Writer, programmer, academic, Jack Sargeant has a solid history when it comes to covering all the weird and wonderful sharp corners of cult and underground film. His previous books include Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground, Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, and Cinema Contra Cinema: Collected Essays. While his other published works (which total over fifteen authored and co-edited books, and countless other contributions to a variety of printed projects: books, journals and journalistic pieces) encompass interests as diverse as subculture, extremity in sex and violence, pop culture and pornography; from JG Ballard—Terminal Atrocity Zone: Ballard— to punk—No Focus: Punk on Film—to true crime—Death Cults: Murder, Mayhem and Mind Control.
The subject of transgression lies at the very heart of Sargeant’s latest book, Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film. Sargeant examines, in some great depth, bodily representations throughout underground cinema. Tracking right back to the ocular abuse of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), right through to contemporary cinema—via counter-cultural movements such as punk, and postpunk, industrial, fanzine culture; cinema of transgression, film festivals and community, medical fetish, and butoh—Sargeant presents us with bodies exposed to extreme violence, extreme sex, naked bodies, shitting bodies, bleeding bodies, deformed bodies, disgusting bodies, bodies that represent the entire spectrum of human depravity, perversity, and profanity, as they push the realms of extreme experience as art. Potent stuff. The book provides a deep exhilarating thrill, dense in context and commentary; the author analyses his core themes using philosophy, including the theories of Georges Bataille, Freud, de Sade and Nietzsche, to present one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject of underground film ever committed to book form. Sargeant writes with passion and integrity, which provides a deeply absorbing and enriching experience. For anyone with an interest in visceral representations of the body as art, this is a must read.
Diabolique Magazine were fortunate enough to catch up with Sargeant to ask him about his relationship to underground film, the core themes of the book, and how these relate to his work as whole.
Diabolique: In the introduction to Flesh and Excess you talk about your fascination with the underground—highlighting the fact you have already written three books and numerous essays on the subject—and you describe this as an “almost pathological obsession”. Where do you think that comes from? What is it that fascinates you so much?
Sargeant: There are so many possible answers here, things that informed who I was, who I am, and my interests. I have a memory of being a young child—maybe four years old—and the people in the flat upstairs having a baby that had an extra finger. I remember wanting to see this extra finger so bad, and going upstairs to see the baby. But of course it wasn’t a fully articulated digit and had been removed. I have no idea if this is actually a real event or a retrospectively imagined one. But in my memory I was really excited about seeing this extra finger. I think that says something about my interests as a person. It says something about wanting to see – or to experience the process of something being revealed – that still forms a part of my psychological make-up.
But, with underground film in particular, I came to this through both the underground music scene of the eighties and through video nasties. At a young age I started to see live music, which rapidly led to an interest in performance art, things such as that, all in my mid-teens, so I was very engaged in that world, to the point that in my late teens and early twenties I was putting on events. I ended-up working as part of a community arts team involved in curating and promoting various forms of live art, which included helping to curate an outsider art exhibition and part of a festival of performance art. So, I was very aware of this world at a young age.
Simultaneous to this, in the mid-eighties the so-called video nasties phenomena was still going-on. You can imagine, this was the perfect period for an outsider teenager to get into exploitation films, horror films, b-movies, and cult film, and to search out odd cinema. My friends and I would watch all the classic horror movies. I had already watched things like Eraserhead with my father around ’82 or ’83. Midnight movies came onto my radar. Of course, all of this led to discovering the films of John Waters and especially Pink Flamingos, which was probably the gateway to so much more. I was given the BFI VHS tape of Colour Me Lurid, a collection of George Kuchar movies, so that of course added to it. Meanwhile, knowing about people like Lydia Lunch meant I knew about films like The Right Side of My Brain. And I remember seeing the Survival Research Laboratories documentary at a gig, so all of this stuff seemed so interrelated to me—music, film, all parts of hidden underground culture.
I would go and see movies too, I spent many weekend nights at the local art house cinema’s midnight movie session, which screened on both Fridays and Saturdays, and sometimes on Thursdays as well, and I just watched everything. The eighties was a great time for art house cinemas, you had local art house cinemas showing European and so-called world movies, and classic late nights.
