Rupert Hames reports on the growing underground movement of writers and directors throwing out the rulebook of the traditional Hollywood film genre. Are we witnessing a new dawn in film making, or will this potential revolution be quashed by a bewildered audience reluctant to venture into the unknown?
Take a leisurely stroll from your local pizza restaurant across the car park to the nearest multiplex cinema, and look up at the illuminated "Now Showing" ads adorning the walls of the foyer. Even the hallucinating few suffering from the more acute symptoms of over-eating would find it difficult not to recognise a certain pattern amongst the celluloid creations on offer. Hollywood's obsession for the sequel, prequel, re-make, and inevitable re-make sequel or prequel appears unrelenting, as studios apparently starved of fresh ideas continue in their cold-blooded pursuit of the fast buck.
Until now, that is. A new breed of writers, producers and directors, stemming primarily from Europe, has set about challenging the status quo of recent times by redefining the accepted boundaries of the film genre. Disillusioned with the tiresome output of clichéd blockbusters featuring a predictable roll call of surgically enhanced prima donnas, this new wave of auteurs has attempted to breathe much-needed life into the art form, mainly by the innovative fusing together of several previously independent genres.
This blurring of the boundaries, originally embraced a decade ago by French film makers Françoise Bouffē and Michelle Fromagent, rapidly opened up new territory for any young and ambitious artiste willing to put their reputation on the line. Audience reaction was initially granted secondary importance over creativity and daring, as rival directors attempted to out-manoeuvre their contemporaries with progressively more challenging crossovers. Many of these early films soon gained a cult following amongst informed critics, which led to other directors following suit in the hope of joining the revolutionary bandwagon. Soon, film output began to evolve into certain formulae, and the Très Nouveau Avant Garde movement, or Nouvant Garde as it became known, was born.
In order to familiarise ourselves with what could potentially become the template for western cinema over the coming decades, there follows a brief breakdown of some of the more popular Nouvant Garde genres. Where understood, examples and synopses of relevant films have also been included.
Perhaps one of the more adventurous metamorphoses borne of the Nouvant Garde movement is that of the Slasher-Musical. Since their introduction, the progenital genres of the Slasher Horror movie and lavish Hollywood Musical had been turned inside out in the search for fresh permutations, and so were both seen by many to have had their day. It was a flamboyant young graduate from the Conservatoire du Cinéma à Paris by the name of Henri Mélons who first attempted to combine the two styles, in his 2008 release Le Son De L'abattage (The Sound of Mutilation). Typically in this genre, the song-struck protagonists are relentlessly pursued by some kind of homicidal maniac, apparently bearing a personal grudge against impromptu song and dance routines.
Le Son De L'abattage was seen as the definitive Slasher-Musical and opened the flood gates to a host of similar ventures from inspired European directors. In Mélons' film, the only daughter of an aristocratic Parisian family, Claudette, falls in love with Jacques, a neighbourhood hoodlum she meets whilst serenading a pair of swans at the shore of the local boating lake. The two cavort gaily around Paris, performing in the process numerous extravagantly-choreographed show-stopping tunes (composed for the film by a then little- known Hector Bàton). Ominously intercut into these sequences are darkly-lit scenes depicting the shadowy figure of a man in a rabbit suit, wielding a variety of kitchen utensils to the sound of children playing in the background. Unsure as to whether these images are flashbacks, omens of doom, or suggestive of a nearby costume party, the audience is kept in suspense as the tension builds towards the end of the film. To whet the audience's appetite, hints of a tumultuous climax are provided by way of the graphic slaying of several key characters whilst in the act of singing romantic or comedic passages. Eventually, following the dismemberment of Jacques, Claudette tussles with the rabbit-man, discouraging his advances with a chainsaw by way of impassioned song.
Writing in his recent book Les Cahiers Du Cinéma Moderne, the critic Alain Boursin suggests the popularity behind the genre stems from the audience's inherent association with the plight of the killer in his dislike of people bursting into song for no apparent reason. He claims that the slasher character is merely fulfilling the fantasy of many a film-goer, borne from exposure over the last fifty years to a profusion of sickly-sweet Musicals featuring thoroughly unwarranted episodes of impromptu song.
