Monday, October 10, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Cigarette Burns

As ‘Jenifer’ and ‘Pelts’ provided a surprise (albeit small screen) return to form for Dario Argento, so ‘Cigarette Burns’ for John Carpenter, one of his two contributions to the TV series ‘Masters of Horror’.

Kirby (Norman Reedus), a film collector and owner/programmer of a run-down independent cinema, is hired by the effete but sinister Bellinger (Udo Kier) to track down the one existing print of a French art film so notorious that its only public screening incited sociopathic behaviour in its audience. ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ (trans. ‘The Absolute End of the World’) is a film Kirby’s always been curious about, but apprehensive of. He recognizes in Bellinger an obsession with it that borders on addiction. Kirby knows all about an addiction. He’s a recovering drug addict (his wife – to whose antagonistic father he owes a fuckton of money invested in the cinema – was a victim to his lifestyle). He knows Bellinger and ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ spell trouble, particularly when he’s shown an, uh, “artefact” from the film as part of Bellinger’s private collection. But the money that’s being offered – more than enough to bale out the cinema – sways him.

Carpenter structures the first half of ‘Cigarette Burns’ almost as a slow-burn detective story with Kirby tracking down film historians and critics associated with the production and its disastrous debut, a trail that leads him from America to France and the troubled daughter of the film’s quixotic director. En route, Kirby is plagued with visions/recollections of his wife, disturbed by the subject matter of ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ (I don’t want to spoil anything so let’s just say it contains material that pretty much fits the definition of unholy), warned off by those with a vested interest in the film, and – albeit unwillingly – made complicit in the actions of certain parties who are perversely inspired by it.

“All this filming,” alcoholic landlady Mrs Stephens (Maxine Audley) says in Michael Powell’s career-destroying controversy-fest ‘Peeping Tom’ – “it isn’t healthy.” ‘Cigarette Burns’ could easily serve as an hour-long exposition of this sentiment. Leo Mark’s script for ‘Peeping Tom’ focused on scopophilia, defined medically as the morbid desire to watch. Obsession; addiction. Bellinger’s desperation to see ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ owes to a desire to experience art – cinema – on a visceral and dangerous level. Bellinger wants something stripped of the obvious safety net of fiction/fabrication. Kirby’s motives are those of professional interest tipped slightly too far by an admixture of financial necessity and morbid curiosity.

And that, in a nutshell, is the appeal of ‘Cigarette Burns’: it’s a morality tale for the cinephile; a ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ for every horror fan, obscurist or completist out there. If ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ existed, and its reputation was as tarnished by controversy and I had a copy within my grasp despite warnings against even thinking about watching it, would I walk away and always wonder, or sit down with a fearful tremor of anticipation and relish the possibility of reviewing it for The Agitation of the Mind?

No contest.


Bryce Wilson said...

I'm right there with you Neil.

You might find this interesting. In my film school days the co-writer of the film was generous enough to give me an interview for my Senior Project.

Last year for JD's John Carpenter Blog I edited together all The Cigarette Burns, John Carpenter related parts of our interview, he says some interesting stuff.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for that link, Bryce. Wow - great interview. That guy is such an interesting speaker: personable, knowledgeable, engaging.

About five minutes in, he talks about throwing out the hypothetical to film fans and nine out of ten responding that if 'La Fin Absolue du Monde' existed and they had the opportunity, they'd watch it. That was an electrifying moment for me give the conclusion I came to at the end of my review.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah he's a pretty darn good critic if you haven't read him:

I'm right there with you on La Fin. I remember telling him as much and he getting this look in his eyes that basically said "Sure you fucking would."

I'd never put it in such succient terms, but a "morality tale for cinephile?" too fucking right.

Michael Grover said...

The quest for forbidden knowledge that may very well drive you mad if you find it is one of my favorite genre tropes (probably thanks to a childhood steeped in Lovecraft), but for some reason, Carpenter's film left me cold. I'll have to give it another chance one of these days. If you haven't read the novel "Throat Sprockets" by Tim Lucas, it's along the same lines as "Cigarette Burns," and I highly recommend it.