The chains would show late nights too sometimes. I remember seeing The Beyond and a cannibal movie (maybe Eaten Alive?) as a double bill at one of the local cinemas. But I also went to London and saw movies there too, at the Scala and the ICA, I went to a twenty-four hour screening of Evil Dead, The Toolbox Murders, Dead and Buried, Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and various others, which was great, and a real eye-opener in terms of the idea that so much was possible in terms of screening a movie. But movie going was something that was always a part of my life, as a young kid I would go see movies like Godzilla and Destroy All Monsters at the cinema, and I recall going to see movies like Rollercoaster and Phase IV at the cinema, so I was just surrounded by movies even before I was a teenager.
Anyway, to return to the eighties there was also the explosion of underground publishing. The journal Re/Search was on my radar because of the William Burroughs and Throbbing Gristle issue, the JG Ballard issue and The Industrial Culture Handbook. All of these books featured interviews where the subjects would list influential books, records, bands, and films. And of course those lists were just devoured by me, and the films became a must-see list of titles, you know, if a band like Cabaret Voltaire said a film was influential you’d go watch it. Then, of course, Re/Search published The Incredibly Strange Films book and that opened up another world. I had seen some of the movies, Q the Winged Serpent, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and so on, but many of the directors, genres, and films covered in that book were totally new to me, so it was a real eye opener. And, if this wasn’t enough, you also had the explosion in horror and exploitation film ‘zines, which also introduced areas to explore.
So, my interest in the underground can be traced to this whole world I grew-up in and was immersed in.
As a writer it seems natural that I follow these paths and see where they lead. When I wrote Deathtripping I was pretty young, and it really was about that specific Cinema of Transgression culture, while Naked Lens: Beat Cinema was about those specific beat related underground and indie works over a number of decades, then Cinema Contra Cinema collected together writings about predominantly ’90s underground film directors from numerous traditions. But all of these books carry the influence and weight of my interests; visionary directors, auteurs, people and works that are often rule breaking and so on, they are part of some ongoing research or series of fascinations. Even my non-film writings explore areas that come from this period I think, I mean, Against Control – my book collecting together my Burroughsian explorations… all those fascinations in there – the roots come from these areas too I think.
Diabolique: Central to the core thesis of the book is the concept of “flesh” and “excess” and how that fits into underground film. Why did you choose those concepts as your main focus?
Sargeant: I think it’s a theme that links many of my interests, whether in film, performance, music, art or whatever, but also those philosophical concerns with the body, with the way in which the body is constructed or represented in underground works, and how these works may effect the body of the viewer of the films. So, on one hand its concept led. Simultaneously it’s a work that has a philosophical component that is more direct than my other books.
Diabolique: Could you tell us a bit about your own personal experience with the underground. Where did it start? How has your relationship with the scene changed (if at all) over the years?
Sargeant: When Deathtripping first came out in the mid-nineties Creation Books, who published it, brought Nick Zedd to the U.K to screen his movies. We also asked others if we could screen their works –Richard Kern, Tessa Hughes-Freeland and so on. Creation organized a tour where Nick, myself and a driver travelled across the UK screening the movies that were in the book. The idea was that people could get to see the movies I wrote about (of course most people who searched for them had seen Richard Kern’s Fingered and Nick Zedd’s Police State, but little else was really available) so we were able to introduce people to these underground movies and talk about the films and then sell books. It pretty much invented a way to sell books like this.
Along the way we did things like meet David (Kerekes) and David (Slater), the guys behind the excellent journal Headpress and the book Killing For Culture. The tour went through London, Newcastle, Bristol, Manchester and so on. Of course, once people heard about it they would invite me to talk at colleges or cinemas, so I subsequently went to Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well screening in Brighton, where I lived. They also launched the book in New York, which was great. Then, a few months later, Chicago Underground Film Festival invited me over. And all the time I met people and filmmakers and curates and so on. I ended up helping program Brighton Cinematheque, I would program screenings at the Horse Hospital in London, and of course all of this just kept on spreading with subsequent books.
I programmed two events in London back in the late nineties; one at the ICA and one the following year at the Horse Hospital. Each consisted of two-day programs that were retrospectives from the previous year or two’s best underground films, and both could have become festivals but… I don’t know, I never pursued transforming it into an annual event, although I probably should have.
