Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Love Like Blood: Jorg Buttgereit's Nekromantik 2

Every genre of film has its presets of expectations. If it's a Western film, you expect dusty landscapes and dirty cowboys. If it's a Horror film, you expect some amount of screaming, blood and at least one false scare. If it's a love story, then you expect romantic pathos and a boy and a girl to meet and fall in forever, soulmate-esque love in spite of a few dramatic interruptions. Etc etc. All of this is why I love it when a filmmaker can take these little category boxes of film, wield a boxcutter to a bunch of them and then with some duct tape, construct something actually quite fresh and different. With this build up, you may not expect that the film I am segueing to is Jorg Buttgereit's sequel to his underground dark comedy/horror film, Nekromantik, but segueing I am! (Of course if you actually read the title to this article, then you already knew where I was going with all of this. In that case, never mind.)

Sequels are generally a bit of a creative gamble. Is it a crude way to lure in the rubes? Sure, if the minds behind it are bankrupt. A truly good and worthy sequel is one that can use all of the right elements from the first film and utilize that as a template to build a better garden. With a brilliant and fun director like Buttgereit at the helm once again, Nekromantik 2 is a fascinating film intertwined with one of the strangest love stories ever told.

The quote of “I just want to master life & death, ” courtesy of Theodore R. Bundy, better known as Ted Bundy, one of the most infamous serial killers from the past forty years, begins the first frame, right before a flashback to Rob's (Daktari Lorenz) climactic (literally and metaphorically) hari kiri scene from the first film. Nekromantik 2 truly begins with a stylishly dressed and slightly nervous looking young woman walking around a cemetery near a bombed out looking building. The deeper she goes, the more lush the vegetation grows, until she ends up in a more secluded section where Rob is buried. In some perfect cosmic kismet, the first film's death-obsessed protagonist ends up being dug up by a lovely lady with similar post-living obsessions!

Digging him up, she's able to move his corpse into her extremely colorful and tidy apartment. The grotto-grunge of Rob's apartment from the first film is replaced by clean, sunny walls and modern, neat-looking furniture. Jars of assorted body parts/mementos from Rob's dayjob are now an assortment of skull centric paintings and medical x-rays used as art as décor. The red haired woman, Monika (Monika M.), lays his body out and kisses him wetly with some tentativeness and a lot of barely held back erotic charge, before she begins to undress him. Meanwhile, we also meet Mark (Mark Reeder), a lanky looking young man on his way to his dayjob of dubbing over rangy-looking porn.

The dreamy edging into psychedelic camerawork that marked all of the love scenes from the first Nekromantik starts to return as Monika attempts to make love to Rob's blackened-by-rot form, but coitus interruptus arises as she physically gets ill and cannot resume the lovemaking. In short, Monika has the heart and drive for sexually loving the dead, but not quite the stomach. There's something about Rob, though, that makes her clean up his body, with her red lacquered nails tenderly touching the imprint of his fatal gut wound and dress him in fresh clothes. As Mark tries to plan a film date with an eternally tardy friend of his, Monika poses with Rob for her Polaroid with a self-timer, grinning like a new girl smitten with amour.

But life's strange glory comes into play yet again, when Monika happens to walk by the Sputnik Theater where Mark is waiting for his date. Impatient, he chats her up and offers Monika the spare ticket. Going to watch some bizarro world version of “My Dinner with Andre,” entitled “Mon Dejeuner avec Vera” (aka “My Lunch with Vera”), that consists of a highly chatty man and a less chatty woman, completely naked and eating eggs, Monika and Mark quickly hit it off. Soon, Monika will face the weirdest case of being “torn between two lovers” ever, only to be outdone by one hilarious and volatile resolution.

