Dec 3, 2020

I Walked with a Zombie

As the largely pathetically plastic and aesthetically and artistically prosaic history of Hollywood—a virtual dream factory designed for dullards and dictated over by demons and devils—surely demonstrates, the producer-as-auteur is a most putrid prospect that, not surprisingly, reached its peak long ago during the first year of the Second World War with such preposterously plush proto-blockbusters as Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Needless to say, it is somewhat shocking yet somehow strangely fitting that during WWII a deracinated Judaic producer would be responsible for creating some of the greatest and most pleasantly poetic horror films of all-time. Influencing everything from Curtis Harrington’s delightful debut feature Night Tide (1961) to Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle (1960-1964) to Mike Nichols’ sole unexpected horror effort Wolf (1994), Val Lewton—the introverted nephew of femme fatale Alla Nazimova who was behind the surprisingly artsy fartsy Oscar Wilde adaptation Salomé (1923)—never directed a single feature but to deny him the status of ‘auteur’ would be insulting to a man that produced films that were certainly weirder and more poetical than anything ever directed by James Whale. Indeed, as a producer at RKO Pictures during the 1940s, Lewton actually managed to rival the Teutonic masters of German Expressionism with a cycle of boldly beauteous and hypnotically haunting horror movies that, despite technically being low-budget quickies, brought artistic credibility to a genre that very few took/take seriously. While most of Lewton’s horror films have something to offer, I can state without even the slightest degree of hesitation that I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is easily my favorite of these flavorsome fright flicks. Directed by Jacques Tourneur who helmed the greatest (and earliest) of the Lewton films, including Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943), and who would also direct the great British horror flick Night of the Demon (1957), Lewton’s pre-Romero zombie flick is probably the single greatest artistic contribution to the flesheater genre and it does not even feature a single instance of flesh-eating. In short, I Walked with a Zombie makes for a great case that George A. Romero may have had a disastrous influence on zombie cinema, but of course that would be missing the point as the film is a piece of cinematic poetry that simply transcends any sort of genre ghetto and is imbued with a sort of warm melancholy and the uniquely uncanny that, not unlike the undead negroes in the film, leaves one in a trance. 
While it might just be a mere coincidence, it seems that the most poetic works of horror cinema do not extend much past the 60-minute mark as demonstrated by Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), and Jörg Buttgereit’s Schramm (1993), among various other examples. Of course, I Walked with a Zombie, not unlike Lewton’s other RKO horror films, is no different as a 69-minute feature with a seemingly immaculate flow and pace that begs for frequent re-watchings. In fact, the first time I watched the film, I decided to immediately re-watch it and I felt no less effortlessly enraptured during this second viewing, which is not something I can say about many films, including many of my favorite ones. Clearly made before the zombie film became a ghettoized gallery of the unimaginatively gory and grotesque, the film—unquestionably the greatest collaboration between dual auteurs Lewton and Tourneur—demonstrates that sometimes taking narrative influence from a classic Charlotte Brontë Bildungsroman like Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847) can do a horror film good as a hallucinatory cinematic work that takes an almost somnambulistic approach to the art of storytelling. Indeed, a quite literally titled flick less-than-loosely based on the story of the same name featured in American Weekly magazine by roving journalist Inez Wallace, it begins in a flashback form and even disseminates narrative bits in the form of a goofy negro calypso singer who seems almost literally possessed with a need to spread the anti-gospel of a romantically accursed white plantation family. A film that is somewhat in the racially-charged tradition of H.P. Lovecraft in terms of depicting the forsaken status of white European colonial types that made the mistake of colonizing exotic lands and mixing with non-Europeans, the film also wallows in the hopelessly hoodooed status of Faustian man and his sorry state in the postcolonial world. Needless to say, I Walked with a Zombie makes Wes Craven’s particularly plodding The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) seem like an artless exercise in zany xenophilia by comparison. Additionally, even the watchable second season The X-Files episode “Fresh Bones”—a racially confused tribute to the dubious horrors of Haitian Vodou—seems like a feckless fantasy compared to the pure preternatural poetry of Lewton’s classic flick. Admittedly, the film also imbues the viewer with a sense that it makes no sense to fiddle with the old dark things of old dark peoples lest one suffer an indelible sort of spiritual miscegenation. 
Although himself a mischling with tiresomely turgid prose, film scholar Chris Fujiwara makes a great point about the film in his text The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur (1998) when he argues that, “To try to synopsize I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a peculiarly ridiculous task, since the film, more systematically than any other Tourneur film, abolishes narrative verisimilitude,” yet Fujiwara then curiously proceeds to provide a synopsis, but I digress. While Fujiwara tends to puke-out prosaic puffery as is especially apparent in his obscenely banal Otto Preminger biography The World and Its Double (2008), he completely nails it when he states, “One of Tourneur’s most beautiful films, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a sustained exercise in uncompromising ambiguity. Perfecting the formula that Lewton and Tourneur had developed in CAT PEOPLE, the film carries its predecessor’s elliptical, oblique narrative procedures to astonishing extremes. The dialogue is almost nothing but a commentary on past events, obsessively revisiting itself, finally giving up the struggle to explain and surrendering to a mute acceptance of the inexplicable. We watch the slow, atmospheric, lovingly detailed scenes with delight and fascination, realizing at the end that we have seen nothing but the traces of a conflict decided in advance.” 
I have to confess that virtually every single nurse that I have ever personally known was a cold cunt and it comes as no surprise to me that an inordinately large number of female serial killers were members of the profession, but it would be a lie to say that I Walked with a Zombie lead Betsy Connell (Frances Dee)—a white Canadian chick that immediately lets the viewer know via voiceover that she once “walked with a zombie”—is unlikable, though one certainly sometimes questions her borderline cuckquean-like behavior. Although a Canadian nurse, Betsy somehow finds herself relocating to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian where she is hired by the severely cynical Paul Holland (Tom Conway)—a cultivated man that seems to hate everyone and everything, especially in regard to his seemingly accursed family and their dubious legacy—to take care of his wife Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) who may or may not be a zombie. While Jessica’s status as a member of the living dead is somewhat questionable, her past life as a wanton whore is unquestionable as she was responsible for bringing misery to Paul’s family by starting a lurid extramarital love affair with his hunky half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) who clearly has stronger feelings for the tragic voodoo floozy. Needless to say, Nurse Betsy, who eventually develops curious romantic feelings for Paul, finds herself getting stuck in the middle of the fucked family affair and even gets so desperate in her quest to cure Jessica that she takes her to a voodoo temple called a ‘Houmfort’ with the help of a titular undead colored gentleman named Carrefour (Darby Jones) with big bulging eyes that puts maestro Mantan Moreland to shame in terms of the unnervingly grotesque and racially caricaturely unfortunate. Naturally, Betsy is somewhat shocked when she discovers that Paul and Wesley’s mother Mrs. Rand (who is strangely portrayed by Vincent Price’s wife Edith Barrett in old fart makeup) is not only involved in the voodoo scene, but she also takes credit for turning Jessica into a zombie. Of course, it is hard to hate Mrs. Rand as Jessica is the hot twat harpy that ripped her family apart. While Mrs. Rand only makes her curious confession after a local commissioner opts to launch an official investigation into the living dead dame’s (ostensible?) illness, her son Wesley decisively puts an end to all the madness by killing Jessica—with or without the help of less than divine intervention—and then drowning himself in a darkly dreamy scenario that rather conveniently takes place at very same time a voodoo ritual involving an effigy of Jessica is being carried out by the local voudon negroes. While I Walked with a Zombie does not end on a happy note as potential lovebirds Betsy and Paul do not even start a romance (though such a scenario was rightly excised from the original script), it could not have ended any other way as a film that wallows in the racially apocalyptic legacy of colonialism and, in turn, (proto)multiculturalism. In short, Lovecraft wept. 