As to my relationship with the scene. I’m not sure. It’s hard to reflect on something that is part of you. I’m not sure it’s possible. I’m involved in different areas and in many different ways; I talk to filmmakers, I talk to festival programmers, I sometimes appear in documentary films on underground films or culture, for example I was in Llik Your Idols, Blank City, and Advocate For Fagdom. I have also ‘acted’ in a handful underground films, something I really enjoy, but I’m not asked to do that often. Although if anyone wants to cast me they should.
In addition, I work as a film programmer for a film festival that— while not underground—has an emphasis on independent film, auteurs, documentaries also. It would be safe to say I am deeply involved. Sometimes, such as now, when I have to discuss it or take stock, I suddenly understand that I am involved far more than I think.
Diabolique: In your Origins chapter, you centre around the punk/post punk movement in a way that feels both passionate and personal. This chapter, in particular, conjures a real sense of community in its stories and discussion. Do you feel that a sense of community still exists, if indeed it ever did?
Sargeant: I think there’s a sense of community during film festivals—people getting together and bonding, seeing each other’s work and supporting each other —of course, many of my friends are people who I met in or through this world. But are there new or current communities? I think it depends on other factors rather than aesthetic or cultural ones. I mean, if you look at art history for example, a lot of people originally met because artists (of whatever medium) lived in cheap neighborhoods, so your next-door neighbor or the barman down the road or the chef at the café, may have also been an artist, filmmaker, writer, musician, or whatever too. As somebody in his forties I had that experience, I lived in share houses with friends who all did their own creative thing, and others did too. You can see in the eighties that subculture scenes emerged in spaces where rents were affordable, so in the Lower East Side of New York, in Kreuzberg in Berlin, in Hackney in London, and so on.
But, fuck, with gentrification and the end of cheap accommodation located in a particular ‘hood then I’m not so sure that artistic communities can emerge so easily now. The economics and availability of low cost housing is a huge political issue. If you are eighteen / twenty, now where can you go? Where’s cheap? Where do other young artists live? If people can’t go and live near or around other creative people and all learn and cut their teeth together then I’m not sure what can happen.
So, do I think there’s a sense of community? Yes—but maybe now it’s temporal, it emerges around the weekend of a festival or whatever, but then that event ends and people return home and back to their own lives. Whereas perhaps before these creative communities emerged around physical geographical locations. Some people may suggest that there are communities online, and you know, I guess that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s the same.
Diabolique: How difficult was the research process?
Sargeant: I am one of those people who is always ‘on’ —I make notes, mental and written, about things that I think will become important, so on that level I am always researching. I am always thinking about these things. With this book, it came from my PhD, so I was writing it and had people around who would listen to my ideas—so that made a difference.
Diabolique: Did you hit any dead ends?
Sargeant: That’s a really interesting question. I really am uncertain if I did or not. I think that I know where there are gaps in the book, but they are not so much dead ends as spaces where I could have gone a different way, or taken a different direction, so they are not dead ends per se but roads that could travel elsewhere.
Diabolique: Or by contrast was there anything you discovered that you hadn’t anticipated?
Sargeant: I think that—when you write— when it’s you and the keyboard, there’s no bullshit (I think I’m paraphrasing Charles Bukowski or Harry Crews, one of them said something similar I’m sure). Anyhow, you have to write. You have to think. So, trying to articulate an idea and frame it through an intellectual paradigm means that you have to truly push yourself. I guess what I discovered is that I am able to sit down and just push my thinking, really engage with an idea, push an idea and see what happens. That’s not to say the idea is ‘correct’ or can’t be disputed or argued against, but that when you sit and write you have to do it and know why you are doing it. It can be a vertiginous moment. Sometimes I write then look back and there’s a chapter half-done, and I have no idea how I wrote it… I go into some kind of extreme focus zone. So, it’s not that I don’t anticipate that process, but I can be surprised that an idea has worked. Of course, that isn’t really what you were asking.
