Sunday, May 4, 2008
Brian Horrorwitz' ANTENA CRIMINAL
Note to readers: Below is a post that I will be expanding next week, but I wanted to post now and will edit later. I interviewed the creator of the documentary ANTENA CRIMINAL, Brian Horrorwitz, Brian's the front man of the band The Ubangis, and he had previously provided music for other Franco films. His passion for the director's films led him to become a filmmaker, documenting the making of the 2000 Franco flick BLIND TARGET.
So I will be posting an update notice next week, but you can see the most important part, the interview that forms most of the post below, NOW.
Brian Horrorwitz' Antena Criminal is an independent documentary film released at the end of 2007 that examines and documents the making of Blind Target (2000), one of Jess Franco's more recent films. Antena Criminal is a promising first documentary from Horrorwitz, and makes the watching of Blind Target a better experience. (But it would just about have to-- BT is not exactly classic cinema!)
Horrorwitz is the proprietor of Trash Palace, a cool site for buying odd novelty and exploitation films on DVD and for buying high-octane lowbrow music on CDs. Just as Trash Palace has introduced me to some interesting, unusual stuff, Antena Criminal and Blind Target introduced me to the weird, sometimes trashy world of longtime genre filmmaker Jess Franco. Whether this is a favor or not remains to be seen, but I enjoyed Antena Criminal as an unblinking look at filmmaking on a shoestring, and I recommend YOU buy it! You get the two disk Antena Criminal set and a separate dvd of Blind Target, all for $11.98!
I wasn't unfamiliar with Franco --you can't learn anything about the history of foreign horror films without learning about Franco-- but my first introduction to his work came as a surprise! When I was about 12, one of my grannies sent me for Christmas a book on the history of vampire films, since I've always been a fan of monster movies. What she didn't know (and I didn't either) was that a couple of nude photos from Franco's Vampyros Lesbos were in the book! (I managed to keep my happy surprise under the radar, and my parents never knew about the illicit images I'd been given.) So, from then on, I was curious about the Spanish director's movies, and sometimes even for reasons of intellectual curiosity!
What I gathered, from everything that I read as I grew older, was that Franco was a schlock artist who turned out far more dreck than diamonds. Still, he was said to have done some outstanding stuff, so I had high hopes for the first Franco flicker I saw.
Well, my hopes were dashed by Blind Target. The anonymous writer who wrote the IMDB plot summary for Blind Target describes the story this way: "Blind Target is about an expatriate author is the story of a young woman who emigrated from the poor tiny Latin American country of San Hermoso only to strike it rich and famous as an author in the United States. When she returns to her homeland to promote her novel "Desperate Letters" - a thinly veiled expose of her native land's political corruption - she is in for a welcome that she could not have imagined in her worst nightmares." Her worst nightmare would have to be that she is in a film that features poor performances (except for those by Linnea Quigley and Lina Romay), has poor sound and dubbing, is marred by rough camera work done by Franco himself, looks cheap, and has unintentional laughs. (The biggest has to be a lesbian love scene where one character is pressed up against a glass window; the movements of her partner behind her mash the actress' face into odd contortions, like the kind kids make when they use their fingers to make funny faces.)
Thankfully I had Antena Criminal to help me appreciate Franco a little better. He's a man who lives to make films, as he has for over fifty years, no matter what size budget or lack of talented help he may be saddled with. And he has made some good films, if his Jack the Ripper is any indication. (My wife suggested I watch that one after the boredom of Blind Target; I did and enjoyed it.)
And now the interview with Brian Horrorwitz:
Max the drunken severed head: What is the meaning of the title? I saw the words spelled out in the building windows early in the documentary, but had no idea what they referenced. (I do know that "antena" is the Spanish spelling for "antenna" in English.)
Brian Horrorwitz: Well, it's a few things. First, I got the name from this huge sign that was posted in some guy's window. If you see the documentary, there are shots looking up at it. That was the same building Jess and Lina [Romay] were living in at the time. I stayed there for a month as well at the corner of the building just above them. And right at the very top above me was the Antena Criminal guy. If you look closely you might notice a whole ton of antennas up on the rooftop. I think maybe they were relay antennas put there by some company for who knows. And apparently they were really screwing with the guys electricity in his apartment. So that was his way of protesting. That building was way up high on the hill above the beach. And if you were driving anywhere near there or walking down the boardwalk or whatever you just couldn't miss it. At night he'd leave his lights on so the sign was illuminated. Really a brilliant way of protesting. Also for me it kind of represented a vibe I saw in the minds of some of the Spanish people there. Very creative, very laid back but still willing to come up with an idea to make their statement should a protest arise. There are other meanings to the name too but that's for you to decide.
You told me in a prior phone conversation that Blind Target, the film whose production is the focus of your documentary,is far from being Franco's best work. Prior to shooting the documentary, did you have different expectations?
