Tuesday, July 14, 2009

KILLING FOR CULTURE

It's funny how things age differently. Some music sounds better today than it did when it was originally released, while a lot matures badly. For example, to my ears, most so-called punk and post-punk sounds like crap nowadays, belying the raw excitement of the times. To listen to erstwhile teenage heroes The Sex Pistols is like listening to crude heavy rock - which is, to all extents and purposes, of course what it was. Likewise, old Throbbing Gristle sounds particularly weedy and undercooked, giving question to even their musical validity, let alone artistic; whereas, on the other hand, the first few albums by Nurse With Wound and The Residents, whilst putting to shame their latter-day output, have a compellingly vibrant immediacy.

Music aside, I've been on a bit of a mondo genre-related movie kick as of late - and the outstanding two by Jacopetti and Prosperi, Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom (full original versions) seem now to be blessed with an exhilarating freshness and timelessness. It's not that the themes are necessarily more relevant to us today, but that these are works of enduring artistic potency and immense endeavour. The meaningfulness of one's emotional response is more than ever intact - and it's not one founded upon whimsically nostalgic experiential associations, as with most revisits.

So it was while exploring this thread that I picked up Killing For Culture (David Kerekes & David Slater, Creation Books, 1994) for a reread. Described as 'an illustrated history of death film from mondo to snuff', the book is a fascinating resource full of detail on everything from feature films to mondo to so-called 'snuff'. It's the book everyone used to go to before the internet, for info on the Japanese Guinea Pig franchise, or classic underground horror movies like Emmanuelle In America and Last House On Dead End Street, in addition to the less well known Mondo Cane spin-offs. Kerekes and Slater at least seemed to know their stuff, and deserve some credit for their bravery.

Yet, in 2009, Killing For Culture seems noticeably quaint. And that's partly due to Creation Books' notorious mindset where attractive lay-out, correct spelling, and decent bindings are merely expendable inconveniences. But it's mostly thanks to this last decade's extraordinary innovations in people's access to technology and media creation, its distribution and digestion; and thus the almost total blurring of the lines between what is 'real' and what is 'faked' within the domain of TV and film since the book's publication. And that's if those lines ever really existed in the first place. Indeed, these cultural aspects have evolved so rapidly, the authors' own attitudes have been left exposed as hopelessly old-fashioned and, dare I say in this context, prudish. Whilst all the geeks, ghouls, and gorehounds were scrambling to exploit the texts as a catalogue-cum-directory, this likely passed unnoticed.

Its five pages featuring Africa Addio are particularly revealing in this regard. The film is described in deliciously forensic detail where discrepancies are pointed out between the narrative and the footage; scenes which are suspected by the authors of being staged are gotcha'd like smug airport security staffers confiscating 110ml tubes of handcream and unapproved mineral water. Hi-fives all round. This is all well and good until that curiously dowdy, now outdated, British habit of emotional detachment is employed, which allows for the maintaining of fine moral sanctimoniousness whilst secretly masturbating. Patronising references are made of the ignorant reactions of the 'casual viewer', tenuous accusations of directorial racism made, alongside the alleged setting-up of events, and the questionable manipulation of music and picture.

Well, of course there's manipulation - it's edited, it's a movie, it's a work of art, it's entertainment, whatever you want to call it. When we go see a film, watch TV, read a book, catch a concert, listen to an album, we passionately yearn to be manipulated, and manipulated bloody well. The hypocrisy of a shoddily assembled book on gore films, both real and dramatised, making that particular accusation is similar in tone to the police detective complaining of being 'forced' to watch pornos to determine possible obscenity charges. And then get paid for it.

One of the most critical reasons I believe Africa Addio retains such a hypermodern essence is its complete transcendence of western morality's issues on cruelty, gender, race, colonial guilt, and politics. Unlike many of the other copycat films which made self-conscious attempts to rationalise the material. It's worth seeing the Godfathers Of Mondo documentary where much background to the movie is explained by the creators, most telling being the incredible devotion that was expended upon the project. However, it's also here where a Kerekes way out of his depth is bafflingly drafted in as a talking head pundit.

