I spent most of 1987 watching videos rented from a large shop in Sydney, Australia. In fact I watched 1000 movies that year – about three a day, every day. I still have the list of every film I watched that year. So it was a good year for cinema, but maybe not such a good year in my life.
What kind of videos did I watch in 1987? A lot of them can be called trash or exploitation or genre films. They were films about teenagers or monsters or psychotic sex killers.
I used to raid the video shelves wildly and blindly. I would pick any film even if – especially if – I had never heard of it, and knew nothing about it. That kind of wild, blind searching into the unknown is, for me, one definition of cinephilia.
In Australia during 2002-3, a cultural catastrophe occurred. This catastrophe is called DVD.
DVD is the new revolution in cinema viewing and film distribution. It promises much, and it has already given us much. But this revolution also destroys. And what it has essentially destroyed are those 1000 films I saw in 1987 about teenagers and monsters and psychotic sex killers.
There is now only one last hope. In Australia as elsewhere, every old video is being sold off for two dollars. I mean thousands and thousands of films, containing many lurid and wonderful dreams.
There are so many films of just the past twenty years which are already lost. Many of them are low-budget, independent productions – but not the sort that ever screened at the Sundance Film Festival in America. Some of the films I'm talking about represent the only work that some very talented people could get to make.
Occasionally, in my years as a videophile, I stumbled upon, by chance, an exploitation movie of high artistic ambition, and high artistic achievement. Such a film is provocative because it mixes high art and vulgar sensationalism in a way that is confusing and challenging.
Here is one of the most special two-dollar movies from my personal collection. It is called Handgun. It even bears the glorious sticker: SALE PRICE – TWO DOLLARS.
There are two stark sentences written on the cover of this video. The first is: 'SHE SAID NO AND SHE MEANT IT'. The second sentence is: "His answer was rape, hers was revenge". So, we know already that Handgun is an example of a film genre that critics call the rape-revenge genre.
This genre is a highly disreputable one. It ranges from films like Lipstick (1976) and Ms. 45 (1981) to I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and A Gun for Jennifer (1996), plus more recently the controversial Baise-moi (2000).
Handgun, in some respects, follows the typical rape-revenge story-formula. A woman is abused, and she seeks revenge by turning herself into a kind of warrior. But there are many remarkable variations upon the formula. For instance, the central woman, brilliantly played by Karen Young (today glimpsable in television crime dramas), is a teacher of history, not a prostitute, model or showgirl.
I wonder if Lars von Trier has seen this film, because there is one element – the rehearsals for an amateur musical production of The Sound of Music – which reappears in Dancer in the Dark (2000). Whenever I think of the mixture of art and vulgarity that is in von Trier's work, I think of Handgun.
Although filmed in America – deep in the heart of Texas – it is in fact a British production. It is one of several films of this kind (another is Prostitute ) directed by Tony Garnett, who worked a lot as producer and writer in the '60s and '70s with Ken Loach. So, to put you in the right frame of mind to see this lost and almost unknown film, you must imagine a trash-exploitation movie made by Loach.
The Loach-style British realism of Handgun is amazing. Garnett totally transforms the formula of the rape-revenge film in radical ways. Of course, it makes us feel uncomfortable, as it explores difficult issues of morality, ethics and justice. Handgun is a feminist movie, but a feminist movie made for drive-in theatres or late-night television.
Films that confuse us are – in my opinion – good films. When I watch a film like this, I recall the vivid words of Jean-Pierre Gorin: "The cinema has no dignity. It is always lying in the middle of the circus ring, being fucked over by the clowns and the performing seals."
Of course, many great films do attain dignity. But they attain this dignity only by being first immersed in all the contradictions of society and culture. Exploitation films are always close to these contradictions. Handgun is a film which also has a viewpoint on these contradictions.
© Adrian Martin April 2003