Exploring the subconscious with film distributor Brian Block

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Isabelle Adjani, giving birth to something awful, in Possession
  • Isabelle Adjani, giving birth to something awful, in Possession
This week, the Gene Siskel Film Center will present the complete version of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (which I wrote about at length in our current issue)—a local premiere that arrives almost 31 years exactly after the film’s Cannes debut. It’s unfortunate it took so long to bring a movie this important to Chicago screens, but I guess this means 1981’s loss has become 2012’s gain.

For this belated presentation, we can all thank local film collector Brian Block. Block commissioned the new print of Possession currently touring the U.S., and he’s overseeing the distribution singlehandedly under the moniker of the Bleeding Light Film Group (for the sake of full disclosure, I should add that we’ve been acquaintances for several years). I met up with him the other night to discuss his efforts, what drew him to Possession, and why Zulawski remains a major filmmaker. Our conversation follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: What made you decide to distribute this film?

Brian Block: It came out of necessity. I felt there needed to be a print available, and I wanted to see the film projected. And knowing that the film wasn’t available in the U.S. in its uncut form . . . . I realized I needed to create a distribution company in order to get this off the ground.

Where does the name Bleeding Light come from?

I’m not ready to make an official statement on that just now.

Regardless, I think it’s a good header to put over Possession. Was it complicated creating and running a distribution group? You’re the only employee, right?

It’s a one-man band, yeah. And yes, it was complicated, but it’s been a learning experience. I’ve learned there’s always some hurdle preventing you [as a distributor] from completing the most simple and mundane tasks.

It’s hard to believe that this is the first true U.S. release of the film.

Well, Possession did come out in 1983 through the similarly named distribution company Limelight International. They were a porno company based in New York; they released stuff like Confessions of a Teenage Peanut Butter Freak. Possession was the only thing they released that wasn’t a hardcore or softcore sexploitation film. Unfortunately, they truncated the film from 123 minutes to 81 . . .

Then the movie was rereleased in 1985—still in the 81-minute version—by a company called Rugged Films, who retitled it The Night the Screaming Stops. So this is the first legit U.S. release. It has shown at the Harvard Film Archive and the Film Society of the Lincoln Center from original-release UK prints, but those were faded, scratched, and worn-out—unplayable, basically. I would rather that the film not show at all than show from one of those prints.

I know what you mean. Color plays such a major role in the film—the fact that Isabelle Adjani is always wearing blue, for instance, shapes your understanding of her character. You watched this new print a few months ago when it played at the complete Zulawski retrospective in New York. How was that event?

I only saw The Third Part of the Night (1971) and Possession. But both screenings were pretty densely packed—the theater was around 85 percent capacity for each. The response to Third Part of the Night was pretty sarcastic, unfortunately. People were laughing at every chance they got, they were yelling at the screen and laughing at the sincere moments.

It seems like a chronic problem in the reception of Zulawski’s work. People don’t know what to do, really, when they’re watching the films. Zulawski’s always willing to make himself and the movies appear ridiculous in order to arrive at some personal truth, and I think that makes audiences uncomfortable.

His films are very demanding. They don’t announce at the beginning, “This is going to be a personal statement.” They get to that point, but it’s always shocking when they do. They’re insanely personal. And they usually expose something hideous that you recognize in yourself.

And it's always some part of yourself you don’t want to acknowledge.

Exactly. I think people feel embarrassed when they watch a Zulawski film. I understand the compulsion to laugh at their excesses—the gore, the drooling, the vomit, the references to Dostoevsky . . .

The idea that these highbrow and lowbrow excesses should come together in one place, that’s just too much for a lot of audiences—even audiences who can handle the gore. They don’t know what to do with the Dostoevsky.

When you watch something like The Exorcist, you know what to expect. The film creates a pattern, so you’re ready for the shocks. But there’s no ritual in Zulawski’s films that prepares you for how personal or intense the movie will get.

It’s like he’s peeling back the layers of his id for you.

But I think they’re so personal that they become universal. You end up sharing in this subconscious space that belongs to everybody. And since Zulawski doesn’t tell you how to respond, it’s just easier for most people to laugh.

Heinz Bennent (left) plays Isabelle Adjanis strange lover, Heinrich.
  • Heinz Bennent (left) plays Isabelle Adjani's strange lover, Heinrich.
It’s a way of protecting yourself. It keeps you from thinking of how your experience might overlap with his.

That was definitely the case with the audience at Third Part of the Night. The audience for Possession was different: they understood it, and you could feel they were having an intimate relationship with it. Even after the halfway point, when it’s just shock after shock after shock, people were still rolling with it . . .

One of the things that makes Possession special among Zulawski’s work is that it’s a bit friendlier with its audience than his others. It has comic relief—

Heinz Bennent [who plays Heinrich] is very funny.

And he’s clearly supposed to be. The gay detectives are also supposed to be funny. They represent a sharp contrast, I realized, to Mark, Sam Neill’s character, who brings himself down through this macho, traditionally heterosexual behavior. It’s telling that he can’t communicate with them. One of the themes of the movie is how communication breaks down between people.

You were working with some people in France to get this new print struck. Who were they and what was your relationship like?

I was liaising through Mondo Vision, the DVD company that’s released most of Zulawski’s films on DVD. We shared the rights for Possession. Later this year or early next year, they’ll put out the DVD and Blu-Ray, and I’m taking care of the theatrical release. And we needed to double-team the rights-holder in France, who is notoriously difficult to work with. I was in direct communication with them early on, but it was just too challenging to do on my own. We also got assistance from Daniel Bird, the British critic who’s written a lot about Zulawski.

Do you have plans to distribute any more films under Bleeding Light Film Group?

I do, but I can’t mention what I’ve got in the works. I’ve come upon a lot of dead ends, unfortunately. I find that a lot of films have been licensed just before I can get my hands on them or else I need to fund the restorations of them—which I can’t afford right now—or, in some cases, there’s no negative of the film. A lot of undistributed movies are typically undistributed for a good reason.

I’m working on other titles, and I’m trying to work outside any precedent created by Possession. Many of the films that are being handed to me are just too similar, more movies where women go crazy and kill their husbands. And I don’t want to specialize in movies like that—even though I am a big fan of the genre.

Do you look forward to distributing other stuff?

Of course. This has been very, very rewarding. I’m hoping to capture more films.

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