Jan 18, 2017

Scarabea: How Much Land Does a Man Need?

While the figurative ‘heart’ of New German Cinema, emotionally erratic and singularly manipulative enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder, oftentimes went to great pains to mock and ridicule the insatiable greed of kraut fat cats in post-Wirtschaftswunder West Germany as is especially indicated by Mario Adorf’s character in his keenly kaleidoscopic Josef von Sternberg homage Lola (1981), the tragic auteur's blueblooded Wagernite nemesis Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (Hitler: A Film from Germany, Parsifal) directed what is arguably the most bizarre, grotesque, and oddly oneiric cinematic assault on post-WWII kraut capitalism of the greedy fat fuck oriented sort. Indeed, Syberberg’s Scarabea - wieviel Erde braucht der Mensch? (1969) aka Scarabea: How Much Land Does a Man Need?—the auteur’s first narrative feature following a number of totally Teutonic documentaries, including the Romy Schneider doc Romy. Porträt eines Gesichts (1967) aka Romy: Anatomy of a Face—is a strange little celluloid beast of the quasi-counterculture krautsploitation persuasion that seems like what might happen if a German crypto-nationalist attempted to reconcile the world classic guido exploitation of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi à la Mondo Cane with the visceral and primitive prole poetry of cinematic poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. As the film's title hints, it borrow its major motifs from Leo Tolstoy’s classic short story How Much Land Does a Man Require? (1886), though, more importantly, it also features references to writings from figures ranging from National Socialist Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn to decadent Italian fascist dramatist Luigi Pirandello.  Not unlike many of Syberberg’s cinematic works, Scarabea is a curious combination of high and lowbrow art, albeit in a somewhat different way.  Indeed, instead of the high-camp kitsch of his classic features like Hitler: A Film from Germany, Syberberg's debut basks in the viscerally grotesque and genetically deformed.  Shot over the course of seven weeks when the auteur was only 32 years old, the film is certainly a noble effort in Syberberg's oeuvre.  In fact, Syberberg would proudly describe how the film “completely satisfies” him after completing it in an interview in Der Spiegel.  Of course, little did Syberberg realize that he would eventually reinvent Teutonic cinema and start a virtual one-man aesthetic renaissance that demonstrated that Germans did not have to be afraid of making innately Germanic films.

 Syberberg before Syberberg actually became Syberberg, Scarabea was made when the auteur was still a work-in-progress as a cinematic artist before he discovered the operatic films of Werner Schroeter, completely revamped and refined his entire cinematic aesthetic, further embraced his Aryan birthright, and directed the first film in his celebrated ‘Germany trilogy’ Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972) aka Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King. More like Jacopetti meets Herzog on acid and heroin than Wagner meets Brecht like his later films, Syberberg's first feature—a film about a fat and sloppy middle-aged Teutonic lecher that makes a bet for a large piece of land that involves him taking a dangerous odyssey in the Italian bandit island of Sardinia—features unsimulated animal killings and dismemberment, retarded and/or crippled guido peasants, rotten maggot-covered carcasses, low-key bum fights, ecstatic primitive Goddess Nenia breast milk rituals, and various other memorable scenarios that blur the line between the real and surreal in a manner not unlike unhinged heeb Harmony Korine's debut feature Gummo (1997).

 Featuring an original quasi-psychedelic musical score by Eugen Thomass, who later composed music for Syberberg’s three-hour biopic Karl May (1974), and cinematography by Petrus R. Schlömp (Johannes Schaaf's Tätowierung (1967) aka Tattoo) that ranges from primitive cinéma-vérité-like garbage to highly stylized celluloid majesty, Syberberg’s first feature is indubitably an uneven experiment in eccentricity that sometimes feel like it was directed by an autistic pothead with a BS degree in Teutonic literature yet it is surely one of the more intriguing German films of the late-1960s. In short, the film is certainly no cinematic ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ like Syberberg's later great cinematic masterpieces, but it does arguably hold the distinction of being what can be described as the first (and arguably the last) proto-Alt-Right artsploitation flick.  Indeed, featuring hilarious real-life racial ‘caricatures,’ goofy snickering retards and sneering cripples, and a genuinely subversive metapolitical right-wing Weltanschauung of the abstractly expressed sort, Scarabea features the sort of aggressive anti-liberal spirit that is comparable to a contemporary Pepe-saluting internet troll army.

 Notably, long before Syberberg was accused of being a sinister anti-Semite and virtual neo-Nazi after the publication of his script for Hitler: A Film from Germany and especially after the release of his still-untranslated book Vom Unglück und Glück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem letzten Kriege (1990) aka On the Misfortune and Fortune of Art in Germany after the Last War, the filmmaker was attacked by a certain popular German left-wing film critic for supposedly being a tad bit culturally insensitive. Indeed, in a review featured in his New Left film journal Filmkritik, Enno Patalas—a film historian and film preservationist that was heavily influenced by kosher (anti)kraut commie Siegfried Kracauer—unsoundly complained in regard to Scarabea: “Syberberg shows us a German . . . tourist on Sardinia, who eats like a pig, is loud, chases women, is ignorant about Gottfried Benn, and drinks too much wine . . . Thus prepared, it should come as no surprise that Syberberg has the same arrogant attitude to Sardinia and its people as his protagonist.” Of course, anyone that carefully watches Syberberg’s film can see that Patalas’ claim is nothing if not patently absurd, not least of all because the bungling and boorish kraut protagonist is portrayed as a bigger buffoon than a bunch of illiterate and sometimes mentally retarded dirty Sardinian peasants. In fact, it is ultimately the protagonist’s absurd arrogance and unwarranted pride that leads to his somewhat predictable yet nonetheless poignantly pathetic downfall.  While I am just speculating, I have to assume that left-wing pansy Patalas was offended by the fact that the film quotes the poetry of a one-time-Nazi like Benn and features a less than flattering depiction of flower children, but then again the film also critiques both Hollywood and capitalist exploitation, thereupon making it appeal enough to the average left-wing lemming that they might get a slight momentary hard-on by watching it.

 A walking and talking racial caricature that embodies virtually every negative stereotype that is associated with Germans, Scarabea protagonist Georg Wilhelm Bach (Walter Buschhoff of Clive Donner’s Babes in Toyland (1986) starring Drew Barrymore) is a fat, red-faced, and alcohol-addled kraut blockhead businessman that, not unlike many post-WWII Germans, suffers from a sort of semi-unconscious materialistic nihilism where he lives and breathes solely for the pursuit of acquiring land, capital, and fancy food, even though none of these things seem to bring him any sorts of happiness.  Childless but married to a frigid woman he does not love, Bach clearly lacks any sort of emotional support, hence his nihilistic worship of materialism.  After all, as a Heimat-less mensch whose nation was both physically and spiritually annihilated when he was just a young chap, Bach has nothing else to live for.  A World War II veteran that became a semi-successful businessman after inheriting a hotel from his father, Herr Bach has come to Sardinia to procure some land because he dreams of building a thriving resort spot on the primitive goombah island. Upon arriving in Sardinia in a lame convertible that he clearly feels ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ driving, Bach clearly feels he has power simply because he has wealth and immediately begins hitting on an inordinately statuesque eponymous beauty named Scarabea (Nicoletta Machiavelli, who, as her surname reveals, was indeed a direct descendant of sociopathic Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli), who is a sort of subtly sinister flower child femme fatale that seems to get a sadistic kick out of leading the protagonist along a pernicious path of transcendental self-destruction.