So, as to discovering something new, I think sitting and talking with Jay and Bryan from Chicago Underground was very enlightening. We’ve known each other for twenty years or something, but when that is the case you realize that you may know people but the actual, real stories about how or why they started a film festival they’ve never told you, so that was interesting. And I think the importance of the Film Threat Video Guide was something that I hadn’t truly considered, so that was really interesting to think about too, revisiting those magazines was very refreshing. Talking of which, I’m very glad that Film Threat raised the funds crowd funding to continue.
Diabolique: What were the challenges in finding a solid definition on which to build your thesis, around a concept so nebulous as “the underground”. Where did you set your markers, and why?
Sargeant: It’s a term that has been so abused, and still is. I think I lay a good, solid reclaiming for an underground cinema in the book.
Diabolique: When it comes to transgressive cinema or art, have you found you have any personal limitations. If you had to draw the line, would you, and where? If not, why not?
Sargeant: I think that I’m open to anything that makes me think or see something in a different way. But it’s not like I go looking for extreme things to see if I reach a point where something is suddenly ‘too extreme.’
Diabolique: You cite the work of Georges Bataille probably more than any other source in the book—especially in chapter six. What do you think makes Bataille so adaptable to analysing transgressive cinema.
Sargeant: I’ve been pretty interested in various aspects of philosophy since I read Nietzsche’s Anti Christ as a teenager. I think Nietzsche was obviously part of the whole culture I grew up in, you know, that outsider kind of philosophy. Probably listed in the bibliographies in Re/Search. Also, of course, buying books at places like Compendium in London, you’d always see the Semiotext(e) books, invariably you’d read the Semiotext(e) Sexuality book, and of course that too was another gateway into ideas to be investigated, writers like Deleuze and Derrida and so on. I was lucky in that I had older friends who were very much into philosophy and they would lend me odd books – I think I first read Baudrillard and so on that way, and eventually ended up at university studying film and philosophy.
Also, I came of age in the eighties when publications like NME would reference cultural theory. Perhaps it sounds sort of stupid now, but it was about ideas. Anyway, later at university I read Nietzsche and Freud. Although there’s a lot of nonsense in Freud, I don’t necessarily believe in what he wrote, but I liked reading it, and Freud zig-zags into sexology and so on.
Oh! And of course there was the Marquis De Sade, and while I may not have understood the nuances of Justine when I first read it, I read it pretty young–mid-teens–and that lead to an interest in certain forms of pornographic literature. Invariably, that included Bataille’s The Story of The Eye. But I also understood Bataille as associated with certain philosophers–Nietzsche for example, and certain philosophers who would reference Bataille such as Foucault and Derrida. So Bataille was a writer who was a pornographer and also a philosopher, somebody whose name would be quoted by people into De Sade and people into Nietzsche, people with an interest in the extreme, people interested into philosophy, and people into Surrealism, so for me Bataille came from multiple sources.
Over the year’s I’ve slowly read and re-read Bataille, and his ideas fascinate me. I can’t claim to agree with or understand them all, but the demands he places on writing and thinking, the attention he gives to the heterogeneous, Dali, base materialism, Nietzsche, sex, religion and so on, is pretty much perfect for me and for my interests. Linking that to cinema seems pretty natural to me I guess. It helps me explain ideas or explore something for myself.
It also interests me that, when my books touch on philosophy, I think they go to different places. I mean, I can and do tell stories about the production of a movie, who was on set and so on, and how a movie was received by audiences, but I am also interested in other things too – and I guess the use of writers, philosophers, such as Bataille or De Sade or Blanchot helps me in articulating that.
Diabolique: What else has inspired you in the writing of this book?
Sargeant: I always have ideas for books, Flesh and Excess came from my PhD. Now I’m working on a different book, although I can’t say much about that at this point!
Diabolique:If you had to pick a top ten list of shock cinema, what would your titles be, and why?
Sargeant: I think the book really deals with some of my underground favorites—SXXX80, Return of the Dead Man and so on. Normally I avoid lists because they tend to reflect current thinking and viewing, so this will change in a week, but other some of my favorites that aren’t underground but do reflect an ongoing shock cinema tradition that exists beyond genre.
Georges Franju’s La Sang des betes (1949), we chanced upon a screening of this at an art gallery, and, while I had heard of it, I had never seen it on the big screen. It was a beautifully made deeply visceral movie.