Other titles worthy of note in the Slasher-Musical genre include Phantom de L'abattoir (2008), Cabaret the 13th (2009), and Les Sept Mariée pour les Sept Psychopathes (Seven Brides for Seven Psychopaths, 2009).
The Neorealist Chick Flick
This exciting new genre, inspired by the Neorealist movement of the 1940s and early 1950s, pitches the contemporary urban female into the economically and morally- challenging world of post war Italy. Reacting to a lack of expression in mainstream cinema, the genre strives for realism and typifies the experimental spirit of the modern European director keen to explore new territory for feminine issues. It also commonly produces challenging characters to be portrayed by the leading players, who must combine the emotions of lust and jealousy inherent in the slapstick of inter-marital bedroom farce with issues such as the German occupation of a metaphorically decadent Rome. Neorealist Chickflickism often utilises the talents of either non-professional actors, or those who may have recently appeared in the films of Michael Winner. The colour pink also features prolifically throughout the genre, although where productions are filmed in black and white (in clear homage to directors such as Fellini and Buster Keaton), symbolism is employed to denote the presence of feminine structure - for example the solitary eyebrow pencil in the foreground of the anchovy filleting scene in Liuzzi's 2004 masterpiece Scusi, Sbagliato Letto (Oops, Wrong Bed).
In Liuzzi's film, the relatively uplifting subject of linguine rationing in the face of abject poverty is set against a torrid backdrop of romantic dinner dates, and all-night pyjama parties. The female lead Renata is dismayed to discover her husband's affair with the village's former air raid warden, when she walks in on the pair stealing anti-pasti from the local delicatessen. Stricken with grief, she embarks on a voyage of personal discovery, eventually buoyed by a close but light-hearted relationship with a local peasant woman, who actively encourages her to sublimate her woes by flirting with a charming German soldier fresh from his second divorce. The unlikely couple become close and eventually marry, although neither financially crippled family can afford to contribute to the spiralling costs, and the guests are forced to eat stone-baked cat at the wedding breakfast. The day is saved by the ditsy peasant woman, who whilst sampling her main course for the first time, fakes an earth-shattering seizure in the hope of attracting the attention of a tightly-trousered German waiter. This iconic scene from the film is clearly a reference from Liuzzi to the fruitless struggle of contemporary Italian culture in the challenging economic climate of post Nazi Europe.
It should be noted that Neorealist Chickflickism is a term used to define a certain trend in film making, rather than the creation of a specific school of directors. However, Giancarlo Liuzzi and another prolific director, Giuseppe Antonionioni, were once reported to have exchanged gunfire over the right to be known as the father of the genre.
Other recommended titles include No Socks in the City (2004), Occupied Actually (2005) and Pasta Pink Panties (2006).
This fusion of gritty working class melodrama with a classic period of racial awakening in American cinema originated amidst the smog of northern England. Surrounded by urban decay and pie shops, a shaven-headed Mancunian with a passing interest in the history of cinematography decided to pursue a new career having been made redundant at the local gasworks, where he had been employed as a pipe fitter. Heavily influenced by the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s, Wayne Priestley and several of his acquaintances from a nearby betting shop took to penning screenplays during lock-ins at their local public house. These early scripts were to prove ground-breaking, and reflected issues such as the struggle of the university educated pimp to be accepted by his working class contemporaries, amidst the claustrophobia of a provincial existence on relatively low income.
The subject of social alienation is heavily prominent in the genre, as angry young punks hailing from the high rise blocks strewn across the ghettos of Lancashire and Yorkshire work tirelessly as simple hit men or drug traffickers. The language used is often controversial, with ethnic slurs such as "Cockney", "Brummie" or "Honky" employed to slander characters from outside of the ghetto. Negative racial symbolism is also utilised, in the form of weak or unreliable white characters such as prostitutes, informants or cleaning ladies operating in a world dominated by the jivin' proletariat who control the street.
The classic Kitchen Sinxploitation soundtrack features the funky beats of Northern Soul, with wah-wah guitar, pounding bass and tinny piano driving along the action onscreen. Many musical stars have become synonymous with the genre, for example Marvin Igglesden and the Towerblocks, and the soul diva Pauline Lonsdale.
