Bernardo Zanotta:



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brief fictions & thoughts on film

17 May, 2019

Epistolarities ~ 1 out of 10 

stills from Magnificent Obsession, Douglas Sirk, 1954. 

16 May, 2019

the skin of strangers #1

A bit of bleeding but that’s normal - she said - while cleaning my teeth and the hidden corners of my gums with a metal instrument which I later learned was called a scaler. I had been avoiding going to the dentist for some years now, due to my growing fear of wearing braces at the age of 23, which some might consider still young and perfectly fine, but which might as well as have spoiled the chances of that second date I had been dreaming about for a while. I’ve been flossing every other day - I told her, admitting to myself this was neither a complete truth nor a complete lie. I would rather have you using toothpicks - she said. The old fashioned wooden ones? - I asked. Nowadays they are made in plastic - she replied, while demonstrating in my very mouth not only that I should use toothpicks, but how I should use them. This revelation had come off rather strange to me. My mother, my aunt, everyone in my family that I can think of had always flossed their teeth. Would I really be the one to break this lineage? I refuse, I thought to myself.

I gently accepted her advice and nevertheless agreed that this is what I should do. The appointment took place with entrepreneurial rapidity, I left the dentist’s office without even sensing the slight inclination towards dental braces. It did not cross her mind. My teeth were perfectly fine all along. She would like to see me every six months for a seasonal clean-up, no gaps, no surgeries. My gums were not retracting as fast as I thought they were. I did not have the mouth of a 40 year old man as I thought I had. That said, I jumped on my bike and took the scenic route through the park. In days like this it was stupid not to do so and for a change I had downloaded a podcast recommended by a friend and was planning to listen to it on my way to the train station.

The subject was queer criticism. The podcast took a while to start and a little longer to get interesting. My fear of braces was suddenly dissolved among the sweat running down my arms under that unexpected March sun, my fear of braces had been subdued by the thought of queer criticism just as my hands transferred my sweat to the handlebars of my bike, just as in that Almodovar movie, just as, that famous film critic confessed experiencing sexuality for the first time when aroused by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in the 1992 Batman Returns. Like him, I had always been on the Batman team. I never, even for a second, got seduced by Superman or Spiderman. The love of Batman was only later, and episodically, I should add, replaced by the love of Daredevil during my early-adolescence, after a growing obsession with Jennifer Garner had taken over my spirit.

Daredevil and Garner were just a phase, but Batman remained. His two-fold double life, double identity. The one I lived over and over inside my head back in those days when everything was flash and crash, when my secret was guarded inside a fortress with alligators on all sides. A fortress where not even Batman could penetrate. I was Bruce Wayne and I was also Batman. I needed to find Robin so that I could learn it the hard way. I found Robin some years ago but as the story goes we had to part ways, I was gay and he was straight. I knew this all along but I chose to remain in silence, until one day the working of love inside of me couldn’t bear this double premise no longer, as the story always goes or almost, always goes. The gates of the park were nearing, I crossed the pretty canals, the mass of relentless tourists, I reached my first destination, I parked my bike, I realised I haven’t been really listening, I had lost my interest too absorbed in thoughts, I took off my earphones, loaded my travel card, I hopped in the train.

The sun beams caressed my skin, the sun beams caressed the skin of strangers sitting across me in the silent cabin. I was on my way to meet Charlotte and the thought of feeling him close to me made me happy. I hadn’t seen him for two weeks. When we started off I didn’t think I would be spending so much time and money on trains. I was getting accustomed to that uncanny sensation; the sensation that if I wasn’t the one to jump in the train and go see him, he would not come and see me. Nevertheless, my position was not to be questioned. The one thing I knew, is that I did not want to feel like we were not together. I didn’t mind the extra euros, I would give up everything I had.

