A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.
Jack Sargeant’s new book, Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film, is an exploration of a place, a time, a state of being, a culture, and a certain range of experiences, experiences which have not yet been fully charted because they probably never can be because they’re always already in motion. It’s an investigation of extreme culture with film as a nexus branching out into literature, mind expansion (drugs or otherwise), music, activism, nihilism, S&M, fetishism, murder, suicide, body modification, mind control and so on. The films which come from this underground are hard to see, in both senses of the word. They’re hard to watch because they often make the viewers uncomfortable. But they’re literally hard to come by. You can see them in certain film festivals in a very few urban areas, you see some of them on the internet, or, for many viewers, you can get them through good old fashioned snail mail.
Sargeant has pretty specific ideas of what the underground is and part of his goal is to map and define it so he spends some time writing about what underground film is not. It is not classic avant-garde film like Kenneth Anger or Stan Brackhage. Despite sharing some preoccupations with certain directors – Abel Ferrara, David Lynch, John Waters, David Cronenberg – the underground is unconcerned with auteurism or the elevation of individual visions, favoring collaboration, community, and rejection of “success” as it’s commonly measured by Hollywood standards. The underground is not “indie” or “midnight movies” or grindhouse or genre. The underground is “tightly wrapped up in a desire to seek out new and unfamiliar forms of beauty” (11). The underground solicits audience responses including “(but not limited to) repulsion, revulsion, disgust, nausea, fascination and sexual excitement” (12).
The first chapter of Flesh and Excess acts as an “entry point” placing the underground squarely in the late-seventies cultures of post-punk, Industrial, and No Wave music. Sargeant examines three films: British Industrial band Throbbing Gristle’s After Cease to Exist (1977), which juxtaposes electronic ambient and dissonant sounds with a black screen and then simulated castration and scenes of the band performing in front of an apathetic audience; Beth and Scott B’s Black Box (1978), in which New York City downtown No Wave goddess Lydia Lunch tortures an unnamed Hostage (Bob Mason), ultimately putting him inside a black box (which he’s been threatened with throughout the earlier torture); and West Coast artist/musicians Monte Cazazza and Tana Emmolo Smith’s SXXX80, which presents Cazazza digging at an open sore on his penis in one scene and Smith trimming her pubic hair and then placing a giant live centipede on her vulva, these primary scenes intercut with “sequences showing images from a medical textbook and an anatomical toy” (24). Unlike traditional popular music – even punk – which involves bands touring a product, an album, a CD and also unlike traditional film – even indie or avant-garde film – which involves a product and audiences going to a theater or watching a video or streaming, these films were about the live spectacle performed in clubs (with rock band PA systems which could create a doubly visceral experience for their audiences), community centers, and people’s apartments.
This leads Sargeant to examining the problem of distribution when artists eschew (or are rejected by) more conventional forms of delivery. He gives us a brief history of the underground, primarily focusing on two influential film festivals, the New York Underground Film Festival (1994-2008) and the Chicago Underground Film Festival (1993-present). Because of the size of the US and the difficulty of average viewers looking for transgressive cinema, we also see around the early eighties the rise of alternative publications that reviewed transgressive cinema, often with addresses to purchase video. The most influential of these was the fanzine Film Threat (Sargeant writes 1984-present, though FT is now defunct despite several crowdsourcing attempts to revive it) and The Film Threat Video Guide (1991-1995).
However, Flesh and Excess is not simply a history of underground film, but also a theory of it. At the halfway point of his book, Sargeant writes
Existing as the zone in which power finds itself played and replayed, negotiated and renegotiated, the body cannot be seen as merely a single entity, or as a self-contained unity of parts, nor as the sum of parts. Rather, the body is a construct that emerges through a multiplicity of frequently conflicting discourses including (but not limited to) the cultural, philosophical, religious, aesthetic and medical, each staking their claim to the body and creating their own interpretations of it, whether as flesh, mind or spirit. Moreover, these multiple discourses are not separate isolated narratives existing in a vacuum but are themselves the product of their own networks of relationships to each other and they flow into and away from each other. These narratives are neither closed nor final but are continually developing and changing, not towards any singular moment in which all understanding of the body will become clear, but as both products of and contributors to a wider series of discourses. (97)
Sargeant sees the body as the site where true transgression exists in cinema, these movies from the underground using the body to explore the limits of aesthetics, of style, of good taste. Tracing this history of the body in cinema, he starts, quite logically, with the opening of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), examining in detail the image of an impassive man slicing the cornea of a passive woman. Sargeant sees a connection between this classic avant-garde film through the trio of post-punk films he opens his book with and takes us to 1996’s Affliction (Mark Henjar), a documentary which explores transgression in multiple sites (“underground post-punk bands, a comic book artist, a ranting zine writer celebrating homicidal urges and numerous performers, each of whom work with their own body as a medium”) and in multiple modes (“video as well as toy cameras, 16mm and super-8…The ensuing film is assembled from a dense web of images and sounds, with some ninety shots making-up the forty-five minute film”) (109).
The next two chapters focus on the work of two filmmakers who are continuing to make transgressive underground film today, Iraqi-American Usama Alshaibi and South African Aryan Kaganof. Sargeant limits his analysis to four short films, Convulsion Expulsion (6 minutes, 2004), Traumata (2 minutes, 2005), and Gash (2 minutes, 2008) by the former and The Dead Man 2: Return of the Dead Man (1994) by the later. Kaganof’s three films explore injury fetishism in non-narrative fashion, the women in stages of undress, ejecting liquids from various orifices, the soundtrack dissonant electronic music. Sargeant writes
…Alshaibi creates a series of brief, rapidly paced explorations that focus on extremely specific desires relating to various notions of physical trauma, the medical and the female body. These films do not all construct the same notion of a medical body, but they share a common theme manifested via accidents, bandages, and wounds, an interest in the vulnerability and bare, exposed corporality of the body. (125)
Kagonof’s film is a surreal, fragmented loose adaptation of George Bataille’s “unadaptable” novellas The Dead Man and Madam Edwarda. It opens with a scene of a man vomiting on his gay lover and then cuts to the Dead Man (Jaap Hoogstra) entering a bar asking for Marie but instead finding an obese Madame Edwarda (Monique Bouwer) who lifts her dress to reveal “the layer of hairy fatty flesh over her mons veneris” and states in a voice like the Exorcist’s (1973) possessed Regan, “I am god!” (156). This cuts to flames, documentary footage of the Branch Davidian compound on fire in Waco, TX, and then back to the bar where a different woman, Marie, climbs on the bar top, hikes her dress, and urinates. And so on. Many of the scenes are accompanied by the dissonant, electronic sounds of experimental musician Merzbow.
Flesh and Excess is not just a fan’s journey through underground cinema. Sargeant takes his time with specific films, going in-depth to describe their sounds, their images, their social and historical context. This is all undergirded theoretically with readings from Mikhail Bakhtin, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault, and, of course, Georges Bataille. But the book is accessible, not buried beneath academic posturing, nor run-on gibberish. Rather than an academic press, Flesh and Excess is out on L.A.’s legendary Amok Books, publisher of the classic guide to the underground, Apocalypse Culture (1987). It’s generously illustrated with film stills, film festival posters, various stars of the underground (William Burroughs, Lydia Lunch, Annie Sprinkle, etc.), and other images. In addition, there is a handy appendix which will guide viewers through the recent history of underground film from 1978 to 2008 listing artists, films, festivals, and publications. Flesh and Excess is an engaging and heady read, a good introduction to neophytes, a grounded analysis for the skeptical, and a strong argument for continued exploration in the realms of underground film art.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.