Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Ascension of Beauty: Karim Hussain Double Feature

Cinema can be endearing, moving, beautiful, provocative, and profound. It can also be lewd, disturbing, shocking, amoral and putrid. It's a rare feat when all of these are combined into a single stretch of celluloid, wielded with the ferocity of a burning dagger and plunged straight between the eyes of its' virgin audience, forever corrupting and destroying the viewer's expectations about what a mere movie is capable of.

While there are several powerful and controversial films out there, it really doesn't matter much. The only film you need to be hurt by, deeply and forever, is the one that promised to "open your mind - and then fuck it". That film was SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY, the first film to be simultaneously finished in, and then banned in, Canada. Literally nothing more than the rage of the film maker given surreal life, it was at once a grandiose exploitation film and a frenetic arthouse experiment, wed perfectly so to leave the viewer totally unprepared for what would happen next, or wither they should be in awe or vomiting over what was lurking behind the next scene. One by one, every taboo is broken: the human form violated in ways impossible, birth itself is desecrated, the beauty of nature is transmogrified into something hideous, literal pornography used as the height of moral corpulence, and even the imagery of Western religion is quite literally reduced to cannibalism, rape, and murder.

The start of my accidental obsession.

Subconscious Cruelty, as the title implies, is an attack on everything, mental and metaphysical, real and imagined, logical and bugfuck crazy. A friend of mine asked if I could show her anything else like Subconscious Cruelty... I had to say "no", explaining that there wasn't anything else like it, or even close. Certainly there are many directors with a similarly devil-may-care attitude for basic cinematic convention, with Hussain himself having been compared to both David Lynch and David Cronenberg on Subconscious Cruelty's original release. I don't know if that's quite right, though... he strikes me more as the out of control aestheticism of Dario Argento and the unconventional astructual mind of Tsukamoto SHINYA with the endlessly inappropriate sense of humor of Jörg Buttgereit. Even that isn't a totally fair description - after all, Hussain can have his own style and his own axe to grind - the fact that I'd try to construct this awkward parable says that I see a lot of very positive qualities in his first film. I proudly own the Sazuma "Ultrabit Edition" of the film, and I don't think my shelf was ever complete without that oversized 'Jesus Box' sitting atop of it.

The least offensive image in the entire film.

For years I've wanted to be brutalized once more by its' totally fearless and quite possibly deranged director, Canadian born Arthouse Terrorist(TM)* Karim Hussain. At last, that day has come in the form of his two feature length post-Subconscious Cruelty works...

ASCENTION is the tale of a world in which God is dead, and his power has dispursed to everyone. Now man is immortal, and even children capable of miracles like flying and resurrection. In this perfect world, three women - an old woman with a suitcase, an expecting mother, and a young girl - march toward the desolate power plant in which it's said that God died, the three of them there drawn by their dreams. Their goal is to destroy that which has killed God, and restore order and dignity to this perfect world in the only way left: by destroying it completely.

Ascention is, unfortunately, not a film that I enjoyed. Hussain himself acknowledges that the film is "difficult", and isn't shocked that even people who generally love 'pretentious' arthouse movies simply can't stand it (his words, not mine). I wouldn't go so far as to say that I hate the film, as there's a lot of technical quality and very deep rooted concepts on display, but I know he wouldn't be terribly hurt if I used the "p" word toward it: the film is pretentious as hell, and only rewarding if you can ignore the hour of largely inconsequential nothing to get to the good stuff, though frustratingly even the methodical and gruelling pace of the picture is, in and of itself, a sort of achievement. The opening 5 minutes showing the site of God's death, strewn with rotten bodies with their eyes clawed out, is certainly impressive, with narration informing us of the world we now inhabit. So far, sure, I'm all for it. And then we're treated to the following dialog.


"This is nothing."

"Just give me a second. I can take it, I've taken worse."

"No one has taken worse. Not even the inventor of pain."

"Just give me a second."

"How do you feel?"

"Like my heart's tearing to bits with each step."

"Imagine what it's like with two hearts tearing with each step. We're inside now, get used to it honey. In here dreams can only stay in our heads. No more miracles from now on; just dumb pruciple mud. You break, you shatter here.

