It’s no secret that we here at Oi Polloi enjoying shining the spotlight on stuff that doesn’t normally get much time of day in the wider world, or unabashedly flirting with the downright controversial (socks and sandals being the prime example of this).
It’s in this iconoclastic spirit that I proudly present to you the latest instalment of the world-famous and universally-acclaimed Films and Things – a soulful ode to the under-seen, the underappreciated and the critically-reviled gems of the Kino Sphere.
In other words, it’s a list of films that cause me to fly into a fit of rage when I think about how few people have seen ‘em, or how many people despise ‘em.
LUC MOULLET, BARRES – 1984
Kicking this list off we’ve got Luc Moullet’s superlative Barres, a short-but-potent film espousing the merits of subway fare-dodging.
That’s the entire plot of Barres. Over the course of 14 minutes, a bunch of rebellious Parisians come up with a plethora of ingenious ways to jump the subway’s ticket barriers and commute for free.
Luc Moullet’s tale is one choc-a-bloc full of woe, misfortune and self-deprecation. He’s perhaps the most consistently maligned and overlooked filmmaker in the history of France, if not the world… and it’s only partly his own fault.
Luc’s career started off promisingly, managing to secure a job at the ripe age of 18 at the Cahiers du Cinéma, France’s most-lauded cinema journal, around the same time as all the other French New Wave stalwarts, most notably Truffaut, Goddard and Rohmer. But unlike his Cahiers compatriots, who’s short films propelled them to feature-film-cinematic-super-stardom, Moullet was left toiling in obscurity after his short films failed to attract the same kind-of attention or acclaim, despite being… well… much better.
He returned to criticism, but it was too late – Moullet had well and truly been bitten by the filmmaking bug. For over 55 years he has defiantly continued to make short-form and feature-length cinema, in spite of (and maybe even because of) consistent tepid reactions and indifference from critics and the film-going public.
Anyway, Barres is mega. Cheeky, anti-authoritarian and full of childish, primitive humour, it’s no wonder film bores disregard him.
Fans of piracy will be pleased to hear it’s currently streaming on Youtube… and probably will be for the foreseeable. Doubt Mr. Moullet has a team of copyright experts seeking out his bootlegs.
PHILIP RIDLEY, THE REFLECTING SKIN – 1990
If you’ve ever had the burning desire to watch a bunch of prepubescent boys inflate a amphibian via straw up the jacksie, then blow it up with a slingshot, causing it to explode in a poor woman’s face, The Relfecting Skin should be right up your alley… you weirdo.
Set in an imagined, Gothic version of the 50s, The Reflecting Skin is the tale of 8-year-old Seth, who whittles away the days by playing pranks (the aforementioned frog incident is Seth’s idea of a prank) on the town recluse Dolphin with his mates. When his buddies start disappearing, he becomes convinced that she’s a vampire, and sets out on a quest to destroy her before she claims his WWII-veteran brother as her next victim.
Things looked pretty promising for Philip Ridley and The Reflecting Skin when it premiered at Cannes in 1990. Confidently declared as “déjà un culte” (“already a cult”) by supposedly-clued-on French critics before the credits had even finished rolling, the film was snatched up by Miramax with the expectation it’d be a sensation with American horror fans.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Perhaps down to the deceptively calm and serene cinematography that belies the twisted and disturbing subject matter or the prevailing weirdness on display (again, this film opens with a bunch of children blowing up a frog in someone’s face. I cannot overstate that enough), The Reflecting Skin flopped like a dead fish on release, unable to find the cult-horror audience it was promised. Studio heads quickly branded it multiplex fodder and tossed it into the chasm of forgotten failures, never to be thought of again.
Luckily for us, the film did manage to garner a minute following, who promptly digitised whatever grainy, VHS bootleg they had and put it online for other freaks to enjoy. Slowly-but-surely, the film’s stature began to grow, eventually getting enough attention to warrant a special edition Blu-Ray release in the 2010s.
Even though all three of Ridley’s other films followed a similar path to The Reflecting Skin, it’s heartening to know he managed to get at least one notch on the proverbial belt… even if it took 20 odd years.
ABEL FERRARA, NEW ROSE HOTEL – 1998
Next up we’ve got New Rose Hotel, a bleak, sensual and ultimately soul-crushing film by famed nutter and cinematic savant Abel Ferrara.
