Nov 25, 2017

Witchfinder General

If the premature death of Teutonic auteur F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) was the greatest tragedy of the late-silent/early-sound era, the greatest tragedy of post-WWII British horror cinema was certainly the patently pointless death of young English auteur Michael Reeves at the age of 25 from an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose in early 1969. Indeed, before dying in a less the glamorous but somewhat strangely fitting fashion, Reeves changed the face of British and, in turn, European horror cinema with his third feature and sole masterpiece Witchfinder General (1968) aka The Conqueror Worm, which I recently had the beauteously bittersweet pleasure of re-watching. While Reeves pretty much exclusively worked in the horror genre (though he did work as an assistant director on the Anglo-Yugoslav adventure film The Long Ships (1964) directed by master cinematographer turned hack filmmaker Jack Cardiff), all of his three features, which also include the goofily sardonic vampire flick The She-Beast (1966) aka La Sorella di Satana aka Revenge of the Blood Beast and psychedelic (anti)youth flick The Sorcerers (1967), manage to transcend the genre and feature rather intricate themes of the rather cynical and oftentimes even misanthropic sort. In short, it is no surprise that these films were directed by a self-destructive nihilist of sorts that dropped dead for rather stupid reasons before he could evolve into a world-class cinematic artiste. After all, there are not many films like The Sorcerers where an elderly hag lives quite literally vicariously through a young man and uses his handsome body as a means to lure in and kill beauteous debutantes that she clearly has much resentment towards due to her rather withered appearance. Additionally, in a Reeves film, even minor characters stick out in terms of their unintentionally humorous repulsiveness as demonstrated by a character that is simply credited as “The Jewish Baker” in The Sorcerers who is rather aggressive when it comes to peddling pickles and lox and who has no qualms about throwing out any customer that dares not to buy something from his rather quaint kosher establishment.  Like any great auteur (and quite unlike many horror filmmakers), Reeves clearly abhorred filler and had an obsessive eye when it came to even the most seemingly mundane of details.

Undoubtedly, what makes Witchfinder General superior to Reeves’ previous feature is its sheer pastoral pulchritude and idyllic rural rapturous, which is in stark contrast to its savagely brutal S&M-flavored imagery and misanthropic and pessimistic themes. In fact, the film’s cinematography impressed Hollywood maverick Sam Peckinpah so much that he hired its Dutch cinematographer John Coquillon to shoot his UK feature Straw Dogs (1971) and later Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Cross of Iron (1977), and The Osterman Weekend (1983). Speaking of Peckinpah, Reeves’ film has much in common with the western genre in terms of plot and imagery, albeit it is set in 17th-century East Anglia, England instead of the American frontier.  Additionally, not unlike Peckinpah, Reeves clearly had a low opinion of humanity as demonstrated by his cinematic magnum opus, which depicts the sheer and utter (in)human depravity that ensues when a good young man acquires a pathological thirst for revenge and more or less destroys his enemies and himself in the process.

 Starring Vincent Price as the eponymous villain in a performance that is quite a bit meaner and leaner than his typical eccentrically effete and cultivated camp queen routine, Witchfinder General is indubitably a great example of an auteur abusing his actor(s) to get at perfect performance out of them. Indeed, in the hope that Price would give a much colder and crueler performance than usual and rather irked that his original choice for the role, Donald Pleasence, was replaced (notably, Reeves and his co-writer Tom Baker specially tailored the screenplay for him), Reeves treated the iconic horror star, who was old enough to be his grandfather, rather horribly during the production. In fact, when Price was injured as a result of falling off of his horse during the first day of shooting, Reeves refused to even see him because he wanted the actor to despise him, so naturally the two had a somewhat troubled relationship from the very start of the production of the film. Of course, in the end, the film was a great success and Price even later wrote Reeves a kind letter, which the filmmaker apparently proudly kept in his wallet, with the heartwarming words, “I was physically and mentally indisposed at that particular moment in my life (public and private). I do think you have made a very fine picture.”  Notably, Price was later quoted in the June 1992 issue of Classic Images that working with Reeves was, “a very sad experience . . . He was very unstable . . . difficult but brilliant.” By virtually all accounts, Reeves was a troubled young man with a dark mind that also happened to love cinema and all of these qualities are apparent in his handful of films.  Demonstrating a virtual Asperger-like obsession with cinema since he was a young child, wayward wunderkind Reeves ultimately got his first start in filmmaking by randomly showing up on the doorstep of his cinematic hero Don Siegel (Riot in Cell Block 11, The Killers), who generously offered him a job as his assistant and the rest his history.

If someone were to ask me the central theme of Witchfinder General, I would probably refer to the overly quoted aphorism from Friedrich Nietzsche’s classic text Beyond Good and Evil (1886), “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Indeed, in the film, a seemingly morally pristine, sincerely altruistic, heroic, loving and both internally and externally beautiful mensch degenerates into a bloodthirsty beast that derives great pangs of pleasure in chopping up a bitchy queen with a axe. Likewise, a voluptuous beauty succumbs to total madness, but not before betraying her beloved fiancé by whoring herself out to a dirty old man in the hope that said dirty old man will spare the life of her beloved uncle.  As Reeves once confessed in a Penthouse interview,  “I'm interested in the depths of human degradation.  Just how far you and I can sink.”  In short, in Reeves’s rather ruthless little flick, there is no true happy ending, even though the bad guys technically get their just deserts.

As his second feature The Sorcerers—a film that provides a certain cathartic murderous mayhem to the insipid hedonism of Swinging London—demonstrates in a fashion that almost borders on ‘acid fascism,’ Reeves was no mindless leftist automaton.  Indeed, in its delightfully deranged deconstruction of the degenerate limey hippie scum pseudo-culture, Reeves' film is a sort of horror-sci-fi equivalent to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), albeit all the more effortlessly nihilistic.  Undoubtedly, Reeves certainly did not suffer from the same metapolitical affliction as many counterculture cucks of his era as demonstrated by the following remark from Witchfinder General co-writer Tom Baker, “One of the perennial arguments Mike and I had was about altruism vs. selfishness.  Mike said, ‘All human behavior is self-interested.’  And I, as a general sort of liberal student-type, would say, ‘No, no, no, people are more than that, people can do things altruistically.  People can help each other.’  But Mike was insistent—and I think he may be right—that all behavior was initially motivated by self-interest.  If you believe that, perhaps you do get a bit down.” Although just speculation, I suspect that Reeves would argee with American horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft's words, “Democracy is just a false idol — a mere catchword and illusion of inferior classes, visionaries and dying civilizations.” While Witchfinder General is certainly anti-authority to an extent, it feels more like the expression of a misanthropic right-wing iconoclast than some deluded college-lobotomized do-gooder type that believes that communism or anarchism will somehow lead to a magical utopia.  Indeed, the film was certainly not directed by someone that is foolish, politically retarded, or socially naive enough to even dream that humans are capable of any sort of utopia.  In fact, if one learns anything from a surprisingly fresh period piece like Reeves' Vincent Price vehicle, it is that people will always be the same and that certain people in positions of power will always exploit said power to the most underhandedly sinister degree.

 Although highly fictionalized to the point of being almost uncredible as the average Spielberg-helmed historical drama, Witchfinder General—a film that might be best described as an exceedingly English western-cum-folk-horror-cum-romance that would make for a great tourist advert for East Anglia if it did not feature so much human savagery and an overall uniquely unflattering depiction of English history—is actually based on the mass murdering escapades of infamous yet somewhat enigmatic 17th-century English lawyer-cum-witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620 – 12 August 1647) and his ‘witch pricker’ associate John Stearne (c. 1610–1670). Although very little is known about the real Hopkins, the book A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, & Pagans (1980) Jeffrey Burton Russell notes in regard to the historical record, “The height of the witch-craze in England occurred in the 1640s, when the Civil War produced unusual anxieties and insecurities, and particularly in Essex, a county where war tensions and a strong previous tradition of witchcraft came together. Into this opportune situation stepped an unsuccessful lawyer named Matthew Hopkins, who was to cause more people to be hanged in two years than had been hanged in the previous century. Hopkins, a Puritan, was able to play on the war anxieties of the Puritan population of Essex and convince them that a legion of witches was active among them. At a distance it is difficult to judge Hopkins’ motivation. A man who had failed, he seems to have welcomed a chance for fame and success no matter how achieved; he may have relished the power; and he obtained a good deal of money for his efforts. He may even have believed in what he was doing: he relied heavily throughout his career on King James’ DAEMONOLOGIE. Whatever Hopkins’ own purpose, his ministrations were well received. Making a name for himself first in 1644-5 in Chelmsford, a target for witch accusations since 1566, he then moved throughout southeastern England, appointing searchers to help him in his work. Hopkins’ methods were thorough and merciless. He stripped suspects to search for witches’ marks, and used starvation, sleep deprivation, swimming, and other tests and torments. The confessions he elicited show his acceptance of the continental tradition: the witches were members of a sect of worshiping the Devil; they met at night; held initiations; had sexual relations with the devil; and sacrificed to him. Nor did Hopkins neglect English tradition: his witches kept familiars in the shape of dogs, cats, mice, moles, squirrels, and with names such as Prick-ears, Flo, and Bess. Hopkins and his assistant swore in court that they had seen such imps themselves. The witches allegedly performed a variety of maleficia: an elderly pastor of Brandeston, John Lowes, was condemned for sinking a ship from Ipswich by magic. Rossell Hope Robbins observes that the judges were so credulous under the influence of Hopkins’ persuasion that they made no effort even to ‘check whether any ship had foundered that day.’ But Hopkins had gone too far too fast. By 1646 considerable opposition to him was already surfacing; later that year he was forced to retire, and the following year he died in some disgrace. In the short space of two ears he had earned for himself the informal title of witchfinder-general of England and the contempt of future generations.” While the Hopkins depicted in Reeves’ film is just as absurdly murderous as the real-life one recounted by Russell, there is no doubt that the fictional cinematic version is a dreadfully suave sociopathic opportunistic that, like a Der Stürmer-esque caricature of a money-grubbing Israelite, has an unflinching willingness to commit the most ungodly acts for sheer monetary and carnal gain, though he conveniently gets his insipidly stupid and savagely sadistic underling Stearne, who takes great pleasure out of torturing anything with a heartbeat, to do most of his dirty work.  Indeed, the Hopkins portrayed by Price is certainly no lovable uncle type.