"Perhaps I should climb up first then. Seeing as how your bodies are both... older."

...and my heart sank. This sort of introspective/overly explanatory dialog wasn't so out of place in Subconscious Cruelty, where we were privy to the abstract thoughts of a violent and potentially incestuous madman, but here it comes off as the worst sort of masturbatory and condescending bullshit. The dialog doesn't ever particularly get better, and once the three start climbing, don't expect much of a change of pace. Out of the 103 minutes the film runs, about half an hour of it is a masterpiece, and the rest is virtually excruciating. When one of the women noted "they were more than half way up" I was overjoyed, realizing the film must be more than half way finished, too.

A more fitting image for this title than you can possibly imagine.

A great deal of this self-indulgent snark is clearly intentional - how couldn't it be? Mankind has become God, and three self-righteous women with no right to change the fabric of time and space take it upon themselves to kill every living thing on the planet. While the pregnant woman will be given sufficient motivation for wanting to end the world, she herself is a positively horrible human being, brimming with sarcasm and venom towards the women she should consider her companions. The young girl is given considerably little to do, and the old woman is such a bitter old hag dealing with the pregnant woman that absolutely none of these characters are here to garner our sympathy: they're actually vying for the position of most hated bitch among them! The fact that the three lead actresses all have thick Quebec accents only makes their performances seem all the more infuriating, one saying that another's words "sound rehearsed". When none of them seem to be speaking proper English to begin with, how the heck can you tell?

If there was any doubt that the film had a sense of humor, however sick and off target it may be, I think the scene where they find the tape recorder settled it: the whole film is a cruel joke, and I'm afraid that if you have to explain a joke point by point, it isn't funny. The intentionally slow, daring pace is almost refreshing (even compared to the rest of Hussain's resume), and much of the actual trekking footage is watchable, but the problem is that they're all punctuated by seemingly endless scenes of these selfish and cold-hearted women pissing on about how terrible the world is. As such the film winds up being boring at best, and insufferably preachy at worst.

I honestly don't think it was Hussain's intent to spew bile at the audience for over an hour, but that's literally what he's done, and it wasn't until the final 25 minutes of the film that I was convinced anything but a few brief dream sequences and the opening five minutes would be worth mentioning. For all your suffering, you will be rewarded with the most beautiful - and yes, it is beautiful through all of the blood and tears - pieces of Hussain's directorial career in the form of the final reel. When the self-righteous trio have risen so high that death is fast approaching, they each must make a choice on not only how they will finish their journey, and why. Not only is the final reel touching, but it's exciting too! Coupled with the opening and a few of the more memorable bits from the middle of the film, you could have had a spectacular short running about 40 minutes that managed to do all of the positive things in the feature film. Unfortunately, those master work sequences are spread through a high concept that goes nowhere for over an hour, and the whole film becomes a train-wreck in slow motion.

It's perhaps best to sum the film up as "a fantasy film in which nothing fantastic happens". The whole experience is contradictory, and clearly had the potential to be something incredible. Perhaps Hussain should have relaxed just a little bit, and allowed miracles to take their due course?

It's almost a shame that a film so infuriating is simultaneously so beautiful.

It's never technically poor, at least. Actually the film looks gorgeous, despite its' desolate location and intentionally muted soundtrack and color palette. What few practical effects are scattered through the film are generally impressive, and when the film decides to be pretty - or ugly - it's damn good at it. There's zero doubt as it plods onward forever that Karim Hussain is a very talented man, I just feel like this particular film may be a waste of them, and that's a damned shame.

Even Ascension, however, is worth watching (once). While the film is painful, it's painful in a unique and unexpected manner that I can't rightly attribute to any other film I can remember. Much like a foreign delicacy that smells and tastes a bit like spicy and sweet rotten meat on rice, you'll never be able to say you don't like it without trying it, and something about it will stick out in your mind as being so bizarre and outside your usual comfort level that you'll wish you could try it just one more time. You really shouldn't; but at least you'll have that same level of doubt. Doubt that you managed to hate a masterpiece. But then you can try watching it again and... well, you'll see.

