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Within the first minute of Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film, Beloved, we are told that we are entering a cold and lonely house in 1865 Ohio. As Tak Fukimoto’s careful camera approaches this odd house we already know that The Civil War has only just ended and the legal abolishment of slavery is most likely only started to sink into the American culture. Barely two more minutes pass before we become aware that something paranormal is threatening this newly-freed African-American household.  Is it demonic? Is it a menacing ghost? It doesn’t take long before this dangerous force is openly discussed. The truly jolting aspect of these brief discussions is the passive manner in which the topics are engaged.

The film’s main character seems to be simultaneously depressed and almost relieved that her two young sons have just runaway. It is only a brief after thought that Sethe might have been able to hang on to her sons if she had made more of an “effort.” She ponders that maybe if she had moved her fatherless family to a different house or an entirely different place things might have worked out or be better. An old woman who we understand to be Sethe’s mother-in-law and grandmother to Sethe’s children, shakes her head and says “What’d be the point? Not a house in the country ain’t packed to the rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky our ghost is a baby. My husband spirit come back? Or yours? Don’t talk to me! You lucky. You got one child left, still pullin at your skirts. Be thankful.”

Within another few minutes the story travels several years in time. Baby Suggs, the wise mother-in-law, has died and Sethe’s daughter, Denver, has grown into a sad young woman. A weary but upbeat man shows up at the house. This is clearly an old friend. After the two friends catch-up we can see that there is a vaguely shared erotically loving connection here. Sethe leads her old friend, Paul D, into her dilapidated, creepy-looking old house. Barely into the house Paul D stops. Looking down the Sethe’s hallway he becomes terrorfied.

“Good God! What kind of evil you got in there?”

“It’s not evil..It’s just… It’s just sad. Come on. Just step through.”

Beloved Oprah Winfrey Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved
Oprah Winfrey
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey’s Sethe’s guidance is given to Danny Glover’s Paul D,  but it also also seems as if the audience is invited to enter into this home of profound loneliness, sadness, fear and hidden horrors.  Beloved is challenging, complex, graphically violent and viscerally disturbing film. Beloved is also almost as difficult to approach from a film criticism angle. Jonathan Demme’s movie, like it’s source novel is a masterful, shocking and cogently artistic work. It seems almost impossible that a white male filmmaker created this largely experimental neo-gothic and Feminist examination. It is a profound work, but the use of “horror” as metaphor sometimes creates results that seem almost oppositional to Toni Morrison’s brilliant and Pulitzer Price winning 1987 novel. It is hard to miss the allegory and metaphor contained within the pages of her book. The crucial ideas are not always so clear in the film adaptation.

As Alan A. Stone noted in his 1999 article in The Boston Review titled Oprah’s Nightmare, the esteemed and amazing media mogul “wanted Beloved to be an experience, not just entertainment. The film, like Toni Morrison’s novel, was meant to answer the question, what was it like to be a slave? In answering it, Morrison makes her readers feel, perhaps for the first time, the extraordinary psychological damage done by slavery. There is, says one of her characters, “a kind of madness that keeps one from going mad.”  

With the gift of close to 20 years hindsight, it is clear that Oprah Winfrey’s decade long desire to bring Morrision’s book to the screen is largely successful. Sometimes the movie’s success is achieved in spite of itself. No doubt, the idea of translating this book into a movie was more than a daunting task. This was a task that Winfrey was more than thrilled to pursue, but it was not just from her love of Toni Morrison and her book that drove her to get this epic film made — it was even more than passion. If you should ever read Oprah Winfrey’s book, Journey to Beloved, you will discover that Winfrey viewed the task as a personal requirement and unrelenting sense of duty. Toni Morrison’s novel is more than just an important literary masterpiece.

