Arguably best known among contemporary cineastes for co-directing the dreamlike experimental short The Autumn Feast (1961) with Italian-born New York Beat poet and Warhol associate Piero Heliczer, Keen’s works were pretty much impossible to find until relatively recently with the release of the BFI DVD box-set GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen (2009), which I recently had the distinct pleasure of devouring. After indulging in the greater portion of the director’s oeuvre, I came to the conclusion that The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1979-1984)—a darkly romantic cinematic nightmare of kaleidoscopic pornography, murder, sadomasochism, and zany Hitler fetishism—is unequivocally my favorite Keen flick. A perversely poetic window into Keen's seemingly haunted yet nonetheless hyperactive unconscious, the unbelievably penetrating psychosexual cinematic horror show is a wonderfully rude yet strangely elegant reminder that pure and unadulterated creativity and spirit always trumps a big budget. In short, you will not find a film that is so hopelessly kitschy yet wonderfully creative, original, poetic despite being made on a budget of next to nil shekels.
Described by Will Fowler at BFI as, “a sort of coda to his earlier stylistic phase,” the film was made during a dark period in Keen’s life after he and his wife and perennial muse Jackie Keen (aka Jacqueline Foulds) separated, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is a piece of intemperate idiosyncrasy and iconoclastic aesthetic raw power that might lead some viewers to suspect that the auteur is a poetic yet autistic serial killer with a nasty collection of infantile fetishes and juvenile obsessions, but of course that is what makes it such an uniquely unforgettable cinematic experience. Admittedly, my immediate interest in Keen came as a result of randomly happening upon a screenshot from the film featuring a cute brunette that I would later discover was the director’s daughter Stella Keen (aka ‘Stella Starr’), who began her own filmmaking career as a child star in her father’s films (she would later sometimes act as her father's cinematographer). Indeed, forget Fassbinder and his dysfunctional kraut superstars, you will not find a filmmaker with a more intimate relationship with his stars than Keen, who has arguably probably paid tribute to the beauty of his wife Jackie’s bare body more than any other filmmaker in cinema history. Likewise, you will not find a filmmaker who is more at both the literal and figurative center of his films than cool cracker Keen, whose art, especially his films, are magnificently masturbatory in the best sort of way.
A king of intricate art-trash who turned his entire life into a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where every single film, painting, drawing, poem, graffiti tag, and performance art routine that he created seems to be an important piece in one giant esoteric psychosexual autobiogasm from post-WWII Brit beatnik purgatory, Keen is, for better or worse, the best argument for the auteur theory and I would certainly say that The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is the best introduction to his pleasantly preternatural outsider aesthetic and artistic Weltanschauung. Indeed, love him or hate him, but it is impossible to deny that Keen was a true visionary that might be best described as the Wagner of celluloid outsider art (in fact, Keen was also heavily influenced by Nordic mythology). Of course, quite unlike comparable artists like Joseph Cornell (Rose Hobart, Nymphlight) and Henry Darger, Keen seems to have led a relatively sane sex life, hence his focus on curvy women instead of prepubescent children, yet there is no denying that there is something intrinsically childlike about him, even if his daughter once described him as a, “typical nostalgic English man.”
Like Keen, fellow William S. Burroughs associate and underground British avant-gardist Antony Balch (Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups) also experimented with creating anarchic collage oriented films that combined lowbrow and highbrow influences, but he eventually graduated on to making sleazy feature-length exploitation films like Bizarre (1970) aka Secrets of Sex and Horror Hospital (1973) that were made for more mainstream oriented consumption. In other words, Keen never even attempted to sellout and his films only became all the more arcane and inaccessible over the decades. Indeed, aside from its potent combination of melancholy and lechery, it is hard to determine what The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is really about, though I suspect it is mainly a semi-cryptic meditation on heartbreak, hence why it features Keen’s daughter portraying an artist that creates a literal broken heart via a large paper quill. Began in 1979 but not finished until 1984, the film is also notable for featuring the director’s wife despite the fact that they were long separated when it was finally finished. Instead of portraying a sassy tigeress or perennially smiling nudie cutie like in his earlier films, Keen's wife Jackie fittingly portrays a sensually deadly femme fatale in what was undoubtedly their last great collaboration with one another.
