May 5, 2018

Cutter's Way

I have to confess that, nowadays, there are very few films that I can truly relate to in terms of sheer nihilism, pessimism, and cynicism, especially in regard to the Reaganite 1980s when Spielberg was king and the promotion of collective fantastic infantilization was the name of the game among the neo-Vaudevillian shysters, hucksters, and culture-distorters in Tinseltown. Don’t get me wrong, the 1980s produced some great dark films including David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Tim Hunter’s River's Edge (1986), but I think Ivan Passer’s Cutter's Way (1981) aka Cutter and Bone—a film based on the 1976 novel of the latter name by Newton Thornburg—is the only cinematic work of its era that goes all the way in terms of pure and adulterated cultural pessimism in regard to the state of the United States and its increasingly disenfranchised white working-class majority. Of course, the film has more in common with the aesthetically and culturally subversive films of the American New Wave of the late-1960s and 1970s than most films of its era. Indeed, as Charles Taylor explained in his rather readable yet hopelessly boomer-esque book Opening Wednesday at a Theater Or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s (2017), “WINTER KILLS also calls up the closing days of a decade that has proven to be the richest period in American moviemaking. There were still remarkable movies being made, and wonderful poplar movies that were yet to come, like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But, more and more, daring and gusty pictures went unseen. Two years later Jeff Bridges would star in another of them, Ivan Passer’s CUTTER’S WAY, and would see it, like WINTER KILLS, yanked from theaters after a week (in this case because United Artists was still reeling from the disaster of HEAVEN’S GATE—which Bridges also appeared in—the previous month.)

 In terms of its cynical conspiracy theme, Passer’s film certainly has much in common with a number of great 1970s flicks ranging from Francis Ford Coppola’s Antonioni-esque The Conversation (1974) to Arthur Penn’s decidedly dark post-Watergate neo-noir Night Moves (1975) to John Schlesinger’s post-shoah Judaic thriller Marathon Man (1976), yet it manages to transcends all of these films in terms of both aesthetic and metaphysical prowess. Like a distillation of the darkest and most nihilistic elements of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) and featuring a miserable ménage à trios that really demystifies such socially sick romantic arrangements as reflected in such absurd bourgeois cinematic depictions ranging from François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) to Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), Cutter's Way is indubitably one of the oh-so rare idiosyncratic neo-noir flicks that manages to rival the great classic film noir masterpieces like Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) in terms of depicting the worst of the worst of the particular American zeitgeist that they represent.

 While he would eventually degenerate into a for-hire hack that would helm forgettable TV movies, Czech auteur Passer originally received international critical acclaim for his association with the Czech New Wave and directing Intimní osvětlení (1965) aka Intimate Lighting and co-penning the classic early Miloš Forman flicks Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965) aka Loves of a Blonde and Hoří, má panenko (1967) aka The Firemen's Ball. After defecting to the West with the aid of sleazy guido producer Carlo Ponti following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Passer made his way to the United States and made his American debut with the rather gritty and nihilistic ghetto black-comedy Born to Win (1971) aka Addict aka Scraping Bottom starring alpha-Jew George Segal as a superlatively sleazy Hebraic junky and hobo that lives to lie, cheat, and steal so that he can get his next big fix in between attempting evade the cops and other dangerous gutter-dwelling scum. Based on a story by Hebraic playwright David Scott Milton—a consciously kosher writer that also penned mundane screenplays for fellow chosenites like Peter Bogdanovich, Sidney Pollack, and Irvin Kershner—the film is notable for featuring one of the most shameless and morally bankrupt Jewish characters since the Third Reich era films of Veit Harlan. In short, the ironically titled film, which features a fairly early young Robert De Niro in a small role, is like a Jewish and more cynical equivalent to Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970) in terms of depiction of the virtual purgatorial lifestyle of an east coast dope fiend. While Passer indubitably has an uneven and inconsistent oeuvre, Born to Win is undoubtedly part of the same cinematic lineage as Cutter’s Way as a film that seems to take savagely sardonic delight in ruthlessly murdering what is left of the great myth that is the American dream. Notably, Passer rightly regards both of these films as his greatest achievements as a filmmaker, or as he described in a 2016 interview with Film Comment, “I don’t have a favorite. I like BORN TO WIN, but I think its blend of European and American sensibilities disoriented many critics at the time. It’s now considered one of my best films. Maybe CUTTER’S WAY, which is perhaps my most American film. It is a damaging account of a nation that has lost its final illusions in the Vietnam War and of a society eaten away by corruption.”

In some ways, to describe Cutter’s Way as anti-American would be a gross understatement but, at the same time, it is also, despite its Slavic director, shamelessly American, at least in terms of depicting everything that is uniquely ugly about the considerably bastardized nation. Indeed, H.L. Mencken might as well have been writing a sort of philosophical synopsis for the film when he wrote in his essay The Libido for the Ugly (1926), “Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth.” A film that only contains pulchritude in its potent putridity and understatedly morbid melancholia, the film depicts a metaphysically sick, culturally and racially deracinated, and morosely materialistic coastal microcosm where the technically physical beautiful are downright ugly due to their attitudes and personalities and where every sunny beach is despoiled due to its loathsome inhabitants. A sad and pathetic yet undeniably darkly humorous film depicting a failed dime store gigolo and his unhinged crippled Vietnam War veteran pal playing virtual Russian Roulette with their own lives by trying to prove that a powerful local cutthroat capitalist was responsible for the brutal rape and murder of a local teenage cheerleader, Cutter’s Way is a true antihero’s tale where true justice seems all but totally obsolete, as the society it depicts is so innately and irrevocably corrupt that there is no hope for the common man to prevail, at least in any big or meaningful way. As for love and romance, they are nothing but a distant memory as the characters are too sick and internally wounded, drunk, and impenetrable to act on their own conflicted emotions. As the end of the film ultimately demonstrates, only death and revenge can provide these pathetic lost souls with any real sense of personal catharsis. A sort of West Coast buddy flick equivalent to Taxi Driver (1976), albeit with protagonists that are slightly more sane and sympathetic, the film will almost unequivocally be regarded as a masterpiece by any serious cinephile that is willing to see American for what it really is; a cultural and spiritual void that is beyond redemption. In fact, despite their glaring flaws, the characters are almost too sympathetic as they force the viewer to confront their own most shameful and unflattering flaws, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses; or at least their own personal capacity for said flaws, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. After watching the film, one should certainly reconsider Arthur Schopenhauer’s words, “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more unfortunate than we: and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?