 Considering that the film was a coproduction between Judaic Brit Tony Tenser’s Tigon British Film Productions and fellow schlock-peddling chosenite Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures (AIP), there is no doubt that Witchfinder General was intended as tasteless exploitation trash that would have the capacity to get a morbid psychopathic bitch like Myra Hindley panty’s wet. Not unlike the 1966 novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett that it is somewhat loosely adapted from, the film also contains a heavily fictionalized depiction of the dastardly deeds of witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, including a nearly 60-year-old Vincent Price portraying a man that was only about 25-years-old when the real events took place. Still, despite the film’s rather liberal approach to the historical facts and various depictions of relatively graphic sadistic torture and ultra-violence, I would not be so insufferably pretentious or anally retentive as to describe the film as exploitation as it is, in many ways, quite the opposite as a cinematic work that offers the viewer next to nil cheap sensual thrills, let alone any notable degree of cheap popcorn entertainment or philistine-geared catharsis. Indeed, despite featuring brutal torture scenes that might inspire deep thoughts of murderous misanthropy in certain viewers, the greatest and most ravishing scenes pay tribute to the organic splendor of Mother Nature and oftentimes have a Bergman-esque quality about them that really underscore auteur Reeves’ keen cinematic sense and unrivaled talent for meticulously polishing a pseudo-Poe-esque genre turd. Of course, one should not expect anything less from a serious auteur that was not really a fan of horror and instead was motivated to work within the genre simply because he wanted to prove that he could make a great film on a laughable sub-Corman-esque budget. In fact, Reeves funded his first ‘official’ feature The She-Beast with his own money (notably, he was the rebellious fatherless scion of a prestigious paint-manufacturing family), though he also believed that he would be nothing more than a mere dilettante if he were to continue to fund his own films. 

 As far as biopics in a horror genre form are concerned, I can think of few that would be more sickly intriguing than one based off of sadistic pervert and SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger, who is one of the few Third Reich era German military officers that actually lives up to the exaggerated cartoon evil depicted in a stereotypical Hebraic Hollywood movie. While I sincerely doubt that the world will ever see a Dirlewanger biopic, Vincent Price’s sophisticatedly sadistic and elegantly evil character in Witchfinder General is surely the next best thing. Aside from the superficial physical resemblance, Price’s Matthew Hopkins is, not unlike Dirlewanger, a well-educated dirty old pervert that recklessly employs sadistic killers and exploits his political power and the chaos of war as a means to sexually and materially profit from the suffering of others. In short, Price is not the relatively charismatic and strangely lovable yet unintentionally goofy ghoul that he is best remembered from in classic films like André De Toth's House of Wax (1953) and William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959) but instead a mean-spirited misanthrope, obscene opportunist, and cold crypto-miser that cynically uses the anarchy of the English Civil War (1642–1651) as a murderous means to profit from the social and spiritual fears of the poor country peasants that absurdly admire him due to their misguided belief that he will somehow erase all of the evil in the world with his homicidal brand of pseudo-Christian hocus pocus. A coldly calculating yet ultimately quite craven charlatan that is plagued with a pernicious degree of pomposity and arrogance that ultimately leads to his much deserved ultra-violent demise via battle axe, Hopkins is in many ways the ultimate human monster and a fiercely fucked figure that makes slasher icons like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger seem like lovable cartoon characters by comparison. Personally, I see Hopkins as symbolically embodying perennial political evil, as he is merely the Leon Trotsky or George Soros of his age, albeit executing his sinister aims in a more primitive and thus overtly odious fashion.  Indeed, if there was ever a filmic villain that could be compared to both Nazi pedo-butcher Dirlewanger and Judeo-Bolshevik Trotsky, it is indubitably Price's Herr Hopkins.

 While Hopkins represents man at his most suavely sinister as a callously corrupt cynic that prides himself on exploiting the weak and disenfranchised, Witchfinder General protagonist Richard Marshall (Reeves’ childhood friend and man muse Ian Ogilvy, who starred in all three of his friend's features)—a Roundhead soldier that supports the Parliament of England and is at war with Charles I of England and his supporters (the Cavaliers aka Royalists)—represents young naïve good, unspoiled hope, and great purity of spirit.  Unfortunately for the wiser and more wicked Hopkins, Marshall ultimately manages to make up for his lack of wisdom and viciousness through sheer energy and tenacity after discovering an unquenchable thirst for revenge.  After receiving a military promotion in rank upon saving his much respected military commander Captain Gordon (Michael Beint) by killing an enemy sniper and subsequently becoming engaged to his beloved girlfriend Sara (Hilary Dwyer) after being granted permission from her village priest uncle John Lowes (Rupert Davies), Marshall—a rather dashingly handsome dude that is quite proud to express his love and affection for his beloved—seems to be on top of the world, but that all changes when witch-hunter Hopkins and his proudly sadistic underling John Stearne (Robert Russell) turn his life into a virtual living hell. Indeed, upon being treated as a scapegoat a result of being a Catholic priest in a protestant village, Sara’s uncle John soon finds himself the victim of a literal witch-hunt and Hopkins is called into Brandeston, Suffolk to ‘prove’ that the innocent old man is a dedicated disciple of the devil. Stabbed in the back with a large needle to prove that he bears the so-called “Devil's Mark” and forced to endure various other forms of nonsensical torture by Hopkins’ right-hand man Stearne, Lowes is almost certainly destined to receive a brutal demise, so his niece Sara intervenes and decides to make the ultimate sensual sacrifice.  Unfortunately, all of this might have been prevented had Marshall had another day or two of leave from the army and been around to stop Hopkins before he made Lowes his spiritual prisoner, but such is the dark absurdity of fate in the rather ruthless Reevesian realm.

 Despite her love and devotion for her fiancé, Sara quite selflessly, though somewhat dubiously, decides to offer her nice and nubile carnal goods to Hopkins under the condition that he spare her uncle John from a grisly death. Indeed, Hopkins—a phlegmatic player with the spirit of a sadistic pimp and a special predilection for fresh and adequately fleshy pieces of golden-haired ass—makes it quite clear to Sara what he wants from her when he states in regard to the precarious situation of her uncle when they first meet, “In private talk, we may shed some light on his innocence. Yes, away from the distraction of the crowd. Perhaps in the quiet of your room tonight, you might be able to help me prove him guiltless.” Despite Sara sexually betraying her beloved Marshall, her inordinately altruistic efforts ultimately prove to be in vain after Hopkins changes his mind as a result of Stearne brutally raping her in a field during a nice sunny day. Too dignified of a gentleman to accept sloppy seconds from his buffoonish knuckle-dragging underling, Hopkins—a calmly malevolent mensch that seems to pride himself on his refined sartorial fastidiousness—seems to become disgusted with Sara after the savage sexual pillaging and quite callously reneges on his despicable deal, thereupon leading to the further debasement of the heroine and the public hanging of her uncle.

Needless to say, when Marshall discovers what happens, he somewhat rightly decides that a virtual scorched-earth policy is apt when it comes to taking revenge against his uniquely ungodly enemies.  Indeed, after symbolically ‘marrying’ Sara in the virtual ruins of her uncle's home and then having her travel to the nearby village of Lavenham for sanctuary, Marshall immediately begins plotting his revenge. In fact, Marshall becomes so completely and utterly consumed with bloodthirsty vengeance that he rather riskily and irresponsibly decides to postpone an extremely important special military mission from his boss Oliver Cromwell (Patrick Wymark) to kidnap the King because he is naturally more keen on hunting down Hopkins and Stearne with the help of some of his soldier comrades. In fact, Marshall even dares to risk execution as punishment for desertion, which his boss previously reprimanded him for after he absconded from his military upon hearing about Hopkins' reign of terror in Brandeston. Indeed, just before he goes on his revenge campaign, the Captain rebukes Marshall for deserting his post and then warns him, “However, in this case, there are two factors which will stay me from subjecting you to a full court-martial. One, we are grouped here at Naseby in preparation for a major assault on the Royalist armies. We need every man we can get. And you’re a pretty good soldier, most of the time. Secondly, I would sleep ill if I had to send to the gallows a man who saved my life. But, Cornet, remember this. If you should leave your command again, I will have no alternative but to throw the whole weight of military law against you.” Although Marshall's soldier buddies manage to find Hopkins and Stearne while they are traveling in the countryside, the two villains manage to getaway and they even kill some of the protagonist's buddies in the process.  In what ultimately proves to be another absurdly hapless scenario, Hopkins ends up in the same village of Lavenham by happenstance as Sara.  While Marshall finally manages to reach the village and reunite with Sara, their happy reunion is short-lived as Hopkins has the two arrested under trumped up witchcraft charges and then sent to a torture dungeon.  Needless to say, Hopkins takes great delight in having Stearne savagely torture Sara by jabbing large needles in her back while a bound and tied Marshall helplessly watches with a mixed expression of gruesome terror and seething murderous rage.

While Marshall eventually manages to kill Hopkins and stomp out one of Stearne’s eyes, he morally degenerates into a bloodlusting killer in the process, thus leading to his beloved Sara literally losing her mind in the process as she watches the man she loves derive savagely sadistic glee as he hacks away at the alpha-witch-hunter with a nice big battle axe in what is ultimately a more bitter than sweet ending. Indeed, after escaping while bound to a wall in the deep dark depths of the torture chamber, Marshall knocks Stearne on his ass and drives his foot into his eye and then grabs an axe and immediately begins chopping up Hopkins with a certain non compos mentis gusto. When Marshall’s friend Robert walks in on him taking great delight in continuing to swing his axe at the heavily mutilated body of a barely living Hopkins, he is so sickened by the grisly sight that he swiftly shoots the witch-hunter to put him out of his misery. Needless to say, Marshall takes offense to his friend’s mercy killing and proceeds to repeatedly violently scream at Robert, “You took him away from me.” Rather unfortunately but not surprisingly, Marshall degenerated into the sort of “monster” that Nietzsche warned of, though it is hard to blame him. 