Undoubtedly Lewton’s greatest director, Tourneur apparently also shared his collaborator’s ‘progressive’ outlook when it came to race as is so delicately depicted not only in I Walked with a Zombie, but also his later films. Indeed, as Tourneur once stated in an interview with Positif in regard to his then-atypical affection for Afro-Americans, “I’ve always refused to caricature blacks. I’ve never or almost never showed them as domestics. I’ve always tried to give them a profession, to have them speak normally without drawing any comic effect. Watch in OUT OF THE PAST the scene in the nightclub where there are only black people, look at the way they’re dressed and filmed, the elegance of the young woman in responding to Mitchum. Several times I’ve been accused of being a ‘n*gger lover’ and for long months I was out of the studios for that reason. It was a sort of gray list.” Undoubtedly, many of the colored characters in Lewton’s/Tourneur’s zombie flick have a sort of rare ‘tragic nobility’ that is thankfully not betrayed by the sort of rabid self-righteous ressentiment and racial hubris that is typical of ostensibly progressive modern-day Hollywood films, especially the sort of black bourgeois pseudo-art horror of Jordan Peele (who has rightly been described as the great Afro-American film critic Armond White as a “race hustler” and “charlatan”). Additionally, whether intentional or not, I Walked with a Zombie manages to make a mockery of spiritually castrated white progressive types, namely in a scene where the character Paul—the wealthy yet accursed descendant of slave traders—declares when describing a statue of Saint Sebastian named Ti-Misery that, “it was once the figurehead of a slave-ship. That’s where our people came from.” Indeed, like the stereotype of the sort of nihilistic self-destructive aristocrat described in Vilfredo Pareto’s classic text The Rise and Fall of Elites: Application of Theoretical Sociology, degenerate rich boy Paul absurdly identifies with people of a completely different race and class over his own kin, but such is the forsaken fate of a fucked fellow from a unfortunate family that made the rather shortsighted mistake of getting rich off of slavery. Needless to say, Paul’s curse is also now that of the entire modern Occidental world. 
Notably, in his worthwhile text Val Lewton: the Reality of Terror (1972), Joel E. Siegel, who regards I Walked with a Zombie as the first of Lewton’s two true masterpieces (the other being the delightfully deathly dark The Seventh Victim (1943) directed by Mark Robson) and a work somewhat rightly compared to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in terms of its technique and mosaic-like structure, soundly argues, “Lewton’s strongest abilities are, as [James] Agee observed, poetic and cinematic and not literary or romantic. A very free adaptation of JANE EYRE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is particularly poetic in its equivocal, often inexplicable, interrelationships between characters […] At no time in the film, even at its conclusion, do we have any idea of strong, single motivations determining the action and characters. Lewton cleverly sets up a series of perplexing relationships; the mystery of his complexly driven human characters leads us outward, gradually to accept the film’s supernatural elements without disbelief. The film’s central image, an emblematic crystallization of all this ambiguity, is the figurehead of St Sebastian which came to the island on a slave ship and now stands in the Holland garden. St Sebastian, who exists at the meeting point of paganism and Christianity, is a fit deity for the film, a mixture of the elemental and the tamed, the fleshly and the divine. The figurehead, which at times serves as a quick transition between scenes, is an emblem of the blending of love and hatred, beauty and terror, reason and superstition, at the heart of this complex, remarkable film.” Indeed, aside from being a rare example of a film that does not utilize Saint Sebastian in a hokey homoerotic way à la Paul Schrader’s dreadful Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), I Walked with a Zombie is a rare horror films that manages to be just as effortlessly enigmatic as it is archetypically perennial. 
Apparently, Val Lewton’s own loving wife said in regard to the film that is quite arguably her husband’s magnum opus, “I would never go to see a movie called I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE unless somebody dragged me there.” Rather fittingly, the film even opens with the heroine Betsy Connell mocking the title in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, but unfortunately the title at least temporarily acted as a curse of sorts on the ill-fated-filled film, or as Siegel explained, “It is perhaps characteristic of Lewton’s career that this film, one of the rare pieces of pure visual poetry ever to come out of Hollywood, was seen by hardly anybody but the bloodthirsty chiller fans who frequented theaters like the Rialto in New York. Later, through the efforts of critics like James Agee and Manny Farber, readers of magazines like THE NATION and THE NEW REPUBLIC were altered to the very special quality of Lewton’s productions.” Personally, I am still pissed off at myself for not watching the film over a decade ago as I already regard it as easily in my own personal ‘top ten films of all-time’ despite only first seeing it this year. Indeed, while I now generally regard most of the zombie (sub)genre as being about as appetizing as undead excreta, I Walked with a Zombie is a potent reminder as to why I love cinema and spend so much time devouring cinema despite being routinely disappointed by a good portion of it. While I will always have a softspot for fine flesh-eating filmic feces like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) aka Zombie, Lewton’s masterpiece is the only zombie film that I can think of that manages to be a virtual perfect poetic meditation on Eros and Thanatos, among other things. Needless to say, the film will probably not exactly excite the sort of genre sociopath that finds themselves effortlessly enraptured by the sight of brutal deaths and cheap sleazy sex. Likewise, the film fails to fulfill any sort of philistine fantasy about frolicsome flesheaters as the (un)dead seem truly (un)dead and hardly the compatriots of rancid Romero retards. 
Rather admittedly, I used to feel that filmic voodoo zombies were the height of banality when I was much younger due to my childish reverence for Romero and sustained boredom while watching such would-be-classic as White Zombie and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, but I Walked with a Zombie has single-handedly shown me the error of my ways. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is the only zombie film I really need, though I do not plan to completely abandon the horror (sub)genre despite the appearance of such lifeless flicks as Jim Jarmusch’s prosaically pretentious pomo zombie-comedy The Dead Don't Die (2019) where the near-elderly hipster auteur demonstrates with a dumbfounding degree of detachment his lackluster love of Romero flicks and basic bitch genre trivia. Not surprisingly, I Walked with a Zombie has been remade at least twice and, even less surprisingly, neither of these films are quite as good as the original. The first, Casa de Lava (1994) aka Down to Earth directed by Portuguese Pedro Costa, is a virtual postcolonial Tondichtung sans supernatural horror where the zombies are replaced by a comatose Cape Verdean ‘migrant worker’ who is brought back to his decaying and racially (post)apocalyptic volcanic homeland by an attractive young white nurse that tries in vain to live like the natives (and gets fucked by them in process). Unfortunately, the second sequel Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual (2002)—a gleefully degenerate and equally dumb exercise in schlocky CGI special effects and shockingly stupid lowbrow racial fetishism directed by some Israeli hack and co-produced by genre directors Richard Donner and Walter Hill that is surely not worthy of the name of the hit HBO horror anthology television series that was quite cynically tacked onto it—is a total insult to the legacy of Lewton’s masterpiece.  While it is surely no surprise that a stupid and sleazy remake was made with kosher cash as it is a virtual tradition of the horror genre, the fact that a perplexing European arthouse auteur like Pedro Costa would seek to rework I Walked with a Zombie is certainly strong evidence of the film's perennial artistic potency and integrity.
Although I Walked with a Zombie is unequivocally the best voodoo zombie flick ever made, it was actually not the first. Indeed, aside from the languid yet watchable Lugosi vehicle White Zombie—a pre-Code independent film based on a story by writer, occultist, and purported cannibal William Seabrook—having the distinction of being the first feature-length zombie film, it was followed up by various rather racially-insensitive low-budget voodoo horror flicks, including the zombie-free Fay Wray vehicle Black Moon (1934) directed by Roy William Neill and Ouanga (1936) aka Love Wanga aka Drums of the Jungle directed by George Terwilliger (who also penned the somewhat similarly themed ‘race film’ The Devil's Daughter (1939) directed by Arthur H. Leonard). While naturally also zombie-free due to being a documentary, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1954/1993) directed by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren makes for a nice double feature with I Walked with a Zombie. Although not altogether flattering in its depiction of Haitian vodou, accursed auteur Richard Stanley’s doc The White Darkness (2002) does a good job of demystifying both the literal and figurative darkness of the sort of folk culture/religion that is depicted in I Walked with a Zombie. Of course, a love of Lewton’s film does not require an interest in voodoo, zombies, or even horror films. Indeed, just as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) does not require one to sympathize with petty criminals, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) does not require one to even be familiar with t8th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, and Lucifer Rising (1971) does not require selling one’s soul to charming charlatan Aleister Crowley, I Walked with a Zombie does not demand one even appreciate horror or zombie films as a work of singular cinematic art that totally transcends its subject matter to provide the viewer with a virtual aesthetic high that maintains its potency on subsequent viewings. In short, the greatest film with a stupid name ever made and a cinematic work that even rivals Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in terms of the greatest film ever produced by RKO Pictures. In fact, sorry Orson, but I have seen I Walked with a Zombie more times in one month than I have watched Welles’ masterpiece in my entire life and I do not feel the least bit ashamed of that fact.  Undoubtedly, unless Gaspar Noé gets the great gall to direct a film inspired by Lothrop Stoddard's classic text The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914), I doubt we will ever see a Caribbean-themed horror that is even vaguely as immaculately idiosyncratic as Lewton's doubly dark masterpiece.  Likewise, I doubt we will ever see a new Hollywood filmmaker that even approaches Lewton in terms of artistic integrity and great sensitivity.  A rare enigma of a film producer that cared more about his art than money and made b-movies that were inspired by artists ranging from William Hogarth to Arnold Böcklin, Lewton also broke racial stereotypes and revealed a certain deep eternal darkness in Faustian man that is so elegantly expressed in I Walked with a Zombie.  Needless to say, Faustian is more or less a member of the undead nowadays.
-Ty E