The genre has often been accused of dealing in cultural stereotype in its use of predominantly working class northern actors to portray predominantly working class northern characters, who in a morally acceptable society would be represented by a more ethnically-diverse cast. This criticism was famously contested by the director Terry McAllister (I'm Gonna Git You, Mucka, 2007), in his remark "I ain't gonna take no jive from no bitchin' sisters". Nonetheless, many politically-astute critics have called for an end to the genre, fearing a backlash from the pimps, junkies and nickel and dime pushers striving to earn an honest living on the mean streets of northern England.
The iconic Kitchen Sinxploitation title is the 2008 release Black Pudding: White Pudding, directed by the Yorkshireman Brian "Luther" Littler. His film is set on the cobbled streets of a dreary Grimsby, where a bitter feud is played out between rival gangs fighting for control of the local cotton mill. Struggling to police the area effectively, the local constabulary, with the help of their ever-streetwise informant Angeldust, elect to unleash the services of Badass Soulglow ("You, can call me Badaaass..."), a legendary private eye known for taking no prisoners. The film is shot in low light conditions, with many stakeout scenes building tension amidst rain-washed streets and alleyways decorated by the drooping washing lines so reflective of the working class' struggle against a metropolised class system. When Angeldust is eventually discovered in a disused warehouse behind the greyhound track with his throat cut, the race is on to apprehend the culprit before a dispute over working conditions at the mill brings all the workers out on strike. In a thrilling finale, Badass corners his quarry following a drawn-out chase sequence, only to discover that his "early" shift at the local meat processing plant is due to start imminently, plunging him into a moral dilemma: Should he make the bust and rid the streets of this honky wideboy, or should he get straight over to the factory and safeguard the bread on the table for his impoverished young family?
There are numerous examples of films typical to the genre. The most evocative include Disco Coalminer (2007), Look Black in Anger (2008) and Call Me Superlad (2008).
Combining the classic narrative of the literary adaptation with the hard-hitting style and imagery common to the film noir movement, Literary Noir is a fast growing new genre heralding from both sides of the Atlantic. Up and coming directors such as Harvey Parker-Timms and Mort Schleppenbaum embraced the fundamental qualities of each, creating gritty, no-nonsense characters operating on the edge of morality amidst the innocence and optimism of hazy period settings.
A typical plot in the genre might revolve around the simple country folk of a Victorian-era village who unknowingly harbour a cold-blooded femme fatale in their midst, as they busy themselves preparing vegetables, or boffing the rugged gardener in the potting shed. Themes of murderous jealousy and blackmail are often explored, with emphasis placed on good eventually prevailing over evil, as the callous perpetrator is either apprehended and escorted away by detectives, or forced to work as a chambermaid in order to repay her debt to the householder. Male characters are also used to portray the dark side of human nature, with ageing husbands often employing the archetypal chain smoking bobby-on-the-beat to "tail" their lovers, who may be suspected of treachery, or involvement with illiterate stablehands. The hard-talking cop is sometimes seduced by his quarry, and may be persuaded to turn on his employer, particularly if his employer dresses foppishly and seeks out the company of fellow dandies who also rouge their cheeks.
The tough-skinned, amoral anti-hero can be pitched into any familiar literary surrounding, such as Dickensian London, the gothic novel, Napoleonic Russia, or the deep south of the United States, where, for example, he may toil against errant schoolboys or runaway slaves.
Whether set in the workhouses of London or the sun-dappled meadows of Victorian England, the scenes are shot in black and white, and characteristically photographed using minimal lighting and unusual camera angles. This adds to a generally cynical atmosphere in many films of the genre, which helps to maintain audience tension throughout scenes depicting the carefree trysts of young lovers, or the pranks of boisterous adolescents playing about on rafts.
The best example of a film in this genre is undoubtedly Schleppenbaum's The Broad on the Bloc (2007). Set in Russia in the mid-19th century, this classic chiller tells the tale of Litszka, a poor young woman with a big heart who takes on any work she can to support her aged family, who are one by one falling victim to dropsy. Taken in by a ruthless charge-hand, she falls into despair when forced to work as a tea lady down the local coalmine. Here she is exposed to poor conditions and unsafe working practice, for which she threatens to report her employer to the relevant authority in a desperate bid to escape his clutches. Furthermore, during a tense sequence later in the film, she witnesses her evil employer in a passionate embrace with a cardboard cut-out of Ivan Turgenev. Armed with her evidence, which includes a detailed line drawing of her boss caught in the act, Litszka elects to blackmail him to the tune of "50,000 big ones".