While Cutter’s Way is certainly, to some extent, an allegory for the disillusionment many Americans felt as a result of the Vietnam War, assassination of JFK, and failure of the so-called Civil Rights movement, among other things, it transcends these themes and acts as a sort of exercise in Sehnsucht, angst, and a specifically American 20th-century form of Mal du siècle. Depicting a rather pathetic situation were two best friends love the same perennially doped up dipsomaniac dame, who also seems to love both of them yet is similarly hopeless in expressing said love, the film ultimately presents an unapologetically forlorn world where love is not enough to establish permanent solid interpersonal bonds and perpetual misery seems more desirable to happiness because the latter only seems like a sick joke due to its scarcity and lack of longevity. While Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is a rootless wanderer that cannot commit to anything aside from lacklusterly boning old blonde bourgeois bitches for a couple shekels (not unlike Joe Buck of Midnight Cowboy (1969), he is also somewhat bashful when it comes to asking for payment for his sensual services), his best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard)—a sardonically disgruntled Vietnam War veteran that is missing a couple limps and sports of an eye patch that fittingly makes him look like a pirate-cum-biker—has more or less declared total war against the entire world as a man that is plagued with fuchsteufelswild. Although Cutter is married to her, Bone clearly loves the female protagonist Maureen ‘Mo’ Cutter (Lisa Eichhorn) and the three live together like one supremely fucked unhappy (anti)family where nil children naturally are roaming around (after all, degenerates tend not to reproduce, or so once wrote early Zionist leader Max Nordau in his infamous text Entartung (1892) aka Degeneration). While both Cutter and Mo seem to be longing for death to some degree, Bone is just too damn passive, cowardly, and infuriately indecisive to embrace something of such patent permanence, so it is only fitting that both of the former die in the end while the latter finally gains some degree of testicular fortitude. As Cutter complains in regard to attempting to get Bone involved in something important, “It’s like trying to seduce a eunuch.”

While they all seem to be alcoholics to some degree, Cutter is a belligerent drunk and his wife Mo seems to be slowly but surely drinking herself into death in between taking bong hits. Undoubtedly, in some alternate reality where they both were not so screwed up, Bone and Mo seem like they could make the perfect loving couple. Of course, Mo is a supremely bitter bitch as demonstrated by her welcoming remark to Bone, “ …you’re home awfully early, aren’t you? Couldn’t you find a matron with a taste for gutter squalor?” In fact, Mo has no problem rubbing it into Bone’s face that she is married to his best friend Cutter as demonstrated by her gleefully savage remark, “Really must be tough playing second fiddle to a one-eyed cripple.” Indeed, while Cutter might be a cripple that seems to suffer from a perpetual state of fahne, he’s certainly got more swag and machismo than his best pal, who at least partly owes his lack of masculine prowess to the fact that he went to college instead of the Vietnam War. On the other hand, had Cutter not been physically and emotionally crippled in the war, it would not be hard to imagine him as the ultimate pussy-magnet alpha-male, but instead he is a self-destructively bitter and resentful quasi-suicidal renegade that lives life in the most miserable and misanthropic, albeit charismatic, fashion imaginable.  As pathetic as they are all, the trio needs each other, so naturally things begin to fall apart when one of them dies.

Although more focused on character development, mood, and atmosphere, Cutter’s Way centers around Cutter and Bone’s somewhat misguided yet nonetheless respectable mission to expose a local capitalist hotshot named J. J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) for the brutal rape and murder of a beauteous blonde high school cheerleader; or, more accurately, the film focuses on the eponymous antihero's attempt to get his pathologically passive male prostitute pal involved in the exposing of said local capitalist hotshot.  The trouble starts when Bone is arrested after he unwittingly witnesses the dumping of the teenage girl’s corpse into a back alley dumpster during a nasty rainy night. While Bone—a man that epitomizes the antithesis to Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power—initially wants nothing to do with the murder mystery, Cutter and the dead girl’s older sister Valerian Duran (Ann Dusenberry) make it their mission to get involved and force the hapless man hooker to tag along. Indeed, as is fitting for a film set in a nihilistic post-Vietnam War America, the friends develop a degree of obsession and paranoia that rivals some of the most single-minded investigations into the JFK assassination conspiracy. Despite seeing Cord at a local parade and being initially completely convinced that he is the same killer that he saw before, Bone later tries to reject or contradict any of Cutter’s arguments as to why the tycoon is their man. In fact, they even find a newspaper article where Cord more or less sadistically brags about his sinister deeds, stating in a creepily cryptic fashion, “I like to pickup hitchhikers. Especially young ones. I like their input.” Of course, as demonstrated by the fact that semen is found in the dead girl’s mouth, Cord is actually the one that likes giving input.

