Note: I wrote the bulk of this in early January but couldn’t figure out how to end it.
The Visitor, 1979 though not widely released until 2013, is an Italian/American art/exploitation produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis who gave us the Beyond the Door series as well as being onetime CEO of the infamous/legendary Cannon Pictures, and here we see his common strategy of mimicking blockbuster films. It was directed by Guilio Paradisi, who worked on 8 1/2, under the name of Michael J. Paradise which adds to the whole late-70’s New Age ambiance.
This is a “bad” film. I use that term not so much in a pejorative term, but rather as descriptor or to set expectations, though previously I used the term “art/exploitation” film. I prefer this term for many films in the 70’s, produced as b (or lower) independents that are, by definition, exploitation films but had loftier artistic ambitions, and a few succeeded as both. Stephen Thrower, who has written at length about exploitation films, writes that “there are exploitation films of real class, and others of awesome ineptitude: nevertheless, even the latter can sometimes achieve a kind of insane apotheosis” (Nightmare USA, 11). The Visitor doesn’t quite reach that level, as some “bad” movies do, but it comes close.
The first sequence of The Visitor, in which John Huston stands in a saturated, alien environment is a work of art. It’s gorgeous, otherworldly, and the best part of the film. The next scene, in which Jesus (unnamed but it’s gotta be Jesus) tells a story about a fallen alien being is also incredible, but from this point on the film changes from being a version of Lord of Light into a bizarre, but by-the-book, evil child movie which is disappointing.
The film has all the markers of cult-classic: it has technical deficiencies, cringe worthy and unintentional dialogue (the most flawed attempt at sexual innuendo in film history?), and awkward transitions between different tones. What, for me, the film lacks or keeps it from being a transcendentally bad film is that it tends to lack a consistent earnestness in its cosmology while focusing too much on it’s narrative. A film like Turkish Star Wars, for me the greatest bad movie ever made (and I’ll be presenting on that film at PCA/ACA in April [shameless plug]) has a consistent, and kind of insane, political and theological framework, though there is a major disconnect between its use of Western films and its somewhat moving intentions which disrupt the film in numerous ways.
For me, my interest in these sorts of films, is explained in some ways by Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS. While Dick is most famous his more sci-fi stuff, and for having many of his works adapted into films (in the early 2000s especially) his late period (post-1974) is some of his more neglected and to me most interesting work.
Personal interpretation of public art
I recently read that Brian Wilson was so freaked out upon seeing Seconds (1966) that he didn’t see another movie until ET. Apparently he felt that the whole movie, about a “Mr. Wilson,” which features a few important scenes on a beach, was about him (It is also interesting that Fats (the character from VALIS) and Wilson [insert Brian Wilson fat joke, and did Dick know about this?] were both mentally fragile, used drugs, and in their own personal apocalypses, of which cinema plays a role, enact a failure of the promises of the 1960’s.)
As strange as it may sound, and I guess I’m closer to spending a year in my bed listening to “Be My Baby” than most people (btw, is there a better possible song to choose to listen to 100 times a day?), that is the experience I’ve been looking for in movies.
In fact, the primary reason I think I watch movies is to experience something similar to Wilson and, Fats. Last year I completed a task that took over a decade: to track down the movies and TV episodes that scared and perhaps scarred me as a child, from Making Contact to an episode of The Equalizer. My fascination with these texts (about a dozen of them) was that they effected and affected me more than anything I’ve experienced since. They were not merely movies but they extended into a realm of experience. In some ways, my relationship with my favorite genre, the horror movie, is typical of any addiction: I want to find something that makes me feel the same way those movies made me feel as a kid.
I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Years ago, John Carpenter made a fascinating episode of the terribly inconsistent Masters of Horror series called “Cigarette Burns.” It deals with a lost film that allegedly possesses terrible powers that tie in with apocalyptic dread and heavenly messengers. And that something about the material on the film allows for heavenly visions that mortals are not able to withstand. The episode makes explicit themes in a number of literary predecessors to this type of horror, where searches for truths, ancient truths, lead to madness. This may explain why House of Leaves is one of my favorite books in that it documents several characters’ object of obsession, as well as acting as an object of obsession itself as a physical, textual work.
