The Act of Seeing

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Inside Ursula poster art from The Act of Seeing

The Act of Seeing
By Nicolas Winding Refn and Alan Jones
FAB Press
324pp £60

FAB Press have just launched a lavishly produced book of American film posters put together by Nicolas Winding Refn and Alan Jones, which is due to be published on 5 October 2015. Although it includes some well-known titles (such as Snuff), most of the films are so obscure that Alan Jones said at the book launch at the BFI that he had only seen about a quarter of them. A collection of beautiful, inventive designs that enticingly accompany exploitation titles such as The X-Rated Supermarket, Obscene House, The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird or The Abnormal Female, it is both a fascinating time capsule and a record of mostly forgotten films.

The Act of Seeing comes with an exclusive one-sheet style movie poster signed by Nicolas Winding Refn for everyone who buys direct from FAB Press.

Below is an extract from the book’s introduction by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Some years ago I purchased a collection of American film posters from author Jimmy McDonough, who had crawled through all the infamous Times Square cinemas back when that entire area was a no-go zone for most people. He had literally acquired the one-sheets (as this common display format is termed) by surreptitiously unpinning them from the walls, taking them out of dirty glass front-of-house frames or finding them lying around in dusty basements.

One day I had dinner with my friend and film journalist Alan Jones, who suggested I collate them into a book because so many of the titles included were barely even half-remembered, some totally forgotten, others completely obscure or talked about in hushed tones from the yearning point of view of never being seen.

THE ACT OF SEEING is a personal aesthetic expression, an album of poster images artfully put together to represent a fantasy world I can never now experience. The cultural environment these films were created in was long gone by the time my family moved to New York in 1978 when I was 8 years old. I was forbidden to walk down 42nd Street because my mother warned me it was such a dangerous and scary place. Of course that completely entranced me, mythologizing the place further, making it even more exciting and alluring. Now that I’m older, and have my hands on these unexpected posters, I’m able to envision what it must have been like to be a compulsive cinemagoer during this thrilling time, then enter that world vicariously in my over-active imagination through my prized items. It’s why I present these posters to you now, for you to do the same.

Dan Richards is Cecil B. Demented

Cecil B Demented 1
Cecil B. Demented © Abbot Genser

Dan Richards was born in Wales, grew up in Bristol and studied creative writing at UEA. His latest book The Beechwood Airship Interviews (The Friday Project) heads out into the British cultural landscape and explores what it means to make art for art’s sake in a climate that is increasingly driven by cash rather that craft through interviews with the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Drummond, Jenny Saville, Manic Street Preachers, and Stewart Lee. Below, Dan Richards picks Cecil B. Demented as his filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry

Straight jacket, dinner jacket, guns, eyes, script, lips – Cecil B. Demented.

A misunderstood auteur with an uncompromising creative vision, dragooning collaborators with his strange, hypnotic, slightly crazed charisma, a quasi-religious figure with his gang of tattooed film fetishists – a kind of Baader-Meinhof Ed Wood…

What a guy!

John Waters said he created Cecil B. after being branded a lunatic version of Cecil B. DeMille – father of the US film industry, bastion of Hollywood – in an early review. Eternally the opportunist magpie, Waters logged and hid the shiny epithet away to polish it up in 2000 for this black comedy about the kidnap and subsequent conversion of spoilt diva A-lister Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) by Cecil B. Demented for his underground opus.

Played by Stephen Dorff with the kind of dead-eyed commitment Johnny Rotten embodied in the protean Sex Pistols (They mean it, man!), Cecil B. needs a star, so he and his crack-prom posse take one… at gunpoint.

The film that follows (a mess of school play scripting, shoddy sets, seedy porn glamour, kamikaze trash polemics, teenage pouting, and situationist violence) looks more like an early Manic Street Preachers promo than a major film release (the Manics, another band of brothers named after a critical brickbat):

‘The slash and burn of the white-hot metal will brand you forever with the logo of Cecil B. Demented. Wear the privileged scar of cinema sainthood with pride and horniness.’

‘We’ve all taken a vow of celibacy for celluloid. No one gets laid until we finish our movie. We’re horny, but our film comes first.’

At heart it’s a mad film about making mad films, a childish dream of mayhem – What if we exploded the movie world? What if Lost Boys channelled Challenge Anneka to make a shoestring La Femme Nikita… with real guns!?

