Jul 13, 2015

Black Box (1979)

For those that have seen the film, it might seem completely unbelievable but Andy Warhol’s autistically minimalistic feature Vinyl (1965)—an experimental ‘freeform’ 70-minute black-and-white adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange (1962) featuring Edie Sedgwick in an early speechless role that predates Kubrick’s adaptation and was basically shot from one single camera angle—had a major influence on various New York City filmmakers, not least of all those involved with the mostly overrated No Wave Cinema and Cinema of Transgression movements. Indeed, French-born auteur Eric Mitchell’s debut feature Kidnapped (1978) is more or less a Super-8 remake of Warhol’s film about political terrorism that features a group of scrawny punk deadbeats torturing a businessman and was seemingly also partly inspired by the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Mitchell’s compatriots, Scott B (aka Billingsley) and Beth B, would also take strong influence from Vinyl and cinematically fetishize sadomasochism and torture, among other things that seem fairly banal when compared to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic swansong Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Midwestern art school dropouts who met and married one another in NYC in 1977, Scott and Beth B more or less seem to have dedicated their early filmmaking career to incessantly reworking Warhol’s Vinyl and Mitchell’s Kidnapped, albeit in a somewhat more aesthetically inventive and carefully stylized way, at least up until their first 16mm feature Vortex (1982) before subsequently parting ways both romantically and professionally (while Scott would go on to become a TV hack of sorts, Beth went on to directe quasi-mainstream films like Salvation! (1987) starring Viggo Mortensen and Two Small Bodies (1993) starring Fred Ward and Suzy Amis before her career fizzled out). If their third collaboration Black Box (1979) is in any way indicative of the sort of romantic relationship that Scott and Beth had, I am surely not surprised that they ultimately parted ways after being together for about half a decade. Indeed, the film mainly features bloated hipster she-bitch and proud gutter whore Lydia Lunch (Death Valley 69, Submit to Me Now) gleefully verbally rebuking and physically torturing an unclad blond deadbeat with a Nordic physique, which naturally led me to the assumption that the directors shared a sort of sadomasochistic relationship of the gynocentric sort, but I digress. Undoubtedly, Black Box is a ‘great’ work for Scott and Beth novices as it is quite typical of their work due to its radically repetitive combination of preposterously executed political terrorism, fetishistic yet ultimately fairly softcore S&M/BDSM imagery, halfhearted anti-authoritarian/anti-technocratic message, and near celebration of post-industrial decay and nihilistic libertinism.  If there is anything that I have learned from Black Box or any of the filmmakers' other ‘para-punk’ films, it is that Scott and Beth seem to delight in dehumanization and sexual dysfunction, among various other beaten-to-death motifs that countless other film directors have tackled in a more sophisticated and aesthetically (dis)pleasing way.

 Notably, in his article on the directors featured in the book Film: The Front Line 1983 (1983), Jonathan Rosenbaum mocks the unoriginal, pseudo-rebellious posturing of Scott and Beth and their contemporaries, stating, “In New York, English film theory and SCREEN contributor Stephen Heath is ‘out’ because it is felt that in London he is ‘in’; whether Heath is useful in relation to looking at or thinking about film is clearly felt to be a secondary issue. This helps to explain some of the crudeness and nihilism of New York in relation to non-turf considerations, in which the preoccupations and habits usually thought to dominate lower forms of animal life are made fashionably compatible with liberal-humanist (and even would-be socialist) and intellectual standards of behavior. The basic message: New York is in love with its own rudeness, and new ideas aren’t wanted if the beat belongs to someone else.” Naturally, when I read in Rosenbaum’s same article that Scott and Beth were both art school dropouts, I could not help but laugh to myself, as Black Box seems like the conspicuously crude expression of vain cynics and pedantic posers who seem more interested in superficial attention-seeking and delighting in debasing the viewer for a cheap narcissistic thrill rather than producing truly revolutionary cinematic works that deserve the label ‘avant-garde.’  Indeed, after watching a truly idiosyncratic masterpiece like Teutonic dandy Werner Schroeter's early high-camp epic Eika Katappa (1969) or Frans Zwartjes' Pentimento (1979), it is hard for me to label Black Box an avant-garde film. Still, the short is by no means unpalatable, as it works as a sort of unintentionally mirthful romp that manages to unwittingly mock the filmmakers themselves to the point of self-parody. Indeed, the B's film is a perfect example of the seemingly perennial curse of Warhol and his ‘anti-aesthetic’ filmmaking technique on the NYC avant-garde and experimental filmmaking scene of the late-1970s through early-1980s. 