After this film, his short shot in the same year - La Dernière Voix/The City Without Windows - was very much a pleasant surprise. Running just 16 minutes, it details a world in which constant rain and a disease which silences mankind has left them only able to communicate in the most dramatic, and simple, ways possible. It shuns the all too dead and, honestly, boring bullshit of Ascention in favor of the brightly colored surrealism and detatchedly horrific images of Subconscious Cruelty, and for it the short is a masterpiece. It's almost impossible to believe that these two very different films were made in the same year, by the same man, but it's perhaps fitting that his most recent feature film would keep only the most vestigial of connections to his earlier works, and use Hussain's talents to craft something I never would have expected from him...

A baroque-modern family tragedy, La Belle Bête (The Beautiful Beast) is a seemingly largely literal adaptation of the French-Canadian novel of the same title (also available in English under the title "Mad Shadows"). Originally penned in 1959 by Marie-Claire Blais, La Belle Bête is a melodrama focusing on a family of three; the widowed Louise, the rebellious Isabelle-Marie, and the handsome (but retarded) Patirice. Isabelle-Marie has grown weary of her mother saying she's ugly and doting on the incompetent 'animal' she calls brother. She spends her time alone with Patirice torturing and manipulating the poor thing, furious that their mother only pays attention and compliments to the simpleton she's forced to look after. Louise's loneliness and fear for the family's own future drives her into the arms of a new man, but what tragic effects will introducing a fourth into this already toxic environment bring?

A horse is a horse, of course of course. Except when he's not.

Featuring brutal disfigurement, graphic medical procedures, and the strangest harbinger of malice I think I've ever seen, La Belle Bête is probably the furthest thing from a 'conventional' drama film in the minds of most audiences. And yet it's the closest thing to a conventional narrative that Hussain has put onto film so far. Sometimes directors known more for their visual style fall to pieces when they try to put their talents to use on a more linear plane - Lucio Fulci is an excellent example, I think - but I'm happy to report that Hussain was more than capable of reigning in his usual bag of tricks to deliver a film that logically moved from one place to another, and who's occasional eccentricity never distracted from the more logical whole surrounding them.

With the exception of the Harbinger itself, everything in the film relies on character motivation and believable situations, however grim and frustrating those motivations may be, and while the literal appearance of the Harbinger is surreal, the actions carried out is his presence are all too mundane. While every film prior to this shunned serious, complex character development in favor of presenting ideals in the forms of people, Karim Hussain has managed to craft an uncomfortably believable study of three all too mentally diseased individuals who, sad as it may be for the lot of them, share the bond of family, and will bear that cross until the mere concept of 'love' has been broken down into nothing. Narcisicm and jealousy are the monsters on display here, not the horse-headed beast, and the limited cast carry their roles off reasonably well in bringing those monsters to the front without turning their characters into parodies of selfish human nature.

Karim Hussain calls this a still from a "mainstream" movie. Which sums up why I love him.

It may seem unconventional on the surface, but La Belle Bête still marks Karim Hussain's first "mainstream" motion picture, as his first human drama that doesn't require a background in Jung to make heads or tails of. It's got strange imagery from time to time, but it's fundamentally the sad tale of a sick family, and it's powerful not because of the gore, but the performances and the trying situations themselves. It has some minor issues - I'm especially not a fan of the soundtrack, for example - but the film is a unique and enjoyable experience, which is more than I can say for Ascension.

While Subconscious Cruelty was a nearly 6 year long undertaking shot independantly on 16mm film, both Ascention and
La Dernière Voix were shot on glorious (but still very grainy) 35mm. Sadly, the increased visual quality of the former does nothing to elevate the film from its' own mediocrity, and perhaps if it had been shot on cheaper 16mm I'd have subconsciously forgiven its' almost entirely conceptual short-comings. La Belle Bête, in a surprisingly turn around, was shot on Super 16 and then blown up to 35mm, leaving the production extremely grainy and with drained color, looking uncomfortably like a made-for-TV movie that was, for some inexplicable reason, shot in scope. It's unfair to hold the film on which a project was produced against it if the reasons were purely economical, but I will say that had Ascension and La Belle Bête swapped production methods, the results might have been for the better. Even with this oddity, the former is still excellent, and the latter relatively awful, and had the two exchanged shooting mediums I'd still largely feel the same way.

