BFI Southbank – Nicholas Winding-Refn ‘The Act Of Seeing’ Exploitation Poster Book Launch & Farewell Uncle Tom (1971)
Autumn beckons, September is here, so let’s kick things off with quite the sordid little evening over at – where else? – the BFI Southbank. We’ve witnessed Nicholas Winding Refn here before of course, as part of the promotional push on Drive, but the chance to see him again pushing his new book of B movie poster art was accelerated when I realised he was also introducing a members only ultra-rare screening of the notorious slavery picture Farewell Uncle Tom. Being fine connoisseurs of all things cinematically disgusting I’m sure you’ve heard of this movie before, but before we slip into those exploitation shackles some context of his new book The Act Of Seeing is required. Refn has produced the book with his partner in crime Alan Frightfest Jones, and he explained that the inspiration originally arose from his movie memorabilia urges – clearly he’s one of our tribe. A few years ago he purchased $10,000 of exploitation posters from ebay, and since then his appetite in acquiring all sorts of ancillary marketing has broadened, such is his fascination of that most grubby of cinemas children. He enlisted Jones to pull the project together with some research into each of the movies, publishing them together in book form with restored prints of these sometimes time distressed curios, to capture in amber these long lost relics of time gone by. What amused me most was (as Jones explained) that these films are so rare, so underground and obscure that even finding 200 words to talk about some of proven as elusive as a conscience cell in a conservative. The research was much deeper than leafing through the notoriously unreliable imdb but visiting studio archives, rifling through distributors tax records and Refn calling in a few industry favours, just to acquire even barebones details of such immortal classics as Death Bed: The Bed That Eats or Last Orgy Of The Third Reich. As lifelong fans of extreme and underground cinema Jones admits to seeing maybe 25% of the films over his forty year career, Refn perhaps 10%, and to be clear he claimed that he does find genuine artistic merit and beauty in the images, it’s not just some hipster exercise of obsessive cinephilia, a genuine affection for arguably the most neglected hovel of movie history which doesn’t normally grace the pages of ‘serious’ movie periodicals or flag bearing national film institutions.
The movie industry denizens of New York back in this gilded age weren’t exactly the most honourable of souls, and the fact that the product was shuffled around projectors on a constant rotation, remarketed and packaged with alternative titles, sometimes even recut into bastardised versions of each other muddied the research waters somewhat. A further complication was that some cinemas and shady operators would illegally draw up their own lurid marque magnets when screening films without permission so they could pocket 100% of the takings, evading the kickback to the sleazy distributor, a further layer of misinformation and misdirection which must have made the research a herculean task of patience and investigation. Did I purchase a copy of the book? No, primarily because a) I’ve just spent a weekend strafing and disposing unwanted clutter so the acquisition of another bulky 700 page book really wasn’t on the cards and b) frankly speaking a lot of the material seems to refer to soft-core and hard-core sex films, which are a little out of my wheelhouse. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude with a search history to prove it, but that’s just not an area of film culture or history I’m particularly aroused by, and although some of the posters were quite frankly hilarious after you’ve seen a dozen or so you’ve probably seen ’em all. The prospect of ejaculating £60 on an impressively arranged and sequenced book that I would aimlessly leaf through a couple of times before collecting dust on a shelf somewhere wouldn’t be the best investment of time, or money, at this stage when I have bigger fish to fry. Still, during the discussion there was also a disclosure of a potential new film project, not from Refn but another, more localised film director who is currently progressing funding for a fictional look at the whole world of Times Square and the exploitation phenomenon in the 1970’s, and although I don’t feel comfortable disclosing whom is behind it at this stage this would be an ideal next project in this filmmakers evolution – it all reminds me of this beautiful rom-com moment….
So let’s move on to tonight’s featured presentation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screening preceded by such a whirlwind of warnings, including emails and strongly worded website disclaimers that WARNING: THIS FILM IS OFFENSIVE, just to stave off any furiously worded complaints at how Her Royal Majesty’s British Film Institute could possibly screen such despicable depravity. A further warning was emitted by the BFI’s Event Director, explaining that the print, borrowed from Refn’s friends behind the Alamo Drafthouse had some water damage and sonic distress around some of the reel changes, while some of the colour had pinked out –as in this would be a projection that has suffered some loss of colour gradients due to print distress, as opposed to 1960’s softcore Japanese pornography. In true Italian exploitation fashion the film starts with a almost delirious melding of sound of image, as a modern day documentary crew are somehow transported back to the antebellum American South of the 19th century, arriving by helicopter in a expansive cotton field which stretches to the edges of the frame. We are on journey into the heart of darkness, when the slavery trade was wallowing in the deepest depths of cruelty, murder and horrifying inhumanity, the documentations our surrogate witness in a unsettling blurring of fiction and reconstruction. The picture was crafted by the notorious directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, already infamous for the Mondo Cane movie series, allegedly slandering an entire continent with their salacious instincts, architects of offence who really scrapped the barrel with this one.
