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Jac Avila, Part Three: The Body in Pain

by Rich Moreland, August 2016

My thanks to Jac avila for sharing his views on film making and culture. I look forward to reviewing more of his work in the future.

All photos in this and the preceding posts are courtesy of Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema. Vermeerworks is their distributor.

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Jac and Amy on the set of Justine

Jac and Amy Hesketh on the set of the upcoming film, Justine

A Set of Values

In Jac Avila’s films there is a distinct theological undercurrent. In helping us understand how it complements his work, Jac begins with a snapshot of religion and society.

“Catholicism in South America and most of Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, is more a part of culture than religion,” he explains. For many of the faithful, it’s “a set of values,” a good mixture of  belief with “plenty of mythology” tossed in, “most of it not taken seriously.”

“However, when one grows up inside Catholicism, one is taught to love that culture,” he declares, though it “tries unsuccessfully, to repress a large part of one’s humanity, like sexuality.”

Of course, Christianity is closely linked to suffering . . . a natural human state. But, then again, so is sexuality. Is there a connection?

Blood Sacrifice

“In Catholic culture, the body in pain plays a crucial role with Christ at the center,” Jac continues. It’s really “blood sacrifice as redemption.”

This idea dates back to the Early Middle Ages as the church was making the transition from its birth in the Roman Empire to its place as Europe’s centralized institution.

But we need to remember that crucifixion, the ultimate “body in pain” statement, was around long before Christianity. That Christ and some of the Saints were crucified is more coincidental to their condemnation during Roman times when dying on the cross was the established demise for society’s outcasts and outlaws.

Roman times. Mila Joya in Dead But Dreaming.

Mila Joya’s character faces death in Dead But Dreaming’s flashback to Roman times.

From there, the diabolical combination of torture and death moved out of the Roman Empire into the next historical period.

“In medieval times this (The Body in Pain) symbol took over. Executions were cruel and public, so was penance,” Jac reminds us.

Incidentally, the public fascination with death lingered into the 19th century as Jac illustrates in Dead But Dreaming when the Irish traveler is garrotted before onlookers.

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Jac then cites the distinction between the Catholic and Protestant interpretation of sexuality.

“Catholic imagery is full of The Body in Pain, a beautiful body, always, either male or female, almost nude or totally nude, with an expression of bliss in the very moment of martyrdom.”

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Elaborating on the visual impact of a crucifixion, Jac explains, “The school I attended was full of those images. Beautiful paintings expressing exactly that. Catholicism is far less repressed sexually than Evangelical, Calvinist, Lutheran Christianity.”

He follows that thought with a quick history lesson.

“The framing of the body in medieval Europe, was intrinsic to the historical moment.  Humanity was moving from an agrarian culture to the beginnings of city culture. Social interactions were changing dramatically. The image of the body as symbol became pervasive,” he says.

Jac regards the 12th century (1100s) as a pivotal time in the emergence of the body as art.

“The Church had the most power in influencing most everything,” he notes, which lasted until the Renaissance, a time “when art flourished and thought was liberated by Thomas de Aquinas (Catholic theologian and Scholastic) when he gave some long overdue importance to humans.”

For the most part, Medieval art is purely religious with Christ “an overpowering figure taking up the entire frame,” Jac suggests.

In other words, man is not celebrated. The heavenly bliss of eternity and the proper way to get there occupied Medieval artists, who, incidentally, never signed their work.

By the Renaissance, change was on the horizon. The ideals of humanism were infused into culture, at least in the Italian City-States where money patronized the arts. The result? Art and literature achieved a secular focus.

As for art’s theological representations, Jac gives us this example. We see the Virgin Mary as “a real woman breast-feeding a child,” a cultural broadening influenced by Aquinas.

And somewhere along the way, our sexual fascination with crucifixion and suffering took hold.

Feminism

So, what about the sacred feminism popular in pre-Christian cultures?  I suggest the Church patriarchy had some issues with this idea. Jac spins it less severely.

“Catholic doctrine did not do away with the Divine Fem all together. Mary was and is an object of worship almost equal to God, she’s more accessible; she is the mother. But yes, women were repressed of course, but so were men. The great fear is the true liberation of mankind. We’re all afraid of freedom. I don’t think we’d know what to do with it.”

Mila Joya and Amy Hesketh in Maleficarum's execution scene, a reminder of the Church's fear of witches.

The Church’s fear of witches and it’s repression of women in Maleficarum’s execution scene.

I agree with the repression/freedom argument. Certainly the Church did not abide heresies and especially witches and warlocks. By the 15th century the Inquisition (the subject of Jac’s film, Maleficarum) was holding court. Credit Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella for making sure everyone toed the religious line.

