I will say this about Actress Apocalypse: my first viewing was not a pleasant experience. The characters are loud and abrasive, and I wanted to dismiss the film as pretentious and overtly and intentionally counterculture. But I liked Richard, so I gave the film a chance, and after a second viewing I saw what he was going for.
As such, I wrote the following review:
It is proficient. It is dependable.
It’s also at times pretty damned crazy.
The same could be said for Franklin: A Symphony of Pain, perhaps one of the most difficult films I have ever watched. Directed by Jeremy Westrate, who also cowrote the script with Richard and Sean Donohue, Franklin takes the audience past the Ninth Circle of the Abyss, bludgeoning the consciousness until one is forced to read cinema as if learning a new language. The experience of this film can be pretty damned awful. Not only is it populated with graphic tortures and acts of cruelty, but it is filmed in a weird kind of 60s psychedelia that confounded me at times. Nonetheless, I could sense that real artists were at work here, despite the queasy feeling in my stomach. The film actually aspires to levels of expression that most are afraid to explore. I did not enjoy it, but I respect it and as such cannot dismiss it.
As I said, Franklin is not an easy experience. The barrage of tortures is as horrifying as anything you'll see in Japan’s infamous Guinea Pig series. The disjointed narrative and relentless shift in style are difficult to follow (I was reminded of Stone’s Natural Born Killers). The crazed retro cinematography, incessantly textured with psychedelic overlays reminiscent of Bran Ferren’s paint splatter light show in Altered States, is distracting and almost seizure-inducing. Yet despite being difficult, the film has its merits. Its nonlinearity, while frustrating, is perhaps its saving grace: we are never allowed to fully sympathize with Franklin. As such, we never get too close to the nightmare and are instead forced to decode the troublesome narrative (this refers back to Saló and Pasolini’s way of distancing us from the victims to the point that we did not care about them).
There are hints of a method to this madness, and I figured out early on that Father Hyde Pearcy was the architect of Franklin’s suffering, a point further clarified by the film’s “Prologue,” which occurs at the end of the film. A post-credit quote makes vague reference to the CIA’s Project MKUltra in which test subjects were subjected to psychedelics and torture to “promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness” (a droning computerized voice of the film’s many hallucinogenic sequences further alludes to this). Even if you’re unfamiliar with MKUltra (as I was), the film can still be understood on its own terms, much the same way one can appreciate Pink Floyd: The Wall without knowing anything about Roger Waters or Syd Barrett.
Still, decoding this film is like reading Benjy Compson’s section in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Is Franklin really being tortured, or is it just a nightmare? Or is his ongoing flight an escape from a torture-filled reality? I was reminded of the internet urban myth that suggests victims of torture often recreate a seemingly “normal” alternate reality to escape their anguish … suggesting that the reality you currently experience could be a torture-induced dream (creepy shit).
If it seems I am referencing too many other well-known films, it’s because thematically Franklin is something of a pastiche. As a work of art, it has an odd self-awareness, personified in the character of Fernando (Angel Martin), a grinning hippie who often appears with camera in hand, videotaping the torture. It is during these scenes that the point of view undergoes the most shifting, at times putting us inside Fernando’s camera, making us complicit with Franklin’s tormentors (okay, okay, I’ll eschew the obligatory aside about the opera glasses in Saló). This allows the film’s reality to constantly be destroyed and reborn, to write its own rules. Late in the film, when Father Hyde bellows “I’m the one who controls what goes on in your reality!” the film shifts to a series of surrealistic moving snapshots (Franklin’s fading memories?), each separate from the other by the scratchy static of a TV changing channels. Could television, Harlan Ellison’s “glass teat,” be our own “handler” controlling our minds?
Franklin is a film that one does not so much watch as endure. It requires a robust digestion and an even more robust spirit, but it also demands that the viewer have the patience of a reader slogging through James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is not a film that purports to make you think (like the abortive Inception) but rather one that demands that you do so. A good AA friend of mine once said of death: “To face the infinite requires profound sobriety, endless patience, and guts of steel.” The same conditions must be met when facing Franklin: A Symphony of Pain.
Franklin is available on Vimeo to rent for $4.00 (or download for $8.00 if you want to give your full support to innovative and exciting filmmakers). You can access the film by clicking the gray button below: