Monday, 11 January 2010

MAN, DEAD AT 42 (Alfred Sitzl, Hans Mottel, 1972)

'It is impossible that I will die. Impossible. Without me, this world will cease to exist.' Alfred Sitzl

Set adrift in a technicolor effluenza, the extraordinary career of Alfred Sitzl might been worthy of many biopics even without this implausible final act. Concerned with the afterlife, he aborted his final film Legacy (later unreleased unfinished in 1975) in which he interviewed himself about how he felt he would be remembered, to arrange this. With Man, Dead At 42, he all but set-up his own obituary. In his will he left a script, including complex instructions for the staging, lighting and filming of his own funeral. His partner Hans Mottel executed his late lover's wishes, completing the final acts of Sitzl's 'final masterpiece'.

Sitzl's early works, the fierce, avant-jazz Seizmic Caricatures (1944) and the balmy horror The Eunuch With Electric Forearms (1947) were made in America, where he spent the last three-quarters of his life, thirty-one years and six months exactly. He is most famous, perhaps, for an interview on the late night cable show It's A Kerrazy Midnite Alright! during which he responded to a mock assault by ventriloquist John Jonjon and his puppet Cyrus by pulling a gun and threatening to 'shoot your pee-pee, Mr John'. This spawned a cult T-shirt with an image of Sitzl and these words sloganned beneath; in the late sixties, this became an iconic counter-cultural garment, despite most not being familiar with the work of Sitzl.

In 1970, Sitzl was diagnosed with terminal life and was given just months to live. He had just received rave reviews for his subversive cabaret tributes to certain golden dames of Hollywood ...And We Would Let Joan Bennett Excrete Freely (1968), Invictus Pickford (1969), Joan Crawfish (1969) and Joan Fontaine, Sexy Caller (1969) and was seemingly on a career high. Death could have been an interruption. But no matter: Sitzl sensed an opportunity. Hans Mottel was instructed to film Sitzl during his last few months of his life. 'He told me not to scrimp on the death' said Mottel, in his own documentary about the experience Late Lover (1981). 'I had misgivings of course. But Al was convinced that watching a man slowly die, and for that man to be the director of the film, was the most extreme aspect cinema could approach. None of the gigglers in Tinseltown could beat this... It was his final wish. To have the footage edited together in a precise way. And for the funeral to be a particular way. Lights here. Camera here. Flowers there. Close-up of his wife there. For five seconds. She'd better be sobbing.'

Sobbing she was. Indeed the whole exercise can be seen as a series of trapdoors and stunt mirrors to tease Sitzl's ex-wife Ronnie Barbeaux. In one scene we see Mottel watch with great difficulty as Barbeaux reads aloud from Sitzl's diary, as per his final instructions. The camera moves gently from face to face as Barbeaux discovers for the first time the extent of Sitzl's homosexual encounters before, during and after their marriage, culminating in the revelations that Mottel has been left the greater portion of Sitzl's modest estate. Barbeaux simmers, Mottel clings to the camera for dear life.

A grand feast was executed as per Sitzl's wishes, and the elaborate food display, including whisky fountains, a maple syrup luge and a forest of broccoli, are filmed lovingly. This scene in particular is famous for being the source for the nomenclature of a grubby sub-genre of cinema,
'torture porn' being a misheard translation and a comical echo of the French 'tours de pain' which Barbeaux can be heard to exclaim repeatedly at the funeral 'Tours de pain! Tours du pain! Qu'imbecile veut des tours de pain a leurs funerailles?'1. Mottel's camera lingers on the offending baguette skyscrapers, returning to Barbeaux as his directions from the grave insist he must. The sight of the dead man's ex-wife suffering inelegantly at the deceased's cosmic practical jokes and his tightly planned posthumous humour is certainly a pre-echo of the late-Capitalist bourgois-sadism of Saw (James Wan, 2004).
Sitzl died. But somehow, he lives on as a gremlin in the ink, a smudged graffito on our wall. This obnoxious double Vs at the shore of the Styx, this delicious gob in the direction of his future host (and no less, to those left behind), somehow stands as a gesture of great humanity at it's most defiant, petty and brave.

Man, Dead at 42 Directed by Alfred Sitzl, Hans Mottel, Produced by Hans Mottel, Victor Grue, Written by Alfred Sitzl Tarakan Pictures Release Date Fra: June 1972, UK/US: Jan 1973 Tagline: 'Sitzl Is Dead! Long Live Sitzl!'

1. 'Towers of bread! Towers of bread! What kind of fool wants towers of bread at their funeral?

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