THE ACT OF SEEING: A Conversation With Nicolas Winding Refn

The filmmaker talks his new book, exploitation filmmaking and FAREWELL UNCLE TOM.

It makes complete sense that Nicolas Winding Refn co-authored a book (with Film 4 Fright Fest founder and Dario Argento scholar Alan Jones) showcasing vintage exploitation posters. The Drive and Only God Forgives director is a provocateur; dealing in visual extremity with each of his increasingly wild cinematic transmissions. Now he’s asking us to flip through the pages of a perverted history tome, all in service of learning a lesson regarding how we once sold the taboo.

I was lucky enough to get to chat with Mr. Refn about The Act of Seeing, and what ensued was a breezy discussion that ran quite the gamut – from his book, to his introduction to exploitation cinema, and which filmmaker he thinks is a truly underappreciated artist. It was a gas.

In the intro to the book, you write about creating something akin to a time machine with these works of art – able to transport us to a filmmaking period that was unique in its sort of trashy grotesqueness. Why do you think we romanticize or even fetishize, in some cases, these 42nd Street houses of disrepute?

That is a good question. I think that there is something very pure in the intention of these films. Now, I’m not an expert; I’m not a walking encyclopedia of film. But I think, for me personally, I enjoy seeing extremity – especially from an era I couldn’t experience because I was too young. And once in a while, you’re happy because you actually see a good movie.

They are sometimes few and far between when talking exploitation.

Exactly. Though even when they’re not good, you might get something 'extreme,' which these films almost always are.

What makes a great exploitation film poster then? Is it simply highlighting the ‘extremities’ you describe?

I think what is interesting when I was creating the book was looking at the distributors, in terms of what they had film-wise, and then how they had the imagination to sell something that was pretty extreme, in most cases. But it was also about selling these forbidden pleasures – films that were all about seeing something you weren’t allowed to see. That is what exploitation is at its essence: seeing all of these things that you shouldn’t be watching, but you can’t stop enjoying.

How did you settle on the title The Act of Seeing?

It was a book about a visual experience – the act of seeing, the act of taking in these images. To create something that felt very cinematic, but was ultimately not.

How did Alan Jones end up collaborating with you on the project?

Well, I had known Alan for many years, and he really is an encyclopedia of film, and had actually experienced the heyday of exploitation. I told him that I wanted these films to be documented, not reviewed. I wanted information about the movies to correspond with the specific posters, so that those who read it weren’t just seeing something they can relate to, but can also get to know what exactly it was. He’s a great researcher. But it took him…God, almost two years to gather all of the information on these films. Some of them were so obscure, he had next to nothing to go on.

You were also a key player in helping establish AGFA (The American Genre Film Archive) – so it’s clear you think that this period of filmmaking history should be preserved. Why do you think it’s important for modern audiences to experience the heyday of exploitation?

Like all history, you can’t start to understand your future if you don’t know your past. And the Archive is about preserving the kinds of films that weren’t necessarily recognized for their true creativity back then, or were written off as junk. It’s fun to restore history that would otherwise be forgotten.

Essentially -- something that we all need to remember is that, once something is gone…it’s gone forever. Film is such an interesting medium because you can keep on discovering artifacts from our past and go “hey, this is pretty fucking great.”

To kind of bounce off of things being “fucking great”, you introduced The Astrologer at Fantastic Fest last year, and it was incredible. Personally, I love the distinct, more eccentric voices from that era of DIY exploitation: the Craig Denneys and Duke Mitchells of the world. Have you discovered any other great voices while putting this project together that you think haven’t been properly championed yet?

The Astrologer was really a magnificent rediscovery. One of the few filmmakers that has more than one entry in the book is Curtis Harrington. He directed Night Tide and Queen of Blood, which are both incredible. Now you can find both of these posters at pretty expensive auctions, but as a filmmaker, he deserves a lot of praise, which kind of was bypassed when he was alive. I was fortunate enough to become friends with Curtis up until he passed away, and including his work in the book was very personal to me. He’s a very, very underappreciated filmmaker.

But there are so many we could bring up. I think Joe Sarno is great. I haven’t seen everything he’s done, but some of the early black and white melodramas were very, very good and very, very interesting and he’s just waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation. But he’s just one of many, many more with such great imagination.

This year at Fantastic Fest, you have a few films featured in the book being screened: Farewell Uncle Tom, X-Rated Supermarket, My Body Hungers. How did you select which titles would play? Some of these – especially Farewell Uncle Tom – are fucking nuts.

That’s a pretty crazy one, no doubt. People aren’t going to want to miss that.

Actually, some of the screenings came out of conversations I had with [Alamo Drafthouse Head Honcho] Tim League; that we wanted to show things that were in the book, like an old school roadshow. But we’re also doing an event with the Mondo Gallery during the festival, where we will be displaying many of the original posters.

The only condition I had when selecting the films is that they had to be shown on prints. No Blu-ray or digital projection. As much as I love the digital revolution and what it has done for filmmaking, the book is about time traveling, and the screenings have to have the feeling of watching film. Surprisingly, these were some of the only ones we could find that had presentable prints. We’re taking the roadshow to Austin; Sitges, Spain; Lyon, France – the origin of film!

So how do you think some of these modern audiences are going to take a formally and politically shocking film like Farewell Uncle Tom?

With a smile on their face. It’s always great to discover something new, isn’t it?

Oh totally. You just hope they’re not completely unprepared.

But what about you – how did you even get into exploitation filmmaking with such a passion that it drove you to help spearhead these preservationist projects?

Well, I think it all started when I was fourteen. One thing that would really make my mother angry was violent films. You have to remember: my mother photographed Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. She was a socialist, so it was hard for me to rebel. But one thing she did not approve of was violent art. So that became a way for me to rebel, and it all began with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which in a way you really can’t call an 'exploitation movie,' even though it was labeled as such. For me, it’s the ultimate art film, at least on that level.

But I love anything that’s personal expression. The more personal it is – the more singular in vision – I’m going to gravitate toward it. That’s why I love rough, melodramatic films, and not so much the 'classic' horror – you’re experiencing the work of visionaries who may not have had the funds or maybe even the talent to fully express themselves. I love that imperfection.

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