Epigraph: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”  Romans 9:25 Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade." Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

Epigraph:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
Romans 9:25
Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.”
Beloved
by Toni Morrison, 1987

Toni Morrison’s novel is a vital depiction of not only the abhorrent and almost unimaginable horror of slavery — it is a work that strives to remind readers that while slavery might have been abolished in 1865, it still looms as more than just a lingering injustice. The United States legalized slavery of the past remains as a looming shadow of an entire race of people. Going even deeper, Toni Morrison’s novel ties the history of slavery accurately to the dynamics that run through African-Americans lives. Dynamics and understandings of faith, family, fatherhood and motherhood continue to be challenged by the remaining shared pain of a past that is horrifyingly still clutching onto the present.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is also inspired by Margaret Garner, a Pre-Civil War era slave who opted to kill her two-year-old daughter to save her from suffering the fate of slavery. This act shocked not only our nation but the world.

From the Cincinnati Gazette.  June 29, 1856

From the Cincinnati Gazette.
June 29, 1856

A famous trial ensued in which Garner was tried for murder. For those of you who may not have studied too much regarding the atrocity of our country’s Slave Trade and Slavery — it is important to note that it was far more common for mother’s to kill their children than is usually discussed. It was a sad reality and often hidden from view in more ways than one. However,  Margaret Garner was on the run from Slavery and her owners when her family was pushed into a small home as US Marshals surrounded to take them back into custody when she killed her daughter. This practice of filicide was suddenly thrust into public-awareness.

At the trial, Lucy Stone, an important American Abolitionist and Suffragist, took the stand to defend Garner. Not one to play into societal or cultural restraints of her time — Lucy Stone’s defense of Garner was based on a then very real but “unspoken” sexual “use” or more accurately “abuse” of white male slave owners toward their female slaves.

Unfathomable human cruelty -- except it not only happened. It was accepted.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Unfathomable human cruelty — except it not only happened. It was accepted.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

 

Something that had been a painful day-to-day existence for Margaret Garner. The concept of The Maternal has been perversely changed within the minds of many female slaves. Most tragically, it is not hard to understand how and why this happened.

Lucy Stone pulled no punch when she reminded everyone present (must of whom were demanding Garner’s execution) that the faces of Garner’s children shared as much in common with Garner’s white owner as they did with their mother. Stone then publicly and famously stated:

“The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?”

Oprah Winfrey  on set of Beloved Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey
on set of Beloved
Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey and her fellow filmmakers may have stumbled a bit in capturing Toni Morrison’s novel, but it is far too incremental to use as a valid criticism. If Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ movie made even one person seek out Morrision’s novel it would give the film merit. As it turned out the movie would inspire a whole new generation to read Toni Morrison’s unforgettable and rightfully unforgiving book. And while one could debate the differences between the film and the novel — it would be a mute discussion. Beloved, the movie, works incredibly well. Even still, it is interesting that Winfrey sought out a white filmmaker who had ever really even made one “serious” film. And that film, Silence of the Lambs, is both horrific and often satirical in approach. It even more surprising that she sought out screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese. A very competent white film writer, his work is often “hit or miss” — on the one hand he had written the screenplays for both The Fisher King (for which he received The Academy Award) and the highly underrated dark comedy, The Ref, but he had also written the screenplays for such duds as Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes and Barbra Streisand’s off-kilter, The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Beloved's wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog's eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.  Oprah Winfrey  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved’s wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog’s eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It is difficult to understand her confidence LaGravenese could handle capturing the heart of this book. I don’t intent to dismiss LaGravense’s talent. It’s just that this movie operates within an entirely different “universe” compared to what one anticipates in his film scripts.  Though, Winfrey and Demme would later enlist both Adam Brooks and Akosua Busia to assist LaGravenese in screenwriting duties. Once again, Brooks is a white male who had only written one “successful” screenplay at the time, Meg Ryan’s ill-advised romantic comedy, French Kiss. As for Busia, she had become friendly with Winfrey during the production of The Color Purple in which she was a supporting actor. She had never written for the screen at the time. However, Winfrey was confident that would be a valuable member of the writing team.  As odd as these choices seem, they appear to have been good ideas.