A girl with a French passport but two German parents that seemingly loves wandering around aimlessly and engaging in artsy fartsy leisure activities like photography and acoustic guitar playing, Scarabea is surely a cosmopolitan kind of gal, though that does not stop her from basking in the pleasantly perverse poetry of naughty one-time-Nazi Gottfried Benn. In fact, Scarabea recites the following lines from the Benn poem “What’s Bad” to Herr Bach: “Not reading English, and hearing about a new English thriller that hasn’t been translated. Seeing a cold beer when it’s hot out, and not being able to afford it. Having an idea that you can’t encapsulate in a line of Hölderlin, the way the professors do. Hearing the waves beat against the shore on holiday at night, and telling yourself it’s what they always do. Very bad: being invited out, when your own room at home is quieter, the coffee is better, and you don’t have to make small talk. And worst of all: not to die in summer, when the days are long and the earth yields easily to the spade.” While Bach does not know anything about Benn or his poetry, he will die in the summer during a long day in a fashion worthy of a Benn poem. 

 After meeting with a somewhat refined old chap named ‘The Count’ (played by real-life part-Jewish Count and Roberto Rossellini collaborator Franz von Treuberg), Bach is able to make a clearly too-good-to-be-true bet with the local peasants and their mayor to acquire a very large piece of land, including a scenic beach spot, if he manages to personally hike through said land before sunset during a single day. If Bach loses the bet, he will have to give away 10,000 marks and his car to the winners. For the local Sardinians, especially the Mayor, it is more or less a win-win situation since they want Bach to build up the area and turn it into a thriving resort spot, thus they welcome his success.  After all, to the piss poor peasants of Sardinia, most of the land is worthless and riddled with animal carcasses.  Ultimately, Bach becomes the main attraction of a large folk festival where he is inevitably unwittingly sacrificed to his own greed in a doubly ironical fashion where he croaks after passing the finish line. Indeed, while Bach proudly proclaims to be as “tough as Rommel” when it comes to business, he has the physique of a Jewish pawnshop owner and surely was never worthy of being even a mid-level commander like a SS-Hauptsturmführer, let alone an amateur hiker-cum-mountaineer. Still, somehow some of the local yokels seem to have faith in Bach in being successful in his journey, even though a couple locals severely embarrass him at the beginning of the film before the bet is even made by forcing him to drop his pants in front of Scarabea during a mock armed robbery. Of course, no kraut is a match for the lowbrow Machiavellian madness of island guidos, including a greedy buffoon with a busted moral compass like Bach. 

 While the film more or less features a simple coherent storyline for about the first 30 minutes or so, things get a little bit inexplicable once Bach starts his journey and is eventually engulfed in a sort of anti-paradisiacal psychodrama of the highly hallucinatory sort that might be best described as a Mediterranean mix of heaven and hell where the protagonist is the unwitting guest of honor. Indeed, not long after seemingly dying while trying in vain to climb hot mountain rocks, Bach falls into a ocean and somehow magically ends up on a beach with Scarabea where he expresses absolutely ecstatic orgasmic delight while gluttonously feasting on a lavish buffet that could feed a small African nation. While a twink-like teenage peasant boy lubes up Scarabea’s lush unclad tanned bod, Bach chows down on lobster tails and tropical fruit like a rabid starving animal while asking his seemingly half-autistic female consort questions that she does not bother to answer. After the feast, Bach and his would-be-babe have a merry time playing in the ocean with fancy translucent inner tube chairs in a semi-surreal scene that seems to mock the idea of a bourgeois utopia. Needless to say, as a somewhat fat and stocky fellow, Bach is not exactly the most mobile of men, so he mainly watches Scarabea as she demonstrates her great propensity for good and hearty child’s play. Before parting company so that the protagonist can finish his journey, Bach and Scarabea go on a deceptively joyous boat ride, but not before the former massages the latter’s completely naked body in a scene that is more absurd than it is sensual. While on the boat, Bach expresses his disillusionment with life and even his big hotel plans while Scarabea does not even bother to pretend to listen in what is the one moment in the entire film where the male protagonist is honest with himself.  Although a seemingly unimportant throwaway scene, Bach's confession is a crucial moment in the film as it reveals both his pathetic humanity and hidden disillusionment with life in general, thus making his tragic demise at the conclusion of the film seem all the more tragically fitting in the end.

 While Bach is finishing up his journey, an exploitative film crew led by a grotesquely fat slob of a director with an ambiguously Hebraic essence arrives in the area and begins documenting the locals in a fashion that puts Jacopetti and Prosperi to shame in terms of sheer sleaze and unscrupulousness, but of course as the Count notes in regard to the appetite of mainstream audiences, “The people don’t actually want to see documentaries. SEX, CRIME, VIOLENCE!” Indeed, locals are so desperate to be in the film that friends stab friends for posterity and regular peasants attempt to personify the legendary bandits that Sardinia is best known for. When a filmmaker sees Scarabea sporting sort of commie-chic revolutionary garb and shooting an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man (1490) that somehow manages to bleed in a symbolic scene that represents the pathological urge of the counterculture generation to mindlessly destroy all of Occidental culture and history with great self-annihilating glee, he is so impressed that he offers to make her a “big star.” While more or less maintaining her somewhat unsettling flat affect, Scarabea takes up the filmmaker’s Faustian offer and begins shooting scenes that seem more like a Sardinian take on the Hollywood western genre than any sort of documentary.

Meanwhile, bloated bad boy Bach becomes possessed by horrifying hallucinations involving dung beetles playing with dung and seemingly gallons upon gallons of freshly squeezed human breast milk. Indeed, Bach has so much breast milk squirted on him that he looks as if King Kong busted a load on his face after a rough inter-species blowjob. In what seems like a bad omen towards the end of the film, Bach passes a lynched bird hanging from a tree while a lame multicultural psychedelic rock band plays in the background. When Bach gets near the finish line, he curiously decides to sit down and rest to look at some of the photos that he has taken during his journey using a camera that he borrowed from Scarabea. When Bach hears peasants cheering his long waited arrival while examining the photos, he finally decides to get off his fat ass and reach the finish line, but soon drops dead while disappointed peasants look on and somberly state things like “he won so much land.” In terms of the position of his lifeless corpse and even his clothing, Bach’s freshly dead carcass strangely foreshadows the highly publicized assassination of Theo van Gogh, which is certainly fitting considering the anarchic and anti-politically-correct nature of Scarabea. As for Scarabea, she is quite visibly unmoved by Bach’s rather pathetic ironical death, though she circles around his body and carefully examines photographs that were taken by the forsaken protagonist with her camera.  Of course, it certainly could be argued that Scarabea's flagrant apathy in regard to Bach's demise is symbolic of post-WWII German alienation and the state-sponsored antisocial tendency of contemporary Germans to not care for each other or the survival of their nation (in that sense, the film is certainly more relevant today than when it was first released nearly half a century ago).  After all, auteur Syberberg is (in)famous for once stating regarding his nation, “We live in a country without a homeland.”  As for Herr Bach, he only finds death upon attempting to find a new and hardly improved Heimat, but of course he never realized that no amount of land would fill the void that a lack of culture, spirituality, and family had left in his sad forsaken soul.