Charlotte had the power to make me feel incredibly safe and incredibly insecure, and for his luck, I did not know any other form of love. I was carrying my own video projector from home, I had taken it with me to the dentist, I had taken it with me around town the whole day. We had plans to watch a movie that same evening. Charlotte had also invited some of his friends. Scary Movie. My train was running terribly late and so at last when I arrived in Rotterdam I took an Uber from the station to his house. One of his flatmates, whose name I never really learned, opened the door for me. When we hugged, I smelled the air around his hair and realised he must have been the owner of that shampoo I often used in their shower. Charlotte was in the kitchen preparing a bowl of guacamole. I kissed his neck from the back to which he replied with a warm-hearted hello, he smelled of garlic and avocado. I could sense that yet his friends did not know about us. They asked where I was from and in which part of town I lived. Oh, I live in the capital - I replied - trying my best not to sound proud or snobbish. The choice to replace the word Amsterdam for the word capital had ruined it all. It made me sound exactly how I tried so hard not to sound and I was aware of it, and so was everyone else in the room.

We all ate guacamole-dipped nachos as expected; a terrible first meal for my cleansed mouth. My mouth was getting used to tasting again, in retrospect, I realise my senses were operating a little funky due to an overwhelming work of thinking which took over my hunger for the first half of the day. When setting up the projection, I took the liberty to plug the computer into his flatmate’s speakers. The sound was awfully loud, and it instantly annoyed everyone. I quickly pressed the mute key on my keyboard and slowly adjusted the volume. Reaching puberty in the early 2000’s, Scary Movie was part of who I was as an adult and even though I hadn’t watched the film for longer than ten or twelve years, I could still, to my surprise, recite almost every line by heart.

Queer criticism had once again come in-between my thoughts and my experience of being in that room, eating nachos and feeling Charlotte’s half-embracing arms around me. Anna Faris’ embodied Cindy Campbell in a high school thriller gone-wrong. Greg Phillipe and Ray Wilkins stood in the school corridor in between classes. Hey dawg, does this shirt make me look gay? At last I realised my post-teenage memory had erased Ray and its queer affect from my mind. His use of clothing in a feminine way, his compliance to a toxic homosociality, his love of Bob, his love of Greg. Ray was the half-in / half-out joke, the sight where language fails to grasp. He remained echoing in my mind until all of Charlotte’s friends had left.

Suddenly I became aware of the absence of others in the living room. I knew I had spoken to everyone, shaken hands, said goodbyes and yet a part of me was still in Cindy Campbell’s high school, in the closet, with Ray. I am so tired! - said Charlotte. His flatmates went to bed, me and him were left alone in the first floor, I was doing dishes while he was drying them. He hugged me from the back, resting his chin on my left-shoulder. I pressed his arms around me and leaned forward until his feet were off the ground and our bodies were one, mediated solely by his family guy jumper, both our jeans and underwear. I carried him to the living room in that same position. That uncontrollable laughter of his, so close to my ears; my clumsy steps dragging us around the wooden floor; the heat of our bodies; making me feel that moment with my entire being as the happiest moment of my life. Now these images truly generate tensions, anxieties, intermissions. We fell on the couch, both knowing what that gesture ment, our complicity, what only we shared.

I love you. - Never did I think to utter those words in that order, so naturally as then. I love you as well - he replied. As well as opposed to you too. What did it mean? Had he had the time to think this over in his head while anticipating my words? Had he had the time to consciously replace too for as well, in order to make me feel special? Or was it the sign of a hesitation, did that as well replaced reciprocity? Turned it into something uncanny, rather clinical? Did as well replaced the full meaning of the first three words altogether?  We made tea and walked to his room upstairs. Charlotte took off both our pants as we laid in his bed staring deeply into each others’ eyes. I needed some time to process my thoughts and ran into the shower. It didn’t take me more than 5 minutes to wash my hair and full body, it was enough to calm down my nerves and enough to finish his flatmate’s shampoo. I was overwhelmed by love. 