 Promoted with the decidedly dystopian tagline, “The culmination of many years of research into the breaking point of the human organism,” Black Box attempts to make some sort of inane message about the U.S. government’s ‘occult war’ against its mentally degraded citizenry yet it ultimately seems like a contrived pseudo-snuff film directed by a sadistic woman and masochistic man. The film begins banally enough with the vaguely handsome nameless protagonist/hostage (played by musician Bob Mason, who scored a couple of Scott and Beth’s films, including Black Box) lying on a bed in his dilapidated apartment with his discernibly homely, horny, and high girlfriend while she recollects a fairly senseless dream that she only vaguely seems to remember where she dreamed her beau became a “fish or something.” After the girlfriend describes how he transformed into a pelican and she became an elephant in the same exact dream, she complains that “someone was watching us all the time” and it was “just really weird.” Of course, a blinking literal ‘Big Brother’ sign that can be seen outside the apartment attempts to signify that the film is set in a dystopian world of paranoia and authoritarian surveillance, but the directors fail in their attempt to even vaguely express this emotional tone, thus making the film oftentimes feel like some sort of homemade sci-fi films that was directed by a collective of stoned squatters who just happened to come upon a Super-8 camera. After briefly making out with his girlfriend before becoming hopelessly bored, the protagonist watches Mission Impossible, asks his girlfriend if she wants anything at the store (to which she agitatedly replies, “Go on, get out,” since he rebuffed her sexual advances), and leaves his apartment to go get cigarettes, but almost immediately upon hitting the streets, a dubious dude sporting a leather jacket and black sunglasses puts a revolver under his chin and he soon finds himself being put in the truck of a car and being kidnapped by a couple of ostensibly suavely dressed Baader-Meinhof-esque thugs that work for the government. 

 After being brought to an undisclosed underground location, the protagonist is routinely beaten and tortured while being forced to smile and say “I like it” like some sort of masochistic BDSM fetishist.  To the lead actor's credit, his acting seems more believable than that of average sex slave in the typical S&M fuck flick.  During a brief break from being beaten, the protagonist is told by a fairly fat fellow with a mullet that describes himself as ‘Doctor’ that, “I’ll tell you why we brought you here; to cure you. To free you from error. No one whom we bring to this place, and survives, ever leaves without a complete purity of mind. We’re not interested in the petty crimes you committed [...] the thought is all we care about. We don’t merely destroy our enemies, we modify them.” Indeed, the protagonist is literally beaten into psychological shape and, as the Doctor states in an exaggeratedly sadistic fashion, “Things will happen to you from which you will never recover. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feelings. Everything will be dead inside of you. You will be hollow. We’ll squeeze you empty and we’ll fill you with ourselves.”   Somehow, I suspect that the intention of the filmmakers was to leave the viewer feeling like they are “dead inside,” which Black Box manages to accomplish to a certain degree, albeit in an unintentional way where the directors' seeming soullessness and passive nihilism is channeled onto the viewer.

 While the Doctor breaks the protagonist in with fairly standard torture methods, a fairly fat ‘postmodern femme fatale’ in all black played by Lydia Lunch will ultimately destroy him. While Lunch, who certainly looks like she has never missed lunch, beats the protagonist with a whip while he is hanging upside down, she self-righteously declares to him, “We’re specialists in the application of stress, damaging anatomical and physiological components of body functions, progressively impairing the working of the brain and hastening the collapse of will and morale.” From there, Lunch begins talking about an eponymous torture device called the ‘Black Box,’ which was apparently used against members of the Vietcong during the Vietnam War and was apparently later utilized by authoritarian regimes in Chile, Uruguay, and Iran. While the protagonist agrees to “confess anything” and even pathetically cries, “I will tell you anything you want to hear,” Lunch just mocks the hapless hostage and the world of pain that he is about to be in by repetitively repeating “Black Box” over and over again like a snotty toddler that is begging for attention. For what is six minutes of the film’s twenty minute running time, the protagonist is tortured by Lunch while completely naked inside the titular torture device, which features an obnoxious blinking light and radiates a sort of grating ambient noise that is controlled by the heavyset ‘government dominatrix’ via a small sound mixer. As to what ultimately happens to the protagonist after his various intimate sessions in the black box, it seems to hardly matter as the character is nothing more than an empty vessel that is just as much a depersonalized object to the filmmakers as he is to the character played by Lunch and the handful of other people that torture him during the film. 