When the group conspires to create a “pretend blackmail plan” to see if Cord will reveal his guilt by actually paying the money, Mo, who wants nothing to do with the entire charade, ruthlessly rebukes the group for even considering getting involved in such potentially dangerous criminal activity. Indeed, aside from sarcastically telling Valerie to, “get fucked, sweetie,” Mo gets so exceedingly enraged with her hubby Cutter that she even mocks him for being a cripple, stating with the sort of rage that one can only expect from an agitated female lover, “You’re not some saint avenging the sins of the earth, you know, Alex. And if you are, what am I doing here? Oh, I know. I’m like your [missing] leg. Your leg! Sending messages to your brain and there’s nothing there anymore.” Needless to say, Bone is not too happy when his ladylove is smacked by Cutter due to her rather rude verbal indiscretions. Rather ironically, it is ultimately Mo that is the first victim of the group’s dubious detective work, as she dies in a rather horrific fashion after someone burns their house down. To make matters more morosely emotional, Mo cheats on Cutter and sleeps with Bone the very same night she is killed. In fact, while having sex, Mo even breaks down crying and says to Bone “I love you,” but the pathetic gigolo ultimately lets her down in the end. While Mo makes a rather emotional plea for Bone to stay the night with her and he obliges, he later secretly slips outside and abandons her not long after she falls asleep, thus unwittingly saving his own life in the process.  Of course, as someone that is as hopelessly miserable as Mo, it almost seems fitting that she dies, especially during an emotional night where she actually reveals her loving tender side but is ultimately betrayed by the very same weak man that she lovingly confides in.  Naturally, Cutter is enraged when Bone admits that he had sex with Mo by meekly confessing in a half-hearted fashion, “That night I left . . . She was pretty depressed, you know, things got kind of heavy.” Not surprisingly, Mo’s horrendous death makes Cutter and even Bone all the more determined to bring Cord to justice. Unfortunately, two perennial fuck-ups make for a poor match against a seemingly all-powerful tycoon that seems to practically own all of Santa Barbara, but luckily Cutter is on a suicide mission and thus willing to go all the way lest he fail the memory of his beloved self-described “wifey.”

During their intense investigation, Cutter and Bone discover that Cord has a long history of murdering people and getting away with it. For example, the father of Cutter’s friend-cum-boss George Swanson (Arthur Rosenberg) was apparently killed by Cord a number of decades before over a business deal. As a means to both covertly control and keep tabs on George, Cord paid for his college education and set him up as the boss of a boat shop, which Bone also incidentally works at. Despite the fact that George is totally petrified of his tycoon boss, Cutter goes ahead and steals an invitation for a big party at Cord’s house so that he and Bone can sneak in and confront the supposed killer. True to his pathetically passive nature, Bone attempts to talk Cutter out of even going to the party, stating, “Alex, what’s this gonna prove? It’s not like it’s gonna change anything. It’s not gonna bring her back. It’s not gonna take away our guilt. It’s not gonna make you whole again, you know that. Nothing’s ever gonna do that,” but the hardcore headcase vet merely responds by suggestively placing a pistol in his suit jacket and saying “I, uh… I gotta go, I go.” Needless to say, not unlike the antihero of Sam Peckinpah’s final masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Cutter is on a suicide mission of sorts as he has lost his beloved and has nothing left to lose. Assumedly out of a sense of obligation to both his best friend and dead lover, Bone reluctantly decides to join Cutter at the party, which proves to be a true shit show. Indeed, not long after joining the party, Bone is captured and beat up by Cord’s bodyguards while Cutter rides around the large property on a stolen horse like a deranged bloodlusting berserker high on mushrooms.

 Upon meeting and talking with Cord, Bone encounters a seemingly reasonable man who states he is willing to discuss with Cutter the supposed “fantasy” that he has created in his head, stating, “I understand he’s a veteran. Well, I’ve been in the war. I know what it does to some men. I’m willing to talk to your friend if you think it will do any good. Do you think it will do any good?” Not long after, Cutter fittingly crashes the horse he is riding through Cord’s office window and receives a fatal wound via a broken piece of glass in the process. While holding Cutter as he is dying in his arms, Bone stares at Cord and states with a certain visceral intensity, “It was you,” to which the tycoon shockingly and quite mockingly replies with a certain sickly self-assured arrogance, “What if it was?,” and then proceeds to put on the same sunglasses that he wore the night the Duran girl was murdered. In a symbolic act where the two broken ‘half-men’ become one full whole as men in their dual vengeance against the man that killed the woman they both loved, Bone wraps his hand around Cutter’s hand and pulls the trigger of the gun that his lifeless metacarpus is caressing in what is ultimately a fittingly ambiguous ending.

While Cutter’s Way concludes on a somewhat ambiguous note with Bone shooting Cord, auter Passer shot a sort of epilogue for the film that he never used, or as he explained in a July 15, 1981 interview featured in The Soho News with Jonathan Rosenbaum when asked if it was possible that the protagonist could get away with killing the rich tycoon, “Actually, I shot what happens after that. He walks out of this huge mansion, and it’s just before sunset; and he goes faster and faster and finally begins to run through the trees. And there’s a scene on his sailboat, which he lives on. he’s sailing out of the harbor, and he hears a laugh that sounds like Cutter’s laugh. He stops and looks at where it came from, and he sees there are a few sailors on a small cutter. And one of them looks like Cutter; he’s drinking a beer. And he laughs again. At that moment, Bone almost hits the coast and the Coast Guard; he almost brushes against this huge boat. But he avoids the accident, and soon gets on the open sea, and sails away. They very much wanted this ending, but it took away something. You know, this film is about pulling a trigger — what it takes — and we felt, the writer, producer, and I, that this would be just a tag that would dissipate the emotional impact of that last shot, and so we pleaded with them, and they finally agreed.” While I find this potential ending intriguing, I am glad that Passer went the more arthouse route and left the film the way it is. After all, if I have any serious complaints about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it is that I think it should have concluded right after Travis Bickle’s bloody shootout and not with the somewhat absurd revelation that the deranged antihero has been hailed as a local hero.