 Described by auteur Syberberg himself as a “surreal fairy tale,” Scarabea is certainly a strange and eccentric cinematic work of the sometimes esoteric sort where the auteur demonstrates his keen contempt hippie scum, kraut capitalist pigs, and smug pseudo-documentarians and exploitative Hollywood hacks, as well as love of classic kraut literature, ancient Occidental kultur of both the lowbrow and highbrow sort, and hot guido bitches with fancy surnames like Machiavelli. While the film is indubitably aesthetically subversive, especially compared to the films of other hot Teutonic filmmakers of the time like Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff, it is unmistakable ‘culturally’ conservative in terms of sentiment, even if it is not as apparent as in Syberberg’s later cinematic (after all, even Syberberg's second feature, San Domingo (1970), also features a severe critique of the counterculture generation and their ethno-masochistic fetishization of militant black nationalist negroes and miscegenation).

 It should be noted that American left-wing Judaic film critic J. Hoberman once described Syberberg, as well as Andrei Tarkovsky and Stan Brakhage, as a “conservative avant-gardist” and even dared to criticize his films for being supposedly “terminally German,” thus underscoring his characteristic kosher Teutophobia. Although I guess it does not say much considering the shamelessly Wagnerian essence of his later cinematic work, but I think it is safe to say that, due to its guido island setting and eclectic collection of grotesque Sardinian peasants, Scarabea is Syberberg’s least “terminally German” film, though it is certainly more innately Teutonic than anything that trendy left-wingers like feminist hag Margarethe von Trotta, half-Hindu commie Harun Farocki, or Mercedes Marxist Volker Schlöndorff has ever directed. Also, while the film might not be an obvious ‘Trauerarbeit’ (“work of mourning”) piece, it certainly expresses the Syberbergian themes of ‘freudlose Gesellschaft’ (“joyless society”) and ‘Auslöschung’ (“extinction”), especially as far as the tragic spiritually and culturally moribund male protagonist is concerned.  Unlike most of the left-wing German filmmakers and the quite insanely immature neo-Marxist rock stars of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Syberberg had at least enough maturity and empathy to understand that the capitalist pigs of his Fatherland were oftentimes tragic individuals that had sold their souls to nihilistic materialism and thus were doomed to live a patently pointless existence plagued by insatiable greed and social alienation. 

 Out of all the films I can think of, Scarabea somewhat ironically reminded me the most of the agitprop artsploitation pieces of underrated iconoclastic Italian auteur Alberto Cavallone (Spell – Dolce mattatoio aka Man, Woman & Beast, Blue Movie). In terms of its anarchic storyline, exotic locations and/or extras, entrancing dreamlike essence, obsession with the grotesque, arcane references to art and politics, deconstruction of Hollywood genre conventions, and statuesque quasi-autistic women, Syberberg's debut certainly has much in common with Cavallone (anti)classics like Le salamandre (1969), Quickly, spari e baci a colazione (1971), Afrika (1973), and Zelda (1974), among others. Of course, the flick can also be compared to a couple German films like Roland Klick’s Deadlock (1970) and Veit Relin’s counterculture Friedrich Schiller adaptation Chamsin (1972), but neither of these films are considered part of the New German Cinema movement that Syberberg belonged to (To be far, Syberberg's film does share some superficial similarities with Werner Herzog's debut feature Lebenszeichen (1968) aka Signs of Life in terms of its exotic Mediterranean setting).

Indeed, it is certainly a humorous irony of New German Cinema history that one of the movement’s oldest and most conservative and aristocratic filmmakers was also responsible for some of its strangest and most subversive films. Somewhat strangely, especially considering his reputation among serious and not-so-serious film critics and historians and trendy leftist-wing intellectuals like Susan Sontag, Gilles Deleuze and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, there is not one single mention of Syberberg in Amos Vogel’s would-be-authoritative text Film as a Subversive Art (1974). Notably, New German Cinema’s most famous and legendary filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was more or less Syberberg’s greatest arch nemesis and wasted no opportunity to besmirch both the filmmaker and his films. In fact, in his 1981 ‘Hitlist of German Films,’ Fassbinder named Scarabea and Syberberg’s later film Karl May (1974) as two of ‘The Most Disgusting’ films of New German Cinema. While the film does feature tons of animal corpses and slaughtering, animal feces, and saucy Sardinian titty milk and thus can be described as, by definition, ‘disgusting,’ Scarabea is disgusting in a preternaturally delightful fashion.  Additionally, none of the scenes in Syberberg's film is as unnerving the the slaughterhouse scene in Fassbinder's morbid avant-garde melodrama In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (1978) aka In a Year of 13 Moons

In a 2008 speech entitled Hans-Jürgen Syberberg: Leni Riefenstahl’s Heir?, the late great British artist and intellectual Jonathan Bowden noted in regard to the filmmaker's singular (meta)political importance in terms of being the one and only post-WWII German filmmaker to figuratively pass on the Teutonic cultural torch, “Syberberg’s politics is less important than the spirituality of the artistry that he represents. As with all extremely visual artists like him, describing what he’s done makes a lot more sense if you’ve actually seen the material, but of course very few people are entirely aware that this material exists, even though probably a lot of that comes up on the internet almost instantaneously in English. But the reason for this is because people understand what he’s doing. He’s positioned himself to be the repository of the sort of sensibility, which didn’t come to an end in 1945, that certain forms of German classicism that are not particularly redolent of it. There are certain forms of German medieval art that don’t really relate to it. There’s something rather trans-German and quasi-Catholic and German in the European sense, in Nietzsche’s sense of being European as against German, about him. And there’s not very much Protestant in my view about his art aesthetically, for example. But he is the repository of the Romantic völkisch sensibility which people know is quintessentially German and yet is largely denied apart from tourism and a few prissy things now. But it is ideologically denied in contemporary Germany.”