A topic, concept and idea of great import and interest to Toni Morrison’s Beloved is “re-memoring” or “rememory.” This is a simple idea, but it was a new one to many if not all readers of Morrison’s brilliant 1987 novel. The idea is that our leading character, Sethe, is often found remembering memories. It is an idea not too far removed from PTSD survivors and the way in which the psyche often twists “reality” when trying to recall or revisit a past traumatic event. Beloved’s Sethe mental revisit to her past takes on this aspect of rememory in which memories serves as sort of triggers off-skewed or altered-perceptions of places, experiences, people and feelings that when described take on a level of unexpected power or — even more alarmingly, are recalled in almost distant or passive way.

Billie Holiday sang of "Strange Fruit" and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film's characters but our current reality. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Billie Holiday sang of “Strange Fruit” and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film’s characters but our current reality.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Rememoring is not accurate but it is a sad reality of surviving a life filled with unfathomable horrors. In the novel, it is clear that Sethe’s re-memoring is both a literal situation for the plot but also an allegorical emphasis for The African American Experience. It is also accurate in applying it to The White American Experience. However it must be stressed, that the full context of rememory related to past and current African-American Experience is not accessible in the same way and is limited in full understanding to Non-African Americans.

Maternal love comes with a cost... Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Maternal love comes with a cost…
Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

How could it be?

No White person can possibly know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Person of Color much less understand the way the past refuses to stop impacting the lives of African American people. Even within the hearts of the most caring and politically-active White people, there are limitations of access.

The cruelty, unfairness and horrific ramification of Slavery and its lasting imprint on identities have been shaped by not only a horrifying history and current state of racial relations and self-awareness, but as Morrison asserts there remains a  devastating sort of Shared Cultural Rememory for African Americans.  A re-memory that haunts identities, understanding, self-value, societal value and the on-going cruelties that pollute the reality of being American. The concept does not just end there — it operates within the reality of the individual.

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than "reality" -- she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.  Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than “reality” — she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The impact of “rememory” from Toni Morrison’s novel illustrates how this “memory” is not so much a remembrance but a re-occuring reality. Just as it looms over an entire race of human beings, rememory is still happening to Sethe:

“what I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head … even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of whatI did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Winfrey sought a highly originally talented and somewhat eccentric filmmaker as Jonathan Demme to helm her film is because she knew he would bring an insight that would be limited in understanding the immediate importance of Morrison’s novel, but oddly effective in bridging a stronger link to culture because of that limitation. There is something to be said of the way the movie begins.

Icepick Rage Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Icepick Rage
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Beloved begins as if the film director and the writers have assumed too much. Despite the success of Morrison’s novel, many of the people who first attended screening of this movie were unaware of it. Winfrey knew this. Demme’s assumption that his audience would be familiar with the novel immediately tosses the audience into a world of shock and cruelty that worked in the film’s favor.

I had read the book, but I remember my jaw dropping.

Kimberly Elise's "Denver"  faces her mother's past as directly as her mother.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Kimberly Elise’s “Denver” faces her mother’s past as directly as her mother.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Wait! Is that Oprah Winfrey? What is she doing to that poor dog? Holy shit! Is Oprah pushing and hammering the dog’s eyeballs back into the dog’s eye sockets?!?! Did I just see that?  Hold up. Did that mirror just crack. Why are those two little boys so horrified? Why are they running away?  How can they leave their sad little sister all alone on the creepy stairs? What was whipping that poor dog around? Why isn’t Oprah upset? She walks by her daughter and folds clothes while this elderly woman lectures her that she should consider herself lucky.

This cinematic disorientation is so phantasmagorical, we’ve hardly caught our breath by the time Danny Glover’s Paul D shows up. As his character realizes that there is some sort of supernatural entity wrecking havoc in the house he is bathed in a light of red. Oprah’s character calms him down and he accepts what she says as truth. There is no hint of doubt. Paul D gets the situation and understands Sethe. The movie takes another unexpected turn in the eroticism shared between Sethe and Paul D.

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It isn’t that the sight of Paul D nude and freshly bathed in Sethe’s kitchen is shocking. It is actually beautifully shot and quite erotic. As Sethe begins to open up and allows her walls to go down to allow Paul D’s comfort, we first see the deep scars on Sethe’s back. Paul D is not shocked or turned off. He caresses Sethe and accepts her beauty sensually. Her scars are a part of who she is, just as his weariness is a part of himself.