The Church court extracts a confession from Amy's character in Maleficarum.

Inquisition torture extracts a confession from Amy Hesketh’s character in Maleficarum.

Regardless, Jac steps up his defense of the Sacred Feminine.

“In Catholicism women have a high place because of the Virgin, The Mother of God herself. Catholicism is not as patriarchal as it may seem to be. What we may be expressing is that women, just like men, have the same or more capacity to suffer for humanity.

“In that sense, female martyrdom gets equal treatment… or better yet, takes the main role. The strongest character in Catholicism is Saint Eulalia. She’s crucified twice.”

Of interest is that the original St. Elulia, the reference in Jac’s film Martyr discussed in a previous post, was, according to legend, a teenage virgin tortured and crucified on a St. Andrew’s Cross.

Carmen Paintoux

Carmen Paintoux in Martyr.

So there we have it. Do the images from Jac’s films energize the sexual question?

The Guignol Again

Despite the Church’s efforts, the uneducated retained their superstitions and out of this, particularly in Central Europe, phantasmagoric visions and stories emerged of evil forces beyond human control.

“As you know, most of the horror stories, like vampires, come from the old tales of old Europe, which come from far back in time,” Jac points out.

Veronica Paintoux

Veronica Paintoux as the Lamia.

And as we move from Medieval into modern times, with stops for the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods, superstition and the supernatural forces that go bump in the night linger in the human psyche.

It’s not a leap to understand that our world is still fascinated by cruelty, especially sexual torture, and can’t look away.

Our repressed blood lust comes to life with vampire stories and today’s slasher films which tap into horror as it emerged out of the Victorian Age into modern Europe.

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But we don’t need the fantastic to energize our sexual interests. Human depravity played out realistically on a stage will do.

th“The Grand Guignol has its roots in that period of time where executions were performances for the masses. That’s why Guignol was also described as the Theatre of Cruelty,” Jac explains.

In fact, the Parisian stage and the fascination with crucifixion fuel the star power of Amy, Mila Joya, and the Paintoux sisters, Carmen and Veronica.

Brew the mixture of history, religion, and sex into a cauldron of savagery and sadism and what emerges is a new version of the erotic horror genre that is distinctly Jac’s and Amy’s, Olalla being the latest in a line of powerful films.

Framing the Body

“Not everything medieval was cruelty, of course,” Jac continues.

“There was a nurturing, serene, body sharing space with a conflicted body torn by desires, fantasies and that other body, the one in pain, dismembered, racked, whipped. The education of the masses by framing the body became all important.”

Mila Joya tortured in Maleficarum

Mila Joya’s character exemplifies “the body in pain” in Maleficarum . . .

Finally, the native Bolivian offers these comments on Amy’s Hesketh’s approach to her acting.

“As far as Amy’s performance in the films, like in Dead But Dreaming or Olalla I can say that those scenes are the way they are because of the stories. This goes to the Body in Pain discussion. The body as a central symbol in culture, but as it was seen in medieval culture, where much of the representations we have now originate.”

Maleficarum's roasting scene.

. . . As does Amy Hesketh in the film’s roasting scene, a particularly difficult and emotional shoot.

That is where Amy seduces the camera like no other actor.

To reassure the fainthearted, Jac leaves us this note about female performers in his films. Yes, they illustrate the Grand Guignol stage, as noted above, and all its perceived brutality, but there is more.

“Acting in these movies is, in a sense, empowering. The actress has complete control over her body, mind, and soul, to do anything she wants to do.”

That in itself is an empowering feminist statement.

Amy, Jac, and Mila.

Amy, Jac, and Mila . . . artists, innovators, and a new film intelligensia.

 

 

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Olalla, Part One: A Half-Lingering Terror

by Rich Moreland, July 2016

Olalla is an erotic horror film from Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema. The movie is written and directed by Amy Hesketh. The dialogue is a combination Spanish and English and comes with the option of closed captioning.

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story by the same name,  Amy’s adaptation weaves Stevenson’s tale into a visual narrative so compelling that I believe it is worthy of academic study.

Though I don’t use a rating system for my reviews, I highly recommend Olalla.  The film is available from Vermeerworks and Amazon.

In this first post, we look at Olalla from a back story perspective.

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1991712-gfRobert Louis Stevenson published “Olalla” as a short story in 1885. It’s the first person account of an unnamed English officer wounded in war, most likely Napoleon’s 1807-1814 Peninsular Campaign in Spain. The soldier recuperates at a “residencia” belonging to a once noble family.