As Bowden's remarks indubitably reveal, Syberberg's films are certainly less accessible to American audiences, yet they contain a perennial spirit that should be celebrated by the growing Alt-Right movement, which thirsts for a true cultural inheritance.  I certainly think it is a happy coincidence that Alt-Right animator Emily Youcis looks like a more busty yet eccentric version of Scarabea heroine Nicoletta Machiavelli, which makes sense considering they are both of half-Italian extraction.  Interestingly, what no one seems to have noticed about Syberberg is that, not unlike Youcis, he is a very able troll as the subversive subtexts of his film reveal, albeit a rather refined one.  Indeed, no other filmmaker in history can be said to have come up with brilliant ideas like allegorically depicting the rampant cultural philistinism of post-WWII ‘democratic’ Germany via a fat kraut pig that has no idea who Gottfried Benn is.  Similarly, only Syberberg could have ‘tricked’ kosher carpent-muncher Susan ‘the white race is the cancer of human history’ Sontag into declaring that he is one of the great masters of cinema history and even stating, “Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, Céline, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on.”  Needless to say, due its relative lack of cultural richness and subtextual significance compared to the filmmaker's later films, Scarabea is probably a good start for Syberberg novices, even if it almost like an exercise in advancing trolling when compared to the aesthetic and intellectual majesty of an unrivaled masterwork like Hitler: A Film from Germany.

-Ty E

Jan 2, 2017

The Dead (1987)

While this Christmas season has been even more miserable for me than usual, I really had no interest in celebrating it in a violent nihilistic by watching another sleazy Xmas slasher like Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) or Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil (1980), even if I have come to the natural conclusion that blood and boobs (and especially the combination of the two) make for rather aesthetically pleasing additions to images of Santa Claus, mistletoe, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Instead, I was looking for something more melancholically nostalgic and unpleasantly poignant, so I was lucky to remember at the last minute about Hollywood auteur John Huston’s swansong The Dead (1987) starring his half-wop daughter Anjelica Huston and adapted by his one-time screenwriter son Tony Huston from the story of the same name (from the short works collection Dubliners) by famous Irish novelist and poet James Joyce. Directed by the auteur from the relative luxury of a wheelchair at age 80, the film was not just a labor of love because it was a filmic family affair, but also because it was based on a work from one of the director's favorite writers and set in the land of his Celtic ancestors where his children were brought up.  While Huston might have already been an old disgruntled fart at the time he directed the film, his later classic works like his underrated Flannery O'Connor adaptation Wise Blood (1979) and delightful dipsomaniac odyssey Under the Volcano (1984) clearly demonstrate that he, unlike many filmmakers, only got more artistically ambitious and subversive with age, or as oftentimes wrong Jewess Pauline Kael certainly got quite right regarding his final flick, “Huston directed the movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most of the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he'd never gone into before—funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. Huston never before blended his actors so intuitively, so musically.”

Indeed, The Dead is oftentimes quite sentimental and humanistic in the best sort of way (and I say that as someone that typically feels the urge to smash something if I hear someone describe something as being ‘sentimental’ or ‘humanistic’), but it also climaxes in a bittersweetly somber yet strangely hopeful fashion with a beta-male husband coming to terms with the fact that neither he nor his wife truly love one another and that he is more or less a phony that has never truly lived life.  As someone that has always seen the Irish, especially the McCatholics, as the red-haired and red-faced pug-nosed negroes of Northern Europe, I am also happy to report that Huston has managed to give the Irish cultivation and even dignity, even if the film does feature a terribly inebriated mick degenerate or two.  In other words, The Dead is the perfect cultural antidote to the typical sub-literate Irish-American that proudly describes themselves as ‘Irish’ despite not being able to locate Ireland on a map.  Of course, it would be dishonest of me not to disclose the fact that there is a scene in the film where the character discuss the social and cultural superiority of Italians in comparison to their own Irish culture, but one should not expect anything less in a film directed by a man who got his half-Italian daughter to play the lead and half-Italian son to right the screenplay (which he received an Oscar nomination for).

Set in 1904 at an Epiphany party held by two elderly spinster sisters and their equally barren and unmarried niece, the film certainly features an eclectic collection of quasi-bourgeois characters, including a goofy middle-aged drunk with an overbearing mother, fierce proto-feminist bitch with an obsession with Irish independence, elderly protestant pervert, and various other ‘idiosyncratic’ individuals that ‘normal’ people try to avoid every other day of the year aside from the holiday season when they are forced to be in their company due to family tradition. A virtual chamber piece that Kael probably enjoyed due to its Altman-esque emphasis on a bunch of not-always-civil talking heads, the film is somewhat genius in the sense that the main characters are hardly the center of attention, at least not until the final 15 minutes or so, yet it somehow manages to work in the end. In fact, for a good portion of the time you forget that Mrs. Huston is even in the film yet she somehow manages to give the most overtly dramatic and unforgettable performance as a character that is forced to confront her lack of love for her hubby as inspired by her bittersweet remembrance of the tragic death of her one-true-love, who died when she was still just a girl under rather heartbreaking circumstances.

Indeed, if there is any good reason that the suicide rate skyrockets during the holidays, it is because the pain of remembering a past love is multiplied to an excoriating degree, which is surely quit effectively depicted in an effortlessly elegant fashion in Huston’s film where a middle-aged married woman with children still cannot get over the pangs of heartbreak and guilt associated with a long dead boy who made her feel a way that her short and stocky beta-dork husband never could. Featuring a well liked but ultimately rather pathetic and unremarkable male protagonist that must come to terms with the fact that he has been emotionally cuckolded by a young man that died at the merge age of 17 before he even met his wife, The Dead—a surely fittingly titled flick with more than one meaning—is arguably Huston’s most vulnerable and tender film and a cinematic work that seems to carry some cryptic personal message from the auteur about his own lost love, or at least some would assume (it should be noted that the filmmaker's fourth and most beauteous wife Enrica Soma—the mother of actress Anjelica and screenwriter Tony—died tragically in 1969 at the premature age of 39 in a car accident). Needless to say, as someone that is currently single, the film has more special significance for me than I would like to admit, so it felt like bittersweet kismet to re-watch it while recalling the seemingly perennial pain of a certain romantic loss.  Undoubtedly, The Dead is not the sort of film you want to watch if you are currently in a happy relationship that you cannot possibly fathom ending.

At the beginning of The Dead, it seems like a Dublin Epiphany party—a Santa-less Christian feast day on January 6 that celebrates the revelation of God in his Son as human in Jesus Christ—could turn into a disaster due to drunk degenerates like McDrunkard Theodore Alfred ‘Freddy’ Malins (Donal Donnelly) and mouthy perverted old protestant fart Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), but the year is 1904 and these characters are far too classy and organically European to engage in the sort of sordid mick degeneracy that the city is best known for nowadays.  After all, poor Freddy is so hopelessly bourgeois that he cannot bear to piss in another man's company, even when he is stumbling around drunk like a fool. The party is at the charming two-story humble abode of two elderly spinster sisters, Aunt Julia Morkan (Cathleen Delany) and Aunt Kate Morkan (Helena Carroll) and their much younger but similarly childless and husbandless pianist niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). Although never really alluded to, one might assume Mary Jane is a dyke as she has a number of hot young redheaded debutante students, including Miss Furlong (Kate O'Toole), Miss O’Callaghan (Maria Hayden), and Miss Higgins (Cormac O’Herlihy). Stocky dark-haired male protagonist Gabriel Conry (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) are some of the last people to arrive at the party because, as the former complains regarding the latter, “[she] takes three mortal hours to dress herself.” Likewise, Gretta bitches about her husband making her wear “galoshes” because, “Gabriel says everyone where them on the continent.”

