“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen”: The Serious Delirium of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives

by on Jul.01, 2014

By Matthew Suss
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“[Nicholas Winding Refn’s] latest theater of the macabre is brutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion or decent lighting.” – Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

“Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a shit macho fantasy—hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious… [T]his is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.” – Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere

“It’s not that overwrought violence and human depravity are unfit grist for art, but without a compelling plot and a modicum of character development, all this film has to offer is a repugnant prurience and heavy-handed atmospherics.” – Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic

“I thought it was just about the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” – David Edelstein, Vulture

*

I love all of the negative reviews of Only God Forgives because they are totally right. Except what the reviewers perceive as failure, I think is total victory. I mean, “[B]rutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion…” Are you kidding? That sounds fucking awesome. I want to feel “violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.”

“Aren’t we begging to lose a fight every time art is made?” writes Sean Kilpatrick, in his a review of Only God Forgives.

“Every time some cocky little shit pops up to weigh in about what makes sense. Every time you form a thought (or refuse to) the punishment for it is already handy. Go into this movie wincing for anemia. Go in ready to lose and return fuller. There’s no shortage of other films now showing that’ll press your stuffing for you into a healthy understanding. We can philanthropically suck ourselves accomplished or go worship the shattered.” I prefer to worship the shattered, the meaningless and nonsensical. I worship the overwrought, the excess of death and fuck. I worship nowhere. I worship dream blood brought forth. I want art to slow me. I want art to play with my blood. I worship the holy fuck, the beauty blow. I worship derangement, serious delirium.

*

A few months ago my friend, Mike Wall texted me re: his thesis / manuscript. He was struggling / stressing trying to finish it before his defense in April. His chairperson, he said, had been strongly suggesting that he write more ‘lighter’ material to balance out all the darkness. “I have no idea how to do this and it has been blocking me for over a month,” he said. “She hasn’t given clear examples except like the opposite of the ‘harsh, violent, and dark language’ that makes up my manuscript.”

Here are a few parts of the email I wrote him:

Us desperate ones, we find love in all the wrong places and we’re punished for it. We’re told: “write ‘lighter’ to balance out all the darkness.” We’re told: “betray your pulse.”

Don’t betray your pulse.

John Darnielle, in his black black Black Sabbath book, Master of Reality, says:

All love, all the time. Peace and happiness in every day… Peace and happiness when you’re making a list of everything that’s wrong with the world and squinting your eyes tight trying to imagine your way out of it. Peace, peace, peace, happiness, happiness, happiness. That was the message that Master of Reality came to spread. It’s the same message we got told about once a year at Christmas time, and we hear that we’re supposed to carry the message with us all year long. But some of us who are desperate to find this message end up finding it in places where the tones are really dark and the images are explosive and scary, and when we say that we found the secret of love in some sticky lightless place, we get punished. Which ends up happening a lot of times, because we keep digging around in the places where we know love is. We have our priorities straight. We learn not to mind getting punished if we can just keep what we found on the way to the punishment.

Us desperate ones, we order the fucked into a nervemaking we can understand and think about. Thank Satan. Lucifer Rising is the Bodhi tree I sit under. Prison Pit I mainline direct to rapture. Caligula is my ashram, filled with the aroma of horror-sweat, at the top of a mountain. Don’t punish yourself for finding love in all the wrong (right!) places.

*
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I love how Gosling gets his shit kicked out in. I love the cult of karaoke. Blank stares. The surfaces. I love how Gosling says nothing. How his mother snaps. The hands. All hands. I love how Refn candies the eye as he slices it open. See no. Hear no. I love how the second watching I don’t remember blinking. I love the no talking when there doesn’t need talking. I love the Puce Moment echoes. 2001 echoes. Bloodsport. Jodorowsky. Noe. The hallways satanic dark. Drug dark. We all have our dark tasks.

*

I was at Myopic Books a few weeks ago and ended up buying a copy of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom again because I don’t have my copy at home for some reason. I brought all the stupidest books I don’t want to look at ever and left all the books I want to read in boxes now stacked molding in a closet at my parents’ house. It’s also a different translation.

The 120 Days is a dark book. An overwrought, depraved book without compelling plot or character development. Hyperviolent. Repugnant prurience. Bloody. Over-indulged.

I question myself sometimes why I read certain parts of it over and over, especially the last hundred or so pages, particularly the ecstatic torture orgy the book ends with. I get really close to the book when I read those pages. I lean in. To see. To hear. To say. I think: if I lean in and read closely enough, I’ll understand why I’m leaning in.

Why am I always leaning in?

Why do I bring binoculars to the horrorshow?

The 120 Days is a dark book, yes, but it is an immensely soothing book, for me. Maybe in the way Alain Robbe-Grillet said of his final novel, A Sentimental Novel: “It’s not literature, it’s masturbation!” But also just for the fact that it exists. That’s a light.

That your poems exist is their light, Mike.

*

“To be an artist is to be a victim because if you don’t do what you want you die.” Jodorowsky said that. “Art is an act of violence.” Refn said that. You’re either the one committing the crime—the Artist—making crime scenes—Art—or you’re a victim, depending on whether you are maker or experiencing the made thing. “If you bring forth what is within you, / what is within you will save you. / If you do not bring forth what is within you, / what is within you will destroy you.” Jesus said that. I worship what is within brought forth. Only God Forgives is brought forth. I believe that. I believe in art. But I don’t believe art saves you. I believe art makes it so you might save yourself.