There was some general discussion of the portrayal of slavery in cinema when QT’s Django was released a couple of years ago, with only a few exploitation films (Mandingo and its 1976 sequel Drum) being identified alongside the small screen phenomenon of Roots, with the highest profile film being Spielberg’s 1997 movie Amistad. For such an important and reverberant subject the paucity of material speaks volumes to me, although I guess a look at one of the most shameful periods of multiple countries history isn’t exactly a box-office blast. So I was braced for impact as it were, and being a desensitised and warped fan of outré cinema I was expecting the worse, so inevitably I didn’t think this was that bad – at least initially. Don’t get me wrong, for the first few reels Farewell Uncle Tom is deeply offensive, its jaw-droppingly disgusting, and in its primitive way compelling brave in pushing its camera into formally uncharted territory. The canvass is human beings essentially being treated like cattle, eating like crazed beasts from troughs, deloused and subjected to medical experiments, suffocating in their own filth in cramped, excretion smeared claustrophobia. As the documentarians continue their on-screen interviews with the fictional inhabitants of the 18th century matters degenerate as it moves into the realms of the sexually abused, the raped and murdered with total impunity, and this is where you can start throwing all the nauseating superlatives around that you wish – brutal, vicious, unconscionable, sadistic – and to reach for the critics cliché dictionary this makes 12 Years A Slave look like Hucklebury Finn. Away from the striking immersive design – the off screen narrators verbally interact with the slaves, with the masters, with the flotsam and jetsam of this broiling hellscape – there is a definitive journey through the film, there is narrative structure and thought, a quality quite alien to the amateur conditions of traditional exploitation born product. Juxtapositions between the supposed civility and refinement of gentrified Southern society which stands in stark contrast with the utter degrading, inhuman barbarity, of church attending Christians exploiting other members of our species with such pitiless barbarity. On a purely visceral level there is also copious male and female nudity, including children, liberal deployment of the ‘n’ word and other racial slurs, and that’s just the opening titles………..
But just as you might be becoming acclimatised, becoming numbed to the parade of choking brutality a new level of Gehenna is unleashed when a new element of the omnipresent culture is exposed. We bear witness to the Caucasian rape gangs, or the greasing up of ‘virgin whores’ for sale at public market, sold as willing orifices for the satisfaction of every depraved whim of the white man’s sexual depravity. If that doesn’t prompt the dry retching then how about the breeding of negros in ‘bitch’ and ‘studs’ paddocks in one plantation worthy of the deepest abyss of the Marquis De Sade, the owner proudly boasting of his chattal’s ability to gestate new product within weeks of her previous birth, before we glimpse one terrified adolescent thrown into the cage of a half syphilitic grunting lunatic – you can shudderingly guess the rest. Not enough for you? Then how about (for me) the final coup de grace, one final atrocity ambling along with a 13 year old girl seducing one of the off-screen narrators, insisting that he deflower her – actually that’s rather a tame phrase, how about ‘break her in’ – rather than abandon her hymen to one of her racial kin, so that she can service her white masters more efficiently in a harrowingly compliant scene which is deliberately shot to implicate the audience in the seduction. This is probably one of the most uncomfortable and disgusting scenes I’ve ever seen, operating right at the cusp of endurance, where even the likes of arch provocateurs Gasper Noe or Von Trier might mutter ‘whoa, wait, c’mon now – hang on a fucking second’….
Of course it’s all true, and we know from academic and historic record that these events or similar occurred, that these horrific structures and ideologies existed, and indeed still occur. The historic distancing tends to engulf these crimes in the oceans of time, which is why the narrative device of the present day documentarians recording these events uncomfortably blurs the lines between fiction and imagination, rendering the film as especially disturbing given their (and by proxy our) slow implication and absorption into the same crimes and peccadillos – it reminded me of the notorious Belgian faux-verite controversy of the 1990’s Man Bites Dog. Like all exploitation it deliberately emphasises the lurid, the voyeuristic and distressing to make its points, but that’s kinda the point of exploitation cinema – the clues in the title. Moreover there is a point to the film in its design and purpose no matter how inelegantly expressed, like a bullwhip thrashing out the ‘decent’ standards of bourgeois civility, as Farewell Uncle Tom finally concludes on something of a call to arms to the Black Panther movement, encouraging the vengeful butcher of whitey and his wife in their comfortable middle class bed. When the film was released in 1971 this was incendiary to say the least, a sequence which apparently provoked genuine riots which caused the authorities to exorcise the film from circulation after only a week. If you don’t happen to be near any grindhouse joints then the film is available in numerous versions on the old faithful YouTube, if you are any way interested in exploitation cinema then this is a must. Coincidently I’ve just purchased Refn’s Pusher trilogy boxed set for the ungainly sum of £6 which is a skull bludgeoning bargain, next up at the BFI we stumble nicely into another paragon of saintly, decent filmmaking, with a special visit from that Baltimore born film director who once filmed a 250lb transvestite eating fresh dog shit on camera. Bon appetit;