Putting the Art into Fart: Peter Strickland heats Flux Gourmet: the filmmaker traces how industrial music inspired his new work – Screens
Filmmaker Peter Strickland wouldn’t call himself a fan of British Joy Division gothic art, “but I enjoyed – pardon the pun – the atmosphere.”
However, his appreciation and understanding of the group changed when he read Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, the life story of bassist Peter Hooks inside the very filthy tour van. “All that icy elegance and solemnity went out the window with all those horrible scatological frat boy jokes.”
The perils to the life of the group are the triggering incident of Gourmet Feed, Strickland’s elaborate new comedy about a performance art set/avant-garde kitchen outfit trapped with each other in endless rehearsals, constant bickering over direction and inspiration, the sexual politics and disputes over equipment. It’s something that Strickland knows well: the music-food thing, that is, having been part of the British industrial group Sonic Catering Band, which used the sound of the kitchen in its mix, and has released albums more like menus rather than with follow lists (they even list the recipes they’ve cooked on their website).
They were part of the British industrial scene. And it’s not American industrial, with a few loops on metal; or euro-industrial, all electronic snare drums on dancing rhythms. It was experimental, deeply political, transgressive, dadaist, defying the definitions of tunes and instruments. It was the testing department, Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound, …
“Oh! Strickland chirps in recognition, adding controversial Americans like Butthole Surfers and Robert Ashley to the list. These groups had a direct influence on the film, with a scene taken directly from several plays of Throbbing Gristle’s 1977 album, The second annual reportand Nurse With Wound’s 1982 single, “I Was No Longer His Dominant”.
It’s a pivotal moment, reminiscent of some of the stage’s most transgressive performances (as the old joke goes, if you hadn’t caught hepatitis at a Throbbing Gristle show, were you really there ?). In it, band leader Elle di Elle (longtime Strickland collaborator Fatma Mohamed) happily pushes the boundaries during a performance. The scene was amazing, Strickland said, but the soundtrack didn’t match its achievement. “We couldn’t make it intense, even though she was very on fire in that scene. We tried so hard with the sound to add layer after layer, and the more we put in, the less impact it had.” So he stepped away from the stage for a while and started thinking about bands that inspired him and how they would sample “found vocals from radio calls or whatever – usually really disturbing stuff”.
So he turned to German singer Britta Gartner (best known to moviegoers as one of the flying nuns in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely), which added a recitation like “that German domina”. His voice was later digitally corrupted and aged, and became part of the sound of Gourmet Feed.
Austin Chronicle: There’s actually a big scene here about knowing when something is working and when it’s going wrong. It’s a glimpse of how when you’re doing this kind of art, you know what you’re trying to achieve, but if you can’t achieve it, the audience might not know.
Peter Strickland: I think if you’re sitting in the front row of these things, you know what went right or wrong just from the facial expressions. The sound does not indicate it. If you’re in the band, it’s life or death, but if you’re in the audience sometimes you can’t tell the difference.
THAT: This is part of the question of intention, and you are dealing with structure and hierarchy in creativity. In a movie, you don’t expect a director to be able to perform all the tasks on set, but the idea of a group visionary, people will always look at it and say, ‘What? do they do?’ It’s the Warhol thing of people who always reject the idea of someone who doesn’t use the brush themselves.
PS: There is a whole debate. If they break up, who can carry on? The one who has the technical know-how, or the one who knows nothing about bridles but has the ideas. I’m not here to answer that, but it’s an age-old debate within the bands – even about royalties.
“A band like My Bloody Valentine or the Swans, the power of that sound might kind of purge something. You don’t know what it purges and that’s it.
I wanted to explore different facets of what it’s like to be in a band. … For me, what is more interesting is what interests people in the background, which is catharsis. It’s something much more primitive for me, and I think I remember when I got into music in particular, and even into cinema, this idea of purging. A band like My Bloody Valentine or the Swans, the power of that sound could sort of purge something. You don’t know what he’s purging and that’s it. There’s this unknowable element to your desire to make music, and I find that fascinating.
THAT: There’s definitely a connection between Sonic Catering and what you’re doing here, but where did the idea come from to tap into that part of your creative life for the concept here?
PS: Maybe it was a desire to sell the records we never sold, I’m not sure.
Joanna Hogg (director of Memory), we make very different films, but there’s this thing where you tap into your own past. But inside of that, I felt a space opened up to explore something that I was very interested in and hadn’t been aware of as having been done in a film, namely the idea of food as a threat, as a poison. The idea of a stomach being something you can’t control, and that led to this idea of something that’s usually done as a skit or a prank in a movie, to fart. If we give it a different context, can we make it something solemn?
Everything is connected, oddly. There never was this plan at the time of writing. A lot of these bands we were mentioning were very focused on taboo and shock value [and] it seemed related to this character who has to give stool samples. I saw the taboo as a way to open up this conversation about these very private, hidden, embarrassing issues that maybe shouldn’t be private. I think there is a way to open these discussions without being vulgar.
THAT: There’s this interesting juxtaposition for people who know the early industrial scene, because you present the performances in Flux Gourmet with a sense of grace. It’s not Genesis P-Orridge getting an enema on stage…
PS: Or in America you have the GG Allin stuff. But I just felt sorry for him. He was a mess. There wasn’t much thought behind what he was doing. There was definitely a confrontational aspect to it, and it’s very kind of you to say it was graceful. There’s an element of ‘we do these things and see what happens after.’
In terms of visual aesthetics, I was thinking of the Viennese Actionists – Kurt Kren, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch – a very toned down version of these people, as they were dealing with massacres and so on. But that’s a tricky line, because obviously for me, I don’t find the movie shocking. There are thousands of movies that are more shocking than this, and you’re dealing with a band that’s about shock value, about breaking taboos, but you don’t necessarily want to break taboos yourself . You want to liberate certain subjects, of course, but I never intended to be the most notorious film. So it’s a tricky line to walk when you’re dealing with a character who wants to be known for their divisive work, and what’s interesting about [Elle di Elle] is the way she appropriates the suffering of others for her own art.
THAT: It’s this idea of the artist as a manipulator. I was talking to Penelope Cruz about the Official Competition, and most of the film is about a director who mercilessly abuses her actors during rehearsal. So in extreme art, where everyone is there by consensus, what does that mean for what counts as a transgression in that environment.
PS: If you have read Cosey Fanny Tutti’s book (Art Sex Music), the revelations there are similar to what you’re describing. The character of Fatma, I would qualify her as Machiavellian. She’s not a cool character, but it’s tricky because you could tell she’s closest to me [and] it would almost be an act of narcissism to try to make her likeable. It was much more interesting to make her unsympathetic.
THAT: On the other side of the creative process here: are you good at cooking?
PS: I’m not bad. I do not know how to cook. I won’t change anyone’s life. I can make lentils, hummus, I can make all kinds of baked pasta, etc. But I would say that I am intermediate.
Gourmet Feed is in theaters and available on VOD now. It will screen at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar on July 10 as part of Fantastic Fest Presents.