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D's comforts Beloved Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D’s comforts
Beloved
Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

The eroticism and love are beautiful. What jolted audiences in 1998 will most likely still jolt a new generation today.

There is something quite effective to see all of this happen and realize that we are seeing Oprah Winfrey realistically playing the part. Oprah is more than a “star” or “icon” — she symbolizes all that we hold dear. Raising herself out of the ashes of a an abusive childhood to the role of news anchor, to Chat TV Show host to actor to International fame. A fame she is not squandered on petty vanity — Oprah has always used her struggles, her intelligence, her charm and her power to help rather than self-promote. She changed the way we look at life, literature, art and always puts her money to fund assistance and effective change. Oprah Winfrey has saturated our world with good intention and hope.

She has played a crucial role in the shaping our culture for the better at very end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries in ways more profound than any politicians, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates or the Mark Zuckerbergs. A very winnable argument could be made that Oprah Winfrey is the most culturally significant person of our time. This presents a greater impact to Beloved than can be articulated.

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

It is revelatory to see “Our Oprah” in this role. It isn’t really so much shocking as it is a jolt and a reminder that there is a reason she has invested her money, her time, her energy and her skills into what appears to be such an experimental movie.

And of course, this presents the most unsettling aspect of the film adaptation. Is this a high art horror movie? It sure feels like one. But as soon as the audience settles into the idea that we are watching a sort of metaphorical horror film, Demme pulls us into rememory — suddenly we see the hope offered by faith and church revivals. We begin to feel Sethe and Denver soften with the presence of Paul D. Serving as husband, father, lover and protector — Paul D brings some hope, love and peace to this house of horror and sadness.

But don’t dare relax. All of that foreshadowing is about to take form from the depths of an old river.

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.  Thandie Newton as Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.
Thandie Newton as
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Is this is a manifestation of guilt? Of fear? Or is the reincarnation of the little girl that Sethe opted to murder rather than to allow her to grow into the pain of life as a slave? The origin of  Sethe’s Beloved is not so important. At least not immediately. Thandie Newton’s Beloved is a stunningly beautiful personification of a half-formed being. Drooling, reaching and seeming in pain — this erie beauty is almost incapable of calming. She clings to her mother, Sethe as if she will vanish without her mother’s comfort. She is equally odd in her relation to her sister, Denver.

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

And Beloved begins to form an inappropriate erotic desire for her mother’s lover. Beloved is at once hope, love, threat, danger and pain formed into beguiling sexually-charged beauty.  Thandie Newton’s performance is as brilliant as it is problematic.

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The character of Beloved is an odd challenge to form into a character from every perspective. But perhaps the most challenging for the actor who must play this “idea” or “projection” of a human rememoried. All the more unsettling is that Newton’s style of acting deeply contrasts with the other three main actors. Winfrey, Glover and young Kimberly Elise all play their roles deeply grounded in natural realism. Their reactions may seem “off” but they feel like all-too-real people. Thandie Newtons’ performance is experimental — at turns animalistic, mentally-challenged, child-like, demonic and dangerous. It is as if she is from a whole other world or movie. As desperately as Sethe and Denver want Beloved to fit into their world, it is a losing battle and a desire that can never be fulfilled.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

As the film soars through at just short of 3 hours that feel more like 90 minutes — the audience is pulled through a world of repugnant cruelty, torture and hyper-realistic violence. By the time 30 townswomen show up on the step of Stehe’s front door we are not even surprised to discover that they have arrived to perform an exorcism of the house, Sethe and Beloved. These women have joined as one to save this family from being completely consumed by a heritage of savagery, pain, sadness and trauma.

Beloved ultimately brought Sethe and her family true Hell whether it was intended or secretly desired. She does not exist independently. She has been summoned as much from Evil as from Good. She seems to offer forgiveness for Sethe but at a price that is far too high to pay. A truly insane Sethe is rescued by the community of African-American former female slaves. They pray and aim their crosses and Beloved who appears to be swollen with child is supernaturally sent back to the place from which she came. The exorcism appears to have worked. But there is faint feeling that this relief is only temporary.