Jul 27, 2020

The Cremator

Mainly due to its curious inclusion of Austrian actor Paulus Manker portraying the great Viennese Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger—a character he would play on stage and ultimately immortalize by directing and starring in the rarely-seen masterpiece Weiningers Nacht (1990) aka Weininger's Last Night—I recently made the mistake of watching the fiercely flaccid pseudo-metaphysical feminist flick My 20th Century (1989) aka Az én XX. Századom directed by Ildikó Enyedi and felt the need to cleanse my soul with another black-and-white art film from one of the other strangely dejecting (mostly) Slavic areas that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the last thing I want to see is another holocaust film, I actually decided on the rather grim Czechoslovak New Wave classic The Cremator (1969) aka Spalovač mrtvol directed by Slovak semite Juraj Herz (Morgiana, Habermann) as it is a rare piece of singular tragicomedic shoah cinema that actually manages to be both humorous and aesthetically pleasing in a strangely aberrant-garde sort of fashion. In fact, despite technically being a holocaust film as directed by an authentic Hebraic holocaust survivor, the film is so innately idiosyncratic, abrasively absurd, and surreally schizophrenic that I never felt that I was watching a film that would be endorsed by the ADL or the sort of especially naive idiot that sincerely believes that Schindler’s List (1993) is a serious film about the perils of prejudice and heights of human suffering (or whatever). 

Clearly owing a hefty spiritual and aesthetic debt to German Expressionism and some of the more grotesque Teutonic Dada artists like Otto Dix, the film notably stars the popular Czech star Rudolf Hrušínský—an actor that, quite humorously but not surprisingly, was previously best known for lovable comedic roles—who resembles a sort of all-the-more-bulging-eyed (but hardly Hebraic) Peter Lorre. Since Lorre became a symbol for Judaic criminality and depravity due to his iconic performance in mischling master Fritz Lang’s serial killer masterpiece M (1931), which was infamously referenced in Nazi mischling filmmaker's agitprop flick Der Ewige Jude (1940) aka The Eternal Jew, it is certainly strangely fitting that the actor’s Czech doppelganger portrays a naughty Nazi cremator of sorts who murders his part-Jewish family members as it—whether intentional or not—surely symbolizes both the triumph of Judea and the death of the Occident, for such a film would have been completely unthinkable only 25 years before during the Third Reich era. Of course, the film is, quite thankfully, just as anti-commie as it is anti-nazi as the setting is at least partly symbolic of the sort of artistically stifling and all-oppressive Soviet totalitarianism that would dominate shortly after the cinematic work was created as a result of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (aka ‘Operation Danube’) that effectively destroyed the Czechoslovak New Wave. In fact, despite being selected as the Czechoslovakian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 42nd Academy Awards, the film was banned soon after it was released and would be completely hidden from the world until the collapse of the communist system in Czechoslovakia in 1989. And, indeed, The Cremator certainly feels like the sort of singularly subversive film that had been imprisoned in a vault for decades as it manages to be merrily macabre and misanthropic in the sort of audacious alienating fashion that would offend individuals of all political stripes, especially completely humorless authoritarian bureaucrat types that somehow get a hard-on from soulless schlock like socialist realism. 

 While I would be a liar if I tried to pass myself off as a Czechoslovak New Wave expert of sorts, I think I am familiar enough with the movement to say that, during its all-too-brief existence, it unequivocally produced some of the most preternaturally dark, perturbing, and artistically enterprising films in all of cinema history. Indeed, while kosher Czech filmmaker Miloš Forman is unfortunately the best known filmmaker associated with the movement since he would later go on to direct hit Hollywood films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), his classic Czech New Wave flicks like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen's Ball (1967) are pretty softcore and less than aesthetically ambitious when compared to the anti-kraut celluloid pagan blood orgy that is František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967) or the kaleidoscopic coming-of-age vampirism of Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). Fans of degenerate ‘food play’ bullshit like wet and messy fetishism, feederism, and nyotaimori can also rejoice in Czech auteuress Věra Chytilová’s classic psychedelic psychodrama Daisies (1966) where a debauched dumb dame duo gets all down and dirty with dick-shaped devourables and cutesy cunt chaos, among other things. With her all-the-more-avant-garde Adam and Eve reworking Fruit of Paradise (1970), Chytilová once again demonstrated a singular talent for finding the most organically beauteous color schemes in the darkness of men’s souls.  Of course, considering the strange Teutophobia of Vláčil’s films like Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees (1967), the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave were naturally also interested in the historical subject of the Big H.

Long before the holocaust became a jadedly Judeocentric cinema subject of the cliché-ridden and unwittingly cynical sort, Czech enfant terrible Jan Němec bombarded the world with his exceedingly esoteric and exquisitely elliptical debut feature Diamonds of the Night (1964), which makes Schindler’s List seem like a retarded Richard Donner action movie by comparison in terms of artistic and emotional complexity. And, to go back to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, it is like a vampire flick as directed by the lovechild Sergei Parajanov and a Völkisch auteur à la Ewiger Wald (1936), albeit shamelessly surreally Slavonic. As for The Cremator—undoubtedly Juraj Herz’s greatest film and a cinematic work that the director himself has described as having total artistic control of—it is arguably the greatest, most idiosyncratically immaculate, and unforgettable film associated with the Czech New Wave and somehow it rather abstractly, aberrantly, and, arguably, aloofly, meditates on the shoah.  Thankfully, the film also has a masterful musical score by Czech maestro Zdeněk Liška who of course created music for great films by great directors like Jan Švankmajer, František Vláčil, and Věra Chytilová, among countless others.

 The Cremator was not the first hit Czech holocaust film of its era as director Juraj Herz, who was self-taught, actually worked as a second-unit director on two shoah cinematic showcases, including Zbyněk Brynych’s Transport from Paradise (1962) and Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ Academy Award-winning The Shop on Main Street (1965)—a film that seems pretty tame and banal by today's sensational shoah standards—before going solo with the non-shoah short The Junk Shop (1965). Like Kadár and quite unlike Spielberg, Herz was also actually a holocaust survivor that spent his childhood in Ravensbrück concentration camp and, according to film programmer Irena Kovarova, he apparently developed certain perverse interests in regard to sex and death as a result of what he personally witnessed there (or as she so calmly states in a featurette included with The Criterion Collection blu-ray release of The Cremator, “he came from the camps knowing way too much about sex and way too much about death”), which is quite apparent in his film as it is a stylishly sleazy cinematic work that seems to say more about its curious creator than the nasty Nazi numbskulls it so devilishly depicts. Of course, belated NYC cineaste Amos Vogel—a Vienna-born Jew with certain obvious ethnic/political biases—tries to spin it a different way in his classic text Film as a Subversive Art (1974) where he argues that is, “A provocative attempt to penetrate the origins of sado-sexual Nazi mentality is made in this oppressive, strongly expressionist film about an inhibited petty bourgeois family-man whose work with corpses at the local crematorium – to free them for the after-life – gains unexpected proportions during the Nazi occupation […] Editing and camerawork is strongly influenced by the new cinema in the West. Equally surprising for the puritanical East is its clear, yet entirely ‘hidden’ portrayal of fellatio, with the girl under a table and the man sitting behind it: at the end, she merges, wiping her mouth.” Indeed, probably not realizing Herz is a fellow chosenite, Vogel highlights supposed Nazi perversity while unwittingly exposing his own perversion and spiritual contempt for Slavic folk. When it comes down to it, The Cremator is really the freewheeling artistic expression of a damaged and debauched holocaust survivor who, as a Eastern European Jew, is a quite worthy heir of Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz (who of course influenced the Brothers Quay who were also heavily influenced by Herz’s friend and collaborator Jan Švankmajer). 