Happy to be away from their children but hardly touchy and feeling with each other, Gabriel and Gretta seem to be stuck in a stagnating loveless marriage of convenience, or at least so will the viewer will most certainly assume by the end of the film. While Gretta seems to be simply bored with her hubby, Gabriel—a rather uptight chap with a somewhat phony personality who spends a good portion of the night attempting to memorize a rather contrived speech—just seems to lack the emotional capacity to truly love anyone.  In short, Gabriel is the kind of fellow that seems like he would be more interested in video-games and fedoras than women if he lived in contemporary times.  Seemingly asexual, Gabriel even acts annoyed when a proto-IRA bitch named Molly Ivors (Maria McDermottroe). In a seeming attempt to flirt with him in an aggressively teasing fashion, Ms. Ivors later mocks Gabriel for his lack of love for Ireland by calling him a “West Britain.” A proudly deracinated cosmopolitan type whose petty boasts of continental open-mindedness ultimately reveal a sort of insufferable passive-aggressive arrogance that is oh-so typical of effeminate males, Gabriel even proudly declares to Ms. Ivors, “To tell you the truth, I’m sick of my country.”  Needless to say, if Gabriel and Ms. Ivors were to actually fuck, it would naturally involve the latter violently penetrating the former with a large ribbed strap-on dildo.

Although a nice lass that does not seem to have a mean bone in her entire body, Gretta seems somewhat disconnected from everyone else, especially her husband, who seems to be totally oblivious to her dubious emotional state, at least at first. Unfortunately, an old unhealed internal wound in Gretta is violently ripped open at the party when a somewhat fat fellow named Mr. Grace (Sean McClory) unexpectedly recites an eighth-century Middle Irish poem entitled “Donal Óg” translated from Gaelic by someone named Lady Augusta Gregory that concludes with the forlornly lovelorn lines, “My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe, or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge; or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls; it was you put that darkness over my life. You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me; you have taken what is before me and what is behind me; you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me; and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!” While Mr. Grace’s recitation does not push Gretta over the edge, it does make her vulnerable enough to completely break down later in the film upon hearing a traditional Irish song that her long-dead teenage lover used to sing to her. In fact, the viewer does not even see much of Gretta again after Mr. Grace’s recitation until towards the end of the film after the party has already ended, though we see a lot more of her phony husband than we would like to due to a ridiculous contrived speech where he declares that his two elderly aunts and their niece are the “Three Graces” of Dublin and brags about the hospitality of Irish folks.  While Gabriel is keen on demonstrating niceness and kindness, his actions do not always seem sincere.  When Freddy Malins arrives at the party drunk and disheveled at the beginning of the film, Gabriel goes out of his way to clean him up, but one gets the sense that his kind acts are more motivated by a desire to avoid conflict at all costs than a sort of pure kindness.  Indeed, Gabriel is certainly the sort of archetypal ‘nice guy’ type that is unfortunately now all too common in the Western world as his occasional bitchy passive-aggressive behavior reveals.  Luckily, Gretta gets so ludicrously lovesick after being confronted with reminders from the past that no amount of nice guy nonsense can prevent her from pouring out her heart to her husband Gabriel about how she really feels.

After the party ends, Gabriel only goes looking for his wife after helping Freddy's disgruntled mother get into a carriage, so naturally he is somewhat shocked when he finds her crying at the top of a set of stairs of the Morkan house while secretly listening to a fat chap named Bartell D'Arcy (famous Irish tenor Frank Patterson) singing the traditional Irish song “The Lass of Aughrim.” Unbeknownst to poor Gabriel, the song was regularly sung by Gretta’s long dead teenage lover Michael Furey. During their somewhat awkward carriage ride back to their hotel, Gabriel makes various failed pathetic attempts to comfort Gretta, including telling a stupid family story about a horse and kissing her hand, but she just cannot seem to stop brooding over her memories. When they eventually get back to their hotel room, Gabriel finally gets the gall to ask Gretta what is wrong, so she admits she was thinking about the song “The Lass of Aughrim,” because, as she somberly confesses while on the verge of tears, “I’m thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” From there, Gretta sobs while she tells the tragic prematurely ended love story about her and an inordinately romantic boy named Michael Furey from Galway that died when he was only 17 after assumedly risking his life to see her one last time. Indeed, as her remark, “I think he died for me” clearly reveals, Gretta blames herself for Furey’s untimely demise, though one also suspects that she is also mad at herself for marrying a man that she does not really love. A sickly boy that died a week after he risked his life to visit Gretta during a rainy winter night despite his failing health because he discovered that she was moving to Dublin, Furey certainly loved her in a manner that quasi-narcissist Gabriel never could, but as the clearly haunted female protagonist reveals to her husband regarding her youthful love, “I am implored him to go home at once. I told him he’d get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live.” Needless to say, Gabriel is rather taken aback by the entire story and its dejecting implications, not least of all because he has no intrinsic understanding of how a man could love a woman so much, even though the woman in question is his own wife.

While Gretta practically passes out while sobbing after telling her deeply disconcerting story of tragic young love, Gabriel finds his mind racing, not least of all because he finally realizes that he does not truly understand his own wife, or as he thinks to himself while staring at her in bed, “How poor a part I’ve played in your life. It’s almost as though I’m not your husband and we’ve never lived together as man and wife.” Indeed, the viewer soon realizes that Gabriel is an emotionally underdeveloped individual that has never loved another person in his entire life as reflected in his clearly articulated racing thoughts, “To me your face is still beautiful, but it’s no longer the one for which Michael Furey braved death. Why am I feeling this riot of emotion? What stirred it up? […]One by one, we're all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and whither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover's eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I've never felt that way myself towards any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love. Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead.” Of course, during his rather short life, Michael Furey certainly truly lived more than sad beta-cuck Gabriel Conroy, whose wife’s soul belongs to a dead teenager.  Notably, Gabriel also contemplates his old spinster Aunt Julia and how she will probably die soon, as if he realizes that he will also die lonely just like his spinster aunt, even though he technically has a wife.  Of course, as the film reveals with its shots of a snowy cemetery where Michael Furey was buried, death is an innately solitary affair that no one escapes, not even pretentious self-absorbed twats.