Beginning with an oneiric image of a classy beautiful woman that is ultimately revealed to be the front cover of MON FILM magazine, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke then immediately bombards the viewer with a frantic combination of hypnotic imagery, including vintage stag footage superimposed over shots of a seemingly half-ruined artist’s workroom that is covered with broken baby dolls and naked Barbies hanging from ropes in what is ultimately a sort of overture for the film. While Keen’s daughter once described her father’s film influences as being, “John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Cocteau, Bunuel, Film Noir directors like Nicholas Ray + B Movie hero Ed Wood and so many more,” the film immediately seems like a no budget Werner Schroeter flick on acid, albeit with a decidedly heterosexual focus where creepy fake boobs and pieces of cheap naked female plastic inspire unnerving erotic horrors. A sort of cine-manic micro-triptych, the short has three distinct segments that really underscore the auteur's natural affinity for cinematic subversion in all forms, including technique, structure, imagery, editing, and morality. At about the 1:30 minute mark of the film, the inter-titles “Blonde Destiny” and “A Reconstructed Thriller” appear juxtaposed with the less than solacing sounds of fighter aircrafts in what ultimately proves to be a relatively intricate micro-film-within-a-film that emphasizes the timeless relationship between killer and the carnal. Indeed, a short but sickly sweet sex noir-thriller set at Brighton train station, “Blonde Destiny” depicts the director’s wife-cum-muse Jackie being both brutally threatened and embraced by a killer with a gun, as well as still photos of a naughty bitch flashing her bushy beaver in public. While watching this short segment, ones does not doubt that Keen has had many elaborate fantasies regarding the ancient art of Lustmord, which is probably not all that uncommon for a artist that has separated from his lifelong muse. Of course, Jackie's character is far from innocent, as she is depicted handling a large knife, not to mention the fact that she enjoys the tight embrace of a coldblooded killer, but I digress. Featuring both blue and purple tinted scenes, “Blonde Destiny” contains a sort of effortlessly elegant yet raw and visceral neo-Victorian elegance that cannot really be found in any of Keen's other films.
While less than 7 minutes long in its entirety, it is not until at about the 2:18 mark of the film that the main show begins and the official inter-titles appear that read, “Hitler’s Double & The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” and “With the Spectres of E.A. Poe and Carol Borland in . . . . . . the Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke.” Indeed, not only does Uncle Adolf play a prominent role in the film, but the viewer is also exposed to the youthful melancholic pulchritude of Keen’s debutante daughter Stella, who looks like she could have inspired the cover-art for the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), as she practically bleeds a sort of highly refined feminine somberness. Before the real action begins, the viewer is exposed to still photos of a babe in bondage and war footage that echoes the director’s lifelong obsession with the Second World War and how he narrowly missed taking part in the D-Day landings, which ultimately consumed many of his friends and colleagues in what would ultimately prove to be a seminal influence on both his life and art.
One of Keen’s rather intimate “self portrait” films like Victory Thru Film Power (1980s) and Omozap (1990-1991), The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is, not unlike many of the director’s later films, a meta-artistic work that makes obsessive references to the director's own physical art pieces, including the “The Poet's Cot” and “The Book of the Film” (notably, Keen oftentimes created his own ‘books of the film’ that featured signed photos of the stars of the film in question). Of course, it is very telling that there is a scene in the film where the legendary Poet’s Cot goes up in flames. Making heavy use of extra bright neon reds and blues that inspires ideas of romantic murder and sullen midnight walks in the moonlight, the film is indubitably one of Keen's most accomplished work in terms of sheer visuals. Likewise, the film also features strangely aesthetically pleasing neon blue stock footage of der Führer. As for Hitler's double (aka Keen in a cheap Hitler mask), he seems like a creepy hopeless romantic that has fallen from grace and has been doomed to walk for eternity with wilted roses and dead children in his arms.
In what is arguably the film’s most memorable and aesthetically alluring moment, Keen’s daughter Stella creates a large broken heart with a giant paper paintbrush while blindfolded. Moving very slowly like a romantically condemned somnambulist that is haunted by the memory of a lover that she lost long ago, Stella seems completely possessed in a completely tragic fashion, hence why she does not even need to use her eyes to paint literal heartbreak. Of course, one also cannot forget the image of a Keen-as-Hitler carrying around naked baby dolls in his arms in what is assuredly the creepiest yet cryptic scene from the film. In one of the more bizarrely darkly romantic scenes, a red rose is superimposed over a man threatening a cringing little lady with a large knife. In another similarly unforgettable scene, ghost-like beatniks sporting pancake lounge in a room where a fat old woman reads from the “The Film of the Book” while a dorky dude with skeletal makeup plays a kitschy violin. Undoubtedly, these ghostly characters sorrowfully echo the truly colorful players in Keen's previous films, as if the auteur is both haunted by and nostalgic about his artistic past. After wrestling with a large translucent sheet of plastic, one of the ghost girls is attacked by the macabre musician. Towards the end of the film in what is ultimately a perversely preternatural family portrait of sorts, Keen sits next to his wife, daughter, and some naked and bloody Barbie dolls while sporting a sort of makeshift metallic robot costume. In the end, the film concludes with the poet-auteur flipping through “The Film of the Book” inter-spliced with vintage pornography of a sitting nude beauty basking in her carnal glory in a scene of poesy cinematic necrophilia (after all, the nude beauty is undoubtedly long dead). In that sense, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is the ultimate gothic horror flick of the underground.
