Feb 25, 2012

The Great Magician

Dutch Renaissance man Frans Zwartjes has had a less than ideal life; his father died when he was 9 years old, his mother was an ex-nun turned mental health worker, and he (voluntarily) lived in a mental institution for a weighty and artistically influential period of time. Luckily for Zwartjes, he did not mind seeing mental invalids relieve themselves in public before his very weary, sparkling starstruck eyes, but, instead, found an atypical sort of solace in it. In fact, such seemingly flustering scenarios would inspire his exceedingly grotesque short films that, even to this day, have no contemporaries in regard to their genuinely odiousness and narcotizing proto-death-rock aesthetic. Unlike the modern trend of firmly embracing the cult of victimhood, Zwartjes became an eclectic, highly productive, and profoundly expressionistic artist with a keen talent for playing and building string instruments (especially the violin), painting human portraits whose warped human physiques make those created by Egon Schiele seem like that of the Adonis-like figures concocted by Arno Breker by comparison, and directing some of the most aberrant yet strangely pulchritudinous short films ever made. In the documentary De grote Tovenaar (2006) aka The Great Magician directed by Ruud Monster, Frans Zwartjes, the creator of some of the most audacious surrealistic cinematic works ever created, is ironically revealed to be a modest man who tells the story of his life and audacious art at a vocal pitch that is not much louder than a humble and saintly whisper. Had someone not known anything about Zwartjes nor his art, one could easily mistake the subversive artiste for a Calvinist pastor and not a man committed to total depravity. Of course, had Zwartjes’ Dutch Calvinist ancestors seen his art, he would have surely been burnt at the stake. Modernly, Zwartjes is considered an anti-Christ among estrogen-deprived feminists, indubitably a notable honor of sorts, as they find his cinematic depictions of those members of the fairer sex involved in erotic ‘water sports’ to be most reprehensible.

I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that Frans Zwartjes is organically following in a grand and incomparable legacy of morbid and grueling Dutch art. Following in the tradition of demonological works painted by early Dutch Renaissance painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder, the short films of Frans Zwartjes are stark religious works for the mostly materialistic post-WWII era. As he explains in The Great Magician, Zwartjes has devoured many highly inspirational esoteric religious texts, including the Sanskrit Rig Veda and Vedanta,  related works of Indian mystical literature, and texts written by German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. Combined with his very personal experience with seemingly possessed mental patients, Zwartjes films reflect the penetrating spirit of a deeply religious (if pessimistic) man whose post-Christian and post-traditional sentiments bleed deeply (both literally and figuratively) through his uncompromising art. Oddly enough, Zwartjes also credits traditional opera for giving him the emotional development and confidence he needed as an artist. As a man who is known for creating films that are exaggeratedly visceral and portrays the body in a state of endless, cadaver-like decay, it is somewhat queer that Frans Zwartjes has also cites something so common and ordinary as the nude and natural human body as one of his greatest influences. As he explains quite vividly and unabashedly in The Great Magician, Mr. Zwartjes would often frequent nude beaches and gaze at the stripped bodies of both men and women of all ages for artistic encouragement, henceforth, developing an especially keen partialness for mother nature's most rosy flesh flower; the female vagina. In fact, it is quite apparent in the documentary that Zwartjes is most jubilant when he discusses in fanatical detail his distinct love for the mystique behind the naturally fragrant female meat-curtain. Of course, like his cinematic portrayal of every other body part, Zwartjes’ various onscreen scenes of the penis flytrap are comparable to a cold, wet axe-wound on a mobile cadaver lurking menacingly in a dark, uncharted subterranean netherworld. Needless to say, the ‘Great Magician’ of The Great Magician is a renegade regal neo-Gothic artist who sees the world through a unique personal lens that have accredited him with ability to be an unintentional and unofficial prophetic apocalyptic priest of sorts.  Like all religious works, the films of Frans Zwartjes strike fear and bewilderment into the uninitiated, but bring consolation to the enlightened proselyte.