 In its depiction of corrupt Christian authorities using their powers for pernicious, if not downright satanic, means to falsely accuse people of being witches and heretics and then having them tortured and murdered in the most malevolent of fashions, Witchfinder General—surely a singular cinematic work when it was first released—indubitably influenced a number of films from high-camp masterpieces like Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) to exploitative ‘folk horror’ like Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) to German-produced sleaze like Mark of the Devil (1970) aka Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält directed by Michael Armstrong to similarly crypto-Teutonic Jesús Franco trash like The Bloody Judge (1970) starring Christopher Lee to Ulli Lommel’s feministic Salem Witch Trials oriented The Devonsville Terror (1983), among various other less notable examples. Of course, aside from possibly The Devils (incidentally, Russell apparently hated Reeves' film), Reeves films is unquestionably the most thematically rich, aesthetically rapturous, and organically (as opposed to exploitatively) brutal of these films, especially as far as the somewhat mercurial villain is concerned. While England is not exactly plagued with murderously greedy witch-hunters nowadays, it certainly has a wealth of corrupt politicians and public servants that are, in their own sort of post-religious neoliberal way, witch-hunters that have no qualms about severely punishing any ostensible heretic that dares not to toe the party line.

Indeed, in jolly olde England, playing a relatively harmless prank like leaving a bacon sandwich outside at mosque can be a virtual death sentence, or so poor Kevin Crehan learned after mysteriously dying in prison while halfway through a one-year sentence for committing the ungodly crime of donating free breaded pork products to impoverished Muslims. In short, the evil heretics nowadays are the so-called ‘racists’ and ‘bigots’ that succumb to the insanely inhuman idea that the UK should not degenerate into a caliphate and that England should stay English (of course, the recent racially retarded casting of middle-aged Jewish negress Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret of Anjou in the BBC TV series The Hollow Crown by hack director Dominic Cooke reveals that even besmirching medieval British history via blatant blackwashing of a historic Aryan beauty is a suitable means to promote the globalist multicultural agenda). In fact, the English are so desperately afraid of being labeled modern-day heretics that a number of police officers and politicians intentionally looked the other way during the Rotherham child sexual slavery scandal—the “biggest child protection scandal in UK history” and an unbelievably sick and twisted tragedy that involved  the sexual enslavement of at least 1,400 white British children, most whom were between 11 and 15 years old, between 1997 and 2013—lest they suffer the horrific fate of being called “racists” for bringing these Paki pimps and their similarly inbred underlings to justice. Of course, in modern England, mocking the native religion of Christianity can gain one social capital in certain contexts but insulting the prophet Mohammad and his black and brown disciplines can lead to all sorts of punishment in both legal bureaucratic and less than legal terroristic fashions.  Luckily for modern-day Brits, they get to contend with the radically random dangers of being plowed down by an Allah-approved ‘truck of peace’ or being blown up with a ‘bomb of peace’ instead of deal with dastardly dudes of their own faith and race from a number of centuries ago like Mr. Matthew Hopkins.

 I think that there is a certain irony in that the protagonist of Witchfinder General is fighting for Oliver Cromwell, who is (in)famous for allowing the resettlement of the Jews in England during the mid-1650s after having been banned for over 300 years since 1290 when King Edward I of England had issued an edict expelling all Israelites from the Kingdom of England. While that was certainly a very longtime ago, its repercussions are felt very clearly today; whether it be the dubious legacy of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, parasitic colonial tentacles of the Rothschild banking dynasty, Sassoon Family and the Opium Wars, the Balfour Declaration, fratricidal philo-semitism of Winston Churchill, degenerate art of pervert Lucian Freud, or anti-English Zio-globalism of the Miliband brothers and Luciana Berger, among countless other similarly unflattering examples. Needless to say, it is no surprise that a violent anti-Christian film like Reeves would be produced by a Hebraic chap like Tony Tenser who, on top of being one of the UK’s most important and revolutionary celluloid smut-peddlers, was responsible for producing early films directed by fellow Judaic Roman Polanski like Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966). While torturing and lynching supposed witches is no longer vogue among English politicians and public servants, the UK government is still doing its fair share of witch-hunting against pernicious politically incorrect heretics, as one merely needs to make naughty comments about a member of G-d's chosen tribe online and they can expect a police visit and possibly even jail time as many of Luciana Berger's critics have discovered. Undoubtedly, it is quite fitting that Vincent Price’s Matthews Hopkins has a certain Svengali-esque quality in terms of both character and appearance. As someone that has managed to get a number of young men imprisoned for years for simply hurting her feelings over the internet, Berger is undoubtedly one of the many Matthews Hopkins that persecute poor peasants in England today.  While I am not exactly religious, I would not be surprised if the UK was now ruled over by the devil himself, as it is spiritually sick nation where alien anti-Christian religions are protected to the fullest extent of the law and Jesus has been virtually regulated to a rancid sewer next to a Rotherham graveyard.

 As a promising young European auteur that was only able to direct a handful of memorable films before dying before he was 30, Michael Reeves is certainly the Jean Vigo of horror cinema. Aside from dying tragically prematurely and having a relatively small oeuvre, Reeves is also comparable to Vigo in the sense that he was a somewhat anarchistic individual who suffered the misfortune of losing his father at a very young age, as if both men were victims of some intergenerational family curse. In that sense, it is only fitting that the male protagonist played by Reeves’ buddy Ian Ogilvy dies horrendously while under the spell of two old farts after terrorizing Swinging London in The Sorcerers, as the auteur seemed to be a victim of both his zeitgeist and heritage (aside from his unfortunate family history, Reeves was apparently also both haunted and helped by a fairly nice inheritance). Notably, after finishing Witchfinder General, the young auteur was preparing to direct the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Oblong Box (1969) starring Vincent Price, but he was fired a week before shooting because he overdosed on a similar cocktail of alcohol and barbiturate to the sort that would ultimately kill him. Such senseless nihilistic self-destruction seems to have been common during that time among creative types as Reeves’ musician comrade Paul Ferris, who created the musical score for Witchfinder General and even appears in a small but notable role in the film as a young husband that attempts to assassinate Hopkins after he burns his wife alive, attempted to kill himself around the same time (Ferris was eventually successful in 1995 when it committed self-slaughter via drug overdose at the age of 54). Apparently, while visiting Ferris in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, the two friends morbidly joked about who would be the first to successfully carryout the deed. 

 Aside from The Oblong Box and another Price vehicle entitled Scream and Scream Again (1970), Reeves was actively planning to get out of the horror ghetto (though, he did make an attempt to buy the rights to Daphne du Maurier's short story Don't Look Now, which was ultimately adapted by fellow Brit Nicholas Roeg in 1973). Indeed, aside from the Tenser-produced IRA-themed and Bonnie and Clyde-inspired crime flick O’Hooligan’s Mob, Reeves was also apparently considered for directing what would ultimately be the most famous counterculture film of all-time, or as cinematographer John Coquillon remarked to American horror director Jeff Burr, who directed Price in the horror anthology From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) aka The Offspring, in a 1983 letter, “One day he called me full of excitement. He'd found the story. We were going to ride around the US, shoot in 16mm and shoot every which way, into the sun and out of the sun - on motorcycles. The actor was to be a long-time LA buddy - a completely unknown son of an actor - name of Peter Fonda. The film was to be called Easy Rider. It was while planning this movie that Michael Reeves died. I still mourn the man and miss him. Always will. One doesn't get to meet many people like him.”  In fact, as recounted by Reeves' friend and perennial leading man Ian Ogilvy in John B. Murray's informative book The Remarkable Michael Reeves: His Short and Tragic Life (2002) in regard to the auteur's lack of enthusiasm for the horror genre, “Mike only made horror movies because they were more likely to see an easy profit—thereby giving him, the director, a reputation with producers for making sure-fire successes.  He had no great affection for the genre and looked forward to the day when he could make a different kind of film.  He said once that we were making crap, but it was going to be the best-made crap in the world.  I like to think there are a few moments in the three films we made together where we came quite close to making the best-made crap in the world.”  Surely, Reeves transcended celluloid shit and proved to be an alchemist of sorts with his swansong Witchfinder General, as it is an almost disturbingly raw and visceral cinematic work from a clearly foredoomed soul that was able to sire what is an organic gold-tier equivalent to what is now described as ‘torture porn’ and a film that is, almost literally, worthy of Jean Cocteau's quote, “Beauty makes one lose one's head.  Poetry is born of this decapitation.”  Notably, in a interview with Penthouse, Reeves remarked, “I think violence and murder (in film) are quite justifiable.  All you have to do is bring it down to an acceptable level.  Then you can make points about the aggressiveness inherent in everybody.”

Although I extremely loathe rap music and generally feel a sense of disgust when I encounter people obsessing over the death of a celebrity, I was somewhat disturbed to learn about the rather recent premature demise of tragic dope-addled 21-year-old rapper ‘Lil Peep’ (real name Gustav Åhr) who, not unlike forsaken auteur Reeves, dropped dead as a result of a seemingly accidental drug overdose just as he was gaining some inkling of fame and evolving as an artist.  Not unlike Reeves, Åhr—an unintentionally goofy chap with degenerate face tats who proudly sported pink Hello Kitty beanies and was famous for creating a rap hybrid that including elements of emo and pseudo-goth—was somewhat of a pretty boy, thus making the thought of his young decaying body, which once graced European fashion runways, seem all the more disturbing.  Also, like Reeves, Åhr was consumed with an innate fiery passion that seemed to be the root of both his quick success and even quicker demise.  Totally unpretentious and a virtual James Dean of auteur horror filmmaking, Reeves, also not unlike Åhr, is a perfect example of the semi-subconsciously self-annihilating poète maudit par excellence as a troubled chap that could not even be bothered to live as long as Fassbinder and assemble the sort of extensive and/or eclectic oeuvre that would have guaranteed his place in cinema history as one of the greats (or, at least, somewhat great), but such is oftentimes the fate of an intemperately passionate, proverbial Nietzschean ‘Dancing Star.’  Indeed, as Reeves' friend Paul Ferris once noted, “No, he was no great intellectual.  But, does that matter, you see, for the truth of things?  Twenty-four years old, movie mad, but what he did have in him was he wanted to make good stuff to the best of his ability.  Movie mad, as we all were, so in that he's a bit like Hitchcock.  I don't think Hitchcock went to university first and then thought, ‘Right, I'll do some movies now.’  He was movie mad.  It's the wrong way round.  It tends to be a bit tried if you come at it literally the other way around—no passion.  Mike was passion, passion, passion, movies, movies, movies.”  As both a lifelong horror fan and pretentious cinephile, I can certainly attest to Reeves' singular cinematic passion.

