Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Part exploration, part confession, part magic trick, all Exorcism. Jess Franco Forever.

Jesus "Jess" Franco
1930 - 2013

When I was 15 years old, I wanted to place an order for VHS dubs of some rare Exploitation films.  I had been reading Psychotronic for a while at that point, and what was once an unidentifiable urge had manifested itself in the realization that there was indeed a universe out there of bizarre cinema, the likes of which I had not yet known.  There were these mystifying ads in Psychotronic, packed densely with way-too-small text and emitting an air of actual and genuine sleaziness. 

I had seen “Evil Dead” and “Day of the Dead” about a billion times, I had made all of my friends suffer through whichever silent German Expressionist film I could get a tape of, but I still felt there was … something else out there.  Something sicker, something more.  The unsavory titles that crammed the ads full were particularly indicative of this “other world” of film.  I only knew of a director named Jess Franco through the elegant, dreamy Vampyros Lesbos and his less popular Count Dracula with Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, but these ads seemed to have literally dozens of different Franco films. 

Curiosity had reached its breaking point and I needed to order some of these tapes … “Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun” what the fuck was this stuff?

In any case, in 1995 when you wanted something mailorder, you needed a check.  I filled out a sheet of paper with the films I wanted, got a little cash together and before leaving for school one day I asked my father for a check in exchange for the cash,  so I could get some videos. 

My father had been supportive of film fandom in the past, but after I left for school that day he opened that letter to see exactly what kinds of films I was going to be ordering - needless to say, that letter never got sent and I was scolded pretty hard when I got home.  I guess the ads in Psychotronic seem somewhat unwholesome to the uninitiated.  The memory of my defense is still clear in my mind: “This movie is by a guy who directed a Dracula movie with Christopher Lee, how 'bad' could it be!?”

As the years went by and I got old enough to make my own pilgrimages to Kim’s in the city, I saw dozens of Franco films.  Then dozens more.  My adoration for him grew - this filmmaker could hit notes of artful composition, powerful sexuality, and deep bawdy humor in the span of a minute - yet these notes were merely by-products.  Clearly Franco was a rare man who was actually using filmmaking the way a Jazz musician improvises.  There’s a part of the infrastructure of a “song”, it has the melody sometimes, there’s echoes of a familiar riff, you hear the hook now and again, but these elements are just part of that big dizzying swirl of emotion being poured out from the soul through a horn.

Part exploration, part confession, part magic trick, all Exorcism.

The feelings that are involved in my absolute love for Franco’s work are not only hard to explain, but also somehow too personal to externally identify.

Today though, a part of my feelings for Franco’s work has made itself clear.  If Franco’s uncountable contributions had to be boiled down to one singular notion, if we're to name one lone factor for which his work is valuable, it would be this -

In a world where we’re told to walk the line or fail; in a world where we can literally lose our livelihood, our comfort, and even our lives if we don’t adhere to the status quo, we are given strict guidelines for what “success” is.  The acceptable parameters of “success” are dictated around us with no room to experiment, and in desperate confusion so many of us lose the ability to ignore these suffocating lines of distraction, the daily battering rams that drive us into bleak repetition.  So many of us are so mesmerized that those among us who shout out are the “crazy ones”.

The thing I realized this morning, the thing I realized just now, is that when faced with of all this, despite these enormous and complicated pressures to conform; Jesus Franco Manera simply chuckled, turned his back, and made another film.  And then another film.  And then another film …  With his incredible history of ups and downs, deaths of loved ones and soul mates, studios and producers, money and no money and NO money, Franco never saw the option to give in.  I’d have to guess that that idea never even occurred to him.  He had his own terms for “success”.   His success was not born of spite, desire for recognition, for fortune - it was never about anything besides making that next film.  Finding that new place on celluloid, no matter what other people would think or say. 

Though it goes against our deeply ingrained idea of “success”, I’d like to offer a personal opinion that I will hold dearly for the rest of my time here, and that is that there is no artist more successful than Jesus Franco Manera.  And even more gloriously, to emulate his success means to permanently enter the terrorizing, blissful, un-ending battle of being true to yourself.  No matter what, always.