Remnants

When he arrives, the officer learns the remnants of the family consist of a mother who is “sunk in sloth and pleasure,” a “very cunning, very loutish” son named Felipe, and a daughter, Olalla, whose presence is felt but not seen.

Upon first encountering Felipe, the soldier finds him to be “a child in intellect [and] stunted in development.” He also describes him as secretive, perhaps being more than he seems. All the while, the daughter remains a mystery.

During his stay, the Englishman notices a portrait of a woman in his bedroom. She appears, by way of her antiquated dress, to be “long since dead.” Nevertheless, she is striking in an ominous way, causing the soldier to remark that “to love such a woman were to seal one’s own sentence of degeneration.”

As time passes, the portrait begins to “cast a dark shadow” on him. He is thankful the woman is “safe in the grave,” then comments, “And yet I had a half-lingering terror that she might not be dead after all, but re-risen in the body of some descendant.”

Reacting to his uneasy feelings, the officer concludes the ‘family blood’ seemed to be “impoverished,” probably from inbreeding, and accounted for the strangeness of Felipe and his mother.

How they are connected to the portrait remains vague, but the soldier’s lengthening stay at the residencia reinforces his growing anxieties.

Bestial Cries

The Englishman eventually meets Olalla and they develop a rudimentary friendship.

The story’s turning point occurs when the soldier cuts his hand opening a casement window. Seeking help he approaches the mother only to have her fall upon him and bite his hand “to the bone.” He fights her off but she pounces again “with bestial cries” similar to those that had previously awakened him in the night. Felipe and Olalla appear and rescue him.

With the Felipe’s assistance, the soldier departs the home to find shelter in a local village. While there, he engages the old padre and asks about Olalla and her family. Not a good idea, apparently, because the village atmosphere becomes toxic for the Englishman. The residents avoid his presence which he attributes to their superstitions. Eventually, he strikes up a conversation with a “gaunt peasant” and learns that a villager died at that “house of Satan” where the family lives, though how and why is unknown. The soldier dismisses the story as more superstition.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

The officer and Olalla meet a final time on a pathway that has a crucifix at its summit. Olalla has stopped to pray.

She thought he had gone, she says, and urges him to do so because the longer he stays the closer death stalks him and her family. Olalla knows the locals are aware of his love for her and that is dangerous.

When her prayers are finished, Olalla implores the Englishman to look up at the “Man of Sorrows.” She mentions the “inheritors of sin” and how everyone must endure a past “which is not ours.”

Though he is no Christian, the soldier is struck by her message. All sacrifice is “voluntary,” he laments, and “pain is the choice of the magnanimous,” so it’s “best to suffer all things and do well.”

Moving on, the Englishman heads “down the mountain in silence.” He turns to look back and sees Olalla “still leaning on the crucifix.”

Is this a Vampire Tale?

Victorians loved enigmatic storytelling because it protected sensibilities and forced uncertainty upon the reader. For example, there’s Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Is it a ghost story about possessed children or just the fertile imagination of a young governess who is a psychological wreck?

On the other hand, when Bram Stoker’s Dracula is published about the same time as James’ work (1897-98) subtleties are put aside. The vague becomes obvious.

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We know Dracula’s bites are metaphors for the erotic and necessary to accommodate Victorian temperament, but the rest is pretty straightforward, a fantasy complete with fangs, a sun phobia, no reflections in mirrors, and on and on.

Hollywood has made a fortune on the Stoker model.

With Stevenson’s “Olalla,” we are left with a burning question? Is this a vampire tale or just a story about a deviant family of blood fetishists mixed with religious overtones and village superstition? Challenging, of course, because none of the standard Stoker’s mechanisms are in place and rightly so since Stevenson’s narrative predates Stoker by over a decade.

My inclination is go with the fetish explanation because everybody’s got one of some sort or another. But, of course, that won’t keep you up all night ready to cringe at the least gust of cold wind or that strange creature crawling up the wall of your bedroom.

The Grand-Guignolth

As for Amy Hesketh’s adaptation of Stevenson’s Victorian imagination, well, it’s pure Amy which means it’s innovative and terrific.

One more thought, I’m guessing Amy is a fan of Paris’ Theater of Horror, the Grand-Guignol (1897-1962), where amorality, brutality, sex, and insanity crept onto the French stage with just the right infusion of gore.  No supernatural here, it’s all realism at work.

As Amy Hesketh fans know well, she relishes whippings, crucifixions, rack torture, and burnings too much to rely exclusively on the supernatural as her literary modus operandi. Realism is her performance art and what stands her tall in the crowd of horror directors and storytellers.

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Having introduced Robert Louis Stevenson, we’re now ready for the next post on this marvelous film. We’ll take a look at the vampire question a little further.

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