Cinema as an Extreme Sport

The excellent Scala Beyond season continued on Friday with Cinema as a Subversive Art, an all-night tribute to the recently deceased Amos Vogel, founder of the legendary film society Cinema16 and author of Film as Subversive Art.

The event, co-hosted by LUX and Little Joe, curated a selection of films mentioned in Vogel’s book and split them into four programmes of two hours each. The venue was The Cinema Museum, a gorgeous and cavernous space nestled improbably in an alley between labyrinthine residential streets of Elephant and Castle. The building used to be the Old Lambeth Workhouse, which was home to Charlie Chaplin for a brief spell in his childhood. The volunteer-run museum is a musty old treasure trove of beautiful film memorabilia and is well worth a visit (you can get access by booking a guided tour or attend one of their excellent events).

The first programme of the night, ‘Subversion of Form’, began with Paul Sharits Razor Blades. A hypnotic collage of strobed images and shapes, the film rejected conventional plot in favour of compelling juxtapositions and seductive rhythms. It was projected in 16mm onto two adjacent screens, a reminder of the time-consuming, obsessive process that this kind of collaged editing was in the years before digital.

This was followed by Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental masterpiece Meshes of The Afternoon – a nightmarish, cyclical story which continues to influence mainstream filmmaking today.

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The first feature of the evening was WR: Mysteries of the Organism. A bona fide one-off, this film by Serbian director Dušan Makavejev begins as a documentary celebrating the life of controversial Austrian psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich and inventor of the Orgone Energy Accumulator. The film contains  interviews with Reich’s supporters and footage of men and women undergoing ‘therapy’ (which seems to generally involve them being brought to orgasm while channelling their anger into angry or cathartic shouting). This footage is intercut with a fictional story – a kind of communist porno, in which a sexy young woman falls for a Soviet ice skating star. Sex, love and politics collide with tragic results. The film is wonderful: completely bonkers, but also driven by unique, densely packed cultural and historical material and comment.

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The second programme (‘Subversion of Content’) began with Paul Bartel’s comedy short The Secret Cinema, in which a women’s life is controlled by a conspiracy of friends and family who plan interventions and film her reactions for their own entertainment. A precursor to The Truman Show, this is a smart and entertaining adventure in paranoia and surveillance anxiety.

This was followed by Punishment Park, Peter Watkins brilliant, pseudo-documentary critique of American politics. The film follows a group of young countercultural activists who are arrested and given a choice: years in jail or three days in Punishment Park. The latter option presents the opportunity for them to win their freedom by walking 50 miles through the desert, pursued by armed National Guardsmen. From the beginning it is clear they do not stand a chance, and we watch these frightened and angry young prisoners get hunted like rabbits. While the plot is pretty familiar, reminiscent of Battle Royale, Running Man, Hunger Games and a dozen other films, the execution is impeccable and challenging. The film is beautifully crafted, with non-linear editing and creative, thoughtful sound design. 40 years after its release it is still chillingly effective.

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It was around four am when the third programme, ‘Forbidden Subjects of the Cinema’, began. The first film – Carolee Schneemann‘s Fuses – is a fragmented, hallucinatory portrayal of the artist having sex with her boyfriend. As gorgeous as it is graphic, it uses techniques like ink and chemicals on film as well as a choppy editing style to evoke a rich, sensual atmosphere.

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This graphic depiction of life was followed by an equally graphic portrayal of death. Stan Brakhage‘s The Act of Seeing with One’s own Eyes is a relentless visual account of a series of autopsies. Thick skin is sliced to reveal deep red meat and foamy yellow fat. A brain is removed, a face is removed, a body lies hollow with it’s organ’s removed. We are faced with the detailed deconstruction of everything that makes up our physical being. It is an intense, visceral half hour. The third film in this programme was Kenneth Anger‘s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. After the sincerity of the two preceeding films, Anger’s camp and kitch aesthetic felt a little incongruous. But if the intension was to drift even further into weird waters, mission accomplished.

When the lights came on after the brain-pummelling third programme it was around six am and half the audience had peeled off. Those that stayed wore expressions testifying to varying degrees of exhilaration and trauma. Everyone knows that if you want to brainwash someone you first need to break them. And this group of 30-odd film lovers were pretty broken. Coffees were sunk, micronaps stolen, and then it was time for the final programme: ‘Towards a New Consciousness’.

The first film of the programme, James Whitney‘s Lapis, is a mind-bending journey into a tunnel of mandala-like rotating patterns, accompanied by Indian music. Screened on a film print, the detail and colour of the film was extraordinary and completely immersive.

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This was followed by Len Lye‘s masterful study of movement and rhythm Free Radicals, and Scott Bartlett’s 1970s video feedback experiment Off/on. By this point the audience were either asleep or in a deeply suggestive state of hypnotised wonderment, so it was time to break out the final film of the night – The Incredible Shrinking Man. This 1957 science fiction feature, written Richard Matheson and directed by Jack Arnold, begins as a standard ’50s B-Movie. Scott (our hero) is an ordinary man. Employed by his successful brother and married to his lovely wife Louise, who is completely out of his league, Scott seems happy enough. However when he accidentally enounters a cloud of radiation while on holiday, things take a turn for the worse. Scott begins to steadily shrink. Before long, Louise has him living in a dolls house where she feeds and takes care of him. When he is attacked by the cat and find himself trapped in the cellar, Scott is forced to fend for himself. He forges tools, slays a ‘spider-monster’ and in doing so finally becomes a man, despite his dimitive stature. After this Straw Dogs style coming of age, Scott continues to shrink. And things start to get really weird. No longer driven by the desires of his body, Scott feels himself controlled by a more fundamental force. Slipping through the cellar’s wire mesh ventilation window, he finds himself in the garden. Above him, the stars spread out mighty and vast. He is visited by the knowledge that the infinitesimal and the infinite are one. Even as he fades to nothing, he understands that he is still a part of the grand mysetrious meaning of the universe. It’s genuinely affecting, transcendental stuff and a perfect end of a very strange journey.

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The audience emerged, blinking, into the bright early morning. Feeling like a new woman, I staggered through Elephant and Castle and jumped on a tube to Paddington, where I had a train to catch to take me all the way to Bristol, and another cinema, for the final two days of Encounters Film Festival.

The Scala Beyond season continues until September 29th, when it goes out in a flaming gore-fest with Midnight Movies Fright at The Proms all-nighter.

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