-Ty E

Oct 26, 2017

The Phantom Carriage

While I would not exactly call myself a silent cinema connoisseur and I tend to only be willing to sample the best that the pre-sound era has to offer, I have to admit that the greatest of these films has a singular hypnotic quality that sound cinema seems to somehow lack. Apparently, actor turned one-time-auteur Charles Laughton believed this too and was heavily inspired by both the great cinematic works of film pioneer D.W. Griffith and German expressionist films of the 1920s when creating his directorial debut The Night of the Hunter (1955). Undoubtedly, my initial viewings of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d'un poète (1930) aka The Blood of a Poet, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and especially Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) proved to be such profound cinematic experiences for me to the degree that I found myself questioning the power of a cinema and ultimately coming to the natural conclusion that it is an artistic medium that is truly unrivaled when it comes to pleasurably imprisoning the subconscious and putting the viewer in a waking trance of sorts.  Hell, even a largely forgotten silent short like Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (1924) aka Cloud Phenomena of Majola directed by Teutonic mountain film maestro Arnold Fanck has a certain exceptional ethereal quality that seems impossible to reproduce nowadays.

While it had been a number of years since I had a comparable experience with silent cinema, a somewhat recent first time viewing of the fairly influential Swedish horror masterpiece The Phantom Carriage (1921) aka Körkarlen aka The Phantom Chariot aka The Stroke of Midnight aka Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness directed by and starring early silent maestro Victor Sjöström (The Outlaw and His Wife, He Who Gets Slapped) reminded me of the singular power and pulchritude of pre-talkie cinema. Like a virtual Nordic Gothic antithesis (and virtual prototype) to Frank Capra’s classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the film tells the surprisingly darkly morose and and unwaveringly grim yet ultimately moral tale of a belligerent wino learning the hard way that life is worth living after a serious brush with death that involves a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper figure in a hooded black cloak teaching lessons as opposed to a lovably jolly, if not seemingly semi-autistic, angel without wings named Clarence like in the Hollywood flick. More a dysfunctional family drama about the perennial homewrecker known as alcohol than any sort of ‘pure’ horror flick featuring cheap scares and banally enigmatic monsters, The Phantom Carriage is not only one of the greatest silent films ever made but also one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film on the subject of alcoholism and its deleterious effects on friends and families. 

 Indeed, as much as I hate being around drunkards (aside from having various friends that degenerated into alcoholics, I was once a bouncer), I would be lying if I did not admit that some of my favorite films, including John Huston’s underrated Malcolm Lowry adaptation Under the Volcano (1984), are about the perils of dipsomania, and I would certainly argue that Sjöström’s film is unequivocally the best of the best despite being one of the first films to seriously tackle the subject. In fact, what makes The Phantom Carriage so effortlessly brilliant and striking is that it manages to relatively seamlessly merge the metaphysical horrors of alcohol with conventions of the horror genre in a fashion that is more or less timeless, hence why it is still one of the very few films of its era that still packs a pleasantly pernicious punch. Surely, Sjöström’s flick is Häxan (1922) tier as far as silent Nordic horror is concerned, albeit with a more innately important message. Based on the novel Körkarlen (1912) aka Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! written by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf whose works auteur Sjöström had already cinematically adapted three times previously, the film is like a gothic proto-psychedelic fable on acid-laced steroids where the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity is depicted and where human frailty in the face of both addiction and disease is handled with a refreshing lack of sentimentalism, at least in comparison to other films from that era. Among other things, the viewer is exposed to suicide, deadly drunken brawls, deathbed hysteria, deadbeat dad style family dysfunction, and a decidedly dark climax involving an extremely lonely and desperate mother getting ready to execute a filicide-suicide scenario while her unwitting children sleep nearby with baby dolls with cracked plastic heads in their beds. A fairly preternatural morality tale about redemption with a surprisingly non-linear structure involving a number of flashbacks (and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks) that depicts a literal daunting date with death that a drunkard must take on one rather auspicious New Year's Eve to learn the error of his way so that he can reform and, in turn, safe his family before it is too late, Sjöström’s penetratingly phantasmagorical flick is probably the only ghost story where man in his natural habitat is more horrifying than the gothic supernatural elements.  Additionally, you will not find a more effortlessly artful or aesthetically refined cinematic depiction of alcoholism and I say that as one of the few people that has probably seen Ermanno Olmi's underrated alcoholic odyssey La leggenda del santo bevitore (1988) aka The Legend of the Holy Drinker starring Rutger Hauer.

 Undoubtedly, one of the most poignant things that I personally took away from The Phantom Carriage is that it made me become more aware of the fact that I have been, mostly subconsciously, haunted by alcoholics for almost my entire life. Indeed, while I have thankfully never had the misfortune of having alcoholic parents, the three most important women in my life were the daughters of pathetic boozers. While I have met two of these men, it is, somewhat ironically, the one that I have never met that has haunted me the most, so naturally I was somewhat startled when I first watched Sjöström’s film and discovered that the quasi-antihero bears a striking resemblance to this man in both appearance and character. A smart and charismatic yet oftentimes savagely sadistic bastard that prefers hanging out with his wino buddies at a sleazy bar to spending time with his family, the lead character's behavior so closely mirrors the description that the woman in my life constantly gave of her own father to such a startling degree that it almost felt like the film was an occult form of déjà vu and specially made for me as a form of esoteric art therapy.   Undoubtedly, watching Sjöström’s cinematic masterpiece is probably the closest I will ever come to meeting the miserable man that unleashed so much senseless trauma on the woman I loved.  In that sense, I found the film's hopeful conclusion to be somewhat contrived and its greatest weakness, as the abusive alcoholic can never make up for all the pain and suffering he has caused, even if he has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of getting completely sober as internal scars are forever.

Naturally, as a film with a alcoholic lead, one of the major themes of The Phantom Carriage is how an unrepentant drunkard negatively affects his friends and family. In short, I have never felt so haunted by a film, especially one that oftentimes takes place in haunts where dipsomaniacs act like boorish buffoons and beat the shit out of each other for the most trivial reasons. While the film was made nearly a century ago, it ultimately makes a relatively modern alcoholic film like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) directed by Mike Figgis seem like a slapstick comedy by comparison in terms of sincerely expressing the spiritual sickness, emotional decrepitude, and psychological depravity that comes with alcoholism. Likewise, the short American ‘silent sermon’ from around the same era, Episodes In The Life Of A Gin Bottle (1925) directed by Bela von Block, seems like something on par with Louis J. Gasnier’s Reefer Madness (1936) in terms of being an unintentional joke at the expense at its anti-substance-abuse message. Of course, one expects a certain degree of singular artistic prowess from a film that was such a huge influence on a master auteur like Ingmar Bergman that he hired its star-auteur to star in his own films. In fact, Bergman was so obsessed with The Phantom Carriage that he directed a TV-movie entitled Bildmakarna (2000) aka The Image Makers based on auteur Sjöström and writer Selma Lagerlöf’s collaboration on the film. 

 Despite technically being a ‘horror’ film, The Phantom Carriage—a cinematic work that is certainly not a slave to genre conventions—begins in a somewhat melodramatic, if not downright histrionic, fashion on a somewhat morbid New Year's Eve night with a tragically beauteous Salvation Army sister, ‘Edit’ (Astrid Holm), pleading on her deathbed to her fellow Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm) that she receive one final wish involving a final meeting with a drunken bum named David Holm (Victor Sjöström), who is not even worthy of shining the gorgeous god gal's shoes. Indeed, as depicted later in the film in a flashback, Sister Edit made David promise to meet her on the following New Year's Eve in the somewhat spiritually delusional hope that he would have a “good year” despite his self-destructive alcoholic ways.  Although the year is technically not over yet, David—a belligerent bastard that has a nasty knack for making everyone around him just as miserable as he is—has had a rather horrendous 364 days of self-induced misery and depravity as a result of his rather aggressive alcoholism, which has destroyed his entire family and left him a lonely gutter-dwelling bum who is only tolerated by other similarly hopelessly debauched gutter-dwelling bums. Unbeknownst to dastardly dickhead David, he is unwittingly responsible for Sister Edit being on her deathbed as she contracted tuberculosis last New Year's Eve as a result of committing the selfless act of touching his dirty jacket so as to clean and repair it.  Indeed, while David was sleeping at the local Salvation Army center the year before, Sister Edit took it upon herself to mend the jacket for the protagonist and he repaid her kindness by destroying her fine stitch work right in front of her face and then stating in a sadistically sarcastic fashion, “It’s a shame you went to all that trouble, Miss, but I’m used to have it like this.” Although David ultimately agreed to visit Edit the next New Year’s Eve, he had less than savory reasons, or as he snidely remarked to the poor sister, “Oh, I’ll be there. I’ll come to show you God didn’t give a fig for you or your twaddle.” Of course, being a typical unreliable drunkard that cannot even bother to remember to take a daily shower, David fails to show up and when Edit’s colleague Gustafsson (Tor Weijden) goes out looking for him and finally finds him, the prick protagonist refuses to honor the poor sister’s last dying wish and instead focuses on getting all the more hammered with his friends in a spooky graveyard. Somewhat ironically, it is only when David himself comes face to face with death that very same night that he desperately wants to speak to Edit and atone for his past wrongs. 

 While Edit is praying for his arrival as she slowly but surely succumbs to her sickness, David is getting wasted with his friends in a graveyard and telling them about a local legend that was once told to him by an old scholar friend named Georges (Tore Svennberg) who was deathly afraid of being the last person to die on New Year’s Eve because he believed his own story that the person in question would be foredoomed to drive Death's ghostly carriage and collect the souls of every single individual that dies the following year. Rather ironically, Georges was the last person to die the previous year and David soon discovers that his old comrade has taken up the unwanted supernatural position of the local Grim Reaper. In fact, not long after telling the story, David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve after one of his boozer buddies hits him over the head with a bottle during a heated drunken brawl. Indeed, when David wakes up from the deadly blow, he is somewhat baffled to discover that his soul has exited his body and that he is being confronted by Georges and the phantom carriage.