While it could certainly be argued that the film has elements that can interpreted as everything from a quasi-Marxist critique of the evils of capitalist oligarchs to a pessimistic Buchanian Paleoconservative portrait of the social, cultural, and racial decline of the United States in an age where both sides of the pseudo-dichotomous American political system support globalization and disfranchisement of white lumpenproles, there is no doubt that Cutter’s Way would never be made in Hollywood today simply because of its many moments of darkly humorous (and simply delightful) racial insensitivity. For example, early on in the film in his very first scene, Cutter pisses off a group of negroes at a bar after loudly stating in regard to a colored friend, “And last but certainly least, is Rastus, the court nigger.” Instead of cucking out and denying he said the word, Cutter takes things a little further and remarks to the group of angry negroes that are surrounding him, “What? Do I detect some tension? Oh. Come now, gentlemen. It’s a simple matter of semantics. What are we white, well-intentioned liberals supposed to call you cats these days, huh? Blacks? Coloreds? Negroes? Darkies?,” thereupon eloquently mocking the legacy of so-called civil rights movement, racial equality, and white liberal ethno-masochistic do-gooder bullshit in the process. Of course, it would not be a proper California film without Cutter making some rather scathing remarks in regard to so-called Hispanics and their American injun brothers. Indeed, while enjoying the sights and sounds of a multicultural Mission of Santa Barbara parade, Cutter declares during a moment of great exuberance with unrivaled dipsomaniacal eloquence, “Look, our glorious past, the Mission of Santa Barbara. Happy padres, happy Indians. The blessings of the white man. Wiped out in less than 200 years by disease and forced labor. You can still get one to clean up your kitchen or you know, park your car. They died with Christ’s blessing. Happy corpses, each and every one.” A natural comedian that knows how to correlate miscegenation with bestiality without even literally saying it, Cutter attempts to squash his wife’s worries by telling her when she asks him what he has been doing all night, “Minding my own business. Doing a little research. Oh, and I conducted a modest sociological experiment. Picked up several hitchhikers. Yeah. An Afro-American homosexual and two mestizas with a domesticated simian. Black cat and the two mez chicks weren’t bad, but don’t ever orgy with a pet monkey. The little fuckers bite.” As his rather hilarious remarks and domestic violence against crazy women demonstrates, Cutter is, for better or worse, unequivocally the Jim Goad of disgruntled Vietnam War veterans.

Maybe it is the physical appearance of the characters, but to me Cutter’s Way acts as a sort of unhinged cinematic requiem-cum-Ragnarök to American working-class whites—the real people that built America—that had their lives destroyed as a result of the largely Judaic and bourgeois counterculture movement, which introduced this forsaken (and clearly unwitting) generation to hard drugs, pacifism, miscegenation, negrophilia, and other garbage that the same sort of kosher culture-distorters peddled in the Weimar Republic. Indeed, when I see the characters of the film, I am reminded of my mother’s hippie junky brother who had his skull crushed in a car wreck and the various uncles my ex-girlfriend had that either committed suicide or overdosed on heroin.  Probably for different reasons than he intended them, the film bleeds Austrian mischling Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, “The weariness of long-forgotten peoples hangs heavy on my eyelids.” Of course, it is only fitting that Cutter’s Way was an abject commercial failure as it was created in the same Hollywood that got wealthy romanticizing hippie hedonism with films like Easy Rider (1969), which is a deceptively culturally corrosive cinematic work that probably inspired more unintentional drug overdoses and hick-hating than any other. While the villain of the film is obviously supposed to be some sort of stereotypical rich WASP villain—a group that was already in steady decline at the time that was being rapidly replaced by members of the chosen tribe—I think it would be more historically accurate to seem him as a sort of Bert Schneider figure or, at the very least, one of the Sackler brothers of Purdue Pharma infamy. As Emil Cioran once wrote in his classic text A Short History of Decay (1949), “A nation dies when it no longer has the strength to invent new gods, new myths, new absurdities; its idols blur and vanish; it seeks them elsewhere, and feels alone before unknown monsters. This too is decadence. But if one of these monsters prevails, another world sets itself in motion, crude, dim, intolerant, until it exhausts its god and emancipates itself from him; for man is free—and sterile—only in the interval when the gods die; slave—and creative—only in the interval when, as tyrants, they flourish.” Undoubtedly, the Christian god is dead in the world of Cutter’s Way but an “unknown monster’ certainly seems to be a hidden ominous force that encourages a sort of collective nihilism where love is an impossibility, passivity a virtue, sex and drug addiction the driving force in life, and procreation a sin. Needless to say, it is no coincidence that when people like the eponymous protagonist of Passer’s film were losing limbs and their minds in the Vietnam War, the Bert Schneiders of the world were calling these drafted soldiers “baby killers” while sitting back and smoking weed, banging shiksa sluts, aiding and abetting Black Panther Party killers like Huey P. Newton, and producing commie agitprop trash like Hearts and Minds (1974).

Notably, Cutter’s Way is infamous for being the victim of internal politics at United Artists, which just suffered the virtual studio-sinking blockbuster bomb of Michael Cimino’s epic in auteur egotism Heaven's Gate (1980) also starring Jeff Bridges (in fact, somewhat ironically, the studio apparently finally agreed to fund the film after Bridges got on board because they liked him due to his dailies from Cimino’s film). Although championed by various prominent film reviewers, UA spent virtual nil on advertising and promotion for the film, though, as a result of various positive reviews, the studio eventually decided to re-release it in 1981 under its United Artists Classics division and enter it into various film festivals under a new name (indeed, Cutter and Bone was later changed to the current title). Not unsurprisingly, auteur Passer, who seems to regard it as his greatest film, was left exceedingly embittered by the entire ordeal and stated in an article entitled ‘Passer's Way’ featured in the July/August 1981 edition of Film Comment magazine, “You can assassinate movies as you can assassinate people. I think UA murdered the film. Or at least they tried to murder it.” Featuring deceptively warm and intoxicating cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth (Altered States, Blade Runner) and a characteristically idiosyncratically resplendent score by deranged musical genius Jack Nitzsche (Cruising, Starman), Cutter’s Way is probably the most criminally underrated project for every single artist involved in it, not least of all actors John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn. Of course, to quote the titular antihero of the film, “Great art demands a great audience, you know what I mean?,” hence the film's failure in the early 1980s when Star Wars twaddle and mindless Spielbergian fantasy was vogue.

While Cutter's Way is a positively and patently pessimistic flick set in a world where heroes are non-existent and virtually everything about life seems worthless, it does have one very important message in regard to the need to take a stand in life despite it seemingly pointless and futile.  Indeed, as Oswald Spengler once wrote in his classic short text Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (1932), “We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.”  Indeed, the eponymous antihero of Cutter's Way might have been a deranged drunkard and aggressively nihilistic shithead, but he at least died with something resembling honor, which is something that cannot be said of most people from the dreaded baby boomer generation. In short, forget emotionally counterfeit bourgeois bullshit like Hebraic hack Lawrence ‘Star Wars’ Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983), Cutter's Way is the ultimate ‘feel-bad’ boomer film as it does the seemingly impossible by redeeming the boomers, at least the forgotten white working-class ones. 