"Nekromantik 2" is a an intriguing and worthy sequel to its infamous and well made progenitor. The fact that Buttgereit switched the focus from a heart-sick and head-sick young man in the form of Rob, to the love-sick and balanced-in-her-own-strange-way, Monika, is unexpected and really smart. The eroto-death factor is still there, but with Monika, her own flesh won't allow her to do what her heart wants to. Even more intriguing is when she tries to dispose of Rob as she and Mark start to get more serious, Monika grows emotional and keeps Rob's head and genitals. (The latter comes into play with some great twisted humor, as she puts it on a plate, wraps it in plastic and places the severed member in her fridge like well-loved leftovers. Which is pretty fitting, now that I think of it!)

Monika is an unusually complex character, especially for being a woman. In the cinematic landscape, whether we're talking mainstream pap or underground DIY, women are more of than not, relegated to ether bitch, sex/brain starved nymphet-nympho, frumpy friend or Holly Sunshine: Pretty Girl Worthy of Love. So to see a female lead chase her heart and desires that play far outside the boundaries of what is “normal” (or legal for that matter), is pretty great. Especially as her relationship with Mark starts to show more cracks, with him unable to give her any sort of climax, Monika is forced to feed her need. Granted, I'm not saying “Ladies, start digging up your soulmate!” or anything, but there is an undercurrent of affection and respect for this character that is refreshing. Monika M. is likable as the lovely and chic girl with the strangest desires of profound morbidity. There is an understatedness to her performance that works quite well and helps keep the film anchored in an even keel. 


The filmmaking quotient is even better here, with Nekromantik 2 featuring more of budget with the former's 8mm format being replaced with a more glossy looking 16mm print. That may sound like a sell-out to a less-slackful underground film fan, but given that the plot is more of a love story, a fact even mentioned by Buttgereit himself in the intro to the lovely Cult Epics blu-ray release, it makes more sense for it visually to look bright and crisp. The first film was more of a tonally extreme film, so the 8mm format was perfect for it. The camerawork and editing are even tighter, with some especially great use of movement in the “hunt for Rob” cemetery sequence near the beginning. One big link between the two films is the amazing soundtrack, featuring more stellar work courtesy of Herman Kopp and “John Boy Walton,” both returning from the first film. The fact that such beautifully composed music is intertwined with a film about necrophilia is all sorts of subversive sweetness.

Speaking of great music, one of my personal favorite scenes is the musical number that seemingly pops out of nowhere with Monika singing “Squelette Délicieux” like a post-modern Zarah Leander. The fact that the title loosely translates to, “Delicious Skeleton,” makes me love this scene all the more. Beatrice M.'s cameo (Betty from the original Nekromantik) is also a hoot.

It's that combination of humor, heart and a willingness to explore transgressive imagery and taboo topics that sear Nekromantik 2 into the minds of any viewer worth his or her salt. There's still a bit of the requisite gore and animal death, though neither are quite as heightened as they were in the first. (A warning to the squeamish, the animal footage involves Monika and her lady-gang of death-loving friends watching footage of a dead seal getting dissected. It's really gross but given that the animal was already dead and the video in question looks clinical in nature, it is still a far cry from the cruelty-tango of the Italian cannibal films of the 70's.)

It is inconceivable to think that out of the two Nekromantik films, this was the one that was quickly seized by German authorities, just a mere 12 days after its initial release. To the extent that they even attempted, and mercifully failed, to find and destroy that actual negative. The reasoning? It allegedly “glorified violence.” Never mind that the first one had more violence or even worse, the numerous Hollywood action films that were more inherently immoral in their revery of death and maiming. Especially coming off the heels of the 80's, where people were consistently being used as pure blow-up fodder for the beefy, gun wielding hero du jour. Case in point: Which film has a higher body count? Nekromantik 2 or any of the Rambo films? Exactly.

Luckily for us, Nekromantik 2 is still here and is out via another gorgeous blu ray release from Cult Epics. If there's a supplement you would want, this film has it, from director commentary to a behind-the-scenes-featurette to trailers and even a moment of silence via a home video peek into Jorg and friends' road trip to Ed Gein's gravesite. This whole release is a fitting tribute to a great film and director.