With the creepily dispassionate help of his ghostly friend, David is forced to confront all the evil that he has sired during his mostly pathetic lifetime in a series of pivotal flashback scenes. While originally a happy and loving family man with a decent job at a local sawmill who spent his free time joyously playing with his children in the scenic countryside, David more or less completely destroyed his entire life overnight after becoming a full-time drunkard, which eventually led to the loss of both his job and family.  Naturally, David caused much familial collateral damage in the process, though he was mostly too drunk to notice. Developing an almost demonically depraved alter-ego as a result of his dipsomania, David eventually began to derive an almost sadistic glee from abusing his family, hence why his wife Ann (Hilda Borgström) eventually absconded to another town to get away from her aggressively assholish hubby.  Needless to say, like most bitterly resentful drunk bastards with nothing left to lose, David refused to take responsibility for his own actions and thus was not about to let his wife get away freely.

 Notably, the final straw that inspired Ann to leave was David turning his own younger brother into such a bad drunkard that he accidentally killed someone during a brawl. Needless to say, David is wholly deserving of the karmic fate of eventually dying the same way as his brother’s victim, but luckily for the protagonist, The Phantom Carriage, quite unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder's early Sirkian masterpiece Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (1971) aka The Merchant of Four Seasons, is a strangely optimistic film about the power of redemption where it is argued that even the most devilishly debauched of haunt-haunting troglodytes can embrace teetotalism and dedicate their lives to wholesome good instead of gutter-level beer-chugging bacchanalian buffoonery. Indeed, it is only when David hits literal rock bottom in the form of an ancient tomb where his lifeless body collapses after being fatally struck with a bottle that he begins to see the error of his ways. Thankfully for David, his suicidal wife is masochistic enough to give him one more final chance in the end. Rather revealingly, David—a man that has already been given a number of recklessly misspent second chances—is only able to convince his wife of his sincerity in regard to wanting to change because he sobs hysterically during a moment of sort of transcendental meekness, or as Ann states to him herself, “It is hard to believe, David, but I do believe you. Your tears convinced me. I won’t truly be happy until my sorrow is drained.” Repeating something his undead friend Georges said to him earlier in the film during a philosophically insightful supernatural carriage ride, David concludes the film by stating while his wife Ann is lovingly resting her head in his lap, “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped,” thus underscoring one of the most important themes of the entire film.  Just as the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung theorized after decades of dealing with numerous hopeless alcoholics, the film ultimately reveals that alcoholism is more of a spiritual sickness than a social or biological disease, hence the importance of David's date with death.

 Notably, Aryan Christ Jung was an important philosophical influence on the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) due his promotion of theory that certain hardcore alcoholics would never be able to completely quit the booze unless they had a life-changing “spiritual experience,” as he believed that the addiction had more to do with a certain void in the soul than a simpler hopeless thirst for alcohol.  Indeed, as Jung wrote in a 1961 letter to Alcoholic Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, “You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”  Notably, Avon Products heir Conrad Rooks was only able to get over his terrible alcoholism and substance abuse via a sort of spiritual reawakening, which he would depict in his hermetic counterculture flick Chappaqua (1967). Undoubtedly, judging by his masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström seems to have a similar theory to Jung in regard to the metaphysical roots of alcoholism.  In that sense, supernatural horror is in many ways the perfect genre for tackling the subject of the misery of methomania.  Aside from his masterful direction, Sjöström’s performance as the extremely emotionally erratic alcoholic lead is among the greatest, if not the greatest, in cinema history, especially when compared to unintentionally hilarious displays of demented dipsomania like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Undoubtedly, Figgis' film seems like Bobcat Goldthwait's decidedly dumb Shakes the Clown (1991) in terms of depicting the nuances of dipsomania when compared to the brilliance of Sjöström's silent masterwork.  In terms of sheer pathos and sensitivity towards the drunkenly insensitive, I can only really compare Sjöström's film to Paul Schrader's fairly underrated Affliction (1997).

Notably, in the essay Phantom Forms: The Phantom Carriage by screenwriter and Nicholas Roeg collaborator Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Croupier) speculates that Sjöström’s performance was influenced by his own much despised womanizer and defrauder father Olof Adolf Sjöström who he apparently closely resembled in physical appearance. Indeed, the film might have been based on a work by Selma Lagerlöf, who Sjöström apparently constantly quarreled with during the production, but it has an undeniable highly personalized quality to it, as if the auteur used his performance to perform a sort of personal exorcism from all the metaphysical pain and suffering that his prick padre caused him.  Throughout the film, Sjöström seems possessed by an almost demonic drunken rage that is quite disturbing in its seeming authenticity, so I do not doubt the auteur was using the role as personal therapy for past traumas.

 I think it is safe to say that Swedish master auteur Ingmar Bergman, who would cast his cinematic hero Sjöström in both his early work Till glädje (1950) aka To Joy and masterpiece Smultronstället (1957) aka Wild Strawberries, probably paid the film and its auteur-cum-star its greatest compliment when he stated in the documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait (1981) directed by Gösta Werner, “My encounters with Victor Sjöström—at first, by way of his films, and later on, when I met him in person—these encounters affected me deeply. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE was an early encounter. It completely overwhelmed me. I was shaken to the core by the movie. Not necessarily because I understood it, but quite simply, it affected me . . . by way of its incredible cinematic power. For me, it was an all-encompassing emotional experience. Certain sequences and images have left an indelible impression.” Undoubtedly, anyone familiar with Bergman’s singular oeuvre can easily see how Sjöström’s film had such an imperative influence on the younger filmmaker. Indeed, the influence is so great that it is comparable to Douglas Sirk’s influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Alfred Hitchcock’s on Brian De Palma in terms of the latter’s films being somewhat unimaginable without the influence of the former. From the obsession with iconic “sculpted close-ups” to signature depictions of Death personified, Bergman can certainly be described as a hopeless Sjöströmian who, rather deservingly, eventually transcended his master in terms of fame and influence. Rather absurdly yet not altogether surprisingly considering the oftentimes hyper self-critical nature of many great artists, Sjöström apparently thought little of his own great cinematic masterpieces, or as Bergman recounted in The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (1987), “He had never thought GIVE US THIS DAY, THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE or HE WHO GETS SLAPPED were especially remarkable. He mostly saw the failings and was annoyed by his own sloppiness and lack of skill.” Incidentally, in the same book, Bergman explains how he filled Sjöström with “senile anger” during the shooting of Wild Strawberries for failing to provide him whisky that he had promised.  Aside from Bergman, The Phantom Carriage seems to have also been a crucial influence on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), most obviously in regard to the famous scene where a demented Jack Nicholson breaks down a door with an axe in a manner quite like Sjöström's character in his silent horror masterpiece.

 Notably, in his classic novel The Long Goodbye (1953)—a work that Robert Altman wonderfully cinematically adapted in 1973—Raymond Chandler, himself a terrible drunk, wrote, “A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.” Undoubtedly, The Phantom Carriage certainly expresses Chandler’s sentiment in its depiction of the unpredictably unhinged behavior of the protagonist while he is drunk. Even more relevant to the film than Chandler’s quote is an excerpt from the anti-alcoholic Alcoholics Anonymous tome The Big Book by Bill Wilson that reads, “As we became subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker. Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did—then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen—Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair.” Indeed, The Phantom Carriage not only offers a delectably hallucinatory cinematic cocktail of terror, bewilderment, frustration, and despair, but also a stoically humanistic depiction of alcoholism that does not seem like it was created by some self-important ‘self-help’ leftist phony. In that sense, the film is like a Nordic arthouse proto-The Twilight Zone on Gothic Dickensian LSD in terms of being a phantasmagoric horror movie with a moral ending.

Undoubtedly, when poet and avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton wrote his collection of cinema aphorisms Some Fruits of Experience, he was perfectly describing the aesthetic prowess and importance of a film like Sjöström's as indicated by words of cinematic wisdom like, “Cinema is a lie which makes us realize a truth” and “Movie images are dim reflections of the beauty and ferocity in mankind.”  After all, The Phantom Carriage forced me to confront dipsomaniacal phantoms that have, in various ways, haunted my own life yet it also managed to provide me with a deceptively narcotizing experience that reminded me of the singularity of cinema as an artform. To go back to Broughton, his poetical film book Making Light of It (1992) features a quote from the pseudonymous Early German Romantic poet, mystic, and philosopher Novalis that reads, “The seat of the soul is where the outer and inner worlds meet.” Of course, the titular ghostly carriage in Sjöström's film is undoubtedly a morbid poetic symbolic reflection of the “seat of the soul” that Novalis spoke of.  While he would have never admitted it himself, Sjöström was not only a great actor and auteur, but also a closet poet as indicated by The Phantom Carriage—the ultimate cinematic marriage between methomania and the macabre—and great later works like the fairly idiosyncratic silent western The Wind (1928) starring Lillian Gish.  I certainly like to think Sjöström's masterpiece is set in a world that Edgar Allan Poe might have dreamed up (and/or inhabited), as I can certainly see Death's carriage strolling the streets of Baltimore for him on the night of October 7, 1849 after he died a dubious alcohol-related death.

-Ty E

Oct 12, 2017

The Devil, Probably

As demonstrated by figures ranging from D.W. Griffith to Federico Fellini to Jean-Luc Godard to Dario Argento, even great filmmakers tend to eventually lose touch with cultural trends and their surroundings in general with old age and thus their cinematic output sometimes severely suffers as a result.  As his extremely uneven cinematic swansong We Can't Go Home Again (1973) demonstrates, even truly rebellious filmmakers like great Hollywood anarchist Nicholas Ray—a man that lived in a so-called ‘filmmaking commune’ with his students when he was already well into his 60s while working as a film professor—that attempt try to keep up with youth trends can fail miserably and just seem incredibly ridiculous. In short, it is oftentimes easy to tell if a film was directed by an old fart even if it was directed by a distinctly talented old fart. Of course, there are certainly notable exceptions like Danish maestro Carl Th. Dreyer, who concluded his long distinguished career with a timeless masterpiece like Gertrud (1964), but I don’t think any other filmmaker can really compare compete in terms of singular golden years relevance than French master auteur Robert Bresson. Indeed, Bresson concluded his career with the decidedly dark masterpiece L'argent (1983) aka Money but his penultimate feature Le diable probablement (1977) aka The Devil, Probably is indubitably an unparalleled accomplishment in terms of an elderly auteur managing to depict with great intricacy, nuance, and keen social relevance the darkest aspects plaguing contemporary youth.