-Ty E

Apr 17, 2018

Blood and Roses

While Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is certainly the most famous gothic horror vampire novel ever cinematically adapted as indicated by important cinematic works ranging from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) to Francis Ford Coppola’s somewhat uneven Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), fellow Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) has arguably been responsible for inspiring the most ideally idiosyncratic and erotically-charged of bloodsucker flicks. Indeed, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s semi-sound masterpiece Vampyr (1932), Roger Vadim's Et mourir de plaisir (1960) aka Blood and Roses aka Carmilla aka To Die with Pleasure, British auteur Roy Ward Baker’s Hammer flick The Vampire Lovers (1970), and Spanish auteur Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) aka La Novia Ensangrentada are all wildly divergent and mostly rather memorable vampire flicks that all happen to be based on the same somewhat ambiguously lesbianic Le Fanu novella. While I personally like all of these films aside from the uniquely idiotic The Vampire Lovers starring Hebraic hoe Ingrid Pitt (undoubtedly, Madeline Smith is much sexier), I have recently become completely obsessed with the imagery of Blood and Roses and I say that as someone that has a generally low opinion of Monsieur Vadim and his rather curious cunt-crazed sub-pornographic approach to filmmaking. In short, I have to concur with the book Rough Guide to Film: An A-Z of Directors and Their Movies (2007) where it says, “After the publication of his autobiography, BARDOT, DENEUVE, and FONDA: MY LIFE WITH THREE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMEN IN THE WORLD, Roger Vadim had the gall to complain that his work had been overshadowed by his lovers, and that people had forgotten what a good director he was.” As the title of his (second!) autobiography demonstrates, Vadim was indubitably a shameless man (and probably some effete sort of narcissist) that put pussy on a pedestal and cared more about premium grade poontang than creating real quality cinema, though he somehow had some minor talent. As the title of the autobiography also demonstrates, Vadim seems to have nil respect for his second and least known wife Annette Strøyberg—a Danish dame that eventually banged such famous leading man as Vittorio Gassman, Alain Delon, Omar Sharif and Warren Beatty, among others international screen studs—yet she starred in two of his most notable films, including Les Liaisons dangereuses (1959) aka Dangerous Liaisons and of course Blood and Roses

 For those that ever wondered where vexatious French novelist turn cinematic auteur Alain Robbe-Grillet (Trans-Europ-Express, L'Eden et après aka Eden and After) borrowed his entire somnambulistic-babes-covered-in-blood aesthetic from, look no further than Vadim’s addictively lusciously kaleidoscopic, strangely somberly sensual, and overall gorgeous gothic horror melodrama where covert Sapphic supernatural obsession manages to effortlessly overshadow overt heterosexual incest despite the film's complete and utter lack of overt carpet-munching action. Indeed, forget the classic bean-flicker bloodsucker flicks of Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, and José Ramón Larraz, Blood and Roses is the film that started it all and female vampire Fantastique par excellence. As someone that has never had a particularly big hard-on for the whole lesbo vamp Euro-sleaze routine due to the innate phoniness and insipidity of it all, Vadim’s film reminded me that the first is oftentimes the best. Unfortunately, it seems that the film’s influence is greater than its overall popularity as a cinematic work that more or less sired an entire horror subgenre yet is not nearly as well known as many of the (largely shitty) films associated with said subgenre. Aside from showing Mario Bava the way and acting as a virtual template for Jean Rollin’s entire oeuvre, Blood and Roses was such a big influence of Japanese auteur Nobuhiko Obayashi of Hausu (1977) aka House fame that the auteur’s avant-garde short Emotion (1966)—a surprisingly aesthetically pleasing experiment in cinematic wizardry that somehow manages to be just as goofy as it is romantic—begins with a dedication to Vadim’s film. Considering that his film Lisa and the Devil (1974) features a death scene that is an obvious homage to the lead vampire Carmilla's death in Blood and Roses, one could even argue that goombah gothic horror maestro Bava virtually owes his entire aesthetic to Vadim’s vamp flick. Interestingly but not all that surprisingly considering his track record as a filmmaker that seemed to be most focused on putting his lover(s) on a pedestal, it seems that Vadim himself never intended or expected the film to be anything special, thus underscoring his overall lack of agency as a filmmaker. 

 While it does not all that surprise me that Vadim was so obsessed with premium grade golden pussy that he was willing to risk his then-budding career for it, it does somewhat surprise me that he seems to have saw Blood and Roses as a sort of worthless gift that he gave to his wife in an ultimately failed attempt to jumpstart her acting career, or as the filmmaker explained himself in Bardot Deneuve Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World (1986) in regard to the quite dubious background of the film, “For Annette’s next film, I came up with the idea of having her play a female vampire. In a role of this type her beauty would conceal her lack of experience. I should have gone to an analyst to find out why I was sacrificing my career to fulfill the desires of a Danish beauty that had suddenly imagined she was an actress. After the success of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, I received many offers and could have directed a major international production. But I didn’t see an analyst, and in the beginning of 1960, in Rome, I began shooting BLOOD AND ROSES with Annette Vadim, Elsa Martinelli and Mel Ferrer. It was a strange work, a little ahead of its time, but nevertheless well received by some because of its esthetic qualities.” Somewhat ironically, Annette Strøyberg—a cutesy blonde that could be mistaken by some as Brigitte Bardot’s somewhat moodier doppelganger—is undoubtedly one of the greatest aspects of the film, as she bleeds lovesick pathos and a certain distinctly feminine melancholy (also, one cannot blame her for wanting her cucked hubby to make her a star as the filmmaker previously did just that with Bardot in his once-scandalous And God Created Woman (1956)).

