White Light 6

Weblog White Light 6

I have already written about John Price. See White Light 4. I was visiting his home town of Toronto for the most streamlined festival in the world, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to look him up. And I saw projections of several of his films in the viewing room of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. We didn’t talk about drugs. After overcoming his nervousness, Price largely talked about film formats, cameras and emulsions as well as about recently becoming a father. About light and colour. Or the power of black & white. A sensitive technician and alchemist.

by Gertjan Zuilhof

The magic power of his hand manipulated images however rests entirely on intuition. He is not a technology freak and certainly not a theoretician. He seeks his way by touch through the chemistry of film images. During that quest, there is some doping, but – as I said – we did not mention that.
Price emphasises the world of chemical hallucinations as it were with a fine brush. But the world of the darker narco-cinema can also be approached with a sledgehammer. Very different, but no less effective.

Nicolas Winding Refn is the film maker with the hammer. Refn is a Danish film maker, but he spent his childhood and young years in New York. There he saw his first genre films and Scorcese’s mean streets in real life. Refn took the festival world by storm in 1996, he was then just 25, with the harsh and realistic Pusher. A portrait of a dope dealer that was regarded and prized as a mix of Danish Dogma and American gangster genre. It brought back the harsh realism into a genre that had started to put too much faith in its own cliches. Refn made several more highly regarded films and now returns with no less than two sequels to his first Pusher.

Pusher II was screened at the last festival in Rotterdam and the last part, Pusher III, I’m the Angel of Death, is the convincing last stage of this stunning trilogy. The power of the film is in its feeling of authenticity. Whether or not Copenhagen is really populated by unscrupulous Serbian dealers and Albanian crooks who want to be even more unscrupulous, the makes you believe that’s how it is.

Refn does not use actors who pretend to be American film gangsters, but actors who make you forget they are actors because you see a real Serbian dealer. Or a Macedonian who wants to stop. Pusher III follows the average crook Milo (not petty and not big) on the amazing day when he has to report to the detox discussion group, he has to organise the birthday of his 25-year-old spoilt daughter Milena and his position as a dealer is undermined by hot-headed Albanians. Refn follows his affairs with a flowing chronological motion. Under pressure, Milo taking increasing amounts of drugs to stay on his feet, but this finally leads to a fatal outburst.

For those who had difficulty with the last scenes of The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael by Thomas Clay (see White Light 3), a warning would not be out of place. Milo calls in the help of a former Balkan thug to clear up the mess (read: corpses). Apart from that I only saw in an interview that Refn remarked in an interview that he was very impressed as a boy by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the director of this slasher of all slasher films is rarely mentioned, but it is Tobe Hooper).

The portrayal of drugs use and the drugs subculture is also possible without violence or hallucinations. As a drugs film maker, Philippe Garrel has a repulation to maintain and as a former lover of former Velvet Underground Nico, he is no less than an expert from experience. Films like J’entends plus la Guitare and Sauvage Innocence are narco-cinematographic classics.

In Garrel's last film Les amants réguliers, the drugs use is interwoven casually and in a matter-of-fact way. The film is set during and immediately after the famous and uproarious month of May 1968 in Paris. A group of young students finds shelter in the home of the dealer and user Antoine, the only one of them who always has enough money. The film was shot in sober black & white. No hallucinations or they have to be the strange French Revolution shots at the start and end that pull it into the world of dreams. The film has been compared with the greats of the Nouvelle Vague and with Bresson and Eustache, but I think people are forgetting that Garrel may have been young, but he lived through it all himself and was also right in the thick of it.

Garrel largely used his own experience on which to base the film and it is more of an autobiography (with his own son as his young alter ego as the lead) than an ode to the Nouvelle Vague (that was already seriously in decline in 1968).
Finally. Narco-cinema is not a cinematographic genre. Price’s chemical hallucinations remain experimental cinema, the destructive vicissitudes of Refn’s dealers remain gangster films and Garrel as always makes poetic European art films. Three totally different positions and portrayals that really largely have their quality in common.

foto: image from Les amants réguliers by Philippe Garrel (France, 2005)