As Paul D tries to comfort Sethe, she tells him that Beloved was her “best thing.” It is to the filmmaker and Danny Glovers’ shared skills that there isn’t the slightest feeling of the contrite or easy-solution when he tells Sethe that she is wrong. “Sethe, you are your best thing.

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Even if it will be a temporary moment of calm, one can’t but hope that Sethe and Paul D will be able to move on with their lives and share in the joys that Denver is able to discover on her own. But as much as the film seems to strain to create it’s own world, it is firmly tied to Toni Morrison’s extraordinary novel. Sethe and Paul D are not those of some freed slaves who can repress and dissociate from their past. They have tried but they can’t. Their true identities, suffered horrors and shared rememories have already forced a sort of reintegration of their selves. These are not fragmented people. It is not as dismal as it sounds, there is a freedom to be found in the truth. The problem is that the indignities of Slavery’s past do not seem to resolve. This is a wounded country whose scars run deep. It will take a hell of lot more than thirty Bible-thumping strong women to cast out the demons infested in our culture.

Where can we find hope?

I certainly do not hold any clue of an answer, but the one thing I take away from Oprah Winfrey’s dedication and sense of duty:

We cannot deny the truth. We must take ownership of the past. We must destroy the Confederate Flag ideology that would attempt to disguise racism as “history” or worse yet a false and evil “pride” in the wrong side of history.

The lingering rememory of Slavery's rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.  Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

The lingering rememory of Slavery’s rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

In the end, Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ film failed to fully secure “buy-in” and approval from Film Critics of the time. Audiences attended in mass when it was first released, but those audiences soon re-treated. Many mistake this film for a Disney Project, but in truth Touchstone Pictures put in little of the film’s budget. Most to the money they invested was in the form of distribution and promotion. The film’s budget is not clear. Estimates range from $50,000,000 to $80,ooo,ooo. The production was shared between Jonathan Demme’s production company, Clinica Estetico, and Winfrey’s Harpo Films. The rumor is that Winfrey put in $50,000,00 of her own money into the movie. The film ended up only earning just under $30,000,000 at the box office. It was issued to DVD but is no longer in-print. But Amazon.com still has plenty of copies remaining and the film is available for on-line purchase or rental. It is most definitely worth your time to experience it.

While Beloved failed to achieve the success it intended. It stands alone as a brave, powerful, unforgettable and truly profound film. An achievement born out of a personal sense of duty. While things may have gotten bumpy or even confused in translation — there is no denying its message. Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme created an amazing film against all odds.

Nothing can diminish that.

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997 Photograph | Ken Regan

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997
Photograph | Ken Regan

 

Jonathan Demme agrees with many of the film’s supporters that it’s ultimate box office failure can be blamed on Disney who wanted a quicker box office pay-off and pulled the movie just as “word of mouth” was started to be heard so that they could the ridiculous Adam Sandler film, Water Boy into the cinemas that were then occupied by the R-rated Beloved.

Jonathan Demme Vanity Fair, France, 2014 Photograph | FABRICE DALL'ANESE

Jonathan Demme
Vanity Fair, France, 2014
Photograph | FABRICE DALL’ANESE

In 2013, Winfrey was asked about the “failure” of Beloved. She is quoted as having said:

“To this day I ask myself, was it a mistake? Was it a mistake to not try and make  a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the Beloved book.”

Oprah Winfrey Hollywood, 2015 Photograph | Mark Seliger

Oprah Winfrey
Hollywood, 2015
Photograph | Mark Seliger

I refuse to accept that Beloved was a failure. If anything, we failed it.

