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Cursed films

"Le Film Maudit" at the HFA
By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 17, 2009

INQUISITORIAL: Ken Russell’s The Devils is The Crucible by way of Monty Python.

Le Film Maudit | Harvard Film Archive July 17-24
At some point while watching the features in the Harvard Film Archive's "Le Film Maudit" ("cursed films") series — perhaps during the "Circle of Shit" chapter in Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALÒ, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975 ; July 19 at 7 pm) or the scene with the mother and the bull in Fernando Arrabal's VIVA LA MUERTE (1971; July 24 at 7 pm) or maybe when Vanessa Redgrave gets worked over by Inquisitors wielding a copper douche the size of baseball bat in Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971; July 24 at 9 pm) — you might ask yourself, which is more cursed, the movies or anyone unfortunate enough to be watching them? Bestiality, cannibalism, incest, flagellation, torture, coprophagy, urophilia, and bad taste in general, as any reader of the Marquis de Sade will tell you, can get tiresome after a while.

Neglected excellence and repressed transgression, though, tend to hold one's interest. The term "film maudit" derives from the name given to a festival of films that Jean Cocteau put together in Biarritz in1949. It featured such now-canonical works as Jean Vigot's L'Atalante (1934) and Robert Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Bologne (1945). But it also included such taboo-breaking films as Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947), and the term since then has come to refer mostly to that kind of film. Films unlikely to achieve mainstream respectability and that dwell in the forbidden zone bordered by camp and kitsch and sheer insanity.

And so, on to that most transgressive era, the late '60s to mid '70s, which is when cinema stretched its boundaries the most and from which period the pictures in this series were chosen. Sad to say, they look almost quaint, now that shows like South Park are staples on TV and Brüno tops the box office. As Ralph Bakshi said about his animated, R. Crumb-inspired FRITZ THE CAT (1972; July 17 at 9:45 pm), "Now they do as much on The Simpsons as I got an X rating for . . . . "

Maybe that's testimony to these films' success in pushing the limits of acceptability. And some of their excesses are still offensive, especially to politically correct sensibilities. One common theme in almost all of these films is the demonizing of women — they are either demonically possessed or demonically possessive. But men don't come off looking too good, either. In fact, perhaps what characterizes them best is an unapologetic, gleeful nihilism, something like what Norman O. Brown describes, alluding to the satire of Jonathan Swift, as "the excremental vision."

Hence, the, uh, shit hits the fans in almost every picture. A turd arrives in the mail for Divine in John Waters's PINK FLAMINGOS (1972; July 18 at 7 pm), a gauntlet thrown down by the execrably bourgeois Raymond and Connie Marble challenging her for the honor of being "The World's Filthiest Person." Long before the notorious final scene of Divine eating a freshly squatted dog poop, she and her family have vindicated their claim to the title with bad behavior ranging from flipping the bird to a hitchhiking soldier to butchering and eating a squad of policemen in an apparent homage to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).

But, it's all in good fun, unlike the grimly earnest, semi-surreal abominations in Arrobal's Viva La Muerte. Set in Civil War Spain, it, like Flamingos, is grotesquely Oedipal, with its pre-adolescent protagonist engaged in a love/hate relationship with his buxom mother, whom he suspects of betraying his father to the Fascists. And what better way to express the complexities of family relationships, not to mention the politics of revolution, than a fantasy in which mom takes a dump on daddy's head?

The carnival spirit of John Waters returns in Pasolini's final film, Saló: Or the 120 Days of Sodom (preceded by Jean Genet's seminal — in more than one sense of the word — 1950 black-and-white silent short, UN CHANT D'AMOUR). Pasolini's film ingeniously sets de Sade's eponymous tale in the Northern Italian city of Salò where the Fascist regime holed out for the last days of World War II. Four fascist leaders seal themselves in a castle with a supply of adolescent captives and while away the time, "Masque of the Red Death"-style, having their monstrous way with them. Pasolini's starkly baroque version includes a nod to Dante, as the merciless quartet take their victims through infernal circles of increasing repulsiveness. They are leeringly evil, but they do possess a macabre sense of humor and a vaudevillian showmanship: three of them fall into a kick-line as the atrocities enter their final phase.

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  Topics: Features , Oliver Reed, Harvard Film Archive, Jonathan Swift,  More more >
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