Thursday, 13 October 2011
Jesus on the Mainline:
Learning to Love Jess Franco.
Back in the early days of this blog, when I was still pottering about on the outskirts of the big, humid jungle that is weird European cinema, I made a few derogatory remarks about the work of Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco - remarks that I now largely regret, and would like to withdraw.
Sorting out my DVDs and VHSs prior to moving house last month, I discovered that I have no less than twenty two movies directed by Franco on my shelves – more than I own by any other filmmaker by a considerable margin. (Jean Rollin probably comes second, with about 17 titles not includes duplicates – I know, I’m a walking cliché.) Given that I probably acquired around half of these films whilst I was still under the impression that Franco was about the shoddiest, most consistently disappointing director in the business, an examination of the strange phenomenon of Franco Fandom is surely called for.
I still probably wouldn’t list Franco in the top rank of my favourites directors – the number of his movies I own is more a reflection of the vast number of movies he MADE than anything else. I’m sure if Orson Welles or Fellini or whoever had banged out ten features a year through their careers, they’d probably be giving Jess a run for his money re: distribution of my disposable income. But all the same, I have grown very fond of his films.
I’m sure at least some of you will be able to relate to way that Franco exerts an influence upon cult film fans similar to that exercised by the irresistible supernatural seductresses who populate so many of his movies, leading on hesitant victims against their better judgement, luring them ever deeper into his strange and fascinating realm – an island principality cut off from all the norms of conventional cinema, functioning according to its own set of primitive laws. Beyond the barriers of kitsch, beyond the limits of boredom…
Unlike the on-screen seductresses, he hopefully doesn’t end this initiation into exotic new pleasures by KILLING US, but what can ya say, it gets pretty close at times.
Back in 2009, I began my review of Rino Silvestro’s ‘Werewolf Woman’ (a review I’d pretty much wholly like to disown, btw) by foolishly vowing that I would give up watching Jess Franco films. The existence of this post tells you how well that particular resolution went. In that review, I singled out the 1969 flick Kiss Me Monster for particular scorn, recalling how my first viewing, on comfortingly crappy Redemption VHS, annoyed the hell out of me, prompting the kneejerk “well fuck THIS guy!” reaction that Franco neophytes are sure to experience at least on their first, ooh, six or seven times out the gate.
Nowadays, I can tell you in a flash that ‘Kiss Me Monster’ is one of the so-called ‘Red Lips’ films, two light-weight efforts Franco knocked out in collaboration with producer Adrian Hoven to capitalise on the notoriety that lead actress Janine Reynaud had gained in 1967’s far more elaborate Necronomicon (aka ‘Succubus’) - perhaps the closest Franco ever came to critical/arthouse recognition (which probably wasn’t THAT close, but hey, it caused a bit of a rumpus on the festival circuit and presumably made a ton of cash). Even by Franco standards, the ‘Red Lips’ films (the other is Sadisterotica) are slipshod, opportunistic affairs that must have served to completely undermine whatever cineaste cred he’d temporarily acquired from ‘Necronomicon’. Beginning as broad spoofs of the then fading Euro-spy genre, the movies introduce Reynaud and co-star Rosanna Yanni as a pair of ditzy secret agents involved in comic book-style espionage capers, but swiftly degenerate into a typically Franco-esque mass of blathering, inexplicable nonsense, essentially functioning as extended injokes/laff-fests for Franco, Hoven and their pals.
Back when I picked up the VHS though, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was that it was called ‘Kiss Me Monster’, and had a picture of a woman in a tuxedo and fishnets playing a saxophone on the front. Maybe I’d heard the name Jess Franco bandied around, but I didn’t really know anything about him – so let’s throw this on and see what he can do, eh? Next thing I remember is sitting there 70 minutes later, thinking, what the hell just happened?
‘Kiss Me Monster’ indeed! Not only was there no monster, I don’t think there was even any kissing. In fact there wasn’t much of anything. It wasn’t a horror film, it wasn’t a sexploitation film, it wasn’t a spy film, it certainly wasn’t an ‘art’ film in even the vaguest sense of the term, it seemed to be aiming for comedy but wasn’t very funny - it was just… nothing. The whole thing fell out of my mind, like a dream too dull to bother remembering. A day later, I probably couldn’t tell you a single thing about it, other than that it made me feel like I’d been clubbed on the head and knocked out cold for an hour or so. What a bunch of crap. Who does this guy think he is, throwing together this random pile of leftover footage, calling it a movie and expecting us to pay to see it?
Fast forward to late 2010, when I decided to revisit ‘Kiss Me Monster’ to see if it was really as bad as I remembered – a key moment in my indoctrination into the cult of Franco. Essentially my reaction was very similar to the first time round – I still sat there dumbfounded when ‘FIN’ abruptly popped up, barely able to remember, let alone understand, what had just transpired. The difference is: this time I loved every minute of it. The random, improvisatory drift of the film, the wacky laziness and sly, garish humour – sitting there on the sofa with a whisky cocktail, I had an absolute blast. The wonky, cut & paste jazz soundtrack? The scene where the characters drive to some sort of shack on the edge of a cliff, discover a dead body, laugh uproariously, and indulge in terribly choreographed kung-fu with some kind of villain? The bit where one of the leads gets gassed and wakes in up in cage, slave to some sort of lesbian crime boss who seems to live in a greenhouse, but actually she doesn’t really mind cos she’s kinda into that? Suddenly it all made sense. I had entered a Jess Franco State of Mind, as the name of a weblog dedicated to the man’s work would have it. Like any higher state of consciousness, entry took some effort, but I’d cracked it.