 While featuring a sort of superficial anti-authority punk message regarding government-sanctioned torture and brainwashing of the generically Orwellian sort, Black Box feels like it is shot from the perspective of the torturers, which is underscored by the fact that the protagonist seems like nothing more than a useless eater, not to mention the fact that Lydia Lunch ultimately steals the show. Notably, Scott B once stated regarding his and Beth’s intention with the film, “We wanted to confront people…not only in an intellectual way but on a gut level.”  Of course, the short only really achieves the latter and in a way that will probably lead most viewers to assume that the filmmakers might have been better off going ‘all the way’ and directing fully pornographic fuck flicks instead of pretending to be edgy avant-gardists with something edgy and provocative to say. It should be noted that in the documentary Blank City (2010) directed by Celine Danhier, Scott B not only describes his and his (ex)wife’s films as being outmoded, but also says the same thing about the films of his spiritual mentor Richard Kern and the Cinema of Transgression movement, stating, “Richard was willing to go to places that our films didn’t, but now that you look at the kind of films that pass as mainstream films, these films are tame by comparison.” To Scott and Beth B’s credit, their cinematic works are surely more aesthetically pleasing and technically competent than those directed by the likes of Kern, Nick Zedd, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, David Wojnarowicz or any of the other of the filmmakers associated with the obscenely overrated Cinema of Transgression movement, which took the more (pseudo)subversive themes of the No Wave Cinema and executed them in a decidedly dumbed-down fashion that would even make weirdo Warhol blush with Fremdscham. Indeed, for better or worse, Scott and Beth B were at least the sort of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet of the NYC film underground. 

 For those looking for a truly idiosyncratic approach to sadomasochism and political terror, Sapphic Teutonic-Hebraic auteur Ulrike Ottinger’s experimental epic magnum opus Freak Orlando (1981) makes Black Box seem like kindergarten recess. Additionally, the largely unsimulated hermetic sadomasochistic horrors of Pig (1998) co-directed by Nico B. and Christian Death frontman Rozz Williams expose the B’s short for the fleeting softcore dilettante excursion in would-be-excess that it is. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, the B’s subsequent Super-8 features The Offenders (1980) and the Nietzschean The Trap Door (1980) are probably the directors’ greatest works, but they seem to be totally impossible to find, thus I have to say that Black Box is the filmmakers’ most rewarding and worthwhile work to date, though I certainly do not plan to watch it ever again. While it would have never happened in a proudly jaded and left-leaning cement zoo like New York City, Scott and Beth B and their compatriots would most certainly have been better off mimicking the genuinely subversive anti-counterculture cult comedies of underground cinema saint Paul Morrissey than following in the plodding dead-end filmic footsteps of his autistic monetary-motivated producer Warhol. As perfectly personified in Black Box and most of the B’s oeuvre, Morrissey revealed in his (counter)culture critiques disguised as camp comedies that liberalism produces a toilet (pseudo)culture of the innately impotent and superlatively nihilistic sort that is completely devoid of real morals and ideals, not to mention cultural, political, and sexual potency. While I would hardly call myself a Freudian, I think the seemingly endless torture and sadism that is unleashed on a somewhat handsome Nordic-looking fellow in Black Box really reveals where Scott and Beth B’s values (or lack thereof) really lie, as well as the lies in their art, which I would argue is the most intriguing aspect of the film.  As far as I am concerned, I find the fact that the film is actually considered avant-garde cinematic art to be more disturbing and more representative of dystopian times and Western decline than the authoritarian torture it supposedly exposes.  Indeed, thank god there are not currently any contemporary NYC avant-garde filmmakers that I know of that are making films in the sterilely sordid spirit of Black Box and fetishize Guantanamo Bay detention camp or the short life and adventurous times of Trayvon Martin, but then again nothing could be more wretched and repugnant yet simultaneously banal than the the masturbatory audio-visual atrocities of over-privileged half-breed Jewish American princess Lena Dunham.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

I want to bugger Lena Dunham (as the bird was in 2004 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

Herzog said...

No you don't Tony.

Anonymous said...

Tony, when that "bird" was 18, she was exactly the puny-breasted, snaggletooth lump of lard that she is today. Not even the blessing of tender years can rescue some women...

Ty, I've long been interested in tracking down some of this "Cinema of Transgression" stuff but I don't fancy shelling out upwards of $60 just to watch drugged-out NYC Jewesses bare their tits and warble their lines in a porn-star monotone over "avant-garde" production values better suited to 1980's public access television. Any suggestions?

Soiled Sinema said...

Scott: You can actually download/watch a number of these films for free here: http://www.ubu.com/film/transgression.html

Here are a couple films by Scott and Beth B: http://www.ubu.com/film/b.html

The same site also features a number of other films in alphabetical order by director here: http://www.ubu.com/film/

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these links.