Mutant mutations

The late ‘exploitation’ master Jess Franco was a paragon of the art of muddying clear blue waters.

Brad Stevens
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Paula-Paula (2010)

Paula-Paula (2010)

Although seldom remarked upon, the shifting relationship between audiences (including critics) and artists has had a significant impact on cinematic production. The central figures of France’s nouvelle vague were among the first cinephiles to approach filmmakers they admired as artistic and intellectual equals, yet the interviews they conducted with American auteurs such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Vincente Minnelli usually gave the impression of satellites circulating each other at an enormous distance.

The internet has played a major role in breaking down these barriers. Directors – who often have their own websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, as well as recording commentary tracks and interviews for DVDs – seem more approachable than ever, and with the distinction between creator and consumer becoming increasingly obscured, films have started to mutate, often in unpredictable and fascinating ways.

Consider the case of Jess Franco, the prolific Spanish filmmaker who died earlier this year. Franco directed almost a hundred ‘exploitation’ films in the 1960s and 70s, many under pseudonyms. Yet, despite being made for theoretically undemanding viewers little concerned with questions of authorship, these films were frequently connected via recurring characters, narrative structures, cultural references, performers, musical motifs and locations.

Franco appeared to be making these connections primarily for the amusement of his collaborators, yet he now seems to have anticipated an audience which did not exist until the 80s, when his work started turning up on video, allowing individuals interested in marginal areas of cinema to begin connecting the dots. One of these interested individuals was Tim Lucas, whose article on Franco in the first (1990) issue of Video Watchdog encouraged me to learn more about a director I had previously heard mentioned only in contemptuous terms. My first opportunity to view a Franco film came about in 1993, when his remarkable Succubus (1967) was released on VHS by Nigel Wingrove’s Redemption label, focused on filmmakers Wingrove personally admired.

It was around this time that the market for B movies which reflected the visions of directors rather than the calculations of financiers began to dry up, and Franco’s career seemed to be ending just as his name had started to mean something. But the general trend whereby a fan-publisher/critic and a fan-distributor had helped redefine Franco’s image continued with the appearance of a fan-producer, Kevin Collins, whose One Shot Productions put up the money for a dozen new Franco films (some of them co-written by Collins) between 1997 and 2005, after which Franco began personally financing his work.

Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden (Necronomicon - Dreamt Sin), aka Succubus (1967)

Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden (Necronomicon - Dreamt Sin), aka Succubus (1967)

These films, made for the video/DVD market, were not only produced by Franco fans, but were specifically aimed at ‘fan’ audiences, and in their roughness offer more challenges to our assumptions about what cinema ‘should’ be than the most rigorous masterpieces of the avant garde. Take Las flores de la pasion (2003) and Flores de perversion (2003), which claim to be based on, respectively, the Old Testament Song of Solomon and the Marquis de Sade’s short story Augustine de Villeblanche, but are adaptations of these texts only to the extent that excerpts from them are read out on the soundtracks to accompany narratives with which they have no obvious connection.

Taking to new extremes a tendency encouraged by those rapid schedules to which he had long been accustomed, Franco’s late ‘films’ look more like rough sketches for the work he might have done if more time, money or resources had been available. In Paula-Paula (2010) we have the exploitation cinema equivalent of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011): intended for distribution as a limited edition DVD of which only 500 copies were manufactured, it purportedly takes place in a police station and a nightclub, but was clearly shot in Franco’s apartment. No attempt has been made to conceal this – both locations are represented by the same room, decorated with a poster for Franco’s Camino solitario (1983) and containing shelves of books and vinyl LPs – and the result, despite its sexual explicitness, resembles the kind of amateur movies children shoot in their parents’ homes, casting themselves as cowboys or policemen.

There is an obvious connection here with Franco’s collaborator and mentor Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight contains some second-unit footage shot by Franco), who also started out making ‘professionally’ produced films, and ended up as an ‘amateur’ creating fragmentary works in his own house.

Franco demands we stop opposing amateurism to professionalism, exploitation to art, and does this not by moving in new directions, but rather by burrowing ever further inwards, reducing everything to its vital core (though, in this context, reducing might mean expanding: a lesbian sex scene takes up half of Paula-Paula’s 65-minute running time, but is motivated less by voyeuristic urges than a desire to see what happens when visual pleasure is pursued to the point of abstraction).

In these late films, the female body, frequently the centre of interest in Franco’s oeuvre, is subjected to a series of visual distortions, elongated, expanded, shrunk, fragmented, doubled, halved, dissolved into abstract patterns. As in Kirk Tougas’ The Politics of Perception (1973), in which the trailer for Michael Winner’s The Mechanic is repeated over and over again, each time in a more degraded form, we are invited to participate in an experiment whose purpose is to discover how far images can be distorted before their commercial attractions morph into something richer and stranger.

Lorna, the Exorcist (1974)

Lorna, the Exorcist (1974)

One of the most touching aspects of Franco’s final period is the way he continued making erotica focused on his long-term partner, star and muse Lina Romay (who passed away last year). In a letter to Wingrove explaining why they were refusing to certify Franco’s 1974 Exorcisme (under the title Demoniac), the BBFC claimed:

“The work of this particular filmmaker has often fallen well outside the parameters of BBFC standards… offering little pleasure to the viewer other than a conscious vicarious gratification of misogyny.”

Yet, in the context of a cinema where only young bodies are presented as attractive, Franco’s insistence that a woman in her fifties can still be viewed as a sexual ‘object’ seems positively revolutionary. Perhaps ‘misogyny’ and ‘feminism’ can no more be unproblematically opposed than amateurism and professionalism, exploitation and art, childish innocence and sexual perversity, or creator and audience.

And in the June 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco (1930-2013)

An extraordinary 180-film career took the Spanish director from assisting Orson Welles to churning out horror and pornography.

Read about the issue

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