 

FELT Jason Banker, 2015

FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

I was well acquainted with Jason Banker’s fist film, Toad Road. I love his first film. If you have not seen it, seek it out. Toad Road is streaming via Netflix and AmazonPrime. So I was excited when I had a rare opportunity to see his second and latest movie, Felt, last year. At that time Felt had only had two official screenings. I had no idea regarding the subject of the film when I first saw it.  Felt was so such a jolt of the senses my jaw had fallen leaving my mouth open in a mixed state of awe, confusion and shock. I knew I liked Banker’s new film, but it filled my head with so many ideas, challenged my personal ideas of cinematic reality and was deeply unsettled. I was unable to form a clear opinion to write anything that would matter. This didn’t thrill the individuals who had asked me to write a summary and review. As promotion for the film began I avoided reading any reviews or much in the way of commentary. Aside from a couple of interviews with Jason Banker, I only watched the two trailers.

It would be June of 2015  before Felt would reach San Francisco’s Roxy Cinema. I do not enjoy The Roxy. I’m sorry. I just don’t like seeing movies there.

The Roxy Movie Theatre is a historical building. It is actually the second oldest continuously operating movie theater in the country. The Roxy is an odd experience within and of itself. No matter how hard the owners and the city have tried, years of decay have created an odd atmosphere. There are two screens. One of the screens is sort of disconnected from the other. It almost feels like an after thought from the late 1970’s or the early 1980’s. I’ve never had an enjoyable viewing experience there. I think this is because of all our cinemas, The Roxy tends to attract all groups of The San Francisco Cinematic Audience under one roof.   The San Francisco Cinematic Audience can be a strange mix and one is most likely to encounter it at The Roxy. Situated in the prime real estate of The Mission it is a natural magnet. I break down the SF Cinematic Audience into 3 stereo types:  Hardcore Film Art Cinephiles, SF Hipsters and Fringe Art Eccentrics. Reactions and interactions tend to be “extreme” or “muted dissonance” —  you never quite know what to expect. The one thing you can expect if you see a intense, controversial or polarizing work of art at The Roxy you can anticipate debates and even arguments as you make your way back to Mission Street.

As an example, I attended a screening of Christophe Honoré controversial 2004 film, Ma Mere, at The Roxy.

Ma Mere Isabelle Huppert Christophe Honoré, 2005

Ma Mere
Isabelle Huppert
Christophe Honoré, 2005

It was not even a new film. I has seen several years earlier at another old cinema which is now long gone and forgotten. Ma Mere is a challenging and polarizing movie on its own without the added projection of our SF Audience baggage. The theatre was not full. The audience seemed to have an equal number of men to women. All of my Roxy stereotypes were present. Cinephiles, Hipsters and Eccentrics were sharing the space.  The entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled. I was ready to leave, but I didn’t want to be lectured. So I sat. No one stood up or shuffled in their seats. It was total silence. And then it happened. A long and exaggerated “hiss” was aimed at the screen. Then two more “hissers” joined in.

This is the dreaded San Francisco Hiss. A prime example of our city’s strange sense of entitlement that often “requires” the SF individual to feel the need to hiss at movies, performers or artists if their viewpoints do not align with his/her own. It is as annoying as it is funny. But make no mistake, The San Francisco Hiss is quite serious in intend. It carries more impact here than a “Boo” or a tossed cup. The tricky thing about The San Francisco Hiss is that it tends to set off a chain reaction of one sort or another. I often feel like my fellow citizens feel that his/her own individual opinion is far more important than any other. All one needs to do is ride a MUNI bus from the beach to Union Square to see these clashing “entitlements” go to battle. This often evolves into full-on-rage fueled rants. Inevitably someone is asked to exit the bus. The bus driver must firmly stand his/her ground. The bus stops. It will not move until the one or two individuals who have gone too far step out. Traffic jam ensues. Everyone is late.

Welcome to The New French Extreme Ma Mere Louis Garrel and Isabell Huppert Christophe Honoré, 2004

Welcome to The New French Extreme
Ma Mere
Louis Garrel and Isabell Huppert
Christophe Honoré, 2004

As one would expect this “hiss” aimed at Ma Mere created anger toward the hissers. By the time the lights came up a highly encaged debate was in full tilt boogie. The hissers were  white male hipsters. Of the five annoyed hiss protestors were two females of the Cinephile type, one male of the Team Eccentric and the other was a woman of the Hipster variety. It was the only screening of the day. I sat and listened in. And I took notes.