I also love recent European shock films too, especially Dogtooth (2009) by Yorgos Lanthimos, and The Tribe (2014) by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
The Greasy Strangler (2016), very dark, very funny… this low budget family melodrama horror has a similar energy to John Waters’ early works I think. It also has some of the best / most disturbing / funniest sex scenes I can think of. In a similar darkly humorous vein Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah! (2015), I love this movie, the concept behind it was really enjoyable. The opening scene is just perfect. Then the old favorites: Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus (1976), Richard Kern’s Fingered (1986), Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974) and La Bete (1975), Pasolini’s Salo (1975), Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! It’s interesting how many are from the seventies.
Diabolique: Finally, you conclude that the underground remains relevant. Why do you think that is? Do you think it is still possible to shock when the Internet has the potential to expose us to just about anything. Also, by contrast, where do you see the underground fitting in a global culture that seems so prone to oversensitivity, personal outrage and trigger warning mentality?
Sargeant: I think there’s always an underground, there’s always a need for a counter voice, or voices, that challenge the mainstream both aesthetically and culturally. As to a specifically shock based underground, I think that as long as people want to explore ideas around sexuality, desire, fetishism, taboo, and so on, there will be shock, because culture is so conservative, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Of course, I don’t think that shock automatically make something underground, there’s many films that play with the idea of shock and the effect of shock on the body. Simultaneously, there are filmmakers who make films that aren’t necessarily shocking or transgressive, that are underground.
As to the oversensitive world of personal outrage and trigger warnings, I’m of the generation who embraced seeing things and experiencing things that challenged. Look, I can’t claim to be a fan of GG Allin’s music, but I did love Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, the documentary that Todd Phillips directed. But can you imagine a performer like GG Allin now? There would be complete and utter hysteria about everything; the lyrics, the performance, the music. I have no idea if a performer could even attempt that kind of thing now.
But so many of us just devoured extreme art and culture when we were young (and of course still do), and while there perhaps was –especially when you’re a teenager–that urge to find the ‘grossest’ schlocky movie for instance, I had a genuine interest subsequent to that, in being challenged, in seeing work that wasn’t just ‘fun’ that took the audience further. Not necessarily in showing violence or sex, but in challenging expectations. I always thought that culture should challenge an audience, make them think about things in a different way or whatever, the idea that somehow acceptable culture should avoid challenging an audience strikes me as deeply, deeply troubling. This isn’t to say that you can’t have ‘nice’ things, but that there are additional reasons for experiencing something than it being simply pleasant. If there’s a ubiquity of trigger warnings then there is a literal removal of the potential risk of somebody being challenged by something they don’t like or, even worse, they think they may not like.
I also think trigger warnings become a form of control that can potentially disempower people, there is a strong tradition of people who have experienced trauma using it in their creative practice, and if those artists work is deemed too dangerous because others have experienced trauma, and is no longer discussed so easily, then those voices are effectively silenced.
I also think that trigger warnings need to be considered in micro-political terms, if people do not want to be challenged, do not want to experience any risk because they feel they may be triggered, it can lead to censorship. Not in the literal banning-of-things way, but because somebody – say a teacher – may avoid the pitfalls of screening a specific film or setting a specific book as a reading, and take an easier option, you know? I’m not saying this has happened, or will happen, but if people spend their lives having to walk on eggshells they may just remove the eggshells. To me the entire thing becomes a quagmire of over-considered, over-thought curation that ultimately won’t benefit anyone, but will mean that people may not read a book or see a movie.
I guess, in the end, I like is being challenged and material that does this, and I like watching people react to something they haven’t seen before, to talk to them afterwards and have real conversations. If I screen an underground movie and it leads to a conversation, that’s great. The idea that such a conversation can no longer happen because of anxieties around triggers, and because of a conservative repression of certain forms of representation, really troubles me… it’s a closure of ideas. I guess this takes us right back to Bataille, back to Re/Search, back to Throbbing Gristle records, back to certain kinds of transgressive films and performance art, AND back to my writing: I want to stimulate the reader’s thought and imagination, in the end that’s what it is all about.
You can check Flesh and Excess at Amok Books here.
Jack will also be screening films and giving a talk at London’s Horse Hospital on 30th November 2016.