18 January, 2019

Notes on Nietzsche Sils Maria Rochedo de Surlej at Rotterdam

The forty-eight years of the Rotterdam Film Festival celebrated the fragile history of an art that makes no concessions. The Spying Thing (retrospective) placed the viewer in a world of forbidden gazes. Harun Farocki and Mariano Llinás took a ride on the Passenger’s boat, where Andrzej Munk shot his last images between the rigidity of a clandestine-cinemascopic love and the experimentalism of a medium-format La Jetée that tells us the story of a crossing made as rehearsal; an unfinished film between the waves of the North Atlantic.

In the intervals of Munk's landscapes, between bitter coffees, gray skies and knives to the heart, the new film by Júlio Bressane & Rosa Dias makes us cry softly to the sound of Luar do Sertão. Rather than adopting the retrospective model, the Brazilian antichrists preferred to burn down the cinema with their aesthetic anarchy. In Nietzsche Sils Maria Rochedo de Surlej, a series of complicities between spectators and makers are established. Júlio and Rosa dispense the use of subtitles. The understanding of words divides the audience in half without excuses or trigger-warnings.

The two-way travel diary is filmed as the extension of the filmmakers' bodies, exploring the limits of video, uncompromisingly beyond the conventions of narrative cinema. A true case study on the destruction of visual pleasures, which actualizes Laura Mulvey's structuralism to the year 2019 whilst adding a Brazilian seasoning to the recipe of unparalleled flavor.

The experience of being in Sils Maria celebrating the life and work of Nietzsche is not fixed in anything besides experience itself. “This life, just as you live now and as you live it, you will have to live it once more and yet again and again: and there will be nothing new in it, every pain and every pleasure and every thought and sigh and all that is indivisibly small and great in your life will return to you, and everything in the same order and sequence - and likewise this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and likewise this instant and myself. " [1]

Júlio Bressane and Rosa Dias at Sils Maria achieve a different understanding of philosophy. Their cinema is renewed in the fresh air, in the mountainous landscapes and the waters of the lake. The camera is their research instrument; exploring the surface of precious stones; not in search for answers, but for life itself, the act of being alive and having one’s hair blown by the wind. For Bressane and Dias cinema can be found anywhere. Their cinema asks us to look around, think of our past and future, the collective, the individual, the cloud and the resistance; a film so ephemeral that remains almost invisible, but infinitely revolutionary.

1 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Dover Publ., 2006.

3 November, 2018

Skipped school and went to the movies

1985. A girl finds herself in a metro car. Looking through the window so as to avoid the gaze of other commuters. She sees a landscape of change: construction sites and empty lots announcing a city in the making. Tunnel passage. A masked figure reflected on the glass. She looks the other way, hopelessly searching for the source of the reflection. A station approaches. Berlin Heidelberger Platz. This is where she gets off. Ausgang. Approaching footsteps. It is the masked man: the mysterious figure on the windowpane. He distributes free tickets for a film showing. Metropol. A new movie theatre opens in town. Today, 6pm. Cheryl had to be in class, but yet she takes up on the invite and brings her friend Kathy along.

From all the Italian horror movies of the time, a noteworthy aura characterizes Lamberto Bava’s Demoni, where a democratic link between pure entertainment and the passion of filmgoing can be found. It is however, no study case on cinephilia, but rather the cinephile’s dream coming to life: to live inside a film, over and over again, to make that same film reality or make reality that same film. Filmgoing advocates for a different kind of knowledge. Filmgoers, consciously or not, learn from the images that talk to them in the dark. And although much can be argued in regards to the responsibility of the spectator, these images do not expect anything in return, except for a minimum amount of interest. The need to understand how things are connected (how one thing affects another and so on) is the need of the seer. The image can only communicate, infect, affect and contaminate. Cheryl and Kathy followed their deepest anti-institutional impulse: skipped school and went to the movies, little did they know that the pleasure of watching images in the dark, would this time, give no sense of liberation; if so, only a masochistic one. Event horizon. Point of no return.