Forced to take drastic action, her boss Stanislav seeks vengeance by recruiting a local potato farmer with a sideline in strongarm to track Litszka, and gather sufficient evidence to question her character at the forthcoming tribunal. As Ivan the potato farmer pursues Litszka however, he becomes enchanted by her, and when they abruptly meet as he is sketching her spooning soup from the wrong side of her bowl, she seduces him. Drawn into a web of passion and deceit, Ivan is plagued by indecision as he tussles with morality: Is Litszka thinking only of her love for him and her family, or is she merely using Ivan for her own gain and to ruin her employer? Should he pull out of the affair and provide Stanislav with the evidence for which he is paying him? Or should he settle all business with the smoking barrel of a .45 so he can return to his farm, particularly as it's harvest time and bad weather is forecast?
The film effectively combines the classic ingredients of greed, lust, extortion and murder against the oppressive backdrop of 19th century Russian poverty, interweaving each with the clever use of editing and plot structure.
Further viewing in this genre should include Double Deadline of the d'Urbervilles (2006), Portrait of a Dame, (2007) and The Thirty-Nine Stiffs, (2008).
The Spaghetti Ealing Comedy
Faced with the recent miasma of mediocrity emanating from Hollywood, many of Europe's comedy directors have embraced the spirit of the Ealing comedies, which were originally produced at the famous Ealing Studios in London in the aftermath of World War 2. Disillusioned following a similar period of depression in the film industry, directors at the time capitalised on an optimistic brand of humour manifested in the tale of the small man's struggle against impersonal authority. In contemporary cinema, this ethos has been adopted by a group of Mediterranean producers and directors, who found that not only could they relate to the plight of the inept rebel, but they could also produce the films on a shoestring by employing cheap labour and shooting on location in their home countries.
The pitching of our bungling hero into a predominantly Western-style setting has led to inevitable comparisons with the "Spaghetti" Westerns of the 1960s and 70s, where similar economic conditions were exploited to increase profit. The resulting present day genre typically features criminal gangs made up of bandits, bank robbers and general revolutionaries wreaking havoc upon the arid landscape, only to eventually be foiled by unlikely avengers such as gangs of schoolboys, or feisty old ladies. Often operating on the edge of the law, the usually eccentric bandido steal, rape or murder their way through a humorous plot, rebelling against the unreasonable legal constraints imposed by a faceless society. Much of the humour is derived from the unexpected strength of their enemies, as fierce resistance is encountered from typically vulnerable groups. This often results in the undoing of the criminal gangs by way of acts such as being mercilessly pelted with mud pies, or run over by a vicar riding a bicycle.
Even though the films of the genre are released to a primarily English-speaking audience, Italian or Spanish producers frequently insisted on casting their own in-house "stars" into the action which sometimes compromised the dialogue, as many could only speak their native language. This hurdle was overcome by dubbing Queen's English-speaking voices over their original parts, offering curious inflections to death threats uttered by many of the more unsavoury characters in the films. The overall atmosphere is buoyant and full of hope, in spite of the trademark minimalist cinematography and bloody violence. This optimism is in no small part due to the incompetence of the rebelling characters, who are usually portrayed as lovable rogues, even if they do happen to commit mass genocide along the way.
Typical of the genre is A Bullet for the Bus Driver (2005), written and directed by Domenico Scaglioni. In his film, Scaglioni follows a vicious band of ex-convicts who get together after breaking out of jail with the intention of hijacking a consignment of Monopoly money and smuggling it across the border. Led by the ruthless Indigo, they secure their heist by holding up the stagecoach containing the loot and kidnapping the driver, a seemingly defenceless old man by the name of Mr Smathers. Their journey to the border is beset with problems, and to make matters worse, when they reach the border one of the villains, Miguel, is recognised by someone claiming to be a long-lost uncle. Convinced the man is mistaken, and clearly not wishing to attract any unnecessary attention, Miguel persuades him otherwise by tying him foot-first to a nearby horse, and firing his pistol close to the horse's ear. When the bandits realise that the man who has just departed along the floor is the only person who can permit them access across the border, Miguel is forced by Indigo to go after him and apologise.