Nekromantik 2 is further proof that out of the unholy hordes of indie filmmakers that emerged out of the 1980's, few are true auteurs like Buttgereit. There was and is no director out in the cinematic landscape quite like him. Even if 8,000 foolhards tried to imitate him, they would fail because a real artist has their own unique fingerprint and that is Jorg Buttgereit all the way. 

Copyright 2015 Heather Drain 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Library is Now Open: Brad Stevens' "The Hunt" & Art Decades Issue #2

There were few sanctuaries as enticing growing up as the library. Stuck in a small working class burg and feeling like I was destined for pariah-kid-stasis, the library was an oasis that held many secrets, wonders and, most importantly, methods of escape. It still holds a bit of that power for me today, especially when it comes to glancing around and scoping out the variety of materials. Sleek tomes and colorful paper magazines lining up in a pristine formation and awaiting your eyes and hands.

The section that always pulls me first is the new fiction. There's the usual mix of chick-lit, science-fiction, historical dramas, something with a fantastical dwarf on it and some tawdry knock off of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” (Go ahead and feel free to channel your inner Kurtz here and go “...the horror....the horror.”) One of those tomes could very well be “The Hunt” by Brad Stevens. Brad first entered my stratosphere with his excellent work in the film writing world, including articles for my old periodical stomping grounds at Video Watchdog and his Bradlands column over at the British Film Institute's (BFI) website. “The Hunt” is his first fictive book and stands out as a unique debut. “The Hunt” centers around Mara Gorki, a writer whose work is massively successful overseas but is restricted in her homeland, which is a dystopian United Kingdom where women are treated like second to seventy first class citizens in every conceivable way.

The hostile atmosphere includes the legally imposed dress code of no pants or shorts for women over the age of 18, including corporal punishment via caning if broken to the rabid verbal abuse from various men of the cloth. However, the capper being the titular “Hunt” itself. Basically, a handful of very wealthy “gentlemen” pay for the privilege to hunt for women in an abandoned section of the city that has been quartered off by the government. As opposed to that old chestnut, “The Most Dangerous Game,” instead of hunting to kill, these men like their kicks on the sexual-sadistic side and track down these women, who are all drafted in by the government. There are rules, included intentional murder being one of the few actual taboos, but in a near future where women are basically regarded as mentally stunted vessels for the anger and damaged id impulse of key men who have been rewarded for their misogyny as opposed to being educated against it, things get on the vile side fairly quickly. It's a lesson that Mara learns intimately when she ends up being recruited.

Now from that description and those similar to it that you can read elsewhere online, you might be getting images of some ghastly Eli Roth film meets “A Handmaid's Tale.” The latter is somewhat close to the mark but you can mercifully kill the former. While Steven's does not pull any punches when it comes to the specifics of torture, his language neither lingers or delights in it. His prose in general is very clean, neatly written and yet has a quiet warmth and pulse to it that makes it all the more compelling. It's an unusual mix to see that kind of writing when it comes to such extreme material. The common tendency is to glory in the guts and agony and have the prose practically wiggle with every shriek, moan, leer and scream. But that is not the literary voice here and it is Stevens' restraint coupled with his clear love of his female characters, especially Mara and her partner, cineaste and film writer, Yuki Morishita. (A relationship the two naturally have to keep secret, since homosexuality is also forbidden.)

Speaking of, his handling of Yuki and Mara's relationship is quite sweet and feels authentic. “The Hunt” also features some extreme snarking on E.L. James fan fiction gone awry, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” As a whole it's a disturbing and smart read with solid characters, a bit of conspiracy theory and a peek into a future that doesn't feel too unreal whenever you see another news story about women all over the world having acid thrown into their faces, murdered for being a victim of rape or being robbed of the choice to be in control of their own body.