Mark Fisher’s reworking of Derrida’s Hauntology offers us a fertile ground to assimilate the ghostly (or better placed demonic) experience of the film. On the one hand, we have the past informing the future. On the other hand, film becomes life. Transposition is the key-word. Transposition of media and bodies subject to being Cinema. For Fisher, the gravitational center of Hauntology as a visual and sonic project is the relation it bears to the failure of the future. The heavy electronic music present in Demoni only reaffirms this statement, as the anticipation of horror necessarily has to invoke the future in order to be effective. The lack of innovation or the exhaustion of form within commercial cinema (also) suggests that we are living after the future, and all that is left is nostalgia.

The Metropol Cinema is full of eccentric characters: a blind man, a married couple, a pimp named Tony and his two girls, amongst others. Exciting! The props of the film are exhibited in the foyer! While taking a closer look, Rosemary, one of Tony’s girls, scratches her face with the display mask. The film is about to start. Four teenagers dig up the grave of Nostradamus, a sixteenth-century fortune teller who believed history repeats itself and supposedly predicted the French Revolution and the bombing of Hiroshima. Just like Nostradamus, Bava’s Demoni operates as prophecy - revealing to us, for instance, the brutality with which analog film-projectors would later be destroyed in the 2000’s in order to be replaced by digital technology, or further on, the transition between the collective experience of cinema to television and video-on-demand.    

A clear link between nostalgia and the encyclopedic world of Italian horror is not readily available. Demoni, however, succeeds in activating nostalgia through its relationship to the Gothic - present in the film as a specter, with its aesthetic concerns blended and intersected amongst other motifs. The Gothic emerges as a site for the monstrous Other; modified and grotesque bodies that echo the phobias of individuality within a collective space: the film theatre.

Once the narrative from the film-within-the film is transposed to the reality of the theatre - through the figure of Rosemary (infected by the mask) - the filmgoers attempt to exit the cinema, with the surprise that while watching the film, they have been barricaded. One by one, they slowly get infected and thence transform. By the time the damage is irreparable, Cheryl has met the nice-guy and they both manage to flee, discovering that the infection has spread out throughout the whole city.

In Demoni 2, the Berlin landscape has changed. The Gothic is actualized in a high-rise building, where domestic life functions around a central object: the television set. Whether in the kitchen, in one’s bedroom or at a birthday party, the television is turned on. Needles to say, a horror film is being broadcasted on prime-time. Once again, Lamberto Bava makes use of the classical mise en abyme (play-within-a-play). The broadcast-film follows a group of teens who trespass into a desolate city (the outbreak of Demoni). There they find the inert body of a demon who comes back to life. The awaken monster directs his gaze to the viewer(s): the birthday girl Sally, but also to us, watching Sally alone in her room, as if almost hypnotised by the image and its secrets. A good dose of flickering lights and special effects do the trick. The demons have once again come out of the screen. This time directly, as opposed to the first volume of the saga, where the (speculative) agency of a prop advances the plot, bringing horror into the world.

Despite the fact that both films take place in interior spaces, the city itself plays a very important role: That of celebrating and representing capitalist creed. Signs and symbols remind us that we are in the American sector of an occupied, divided city. In a further note, the act of trespassing a surveilled wall, only to find that a demonic infection has taken over the other side, is also highly symbolic of a city’s ideological clash. Specters of Marx, Derrida’s foundational hauntological text, would be released in 1993, precisely four years after the fall of the Berlin wall. In the book, the starting point for the writer’s deconstruction is Marx and Engels’ statement that a “specter is haunting Europe.” Clearly, the specter of the 90’s is that of communism and leftist ideology, in other words, the triumph of neo liberalism and the consequent discontinuation of (a) history.

Equally an impact of discontinuation, is the fact that none of the seven sequels of Demoni bare relation to the stories of the first two films, nor were they directed by Lamberto Bava. In fact, chronology was not a concern for Bava and his producers. On a trivia-note: the first Demoni was not distributed in Germany by the time of its release. Demoni 2 however, had its German release. Only it was re-titled to simply: Demoni… Once the first film was also distributed in Germany, considering it was now being released after its sequel, the title of the original movie was changed to Demoni 2.