Africa Addio possesses symphonic qualities intended to elicit a meaningful response and it forcefully accomplishes that. It's evident by the way you measure your own feelings; by the time of the closing credits one is overwhelmed by the beauty of the continent: its landscape, its animals, its people, its history - it's a paradoxical reaffirmation of life itself achieved through the masterful composition of audiovisual poetry of astonishing cruelty and horror.

6 comments:

SYpHA_69 said...

Yeah, Creation Books can be hit or miss, though I have purchased quite a few of their products over the years. Right now it seems like they're really milking the Peter Sotos cash cow, re-releasing a lot of his books in hardcover format, even though many of the books they had previously re-released in "Proxy" not all that long ago. And $100 a piece for the limited editions? Of course, that didn't stop me from buying them anyway, being the collector that I am, but still...

John McAndrew said...

Agree with Sypha re: Creation. I haven't bought anything from them for a while. I think their series of books on cinema were the best thing they really had going for them. Now they're just content to publishing hardback (which they STILL can't seem to get right) rehashes of former titles or lacklustre artbooks and charging OOT prices to accommodate their limited runs. I can't decide whether they're being cheeky, desperate or realistic in doing so, but personally I wish they'd just cut the crap and stick to moderately priced paperbacks. Anyway, there are other excellent publishers to turn to now for the goods.

I'm still very fond of Killing For Culture although it's been a while since I've reread it. It's in dire need of updating, although what new things they could update it with are no longer underground or all that new. The internet in the 10 or so years it was was published seemingly contains 100 years worth of history that could triple the original book's contents. Executions, gruesome deaths in iraq, borderline snuff videos or gory jpgs are merely a chain email away these days it seems. The mondo film of the past (save for the post-Cane work of Jacopetti) in all its exoticism is now rather passé - many people I imagine would sadly see it as a gawky precursor to Tarrant on TV. Gore is no longer seen for shocks but for the lulz. It'd be nice to have a new edition of the book that fills out the missing pages of its history, but it's pretty pointless as it'll be out of date within the month of its publication (hell, even before it hits printing I imagine). A blog would make much more sense, but in the scheme of other blogs existence it would be pointless. A wiki is a stupid idea. Forums even stupider. So really, though it sort of pains me to say it, I ultimately feel the book should be left alone as it is - a history of captured "death", pre-internet.

You might want to try Sweet and Savage by Mark Goodall if you're wanting to read more about mondo films and their history (which incidentally is published by Headpress, run by Killing for Culture author David Kerekes).

Jack Sargeant said...

For more on this I suggest that you look at the chapter on Mondo Cane and interview with Jacopetti in the Amok Journal, Sensurround Edition, ed. Stuart Swezey (Amok Books, 1995). I recall the book included a lengthy extract from the 1966 Ballantine publication on Africa Addios.

I actually did a European lecture tour with Stuart and his talk offered great insight into the pleasures of the mondo genre. We had fun screening an extract from the German section of Mondo Cane while screening in a venue a short distance from where it was shot.

For what it's worth I found Sweet & Savage to be guilty being too emotionally uninvolved with the subject matter.

mcarpio said...

hey william, noticed recently on utube there's real early WH footage shot in so. california, of the song Shitfun...and this is from some documentary of outre music i've never heard of called "d.u.i.", this doc. is most intriguing...could u shed any light about the rest of it's contents, how many songs from u guys, etc. and do u have a copy of this? any way of putting more of it on utube? best, m cassius

Richo said...

Considering the book was published before the internet spiralled to the wonderfully anarchic point it's now at, I feel it still has its place. As you rightly illustrate William, such books were all we had at the time, and I'm glad there were people such as Headpress magazine's two editors around to help share their pointers to these films. Although only 13 years ago, it feels like a different era. Very much the same as the punk/post-punk period you refer to. Long gone times.
I think it's too easy to criticise certain books and the people's efforts behind them from our relatively new vantage point. I certainly won't be parting with my copy of 'Killing for Culture', anyway.
Good post, though! Never got to see these particular films, so perhaps it's time to finally get around to it.

Richo said...

As a slight aside to my last comment, I'd like to also point out that I still prefer 'proper' books, too. The same way as I still ultimately prefer vinyl when it comes to listening to music. This whole subject is one I am very much interested in. And, again, away from the main concern of the original post, although still related to a point raised in it, here's some food for thought:

http://www.boingboing.net/2009/07/20/amazons-orwellian-de.html