Well, I didn't really know what to expect. I can tell you that they ran into a lot of problems before the shooting ever started, like the original lead actress dropping out a couple of days before the shoot, things like that. And don't get me wrong, there are things about "Blind Target" that I really like. But it seems to me, although some might disagree, that maybe there were too many fingers in the creative pot. The basic storyline wasn't necesarily the type of thing Franco would normally do although he has made several other movies dealing with espionage. But the Franconian elements are all there because, no matter what's in the script, when Jess is at the helm it's always gonna come out being a Jess Franco movie one way or another.
What held up the release of the documentary?
Just a combination of technical things, money... the usual b.s. Also I wanted to screen it a few times and get people's feedback because I was concerned that maybe it was a bit too eclectic, had maybe too limited of an appeal. I mean to me it means something but I wanted to try and see if it connected with anyone else and fortunately it has with a few people. I kind of shopped it around a bit but it really does have a limited audience to be honest. I was hoping before I went over there I could create something that non-Franco fans might appreciate but I don't know if that would've been possible in this case without it coming across as another typical "DVD extra" type of documentary. I wanted it to have it's own mood and style, which it does. Whether it is works or not I can't say.
What do you love about Franco's films? What do think Franco fans "get" about his films that his critics don't?
A lot of things really. I love the fact that each movie is like a piece of a puzzle, the puzzle being the mind of Jess Franco. And the more you watch the more connections you see. I like the fact that he comes up with these creative little background stories for his characters to set all the debauchery in motion. I think it makes the sex scenes more interesting if there's a reason behind it. Also the fact that, like some of my favorite directors, his films work on a more cerebral level rather then technical. They don't look slick, he shoots on location, the settings aren't lit fancy, the camera wanders through a lot of the times in the same way that the eye sees things, like a voyeur peering into someone's demented dream. And I think a lot of people appreciate that kind of approach because it's so different then what we see today in movies. Some people can't get past the cheapness of his films but to me most of them make up for it and then some by exploring things on a whole different level. Fellini wasn't that different, he just had much more money and made much fewer films.
What emotions did you feel seeing Franco work on Blind Target?
Well, there were many and they were all good! First, being a long time fan, it was all kind of surreal seeing him in action. It was impressive seeing this man work, too. He obviously knows his shit! The way he could be shooting one scene while the next one was being setup by the crew. He was really fast and held it together all the time. I am convinced that if he ever had more money to work with he easily could direct another "Eugenie" or "Faceless". His mind was 100% sharp and he was very focused on what he was doing, knowing at every moment exactly what he wanted in all aspects; what lights to use, where to set them, the choreography of the actors, the cinematography (he still does all of his own shooting), etc. I did feel a bit odd at times because I knew ahead of time that he wasn't really keen on having a camera in his face the whole time. He and Lina and everyone there in fact were as nice as could be, there was no hostility whatsoever. But when things started hitting the proverbial fan, and, as you saw, it did, I could tell he felt a bit uneasy about having me there shooting all of that. But not as uneasy as I felt, believe me!
Franco never seems to crack a smile or laugh in your film. Did you find him to be a very serious person, or was he struggling with frustration or sadness? Certainly Blind Target seemed to have some production troubles.
No, actually he smiles and laughs all the time. But when he is working he is very focused. And actually despite a few brief blow-ups I think he handles the frustrations amazingly well. You've seen Antena and you know what frustrations I am talking about, well, if it had been me I probably would've lost it much sooner then he did. So actually he held it together quite well considering what he had to deal with sometimes.
What amused him? How does his sense humor express itself in his films?
It's hard to say; I think Jess can appreciate a sort of nutty theatrical type of humor, laughing at someone acting like a goofball. He also will sometimes make you do things for a laugh, like when I had to run down a mountain road 5 times in "Blind Target". I think about half-a-second of that 20 minutes of running ended up in the actual film. And I'm still not sure if he was having a laugh at my expense or not but it was pretty funny. Just before that we had been served our breakfast which was called "Megas" or something, this kind of greasy mush made out of bread stuffing, fried sausage and a fried egg...I forget what all else was in there... all squished togther in a bowl. And after I are it I had to do all that running and I almost hurled. Well, if you look at the outtakes on the Antena DVD, there is a scene were they're discussing that the running shot didn't come out and we might have to do it over again. And Lina pipes up and says "I'll go get another bowl of Megas ready for you."! She is really funny, she cracked me up quite a bit. In his movies she always plays these demented nympho characters in this sort of spaced out sex-freak mode. But if you've ever seen her doing a comedy role she is quite good at them, she can really pull it off, and that is much more like her real personality. You can tell in Antena, she is always kidding around but when it's time to shoot, she jumps in there and nails it like a pro. She also loves to film and ended up shooting several parts of Antena.
I assume you met Franco for the first time while making Antena Criminal. As you got to know him a bit, did he surprise you in any way? If so, how?