Now that you have a book picked out, you gotta have a magazine to go with it. With its striking cover and lush formatting, the second issue of the brand new periodical, Art Decades, is a fine choice. After its strong debut issue, Issue 2 continues in the fine tradition of loving art, unearthing past artists and celebrating the ones that are currently creating. The starting gate lets you know that the contents are gonna be good, with the following Joe Strummer quote taking the helm: “The way you get a better world is, you don't put up with a substandard any thing.” It's a bold move from such a young mag but bold is good and it sure as hell is better than boring.

The first main article is an excellent piece by Tara Hanks entitled “Pauline Boty: Pop Artist & Woman.” It's such a strong piece, offering fascinating and needed insight into one of the most under-looked pop artists that emerged out of the 50's and 60's. Boty was hampered by her gender, since while the art world is still fairly male dominated now, it is still miles ahead from the uber-macho atmosphere back when she was alive and working. Dying at the young age of 28 did not help much either. On top of that, knowing that several of her works are still missing in action, makes pieces like this one so important. A good article is a fun way to kill some time but a great article is one that plants a seed.

After that, there's the gorgeous photo layout, “My Time's Up,” based om The Raveonettes song of the same name. With photographer Whitly Brandenburg serving as the melancholy model backed by the twin muses of the aforementioned song and Jean Rollin's film “The Iron Rose,” it is one of the most standout visuals of the entire issue. Photographers Jeremy and Kelley Richey make great and dreamy use of the cemetery locale, as well as Brandenburg herself, whose presence has all the childlike beauty of a doll but with the air of one who has seen and felt something far older than her physical age.

Speaking of The Raveonettes, if you're a fan of the Danish indie rock band, then you are going to l-o-v-e this issue, since the “Time's Up” spread is followed up with an in depth interview with the band, a small article from Kelley about being a fan, a piece covering their entire discography and yet another photo spread inspired by one on their songs. The latter is based on the song, “Boys Who Rape Should All Be Destroyed.” (Love the title and feels fitting after reading “The Hunt!”) The layout itself is very nicely photographed but lacks the gritty gut punch that one would expect, especially with having influences like Abel Ferrara and “Lipstick” director Lamont Johnson noted at the beginning. But just the mere fact that a layout exists entitled “Boys Who Rape Should All be Destroyed” exists and is in this issue is commendable in and of itself.

There's also a second part of Erich Kuersten's piece, “Lou Reed in the Seventies.” (The first part is in the debut of Art Decades, naturally.) It's a fun piece to read with a Gonzo lilt, even though I have some personal disagreements. (Giving “Metal Machine Music” one star is bad enough, but Reed's masterpiece, “The Bells” only meriting two? Two?!) On the film side of things, there is a brief but super-fun interview with the great Mary Woronov conducted by Dave Stewart. Ms. Woronov alone is a legend, but the fact that she name checks one of the most underrated Warhol's Factory associates, writer Ronald Tavel, makes it even more of a must read than it already was.

 An equally sweet treat is Kent Adamson's “Cannon Man,” which is his appetizer of a piece about his time with working for the legendary Menahem Golan, the man, whom along with his cousin, Yoram Globus, took over Cannon Films in 1979. It was their reign that produced an amazingly wide breadth of films ranging from Barbet Schroeder's “Barfly” and the way underrated “Last American Virgin” to many a vehicle for action stars like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Adamson's writing pops and leaves you wanting to read more and more about his time with this truly unique character who left an undeniable imprint on film.

Back on the musical tip, there's also filmmaker/writer Salem Kapsaski's revealing and creatively stimulating interview with underground Italian musician Daniele Santagiuliana, as well as Steve Langton's terrific and memorable piece about seeing Joy Division live. (A pleasure so few ever will get to experience.) This issue also features more stunning imagery, some good poetry and even more great pieces by such talents as Marcelline Block, Silver Ferox and more.

Art Decades Issue #2 is a more than a solid follow up to its rock star debut and has planted seeds, some definable and others more mysterious, that will surely take some vivid and colorful bloom in the very near future.

This concludes our brief but hopefully enriching and teensy bit chewy trip to the library. Make sure to keep your slip and return the materials on time.

Copyright 2015 Heather Drain