The not-exactly-morbidly titled The Dead was certainly an exquisite and even poetically fitting way for John Huston to conclude his fairly singular filmmaking career, but I would probably stop short of pulling a Roger Ebert, who included it in his book The Great Movies III (2010) despite giving the film only 3 out of 4 stars in his original 1987 review, and describing it as an immaculate masterwork.  In fact, I consider Huston's other later cinematic efforts Wise Blood and Under the Volcano to be superior to his swansong in just about every way, especially in terms of entertainment value, subversiveness and sheer replay value.  Of course, then again, I cannot think of a more artistically sound yet vulnerable film for a filmmaker to end both his life and career with, so I do not want to underplay its value in the context of Huston's entire oeuvre, especially since so many other great filmmakers (e.g. Fellini, Bergman) concluded their careers in less than memorable fashions. Naturally, the film only seems all the more poignant and haunting now that virtually all of the actors featured in it are also dead, yet their memory now lives on via cinema not unlike how the memory of Michael Furey lives on in the mind of poor Gretta, but of course that was probably Huston's intention, hence the film's subtle multilayered brilliance as both a nuanced melodrama and virtual self-obituary in poetic cinematic form. While I cannot say that I am perennially internally wounded by the memory of a dead teenage boy, The Dead inspired a sort of vaguely unsettling bittersweet nostalgia-cum-misery in me, especially in regard to the unwavering feeling of preferring death over being without the bitch I love(d) most.  Unlike many lovesick individuals, Gretta certainly has a certain convenience of memory, as her great love died young in what seemed to be the ideal youthful romance before hate and negativity came into play in her relationship.  Indeed, there seems to be a certain romantic purity in regard to Gretta's memory of Michael Furey, hence the intolerable nature of her loveless marriage with Gabriel.

Of course, the film's male protagonist Gabriel represents the height of beta-male sterility as a man that is so out of touch with his own wife that he has no clue that she finds him to be both emotionally and sexually banal and thus clings to ancient memories in regard to a dead boy that she probably did not even have the pleasure of feeling inside of her. A prosaic pansy whose phony panache is a pathetic substitute for an authentic personality and whose cosmopolitan tendencies reveal a laughably contrived sense of class and superiority, Gabriel is ultimately a truly singularly horrifying character of cinema history in that he represents the everyman par excellence; a walking and talking eunuch corpse that merely floats through life instead of actually living it. Of course, I think it is safe to say that Huston actually lived life as his long and eclectic filmmaking career, various wives and lovers, and children demonstrate, so it seems somewhat curious that he would focus on such a soulless character, but then again he was a man that truly loved classic mick literature and was probably just happy to adapt his homeboy Joyce.

After roaming around a small oceanic city until 5am the next morning this past New Year's Eve and seeing countless drunk sluts with fake blonde hair stumble down the streets and tons of brain-dead bros attemptting to pick fight with strangers and harass workers and business owners, I cannot help but think a lot has been lost in the Occident in terms of love, romance, and chivalry since the days of Joyce's Ireland as depicted in Huston's The Dead; a film with a title that best describes the both the spiritual and cultural status of modern Western man.  Not just a dapperly dressed candy ass that lacks the capacity to love, Gabriel is a sad symbol of European decadence and an entire race's unconscious obsession with collective suicide, which is surely something that would have pained Mr. Joyce to see as demonstrated by his wise words, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”  As for Mr. Huston, he might have been somewhat spiritually and politically decadent, but he was unequivocally a true Faustian Man that expressed a certain degree authentic Aryan masculinity, even in a depressing melodrama like The Dead.

-Ty E

Dec 21, 2016

The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke

Personally, I have always wondered the sort of films that might be created by a rampantly heterosexual auteur that made cinematic works in the camp-oriented spirit of great underground cinematic queens like Andy Warhol, Werner Schroeter, and Jack Smith, so naturally I was quite astonished when I discovered the rather large and undeniably singular oeuvre of English auteur Jeff Keen (Marvo Movie, Mad Love)—the unconventional son of a butler and nurse—who ultimately sired his own insanely idiosyncratic artistic universe for both he and his family to live in. A virtual trashcan renaissance man and proud proletarian bohemian that dabbled in basically every artistic medium, including graffiti before it was a hip trend among urban negroes and wiggers, and oftentimes combined said mediums in a decidedly distinct fashion that is unmistakably his own (e.g. multi-screen ‘diary films’ and ‘Expanded Cinema’), Keen was one wonderfully crazed cat that was keen on creamy cunts, classic comics, crayons, cardboard costumes, and Catwoman, among various obsessions that permeate throughout his films. Although he did not get involved in filmmaking into he was well into his late-30s, Keen managed to create no less than 70 films and video art experiments during his inordinately prolific yet little known artistic career.  Additionally, despite being nearly middle-aged by the time he first picked up a super-8 camera, Keen's films always demonstrated an innate youthful energy and excitement, as if the auteur never lost touch with his inner child.  After all, there is probably no other man that created extra slimy graffiti oriented video art during his golden years like Keen's ‘Artwar Video’ series, including such overwhelming colorful pieces as Blatzom in Artwar and Artwar: The Last Frontier. As the oftentimes bizarre titles of his films demonstrate, Keen also created his own distinct esoteric lingo.

Arguably best known among contemporary cineastes for co-directing the dreamlike experimental short The Autumn Feast (1961) with Italian-born New York Beat poet and Warhol associate Piero Heliczer, Keen’s works were pretty much impossible to find until relatively recently with the release of the BFI DVD box-set GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen (2009), which I recently had the distinct pleasure of devouring. After indulging in the greater portion of the director’s oeuvre, I came to the conclusion that The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1979-1984)—a darkly romantic cinematic nightmare of kaleidoscopic pornography, murder, sadomasochism, and zany Hitler fetishism—is unequivocally my favorite Keen flick.  A perversely poetic window into Keen's seemingly haunted yet nonetheless hyperactive unconscious, the unbelievably penetrating psychosexual cinematic horror show is a wonderfully rude yet strangely elegant reminder that pure and unadulterated creativity and spirit always trumps a big budget.  In short, you will not find a film that is so hopelessly kitschy yet wonderfully creative, original, poetic despite being made on a budget of next to nil shekels.

Described by Will Fowler at BFI as, “a sort of coda to his earlier stylistic phase,” the film was made during a dark period in Keen’s life after he and his wife and perennial muse Jackie Keen (aka Jacqueline Foulds) separated, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is a piece of intemperate idiosyncrasy and iconoclastic aesthetic raw power that might lead some viewers to suspect that the auteur is a poetic yet autistic serial killer with a nasty collection of infantile fetishes and juvenile obsessions, but of course that is what makes it such an uniquely unforgettable cinematic experience. Admittedly, my immediate interest in Keen came as a result of randomly happening upon a screenshot from the film featuring a cute brunette that I would later discover was the director’s daughter Stella Keen (aka ‘Stella Starr’), who began her own filmmaking career as a child star in her father’s films (she would later sometimes act as her father's cinematographer). Indeed, forget Fassbinder and his dysfunctional kraut superstars, you will not find a filmmaker with a more intimate relationship with his stars than Keen, who has arguably probably paid tribute to the beauty of his wife Jackie’s bare body more than any other filmmaker in cinema history. Likewise, you will not find a filmmaker who is more at both the literal and figurative center of his films than cool cracker Keen, whose art, especially his films, are magnificently masturbatory in the best sort of way.