Actually I got to meet him once at a horror convention a few years before that. He was quite personable and very interesting to hang around with and talk to. He could go on and on about music and film. I've never met anyone that knew so much about old Hollywood movies! Also the fact that he could handle joking around even about his own movies. We were at some restaurant and he recommended I try the blood sausage and I asked him, "Wasn't that the name of one of your films? The Bloody Sausage?". He thought that was funny.
The torture of women is a major and recurring element in his films. Why do think that is?
Well in his case, as I said before, it's never just obligatory, there's always some narrative motivation behind it. I think there are quite a few men being tortured as well. And more often then not there is a woman who is controlling the torture. Even in his women-in-prison movies, it's always Ajita Wilson or someone pulling the strings. Outside of the sexual elements and the fact that Jess loves the idea of the dominating woman, the femme fatale, the succubus, etc., he likes to spin a story in a very old fashioned style, much in the way of old Hollywood films. And I think that sex and torture for him are story telling devices believe it or not. He'd never have someone getting tortured for no reason, he uses the exploitative elements to tell the story.
How are the erotic elements of Blind Target different from his other films?
Well, I think more then ever they are used to move the plot along. I don't want to give anything away but the sex is used as a manipulative device in the movie, and then later as an act of violence, both times altering the storyline.
He claims to be a feminist. Do you believe him? I get the feeling that he merely romanticizes-- and idolizes-- women as superior to men in all ways.
Well, I suppose that depends on what one's definition of feminism is! I mean there is no question that he idolizes women. But if you listen to what he has to say in one of the interview segments of Antena he most certainly has definite ideas about the importance of women in the world and they are VERY feminist. He may express those ideas in an overtly sexual or "pulp" manner in his movies, but it seemed to me that he was quite sincere.
What was his relationship with Ms. Romay like, as you observed it?
Pretty much the way it comes across in Antena: 2 people who have a deep love and caring for each other. I can't imagine 2 people who understand each other so well too.
What do you imagine Franco would be doing if were not a filmmaker?
My answer to that is I cannot imagine him doing ANYTHING else! It is impossible. If he were not a film maker then he probably wouldn't exist.
What is the one Jess Franco film you wish everyone would see?
Hmmm... Well, I don't know if there is just one, but I think there might be one for everybody; People with a taste for arthouse cinema might appreciate "Succubus" which is my personal favorite; gorehounds would probably dig "Faceless" quite a bit; and a lot of people like "Venus in Furs".
Please tell me about your music tracks for Blind Target and for Antena Criminal.
Uuuummm... Well,... after Jess had used a few songs from my band The Ubangis' first CD in "Lust for Frankenstein" and then we collaborated with him to compose music for "Vampire Blues", his producer contacted us about writing the score for "Blind Target". But this time we were given lyrics to use that were written by somebody else and told to write music that sounded like this or that. And that was all well and good but then, they way I remember it, they kept changing what they wanted. And we wrote and recorded these tracks very quickly and by the time it was all done I wouldn't say it was among our better material but not bad. And when I finally got to Spain and played it for Jess I could tell that he wasn't thinking it fit, which it didn't because at that point they decided they wanted something with a more Latin flavor to represent the mood of the fictional country in the film. Which we most defnitely could've done if we were told that up-front and just left to do our thing. And I don't think it was Jess' fault, he trusted us with his ideas for "Vampire Blues" and we were right in synch with him. But this time really there were, like I said before, just too many fingers in the pot. So they ended up using one track, a vocal track, and I cringe every time I hear it. But the instrumental stuff we recorded came out pretty good and it was in my head the entire time I was there shooting there so I decided to make it the Antena score and for that it works quite well I think.
Does Franco like rock music himself? Do you know what he listens to?
Yes he does! I think Jazz is his main thing but he is actually very progressive when it comes to using music in his films and if he didn't like it he probably wouldn't use it with a few exceptions ("Faceless" theme anyone?). I mean, at his age the guy made "Killer Barbies" and used bands like Sexy Sadie and The Ubangis in his movies fer chrissakes! And if you listen to some of the scores from the '70s, there is some very modern jazzy stuff in a period piece film like "The Demons" for instance. And Manfred Mann in "Venus In Furs". I know Jess considers himself a musician and to me he definitely has good taste. I found a small record shop in Malaga when I was over there and picked up a couple of LPs I had never heard before. I told him "Jess, I got a Count Basie album today!". "Which one?" he said. "Count Basie Plays The Beatles!". He makes a sour face. He was right!
I'll close with a stupid, Barbara Walters-style question. If Jess Franco's films were a sandwich, what kind of sandwich would it be?
Uuummm... Ham with extra cheese? No, no... I am kidding of course! Geeze... I DUNNO!!
And I don't know why I asked such a silly thing. But thank you for this interview!
Above: Max the drunken severed head and Brian Horrorwitz!