“You’ve no right to ruin the experience for the rest of us!’

“Dude! It was the credits!”

“This is an important film! You are both too ignorant to understand it!”

“Oh I think we know pornography when we see it!”

“Fuck you!”

“No Fuck you!”

At this point it was best to quietly walk past them as the poor Manager (of Team Cinephile) was about to attempt to guide the argument out to The Mission. I’m sure everyone made it out fine. It is just the way it tends to be when you go to The Roxy. Especially if it is the last evening screening.

If Ma Mere is polarizing, I’m not sure where this would leave Felt. Jason Banker’s film is beyond “polarizing” — it is an intentional and intense provocation. I decided I would never get to see Felt on a big screen.

I made the right decision. A pal emailed me of his experience at The Roxy after watching Felt. The film profoundly disturbed him. The mixture of hissing and shhh’ing made him leave before the credits were done. As he walked back out to the reality of Mission Street, he noticed three women gathered together discussing the movie. I asked him of which “group” they were members. He was not sure, but he guessed they were fellow Art House Cinephiles. Because of the nature of the film he had just seen he was hesitant to approach these three women who were all hugging themselves. He guessed that all three women were probably somewhere between the ages of 24 and 28. He was most definitely sure that all three of these women were intelligent, cool and “casually” beautiful. My friend put his hands deep into his hoodie’s pockets and asked, “So, how do you all feel about ‘Felt‘?”

Amy Everson  FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Luckily none were offended. He told them about a friend of his having already seen Felt (that would be me) and that I had yet to be able to articulate an opinion. All three women agreed. Felt had left them with a great many mixed emotions. As he prepared to walk away one of the women volunteered, “It’s so weird I hardly ever allow myself to think about it. But I’m always so uncomfortable when I’m in a room with more than a few men.” The other two women nodded in agreement, but none could articulate why. He agreed and mentioned that he got a sense of that feeling in the movie, but he couldn’t find the words. No wanting to seem “lame” he said he thought the movie offered a lot of ideas but didn’t clearly answer why women feel so threatened by men. Mistake.

He wished them a good evening and started walking away and the more assertive of the women called out to him, “Actually, it was in that movie.” The reason is actually very clear in Jason Banker’s movie.

Amy Everson  FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Felt became available for purchase as VOD via iTunes this week. I bought a copy and watched it again.

I hit the Internet and read opinion from Film Critics, fellow bloggers, Letterbox and the fun world of IMDB user postings. Film critics are divided when it comes to Felt. What I find interesting about The Film Critic Response is the information one discovers by reading between their lines. The majority of the reviews seem to be afraid to either fully dismiss or fully praise Felt.

Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review stuck me as being particularly off-mark. Due to The Times recent policy change related to which films are reviewed, it says a lot that they opted to even review Felt. Their current logic in what films they will review and which films they will not review is more than a little confused, but I am impressed that Felt was considered.

Amy Everson Super Hero? FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
Super Hero?
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Kenigsberg summed up Felt, “Reading about the filmmakers’ intentions is more rewarding than watching the results.”  Meaning that The New York Timesfelt” that Felt‘s cinematic intention had to be praised, but this critic seemed to need to find something about Jason Banker’s movie that would allow him not to praise the over-all result. I write this because Kenigsberg’s deconstruction of Felt feels almost painfully weak. He assigns a generally unfavorable review by taking aim at Banker’s “ambiguities.” Mr. Kenigsberg  even goes so far as to challenge the title of the film. He expressed confusion about whether he should view the title as a noun or a verb. The title is no riddle. There is nothing “ambiguous” about it. A sixth grade child would be able to understand that the title of this movie is intentionally both a noun and a verb. Felt is filled with ambiguities. The title is not one of them. Felt‘s ambiguities are intentional. Even if an individual dislikes the film, he/she will note the the “ambiguities” are a major reason that the film holds interest. The “unstated” within Banker’s Felt is what makes it a true cinematic experience.

