Arthouse and Grindhouse: Blurred Lines.
Arthouse and Grindhouse: Blurred Lines.
By Alexander Kattke
It opens in black and white in slow motion. Pleasant chamber music plays to create a contrast. A middle-aged couple are shown fucking. We cut to the balls slamming against the wife’s ass. A young boy enters the room unaware of what’s happening in front of him. The child continues wandering throughout this home and falls –majestically- out of a window to his death. The film’s title appears after we fade away.
Grainy home movie-like footage shows a dwarf approach a young girl (thankfully an adult woman with pigtails) and winning her over with a stuffed dog toy. He lures her into his home and bludgeons her with a cane; she is now a new sex slave for his heroin operation. The opening credits play over a montage of windup toys.
A coming-of-age story centering on an overweight teenage girl concludes with an unknown man breaking into a car containing the girl and her older sister. The man murders the older sister and rapes our main character. Later, our main character refuses to snitch on her assailant before we cut to the end credits.
A story featuring a woman jerking off a horse and very convincing-looking snuff footage ends with our main character resigning that her story exposing a massive snuff film ring was killed for political reasons. She goes on vacation with her boyfriend to an island paradise and it ends happily.
The preceding scenarios are from the following films in order: Antichrist (2013), The Sinful Dwarf (1973), Fat Girl (2002), and Emanuelle in America (1977). I list them in order to bring up this question:
What separates these films from each other?
This article will (hopefully) avoid the usual pitfalls of art critic discussions of Alternative/Exploitation/B Through Z grade cinema. You know the kind of writing I’m referring to: “the dwarf represents man’s ID as he liberates womanhood -the mise-en-scene in the obvious parallel’s with 2nd generation trans-Siberian-lesbian new wave gay cinema- echoes the aesthetic of Polish Communist subversive Carl Jung film interpretations.”
Now if the above example made any kind of sense to you at all then I suggest you to skip reading the rest of this article. If you rolled your eyes so far in the back of your head that you’re suffering from a headache then please –if you will- continue. Because the point of this piece is not to over-analyze but to see what separation remains between the likes of Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom and Bloodsucking Freaks. What is it that keeps Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom from being seen as a distant cousin to Bloodsucking Freaks in the eyes of the common cinephile?
You could say that biggest difference between the extreme example of Salo and Bloodsucking Freaks is intent. But wait a second. Pasolini (the director of Salo) was not the originator of the production; he was brought into it by the producers who wanted an adaptation of Sade’s Magnum Opus of depravity. Does that diminish Pasolini’s work? No. But it does give it context. The producers behind Salo wanted the same thing as the makers of Bloodsucking Freaks: to profit. This is why Terrence Malick continues working and also why David Lynch and John Waters still struggle to make another film as of this writing.
So intent alone isn’t a separator. “But what about budget?” You might say. But that’s relative to the production. Obviously bringing a star onboard raises the budget but when you remove the star factor and focus on that it’s a film about two people in a room talking. Then the budget isn’t as big of a factor. The cost of an arthouse film or “indie darling” is usually similar to that of the horror films cranked out by the same studio: anywhere from 1 to 10 million dollars on average.
Is it then the professionalism? I can’t argue that Salo is shoddily made film, especially in comparison to Bloodsucking Freaks, I’d lose that argument hands down. But a film could be very well shot yet leave the viewer uncaring of its content. Some come out of watching Eraserhead or 2001: A Space Odyssey feeling that they were a-typical of what arthouse is and felt nothing from either experience. Those very same audience members could watch Last House on Dead End Street or Man Behind The Sun and be left forever changed by that certain kind of nihilism. Quality alone does not denote impact. An expensive picture frame could hold an ugly painting and vice versa.
So if intent, professionalism, and budget doesn’t draw a distinct line then what does? Ultimately it comes down to the whole “What is art?” argument.
A surreal story involving the mafia and bizarre locales concludes where a brother fucks a woman who was once his brother. As our main character commits incest he is horrified to see the woman give birth to a fully grown man who resembles his brother. *
A story of a boy losing his father concludes its first act when a random woman is assaulted by a bizarre alien creature. Later giving birth to the little boy’s lost father. **
And at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Whatever impacts you is art or could be art. Work that challenges its audience leaves the biggest impression and often cannot be brushed aside with an octogenarian art critic’s dismissal. In that sense, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is as immortal as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. A performance art piece of a man shitting himself while jerking off to the national anthem has just as much value as B movie zombie invasions. And in the case of Emanuelle in America, it most inspires me in how it contrasts in extremes. It’s the same effect as someone cutting a montage of frolicking puppies with the R. Budd Dwyer suicide footage. Not many films have achieved that except for (ironically another porno) Forced Entry (1973). It has the impact of leaving the viewer in a purgatory almost meditative state reflecting on what they’ve seen. It’s all about what you get out of it. Some look at an asshole and see just an asshole but others may see a portal to another place.
"We see God through our assholes in the flashbulb of orgasm."
William S. Burroughs.
Alexander Kattke is the author of the books Witness To A Recurring Galaxy and Musings.