F.J. Ossang's 9 Fingers (2017) is exclusively showing November 9 – December 8, 2018 as a Special Discovery. The retrospective F.J. Ossang: Cinema Is Punk is showing November 2018 - January 2019 on MUBI in most countries around the world.
The films of F.J. Ossang are richly paradoxical objects. One of the things that struck me most forcefully on my initial encounter with his work was the odd and compelling discrepancy between a bursting-at-the-seams fullness on one level, and an almost minimalistic void on another level. The friction of these two levels—the full and the empty—is simultaneous and constant, from the first moments of Ossang’s first feature film (The Case of the Morituri Divisions, 1985) to the termination of his latest, 9 Fingers (2017).
The evidence of this unusual style is directly there, poured into your eyes and ears. The characters—themselves palpably “there” as physical presences, yet militantly lacking any conventional psychology—never stop talking about the most fantastic events and occurrences: conspiracies, assassinations, global devastation, technological catastrophe, encroaching madness. Even the very names of these figures—not to mention the various places and institutions to which are connected—evoke the most extravagant, comic-book fiction: Morituri, Starkov, Magloire, Kurtz, Satarenko, Elise von Sekt…
Yet, of these literally incredible “plots,” we witness almost nothing—just people standing in a room or on a ship, exchanging cryptic remarks. Everything happens between the edits, or off-screen. The given diegetic reality—for whatever it’s worth—is regularly swallowed whole by apparitions, hallucinations, drugged-out episodes. We slide, as viewers, from one uncertainty to the next—all of them undoubtedly fatal in nature.
To describe them in this way, Ossang’s images might seem bland, simply functional. But what an intricately detailed, delirious atmosphere they conjure! Cursed (it would seem) to always work on small budgets and tight shooting schedules, Ossang has rediscovered for himself all the ingenious tricks of the greatest B-movie directors. His eye is impeccable: a knack for clothing (black coats are de rigueur in this sci-fi/noir universe), accessories (everybody is characterised by their own, snazzy pair of glasses), on-set graphics (maps, posters, book covers, computer screen desktops), and striking locations (from bars and bathrooms to storm drains and ominously empty plane hangars). Once the smoke machine is turned on, and the sound design (mixing guitar distortion with the ambience of ocean waves or mechanical buzzes and drones) kicks in, our minds are set free to wander. Ossang confesses that this is his own preferred way of watching films: abandoning their plots for the sake of sinking himself into “a reverie of visual, decorative, and sound detail.”
As writer, musician, and filmmaker, Ossang is a true product of the cosmopolitan Punk Nihilism of the 1970s. His various artistic manifestations never cease blaring the imminence of The End, admitting that all struggle against sinister State powers is hopeless, and despairing that any genuine individualism is fated to be snuffed out by the System. Yet, at the same time, the poetic force and energy of his expression overrule this pervasive negativity. With his lasting love of paradox—and of William S. Burroughs—Ossang forever translates his vital connection with cinema into the language of sickness, disease, and mortality: he regularly refers to old-fashioned celluloid film, that “insolent mercury” which provides the title of his 2013 book written during the making of Dharma Guns (2010), as the “cancer” or “virus” that has seized hold of him, and won’t let go.
This obstinate love of the pre-digital film strip brings up Ossang’s intriguing relation to film history. Cinephiles can easily and quickly exhaust themselves citing all the apparently evident references in his work: to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), F.W. Murnau, Jean Vigo, Edgar G. Ulmer, Jean Epstein, Raúl Ruiz, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932)… on and on the list goes. The basic co-ordinates of this creeping movie-love are clear enough, triangulated between film noir, silent cinema, and the historic avant-gardes. Like for his French comrade Philippe Grandrieux, such cinematic references come inextricably entangled with a certain family tree of dark literature: Antonin Artaud, Georg Trakl, Rimbaud, Burroughs. Not to mention punk rock: the lyrics of Iggy Pop’s “I Need More” claim pride of place alongside all the literary quotes in Insolent Mercury.
Yet—in another paradox—Ossang will declare: “I’m absolutely the worst spectator and critic of films … I forget almost every film I’ve ever seen.” He transforms this facet of his temperament into a firmly held position: “Filmmakers watch too many films; the viewing and study of other people’s films restrain and diminish them.” The same goes for literature, philosophy, political theory: although names such as Guy Debord come easily to Ossang’s lips, what matters to him, finally, is only what he can absorb into what he calls “the unconscious capital of my personal mental images.” An extreme case of solipsism? Hardly: the urgent moral and ethical point for Ossang is that filmmakers must invent, not imitate.
In his paradoxical combination of Romanticism and Fatalism, Ossang represents the type of creativity that lives to die, to vanish in the flames of its own excess. He asserts that the task of any real filmmaker is to “set in motion the active vision of an Idiot!”—an idiot in the grand, Dostoyevskyean sense, naturally. He believes that artists must “invest themselves completely in the kind of vision that is strictly original and instinctive”—because it’s better to burn out than to fade away. On set, Ossang doesn’t like to overthink things: although he has usually spent years writing the script and preparing the shoot, in the moment of filming he likes (in the manner of Orson Welles) to put all that planning aside and “plunge, to the point of madness, into the immediate apprehension of places.”
Hence, while a certain aura of cinema fills every frame, there is effectively no specific, intended “intertextual quotation” of other films in Ossang’s cinema. On this level, he is closer to Leos Carax or Claire Denis than, say, Martin Scorsese or Todd Haynes. He finds disquieting the typical interrogation from interviewers about his “favorite shots” in classic cinema history; but at least this “delicate question” is one that “compels me to recognise that it’s a matter of simple shots, whose shock effect is not due to any complicated machinery, but to the visionary evidence of a miracle in which chance and the need for an efficacious intuition directly find their best connection.” Ossang demands that we take each of his films as an indivisible whole, not as the sum of its discernible levels.
Here is a timely reference in the light of the recent release of The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955)—in its “truncated” version, no less—is one of the few precedents that Ossang is willing to cite and praise. Indeed, it’s his proverbial “desert island” selection—not because he wishes to “understand it, or how it’s made, but because it never, ever, ceases to escape me in the same moment that it captivates me.” Ossang evokes its opening vision of a plane in the sky without a pilot—a clear source for a recurring image in his delirious Doctor Chance (1997)—in terms that illuminate his own, paradoxical approach to filmmaking. The “technical execution” of Welles’s scene “seems almost approximate,” but this “primitive” spectacle resembling a “random succession of rushes” can “grab our nerves and alert our senses.” Why? Because of “the ghostly noise of the stopped engine” and “the voice-over twisting an almost-documentary situation,” spectators are now at liberty to “invent for themselves an entire off-screen plot …”. Sound familiar?
I once convinced a major film critic, at a major film festival, to give Ossang a go. I cornered him quickly at the end of Dharma Guns and inquired: “Brilliant, eh?” He curtly replied: “I hope I never have to watch another film by this man for as long as I live!” Ossang, I am certain, would be proud of this all-or-nothing verdict.
All quotations from F.J. Ossang are freely translated by me from his Mercure insolent (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013).