Nicolas Winding Refn: our times need sex, horror and melodramaBad-taste cult movies can save us from the dystopian nightmare of Trump’s America, says the Drive director
Nicolas Winding Refn
Wed 4 Jul 2018
his is a frightening time to be alive. For the past six months, I’ve been shooting in America, and it seems increasingly clear we’re now living in a dystopian reality TV show. America has always had a tendency towards the operatic but, fuelled by the hand grenade of insanity that is Donald Trump, it’s reached new heights of hysteria. This means even the smallest developments are heralded as either the end of the world or the second coming.
It’s terrifying. It is also thrilling. We are appalled by what we witness unfolding each day – essentially, the destruction of the American way of life by its own administration – but we’re also inescapably gripped by it. This is a very exciting time in our history.
|Nicolas Winding Refn|
Certainly, we have to embrace such an apocalyptic time, because the alternative is hand-wringing inertia, and that’s perfect for those in power. Whenever there’s any kind of enormous global shakeup, there’s bound to be paranoia and insanity, but out of earthquakes come opportunities. Even Trump’s fierce arrogance and distaste for his fellow man is good. It’s revealed how many people and politicians share such a view, and our exposure to such hypocrisy is healthy.
We need to be pushed out of our comfort zones – of complacency, and, for most of us in the west, an easeful life. I’m not advocating physical pain, but I do believe mental pain can be a way to stimulate and reset the brain.
What’s needed is art: good, challenging art, not good-taste art, which is the chief enemy of creativity. Problem is, most of our culture comes to us via a small number of conglomerates whose sole purpose is the bottom line. Our entertainment industry is trivial and banal: glitz, glamour and an illusion of perfection and enjoyment that’s very far from the truth. Cinema has become like Chinese food: it gives you cheap, instant pleasure, like an orgasm, but it’s not very healthy or interesting.
The future must be different. I want it to be an uncontrolled place of beautiful chaos, where everyone can create their own universe and is free to speak their own mind, without being overseen by big business. A place of free speech and free access.
Over recent years, I’ve bought and had restored scores of old movies as a hobby. I wondered what to do with them. Then I realised I should share them for free, so I set up a website where they could be streamed. There’s no catch; you’re not being sold anything. Take it or leave it.
Why these particularly movies? I knew director Curtis Harrington, who passed away in 2007, so Night Tide was a very personal choice for me. Curtis had been so disappointed with his career, and yet he had made what I consider to be one of the most important films of the pre-counterculture movement. And the film was rapidly disintegrating because of the condition of the negative. I had to rescue it. It reminds me of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale: it’s almost naively adolescent in its expression of falling in love, being obsessed with something delicate and fragile.
Bert Williams’ The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds proves a movie can be the impossible, lonely burden of just one person. Bert’s name appears in the credits more than even mine is in my films – and I admire such obsession and megalomania. Maybe, like Bert, you only need to make one movie in your life. Bert – an artist who created the outrageous poster for the film – decided to paint on film instead of a canvas. Cuckoo Birds is a strange, singular example of an unidentifiable genre, because it’s a bit of everything: horror, sex, melodrama.
Ron Ormond’s The Burning Hell is a fantastic marriage of extreme propaganda and lowest-common-denominator pandering. It’s so aggressive in selling you the Bible, it’s practically an attack on your senses. Yes, it’s laughable, maybe even terrible, but this only serves to make it more unique. It’s almost an installation art piece. And some might consider the star of the show, Reverend Estus Pirkle, to be a bit of a Trump precursor.
Dale Berry’s Hot Thrills and Warm Chills is a prime example for the argument that art doesn’t have to contain a single drop of good taste. My fetish for Berry is so great that I not only bought all of his films, I bought all of his clothes – a collection of Nudie western suits. Low-budget regional cinema fascinates me. These were movies made by people who had no ideas of what a film was supposed to be, and feel more as if they were made for the people at the bar on the corner or the cafeteria down the street than for Americans at large.
I hope my site will inspire people to see the world a different way. Setting it up has helped me reconcile myself to a different concept of culture than the traditional, romantic one I was raised with. People of my generation – I’m 47 – want tangible tokens of mortality to cling to. But nostalgia is artistic suicide. You have to accept the fact that everything disintegrates in your hands.
Donald Trump was elected on the promise he’d make America great again. Older voters rushed at the chance to return to a comforting fairytale. But they are not the same people who will inherit the US and have to heal its divisions. And the past was rarely this scary.
- byNWR.com launches this month.