If any filmmaker can capture what modern man looks like on the inside, it is indubitably Frans Zwartjes. As expressed so sharply in his films, the soulless man of contemporary times is a grotesque, Zombie-like being who obsesses over every and any perversion, so long as it does not have any practical utilitarian purpose and actually result in the reproduction of progeny. In the eyes of Zwartjes, the modern man is also a preposterous pig who incessantly consumes without even the slightest inkling of self-control. In Zwartjes’ short Visual Training (1969), a debauched and decaying man and a couple ghoulish gals find themselves preparing a woman’s voluptuous (if disgusting) buttocks with ungodly seasonings and ingredients, as if she is the main course in a cannibalistic buffet. These seemingly pernicious and ill-disposed individuals in the film later stare into the camera in a most menacing way, thus throwing the voyeuristic viewer out of their comfort zone in a strangely alluring way. If all of the characters in Frans Zwartjes’ films have anything have in common, it is their irrevocable loss of soul and ever ambient presence of tragedy, as if these individuals have accepted their everlasting interment in Hades and have met a similar fate to Dorian Gray.  During the conclusion of The Great Magician, Frans Zwartjes mentions how orgone-obsessed psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich once described artists as suffering from an, “Emotional plague.” Zwartjes goes on to humbly acknowledge that he noticed this same internal affliction in the mental patients he worked with during his early adult years, thus expressing his quaint solidarity with the mentally and metaphysically challenged.

 Despite the aura of aesthetic perfection that permeates quite consistently throughout all of his work, Zwartjes nonchalantly confesses in The Great Magician that many of his films were made with comfortable ease and through accidental artistic success.  For example, Zwartjes claims that his first color film Living (1971) was shot with a mere two rolls of film and that not a second of the footage went unused.  To edit Living, Zwartjes simply developed and attached both rolls of film and fidgeted with the speed of various scenes.  Like all of his films, Living features Zwartjes' signature discordant editing style that is bound to bring emotional disharmony and transcendental discombobulation to the soul of even the most stoic and seasoned of cinephiles.  As a film professor, Frans Zwartjes expects nothing short of authenticity and artistic ingenuity from his novice film students.  Unlike most American film schools, Zwartjes feels that learning the technical 'trade school' aspects of filmmaking is not enough and that one must have something truly exceptional to communicate.  As he explains in The Great Magician, Zwartjes' idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking is fundamentally intuitive, script-less, and uniquely uncontrived; a personal quasi-dilletante style of unteachable cinematic creation that he recommends aspiring filmmakers to stay clear of as it naturally repels prospective financiers.  In short, Frans Zwartjes is a perfectly pigheaded auteur whose abominable will-to-create has empowered him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his time and one of the most splendidly morose and malcontent movie mavericks to have ever lived.  Indeed, Frans Zwartjes, like the original cinemagician Georges Méliès (who was himself of 1/2 Dutch ancestry), is a great black magician of celluloid whose mastery of craft will never be upstaged nor plenteously plagiarized.  The Great Magician is a good as documentaries get in dissecting an individual auteur film director and his works, but one most acknowledge that Frans Zwartjes' honest, unpretentious attitude and lack of ambiguity (as is usually typical of artists of all stripes) are largely responsible for the clarity and comprehensiveness of this fine filmmaker portrait.  On top of featuring candid interviews with Zwartjes, The Great Magician also features lengthy excerpts from all of the auteur filmmaker's films, which give further lucidity to his personal story.  For staunch patrons of cultivated cinema and/or the films of Frans Zwartjes, The Great Magician is a must-see affair, as it is a documentary work that somewhat objectively attempts to deconstruct a filmmaker whose personal and artistic integrity and spirituality still manage to triumph over the confinement of mere academic analysis, thus, the cinemagician still remains elusive despite his story being more than sufficiently told.

-Ty E


Anonymous said...

I just thought of another perfect film for Soiled Sinema to reveiw: Sydney Pollack's odd, edgy 1969 cult item "CASTLE KEEP"...by William Eastlake...once upon a time 8 walking wounded of the U.S. army...

Anonymous said...

It was at ubu.com that I'd first come across Zwartjes' work. 'Living' left a certain impression. This documentary shows Zwartjes as a rather stoic figure - seemlingly at odds with the decadent and fleshy imagery displayed in his movies. What's the appeal of this work? Can it be viewed in a detached manner? Alas, this documentary doesn't fully succeed in showing his motivations.
Greetings from the Netherlands.