Directed by Bresson when he was already in his late 70s, the film was considered such a subversive and emotionally brutal youth pic when it was originally released that is was championed by figures ranging from mischling punk pioneer Richard Hell to Teutonic cinematic iconoclast Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In fact, Hell dared to describe the flick as “the most punk movie ever made,” but of course that would be selling the film too short. Undoubtedly, Fassbinder, who threatened to quit the 27th Berlin International Film Festival unless it received an award (it ultimately won the Silver Bear - Special Jury Prize), paid the film its greatest compliment when he stated to Christian Braad Thomsen in a 1977 interview that, “Robert Bresson's LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT ... is the most shattering film I've seen this Berlin Festival. I think it's a major film [...]. [I]n the future—and this world will probably last for another few thousand years—this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough[.] The questions Bresson asks will never be unimportant.”  Indeed, Bresson's film puts forward many imperative, albeit uniquely uncomfortable questions, but luckily the wise old auteur lacks the arrogance and ignorance to try to actually provide answers for them, as The Devil, Probably is an audaciously austere meditation on pre-apocalyptic youthful angst that beauteously bleeds a certain unmistakable Occidental hopelessness as symbolically personified by a passively suicidal lad that lacks even the will power to kill himself yet somehow manages to pull a date with death in the end.

 Indeed, fuck Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), Heathers (1989), and countless other films that acted as virtual cinematic therapy to various generations of self-obsessed teenagers and young adults, old fart Bresson was responsible for making the single greatest and most brutal teen rebellion flick ever made. In fact, even Fassbinder’s own rarely-seen teen angst feature Wildwechsel (1973) aka Jail Bait seems as intellectually insipid and sleazy as the crusty kosher comedy American Pie (1999) when compared to the misanthropic majesty of Bresson’s somewhat overlooked masterpiece. Of course, unlike Fassbinder, Bresson does not believe humans will be around for anywhere near a couple thousand years from now as it is a staunchly apocalyptic cinematic work that makes it seem as if humanity as a whole is, for better or worse, on its last gasp.

While the characters in the film are dressed in an aesthetically vulgar fashion that makes it seem as if they were run over by a psychedelic dump truck driven by Jim Morrison (incidentally, the final scene in the film was shot at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where The Door singer is buried), The Devil, Probably could not be more relevant in terms of depicting the cultural, social, and moral bankruptcy of the materialistic bourgeois, as well as the various metaphysical afflictions that plague contemporary youth, namely those of the hopelessly deluded and spiritually forsaken left-leaning sort. The sad and pathetic yet audaciously and refreshingly brutally pessimistic story of a passively suicidal quasi-hippie twink dropout that has lost faith in love, religion, science, civilization, politics, and just about everything else that makes life worth living, the film probably features what is arguably the most stoic depiction of a totally senseless tragedy ever committed to celluloid.  In terms of sheer artistic fortitude in the face of trendy neo-Marxist bullshit, Bresson's film demonstrates the uncompromising stoicism of a kamikaze fighter pilot just before crashing into a U.S. warship.

 If there ever was a film that might possibly influenced failed bourgeois leftist types to refrain from throwing bottles of old piss at elderly Trump supporters and quit Soros-backed commie terrorist groups like antifa, it is indubitably The Devil, Probably where the sheer impotence, phoniness, narcissistic virtue signaling, and dead-end social dysfunction of the so-called revolutionary lifestyle is exposed for the insipidly sick joke that it is in an inordinately elegant fashion that demonstrates Bresson's mastery of his own distinct cinematic language. Indeed, the young long-haired leftists in the film come off seeming like virtual metaphysical zombies that have been foredoomed to wait for the incoming apocalypse while carrying out innately impotent acts of ‘intellectual’ resistance at the unwitting command of a Joker-esque devil that gets his kicks from seeing the dregs of youth figuratively dig their own graves. Of course, as the great Francis Parker Yockey once insightfully wrote, “A moment's reflection shows that Liberalism is entirely negative. It is not a formative force, but always and only a disintegrating force,” hence the signature left-wing tendency to simply break down and virtually never build up.  Rather intriguingly, quite unlike his comrades, the protagonist of the film has become disillusioned with leftist politics and would probably agree with Yockey’s Spenglerian sentiment, “If pessimism is despair, optimism is cowardice and stupidity. Is there any need to choose between them?” In fact, in the end, the protagonist opts for a Roman-esque suicide as a young man that can no longer be bothered with petty things like neo-Marxist mental masturbation or the distribution of pornography in Catholic churches, as he has opted to swallow the biggest ‘black-pill’ in an age where his comrades think red flags and chink dictators are cool and that the starvation-diet materialism of Marxism will somehow defeat the consumerist materialism of capitalism.  While Bresson's films certainly has strong anti-capitalist themes, it is almost just as critical of the left, especially in regard to how trendy neo-bolshie political movements have destroyed entire generations of youth and turned them into soulless shells of human begins that only known how to bitch and break things.

 While The Devil, Probably effortlessly critiques various aspects of far-leftist political movements, the sexual liberation movement, psychoanalysis and related degenerate bullshit, in a swift and unemotional manner that is comparable to a meth-addled German master gardener attending to weeds,  it is very clear while watching the film that Bresson is deeply concerned with the threat of pollution and its central role in the fall of man.  In fact, Bresson broke with his own cinematic conventions and dared to include stock footage of pollution in the film to the underscore precarious state of humanity.  Despite his fairly negative portrayal of the leftist youth in his film, Bresson had a certain ‘pessimistic hope’ that the film would somehow inspire a rebellion against such a grim garbage-filled fate, or as he explained in a June 13, 1977 interview with the French weekly news magazine L'Express, “I hope with all my heart that the young will deploy all the power of their youth against the massive forces of demolition that are ravaging the world (for which they will have to pay the price). But it might be too late.” Judging simply by his film, which is drenched in a certain preternaturally stoic apocalyptic doom and gloom, I can only suspect that Bresson truly believes in his heart of hearts that humanity is practically kaput and barely even deserves to exist due to what it has done to earth and its innocent non-human inhabitants. Indeed, judging simply by the world depicted in The Devil, Probably, the word ‘humanity’ can only be taken as a grave insult. As for the devil, he is merely a convenient perennial scapegoat for humanity.  Needless to say, the film reveals that Bresson has little hope for the survival of the Occident and the world in general, but as Richard Roud once wisely wrote in Cinema - A Critical Dictionary - The Major Film-Makers (1980) in regard to the great aesthetic irony of the flick, “When a civilization can produce a work of art as perfectly achieved as this, it is hard to believe that there is no hope for it.” I, for one, can certainly not think of another film where the image of a young leftist bitch sobbing becomes such an emotionally poignant experience or where the murder of a suicidal friend by an insanely indifferent dead-eyed junky is depicted with such exceedingly elegant understated brutality.  While he would probably disagree with me, Bresson was surely a rare auteur that had a singular talent for great pulchritude in banal ugliness.

 Notably, French New Wave maestro François Truffaut once described The Devil, Probably as Bresson’s most “voluptuous film,” which is somewhat curious since the film does not feature much ‘sensual’ imagery aside from an extremely brief titty shot and some covert crotch shots of anorexic dope-addled frog boys in tighty whities. In terms of their boyish physiques and pathetically passive demeanors, these Gallic girly men more closely resemble cum-crusted catamites than the proper revolutionaries and are surely symbolic of the emasculation of post-WWII Europa, especially post-colonial France. Naturally, as sexually dubious individuals that lack most conventional masculine traits, the film’s characters, especially the protagonist, have serious problems when it comes to love and romance. Completely conflicted when it comes to the issue of whether or not he loves both or neither of his two favorite lady friends, the protagonist of the film clearly has not read H.L. Mencken’s wise words, “Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.” To make matters even more confusing, the hapless hero—a chap that seems totally incapable of truly connecting to anyone, especially his estranged parents—is, for whatever reason, best friends with a similarly emotionally comatose guy that he dislikes who also happens to be banging his beloved girlfriend.  In short, the characters cannot even seem to salvage their personal relationships, let alone the dying planet that they believe they are fighting for.  In short, these characters focus on the big (and seemingly unsolvable) problems that world is facing as if it gives them a good enough reason in their own deluded minds to ignore their own glaring (and, in many ways, quite fixable) personal problems, which is surely one of the defining traits of the archetypal left-winger.

 At the very beginning of the film, we learn that the film’s meta-pessimistic protagonist Charles (played by twink-ish non-actor Antoine Monnier, who is the great-grandson of post-impressionist painter Henri Matisse) is already dead as indicated by two different contradicting newspaper articles that read: “YOUNG MAN COMMITS SUICIDE IN PERE-LACHAISE” and “PERE-LACHAISE ‘SUICIDE’ WAS MURDER.” By the end of the film, the viewer learns that technically both newspaper headlines are correct, though neither really reveals the absurdly tragic circumstances surrounding the young man's death. After revealing the questionable death of the protagonist, the film cuts to an inter-title reading “SIX MONTHS EARLIER…” and then introduces hermetic world of the exceedingly epicene protagonist Charles and his similarly depressed and socially alienated comrades. Notably, in one of the very first scenes in the film, Charles mocks a self-stylized far-left revolutionary who gives a pathetic speech where he idiotically declares, “I proclaim destruction. Everyone can destroy. It’s easy. We can sway hundreds of thousands of people with slogans.” No longer impressed by insipid left-wing slogans and mindless acts of destruction, Charles believes “There is no point” and that people that engaged in such mindlessly deleterious behavior are simply “idiots.” Charles' best ‘frenemy’ Michel (Henri de Maublanc), who still believes in left-wing causes, does not approve of the critique and snidely states to Charles, “You want to know everything and end up doing nothing.”  To Michel's credit, Charles is indeed a major underachiever and pessimistic that seems to regulate most of his time to complaining and fantasizing about suicide.  In that sense, Charles is like a much cooler and more sophisticated frog equivalent to the eponymous protagonist of Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971), though he thankfully never succumbs to gerontophilia or discovers happiness via an insufferably spunky elderly proto-hippie holocaust survivor.