 If any film manages to reconcile the grotesque expressionist poetry of Gottfried Benn with the disturbingly degenerate caricatures of the poet’s ideological nemesis George Grosz, it is indubitably The Cremator which, rather fittingly, oftentimes feels like a tribute to virtually all forms of pre-Nazi Entartete Kunst. If Italian-Jewish criminologist was right when he argued in his text Man of Genius (1889) that artistic genius was oftentimes a form of hereditary insanity, Herz’s films certainly support that thesis as they are clearly not the product of a sound mind but a debauched dude whose potent aesthetic vision is only rivaled by his clear affection for the fantastically rancid and risqué and it is next to impossible to separate the two in a frolicsomely fucked film like The Cremator where social conformity becomes a symbol of moral corrosion despite the film itself being a gleeful expression of moral corrosion where morbidity is made merry yet the everyday and bourgeois is somehow supposed to be the sickest thing of all. In its horror-ish depiction of the mental decline of an enterprising bourgeois family man, the film can certainly be compared to works ranging from Arturo Ripstein’s The Castle of Purity (1973) aka El castillo de la pureza to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), but Herz’s magnum opus is ultimately a singular flick that really has no contemporaries. While it is easy to describe it as an anti-nazi/anti-bourgeois critique straight from the blackened heart of a renegade holocaust survivor, I think it is also a film that resonates with fellow Jew Gustav Mahler’s words, “In my works can be found my whole existence, my whole view of life. . . .There too will be found my angst—my anxiety, my fear.”  In terms of its unwaveringly subversive spirit, gorgeous yet grotesque neo-gothic aesthetic, and rather brazen approach to depicting the ultimate taboo of familicide, I think the film comes closest to Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio's truly iconoclastic debut feature Fists in the Pocket (1965).

 Auter Herz wants you to immediately known right from the get-go of The Cremator that the titular protagonist is a banal bourgeois guy with a banal bourgeois family, but he also wants you to know that there is something serious off and unnerving weird about this somewhat cartoonish protagonist who acts if he is the autistic star of an insanely idealized dream than a real person with a real life. Indeed, as Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) states to his wife at the very beginning of the film in a spasmodically edited scene while hanging out with his nuclear family at the local zoo, “My sweet…This is the blessed spot where we met 17 years ago. Only the leopard is new. Kind nature long ago relieved the other of his shackles. You see, dear, I keep talking of nature’s benevolence, of merciful fate, of the kindness of God. We judge and criticize others, rebuke them. But what about we ourselves? I always have the feeling that I do so little for you […] Thanks to your dowry…to your blessed mother’s support and the support of your aunt. Perhaps I furnished our apartment, but that’s about all. Dear, I must take care of you. Zina is 16, Mili 14. Come now, children… Cages are for mute creatures.” Undoubtedly, Herr Kopfrkingl is big on freedom as he sees his job as cremator as a form of liberation where he is selflessly liberates souls as inspired by his curious influence from Bardo Thodol aka The Tibetan Book of the Dead. As a mensch that respects his Judaic physician Dr. Bettleheim (Eduard Kohout), new employee Strauss (Jiří Lír), and half-Hebrew wife Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová who also portrays the protagonist’s favorite prostitute), Kopfrkingl seems totally devoid of racial prejudice, but it does not take much for him to be convinced of the virtues of completely betraying all the Jews in his life when his brutal kraut Nazi comrade Walter Reinke (Ilja Prachař) tells him of the new Aryan agenda that includes many personal perks, including an all-blonde brothel and a nice new job as an all-power cremator that dedicates his life to “liberating” souls.  No longer content with just burning bodies, Kopfrkingl graduates on to coldblooded murder so that he speed-up the process of liberating souls. While initially thinking of himself as nothing more than a proud cultivated Czech that even enjoys the “Jewish way” of “jellied carp” during Christimas, Kopfrkingl begins stating things like, “even the old Teutons, dear friends, burned their dead, entrusted them to flames,” after his rather culturally confused Nazi conversion and it is ultimately his beloved mischling family the pays the most pernicious price in a film where ideology and insanity are virtually depicted as one and the same.

 Indeed, aside from betraying his Jewish friends after receiving the distinguished honor of being invited by his boy Bettleheim to a Chevra Suda dinner and providing phony talk of a Jewish conspiracy to his Nazi friends, Kopfrkingl goes completely crazy and kills his Jewish wife and son (although he also tries to kill his beloved daughter, the Nazis promise to do the job for him) so that they can be properly cremated with Aryan corpses and obtain a patently preposterous posthumous purity of sorts. Despite being clearly unhinged, Kopfrkingl is provided with top secret knowledge by a Nazi bigwig about a souped-up crematorium and gas chambers, which he naturally fully approves of. Not surprisingly, Herr Kopfrkingl’s mental decline parallels his rise to power and he increasingly comes into contact with his rather dedicated Dalai Lama doppelganger who confirms to him the crucial spiritual necessity of his work. In fact, at the very end of the film in an ominously otherworldly scene where Nazi bigwigs drive him away in a fancy car in the rain as a virtual young witchy Angel of Death sees him off, Kopfrkingl declares with a strange degree of deranged gleeful dedication, “No one will suffer. I’ll save them all” as he schizophrenically imagines himself being driven to Dalai Lama's Potala Palace where he assumedly believes he will be taking over (notably, the film takes place in the aftermath of the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, in 1933, which was also the same year as the rise of Hitler and National Socialist takeover of Germany). Of course, as Cioran once so rightly and elegantly wrote, “Nietzsche’s great luck—to have ended as he did: in euphoria!”  Indeed, Kopfrkingl might have brutally murdered his family members and betrayed virtually every friend he has ever had, but he is nothing if not exceedingly enraptured as if he has literally died and gone to heaven.

 With its captivating combination of severely spasmodic schizo editing, sometimes nauseating and even necrotic yet simultaneously faux-merry melodrama, gorgeously grotesque gothic aesthetics and tone, charmingly creepy caricature-like characters, heterodox horror ingredients and somehow paradoxically antiquated yet avant-garde essence, The Cremator—a film that manages to both define and transcend the movement is belongs to—is surely the cream of the Czech cinematic crop and a rare merry celluloid testament to the metaphysics of morbidity and misanthropy. In its depiction of an almost transcendental transformation of a bourgeois bore and striking experimental dreamlike cinematography, the film sometimes almost feels John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) as produced by the ghost of Val Lewton had he died brutally and morbidly in a concentration camp (as opposed to rather impotently croaking from a low-key heart attack like he did in real-life). Of course, despite the film’s preternatural persuasion, auteur Juraj Herz wears his many eclectic aesthetic influences on his sleeve, most notably during a scene in the film where the film’s protagonist stands in front of great Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights,’ hence Kopfrkingl's classic lines from the film like, “The only certainty in life is death…and the implementation of a propitious new order. The Fuehrer’s new, fortunate Europe and death are the only certainties that we humans have.”  While executed in an innately ironical fashion, Herz's film is nothing if not a truly hypnotic celebration of Spanish homeboy José Millán Astray's classic motto: “Long Live Death.” Instead of hysterically harping on the holocaust, Herz seamlessly interweaves classic pieces of art (including of the archaic Judaic sort) and even vintage Aryan pornography to tell something profoundly (disturbing) about the (in)human condition, thereupon confirming the perennial nature of truly great art in a cinematic work that, despite its decidedly degenerate essence, should be celebrated as a truly great piece of cinematic art. Of course, it should be no surprise that the film also pays tribute to the grotesque grandiosity of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol as it is a key aesthetic influence in a cinematic work that audaciously borrows from the highbrow and lowbrow without ever once attempting to discriminate between the two, hence the aberrant artistic brilliance of the film. Indeed, The Cremator might contain the aesthetic integrity and overall meticulousness of mise-en-scène of an early Tarkvosky flick, but it also has the unhinged spirit and intense amorality of an Andy Milligan flick à la Seeds (1968). In that sense, it is no surprise that Herz later went into more genre-driven artsploitation oriented territory with a film like Ferat Vampire (1982) aka Upír z Feratu which is notable for being a bloodsucker flick with a blood-fueled automobile. 

 By sheer happenstance, I was recently reading Emil Cioran’s classic text The Trouble With Being Born (1973) around the same time I re-watched The Cremator and soon discovered the Romanian philosopher gave what would be a nice thematic description of the film when he wrote, “Annihilating affords a sense of power, flatters something obscure, something original in us. It is not by erecting but by pulverizing that we may divine the secret satisfactions of a god. Whence the lure of destruction and the illusions it provokes among the frenzied of any era.” In fact, the book contains a number of aphorisms that would make for suitable descriptions of the film. For Example, the deranged protagonist is strangely likeable because, as Cioran noted, “We forgive only madmen and children for being frank with us: others, if they have the audacity to imitate them, will regret it sooner or later.” In terms of the film’s depiction of paternal filicide, one might be tempted to awkwardly laugh at Cioran’s remark, “My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now.” As for the film’s shamelessly merry misanthropy and overall decided worship of death, one cannot help but wallow in Cioran’s words, “Man gives off a special odor: of all the animals, he alone smells of the corpse.”