I am not even going to pretend that I fully understand what The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is really about (after all, Keen loathed attempting to intellectualize his own work), but I do know that, aesthetically speaking, it is a gift that keeps on giving that could be played on a loop for eternity and not seem the least bit banal or trite. Of course, the same could be said about many of Keen’s films, but this is one of the only films by the English auteur that emphasizes pathos over pure energetic audio-visual overload, even if it is no less overwhelming in its chaotic aesthetic fury. Although just speculation, I am fairly convinced that the film is an expression of a man that felt like he was living in a personal pandemonium where he was haunted by the past yet even more horrified about the prospect of the future. Surely, one of the aspects of the film that makes it so potent is Keen’s daughter Stella’s central role as a sort of magical yet melancholic somnambulistic art goddess. While researching Keen and his film, I happened upon various tributes by Stella to her father where she reveals an undeniably heartwarming love, admiration, and respect for her father. In fact, I do not think it is a stretch to say that Stella is her father’s greatest fan, scholar, and protégé, among other things.
As Stella once noted, the essence of Keen’s oeuvre can be summed up in a sentence that he wrote across one of his paintings from the 1990s that read, “All life is war and the long voyage home,” which is especially true of The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke where Hitler, family members, and ancient porn stars inhabit a sort of hyper hermetic psychodramatic fever dream of the purgatorial sort that pays frenzied (anti)tribute to the perennial struggle that is life. Needless to say, the film also features one of the most bizarre and inexplicable examples of an artistic collaboration between a father and daughter. Undoubtedly, compared to the inordinate interfamilial intimacy of Keen’s film(s), underground films made in collaboration with bohemian buddies like Ken Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness (1960), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1953), and Ira Cohen’s The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968) seems a cold, calculated, and phony as the average 1980s Hollywood action flick by comparison. In other words, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is like the most vulnerable yet hermetic, gritty yet meticulously stylized, and domestic yet dreamlike of home movies.
Surely, one of the most stunning aspects of The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke and many of Keen’s films is the amount of effort and obsessive attention to detail that was put into what are ultimately no budget cinematic experiments that were assembled in the rather restricted confines of the auteur’s flat. Naturally, I was not surprised to discover that, not unlike many serious artists, Keen created for largely therapeutic reasons, or as his daughter once wrote, “For Jeff, the finest human inventions were the bicycle and the hand gun. He used his brush, pen and camera like a gun. Each tool was simply a device – a means to an end. The creative act itself was the important thing, rather than the finished work. This would explain my father’s frequent habit of destroying his own work once he’d finished it; to ‘rip it up and start again’. This form of collage – the cut-up re-invented story – is fundamental to Jeff’s metier. His writing, film and painting transgresses all boundaries – but ultimately it always comes back to the drawn line. The artist’s hand is ever present, and the artist himself is always active, often viewed in action. In Jeff’s words, “It’s auto-bio-graphik, not auto-biography... direct projection, not an illustration... a comic strip of life, printed on semtex.” Indeed, Keen turned his life into a sort of unending avant-garde cinematic comic strip where the monsters and mad scientists are the good guys, nude women act as an extra solacing Greek chorus, and creativity and destruction are one and the same. Surely, you will not find a more impenetrable yet kitschy oeuvre, as Keen is like the missing link between Walt Disney and Warhol. Likewise, Keen is probably the only filmmaker that has managed to reconcile the exquisite high-camp decadence of Herr Schroeter with the shameless schlock of Troma.
Undoubtedly, few films make you feel more like a shameless voyeur than The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke where Keen violently yet jovially shouts and ejaculates his pathologies, fetishes, and dubious obsessions with the imperative help of his entire family. Indeed, watching the film seems like something akin eating shrooms and walking in on a family engaged in a bloody psychedelic orgy involving Hitler cosplay and Bellmer-esque baby doll worship. On a somewhat less degenerate yet surely more depressing note, the countless baby dolls and appearance by the auteur’s sole child in the film reminded me of Stella Keen's genuinely heartfelt eulogy to her father where she stated, “My greatest tragedy is that I wasn’t able to show any grandchildren to my dad, but there will be continuity to the Keen line somehow and, certainly, I am making sure his legacy continues to be protected and promoted long after I’m gone. Also his influence continues to filter through my own work which will hopefully go from strength to strength and inspire others as well.” Although the Archduke’s bloodline has indubitably come to an end, his cinematic works will, to some degree, live on. Arguably cinema history's most proficient yet overlooked alchemist as a man that used literal trash and figurative artistic shit like cheap comics to create an entire elaborate cinematic universe, Keen is not only arguably the UK's greatest master of art brut, but one of its greatest avant-garde filmmaker period. After all, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke is nothing if not the sort of film that causes the spread of cinephilia, thereupon making it the perfect flick for Keen virgins to get infected with.