While Vadim somewhat admirably confessed that the film was just something that he put together to appease a woman that did not seem much more to him than a poor man’s Bardot, it is unequivocally a revolutionary horror film for a number reasons, not least of all because of its virtual elevation of perennial horror cliches to something strangely artistic. Indeed, aside from creating a sub-genre that would influence everyone from Rollin to the mostly artistically bankrupt Brits of Hammer horror, Vadim rather romantic celluloid orgasm also predates George A. Romero’s Martin (1978) in terms of presenting vampirism as a morbid psychological delusion brought about by some hereditary genetic taint. Luckily, unlike Martin, there is some ambiguity as to whether or not the lead vampire’s genetic problems are supernatural or simply psychological. Personally, I think the fact that Blood and Roses is a horror film is of little consequence, at least as far as its positive attributes are concerned.   In fact, I have to assume that it would appeal more to fans of Cocteau and Robbe-Grillet than Romero, Carpenter, and Craven fanboys, but I digress.

 While Vadim seems to have been rampantly heterosexual to almost a fault, he surely owes some of his greatest gifts to the crucial aesthetic influence of a fellow frog of the proudly cocksucking sort. Indeed, while poet and cine-magician Jean Cocteau might not have ever personally directed a horror flick, Blood and Roses is surely the second best thing as a cinematic work that manages to parrot the pleasantly primitive practical special effects from classic cinematic works like Le sang d'un poète (1930) aka The Blood of a Poet, Orphée (1950) aka Orpheus, and La Belle et la Bête (1946) aka Beauty and the Beast without seeming too ridiculous or shamelessly plagiaristic.  Additionally, not unlike Orpheus, Vadim's film features a seemingly seamless mix of ancient European myth and aesthetics with the modern. Simultaneously orgasmically oneiric and lugubriously phantasmagoric, the film straddles a strangely healthy line between wholesome pre-porn exploitation and surrealist pop art, as if Vadim wanted to prove that he could sire the most tastefully trashy film ever made (in fact, I would argue that his greatest attribute as a filmmaker was his special knack for injecting the artless with art and bringing class to the classless).

Of course, it pretty much goes without saying that, like any decent Vadim flick, the auteur is completely infatuated by the female lead as if he wanted to prove to the world (and, curiously, to himself) how ravishing and mysterious his wife is. Quite unlike the erotically ebullient Bardot in And God Created Woman, Strøyberg has a sort of painfully tragic and morosely mercurial essence that is slowly but surely unleashed on the viewer so when the film reaches its climax it is only natural that she succumbs to a heartbreakingly brutal yet fittingly absurd demise. Despite her lack of experience, Strøyberg seems like she was born to play a virtual human statue in an Ingmar Bergman or Werner Schroeter flick, as she is a painfully pulchritudinous diva that reveals with a mere slight glance much more than words ever could, hence Vadim's seemingly absurd faith in her as an actress despite her lack of experience. While Mel Ferrer is technically the lead, his scenes seem like frivolous filler anytime that Strøyberg exits the screen as she is virtually the entire soul and libido of the film. As for Elsa Martinelli, she seems like a self-conscious little girl when compared to the wantonly wounded womanhood and eerie grace of Strøyberg. While it might sound like puffery, I prefer Strøyberg’s performance to that of those given by Bardot, Deneuve, and Fonda in Vadim’s much more popular films. Of course, poor little rich girl Fonda would have probable made an even worse vampire than she did as a pinko commie revolutionary. On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine Strøyberg playing the lead in And God Created Woman or Barbarella (1968) as she does not seem like she could be moronically bubbly enough. 

 Say what you will about the film’s weak storyline or glaring lack of character development, but Blood and Roses is a hopelessly hypnotically beautiful film, which is largely the result of Vadim’s cinematographer Claude Renoir (as his name hints, he is related to French master auteur Jean Renoir, as his actor father is the nephew of the filmmaker). While it could be argued that the film is an exercise in high-camp kitsch, I sincerely doubt that Vadim was operating with the same mindset as a Werner Schroeter or Daniel Schmid. Indeed, Vadim might have put a premium on cinematic pulchritude, especially where statuesque Aryan women are concerned, but he was working from a strictly (and, some would say, hopelessly) heterosexual perspective. Apparently, the film, or at least its female lead, was even beautiful enough to catch the fancy of alpha-surrealist Salvador Dalí. As Vadim explained in Bardot Deneuve Fonda, “On September 28, BLOOD AND ROSES was shown in Paris. After the rather well-received screening, the guests were invited to a party at Maxim’s. It was an unusually brilliant evening. The cream of Paris thought that having supper with a female vampire was great fun. ‘I loved your cannibal with such pink skin,’ said Salvador Dalí.” Of course, the film is practically driven by pinks and especially reds; whether it be a red rose fading to a light pink after being touched by a vamp or a vamp bleeding deep carnal red via her supple bare breasts. As the film’s English title certainly hints, certain vital fluids have an erotic energy that transcends semen and natural vaginal lube. As for flowers, they are a symbol of purity and virginity, hence why the vampiress is able to drain a rose of its red with her mere touch. 

 Somewhat abruptly and unexpectedly the film begins (and ultimately ends) on an airplane destined for Rome with a somewhat unreliable narrator named Dr. Verari (René-Jean Chauffard) as he explains to some similarly insufferably swarthy colleagues the curious tale of a bizarre love triangle of the incestuous bloodsucking (and covertly bisexual) sort. Indeed, as the good doctor explains, a tall, dark, and vaguely handsome ‘Italian’ aristocrat named Leopoldo De Karnstein (Mel Ferrer) severely suffered from a complicated situation with his fiancée Georgia Monteverdi (Elsa Martinelli) and Austrian cousin Carmilla (Annette Strøyberg). While his fiancée clearly loves him and looks forward to marrying him, it is clear that Carmilla—a highly sensitive little lady of the somewhat antisocial and aggressive sort—loves him to an even more unsettling degree, as she seems to believe they are soul mates. Although less obvious, Carmilla also seems to have strong sexual feelings for Georgia, though one gets the impression that her sexual interest in her is largely because she loves her cousin and thus desires to sexually dominate the woman that has taken away the man that she so deeply loves. As Dr. Verari describes in regard to the darkly romantic atmosphere of the story, it is “…the most secluded parts of the Roman countryside. It’s a place that inspires daydreaming. And melancholy, as well.” A bad blonde bitch and proto-goth gal with an affinity for the dark and morbid yet has the rather misleading fair golden complexion of an angel, Carmilla is quite proud of the fact that she is supposedly descended from an accursed bloodline of vampires that, aside from the exception of a gorgeous girl named Millarca, were eventually ruthlessly exterminated with extreme prejudice by local townsfolk. As Carmilla brags in regard to her ancient undead ancestor, who bears a striking resemblance to her as revealed by an old painting, “She was called Millarca. She was a Karnstein from the heyday. She passionately loved her cousin Ludwig von Karnstein. She died before the wedding in Ludwig’s arms, who swore her an everlasting love.”  Dedicated to his deceased cousin, Ludwig built Millarca a special secret hidden tomb in the family abbey, hence why she was the sole member to survive the family vampire massacre. Needless to say, Carmilla sees herself as Millarca and Leopoldo as Ludwig.  Rather unfortunately for Carmilla, Leopoldo does not love her nearly as much as Ludwig loved Millarca.