Finally safely across the border, the gang decide to break open the loot and go on a shopping spree, interspersed with some pleasantly distracting episodes of cold-blooded massacre. However, calamity once more strikes our hapless heroes, as upon prying open the cashbox with their hostage's front teeth, Indigo suspects the Monopoly money to be counterfeit when he realises that the face of George Washington is drawn on in crayon. Poor Miguel gets it in the neck once more, as it turns out that he was the one responsible for hijacking the wrong stagecoach.
Using the distraction of the ensuing gunfight to his advantage, Mr Smathers breaks free from his ropes, and manages to escape to a nearby Nunnery. Here he enlists the help of a vigilante band of nuns, who arm themselves with a variety of amusingly makeshift weapons and descend on the bandit's camp for a final showdown. The climax of the film is centred on a prolonged sequence set in a vast cemetery, where the tension built by the rapid cutting from one face to the next is finally relieved when Miguel trips over a headstone and falls headfirst into an open grave.
There are many titles in this popular new genre worthy of note. Typically characteristic examples include Bridge Night at Fort Apache, (2006), Adios, Boy Scout, (2007) and Once Upon a Time in the Women's Institute, (2007).
The German Expressionist Rom-Com
In this, the final established new genre of the Nouvant Garde movement, much-needed life is breathed into the somewhat tired formula of the Romantic Comedy. Several Bavarian directors, led by the experimental German Bernardt Falstög, took inspiration from the classic expressionist period in German cinema, where film makers utilised symbolism and striking visual imagery to add mood and deeper meaning to their films. This allowed cash-strapped post First World War producers to compete creatively with the lavish creations on offer from the other side of the Atlantic. Encouraged by the seemingly endless popularity of the Romantic Comedy in contemporary cinema, directors were enticed into innovatively combining the two styles, which has resulted in a succession of artistically- satisfying, yet financially successful films.
In the films, light-hearted tales of incidental, obstacle-plagued romance are set amidst an often non-realistic mise en scène characterised by geometrically absurd sets and oblique camera angles. In the absence of unaffordable visual effects, the fairytale setting may be enhanced by the painting of obscure designs onto the floors and walls of the sets to portray the shadowy existence frequented by the reluctantly love-struck protagonists. To add intellectual depth to proceedings, emotional hurdles such as insanity, betrayal and irrational superstition must be overcome by the goofy singletons, before they traditionally unite contrary to the advice of their sex-crazed, yet socially astute friends. Their humorous journey towards true love may be obstructed by disagreements over a misunderstood situation, the supposed intense dislike of one to the other, or the portrayal from one or both characters of psychological dysfunction inspired from the dark idiom of traditional folk tales or gothic horror.
In Falstög's classic of the genre, the 2007 offering There's Something About Wolfschmidt, the director draws on Bavarian folklore for inspiration in the character of Wolfschmidt, a beast comprised of half man-half wolf, with a charming demeanour irresistible to the opposite sex. Whilst socialising with his friends at the local hunchback taxidermist's apartment, Wolfschmidt inadvertently meets Deloris, when he trips carrying a tray of hours d'ouvres and accidentally coats her in formaldehyde. Although thrown together by calamitous circumstance, the pair share a prolonged initial eye contact, which is only broken when Deloris senses a mysterious black shape looming behind Wolfschmidt that resembles some kind of demonic presence. Relieved to discover it is merely her best friend Daisy with a fresh drink, Deloris is endeared to Wolfschmidt, particularly by the way in which he drinks his cocktail from a bowl on the floor.