Aside from their political differences, Michel is in love with Charles’ longtime girlfriend Alberte (Tina Irissari) who, unbeknownst to the protagonist, seems to reciprocate his feelings. To make matters even more romantically complex, Charles is also fucking a happy-go-lucky chick named Edwige (Laetitia Carcano), who is being used for nude photos and stupid political acts by the same lame unnamed political revolutionary from the beginning of the film that the protagonist rightly loathes.  Indeed, among other things, Edwige engages in inserting pornographic imagery of herself inside holy writings at a local Catholic church where the leftists regularly hangout and harass bishops. For example, a young female revolutionary bitches at the bishop, “You’re so civilized, so cultured, you and your bishops. Is that why your music is insipid and your hymns inane? All those words and gestures you invented are so insignificant they’re humiliating. God doesn’t reveal himself through mediocrity.” As if foreseeing the sort of post-spiritual leftist Christian churches that exist nowadays in Europe and pollute the minds of its followers by endorsing the colonization of the continent by young hostile Muslim hordes, another revolutionary remarks, “…like it or not, the Christianity of the future will be without religion.” The only thing that Charles seems to enjoy is sex, which is a topic he discusses with an inordinate degree of excitement. Not unlike many people his age, Charles also has a hard time distinguishing between love and lust, though by the end of his short life it becomes clear he only ever really truly experienced the latter. 

 Notably, the great poesy pessimistic philosopher Emil Cioran once described his adopted hometown of Paris as an “apocalyptic garage,” which is a somewhat generous way to describe the aesthetically oppressive, socially alienating, and spiritually necrotizing frog capital that is depicted in Bresson's film. Undoubtedly, Charles might have had second thoughts about suicide were he to have read wonderful insights from Cioran like, “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late” and “What saved me is the idea of suicide. Without the idea of suicide I would have surely killed myself. What allowed me to keep on living was knowing I had this option, always in sight... But really, without it I could have never endured life.” Of course, as the film’s senselessly tragic conclusion reveals, Charles lacks the gall and will power to personally pull the tragic and kill himself and thus resigns his fate to one of the most loathsome of barely human creatures. Indeed, were it not for the grotesque morally bankruptcy of his friend Valentin (Nicolas Deguy)—an extra jaded junky that spends most of his time bedridden when he is not out stealing from churches—Charles would probably not have ended his life so prematurely, as he is far too passive and chronically indecisive to commit such a permanent task.

Undoubtedly, one of the most tragic aspects of Charles’ suicide-by-junky is that his entire inner circle is well aware of his psychological decline and morbid obsession with self-slaughter. In fact, when Charles even goes so far as asking his anti-pal Michel, “Do you think I could kill myself?,” he receives the somewhat arrogant response, “Not for a moment. Because if we were really done for, as you say we are, if there really was no hope, I’d still want to live in spite of everything.”  Additionally, Charles confesses to a female friend that he made a failed attempt at drowning himself in her bathtub, but she does not seem to take him serious. It is ultimately Charles’ two female lovers that are the most proactive in trying to stop him from committing suicide, but their actions are fairly impotent. For example, when his main girlfriend Alberte receives the horrified shock that Charles is carrying around a small bottle of cyanide in a bag, she simply throws it away but ultimately lacks the strength to confront her beloved about the curious find. In fact, Alberte even finds a rather incriminating scribbling from one of Charles' journals where he has copied a citation from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) that reads, “When will I kill myself, if not now?,” but she lacks the strength to mention it to anyone aside from her secret lover Michel of all people. Somewhat ironically, it is his semi-secret lover Edwige’s recommendation that Charles see a quack psychoanalyst that leads him on a concrete path to self-annihilation.

 To Charles' credit, he makes various small attempts to get over his all-consuming death wish.  For example, despite his side relationship with Edwige, Charles decides to ask his longtime girlfriend Alberte if she will marry him and she actually accepts his proposal even though she seems to love Michel more.  Notably, almost immediately after agreeing to marry him, Alberte begins crying in bed after sharing carnal knowledge with Charles.  As to whether Albert breaks down because she knows he relationship with Charles is doomed or because she loves Michel more is anyone's guess, but there is no doubt she is having a hard time living a semi-polyamorous lifestyle.  Indeed, like with their impotent left-wing activism, the characters in the film seem to believe that sexual freedom will somehow lead to happiness and some sort of utopia when, in reality, these things have only made them more miserable and disillusioned with life.  Needless to say, Charles and Alberte's engagement goes nowhere.

 In what is undoubtedly one of the most deceptively ingenious and thematically revealing scenes of the entire film, Charles more or less lays out his entire nihilistic Weltanschauung for a rather repugnant money-grubbing psychoanalyst named Dr. Mime (Régis Hanrion), who obviously has nil sincere interest in curing the troubled young man. Clearly a proponent of quasi-Freudian psychobabble of the neurosis-inducing sort, Dr. Mime—a man whose arrogance is only rivaled by his horribly hidden greed—believes childhood spankings and bad dreams are to blame for Charles’ decided disillusionment with life, but as the protagonist tell him himself in a line of dialogue that illustrates the central theme of the film, “But Doctor, I’m not ill. My illness is seeing too clearly.” Indeed, as Charles has concluded, no truly sane individual can feel content and happy in a sick and insipid world where baby seals are clubbed to death for profit, communism and its equally odious offshoots have replaced religion, lust is synonymous with love, hippies are considered cool, gender has been erased, being bedridden with heroin withdrawal is a full-time job, and the world faces the very real threat of total nuclear war followed by an atomic winter, but as Cioran once wrote, “Only a monster can allow himself the luxury of seeing things as they are,” hence why the protagonist is considered a weirdo even by his best friends and girlfriend(s).

When asked by the insufferably supercilious Dr. Mime, “Isn’t being right compensation for being alive?,” Charles replies, “In losing my life, here’s what I’d lose,” grabs a crumbled up advertisement from one of his pants pocket, and then absurdly recites with an absurd lack of enthusiasm that really underscores his great disgust for life and modernity, “Family planning, package holidays—cultural, sporting, linguistic. The cultivated man’s library. All sports. How to adopt a child. Parent-teacher associations. Education. Teaching 0 to 4 years, 7 to 14 years, 14 to 17 years. Preparation for marriage. Military duties. Europe. Decorations—honorary insignia. The single woman. Paid sick leave, unpaid sick leave. The successful man. Tax benefits for the elderly. Local taxes. Hire purchase. Radio and television rentals. Credit cards. Home repairs. Index-linking. VAT and consumers.” Needless to say, Charles does not learn much from the psychoanalyst, at least until he complains in regard to suicide, “Doctor. I don’t think I will ever be able to . . . Do the deed. To think I would suddenly stop thinking, seeing, hearing” and Dr. Mime unwittingly gives him the ‘cure’ he needs by retorting, “That’s why the ancient Romans entrusted a servant or friend with the task.”  Indeed, while Charles might lack the nerve to blow his own brains out, he is at least confidant that he has a friend that is unscrupulous enough to do it for him for a meager fee.  Somewhat ironically and rather humorously, Edwige convinces Charles' friends that the therapy is a great success after talking on the phone with Dr. Mime while session is still going on. Due to his unbelievable negligence and clear disinterest in his patient's mental health, Dr. Mime might be best described as a sort of ‘passive villain’ and a figure that not even anti-Freudian chosenite Thomas Szasz could have dreamed up.

Since there are surely no authentic ancient Romans living in contemporary Paris, Charles must settle for his junky comrade Valentin when it comes to his friend-assisted suicide. While Valentin is a lazy bum that lies in bed all day when he is not robbing church or shooting junk into his scrawny arm, he does become somewhat intrigued when Charles asks him to do a “favor” that is “Worthy of the ancient Romans” and then offers him all of his remaining cash to get the deadly deed done. Before heading to Père Lachaise Cemetery to be voluntarily executed by his most innately iniquitous of comrades, Charles celebrates with a small glass of wine to calm his nerves while Valentin, who clearly has no concern for the life of his friend, maintains a disturbingly dead expression on his greasy frog face. While he initially seems excited about dying, Charles somewhat somberly states while strolling through the graveyard, “I thought at a time like this I’d have sublime thoughts.”  Indeed, even right before receiving his long awaited dream of dying, Charles is decidedly disappointed with life. When Charles then attempts to start a conversation by stating, “Shall I tell you?,” Valentin coldly cuts him off by shooting from behind, thereupon extinguishing the protagonist's life with a single bullet to the head.

Undoubtedly, had Charles been hanging out with more high quality friends he would probably still be alive, but of course the devastatingly dejected protagonist was already too irreparably alienated from any person of real value in his life, hence his desperate need to rely of the services of a junky fuck-up. While it might have been more superficially fitting had Charles died next to the gravesite of Rimbaud fan-boy Jim Morrison, Charles body collapses near the grave of French Communist Party (PCF) leader Maurice Thorez in a symbolic scenario that can be interpreted in many ways, though I think that it is safe to say that it reflects the nihilistic navel-gazing, slave-morality-induced moping, and sort of spiritual death that comes with becoming a far-leftist shill.  Since left-wing ideologies, especially those of the post-WWII French sort, are oftentimes inspired by sheer resentment, failure, self-loathing, and ethno-masochism, it is ultimately no big surprise that someone like Charles ended up the way he did as he really only followed the next logical step of the trendy political persuasion of his zeitgeist.  After all, not even a stoic pessimistic like Bresson could predict that future French leftists would endorse the collectively suicidal path of inviting hordes of Muslims to France that would eventually turn Paris into a virtual third world hellhole where terrorist attacks are a relatively common occurrence, no-go-zones (or what pussy frog politicians call ‘sensitive urban zones’) are the norm, and a mostly unreported rape epidemic brings new meaning to the classic phrase ‘City of Love.’