As for the film’s director Herz, who I have mixed feelings about but regard his shoah flick as a masterpiece, The Cremator is a good example of what Cioran was hinting at when he wrote, “A writer has left his mark on us not because we have read him a great deal but because we have thought of him more than is warranted. I have not frequented Baudelaire or Pascal particularly, but I have not stopped thinking of their miseries, which have accompanied me everywhere as faithfully as my own.” Indeed, as someone that could certainly do without ever see another holocaust flick again, I have to argue that Herz is, to some extent, a rare artist with virtual alchemical abilities as morbid mensch that can clearly take the shittiest and most play-out subjects and molds them into something akin to artistic gold.  After all, there is more genuine horror in a single slice of dark humor in The Cremator than there is in the entirety of Schindler's List but I guess that should be expected from a film that basks in the banality of big budget bathos.  Of course, it would probably be fairer to compare Herz's flick to The Pianist (2002) as it was also directed by a holocaust survivor of sorts but ultimately The Cremator has more in common with Roman Polanski's early Polish avant-garde features like The Lamp (1959) aka Lampa—a film that certainly can be seen as a sort of allegory for the holocaust and the apocalyptic nightmare nature of the Second World War in general, especially in Eastern Europe—than the director's hit Palme d'Or and Academy Award-winning Hollywood holocaust flick.

 To shamelessly borrow another quote from Cioran, I think that auteur Herz would approve of his words in relation to a major theme of The Cremator when he wrote, “When we think of the Berlin salons in the Romantic period, of the role played in them by a Henrietta Herz or a Rachel Levin, of the friendship between the latter and Crown Prince Louis-Ferdinand; and when we then think that if such women had lived in this century they would have died in some gas chamber, we cannot help considering the belief in progress as the falsest and stupidest of superstitions.” Of course, one of the most brilliant aspects of the film is that it seems like a Hebrew-helmed aesthetic hodgepodge of numerous pre-Nazi European artistic movements over the last two centuries that concludes with German Expressionism, thereupon associating, not unlike Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), the Third Reich with the dubious legacy of the destruction of European art and culture as a result of the Hitlerite taint. In short, the capitulation of Nazi Germany also resulted in an absurd aesthetic holocaust sorts, hence Frankfurt school Führer Theodor Adorno’s despicable dictum that, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Of course, The Cremator is pleasantly putrid cinematic poetry as directed by a holocaust survivor and it certainly says more about than shoah than, say, Claude Lanzmann’s badly bloated 566-minute anti-polack doc Shoah (1985).  Indeed, Herz's film is the closest thing the world will ever have to a film as directed by Otto Dix, albeit from a savagely sardonic post-shoah Jewish perspective instead of a savagely sardonic post-WWI kraut one.

Notably, in her insightful text Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany (1995), German-language folklore and literature scholar Maria Tatar noted that in Nazi Germany, “Jews came to be linked not only with the perpetrators of sexual murder, but with the victims as well. Like the prostitute, the Jew is seen to represent a serious threat to the moral, fiscal, and sexual economy of the social body. As Sander Gilman has pointed out, both prostitutes and Jews have been linked by what is seen to be a sexualized relation to capital—they have ‘but one interest, the conversion of sex into money or money into sex.’ Unable to find value in transcendent spiritual matters, their interests remain fixed on the material and financial. More important, prostitutes and Jews, because of their spiritual corruption, are considered carriers of sexually transmitted diseases, a view clearly articulated in Hitler's MEIN KAMPF.”  Of course, one of the most intriguing and perversely trollish aspects of The Cremator is that auteur Herz completely subverts these stereotypes and depicts the Nazi characters in the fashion Tatar describes as the Nazis have their own special all-blonde bordello where they debased Aryan dames as a reward for their role in the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.  Additionally, lead character Karel Kopfrkingl is a particularly perverted hypocrite with a strange fear-cum-fetish of STDs to the point where he regularly sees his Jewish physician friend Dr. Bettleheim, who he eventually betrays to secure his place as a patron of Aryan prostitution, to see if he has contracted a sexually-transmitted disease (in fact, Kopfrkingl seems especially enamored while admiring a grotesque Bellmer-esque STD display at a local carnival in a scene that really underscores the character's innate association of sex and death).

As Tatar also noted in her book, the “Jewish vampire” was another common trope of (proto)Nazi culture as arguably most brutally described in Artur Dinter's popular Weimar era novel Die Sünde wider das Blut (1917) aka The Sin Against the Blood but also largely apolitical cinematic works like F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Nosferatu (1922).  While The Cremator does not feature any literal bloodsuckers, it does feature its fair share of blood and Kopfrkingl can certainly be seen as an unconventional ‘psychic vampire’ of sorts.  Needless to say, it is no surprise that director Herz would later work in the vampire genre.  In that sense, one can see Hebrew Herz as an artist that is so gleefully transgressive in both the aesthetic and (meta)political sense that he has fully embraced the negative Nazi racial stereotypes to the point of nihilistic fury as if his main goal with his art was to destroy the very meaning of early twentieth-century race, art, and culture.  After all, one simply cannot finish The Cremator without being ‘touched,’ if not being downright tormented.  Indeed, the film almost makes me want to agree with Cioran, who I will quote one more time, when he wrote, “The number of fanatics, extremists, and degenerates I have been able to admire!  A relief bordering on orgasm at the notion that one will never again embrace a cause, any cause . . .”  Naturally, things get a big complicated when one finds themselves being able to respect both Herz and Dinter.  In terms of attempting to reconcile a film like The Cremator and NS thinkers like Dinter, Alfred Rosenberg, and Hans F. K. Günther, the alpha-neofolk outfit Death In June is your best bet, especially their somewhat obscure album Free Tibet (2006) where The Tibetan Book of the Dead receives a tribute of sorts.

-Ty E

Jul 12, 2020


While I do not typically tend to following the behavior of old independent filmmakers as all my favorites long ago croaked, I could not help but smirk upon passively coming across an attack against Spike Lee by old school auteur Jon Jost (All the Vermeers in New York, The Bed You Sleep In) on facebook on June 13, 2020. As an elderly lefty draft-dodger that seems to think he is still living in a different era, Jost is not exactly someone I find myself tending to agree with on even the most fundamental level yet he has proved with underrated films like Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977)—a rather intimate and aesthetically idiosyncratic depiction of a small-time sociopathic criminal—that he is a singular and uncompromising artist and his recent rant against little Lee is fairly respectable and surprising considering the current state of the decidedly degenerated (dis)United States. Indeed, as Jost wrote, “I was never a Spike Lee fan. I met him once, long ago when I was running, for no money, a collective stand for American independent filmmakers at the Berlin Film Festival - 1979-80, I think I did it for 3 years. I tried to get Spike to join with his first short film, WE CUT HEADS. He was too busy hustling for himself to be bothered, and brushed it off. It had I think less to do with race than class – he comes from upper middle class Brooklyn and it shows. He is releasing a new film, DA FIVE BLOODS. Along with it, for Covid times, he put out a short, NEW YORK NEW YORK, which lasts as long as the Sinatra song. Shots of an emptied New York, taken from archival footage. The song, shots with dissolves and cuts. Real lazy-ass filmmaking totally leaning on the song. Bad filmmaking. Of course it has been praised as blah blah blah. Nostalgia is cheap. Sinatra is good. Spike is a ho, doing his best to prove he is a down black bro. It is an act and always has been, the well-off now very wealthy (40 mil) guy proving he's one of the gang. Spike, like Mr Zimmerman, is now a very rich man. And like Dylan he's made his wealth commenting on, describing, using the misery of America as his subject and topic. This is one of the magical aspects of America, in which it is always the wealthy who are allowed to speak for the poor.”