*

We’ve heard enough from the birds. Fuck the birds and their airy way, go faster and further into the darkness. The Marriage of Hell and Hell. Enough people do what they do and do what everyone else does. Do what you do, what screams may come.

“to be someone,
one must have a BONE,
not be afraid to show the bone
and to lose the meat in the process.”
– Artaud

Bring forth you. Think of all the books you hate, and don’t do anything that they do. Anyone who says “lighter!” we’ve heard enough of. Apparently poetry is so fucking dumb it can only do one thing. John Ashbery said, “One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience.” It’s true. Music and movies’ infinite feelings are fucking and multiplying while poetry jerks itself off in front of a mirror. But poetry can do anything and does do everything, because it is language and you can say anything you can. The world is as big and fresh and open as your wounds. Fuck the birds. We’ve heard enough of the birds.

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9 comments for this entry:
  1. adam s

    What if one likes birds though? Birds can be very gnarly: they cheerfully eat other birds, some of them; harpy eagles, according to a documentary on Youtube, have talons bigger than the claws of black bears–and they’re ridiculously fast when striking. To place the camera near the nest riot head-gear was used; and the placer was struck by mom the second round of this; and he concussed! And others know advanced calculus as a matter of course. Hell, even pretty-boy peacocks have got a terrible screech going on! But aren’t pretty women known as birds too? well if what’s meant is fuck fucking pretty women, then yah I’m a bro to this. I do like the image of candying an eye while slicing it.

  2. nathaxn walker

    dear matt suss & montevidayo: only god forgives was straight-up my favorite movie of 2013 along with leviathan & the demon’s rook. i like other nicolas winding refn movies. i love only god forgives. every negative review of that film made me want to see it & after seeing it I felt like i had the best bad trip ever. i want movies to be full-on sensory experiences that take me out of myself or change me on a cellular level. this movie does that & works every time. also matt suss, your poetry is ridiculously awesome & touches that part of me this movie does. so right on! nxww

  3. nathaxn walker

    ps: i am also pretty interested in seeing the ryan gosling-directed movie. i do not care so much if it is good or not. that is not why i watch movies. nxww

  4. adam s

    I like this; it seems to me a very healthy stance and to display thorough enthusiasm for the medium: “i do not care so much if it is good or not. that is not why i watch movies.” This is pretty much my definition of what it means to be interested in the contemporary–with contemporary defined in its traditional sense–of any art form/form of cultural production.

  5. Matthew

    Adam, I hear you.

    The bird stuff / “we’ve heard enough from the birds” is cribbing Peter Gizzi’s poem, “Lessons in Darkness” (“Haven’t we heard enough / from the birds, their annual trips / and cross-talk? Listen. / The arc of a rocket / is louder than a rainbow”) and was just my go to in the moment for arguing full immersion in that “sticky lightless place” vs. feeling pressured / punished to “balance out” language w/light.

  6. Matthew

    Nathan, dude, thank you.

    I loved Leviathan, too. Haven’t seen Demon’s Rook but just watched the trailer and I am all over it ASAP. Reminds me of those Shaw Brothers black magic flicks, like The Boxer’s Omen, which is fucked fucked fucked / beautiful beautiful beautiful.

    My fav movie I saw last year was The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s follow-up to 2009’s Amer.

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1b9g4p_the-strange-colour-of-your-body-s-tears-clip_shortfilms

    &

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYXXpT11WtM

    Giallo kaliedofuckery via Argento / Martino. Cattet and Forzani know their fetishes / what they want to see / hear, and they smear them w/snatch juice and love them to death. It also got / is getting a lot of bad reviews for all the wrong / right reasons. I saw it at midnight at AFI Fest in LA and felt delirious for days.

  7. adam s

    Matthew–Cheers to acoustics, grins! Thank you for your note! I don’t know the PG! PG baffles me–I feel like he’s gone from experimentalist by reputation to experimental establishment without ever having gone through either! But yah there’s those Awede–sp?–days so is he like the new hundred despite surely not being past the age of 55? Wow to being so quietly totally there professionally. I mean this to be cute but suspect I am screeching jerk, ugh.

  8. nathaxn walker

    matt – the strange color of your bodies tears is f-ing amazing! it makes amer look normal. i saw it at the minneapolis/st paul international film festival & cannot wait to see it again. what is amazing is that it not only elides narrative/non-narrative film, but also makes the ‘non-narrative’ aspects of it totally serve the narrative. the delerium of giallo ramped up to unbelievable degrees. maximum stars for real! also, it gets points for its imaginitive use of 70’s-period italian film-score songs as its soundtrack, which only added to the disorientation! nxww

  9. nathaxn walker

    i haven’t yet seen boxer’s omen although it is in my netflix queue forever, but bewitched, the prequel, is plenty insane on its own. along those lines, i recommend juno mak’s rigor mortis, which is a 21st century update of 80’s hong kong hopping vampire films, but has some hardcore wicked taoist black magick in it! really great & deeply moving! nxww