In VALIS, Horselover Fat, is fascinated by a nearly incomprehensible movie (based on the author’s own fascination with The Man Who Fell to Earth, and in the novel there is an irony in that he finds so much meaning in what is the vanity project of a rock star; commercialized and commodified). However, the incomprehensible nature of the film, within the understanding of the universe portrayed in the novel, ceases to become a singular work itself but rather becomes a transmission of greater meaning.
And this seems to be the great equation in this type of cinema: Experience > Narrative
“If they could just get across to the dream-time!” Kevin shouted. “That’s the only real time’ all the real events happen in the dream-time! That actions of the gods!” (VALIS, 47)
This type of filmmaking has been a staple of the avant-gardes and those surrealist inclined/influenced filmmakers and art films. But these are safe; like framed works in an art gallery, they end at the frame. The obscure fevered films, the (failed) exploitation works, are far more effective because they feel like transgressive experiences. When you watch a film by a gifted director you feel like you’re being guided by someone who has put much thought into their work. In these exploitation works you very well could be guided by a madman, or, as illustrated in some films, the person who is knowledgeable to unleash a demon or monster but not knowledgeable enough to control it.
“put another way, a psychosis is a dream breaking through during waking hours” (VALIS, 115)
And it is that lack of control that is key. It is the illusion of lack of control compounded by the extra-textual possibility of lack of creator control.
Cinema as dream was an early and has been a consistent metaphor for the experience of watching a movie, though perhaps of late because of changing technologies one that isn’t used much anymore. But it is an analogy that fits well with this type of filmmaking these films resist formal, technical, and narrative expectation and often trying to make sense of them only occurs in a secondary revision. An example: in Obayashi’s Hausu, one of the definitive works of this film style (though is it a style? Probably not…), he uses a two-shot that is both shots in the two shot; rather than edit between the shot-reverse shot he shows you both of them at the same time. It took me a few times to figure out what was going on, how to make sense of what I was seeing, and on a physical level just where on the screen do I look?
However, these movies, unlike avant-garde works, have to make some narrative sense, however fractured or incomprehensible. And that allows for a confusion. That what we are seeing is someone else’s dream, one that uses symbols that are meaningful to them but completely unknown or that signify something entirely different to ourselves: a private dream language (cf. Finnegan’s Wake). Or perhaps as illustrated by Brian Wilson’s fear, that this is a personal dream under the control of someone else.
“There was information transfer,” I said.
“In the film?” Kevin asked. “As a story line? Or do you mean from the film and audio track to the audience?” (VALIS, 144)
My use of the word fevered, outside of a reference to Artaud, as well as the idea of experience>narrative suggests the lack of an important hope/fear of the film in VALIS, and for many people, of dreams: communication. Fevered seems random and personal. But in VALIS the film is thought to transmit a gnostic, cosmic mystery of sorts and for Brian Wilson, Seconds served the same purpose: a cosmically created film to tell him that he wasn’t really himself. In both cases the personal experience has been mediated by an outside, and higher, power. Gnostic suggests a specific paradigm and tradition that may be correct for Dick (I haven’t read his Exegesis but from what I understand about Dick, while it is possible in VALIS to read the experience as an over-interpretation [as is House of Leaves], or as a satire of New Age spiritualism, Dick experienced a similar experience to Fat’s in which a series of symbols and signs provided spiritual realization) but not this sort of cinema as a whole. It seems that the tension between transmission, of sending a message or narrative, and nonsense (in Wittgenstein’s use of the word; non-sense not nonsense) allows for a space for transcendent reflection. That the seeming incoherent sequence of images provide new forms that, like matter, can be reformed and repurposed. However, in a film that is specifically doing this, like Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, there is a consistent logic; a new way of sequencing images, of organizing matter, but one that has organization (Frampton wrote incredibly complex equations for such sequencing). But these narrative films, in their narrative failures, lose such central logic and this seems to allow certain viewers, who are looking to do so, to order and sequence the various elements of the film into their own new vision.