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The growing catalogue of movies available on DVD gives a contemporary audience 20/20 hindsight. It provides the opportunity for understanding how stylistic codes of particular time periods have been used to promote received ideologies. Just take a look at Conrad Rooks’ 1972 Siddhartha and Jesus (“Jess”) Franco’s 1969 Marquis de Sade: Justine, which are now newly released on DVD. From these films, the viewer might get an idea of how styles originally used to promote something “new” often sell “old” cultural ideas.
Both films adapt for their time—stylistically and culturally—famous works of literature with cult cache: Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. Each film keeps the basic structure of their original source, which is not the same as retaining the meaning of the original works. While the bare-bones storytelling of the screenwriters shows how the narrative arcs of both stories are similar, in order to attract the hip baby boomer youth audience of their times Siddhartha and Justine both focus on young characters on life-quests.
In Rooks’ film, the young Siddhartha (Shashi Kapoor) leaves his home on the archetypal pursuit of enlightenment. Rooks presents the journey as an episodic series of exotic tableaus and pseudo-philosophical platitudes, with each episode bringing Siddhartha to a new awareness. By the end, an old Siddhartha, at last, achieves enlightenment. In a way, Justine (Romina Power) also reaches “enlightenment” in Franco’s film. After her parents die the pure and virginal Justine journeys through an unexpectedly wicked world—every stranger she meets, you see, is only out to exploit and abuse her. But her “enlightenment” comes when she realizes that such suffering is for her the ultimate pleasure.
What’s interesting about the films is how the directors adapt the originals to fit the commercial cinematic and social codes of the era. Consequently, a time-capsule novelty distinguishes these otherwise negligible works. In the films, Hesse and de Sade’s philosophical ideas (developed out of the authors’ personal and aesthetic obsessions) are made meaningless. The directors do not use the stylistic techniques popular in the era to express or engage with Hesse’s or de Sade’s themes. Instead, the filmmakers use those techniques only to attract a youth audience interested in Eastern culture and more open sexuality, while actually promoting standard cultural hegemonies.
The look of Siddhartha, for example, is achieved by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist. He exquisitely frames each loud and poorly dubbed “esoteric” pronouncement (such as: “I am awake! I have been born today!”). Yet you might fall asleep because Nykvist’s technical know-how serves no discernible philosophical plan. The soft-focus, high-contrast color photography is an expertly achieved cliché—it’s hippie-dippy acid-trail lighting, not cinematic enlightenment. Promoting “counter-cultural” sentiments he undoubtedly shared with that audience, Rooks hypes up Siddhartha with silly editing techniques. An argument between Siddhartha and his father (Amrik Singh), for instance, relies on groovy shock cuts that reveal Rooks’ style as a matter of us-them, in/out generational conflict.
In its appeal to a youth audience, the perspective on Eastern culture in Siddhartha is conspicuously Western-centric. Nykvist frames shot after shot through dark foreground obstructions and often details the action with light piercing through the darkness. I don’t doubt the spiritual metaphor—literally, “enlightenment”—of such compositions. However, Nykvist is the artist who, in his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, revealed psychological and spiritual phenomenon by closing the camera’s distance from the faces of the actresses that were his subjects. In contrast, the distances in Siddhartha keep Eastern culture safely exotic and remote.
Similarly, Justine sells conventional ideas about sex while engaging a supposedly more sexually liberal youth audience. Interiors are shot by DP Manuel Merino in deep focus and tinted with color gels for a lava-lamp garishness. The baroquely grotesque look of Justine obviously codes as decadent. Just as obvious is the dramatization of those who are qualified as decadent and evil. Justine contends with lascivious lesbians, foppish fags, and bombastic bullies at every turn.
Translating or understanding de Sade’s philosophies couldn’t be further from Franco’s intentions. He merely uses de Sade as a marketing tool, and so the director makes sure the Marquis is all over the film, which is narrated through the writings of the imprisoned libertine (Klaus Kinski—perfectly cast for being simultaneously repellent and hypnotic). The continual crosscutting back to de Sade’s prison/narration cell reveals nothing about the artist or thinker, but merely takes advantage of modern morbid fascination with de Sade.
Even the look of the sequences with Kinski as de Sade conforms to contemporary audience expectations. In the DVD interview, Franco reveals that the inspiration for his staging of the scenes with Kinski was to imitate productions of the 1964 Peter Weiss play, Marat/Sade. There’s no pretense on Franco’s part of either participating in or contending with Weiss’ still relevant thesis: that de Sade’s existential cruelty, when extended to its ultimate conclusion, results in Fascism’s final solution. Instead, Franco indexes to the stylistic codes of the era as a commercial imperative and gave his audience at the time exactly what they expected of the imprisoned Sade.
Such artistic decisions are, in fact, commercial decisions. The marketable not-so-deep thoughts of both Rooks’ and Franco’s films are summed up in Siddhartha: “The real freedom is realizing there are no goals. There is only the ‘now.’” Stripped of its metaphysical foundation, the films validate the desire to see one’s culture—one’s “now”—reflected back from the screen, rather than to reflect upon it oneself.