Limos are trashed, the Baltimore Film Commission, Hollywood, The Man, The Mainstream, Forrest fuckin’ Gump, Patch prick Adams, the real-life careers and reputation of the cast, Waters himself; everyone gets a pasting; thoroughly rained on with gratuitous scattershot gonzo shonk.

And through it all, at the heart of the film, the film within the film, sits Cecil B. Demented, horny, armed to the teeth, wired, barking orders, plotting his gaga Dada ascension to the pantheon of Preminger, Lynch and Anger.

A beautiful Baader-Meinhof Ed Wood dressed by Vivienne Westwood.

What a guy!

Enjoy a 2-4-1 ticket offer on all events in the BFI’s John Waters season by simply quoting Waters241 online, in person or over the phone 020 7928 3232. For full programme info and to book tickets online, visit the BFI website

Dan Richards

Test Dept’s Film Jukebox

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Test Dept photo by Brett Turnbull

Prompted by cultural and political developments, influential 80s industrial music collective Test Dept have recently resurfaced and are currently touring their film DS30 (2014) along with other archive film material. Their book Total State Machine has just been released by PC-Press and is available from Rough Trade East and from the PC-Press website. There will be a number of re-issues of their recorded material soon on PC-Press/Forte Distribution. Test Dept: Redux will be playing live at the Wroclaw Industrial Festival, Poland, on 7 November and at TPO in Bologna, Italy, on 14 November. They will be appearing at the Cambridge Film Festival (4-12 September) on 12 September as part of the Microcinema event programme curated by James Mackay and William Fowler, DARK PICTURES: Industrial Music Culture. Below, Test Dept founding member Graham Cunnington picks his ten essential films, some of which have a personal significance while others have influenced the work of the group.

1.Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
A seminal moment of inspiration and one of those films where you look at the world differently once you emerge from the darkness of the cinema into the light. The landscape of ‘The Zone’ in the film, where one’s deepest dreams can perhaps be realised, somehow reflected the desolation of the former docklands around New Cross where we lived at the time; mile upon mile of derelict and ruined industrial buildings and forsaken empty wasteland. The film raises philosophical questions about the nature of reality and about the existential battles of science and logic vs art and creativity, religion and belief, about right and wrong, good and evil, and it made me feel there were much deeper levels of understanding to explore in the world around me. It also heavily influenced our film Cold Witness starring the great Ken Campbell.

2. Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Dziga Vertov, 1931)
Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera could be in this list as it was a huge early influence on our visual director Brett Turnbull and of Test Dept’s filmmaking style, especially during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. But Enthusiasm is here as it was the first sound film. The first to use sound recorded on location, and then to use those sounds, cut up into a sound collage for the soundtrack. A technique that we have developed throughout our career, using found sound in creating film soundtrack and music composition.

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
The opening shot of the young main protagonist choreographing the drunken inhabitants of a bar in a small town in rural Hungary to act out the movement of the heavenly bodies of the solar system is a beautifully arresting scene. Béla Tarr’s customary ultra-long takes create a dreamlike metaphorical meditation on the fall and failure of the machinations and corruptions of power and the willing blindness of people to accommodate such things. A constant struggle between dark and light around prophesies of doom in a world on the brink of disaster. This film produced another jolt of a creative spark for me.

4. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The adaptation of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the script, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the characters, and the surreality and unexpectedness of some of the scenes and scenarios. In every aspect an astonishing and ground-breaking film that really resonated with us, not least because the Vietnam War was a constant background noise on the news when we were kids. Some sonic material of this was inevitably extracted and used in early TD work, and many others’ too. Someone said of our original installation of DS30 on the river Tyne in Newcastle last year that approaching it by boat was like one of the scenes from this film. A compliment indeed.

5. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
Although Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are brilliant films, Eraserhead was the first Lynch film and the first one I watched. More surreal and strange than anything I had ever come across before, it knocked me sideways. It was always on late night screenings at The Ritzy in Brixton and that was the best time for it. The strange main character of Henry, the black and white cinematography, the sound design and the atmosphere of alienation have lingered in my creative cloud, and, as a reference for being out there, doing your own thing and not giving a shit what people think, it’s pretty unsurpassed. A disturbance of the psyche that textured and coloured some of mine and Test Dept’s very early work.

6. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
The fact that this had been banned and could only be watched on illegal VHS video tapes created the initial intrigue. As a punk in South London in the late 70s, violence was a part of my teenage years. The streets were a dangerous place where gangs of Skinheads, Teddy Boys, Casuals, Hells Angels and Bikers were out to get you. This film reflected that reality – Alex and his Droogs wear their identifying uniform and commit ‘ultra-violence’ much as some in those sub-cultures did – but it also made such an impact on me through its depiction of a government using psychological conditioning to control its citizenship, fanning the flames of my own young anti-establishment tendencies. The design of a near-future, much like our own but strange and alien too, helped by the invented language of Nadsat, appropriating words from other sources, and the incredible soundtrack by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, transplanting Beethoven’s Glorious Ninth Symphony onto the Moog synthesiser; all an inspiration which would come back to me years later when me and the other members of TD came to work on the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket as extras.

7. No Mercy, No Future (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1981)
Incredibly difficult to watch, but this is an enormously powerful work and, along with Sanders-Brahms’s other film Germany, Pale Mother, had such an influence on me, coming out of both in tears, absolutely drained and devastated. A story about a schizophrenic young girl in West Berlin, under the shadow of the Wall, alone and alienated in a brutal city, looking for god. It was an eye-opener that such a powerful emotional effect could be got through a story so uncompromising, uncomfortable and disturbing. It sparked an interest that would eventually lead me to have the courage, many years later, to develop and tell my own story in the solo play Pain.

8. Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
Another future dystopia, it was a toss-up between this and Blade Runner, even though that is undoubtedly the better film, but MMII gets in due to the mutated vehicles and repurposed materials giving an obvious link with TD and our choice of scrap-metal instrumentation. What drew me in was the lonesome road warrior with his dog and his souped-up car, concerned with doing the right thing, but only just, something I identified with completely in my imagination. Also, the opposing tribes: the bad biker-punk gang so much more beguiling than the boring hippie goodies inside their oil-well encampment (except for the cool wild kid narrator with the boomerang). A high-octane-powered roller coaster ride. As TD, we later hooked up with the Mad Max-inspired Mutoid Waste Company, who were living at the time in a quarry in Italy, mutated their own vehicles and could have been characters straight out of the film. We went on convoy with them around Italy and felt as though we actually were.

9. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
I just love this film with Forest Whitaker’s depiction of the eponymous lone hitman who communicates by pigeon and constantly refers to the Hagakure: Book of The Samurai, trying to interpret its code as a spiritual guide; his character here resonates with my own conflicted struggle for a spiritual understanding, beyond religion, in a harshly unspiritual time. He moves through the city unnoticed by most except the few who really see him, accompanied by RZA’s great score, and when you come out of this film you want to do the same, in that lazy, slouching walk that he has, just to be as cool as him – even though he kills people.

10. Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Really three films in one post. This, along with Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War introduced another element into my creative perspective. Film as documentary and as art with a powerful societal message and without words (except those spoken or sung in the soundtrack). The mixture of breath-taking imagery depicted in slow motion or time-lapse with the modernist minimalist repetitive looping soundtrack by Philip Glass created a gloriously vibrant and addictive mix. The films depict the human impact on both the developed and developing worlds, starting from untouched natural landscapes through human intervention to the urban and built environments and beyond to the technologically driven world we inhabit today. Astonishing works, of which maybe a little influence trickled through to our film DS30.

It Isn’t Very Pretty… Interview with John Waters

Pecker (Credit - Michael Ginsburg) (2)
John Waters on the set of Pecker (1998) © Michael Ginsburg

Format: Cinema

It Isn’t Very Pretty… The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…)

Screening Dates:
1 Sept – 6 Oct 2015

Venue: BFI Southbank

Enjoy a 2-4-1 ticket on all events in this season by simply quoting Waters241 online, in person OR over the phone 020 7928 3232. For full programme info and to book tickets online, visit BFI website

On 18 September 2015, the exceptional John Waters will be in London to conduct an on-stage interview as part of the BFI’s two-month season celebrating his 50-year film career. Pamela Jahn caught up with the director ahead of his visit to talk about his work, breaking taboos now and then, turning Pink Flamingos into a kid’s movie and feeling good watching French feel-bad movies.