Admittedly, I found Jost’s sentiments, which I mostly share, humorous enough to inspire me to finally get around to re-watching Lee’s savage satire Bamboozled (2000), which was recently released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection for the first time on March 17, 2020. While I was not as impressed with the film as I was when I first saw it well over a decade ago at a more impressionable time in my life when I had less refined taste and now see it as somewhat of a mess of a movie that oftentimes plods and succumbs to unintentional absurdity at its somewhat pointless 135-minute running time like so many other unpleasantly grotesquely garish Spike Lee Joints, I can still safely say that it is unequivocally the proudly angry Afro-American filmmaker’s most ambitious and subversive cinematic to date and in stark contrast to his recent curiously kosher conformist crap like BlacKkKlansman (2018) where he seemed to be atoning for the virtual career-long accusation of ‘antisemitism’ that began with the ADL and various Hebraic film critics attacking the director for his unflattering but historically accurate depiction of Judaic nightclub owners in Mo' Better Blues (1990). To his credit, Lee refused to apologize for these comically sound kosher caricatures and instead opted to up the ante in terms of ostensible anti-Semitic content with his most shameless and subversive film to date, Bamboozled, thereupon predictably resulting in tons of negative reviews and accusations of antisemitism despite his propensity to get away with virtually all other forms of racial antagonism.  Following his most Scorsese-esque film to date, Summer of Sam (1999)—a film that is, rather ironically, also Lee's most anti-guido film to date—the film represents the director at the height of his most gleefully bombastic and hyperbolic race-hate powers as a film that does for both mainstream television and Hollywood in general what John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975) for Golden Age Hollywood, albeit to a more racially ravenous degree.

Undoubtedly, the selective outrage against Lee by film critics of a mostly similar persuasion becomes quite clear when one considers the predictable silence in regard to filmmaker’s fetish for goombah-bashing as is glaringly clear in films like Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Summer of Sam despite the filmmaker borrowing his entire style from his supposed Sicilian-American friend Martin Scorsese. Of course, if Lee’s films—or at least his best ones—were not ridden with raw race-hate and demented Der Stürmer-tier racial caricatures of virtually all races (including his own), they would hardly be worth watching and simply cheap expressions of glittery bloated budget kitsch (in fact, Lee’s fairly unknown sometimes-filmmaker brother Cinqué Lee demonstrated a greater dedication to serious art fagdom with his film Window on Your Present (2010)). While oftentimes genuinely funny (albeit sometimes unintentionally so), Bamboozled is indubitably a fiercely fucked flick that is fueled by tastefully toxic racial venom and full of a very calculated yet primitive contempt where Lee demonstrates his nauseating sense of unselfconscious narcissism by repeatedly referencing to himself and his various enemies (e.g. Quentin Tarantino), but of course such superlatively senselessly shallow self-aggrandizement is one of the things that makes Lee’s films so interesting, even if it does not exactly endear one to the filmmaker’s character (or lack thereof). An unintentional racial exploitation film supposedly satirizing Hollywood’s history of racial exploitation, Bamboozled is, in many ways, a virtual cinematic train wreck polluted with mostly corrosive racial cultural debris of both the long ago past and present and it is simply impossible to look away. Simultaneously critiquing the Anglo blackface action of early WASP maestro D.W. Griffith and Hebraic Hollywood while exploiting the most idiotic cultural trends among the modern-day black ghetto subproletariat, Lee’s never-sweetly-sardonic satire is ultimately a surreal expression of racial neurosis and nihilism where the somewhat deranged director characteristically incessantly critiques yet never offers any serious answers aside from condemning the actions of ‘uncle tom’ types like the film's unconventionally pathetic (anti)hero . In short, Lee’s pleasantly perniciously playful neo-minstrel movie reveals that the filmmaker suffers from a sort of racial psychosis which, as the film vividly demonstrates, is only natural for an innately inorganic ‘multicultural’ nation where the minority is forced to live at the behest at the majority; or so the fucked filmmaker wants you to think.

Undoubtedly, Lee’s racial psychosis becomes clear simply when one realizes that Bamboozled—a film that might have single-handedly destroyed the dubious legacy of Hebraic blackface icon Al Jolson had it been more popular—was dedicated to Jewish-American screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, The Harder They Fall). While it does make sense that Lee would dedicate the film to Schulberg when one considers that the film was clearly heavily influenced by Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957)—an inordinately cruel satiric dramedy about the propensity for TV networks to create and celebrate loathsome grifters that the screenwriter is celebrated for penning—it does seem rather absurd when one considers that a major theme of the film is how Judaic writers, directors, producers, and actors have historically exploited blacks and negative black racial stereotypes. In fact, speaking of Hebraic writers, there is even a scene in the film where the (anti)hero played by Damon Wayans expresses his disdain for lack of black writers on his neo-minstrel TV show by contemptuously proclaiming to a Hebraic underling, “If I had my druthers, they’d be at least one negro writer in this room, and that afro does not qualify you, my Jewish friend.” Needless to say, the counter-kosher references do not stop there as one of the most despicable characters in the film is a seeming sociopathic Jewess named Myrna Goldfarb (Dina Pearlman) who postures as a good little racial freedom fighter by bragging in an obnoxiously condescending manner to the black protagonist in regard to her ancestral civil rights cred, “my parents marched in Selma, Alabama, with Dr. King” while simultaneously suggesting means to exploit exceedingly grotesque (anti)black racial stereotypes on television. In fact, the character of Myrna Goldfarb is more loathsome than anything you might find in Veit Harlan infamous NS classic Jud Süß (1940) as the villain of that film at least has his positive traits, so it should be no surprise that Lee was routinely accused of antisemitism by various film critics. Notably, Lee actually based Goldfarb on a real person, or as the filmmaker explained in Spike Lee: Interviews (2002), “There was an article in their VANITY FAIR or NEW YORK magazine about these young Jewish women publicists for the Wu-Tang Clan, and she was sort of patterned after them. That's another thing, getting back to what we were talking about before, I'm supposed to be anti-Semitic. Because BAMBOOZLED has a publicist named Myrna Goldfarb, that's another example of my anti-Semitism! That's what Amy Taubin said in the VILLAGE VOICE.”

Aside from possibly Goldfarb, the character of Thomas Dunwitty (portrayed by obnoxious Hebraic philistine Michael Rapaport)—a gleefully racist wigger TV executive that has happens to be the boss of the film’s ‘uncle tom’ protagonist Pierre Delacroix/Peerless Dothan (Damon Wayans)—is probably the most decidedly despicable as a rude and raunchy race-fetishizing fiend that literally gets off to routinely shouting “nigger” at blacks in between strategically bragging about the fact that he has a black wife and mulatto kids. Playing it safer with Dunwitty—or ‘dumb whity’ as the name less than subtly suggests—the character is more covertly kosher as demonstrated by his use of stereotypical Yiddish phrases like “Mazel tov” and unforgettably unflattering portrayal by low IQ Hebraic hothead Rapaport who is just as notorious in both acting roles and real-life for shamelessly ‘acting black’ as is probably exemplified in the singularly horrendous film Zebrahead (1992).  Dunwitty hates “white-bread” shows about black people and considers the idea that a healthy black middleclass even exists as being patently absurd and beneath contempt as the character takes an almost a demonic delight in lowbrow black dysfunction.  Fed up with the fact that Dunwitty rejects and cancels any show that he writes about intelligent bourgeois black types, Pierre Delacroix—a racially conflicted type that was born ‘Peerless Dothan’ but decided to change his name to sound more ‘white’ (it seems Lee has never heard of famous black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux or French colonialism)—conspires to create a modern-day minstrel show that is so ruthlessly racially repugnant that he can escape his contract by being fired while, at the same time, somehow exposing the racism of the TV network.

Of course, in the tradition of Melvyn Kaminsky’s The Producers (1967), Pierre’s preposterous scheme does not exactly work out as planned and instead he unleashes a sort of culturally terrifying televised negro nightmare that ultimately destroys his entire life and confirms that many (white) Americans (still?) believe that blackface is beautiful (or something). While obviously a satire, Lee, who was partly inspired to create the film as a result of being disturbed upon seeing such cinematic classics as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind (1939) in film school, clearly wants the viewer to see the film as, at least in part, a horror film of the aberrant agitprop sort where whity has his face rubbed in the cultural disgrace of the blackface of his ancestors (which is made quite clear in a vintage blackface montage at the very end of the film). When lead Pierre declares to his bitch boss Dunwitty, “And as Mark Twain so fully understood, satire is the way if we are ever to live side by side in peace and harmony. So my show that I’m pitching is about promoting racial healing,” he is clearly expressing the opposite of Lee’s sentiment and intent as Bamboozled is unequivocally a ‘race hate’ film that can only inspire racial hatred, nihilism, and gaslighting. Still, I would argue that it is Lee’s unequivocal pièce de résistance and a tastefully trying testament to the racially apocalyptic essence of the decidedly (dis)United States of American.  A satire-within-a-satire (as well as a satire of satires), the film ironically (attempts to) underscore how racial satires can have the opposite effect of their artistic intent, or so the uniquely unhip and hapless protagonist Pierre learns upon exploiting the great American culture of taboo blackface with the noble objective of ruthlessly squashing negative black stereotypes and ultimately discovering to his great chagrin that America loves said stereotypes, hence the popularity of hip hop and household name status of such dubious buffoons as Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne who certainly represent a sort of neo-minstrel phenomenon of sorts.