As far as actually seeing any of these films, you'll likely need to be ready to import these babies. Xploited Cinema, Diabolix, HKFlix and any other fine purveyor or imported insanity should be able to hook you up, but since I loves you I'll point out what's worth your time:

La Belle B
ête is available on DVD from Warner Brothers exclusively in Canada complete with decent English subtitles, but the disc now seems to be out of print. Includes are an interview with the original author, a making-of, trailer, photo galleries, and a French language commentary track, none with English subtitles. The disc is Region 1/NTSC.

La Belle B
ête film is also available from Njuta Films of Sweeden, and while that edition does NOT have subtitles on the feature, it DOES have English subtitles on the making-of, and an English language commentaty track, though it lacks the author interview. Why present the featurette in English but not the film itself? I have no idea. This version is Region 2/PAL. I mention this non-English friendly release primarily because it comes in Njuta's Karim Hussain Collection (along with their respective releases of Subconscious Cruelty and Ascension - see below), so don't get it and expect to follow La Belle Bête - unless you speak French or read Sweedish, of course.

Subconscious Cruelty was released uncensored by Sazuma several years ago in a rather spectacular limited edition, with an English/German essay booklet in an oversized digipak style case (not unlike a softcover hartbox?), original trailers, a lengthy introduction by Karim Hussain, an alternate music track, a comic-review by Rick Trembles for the film itself, a feature length making-of (charmingly titled "Subconscious Cruelty Christmas"), the short
La Dernière Voix, and producer Mitch Davis' own Divided Into Zero (and its' own special features!) . The DVD set is Region 2/PAL, and one of my most prized posessions right now.

Njuta has since released Subconscious Cruelty as well, presenting the uncensored version of the film and Subconscious Cruelty Christmas like Sazuma did before them, but in place of Divided into Zero is a commentary track, deleted scenes, and the short film Facts of Safety, on which Karim Hussain was cinematographer. Region 2/PAL.
(Sadly, both of these editions of Subconscious Cruelty are NTSC-PAL conversions, but they're still dramatically better than the optically censored Japanese Happinet edition, which is short on extras too.)

Njuta also did good things for Ascention, including a commentary track, making-of, deleted scenes, original trailers, and
La Dernière Voix. The disc is unusual in that it's an NTSC European release, but it's still Region 2.
There was also a Happinet Pictures release in Japan, but it's more expensive and - I believe - has fewer special features, so the only advantage is the presence of a Japanese dub. I'm not convinced it's worth the investment with the Njuta release readily available.

Two out of three isn't bad after a decade of expanding his horizons, and as Karim Hussain also wrote the script for the spectacular Nacho Cerda film THE ABANDONED (which I won't get into here, as I need to talk about Cerda at length another time). I'm even more excited now that I know his next project, FILTHY, is going to be the story of a woman with a garbage fetish. It's certainly a far cry from the last two feature films he's made happen, but if there's anyone out there capable of making an excellent film about a horrible subject, I'm still convinced - even after a major disappointment - that Karim Hussain is our man.

I myself will make it a point to buy my own copy of the Njuta Films Karim Hussain Collection almost solely for the special features, despite Ascension not thrilling me and La Belle Bête not featuring any subtitles for the film itself. Karim Hussain is such an honest, charming individual that it took only 2 minutes of listening to him laughing about the violent reactions to Ascention to realize that regardless of the film he produced, he's not an ass who takes his work so seriously that he can't laugh at how absurd an anti-epic about destroying that which has already killed God really is. He's a funny, honest, good natured guy, and his films have the potential (and often are) just as cool as he is. I just hope he can successfully convince more producers that he's got the goods, too.

I really hope that, someday, we'll have a domestic video release of his work, particularly if those releases are on Blu-ray. But I already know from personal experience that art isn't cheap, and that the single most appropriate studio on these shores has already tried and failed to get the rights to his first (and probably most marketable) film, only time will tell.

*Wow... only in retrospect did it dawn on me how bad calling a man named 'Karim Hussain' an Arthouse Terrorist sounds. Oh well. I stand by it, and if he's half as cool as I think he is, he might even chuckle at the motion.

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