Monday, June 22, 2009

Figuring Out Jesús Franco

Kurt Dahlke, over at DVDTalk, just doesn't get Jesús Franco. Reviewing the admittedly poor DEVIL HUNTER, he opines that
Jess Franco is a suck-hack... IMDb lists 189 films to his credit--and almost as many pseudonyms--that's about 4 films a year for the last 50 years, and he's still working. The viewer is punished nearly every time, yet we still come back. I just can't figure it out.
He's far from alone. Scanning the internet, one finds many reviewers similarly mystified by the prolific Spanish auteur, his films and the following they have accrued. Over at Eccentric Cinema, the very negative review of Franco's excellent FEMALE VAMPIRE is actually accompanied by an audio clip of a particularly juicy-sounding fart. Alan Simpson, at Sexgoremutants, goes scatological as well in his review of KILLER BARBYS:
Let's get things straight right off the bat, Jess Franco is a hack. Don't let any deluded Francophiles tell you otherwise, the guy makes movies faster than I can take a dump and they are rarely as satisfying.[1]
I'm certainly not opposed to scatological references in and of themselves, of course. I'm sure I've probably used them myself at various times to describe the dismal films of the likes of Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, Brett Ratner. In a lot of his worst work, Franco himself earns a few. Some shit work though, does not a reeking sewer make nor some hack-work a hack. I've never seen "hack" as an inherently negative characterization anyway. Everyone hacks it out sometimes. It's usually not terribly difficult to distinguish that from the real stuff.[2] Many of Franco's critics aren't always so good at making such calls though.[3]

Franco often faces a lot of unfair criticism and his genuine shortcomings are always radically overstated by his critics but something I've discovered through my increasingly extensive delvings into his work is that those shortcomings have probably also been radically overstated by his admirers. You find reviews all over the place hailing a given Franco film but prefacing laudatory remarks by saying something like "a lot of Franco movies are worthless dreck, but this one...." I'll be the first to acknowledge Franco, at his worst, can churn out a complete waste of cinematic space with no redeeming value (OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, I'm lookin' at you) but I've come across a lot fewer examples of this than is suggested by most commentary on his work. His resources are limited but he really is a top-notch filmmaker and in context, the pooches in his pound come across as simply the inevitable consequence of having made so many movies for so many years and for so little money. No one can be at the top of their game that often and under those circumstances. It would, in fact, be a remarkable credit to his skills as a filmmaker if he'd only managed to turn out even two or three really good flicks at the impoverished budget levels and breakneck pace at which he worked for decades but he has dozens of bona fide classics under his belt. I think he's been terribly underestimated, even by many of those of us who admire him.

To return to the main topic at hand though, there are those who just don't understand why he has any following at all, so, Franco being one of my areas of cinematic interest, I thought I'd try to explain.

Franco is a jazz musician and a key to understanding a lot about his work is that he carries over that mindset to his film work.[4] Like jazz, a real appreciation requires study.[5] His admirers often say of his films, "you've never seen one Franco until you've seen them all" and, while that's obviously hyperbole I certainly agree with the sentiment behind it.

Franco's visual style is born of jazz. He's not one who is usually going to spend a lot of time on elaborate set-ups for note-perfect renditions of a piece--there usually isn't the time or budget for it. He's improvisational, experimental. He often operates the camera himself and plucks the images it records from the air. He's able to do this quite well, as a rule, because he's extremely well-versed in cinema--he knows it top-to-bottom and front-to-back and he can reference that encyclopedic knowledge on the fly, bringing it to bear on whatever is before him at any given moment. These days, the zoom lens is frowned upon; to Franco, it's frequently indispensable. He gets a lot of heat for this (and his use of it is overstated) but he's often able to use it to remarkable effect. VAMPYROS LESBOS, to mention but one example, is like a living entity. We know it's alive because it has a pulse and the zoom is what creates it. Back and forth, it never seems to stop. It digs out new images from what's happening before it with the regularity of a heartbeat.

Franco is a self-confessed voyeur and being a jazzman (and an artist of Euro-cinefantastique), he puts a premium on dreamlike narratives and this, like much of what he does, can be alienating to a "mainstream" audience. His narratives are usually very loose. They don't follow any hard line. They tend to drift along, going wherever the director wills them. If the viewer isn't as caught up in what Franco is filming as he is, his work can often seem dull indeed. It's the musician on a stage, working his mojo on a piece, giving it his all, getting really into it and the audience just ain't diggin' it at all. There's a very long striptease sequence in NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT (an unfortunate title, to be sure) that had this effect on me. It was comprised of very little and just seemed to go on and on. The director is clearly into it; I wasn't.[6] Other reviewers have written of having the same reaction to Lina Romay's frustrated writhings in FEMALE VAMPIRE. I didn't. There, I achieved some sort of simpatico with the director and when you can tune into those vibes, it works.

Franco has made every sort of movie under the sun but he has a number of stories (and story elements) that intensely intrigue him and he's filmed them over and over again, all different variations on the same thing, all, for the most part, totally different than the ones that have come before. It's, again, a great jazzman at work--the same thing never sounds the same way twice. VAMPYROS LESBOS is MACUMBA SEXUAL, FEMALE VAMPIRE is DORIANA GREY, THE PERVERSE COUNTESS is TENDER FLESH, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF is FACELESS, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z is SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY. He's told the same stories a dozen times but except for the basic story, the themes, etc.--the things that interest him--every telling is different. He puts his own interest/personal quirks/obsessions on the stage and has spent decades wringing them out.