In trying to explain the singular appeal of Franco films, I will inevitably find myself falling back on the same handful of arguments that his supporters have been using for years. Foremost amongst these is the idea that there is no *definitive* Franco film. Although his work maintains a stylistic & thematic consistency that marks him out (for better or worse) as an ‘auteur’ in the classic sense, he is a director who has never made a masterpiece. Even his very best films are flawed and erratic, usually giving the impression of being frustratingly incomplete. There is no one Franco flick I could pull off the shelf to try to turn someone into a fan – to the neophyte, watching pretty much any of his films will prove a confusing, disappointing experience. Watch enough of them however, and you’ll start to realise that these films are less stand-alone artefacts, more like additions to the vast river of imagery that comprises Franco’s artistic legacy – theme, genre, tone and quality ebbing and flowing across the decades like the tide.
Through generations of Film Studies text books and critical consensus, we’ve been taught to accept the idea the ‘auteur’ whose films are carefully constructed, deliberate statements, reflecting his/her artistic intentions. An appreciation of Franco’s oeuvre, however, involves throwing that notion outta the window from the outset, and preparing instead to enter the headspace of a director who basically doesn’t seem to give a damn about the final product of his labours, never mind the form in which they’re eventually placed before an audience.
Of course, Franco is far from alone in the ranks of directors who seem to make films for their own personal gratification, indulging their passions to the n-th degree and hoping an audience will share them. But whilst most classically ‘indulgent’ directors (from Fellini to Tarantino to whoever) presumably extract the most pleasure from assembling and evaluating their work in the editing room, or from witnessing the initial reactions of an audience in the screening room, Franco instead seems solely concerned with the act of filming itself. Like some weird voyeur or instigator of practical jokes, his satisfaction lies wholly in capturing what’s unfolding before his camera… when that’s over, he’s done with it. All he wants to do is film the next thing, and he wants to do it NOW.
Collaborators speak of Franco directing with an almost AAD-afflicted sense of constant forward momentum – a style that no doubt allowed him to thrive within the world of marginal, DIY productions, where such flippancies as retakes, coverage and continuity are laughed off as pointless luxuries. It also presumably helped him to maintain his prodigious work rate, which seemed to reach critical mass during the early-mid ‘70s, when he was churning out something like a dozen feature films per year, each of them splattered across the grimier end of the international film circuit in with so many alternate titles, in so many alternate versions, that a team of archivists could keep themselves busy for all eternity trying to assemble a comprehensive Franco filmography.
Accounts of how much input Franco had into post-production work on his films seems to vary depending on who you ask, but simply from watching them, it’s easy to get the impression that he just flung the raw footage at whoever was footing the bill and tore off to some other far-flung Mediterranean holiday resort to start filming his next onslaught of languorous, irrational lechery, leaving sleazebag producers and their aides to sellotape the results into a viable 80 minute programmer.
It is this ‘film and be damned’ approach that I think leads to the schizophrenic inconsistency that afflicts all Franco product. Even within the same film, a clear distinction can often be drawn between the scenes Franco was interested in (the sex, the violence, the decadent nightclub scenes and the strange, atmospheric location shots), and the tiresome stretches necessitated by the token adherence to script and continuity, about which he clearly couldn’t give a shit (character introductions, plot exposition, that sort of thing). The former can often explode with stylistic invention and emotional intensity, even as the latter showcase some of the most soul-witheringly dull filmmaking you’ve seen in your life.
Multiply this through the possibility that many of these films have been pieced together by people with little understanding of, or sympathy for, the director’s intentions, and then most likely censored, uncensored, porno-ised, unporno-ised, recut and generally buggered around with by hands unknown for years to come, and the result is a bumpy ride for all concerned.
But isn’t that, in effect, what remains so fascinating about Franco films? Every one of them is like a safari into the unknown. The general shape of his strange world will remain familiar, but the combination of elements within it could literally go anywhere, turning on a dime to leave you by turns baffled, exhilarated, horrified, angry, aroused, bored to tears, actually asleep, disgusted, awestruck, strangely moved or just insensible with laughter. Whatever happens, you’ll be insensible with *something* by the end, that’s for sure.
As such, writing a review of a single Franco film, assessing its relative worth as a discreet viewing experience, seems a pretty futile exercise. Far better I think that I should ramble on much as the maestro himself tends to do, drifting from film to film as the mood takes me, throwing in more general observations on his work wherever they occur to me.
I started writing this post with the intention of making it kind of ‘Franco overview’ precisely along those lines. But seeing as I’ve written over 2000 words already and barely even got started, I don’t think that’s gonna happen in ONE post. So… I guess maybe I’ll start doing a series of posts following particular aspects of his films in some form or other, and we can continue our voyage of discovery in part 2, part 3 etc? How does that sound to you? Good? No? Well ok, I’ll do it anyway. Maybe not immediately (there are plenty of other films I want to find time to write up first), but soon.
So get ready for jazz, machine guns, holiday resorts, Howard Vernon, generalised sexual delirium and lots of naked ladies, soon as I can be bothered to hit the typewriter. And in the meantime, at least I can relax in the knowledge that no one’s gonna stumble over this site’s archives and get the impression I hate the guy.