Specters of Marx also opens the path for Derrida’s take on the notion of tele-technology and the symptom of digital media in society. Coincidence (or the working of some spectral force) wanted Bava’s Demoni to depict the same symptom a few years before its deconstruction. In the first film, we are confronted with three economies of looking: our own gaze towards the screen; the gaze of the filmgoers at the Metropol Cinema; and last but not least, the gaze of the demons from the film-within-the-film, who look back at us, ready to break the fourth wall at any time.

Demoni 2, however,compartmentalizes the experience of cinema in an infinite number of television screens. Thus, horror no longer belongs to the collective sphere, but to a private one, accessible through the simple pressing of a button. The provocation lies on the fact that this same button can no longer be pressed back. Teletechnology announces the rupture of space and time. The demons force their way in. Horror has come to stay.

Works /Films Cited:

Fisher, Mark. What Is Hauntology? Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Fall 2012), 16-24.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. Routledge Edition. 1993.

Demoni - Lamberto Bava, 1985, 88min.
Demoni 2 - Lamberto Bava, 1986, 91min.


10 March, 2018

Green is the warmest colour

Deep within the South American rainforest a new cinematic expression was born in the early 70s: the slasher cannibal genre; graphically violent films depicting the anthropophagic practice of indigenous tribes in contact for the first time with Western (predatory) civilisation. In film history, the colour green was the protagonist associated to this particular ‘cannibal boom’. Green Inferno was the name given by many of these films to the very location in the heart of the Amazon forest where these tribes were to be found, and where most of the atrocities committed on camera take place. While cannibalism is the uniting headliner of these films, their focus is on various other forms of shocking violence. Italian director, Umberto Lenzi, originated the genre with his 1972 film, The Country of Savage Sex, while Antonio Climati's Paradiso Infernale from 1988 is regarded to have brought the trend to a close. Ruggero Deodato’s (1980s) Cannibal Holocaust is by far the most well-known film of the period and in some ways epitomises what this human flesh-eating fictional phenomenon was all about.

2006 in Kassel, Germany: the court where Armin Meiwes is standing trial for killing, butchering and eating another man has been transfixed by a story of cannibalism and homicidal ritual. The details of the dissection and consumption of 43-year-old engineer, Bernd Brandes, would be barely believable, were it not for the fact that Meiwes, 42, made a video recording of the whole affair. What does it take to create such a monster, one might ask? Is Meiwes’ monstrosity perhaps a media invention? Like anyone else, Armin just wanted to be loved. As an adolescent, he became obsessed with the crimes of Fritz Haarmann, the Vampire of Hanover, who butchered 26 young men in the 1920s. His mother, Waltraud, knew nothing of his fantasies and his increasing doubts about his sexuality.

After his mother’s sudden death, Armin (then 37) began to turn his fantasies into reality. There was, he admitted, an overwhelming desire to eat a person, to consume someone utterly. And it was linked inseparably to his strong homosexual tendencies. He pursued gay relationships among his army comrades and frequented bars used by male prostitutes. After his mother’s death, his thoughts turned exclusively to gay sex and cannibalism. The internet became the instrument with which Meiwes could set himself free. His message at the Cannibal Café Forum (an early-internet fantasy sharing domain) was seen by Bernd Brandes, who secretly harbored the fantasy of being devoured by another man. While the Cannibal Café is now closed, other websites devoted to cannibalism and necrophilia still thrive on the deep web. This was the culture behind the queer love of Armin and Bernd. If in the nineteenth century, cannibalism and homosexuality shared a rhetorical form, represented as the unspeakable, in 2001 Armin and Bernd rejected rethorics and advanced into a more practical terrein: Their love story however, was turned into a media spectacle. The media had created a monster.