Notably, in his insightful yet oftentimes historically dishonest text Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996), Judaic far-left political scientist Michael Rogin—the progeny of union and pinko activist types—attempts to downplay the severity of the Yiddish role in blackface and Al Jolson’s (in)famous performance in The Jazz Singer (1927) (which of course is routinely referenced in Bamboozled). Indeed, in regard to the ‘musical miscegenation’ of Jolson and company, Rogin argues, “Like the Jewish struggle for racial justice, the black-inspired music of urban Jews was a declaration of war against the racial and ethnic hierarchy of Protestant, genteel culture.” In other words, the proto-wigger minstrel routine of Jolson, warped ‘white negro’ hipsterdom of Norman Mailer, and hokey hip hop hijinx of the Beastie Boys, among countless other examples, can be seen as at least partly informed by Hebraic hatred for mainstream white America. In Bamboozled, Hollywood executive types like Dunwitty and Myrna Goldfarb reflect the chutzpah and arrogance of this bizarre form of cultural appropriation that is expressed with a sort of gleeful contempt for the very same race of people that they are pretending to be in solidarity with. Driven by a sort of ‘psychological blackface’ sociopathy where they do not seem the least bit concerned about hurting or disrespecting the very same race of people they are ostensibly paying tribute to, these characters humorously manage to make a mockery out of both their own race and the one they are poorly attempting to pantomime.  Blinded by an almost hypnotic level of hubris, they cannot even see black people as actual people with actual feelings as if ‘being black’ is simply an identity the one can purchase at the local mall when one feels ashamed at the banality of their own race. Needless to say, with Bamboozled, Lee exposes this cruel culture-distorting phenomenon while, at the same time, fighting fire with filmic fire. In fact, this was not Lee’s first attempt at fighting back, or as Rogin complained, “No African American put on Jewface in a Hollywood film, to my knowledge, until Eddie Murphy’s Jewish barber in COMING TO AMERICA […] When Spike Lee turned the Jewish blackface tables in MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990), with barbed, comic ethnic stereotypes of two brothers in the entertainment business, Josh and Joe Flatbush, the outcry about anti-Semitism sounded in a historical vacuum.”

As one would expect from any of Lee’s better films, Bamboozled does to some extent encourage personal responsibility among colored folks by ruthlessly critiquing its more self-destructive and otherwise deleterious elements. Indeed, aside from constantly attacking lead Pierre Delacroix for being an uncle tom that sold his soul to the very same pernicious people that profit from the exploitation of his race, the film also attacks the antihero’s antithesis in the form of a militant rap collective named the Mau Maus—a group named in tribute to the Mau Mau Uprising (1952–1960) when black Kenyans successfully revolted against whites and the British Empire—that promote a moronic mix of pseudo-marxist revolution and primitive ghetto culture that promotes drug addiction, illiteracy, and all-around stupidity. Notably, the group is lead by a charming chap named Julius ‘Big Blak Afrika’ Hopkins (Mos Def) who happens to be the brother of lead Pierre’s self-described “little lamb” personal assistant/ex-lover Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) in what ultimately a symbolic representation of black interfamilial conflict and the two self-destructive extremes of contemporary black identity. For example, when Julius dares to describe his sister Sloan as a “house-nigger” after she tells him he “sounds retarded” and is “embarrassing” due to his vulgar black nationalist rhetoric, she tells him to get his “field-nigger-ass” out of her home.

While ostensibly on different sides of the spectrum of black society, both characters have virtually sold their souls as Sloan is a borderline sellout that works for a TV network that denigrates her people while Julius represents a lowbrow lunatic fringe that marinates in malt liquor, senseless black-on-black murder, and pseudo-Marxist moronacy. Needless to say, it is fitting that all of these characters meet tragic ends, though Sloan arguably ‘redeems’ herself by ‘unintentionally’ killing her boss Pierre who of course must pay for being the mastermind of the popular Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show where black actors in blackface make a great mockery of their race for mostly adoring white American audiences.  Hiring two haplessly desperate street performers named Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson)—largely ignorant and pathetic characters that are desperate to get the latest ‘Timmi Hillnigger’ jeans—that he proudly rechristens ‘Mantan’ and ‘Sleep 'n Eat’ respectively, protagonist Pierre Delacroix boldly exploits and debases everyone with his new minstrel show as if he is on some sort of holy mission.  Needless to say, Pierre also thoroughly debases himself and in the end pays the ultimate price.  Indeed, in what is arguably a symbolic depiction of Mother Africa getting revenge against race traitors, Pierre is gunned down by his beloved Sloan who, as an unintended consequence of the protagonist's neo-minstrel show (which she reluctantly worked on), loses both her lover Manray and brother Julius.  In short, Bamboozled does not have a happy ending because Lee (probably rightly) believes that there is probably no happy ending to America's racial disharmony as virtually all of past human history has confirmed, hence the cathartic need for comedy of this inordinately cruel and conflicted sort. Undoubtedly, the successful but short-lived sketch comedy show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace (2016)—a so-called ‘post-irony’ TV series that was also ruthlessly attacked (and ultimately blacklisted) under the dubious charge of antisemitism—achieved something similar to Lee's film, albeit for a largely young white racially-conscious audience.  When Pierre declares at the very ending of the film, “always keep ‘em laughing,” one cannot help but think it is the only way to endure this American racial Armageddon.

While Bamboozled certainly mocks minstrel-esque rappers that profit from making a mockery out of their race by being grotesque racial caricatures of the drug-addled, crime-prone, and sub-literate sort, director Lee certainly could not foresee the rise of mainstream rappers like Tekashi 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj as they are indubitably infinitely more exploitative and spiritually bankrupt than any of the acts featured in the Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, which at least advertises itself as a comedy. Indeed, say what you will about the blackface buffonerry depicted in a D.W. Griffith flick or a jazzy Jolson vehicle, but they seem fairly milktoast compared to the phenomenon of ‘twerking’ and gang murders that plague the sick and retarded anti-human joke that is modern hip hop (pseudo)culture. Of course, while Lee would probably attempt to argue otherwise, this killer kitsch (pseudo)culture is just as toxic to whites and other races as is to blacks (after all, the troll-like being known as Tekashi 6ix9ine is actually Latino).  Notably, one of the arguments among proponents for desegregation was that it would help to uplift blacks, but as the popularity of rap music certainly demonstrates, it had the complete opposite result as demonstrated by the countless working-class, middleclass, and even wealthy whites that have adopted the culture of the poorest blacks in which is ultimately of vicious circle of spiritual blackface debasement where everyone loses.  After all, one can only guess how many lives were ruined as a result of naive white kids embracing Eminem—a rather milk-toast moron nowadays who parrots mainstream media talks and routinely cries about Donald Trump and his shame at being melanin-deprived—during the late-1990s and mindlessly adopting the rather retarded (non)life that he so grotesquely glorified.  Arguably, the deleterious and all-around nihilistic nature of this strange distinctly American (yet constantly exported) form of cultural miscegenation is best epitomized by the short and tragic life of SoundCloud rap/Emo rap figure XXXTentacion—a rather popular figure among melancholic and effete Xanax-addled white boys from broken middelclass homes—who ostensibly promoted anti-racism in a video where he hangs a white child and who brutally beat women and robbed people before he was gunned down at the age of 20 in 2018. While it is easy to write-off somebody like XXXTentacion as a wayward wastrel that got what he deserved, his popularity is the real concern as it means that audiences are just as unwittingly doomed as the dumb asses that make the minstrel show a big hit in Bamboozled.

A ruthlessly renegade musical of rancid racial razzmatazz where virtually every single (black) characters meets a miserable end, Bamboozled is not a product of the merry Martin Luther King Jr. School of Filmmaking where a deluded manufactured dream is dispensed like a condom from a machine in some shady truckstop but closer to the ‘anti-communist communist’ film collages of Dušan Makavejev like W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974) in terms of pleasantly preposterously pessimistic perspective. Of course, Lee’s film is about dreams, albeit of the doubly dark deranging sort where the intrinsic impossibility of (inter)racial harmony is sardonically exposed in the way characters of all races (but especially the black race) react to the most mindless sort of race-denigrating mainstream entertainment as they eat broadcasted shit with sadistic glee without even properly digesting it, therein finding themselves in a particularly precarious situation when it is far too late. Somewhat curiously, Warren Beatty of all people pulled a similar savagely satiric stunt with his somewhat slightly underrated flick Bulworth (1998)—a rare Hollywood film that also dares to point out Hebraic Hollywood hypocrisy—but little Lee goes all the way with a film that is the cinematic equivalent of a pitch black nuke as detonated by the crack-and-acid-addled son of Huey P. Newton. While the film might contain all the rage of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, it is channeled through the lunatic lens of MAD magazine marinated in malt liquor meets the peculiar plastic pathos and socio-politically revolutionary aesthetic artifice of Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst (1988).