Based on the father of Cyberpunk (and noted technical jacket superfan) William Gibson’s story of the same name, New Rose Hotel’s hazy narrative follows Fox and X, two ‘corporate extraction specialists’ who earn their keep by snatching scientists from one massive corporation and selling them to another while keeping the kidnapped scientists none the wiser to the intricately-planned ruse. How do they go about doing this? With a beautiful call girl of course… this is a Ferrara film after all.
For my money, Abel Ferrara’s entire career has been undervalued by the wider film culture. I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone else working today who makes films with such red-blooded gusto, let alone anyone who’s been capturing balls-to-the-wall insanity in all its forms for over 50 years, which includes, but is not limited to, video nasty slasher films, revenge romps, contemplative crime epics, pitch-perfect biopics of other Italian nutbags, Catholic-guilt-a-thons disguised as sleazy cop dramas and… errr… pornography.
But even by Ferrara’s standards, New Rose Hotel has been unjustly brutalised by the critics, and subsequently ignored by audiences. It currently holds a stonking rating of 19% on Rotten Tomatoes (which, to be fair, is a usually pretty poor indication of whether a film is decent or not) and is frequently left out of the conversation about Cyberpunk cinema, probably due to its lo-fi, unfussy approach to the aesthetics. But aesthetics alone does not a good film make. It’s Ferrara’s handling of Gibson’s heady themes of globalisation, corporate domination and transactional relationships that propels New Rose Hotel to the pantheon of greatness.
In my opinion at least. I could very well be wrong and just have bad taste in films. The jury is still out on that one…
ANN HUI, ORDINARY HEROES – 1999
For the penultimate spot on this list we’re taking a trip to the politically-tumultuous shores of 70s/80s Hong Kong with Ann Hui’s rousing and inspiring Ordinary Heroes.
Taking inspiration from real life events, Ordinary Heroes concerns itself with a small band of merry activists, fighting against the British colonial government to reunite the Yau Ma Tei boat people with their mainland wives.
The 90s were a standout moment for Hong Kong cinema on the world stage. From melancholy maestro Wong Kar-Wai’s internationally-adored Chungking Express (1994) to Hollywood’s recognition of perhaps the most important film genre of all time, Gun-Fu (pioneered and mastered by John Woo), it seemed that the rest of the world was gripped by a serious case of Hong Kong fever. But there was one incredibly important and influential filmmaker that bafflingly managed to slip through the proverbial fingers of western movie-fanatics – Ann Hui.
Although acclaimed across Asia, it seemed that audiences on this hemisphere had no time for Hui’s frenetic blend of high-octane political intrigue and rough-and-tumble emotionality. It’s also a bit mind-boggling that she hasn’t received her proper due from the well-meaning film fans who are going through the archives reclaiming female filmmakers who’ve been shunned by history, like Barbara Loden and Elaine May (who’s 1987 film Ishtar could’ve easily made this list).
RICK ALVERSON, THE COMEDY – 2012
Finally, let’s end this with a film that was in all likelihood designed to be hated (but is still mint anyway) – Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, staring avant-garde comedian Tim Heidecker.
How best to describe The Comedy? One part eviscerating treatise on how irony has eroded a generation’s decency and insulated themselves from other human beings, one part feature-film-shit-post, The Comedy charts the day-to-day activities of upper-class hipster Swanson, who skulks around New York, fritters away his seemingly-endless inheritance and purposefully riles up anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with him.
So yeah, not exactly a crowd-pleaser.
It’s no surprise that The Comedy was viciously set upon by American critics when it was released, as I’m confident a large portion of ‘em saw themselves reflected in the film and its solipsistic characters. With transgressive abandon, The Comedy takes aim on the individualistic, postmodern tenancies that had come to dominate the culture of the 2010s sans the usual preachiness, and forcefully shows the people who use irony, apathy and pretentiousness as a force-field against reality as what they are – pathetic losers.
Anyway, it’s well worth a watch if you’re the type of person who wants to watch films with characters so obnoxious they cause you to grind your teeth in a fine dust… which I am.
Right, that just about does it for this half-article/half-rant version of Films and Things. I hope this was just as cathartic for you as was it was for me. Until next time folks…