After this chance meeting, the two go their separate ways: Deloris to her dreary life working as a waitress in a busy coffee house, and Wolfschmidt as a professional fairytale character in the local haunted forest. Encouraged to spread her wings by her friend Daisy, Deloris embarks on a series of unsuccessful blind dates with various losers including a neurotic two-headed giant, and a terrifying ghoul of a man, whose habit of frequently turning into a bat may have proved acceptable had he not the baggage of two children from a previous marriage. By sheer chance, whilst waiting to hail a cab on the edge of the haunted forest, Deloris comes across Wolfschmidt, who is on his way to a nearby gingerbread cottage to terrorise its inhabitants. Putting off his prior engagement, Wolfschmidt offers to walk Deloris home. The couple then embark on the long journey to Deloris' brownstone, taking in along the way several bars and a restaurant, and eventually the theatre, where they enjoy a performance by a travelling group of golems. Deloris is swept off her feet by Wolfschmidt, who constantly amuses her with his urbane charisma and inadvertent habits, such as getting his tail stuck in elevator doors. Finally arriving at Deloris's apartment at sunrise, the couple agree to meet again, providing it fits in with Wolfschmidt's forthcoming literary commitment to a grisly new folk story.
Following their impromptu first date, stark reality washes over Wolfschmidt, as he realises that a wonderful girl like Deloris should never become romantically involved with a man like him who takes six hours to shave, and so he settles on a plan of action to try and put Deloris off. The film then enters a dream-like sequence of romantic scenes that dissolve into each other, as we witness the unlikely couple out on various dates. Deloris' distorted face is depicted laughing hysterically as the camera repeatedly cuts to Wolfschmidt who, against a surreal backdrop of sinister imagery, we see indulging in acts such as eating a small child, or suspending a trussed Daisy over a steaming cauldron. Deloris continues to laugh, and as we dissolve to her drunkenly stripping before a mortified Wolfschmidt, we get the impression that his dastardly plan is failing.
Sensing some hesitance on her lover's part, Deloris realises that she must prove to Wolfschmidt that her love is genuine, and not just because he is an animal in the bedroom. As we head toward the end of the film, with the help of the forever-single but dependable Daisy, Deloris plots the ultimate romantic gesture to declare her undying love to the half man-half wolf. At the film's climax, we are not only left wondering just how far she will go, but also, will Wolfschmidt rid himself of his habit of panting at the dinner table?
The film inspired a host of similar ventures, including Hairy Woman, (2008), My Best Friend's Suicide, (2008), and My Date's a Graverobber, (2009).
Back to the Future...
Further to the success of the above genres, there has recently been a fresh wave of experimental output from some European directors who are seemingly determined to leave no creative stones unturned in their pursuit of new cinematic territory. Some of these perhaps stretch celluloid convention that little bit further; however, in the interests of positioning ourselves at the cutting edge, we shall summarise three of the more challenging morphoses below:
Avant Soviet Montage Road Movie: Often self-financed films, characterised by the incomprehensible spatial continuity of non-seamless editing techniques common in Russian cinema of the 1920s. Lead characters are depicted on some kind of road trip that takes them on a spiritually-enlightening and often humorous journey through a society rich in adverse social or political undercurrents. Graphic dissociation from confusing editing leads the audience to question their perception of the plot, as the drifters behind the wheel analyse their existence and discover who they really are.
Art Cinema Neo-Epic Buddy Movie: Usually made outside Hollywood, these films are intended to act as personal expressions of the film makers who, supposedly favouring art over profit, pretend to disregard financial success whilst secretly hoping for an underground hit. Symbolically ill-matched, usually male protagonists clumsily unite against various intellectually challenging forces in uplifting tales intended to subconsciously manipulate an emotionally-astute audience.
Dziga-Vertov Screwball Movement: Outrageous stream of graphic comedies from a school of politically-committed Marxist film makers inspired by the New Wave in French cinema of the 1960s. Themes of inter-gender rivalry and dialectical materialism are explored by way of intricate plots employing the symbolism of gross-out anatomical humour amidst an ultimately classless society.
The End Credits...
As can be seen from the critical interest already invested in the Nouvant Garde movement, it could be argued that world cinema is entering a renaissance period, as film producers head in exciting new directions unfettered by studio-imposed constraints. If audience reaction is anything to go by, the average cinema-goer has been equally hungry for change, and more than ready to take the journey into what have up to now been unchartered creative waters. Only time can tell if the Nouvant Garde movement is here to stay, or indeed if film audiences will continue to embrace an endless fusion of pre-established genres, no matter how silly.
In the meantime, having suspended disbelief for long enough to study this article, perhaps now would be a good time to get on down to the nearest multiplex, just in case there is something Nou on offer.
You never know. Maybe one day there will be...
© Matthew Jenkins, November 2010.