To say that cannibalism is a relation of love is not to say that it is warm, cuddly, and nurturing. It’s only to say that love and cannibalism can be confused. Cannibals and lovers both pay exceptional attention to the body of their desired. Fairy-tale cannibalism is a kind of exotic and forbidden act of sex. Love can be as possessive and as irrational as cannibalism. [1]

In Cannibal Holocaust, so are love and media spectacle entangled: the movie follows a team of American documentarists into the Amazon in search of cannibal tribes. The young and sexually voracious team disappears without a trace. What we see is the footage recovered after their disappearance. Cannibal Holocaust blurs the lines between fiction and reality. So did Armin Meiwes and Bernd Brandes, who were not satisfied with limiting their love to an online fantasy.

The color green; a synonym of the natural and beautiful, but also a synonym of the uncanny, of the alien experience. A color strangely associated to what is most natural and foreign to us. Yet, if the cannibal exploitation wave of the 70s and 80s and Armin Meiwes’ video-tapes do not provide enough green to our plot, another cannibal episode in film history starts and ends with green: green climate disaster, green overpopulated planet, green devastating global pandemics, green poison in the air; Soylent Green - in the NYC of 2022 the temperature never drops below 90º. Over 20 million people are unemployed. There is no middle class. The poor sleep where they can and join together for the daily food riots: a 70s sci-fi flick based on Harry Harrison’s novel, Make Room! Make Room!

The original story contains no cannibalism. Soylent Green contains no gay love (except for the tender friendship between detective Frank Thorn and his flatmate Sol Roth). Very little of the book’s plot is reflected in the plot of the film (in which industrialised cannibalism is the solution for world-hunger). Humid green haze hanging over the city, an example of what Harry Harrison called background becoming foreground, when what we take away from a film is not the plot, but an overall image of the world in which the plot plays itself out. [2]

The supposedly ‘found-footage’ in Cannibal Holocaust uses a different film stock from the framing story. This film stock is grainy, scratched, and discoloured; the poor quality of the picture and sound add an extra layer of believability by mimicking what you would expect from 16mm film that had been sitting unprocessed in the jungle for months. Back in New York, professor Monroe, the man who retrieved the film cans from the jungle, now watches the footage, hoping to edit a shorter version under the assignment of a big TV channel. (Plot-twist) The young and bold filmmakers who had their fate sealed in the jungle also had a reputation for staging their documentaries. They were not exactly a fraud, but if they had decided that a subject wasn’t exciting enough, steering events in a more sensational direction was the path to be taken.

So was Armin Meiwes a documentarist, and the old house in Wüstefeld his stage, where he would capture fragments of his life on video, including the fragment in which Bernd Brandes himself is butchered and fragmented. These video tapes belong to the German authorities, and the only proof of their existence are a series of screenshots leaked on the internet later that year. Through the gaze of the camera, the cinematic apparatus and the act of filming itself, Armin Meiwes and the filmmakers in Cannibal Holocaust exist in the same green human-flesh soup; either banalizing the anthropophagic ritual or staging it on celluloid and magnetic tape.

The internet has generated a seductive cyberspace. There, Armin and Bernd could find love at the Cannibal Café. A new wave of cyber-anthropophagy was born. Keep on filming! Keep on eating! As 2022 approaches, the reality of Make Room! Make Room! becomes more feasible.  We feed from mediatisation, high-consumption lifestyles, (un)touching feelings, commodity pleasures and cannibal spectacles. Fuelling the economy from the green of the New York streets, where Charlton Heston runs after the secret of Soylent Industries, to the green inferno in the heart of the Amazon forest, where professor Monroe wonders who the real cannibals are. Bernd’s life is changed when he meets Armin, the cannibal with the green hair who will allow him to discover-devour-desire. Meanwhile, Armin will assert himself as a cannibal, a gay man and an adult. In front of the same camera, Armin grows old, feeds on Bernd, becomes vegetarian, and ultimately finds himself through green consumption: eco-cannibalism is here to stay. Green is the warmest colour.

1 For a full account on this matter, read: Crain, Caleb. “Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels”. American Literature, 66.1, 1994, 25-53.

2 Knipfel, Jim. (2018, January 30). why soylent green is more relevant now than ever.