Franco's subjects are often very dark, the worlds he weaves in which they play out claustrophobic and unyielding. He embraces the aesthetic of sleaze and often manages to make it seem almost respectable. His sense of humor, little commented upon by either his critics or his detractors, can be both broad and sharp and he's often quite clever in how he works it into a piece. Love in his films tends to be a form of twisted obsession that most would regard as quite unhealthy but in which Franco seems to revel, even if it does usually end in tragedy. His characters' strange passions burn twice as brightly if only half as long. Franco doesn't always approve of them but he is fascinated by them. He's particularly fascinated by women. His camera worships them. They're virtually always the protagonists in his stories and his sympathies clearly lie with them. They're forever struggling against the seemingly inexorable destinies that Fate tries to impose upon them (which can be read in more ways than can be easily listed). Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don't. They often "win" by dying. Not, perhaps, the most audience-pleasing method but often the most honest.

Franco isn't necessarily a crowd-pleaser, that's for certain. He goes where he wants with his work and where he usually wants to go is in various dark corners well off that well-beaten track marked Mass Appeal. He's unconcerned with playing to the built in expectations of an audience; he plays things his own way.[7] For Franco, film isn't a job; it's a way of life.[8] He dislikes his own movies, though he always seems willing to talk about them and always gives great interviews. He never offers any pretensions of being an artist--he always says he considers himself a pop filmmaker!

His rejection of artistic pretensions notwithstanding, Franco is a great deal more than merely a creator of exploitation movies, as he is so often pigeonholed. He's a jazzman, a journeyman, a hack, a carny barker, a magician, a dirty old man, a master poet of lurid romanticism, a mad scientist of cinema. Those who go into Franco films unprepared can find them quite difficult. I read about Franco for about 15 years before seeing any of his movies. I was so enthralled by what I read that I was positively giddy about finally getting to see some of it with the advent of DVD. Very rarely can anything live up to the anticipation accumulated over so many years. Usually, it's not even close. Franco not only lived up to it, he exceeded it by a substantial margin. Even I'm surprised by how much my admiration for him has grown. I used to try to pick a favorite of his films every time I wrote anything about his work and I've finally decided I can't. There are too many of them that are too good and that are too different to compare, even when they're telling exactly the same story. I can prefer one to another but I always feel as though I'm unfairly slighting the one I don't denote as a preference. I've stopped trying to pick a favorite. I am an Jesus Franco fan. That's enough for me. He's one of my favorite filmmakers and he has, in my view, been terribly underestimated.

--j.

---

[1] To be fair, Simpson did seem to come around on Franco after seeing EUGENIE and JUSTINE.

[2]Though often, with Franco, even the hack-work has some extraordinary element that makes it noteworthy and raises it above most work of its breed.

[3] To be fair, they're often poorly served by their choice of movies on which they grade his work. For example, neither DEVIL HUNTER nor BLOODY MOON (the two most recent Franco releases from Severin) are good places to start, and any of Franco's films from the last decade or so would leave the unprepared utterly aghast and not in a good way. Still, it seems far too many reviewers form a negative opinion of Franco's work based on a small handful of his films, often work-for-hire movies about which he didn't really care and which are completely unrepresentative of either his best work or of his larger body of work.

[4] While I certainly see that proposition as self evident, it isn't an original observation. Credit where it's due, it was also the assessment of Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs in their book "Immoral Tales."

[5] Many find the pretensions behind such assertions comical when offered in reference to a director who has made a movie called--and about--LULU'S TALKING ASSHOLE but I maintain the assertion, pretensions and all, is entirely appropriate.

[6] Franco also wears boredom on his sleeve like few other directors. When he's cooking, and the audience isn't with him, he can bore but when he, himself, is bored, he can really bore.

[7] This tendency, mated with his eccentricity, gets him accused of contempt for a paying audience, accusations that are often hard to refute.

[8] In recent years, Franco's work has turned up on the Sundance Channel, My reaction was "IT'S ABOUT DAMN TIME!" Franco is indie cinema. He has been for nearly 50 years. His films are the sort of thing Sundance and the Independent Film Channel should be showing, instead of so many of those "independent" films that come from big Hollywood studios.

3 comments:

  1. I regret using the overly strong phrase 'suck-hack' in my review of Franco's Devil Hunter. I'll cop to not having seen enough of his films to make such a final-sounding judgement (although to my my eyes most of those I've seen lack a certain something - maybe I'm just picking the wrong ones). I should have used that phrase only in regard to the movie in question.

    Yet, I've got love for the man ...
    http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/32030/eugenie-de-sade/

    Anyway, awesome post.

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  2. In your own defense, everything you said about DEVIL HUNTER is true. It's a wretched waste of space, and, if anything, you go too easy on it.

    You said, in the review, you were going to be seeking out WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN next, so I'd say your thesis that you're "just picking the wrong ones" probably holds some water (it's even worse than DEVIL HUNTER).

    If you want to know what Franco is all about, you have to get into the really good stuff, and when you found EUGENIE DE SADE, the clouds parted, the sun shone through, and you began to get some little inkling of why we crazed Franco-philes think so much of his work. Keep going. If that sort of flick is your bag, nobody does it better than Uncle Jess. Round up some VENUS IN FURS, slip into a SHE KILLED IN ECSTASY, take a shot of VAMPYROS LESBOS and call me in the morning. You'll be glad you did, and the story has a better ending if I can make you a believer.

    Thanks for the kind word about my post. Like you, I write about 'em because I love 'em.

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  3. Thanks, if/when I get some time, I will check out your recommendations (I think I've seen Vampyros Lesbos but it was so long ago I can't be sure).

    The other, more troubling side to my 'picking the wrong ones' axiom is that I go after them like a ravenous goldfish in a bowl full of brine shrimp. I'll probably never learn. ;)

    ReplyDelete