 Borrowing its title from a line in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), The Devil, Probably arguably has an ironic title as the devil is nothing more than an all-too-convenient scapegoat for humanity; or, more accurately, Beelzebub is simply a reflection of man and only those individuals that are scared of the truth would blame the infernal Führer for the sins of man. Indeed, Cioran probably said it best when he wrote in his classic text Précis de decomposition (1949) aka A Short History of Decay, “Because he overflows with life, the Devil has no altar: man recognizes himself too readily in him to worship him; he detests him for good reason; he repudiates himself, and maintains the indigent attributes of God. But the Devil never complains and never aspires to found a religion: are we not here to safeguard him from inanition and oblivion?” While he might not be anything resembling a devil of any sort, the protagonist Charles is a sort of modern post-hippie Christ of his own suffering who, despite his philosophical purity and relative keen lucidity in regard to the metaphysical affliction of his age, sacrifices himself to the very same post-religious nihilism that made him suicidal in the first place. In that sense, the devil wins in the end.  After all, Charles not only commits the unpardonable sin of suicide, but also accepts the ultimate form of defeat in a forsaken world where those virtuous individuals that known better should feel all the more obligated to fight against the devils of the world, even if said fighting is ultimately in vain.  Indeed, Teutonic ultra-pessimist Oswald Spengler certainly said it best when he wrote in his short work Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (1932), “We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.”  Needless to say, I was not surprised to learn after watching The Devil, Probably that Bresson included the following aphorism in his text Notes on the Cinematographer (1975), “These horrible days—when shooting film disgusts me, when I am exhausted, powerless in the face of so many obstacles—are part of my method of work.”   Undoubtedly as a pessimistic artist that struggled to create challenging cinematic works in an era that was surely undeserving of such monumental experiments in cinematic form, Bresson certainly demonstrated a certain Spenglerian greatness.

 As for as European degeneracy is concerned, post-’68 France arguably reflects the height of it, thus it is quite fortunate that Bresson—undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers that has ever lived—had the gall to assault it with his scathing sardonic wit. Although not coined at the time the film was released, the youth of The Devil, Probably surely suffer from what French New Right figure Louis Pauwels described as “Mental AIDS.” Indeed, as fellow french New Right figure Guillaume Faye once wrote on the subject, “AIDS comes from a retrovirus that destroys an organism’s immune system. ‘Mental AIDS’ is an infection of a psychological nature that affects virtually all the ‘elites’—the political class, the media class, show business, the ‘cultural’ community, ‘artists,’ filmmakers—inclining them to oppose the interests of their own people and to advocate degenerate values as if they were actually ones of regeneration.”  Naturally, these ideas are nothing new as revealed by the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats wise words in regard to the degenerative power of leftist politics, “What's equality? – Muck in the yard: Historic nations grow, From above to below.” While protagonist Charles of Bresson's film has gone full-blown nihilist yet somehow also finally realizes that his values lack values, the same can certainly not be said of his idiotic comrades.  Indeed, these characters somehow think they are working to fix the world by engaging in degenerate sex, destruction for destruction’s sake, communism, feminism, and other infantile societal diseases despite the fact that these things are only speeding up the demise of their nation as present-day France (and especially Paris) clearly demonstrates.  Like their present-day equivalents, most Parisian youth in Bresson's film lack what the ancient Greeks called ‘thymos’ and instead are consumed with a sort of wholly corrosive passive-aggressive resentment.  As for protagonist Charles, who is clearly more perceptive than his friends, he suffers from a sort of inverted thymos that has caused him to become consumed with so much melancholy and Weltschmerz that he simply cannot bear the pain of living anymore.  Needless to say, Bresson was one of the few French filmmakers working during the 1970s that did not suffer from ‘Mental AIDS,’ hence one of the many reasons why his late period films are so important and singular in the context of all of European cinema history.

Notably, not unlike the protagonist of Bresson's film, Spengler believed that the Abendland—the West—was in its final stage of civilization and that urban areas represented this social and cultural decay the most.  Indeed, in describing ‘The Soul of the City,’ Spengler explained with great pessimistic lucidity, “Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies. … Primitive folk can loosen themselves from the soil and wander, but the intellectual nomad never. … Home is for him any one of these giant cities, but even the nearest village is alien territory. … Even disgust at this pretentiousness, weariness of the thousand-hued glitter, the taedium vitae that in the end overcomes many, does not set them free. They take the City with them into the mountains or on the sea. They have lost the country within themselves and will never regain it outside.”  While Spengler was a proud German conservative, there is no doubt that protagonist Charles—a young man that literally cannot live with the fact that his estranged father makes tons of money destroying forests—would concur with this sentiment.

Although just speculation, I think that simply judging by the ideas disseminated in The Devil, Probably that Bresson would have found a kindred spirit in Finnish deep ecologist Pentti Linkola who, in critiquing the self-described ‘religion of death’ of democracy, noted in his revolutionary text Can Life Prevail?: A Revolutionary Approach to the Environmental Crisis (2004), “Never before in history have the distinguishing values of a culture been things as concretely destructive for life and the quality of life as democracy, individual freedom and human rights — not to mention money. Freedom here means the freedom to consume, to exploit, to read upon others. All rights, even the most seemingly beautiful — women's rights, children's rights, rights for the disabled — only express one thing: ME, ME, ME. Pure selfishness has been given a new name: ‘self-realisation’, now considered the noblest of all morals. Words like responsibility, duty, humility, self-sacrifice, nurturing and care are always spat upon, if they still happen to be mentioned. For all their mistakes, even such recently buried ideologies as fascism and socialism, both of which emphasized communal values and contained restrictive norms, were on a higher ethical level.”  While sort of self-stylized leftist quasi-ecologists, the characters of Bresson's film are unequivocally plagued with the sort of ME-ME-ME democratic disease that Linkola speaks of, hence the complete and utter futility of their cause.  Indeed, free love and gay rights seem rather petty and ultimately quite irrelevant in the grand scheme of things when the entire world is virtually in flames.

 Notably, Bresson once confessed in regard to The Devil, Probably that, “This film is my most horrifying, but not the most despairing.  I wouldn't call any of my films despairing.” On the other hand, as Joseph Cunneen noted in his text Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (2003) in regard to the film, “One needs to remember, in any case, that though Bresson made the movie as a warning against dangerous directions in contemporary society, he is not arguing a thesis or presenting an alternate plan or action. He remains, above all, an artist continuing his research on what cinematography can express in a way that no other art can.” Personally, I found the film quite delightfully despairing and I would not surprise if it had the power to drive certain people to suicide just as Werner Herzog’s similarly darkly humorous and grotesquely tragic Stroszek (1977) proved to be the right film for Joy Division front man Ian Curtis to watch before hanging himself. On the subject on self-extermination and its relation to the film, Cioran provides the following insights, “When we are young we look for heroes. I have had mine: Kleist, Karoline von Günderrode, Nerval, Otto Weininger. . . . Intoxicated by their suicides, I was certain that they alone had gone to the end, that they drew, in death, the right conclusion from their thwarted or fulfilled loves, from their broken minds or philosophic pain […] But as the years went by, I lost the pride of youth: each day, like a lesson in humility, I reminded myself that I was still alive, that I was betraying my dreams among men rotten with . . . life. Exasperated by the expectation of no longer existing, I considered it a duty to cleave my flesh when dawn broke after a night of love, and that it was a nameless degradation to sully by memory an excess of sighs […] Even now, I have more esteem for a concierge who hangs himself than for a living poet. Man is provisionally exempt from suicide: that is his one glory, his one excuse. But he is not aware of it, and calls cowardice the courage of those who dared to raise themselves by death above themselves. We are bound together by a tacit pact to go on to the last breath: this pact which cements our solidarity dooms us nonetheless—our entire race is stricken by its infamy. Without suicide, no salvation. Strange! that death, though eternal, has not become part of our ‘behavior’: sole reality, it cannot become a vogue. Thus, as living men, we are all retarded . . .” Judging by Cioran’s words and Bresson’s film, it seems that certain types of suicides have always been reserved for a sort of ‘degenerate spiritual elite.’ Undoubtedly Bresson’s protégé Louis Malle certainly had this romantic view in mind when he put his blood, sweat, and tears into Le feu follet (1963) aka The Fire Within, which is notable adapted from a novel by literary fascist turned suicide victim Pierre Drieu La Rochelle.

When asked by an interviewer at L'Express what he was like as a young man in comparison to the nihilistic youth of his film, Bresson—an extremely private man with a somewhat mysterious past—responded with, “As if I could tell you!  Violent?  Absolutist?  Excessive?  Lots of alcohol and tobacco.  Now I don't drink or smoke.”  While they are quite different in other ways, I think it is safe to say that The Devil, Probably protagonist Charles is a sort of youthful stand-in for Bresson, as if the auteur was trying to imagine how miserable it would be for him to be a young man during the 1970s.  In fact, in an interview with American auteur Paul Schrader featured in his book Transcendental Style in Film (1972), Bresson's would make an argument for suicide that is quite similar to Charles', stating that, “there is something which makes suicide possible—not just possible but even necessary: it is the vision of void, the feeling of void which is impossible to bear.  You want anything to stop your life. . . .this way of wanting to die is many things: it is a disgust with life, with people around you, with living only for money.  To see everything which is good to live for disappear, when you see that you cannot fall in love with people, not only with a woman, but all the people around you, you find yourself alone with people.  I can imagine living in disgust with so many things which are against you around you, and then you feel like suicide.”  Indeed, while it is easy to see Charles as a spoiled brat with both mommy and daddy issues, his suicide almost seems like an unavoidable bodily reaction, like having a wet dream while still a virgin or belching after eating a greasy chili dog.  Either way, Charles was in many ways long dead before the bullet entered his skull.

While The Devil, Probably is certainly a singular cinematic that could never truly even be superficially mimicked, it has influenced at least one underrated masterpiece that I can think of.  Indeed, aside from featuring the same exact virtually intolerable stock footage of baby seals being beaten to death, De Witte waan (1984) aka White Madness directed by criminally neglected Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst also revolves around a hopelessly foredoomed suicidal young man that lives off the grid and hangs out with junkies.  Both of these films, like both Bresson and Ditvoorst's cinematic works in general, are destined to only be appreciated by a tragically blessed few, but as Cioran wrote in A Short History of Decay, “How could we bear the weight and sheer depth of works and masterpieces, if to their texture certain impertinent and delicious minds had not added the fringes of subtle scorn and ready ironies?  And how could we endure the codes, the customs, the paragraphs of the heart which inertia and propriety have superimposed upon futile and intelligent vies, if it were not for those playful beings whose refinement puts them at once at the apex and in the margin of society?”  Of course, to admit to being an admirer of The Devil, Probably is to also virtually admit that one fantasies about suicide and the death of civilization, or at least one would expect nothing less from the film's most loyal of proponents.  On the other hand, the film can simply be admired for its strangely cozily hermetic depiction of the misspent lives and beauty of youth, thus it can be argued that it follows in the tradition.  After all, when Rimbaud wrote in regard to his poetry, “I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still” he could have been describing what Bresson accomplished with the oftentimes misused artistic medium of film.

-Ty E