Movie Books: Nicolas Winding Refn - The Act of Seeing

Andrew takes a gander at the new coffee table book by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Around the time Danish cult provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn was following up his 2011 sleeper hit Drive with the 2013 Bangkok crime drama Only God Forgives, the most eclectic and passionate film lover since Quentin Tarantino began dabbling into other venues for his feverish love of all things cinema.  Beginning with his record label NWR, the director began overseeing the releases of several beloved film soundtracks including but not limited to Robocop, The Terminator, Oldboy, It Follows and even his own film Bronson, each designed with a unique collectible jacket design with the vinyl platters themselves tailored with a one of a kind colored pressing.  

The director is also noted for being an avid poster collector with not one but three different documentaries catching wind of the auteur in the act of purchasing framed collectible posters including a few points where he showed off some of his favorites. All of which lands us towards his next wholly unique project and tribute to the film experience, the extensive 300+ paged art book The Act of Seeing.  Debuting at $100 by FAB Press with liner notes by esteemed film historian Alan Jones, Nicolas Winding Refn's first official book release is a compendium of hundreds of exploitation and sexploitation film posters ranging from the 1950s through the 1970s, all curated by Refn from his personal collection.  The film is hardbound with a boxed slipcover, includes a bookmarking ribbon and introductory notes from Jones and Refn regarding the book you're about to experience.

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Rifling through this mixture of science fiction/horror and above all sexploitation posters is somewhat like experiencing one of Refn's own films firsthand.  Like his newest effort The Neon Demon, as you turn each page and happen upon the next provocative film poster which suggests a myriad of transgressions beyond the printed image, the images immediately stir reactions within the viewer ranging from forbidden to fetishistic, aroused or shocked, frightened or elated.  There's a question raised about whether or not we should be looking at these images as well as a genuine love for an overlooked past of trash and sleaze art which is at once crude and exquisite, leaving readers at odds with how they should proceed.  Most of the posters are for forgotten or lost films where the only memories consist of Jones' liner notes and the image itself.  The poster image is a very powerful one that can stir all kinds of emotions and imaginations of all who see them and whether you ever winding up seeing any of these films or not is beside the point.  Neither definitive nor abbreviated in form, The Act of Seeing is something of an overview of a now lost era of drive-in X certificate filmmaking, some of which truly broke boundaries in film while others only hinted at it.  It's also very much an extension of the director's personality and a reflection of what kinds of images he wants to see on the silver screen.  

The price range of this book is a bit much and the contents inside won't be to all tastes.  Closer to the art gallery than the cinematic medium, Nicolas Winding Refn's book gives at face value the impression it will be like his autobiographical documentaries but in fact proves to be a chunk of his poster collection.  Still, pornographic or artistic, this is a splendid coffee table book to show off to your more subversive cinephile peers and for anyone interested in film a veritable collectible highlighting an era only hinted at in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse with a particular emphasis on opposing culturally accepted boundaries in cinema.  

Being a collector of film related books myself and a die hard Refn fan, it's the kind of book where you look through a few pages before shelving it and coming back to it for further indulgences later.  As cinema in general is geared more towards the corporate studio driven mentality, The Act of Seeing reminds filmgoers and readers alike that we mustn't forget about the past when smaller independent venues, however mercurial their motives were in making the films they did, sought to challenge the mainstream notions of what's acceptable in film and furthermore what differentiates art from trash.  If you have the means, absolutely check this book out which functions both as a history lesson and another extension of the gifted provocateur's desire to challenge our perceptions of the limitless possibilities of cinema.


 - Andrew Kotwicki