Shot on atrocious Mini DV digital video (with faux TV commercials curiously shot on 35mm), the film is, in many ways, absurdly aesthetically atrocious, which is fitting for an aggro Afro-American anti-cinematic work that basks in the nadir of kitschy cultural debris. In that sense, the film is like a cruel culturally apocalyptic cinematic counterpoint to James Whale’s Show Boat (1936)—an inordinately romantic musical with exquisite expressionistic cinematography based on the novel of the same name by leftist Jewess Edna Ferber and penned by mischling maestro Oscar Hammerstein II that deals with themes of miscegenation (as personified by a tragic mulatta) and features famous black actors Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel—as a film that uncompromisingly shatters the liberal dream of ‘equality’ and does so in the manner of absurdist anti-art agitprop. Speaking of Whale—a cinematic maestro that was himself the victim of the historical curse of a marginalized identity via Bill Condon's defamatory yet somehow worthwhile fictionalized biopic Gods and Monsters (1998)—Bamboozled also tells a simple tale about the perils of creation and that there is always the danger that what you create might turn monstrous and escape your grasp as Pierre Delacroix learned the hard way.

As the various harshly negative reviews of the film and artistic stagnation of his career demonstrates, Bamboozled is the closest thing to a filmic Frankenstein monster that the Afro-auteur Lee has ever made as none of his later films would even come close to the venomous iconoclasm and subversion of his morbidly merry neo-minstrel movie. In regard to attacks from various Jewish critics, Lee once stated in an interview, “The easiest way to discredit the work of a filmmaker whose subject matter is race is to call him a racist. Simple. There is an unwritten code, especially if you're not Jewish, that if you have a Jewish character who is not positive, you're automatically considered anti-Semitic. But I'm not going to be handcuffed like that or be forced to falsify a situation. You mean to tell me that in the history of the music industry there have never been any white managers who deliberately exploited black artists? That in BAMBOOZLED, while I can have rappers going around smoking herb, drinking malt liquor, and killing people, I can't have a Jewish publicist whose character might be a little shaky?” Of course, as a good percentage of contemporary movie and TV trash ranging from White Chicks (2004)—a rare example of ‘whiteface’ of the transracial/transsexual sort—to Dear White People (2017-present) to the singularly wretched Simon Kinberg/Jordan Peele The Twilight Zone (2019-present) reboot unequivocally confirm, anti-white racism is not only perfectly acceptable but totally vogue in the totally culturally, artistically, intellectually, and spiritually bankrupt cesspool that is modern-day Hollywood, but Lee is totally right about counter-kosher sentiment, which probably explains why he opted to direct the surprisingly philo-semitic BlacKkKlansman by kosher mini-mogul Jason Blum’s innately anti-white Blumhouse Productions. In short, Lee seems to have learned some hard lesson as a result of Bamboozled about who he can and cannot attack and now he has ironically become a sort of Pierre Delacroix, albeit one that still postures as a subversive.  Needless to say, to describe the film as ‘woke’ would be an insult to its artistic and intellectual integrity as such a film would never ever be made today as it at least partly contradicts the corporate-backed sapphic sista blm narrative.

For a director that has borrowed most of what he knows from great mainstream Italian-American filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli, Frank Capra, and Martin Scorsese—members of the group Spike has had a career-long obsession with treating in a minstrel-esque fashion (including this film, which includes an obnoxious Sicilian-American character in blackface boasting about the dark skin of his fellow Sicilians)—Bamboozled seems especially bizarre as a flick that feels like Federico Fellini meets Dogme 95 as directed by an angry black kid that just read the Nation of Islam (NOI) classic The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews (1991). In short, that such a film even exists is nothing short of a movie miracle and indicative of how once cherished things like ‘free of speech’ and ‘artistic integrity’ have become somewhat of an anachronism in the past two decades or so. While I have very respect for Lee as a man and only slightly more for him as a filmmaker, Bamboozled at least reveals that he might have become a serious artist if frivolous and superficial things like posturing and guidosploitation tactics were not his main motivations. When I compare the film to his more recent celebrated antifa-approved conformist turd BlacKkKlansman, I cannot help but reminded of Pierre Delacroix's final words as he dies after taking a bullet to the gut, “As I bled to death, as my very life oozed out of me, all I could think of was something the great Negro James Baldwin had written: ‘People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it, very simply, by the lives they lead.’” Indeed, one cannot deny that Jon Jost was at least partly right when he declares, “Spike is a ho, doing his best to prove he is a down black bro. It is an act and always has been, the well-off now very weathy (40 mil) guy proving he's one of the gang.”

While he also committed the liberal sin of ‘cultural appropriation’ by borrowing virtually everything he knew from Europeans while ironically making films against European colonialism, Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène—the undisputed ‘father of African film’ and director of such notable works as La noire de… (1966) aka Black Girl and Xala (1975)—at least was the real deal in terms of organic black revolutionary cinematic art. In terms of somewhat overlooked black American directors that do not need to exploit black racial stereotypes to make authentic black cinema that culturally empowers, Lee simply cannot compare to Charles Burnett and his classic films like Killer of Sheep (1978) and especially the mystifying folk comedy To Sleep with Anger (1990). Additionally, Carl Franklin has proved a special talent for using Hollywood genre conventions to explore black (and sometimes white) racial issues with classics like One False Move (1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). Even when it comes to goofy black filmmakers like half-kraut mulatto Michael Schultz, his films like Cooley High (1975), Car Wash (1976), The Last Dragon (1985), and Krush Groove (1985) have more ‘soul’ than most of Lee's films and do not seem like the conflicted expressions of someone suffering from a terminal case of racial ressentiment, but I digress. Undoubtedly, in terms of exploiting the worst aspects of black prole kultur, Lee probably most closely follows in the footsteps of Melvin Van Peebles of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) infamy. In fact, Lee even more or less copied Van Peebles’ debut feature The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) aka La permission with his uneven miscegenation movie Jungle Fever (1991). To Lee’s credit, he is still a much better filmmaker than Van Peebles, who seems to have never learned the basics of cinematic technique and has thoroughly debased himself with such retarded pseudo-erotic neo-minstrel shit as Vrooom Vroom Vrooom (1995).

When it comes down to it, Lee is just doing the black mainstream equivalent of Scorsese and Robert Zemeckis (who Lee has curiously routinely criticized) and cannot be seen as any sort of innovator as even the low-budget films of a forgotten ‘race film’ director like Spencer Williams, including The Blood of Jesus (1941) and Go Down, Death! (1945), are considerably more idiosyncratic when looked at through the context of cinema history.  Still, it takes a special sort of brutal bastard to direct a film like Bamboozled that was clearly meant to be an assault on the greater part of humanity and for that—and pretty much that alone—Lee deserves more artistic cred than 99.9% of Hollywood whore filmmakers, even if BlacKkKlansman is the ultimate expression of black-blackface shabbos goy whoredom and a disgraceful insult to the legacy of trash auteur Ted V. Mikels' exploitation excrement The Black Klansman (1966).  Indeed, probably the only way Lee could redeem himself at this point is by remaking the West German exploitation classic Born Black (1969) aka Der verlogene Akt—a film that, incidentally was directed by a part-Hebraic exploitation hack by the name of Rolf von Sydow who, despite his partial kosher pedigree, fought in Uncle Adolf's army—as both the film and its director represent the sort of hyperbolic racial nihilism that America's #1 most famous black filmmaker does best.  While Bamboozled is indubitably Spike Lee's most intellectually rewarding and layered film to date, somehow I think most viewers would find the cinematic experience more rewarding if they took heed of gentleman junky queer William S. Burroughs' words, “Exterminate all rational thought,” for such is the only way to accept the innately irredeemable culturally miscegenated clusterfuck that is American (pseudo)culture lest you go insane with abject disgust and disillusionment, among other things.  After all, whether Lee wants to admit it or not, Hollywood and the mainstream media has bamboozled everyone, especially America's infuriatingly voiceless and disenfranchised silent majority, hence the very real nightmare that has replaced the American Dream that exists today.

-Ty E