 A king of intricate art-trash who turned his entire life into a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where every single film, painting, drawing, poem, graffiti tag, and performance art routine that he created seems to be an important piece in one giant esoteric psychosexual autobiogasm from post-WWII Brit beatnik purgatory, Keen is, for better or worse, the best argument for the auteur theory and I would certainly say that The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is the best introduction to his pleasantly preternatural outsider aesthetic and artistic Weltanschauung.  Indeed, love him or hate him, but it is impossible to deny that Keen was a true visionary that might be best described as the Wagner of celluloid outsider art (in fact, Keen was also heavily influenced by Nordic mythology).  Of course, quite unlike comparable artists like Joseph Cornell (Rose Hobart, Nymphlight) and Henry Darger, Keen seems to have led a relatively sane sex life, hence his focus on curvy women instead of prepubescent children, yet there is no denying that there is something intrinsically childlike about him, even if his daughter once described him as a, “typical nostalgic English man.”

 Notably, in an interview with National Arts Trust, Keen’s daughter Stella stated regarding her father’s work, “He wasn’t interested in the commercial side of things at all, apart from a fascination with the universal appeal of popular culture. He appreciated the fact that this and certain ‘lowbrow’ forms of art, e.g. comic books, rock ‘n roll etc were easily read and understood by everyone. He liked the idea of creating a universal language. He wanted all art to be more democratic – not elitist but easily accessible to all.” While Keen’s films certainly wallow in a ludicrously lowbrow aesthetic of superheroes, broken Barbie dolls, and pornography, you would probably be hard-pressed to find working-class individuals that would prefer watching his cinematic works to the latest big budget Hollywood action flick.  As for Keen's own cinematic tastes, he revealed he was far from your typical pretentious art fag when he once described the Pre-Code Béla Lugosi vehicle White Zombie (1932) as, “possibly the most beautiful film ever.”  Needless to say, Keen's films are the perfect antidote to the preposterously pedantic and mostly soulless Structural/materialist filmmakers that were prominent in the UK during the late-1960s trhough 1970s like Malcolm Le Grice, Guy Sherwin, Mike Leggett, Peter Gidal, and Annabel Nicolson, among various others, though he has somewhat strangely associated with them due to his involvement with the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (LFMC) (1966-1976).  It should also be noted that, aesthetically speaking, Keen's films are more authentically subversive and anarchic than those created by the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression filmmakers that would follow in his footsteps decades later.  Indeed, while Keen might have had a somewhat juvenile essence, none of his films are plagued by the repugnant philistine misanthropy or wholly pointless sexual degeneracy that is typical of the abortive flicks of glue-huffing causalities like Nick Zedd and Tommy Turner.

Like Keen, fellow William S. Burroughs associate and underground British avant-gardist Antony Balch (Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups) also experimented with creating anarchic collage oriented films that combined lowbrow and highbrow influences, but he eventually graduated on to making sleazy feature-length exploitation films like Bizarre (1970) aka Secrets of Sex and Horror Hospital (1973) that were made for more mainstream oriented consumption. In other words, Keen never even attempted to sellout and his films only became all the more arcane and inaccessible over the decades. Indeed, aside from its potent combination of melancholy and lechery, it is hard to determine what The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is really about, though I suspect it is mainly a semi-cryptic meditation on heartbreak, hence why it features Keen’s daughter portraying an artist that creates a literal broken heart via a large paper quill. Began in 1979 but not finished until 1984, the film is also notable for featuring the director’s wife despite the fact that they were long separated when it was finally finished.  Instead of portraying a sassy tigeress or perennially smiling nudie cutie like in his earlier films, Keen's wife Jackie fittingly portrays a sensually deadly femme fatale in what was undoubtedly their last great collaboration with one another.

Beginning with an oneiric image of a classy beautiful woman that is ultimately revealed to be the front cover of MON FILM magazine, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke then immediately bombards the viewer with a frantic combination of hypnotic imagery, including vintage stag footage superimposed over shots of a seemingly half-ruined artist’s workroom that is covered with broken baby dolls and naked Barbies hanging from ropes in what is ultimately a sort of overture for the film. While Keen’s daughter once described her father’s film influences as being, “John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Cocteau, Bunuel, Film Noir directors like Nicholas Ray + B Movie hero Ed Wood and so many more,” the film immediately seems like a no budget Werner Schroeter flick on acid, albeit with a decidedly heterosexual focus where creepy fake boobs and pieces of cheap naked female plastic inspire unnerving erotic horrors.  A sort of cine-manic micro-triptych, the short has three distinct segments that really underscore the auteur's natural affinity for cinematic subversion in all forms, including technique, structure, imagery, editing, and morality.  At about the 1:30 minute mark of the film, the inter-titles “Blonde Destiny” and “A Reconstructed Thriller” appear juxtaposed with the less than solacing sounds of fighter aircrafts in what ultimately proves to be a relatively intricate micro-film-within-a-film that emphasizes the timeless relationship between killer and the carnal. Indeed, a short but sickly sweet sex noir-thriller set at Brighton train station, “Blonde Destiny” depicts the director’s wife-cum-muse Jackie being both brutally threatened and embraced by a killer with a gun, as well as still photos of a naughty bitch flashing her bushy beaver in public. While watching this short segment, ones does not doubt that Keen has had many elaborate fantasies regarding the ancient art of Lustmord, which is probably not all that uncommon for a artist that has separated from his lifelong muse.  Of course, Jackie's character is far from innocent, as she is depicted handling a large knife, not to mention the fact that she enjoys the tight embrace of a coldblooded killer, but I digress.  Featuring both blue and purple tinted scenes, “Blonde Destiny” contains a sort of effortlessly elegant yet raw and visceral neo-Victorian elegance that cannot really be found in any of Keen's other films.

While less than 7 minutes long in its entirety, it is not until at about the 2:18 mark of the film that the main show begins and the official inter-titles appear that read, “Hitler’s Double & The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” and “With the Spectres of E.A. Poe and Carol Borland in . . . . . . the Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke.” Indeed, not only does Uncle Adolf play a prominent role in the film, but the viewer is also exposed to the youthful melancholic pulchritude of Keen’s debutante daughter Stella, who looks like she could have inspired the cover-art for the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), as she practically bleeds a sort of highly refined feminine somberness. Before the real action begins, the viewer is exposed to still photos of a babe in bondage and war footage that echoes the director’s lifelong obsession with the Second World War and how he narrowly missed taking part in the D-Day landings, which ultimately consumed many of his friends and colleagues in what would ultimately prove to be a seminal influence on both his life and art.