 I might be an antisocial sadist of sorts, but I found myself completely and gleefully rooting for Carmilla, even after she ‘transforms’ into a vampire and begins killing hot young maid girls. While Leopoldo boasts in regard to his family, “We’ve ceased being vampires since 1775,” Carmilla—the only surviving member of the Austrian branch of the family—does indeed adopt a vampiric form of sorts after a big fireworks show that accidentally results in the Karnstein family crypt being opened, thus leading to the anti-heroine wandering in and being possessed by her ancient vampire relative Millarca; or so it seems, at least for most of the film. Indeed, somewhat unfortunately, the film pulls a ‘gotcha’ towards the end where the dubious narrator Dr. Verari explains to Leopoldo that Carmilla has degenerated into a literally bloodthirsty schizophrenic as a result of her soul-crushing lovesickness for her cousin. When Leopoldo complains in regard to his cousin’s deadly love, “I thought she understood. That we can’t always live like daydreaming children,” the doc explains, “She never stopped dreaming. She didn’t want to suffer. So she escaped from herself by neurosis. Traumatism, neurosis, split personality . . . The defeated Carmilla became the uncompromising Millarca; the one who hurt people. When she killed Lisa, she didn’t only obey the legend. She also identified herself to the woman you love.” Somewhat ironically (or not so considering the film leaves some slight ambiguity as to whether or not she is actually a vamp), Carmilla is killed in a freak accident via a stake to the heart after dynamite is quite conveniently and somewhat symbolically used to destroy the Karnstein family crypt. In the end, the film comes full-circle, albeit with the newly wed Leopoldo and Georgia flying together instead of Dr. Verari and his pals. In a twist, it is revealed that Millarca may or may not have also come to possess Georgia’s body. 

 Rather unfortunately, Blood and Roses has never been released on DVD aside from in Germany in 2014 and this French/German language kraut suffers from an infuriating lack of cool dream scenes that are included in the unfortunately low-quality dubbed EP-speed VHS that was released in the United States by Paramount a very long time ago. Indeed, for example, an iconic scene where Carmilla’s shirt becomes magically soaked in blood is inexplicably cut short in the German DVD version, as if kraut audiences could only handle so much blood. Additionally, shots of faded rose petals, which have lost their color due to being touched by a vamp, have been completely excised from the DVD. In fact, I would argue that the American VHS contains an all-around superior cut of the film as the unintentionally goofy character of Dr. Verari is only of minor importance and instead Millarca, who provides the film with its elegantly ominous tone, rather fittingly does both the opening and closing narration. For those that prefer pure literal horror to preposterous psychobabble, the American dubbed VHS is also superior as it confirms that the vampiress Millarca has indeed possessed the female characters. Considering they have already released Vadim’s inferior (but unquestionably more popular) film And God Created Woman, one can only pray that the Criterion Collection will spare Blood and Roses from the celluloid dustbin of history and release a nice complete print of the film on Blu-ray, but I am probably being way too optimistic (realistically, I would not be surprised if Kino Lorber eventually released the film as they have already released a couple Vadim films, including the proto-Nazisploitation flick Le vice et la vertu (1963) aka Vice and Virtue, Arthur Schnitzler adaptation La Ronde (1964) aka Circle of Love, and ultra-lame caper The Hot Touch (1981)). 

 Notably, Vadim actually intended to direct another vampire flick starring his ex-girlfriend Catherine Deneuve, but it was never made because the director put it on hold to direct the somewhat uneven Jeux de Nuit (1980) aka Night Games and for whatever reason never got around to getting back to it (of course, Deneuve would ultimately star in Tony Scott’s gorgeous goth chic debut feature The Hunger (1983) starring David Bowie)). As for horror cinema in general, Vadim’s only other contribution to the genre was his somewhat lackluster segment from the Edgar Allan Poe omnibus Histoires extraordinaires (1968) aka Spirits of the Dead also co-directed by Louis Malle and Federico Fellini (undoubtedly, Fellini's masterful concluding segment ‘Toby Dammit’ makes the rest of the film seem pointless by comparison). Always a sort of whore for publicity, Vadim also managed to attach his name to the horror genre by allowing publishers to use his celebrity for the short story collection Roger Vadim présente : Histoires de vampires (1961), which was a French translation of the Italian vampire story collection I Vampiri tra Noi (the same exact collection, which features Le Fanu's Carmilla, was later published in Britain in 1965 by Pan Books under the outstandingly generic name The Vampire).

