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An apology of the bastard crossover,
Or how to get over (in two times) the popular v. cult film dichotomy

By Carlos Losilla

An apology of the bastard crossover, or how to get over (in two times) the popular v. cult film dichotomy – O Production Company

Illustration by Guillem Dols

  1. Two recently premiered films arise mixed feelings and parallel reflections. On the one hand, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s El ciudadano ilustre, doesn’t seem to go beyond a round but sterile script, a story with no insight, a narrative artifice that doesn’t quite find its mise-en-scène. On the other, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon –which Javier Calvo already reviewed in this same web site–, works in the exact opposite way, since it places an inane story, a series of stereotypes linked with not much fortune, in the context of a boundless formal experimentation, an aesthetic search taken to its utmost limit. It’s no question now, however, of going back to the old theme of content v. form, and even less so of reaching the conclusion that one cannot exist without the other, lest both Cohn-Duprat’s and Winding Refn’s films would become empty and unbalanced objects: from naked discourse to art for art’s sake. What I’m interested in here is in contemplating those two films as offsprings of their time and analysing what do they do in that respect, and why, and by following that thread I can find right now a kind of text film v. a subtext film, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls and Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, the message that runs directly towards the spectator v. the mise-en-scène that can go round and round in circles until it finds its message. Are we talking about popular v. cult films? But which of those particular movies would be one and the other? Isn’t it all a question of style, and of the lack of it?
  • Maybe it has always been that, I won’t deny it. A few days after the clash I just mentioned, I watch Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso, after many years of absence of this fundamental director. Hidden in the shadows of this tortuous and totured film there meanders its unexpected key, which might be quite banal on the end, but also reaches a resonance of extraordinary richness: the protagonist doesn’t know up until the end that the definite clue to his investigation was the face of the killer reflected on a mirror. From Douglas Sirk to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, mirrors have been the image of melodrama as deformed imitation of life, but it’s in horror films where it acquires its most atrocious significance: it doesn’t only reflect the soul, but also the image in itself that all of a sudden springs at the surface, as if we had never known, until that decisive moment, that the world could have that sinister appearance. In any case, the mirror is the reverberation of form, the echo of a silhouette that can both correspond to a body and to the shadow of another time. And in the moment of reflection, images also multiply, making clear that the world doesn’t belong to a single meaning, but to an infinity of them, and the impossibility of deciphering them. And from there to those styles twisted around themselves, like mannerism and the baroque, there’s only one step. Or none at all.
  1. Produced in the mid seventies, Argento’s film coincides in time with Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, which also contains a beautiful mirror-image reflection: the death of the main character is portrayed through a very long travelling that slowly starts in his room, goes through the bars in his window in a surprising pirouette, wanders about a deserted exterior as if it had all the time in the world and finally returns to the departing point to peep from the other side what it left seven minutes earlier. But wait a minute… What’s the point of talking in the same way about a -presumably- genre for fans only and a -arbitrarily considered- film d’auteur canonised in the altars of the highest contemporary culture? Have you ever read a history of film that dares crossing those two styles, or rather, those two trends? Indeed, it seems that a certain kind of “popular” films and a certain kind of “cult” films cannot coexist on the same pages or the same retinas, and this is detrimental for one and the other alike. Very often, sixties and seventies Italian horror films, fifties French polar or forties Mexican musicals are but the target of merely celebratory opinions, of appraisal with no nuances whatsoever, based more in the unconditional love of its fans that a sagacious reflection. Likewise, the influence of neorealism, nouvelle vague or Asian authors from the end of the 20th century is centred in an exclusivist concept of film, based on cultural pre-conceptions that ignore something essential: the meaning emanating from the moving images always comes from a series of formal metamorphosis, of several correspondences between time and its rhythm, between space and its framing, that take place both inside the film itself as in relation with the rest of films. To put it another way, as important for mid-seventies films are Profondo rosso as The Passenger, since both question the abyss of identity that constituted one of the black wholes of what Tom Wolfe called “the Me decade”. And both do it in apparently different ways –the emotion of the first gore against the most extreme distance–, but which are equal deep down: the character that sees himself immerse in a mystery, the subsequent vertigo illustrated as a progressive estrangement from reality, looking at the world understood as an undecipherable enigma.
  • In the end, what prevents those operations is the same trying to differentiate two films such as El ciudadano ilustre and The Neon Demon, making them incomparable among them: when we base ourselves exclusively in what we’re seeing on the screen –nothing of what is presumably being “said” or “transmitted”–, the comparative possibilities are infinite. Do you realise the amount of options that we would have in front of us should we dare crossing those boundaries? If sixties French films, for instance, didn’t belong only to Godard and Truffaut, but also to Henri Verneuil and André Cayatte? Or if Spanish films from the Transición period could mix Amando de Ossorio with Carlos Saura? It’s necessary to go beyond those fixed compartments, to cross them and discover what common root is hidden behind their images, so different in appearance. This would, probably, take us in the first case to Jean Cocteau’s Le testament d’Orphée and, in the second, to Iván Zulueta’s Leo es pardo, as discoverers of primitive cadences over which an audiovisual culture is built up. Can you imagine how gratifying will be to see, along with Terrence Malick’s first films, not only Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, but also Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were? No hurried opinions, or presupposed authorship, or mystified genres: only a bunch of images ready to live together, to unveil their common origins, to establish from scratch new rules of cohabitation. No doubt, that would definitely be a radical change in our perception of the history of film.

It seems that a certain kind of “popular” films and a certain kind of “cult” films cannot coexist on the same pages or the same retinas, and this is detrimental for one and the other alike.