You may not have heard of Edward James, but you will certainly recognise the back of his head from the painting Not to be Reproduced by René Magritte. This was one of two portraits the Surrealist artist did of James, the other was The Pleasure Principle.
Edward William Frank James (1907–1984) was a poet and a patron of the arts, who used his vast wealth to publish writers (like poet John Betjeman), commission theatrical productions most notably Les Ballets and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s last work together The Seven Deadly Sins in 1933. He also supported individuals, communities in Mexico and financed artisan workshops, but James is most famously known for his patronage of Surrealist art, in particular the artists Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dalí. He also bought works by Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Pavel Tchelitchew, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux.
Being rich and aristocratic usually meant James was described as a great “English eccentric,” though he was never fond of the term claiming he was like “the boy with green hair,” just born that way. According to James he was the illegitimate son of King Edward VII, which may have indeed been possible as his mother was said to have been one of the royal’s many mistresses. When he was five, his father (or at least his mother’s husband) died leaving James the sole heir to his fortune and the 8,000 acre family estate of West Dean House in Sussex. James eventually gave away the family estate, financing its reuse as a college. He created his own Surrealist home in Monkton, and then in Las Pozas, Mexico, where he used his money to support its community employing villagers to build houses, a hotel, Surrealist sculptures and architectural follies.
This delightful film The Secret Life of Edward James made in 1978 was narrated by the late jazz singer, art critic and writer George Melly. James and Melly were good friends, united by their passion for Surrealism. Melly was a wonderfully outrageous and much loved performer whose exuberance for life was often matched by his attire. He also wrote three highly entertaining volumes of autobiography and released a whole bag of recordings. If you haven’t heard of George Melly he is worth investigating.
Magritte’s other portrait of Edward James ‘The Pleasure Principle’ (1937).
Nothing is more fascinating, frightening and at times, awe inspiring, than human nature. That moment when our nature becomes predatory is a theme examined in countless true crime TV specials, slasher films and pulp novels. But when you approach the pathology, impulse and modus operandi of a killer with a stark, borderline surrealistic touch, you end up with a film like 1998’s Pig.
A collaboration between Dutch filmmaker and Cult Epics founder Nico B. (Bettie Page: Dark Angel) and musical innovator, the late Rozz Williams (Christian Death, Premature Ejaculation, Daucus Karota, Shadow Project), Pig is an incredible work. Being available only on a long out-of-print VHS and DVD, Cult Epics is re-releasing this along with the long-awaited follow up, 1334 on Blu Ray. While it’s too early for me to comment on 1334, I can say that Pig is one of the most tonally dark and melancholy films that yet possess a strange beauty. While some will be instantly turned off by the subject matter and at times, extreme imagery, Pig is a film that has more in common with surrealism than it does with, say, Hostel. If anything, it lies more in the ether between Un Chien Andalou and Helter Skelter.
Pig opens up with a black suitcase, as a pair of male hands start to methodically pack it. A deck of cards here, a copy of Lillian Hoban’s children’s book, Mr. Pig & Sonny Too there. We see images inter cut, including a shot of a bare man’s torso, featuring the title carved into his chest and a rotten window decorated with photos and dice. The man with the suitcase (Rozz Williams), dressed in a suit and his long hair pulled back, closes the door and descends to his car. He ends up in the middle of the desert, with only little desolate signs of life, including graffiti’d rocks with words like “Ellie” and “Dead Man’s Point” painted on them. The latter phrase in particular is incredibly hard to read without the aid of freeze frame, making it almost a nice and morbid subconscious film blip.
A solitary figure (James Hollan) wanders around the landscape, lanky and clad in black except for the white bandages wrapped around his head. The two paths interconnect, with the man in bandages getting in the man’s car. Through a reflection of the rear-view mirror, we see that the driver is wearing a pig mask. They pull up to an abandoned house in one particularly desolate stretch of nowhere. The bandaged man is put through a series of physical tortures, including blood play, piercing and cutting. Curiously, he seems extremely passive, not unlike a patient studiously enduring an assortment of painful medical procedures. There’s less of a feeling of creepy killer tactics and more of human interaction put through a mutilated filter. The man’s passive behavior, despite looking to be a good foot taller than his captor, only adds to this. His body language is more of an animal calmly awaiting its fate, than anything else.
The boundaries become even more blurred, with one particularly striking scene directly referencing Rene Magritte’s famous painting, “The Lovers.” As both men have their heads bandaged, they start to communicate via hand signals. Even more startling, is one shot of one of the men (judging by physical size and briefcase placement, more than likely Rozz), sitting alone in an empty stove, looking like a sad child. It’s this blurring of the lines of black/white/good/bad that make this film so compelling. It’s too easy to get babied by the old school way of villain/hero, which is one of the reasons why Pig is a fascinating work.
Without giving too much away, Pig ends on an dreamy yet somber note, giving you no firm answers, only the memory of violence and sadness.
When films are prefaced with such carny-tastic warnings like “for strong stomachs only” or “sensitive viewers beware,” it usually means that either you’re about to sit through a fantastic camp fest of grue or some torturous bit of film extremism Ala the Guinea PigPig is a strong work and sure, if you’re sensitive to violence, you will definitely be put in an very emotionally uncomfortable place, but it’s not excessive just to be excessive. It doesn’t necessarily revel in its stronger images, though it does not shrink from them either. The violence here seems to serve two purposes. One is literal, since our main character is a predator by nature, but the second is more tenuous, with the violent images often bordering on the surreal, making them blend in with the rest of the film’s dreamlike imagery. Strong imagery is certainly nothing new for anyone influenced by the surrealists, whether you’re talking Bosch, Duchamp or Jodorowsky. For people that have an auto-bias against anything branded “horror,” a work like Pig shows that there are many shapes to a deceptively simple genre.
Being the debut film work for both director Nico B. and star/writer Rozz Williams, this is such a strong start. Nico would go on to create the amazing film company Cult Epics, which has been responsible for spreading the word and preserving the work of such cinematic luminaries as Radley Metzger, Walerian Borowczyk, Rene Daalder and Fernando Arrabal. He also directed the well made Bettie Page bio-picture, Bettie Page: Dark Angel. Rozz Williams, whom despite leaving this plane of existence at only age 34, already had a considerable musical legacy behind him, especially with his pioneering work in bands like Christian Death, Shadow Project and Premature Ejaculation. With this musical history, it’s fitting that Williams’ stellar work, along with some editing help by Premature Ejaculation alumni Chuck Collision, on Pig’s soundtrack, is eerie and standout. An artist like Williams, if nurtured more and if he had stuck around, would have and should have been a new generation’s Bowie.
The collaboration of these two artists is fascinating and makes one wish that more could have come from this tree. But at the end of the day, there is always Pig. Disturbing, thoughtful and highly creative, this short is finally back in print and available on both Blu Ray and DVD via Cult Epics. It is a must for anyone who loves experimental film, dark subject matters, as well as fans of both Rozz Williams and Nico B.