Of course, considering that Vadim was not much of a filmmaker in general, one must give him credit for managing to virtually sire an entire horror sub-genre with a single stand-alone film, but one must also at least partially credit the heroine Annette Strøyberg for the film’s potency, as she not only brings a certain sensual melancholy to the experience, but also apparently inspired real-life dread and horror in the auteur, or as Vadim pathetically recounted in Memoirs of the Devil (1976), “Annette had a special knack for disappearing at the most inappropriate moments. She began with a master stroke. I had made ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR for her. It was her own film in a way, her first big part. The producers had organized a gala evening at Maxim’s for the premiere. Annette was the star of the evening and seemed happy, surrounded by friends and the press, who had liked the film. Before the champagne sherbet, she got up and left the table. I thought she had left for a couple of minutes, but she did not return. The cloakroom lady told me she had taken her coat. The vampire had vanished into thin air, leaving no message. She had answered her lover’s call. I could understand that she lacked the courage to tell me, but not even to stay for the end of the evening, which was my gift to her and for which I had worked so hard—that was graceless of her. Since I don’t enjoy drinking when I’m really depressed, I did not have the consolation of drowning my sorrows in liquor.” In short, Vadim demonstrates that a filmmaker that puts pussy on a pedestal and dedicates his entire career to glorifying the beauty of his wives is not a man at all, but a cowardly cuck, hence why all of these beauties eventually left him.  Of course, one could argue that it takes a true cuck to shamelessly cinematically expose his wife's finer traits to the entire world.  Naturally, when one thinks of Vadim, it is hard to think of any other signature auteur qualities aside from his virtual filmic wife-swapping (after all, even Godard eventually learned his lesson in that regard).

 Needless to say, I am not the only person that has a low opinion of Vadim’s flagrant womanizing and groveling for cunt. Indeed, in the featurette Reflections of Darkness: Del Valle on Kümel, Flemish auteur Harry Kümel—director of the rather resplendent lesbo vampire flick Daughters of Darkness (1971) aka Les lèvres rouges, which was clearly aesthetically influenced by Blood and Roses—states of Vadim and his vampire flick, “It’s not as sloppy as ET DIEU… CRÉA LA FEMME or all the other, harder [films]. He’s a sloppy filmmaker. He was not truly a filmmaker, Vadim. He was a womanizer. You can be both, but still, I think his main interest—his main interest in life was—was women.” In fact, it seems that Kümel believes that Blood and Roses was mainly good due to the cinematographer, or as he explained, “It’s a film which I like, but I thought Roger Vadim was always a bit sloppy […] And Claude Renoir did a lot in that movie. Naturally, if you have a cameraman of the caliber of Claude Renoir—Claude Renoir was one of the—Well, the French had such sensational cameramen. Alekan, who did the wonderful film by Cocteau LA BELLE ET LA BÉTE. Henri Alekan, a wounderful cameraman. The French had a sensational cinema which has been completely destroyed by the nouvelle vague, you know that. It’s a complete disaster for Europe, in fact.”

Undoubtedly, had Vadim not been a somewhat older filmmaker and thus familiar with French cinema’s classic ‘Tradition of Quality,’ Blood and Roses might not have been nearly as aesthetically orgasmic. In terms of frog vampire flicks from around the same era, the underrated black-and-white short Fantasmagorie (1964) directed by Patrice Molinard and starring Edith Scob of Eyes Without a Face (1960) fame seems like what might happen if a nihilistic member of the La Nouvelle Vague attempted to assemble an avant-garde gothic vampire flick that was completely extinguished of the warm blood red erotic vitality and Cocteau-eque pop surrealism that epitomizes Vadim's film. Either way, Blood and Roses seem rather radical in terms of form and atmosphere when compared to The Vampire Lovers, which is based on the same exact Le Fanu novella. As far as I am concerned, the only true spiritual sequel to Vadim’s film is Joël Séria’s Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal (1971) aka Don't Deliver Us from Evil—a pleasantly pernicious piece of Baudelairian pastoral folk horror—as a cinematic the celebrates the very same sort of Sapphic evil that the other film less than sincerely attempts to condemn. In short, Séria’s film is the sort of cinematic work Vadim might have directed had he been more intelligent and iconoclastic and less focused on whoring out his wife (of course, auteur Séria did whore out his wife Jeanne Goupil for that film and a number of others, but he did it with more artistic integrity).  Although not a literal vampire flick, the Teutonic Heimat horror piece Nachtschatten (1972) aka Nightshade directed by Niklaus Schilling is like a morbidly nihilistic yet no less romantic response to Vadim's film where the filmmaker's wife Elke Haltaufderheide—a virtual Annette Strøyberg doppelganger—portrays a sort of metaphysical vampire of sorts that has a talent for effortlessly sapping a man of his energy, though she ultimately rightly succumbs to her own guilt-ridden spiritual sickness.  With its blood red roses, hauntingly beautiful rural setting, gothic essence, and lethally lovesick blonde anti-heroine, Nightshade unquestionably owes a heavy aesthetic debt to Blood and Roses.

 Undoubtedly, one can understand the film’s anti-heroine’s romantic plight when considers Arthur Schopenhauer’s wise words, “Belief is like love: it cannot be compelled; and as any attempt to compel love produces hate, so it is the attempt to compel belief which first produces real unbelief.” Out of her hopelessly impossible love for the male protagonist, Carmilla learns to both hate and embrace a virtual ancestral religion of blood, which is ultimately rather noble in its perversity, hence the poetically tragic nature of the heroine. Indeed, while Carmilla’s unwavering dedication to love is decidedly deadly, it also makes her a strangely admirable and sympathetic figure who seems like a lovely angelic creature compared to her all-too-bourgeois family members (to Carmilla's credit, she has seemingly nil interest in money as it is also revealed that she is much richer than her beloved guido cousin).  Indeed, when I think of Carmilla, I am reminded of National Socialist Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn's words, “Know this: I live beast days. I am a water hour. At night my eyelids droop like forest and sky. My love knows few words: I like it in your blood.”  Not unlike the eponymous lily-licking bloodsucker of the David Lynch produced Nadja (1994) directed by Michael Almereyda, Carmilla is a rare example female vampire that can compete with the great male vampires of cinema history in terms of memorability and tragic intrigue.  Of course, it was ultimately Monsieur Vadim that was the real victim of the nubile female nosferatu and for that alone, if nothing else, he deserves at least a modicum of reluctant respect for his sacrifice as both an emasculated man and hack filmmaker.  While Vadim's marriages and romances were short-lived, Blood and Roses is forever!

-Ty E