Pamela Jahn: You’ve just had your first UK art show at the Sprüth Magers Gallery in London, now you are honoured with an extensive film season at the BFI – it seems that the thin line between dark comedy, bad taste and high camp that you’ve been walking for decades has manifested into a runway for success on all fronts…

John Waters: Well, it’s true that nobody really gets mad at much about anything I do anymore, but I haven’t changed anything. I mean, the very first thing I ever did was a film called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. I still lived with my parents, it was filmed on the roof of my house with my high school friends, and it was a white woman marrying a black guy and the wedding ceremony was performed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But is it that so different from my last movie, which was about a middle-class neighbourhood that is taken over by sex addicts? I don’t know. But I’m certainly proud to be having a 50-year retrospective at the BFI now – and my mum would really be proud because she was such an anglophile.

The season at the BFI includes not only your features but also your early short films from the 60s, which you just mentioned. What do they mean to you today?

The early films are not really movies, and that’s why they are shown for free. They were never distributed or anything, they’re kind of like my home movies that I made with my friends. Still, I look back at them all with fondness, although I never sit around and watch my own movies. I also don’t think I had more fun then, I always think tomorrow is going to be more fun than yesterday. But then again, I was trying to make an underground movie and I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t go to film school, so I learned just from experimenting, and those really early films are what that is. It just so happened that my friends happened to be Divine and people who, I guess, seemed like normal people to me at the time, but I guess they were a little more extreme than other people’s friends.

According to your mother, one of the most important influences on your filmmaking must have been Charles Walters’s Lili (1953), and from there you went on to organise your own puppet shows as a kid. Did you sort of know back then where you wanted to go with it, that you wanted to make films one day?

David Lochary, when he used to get mad at me, used to say, ‘We are not your puppets, you know!’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe you are!’ Because do you know how many film directors, if you asked them, were puppeteers when they were kids? They all had puppets, because they are control freaks and the puppets could create their own world. For me, when I then went on to do those puppet shows as a kid, I would break the fourth wall of puppetry at the end and come out with a dragon puppet and say, ‘So, all brave kids stick out your hands and the one kid that gets bitten by the dragon will have good luck forever.’ At that point, some of the kids would start crying and the brave ones would stick their hands out, and I always thought the ones who started crying ended up being losers in life.

How difficult was it to be a control freak given the low budget and pretty chaotic circumstances that you shot your early films in? You still always managed to have a script and stick with it, and you’ve always had a very clear idea of what you wanted.

That’s my work ethic. Obviously, I was on pot when I wrote the movies, but I was never on pot or any drugs when we made the movies. I don’t think anybody was, it was too hard to work. I mean they were made for an audience that was completely on marijuana, but when we made the movies, we had like 20-hour shooting days or something, with no food. If you were stoned you couldn’t have gone through it really. Okay, the cast might have smoked pot behind my back somewhere, but not that much. I think afterwards, yeah, but during the actual shooting day… Mink Stone always used to say, when someone called them amateur actors, she said, ‘Amateur? We had to remember five pages of dialogue and get it right in one take – that isn’t amateur.’ And even today, I still don’t like improvisation. But I know all actors want to improvise today and you can see it in movies, there is too much of it. I’m in the Writers Guild – save the script!

Shooting those films with your friends required a lot of trust from both sides, I imagine…

I didn’t make them do anything, it was all in the script and I asked them to do it. There is a movie that I presented at a festival recently, it’s called Killer Joe, it’s a pretty shocking movie and there is a scene where Gina Gershon does this hideous sex act with a chicken, it’s really hilarious. And Mink said to me afterwards, ‘See, they’re just like us. We didn’t talk about it, we just went for it. We just did it.’ And that’s right, it was a group effort, it was a group madness in away, and I didn’t really do anything that was bad for them… I mean, we all survived. I wasn’t a sadist. And the eat shit scene, we just did it once, it was one take, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s try that again!’ I think, they’re my friends and we all did this together, more as almost like a political action. I think Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass movies are the closest in spirit to my early movies and also in terms of the camaraderie those films were made in.

About Pink Flamingos, you used to say it’s like a kindergarten movie – it’s grown-up people doing babyish things. Was that your inspiration for Kiddie Flamingos, the video that was part of your recent art show in London?

