a writer because I prefer to approach film by way of conversation and, as a non-academic, always appreciate the chance to talk to academics. From the moment I discovered your writing, I've been wanting to talk to you because I felt you do exactly what I believe in: you take complex political and theological theory and apply it to what the average joe is experiencing by way of film.
Case in point: as someone who has worked at coordinating Christian practice with popular culture, do you consider genre films critical of Christianity and, thereby, threatening to Christianity?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Ah. This is something that a lot of people in the horror scene don't understand about me. They hear that I have these degrees in religious studies and theology and they figure, "We can't talk to him." People don't understand that within the tradition, to be critical of the institution is part of being faithful. If you look at the first Jesus community, they were very critical of institutions of the time, Jesus' own beloved traditions, the Jewish institutions, of which he was very critical. This is a model for people of faith. Being critical is part of what it means to be religious. You have to constantly be a prophet in the face of power. Who are prophets? Prophets are not only people who predict the future. They're the people who speak truth to power. They're the ones who critique the power. Jesus was a prophet in the Jewish lineage of prophets.
Guillén: Which leads me back to the guiding theme I presented at the beginning of our conversation: the role of genre films in adapting national identities. If we're to say that "power" as you're indicating here is the commercialization of cinema, then genre films harbor a prophetic potential to speak back to that power, and to subvert that power precisely through commercial success. Art house films that once helped define a national cinema are failing at the box office and making room for lucrative genre films to represent their countries past national boundaries to the international community.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I make a point of looking for small films that prophetically challenge dominant discourses.
Guillén: So my final question: what is it in the horrific that borders on the sublime? I stage it as an answer to Job, in its true Jungian sense. How does a nice, gentle, nonviolent man like myself find such catharsis in horror, violence and darkness? How is it that I intuit beauty there? Can you speak to the beautiful and the sublime inherent in darkness?
DeGiglio-Bellemare: In terms of Job?
Guillén: More from a general theological perspective.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is non-theological. The first thing that comes to mind is what Noël Carroll calls "the paradox of the monsters." His is a cognitivist perspective. There is a contradiction of disgust and attraction at the same time. When I watch Shivers, I'm disgusted by what's going on with these parasites and—though I would never want one in my body—there is something liberating about the thought of one in my body. At the beginning of Shivers, consumer society has pacified people; but, when that disgusting parasite enters people's bodies, they come alive. Cronenberg asserts that Shivers has a happy ending. That's why Robin Wood and others still don't get this movie. Somehow, in that disgust there is something sublime and liberating going on and that attracts people. They don't generally recognize it. They aren't conscious of it. They can't even necessarily make sense of it. But they're able to affectively feel it and it's a powerful place of feeling. When horror films create such feeling properly, then they're reaching into a sensibility of the genre that goes back to gothic literature. So that would be one of my answers: the paradox of the monsters.
In terms of Job, what people don't understand about the Bible is that the critique of religion is embedded in the Biblical narrative. It predates the atheist critique. What's interesting about Job's story is that God loves monsters. [Laughs.] He sends monsters down to earth to be part of the insanity and whirlwind that Job experiences. Job is saying "Fuck you" to God. He says, "Why is it that I've done everything that's supposed to be righteous and now all this is going on? My life is completely in shambles." God also loves the protest against God. The chaos of that protest is the sending down of the monsters. People always see the Biblical trajectory—and this is common in religious studies—as about creation. God creates. God is always creating and fighting against demons that come to interrupt the process of creation. Not in Job.
Guillén: No. He's complicit in Job's suffering.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: Yup. The Book of Job is a terrific and brilliant piece of literature.
Guillén: It's definitely one of my favorite pieces of literature. I've read it again and again, especially when I'm troubled.
Returning to Xavier Gens' The Divide, the film is bracketed by a visual rhyme of two moments of witness. The character of Eva, played by Lauren German, first witnesses the nuclear destruction of Manhattan and, at film's end, its complete aftermath. She escapes into nothingness. Despite whatever can be said about the depraved behavior that comes into evidence between these two moments, the beauty of her witness is, to my mind, irrefutable. I am perhaps in a loud minority when I claim that Xavier Gens' films are beautiful as well as dark. His aesthetic refuses the happy ending, which has nothing to do with life. The indifferent cruelty of nature is intrinsic to human nature, though we use the thin veneer of civilization to ward off that truth.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: I recently read a book by Matt Hills called The Pleasures of Horror. He writes that horror is always being talked about as a dilemma. "How can people find this crap pleasurable?" People have been grappling with that question forever. The Pleasures of Horror is a long book and Hills makes several arguments but one of the things he mentions is that we never stop to think about the displeasures of horror. He gives as an example when people first saw The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven's first film. It's a difficult movie to like, let alone sit through. It's a movie that's enraged with authority and is really speaking to the suffering in Vietnam. So maybe we should change the question around pleasures and ask, "What about displeasure?" Are there ways in which we might not be enjoying a film in the ways that you're describing, but there's something going on in that film that's affecting you? You may never want to see that movie again, but you walk out of the cinema changed.
Guillén: I certainly felt that after watching Srđan Spasojević's A Serbian Film (2010). Though, admittedly, I went back to see it a second time. Now, it was bad enough that I watched it once, and many of my friends criticized me for that; but, then when I went back to see it again, I had people calling me sick and twisted to my face. But that wasn't what I was experiencing. What I was experiencing was a visceral denial of the film. I felt myself backing off from the film. I felt my body physically negating what I was seeing on the screen. In short, I felt revulsion. But at the same time I felt compelled to overcome my repulsion. I didn't want to evade my own displeasure.
DeGiglio-Bellemare: That's a process that Adam Lowenstein has written about in his book Shocking Representation. Part of the process is trying to sort out: "Why are you watching this? What is this saying?" There is a part of that process that is introspective. Noël Carroll will love me for this, but there's something pleasurable in knowing what is going on that makes you want to know more about yourself. Not only about what's happening on the screen, but about yourself watching it. There's a kind of self-discovery going on.
Photo of Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare courtesy of Sharon Davies. Cross-published on Twitch.