One of Keen’s rather intimate “self portrait” films like Victory Thru Film Power (1980s) and Omozap (1990-1991), The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is, not unlike many of the director’s later films, a meta-artistic work that makes obsessive references to the director's own physical art pieces, including the “The Poet's Cot” and “The Book of the Film” (notably, Keen oftentimes created his own ‘books of the film’ that featured signed photos of the stars of the film in question). Of course, it is very telling that there is a scene in the film where the legendary Poet’s Cot goes up in flames.  Making heavy use of extra bright neon reds and blues that inspires ideas of romantic murder and sullen midnight walks in the moonlight, the film is indubitably one of Keen's most accomplished work in terms of sheer visuals.  Likewise, the film also features strangely aesthetically pleasing neon blue stock footage of der Führer. As for Hitler's double (aka Keen in a cheap Hitler mask), he seems like a creepy hopeless romantic that has fallen from grace and has been doomed to walk for eternity with wilted roses and dead children in his arms.

In what is arguably the film’s most memorable and aesthetically alluring moment, Keen’s daughter Stella creates a large broken heart with a giant paper paintbrush while blindfolded.  Moving very slowly like a romantically condemned somnambulist that is haunted by the memory of a lover that she lost long ago, Stella seems completely possessed in a completely tragic fashion, hence why she does not even need to use her eyes to paint literal heartbreak.  Of course, one also cannot forget the image of a Keen-as-Hitler carrying around naked baby dolls in his arms in what is assuredly the creepiest yet cryptic scene from the film. In one of the more bizarrely darkly romantic scenes, a red rose is superimposed over a man threatening a cringing little lady with a large knife. In another similarly unforgettable scene, ghost-like beatniks sporting pancake lounge in a room where a fat old woman reads from the “The Film of the Book” while a dorky dude with skeletal makeup plays a kitschy violin.  Undoubtedly, these ghostly characters sorrowfully echo the truly colorful players in Keen's previous films, as if the auteur is both haunted by and nostalgic about his artistic past.  After wrestling with a large translucent sheet of plastic, one of the ghost girls is attacked by the macabre musician. Towards the end of the film in what is ultimately a perversely preternatural family portrait of sorts, Keen sits next to his wife, daughter, and some naked and bloody Barbie dolls while sporting a sort of makeshift metallic robot costume. In the end, the film concludes with the poet-auteur flipping through “The Film of the Book” inter-spliced with vintage pornography of a sitting nude beauty basking in her carnal glory in a scene of poesy cinematic necrophilia (after all, the nude beauty is undoubtedly long dead). In that sense, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is the ultimate gothic horror flick of the underground.

I am not even going to pretend that I fully understand what The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is really about (after all, Keen loathed attempting to intellectualize his own work), but I do know that, aesthetically speaking, it is a gift that keeps on giving that could be played on a loop for eternity and not seem the least bit banal or trite. Of course, the same could be said about many of Keen’s films, but this is one of the only films by the English auteur that emphasizes pathos over pure energetic audio-visual overload, even if it is no less overwhelming in its chaotic aesthetic fury.  Although just speculation, I am fairly convinced that the film is an expression of a man that felt like he was living in a personal pandemonium where he was haunted by the past yet even more horrified about the prospect of the future. Surely, one of the aspects of the film that makes it so potent is Keen’s daughter Stella’s central role as a sort of magical yet melancholic somnambulistic art goddess. While researching Keen and his film, I happened upon various tributes by Stella to her father where she reveals an undeniably heartwarming love, admiration, and respect for her father. In fact, I do not think it is a stretch to say that Stella is her father’s greatest fan, scholar, and protégé, among other things.

As Stella once noted, the essence of Keen’s oeuvre can be summed up in a sentence that he wrote across one of his paintings from the 1990s that read, “All life is war and the long voyage home,” which is especially true of The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke where Hitler, family members, and ancient porn stars inhabit a sort of hyper hermetic psychodramatic fever dream of the purgatorial sort that pays frenzied (anti)tribute to the perennial struggle that is life. Needless to say, the film also features one of the most bizarre and inexplicable examples of an artistic collaboration between a father and daughter. Undoubtedly, compared to the inordinate interfamilial intimacy of Keen’s film(s), underground films made in collaboration with bohemian buddies like Ken Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness (1960), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1953), and Ira Cohen’s The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968) seems a cold, calculated, and phony as the average 1980s Hollywood action flick by comparison. In other words, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is like the most vulnerable yet hermetic, gritty yet meticulously stylized, and domestic yet dreamlike of home movies.

Surely, one of the most stunning aspects of The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke and many of Keen’s films is the amount of effort and obsessive attention to detail that was put into what are ultimately no budget cinematic experiments that were assembled in the rather restricted confines of the auteur’s flat. Naturally, I was not surprised to discover that, not unlike many serious artists, Keen created for largely therapeutic reasons, or as his daughter once wrote, “For Jeff, the finest human inventions were the bicycle and the hand gun. He used his brush, pen and camera like a gun. Each tool was simply a device – a means to an end. The creative act itself was the important thing, rather than the finished work. This would explain my father’s frequent habit of destroying his own work once he’d finished it; to ‘rip it up and start again’. This form of collage – the cut-up re-invented story – is fundamental to Jeff’s metier. His writing, film and painting transgresses all boundaries – but ultimately it always comes back to the drawn line. The artist’s hand is ever present, and the artist himself is always active, often viewed in action. In Jeff’s words, “It’s auto-bio-graphik, not auto-biography... direct projection, not an illustration... a comic strip of life, printed on semtex.” Indeed, Keen turned his life into a sort of unending avant-garde cinematic comic strip where the monsters and mad scientists are the good guys, nude women act as an extra solacing Greek chorus, and creativity and destruction are one and the same. Surely, you will not find a more impenetrable yet kitschy oeuvre, as Keen is like the missing link between Walt Disney and Warhol. Likewise, Keen is probably the only filmmaker that has managed to reconcile the exquisite high-camp decadence of Herr Schroeter with the shameless schlock of Troma.

Undoubtedly, few films make you feel more like a shameless voyeur than The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke where Keen violently yet jovially shouts and ejaculates his pathologies, fetishes, and dubious obsessions with the imperative help of his entire family. Indeed, watching the film seems like something akin eating shrooms and walking in on a family engaged in a bloody psychedelic orgy involving Hitler cosplay and Bellmer-esque baby doll worship. On a somewhat less degenerate yet surely more depressing note, the countless baby dolls and appearance by the auteur’s sole child in the film reminded me of Stella Keen's genuinely heartfelt eulogy to her father where she stated, “My greatest tragedy is that I wasn’t able to show any grandchildren to my dad, but there will be continuity to the Keen line somehow and, certainly, I am making sure his legacy continues to be protected and promoted long after I’m gone. Also his influence continues to filter through my own work which will hopefully go from strength to strength and inspire others as well.” Although the Archduke’s bloodline has indubitably come to an end, his cinematic works will, to some degree, live on.  Arguably cinema history's most proficient yet overlooked alchemist as a man that used literal trash and figurative artistic shit like cheap comics to create an entire elaborate cinematic universe, Keen is not only arguably the UK's greatest master of art brut, but one of its greatest avant-garde filmmaker period. After all, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is nothing if not the sort of film that causes the spread of cinephilia, thereupon making it the perfect flick for Keen virgins to get infected with.

-Ty E