Exactly! I basically just rewrote it and took out all the dirty parts and just made it PG-rated with the same story. But I don’t see it as my next film, I do see it as a video-art piece, because it’s the same thing, whether you poke your head in and watch five or ten minutes of it, or you watch the whole thing. It’s not a feature film, it’s a concept video piece. But with Pink Flamingos, yeah, I think you’re dead right, I think no one over 18 should be allowed to see it, it’s so juvenile.

Almost ten years later, Polyester became your transition film, somewhat marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies and before your mainstream success with Hairspray

Yeah, and you know why? Because video had just come out, so midnight movies were over. Before you always had to go to a movie theatre to see a film. It’s hard to imagine these days, but nobody could watch a movie twice. That’s why midnight movies were so popular, because people would come and see them every week, but once video came out, the mystery was gone. So, Polyester was the first movie I did that was made to be R-rated, it was the first one to play not at midnight.

And it was the first one that really put the melodrama at the forefront. Was that part of the plan, to become more commercial in a way?

Yes, I was certainly influenced by Douglas Sirk. But there was never a time when I tried to be uncommercial. I always wanted people to come and see my movies. The ending of Pink Flamingos was commercial, when you think about it. In the beginning I made exploitation films for art theatres at midnight, but I always had an audience and I knew that I was trying to get people. I wasn’t purposely trying to not make people to come.

You originally screened the film in ‘Odorama’. How did you come up with the idea?

I always remembered that in the late 50s or early 60s there was a film that I have never seen, because it didn’t play long enough when I was a child. It was called Scent of Mystery, and the system that they used to show it with was called ‘Smell-O-Vision’, it was basically a big machine that came to the theatres and pumped out the smell, but it didn’t really work. And I always loved William Castle, who had all those gimmicks in his movies, so it was made kind of as a homage to him.

How did people react when you first screened the film back in 1981?

The very first time we showed the film was in Cannes. There was such a mob of people who came to see it, that they broke the glass door to get in, so the ‘Odorama’ was definitely a success. But I think it was coupled with the fact that Tab Hunter, who was a real movie star, was part of the cast. He was in the movie with Divine, kissing, which – I know it’s hard to imagine today – was surprising to people, but it was. And I think Tap was also a huge part of why that movie was so successful.

You mentioned in the beginning that people don’t get mad anymore about the things you did in your movies. Do you also feel that today there are fewer taboos that you can actually break?

No, there are more taboos. Everybody is so politically correct. That’s why there’s this thing in America that they call a ‘trigger warning’, where, in college, the teachers have to say, ‘This is a trigger warning’, in case they are going to talk about anything controversial that might make people question their values, which is so ludicrous. I always thought that’s why you went to college in the first place, to question your values. So, no, I think today they are more taboos – but are they interesting? Maybe not. Maybe Hollywood now makes big 100-million-dollar gross sell-out comedies that are funny. So maybe that’s where I’ve been a bad influence.

In your latest book Carsick you almost reveal yourself as being a sentimentalist after all, in particular in the chapter where you imagine reuniting with Edith Massey.

Yes, I believe the chapter with Edith you could call sentimental, certainly. I don’t think it’s pushed too far. I look back at the past with a certain fondness and my memories of Edith are touching to me… is that the same as sentimental? I guess so, so I plead guilty there.

Do you have a personal shock limit? Are you genuinely shocked by anything you watch these days?

Well, I’ll always try to surprise people, but sure, I’m shocked by bad romantic comedies, I am shocked by movies that are exactly the same as a science project. I’m shocked but not in a good way. I like to be surprised, certainly, and Gaspar Noé surprises me. I think Bruno Dumont surprises me… usually they are French feel-bad movies that make me feel good.

Looking back at your own filmography, is there a movie that you personally would like to remake today?

Well, I always used to joke and say I’d make Pink Flamingos a children’s movie, but I already did that. Maybe I will do Female Trouble set in an old-age home next. At one point I was trying to make Flamingos Forever, the sequel to Pink Flamingos, but today that would never get made because it would get an N-17 rating and it would cost a lot and we’d have to have movie stars in it, so I’d rather not go there. I’ll prefer doing something new… a new surprise!

Interview by Pamela Jahn