As I read Ben Kenigsberg’s review two points emerged:

1. It is not the ambiguity that bothers him, his real issue is the uncomfortable cultural statement Felt asserts.

2. He doesn’t care for Amy Everson’s artwork. He actually seems to hate it. It disturbs him.

Everything about Jason Banker’s Felt is intended to unsettle, uncomforted, disturb and it requires both women and men to think about the ways in which we play into a system not of our own design. What the film presents is not a new problem. It is both a cultural and societal issue that has become so deeply entrenched that a jolt is needed to wake people up. I’m not trying to state that a movie is going to change anything, but this film just might be a catalyst for many to reconsider how they interact with the opposite sex.

Please note: I’ve nothing against Ben Kenigssberg. I think he is a sound, educated and professional Film Critic. His intelligence shines, but if he dislikes Felt he has failed to actually defend his position. I wanted to highlight his review because he is a member of a team of film critics who I admire. Unfortunately, he is one of many who have chosen to take the “safest” route to disregard this film. Most of these “safe-routed” dismissals fail to point out any credible reason to dislike the film. In fact the majority of bad reviews are not hinged on any real merit.

Only a handful of the bad reviews took a firm ground.

A Borrowed Gender Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

A Borrowed Gender
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle is reasonable in her dismissal of Felt. While she has no problem admitting to the film’s intended provocation and import of ideas, she found the movie to be stylized in a manner too obvious for her taste. There were also a couple of Film Critics who saw the potential of a great film, but disliked Jason Banker’s choice of improvisational dialogue. I don’t agree with either viewpoints, but I can understand these opinions. This is logical film criticism. It is also the sort of criticism that often met John Cassavetes. None of his films were actually “improvised” but they all felt like it. And Cassavetes never “rushed” the pace of a movie. Many critics disliked a great deal of his work. But those who were brave enough to embrace it bear out the winners in Film Theory. You would be hard pressed to find a Film Critic who would trash a Cassavetes film now. Robert Altman also received a number of negative reviews in his day for many of the same reasons.

Film Critic, Jenni Miller of A/V Club gave Felt a positive review. Her summation is that Jason Banker’s movie might be a little too close to the bone to enjoy, but this is outweighed by the significance of what is being conveyed. Miller doesn’t need to “enjoy” a movie to see its value. When she writes that Felt “sneaks up on you and lingers…”

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

she is able to state the power of the film. In the end she assigns a “B” rating, but it seems given with a firm warning that this was no fun for her — and it may be equally un-fun for you.

Of the few truly positive reviews Felt received, The Village Voice‘s Diana Clarke actually formulates her words in the way I so wish I could formulate my own.

Her review can be found here: http://www.villagevoice.com/film/in-daring-indie-felt-a-young-woman-seizes-rich-dudes-masculinity-7290019

Andrew O’Hehir of Salan.com is one of the few critics who liked the film. He clearly put some thought into what he wrote. Of course, this is his job. He also makes a potent reference to recent mainstream movies that almost seem to celebrate Rape Culture. Like Ted 2. I was particularly impressed when I saw that Rotten Tomatoes chose this O’Hehir quote: “Some viewers will no doubt find “Felt” maddening because it never answers seemingly crucial plot questions that a normal movie or TV show would feel compelled to clear up. That ambiguity is precisely the source of its power, and its cinematic quality.”

Ben Kenigssberg, can you hear Andrew O’Hehir? This is Film Theory 101. Ouch. Maybe I am picking on Ben. I’m sorry.

If any of the Film Critics I know happen to read this, please start assigning a rating to your reviews. It sucks, but this is now a full world of Film by Consensus. Rotten Tomatoes is assigning their own rating to many of your reviews. And they are not accurate most of the time. Take head of The New York Times and A/V Club. Do not let RT decide the rating of your review.

Playing with fire... Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Playing with fire…
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

The most disturbing thing I noticed regarding The Public Reaction was the number of women who were angered by not only Banker’s film but by the idea of Feminism itself. There are a lot of women out there who view Amy Everson as the enemy. This caught me off guard. It doesn’t surprise me that a number of “dudes” out there hate the movie. It would also not surprise me if a good number of women disliked it. Art is subjective. And Film Art this provocative is not always going to win everyone’s heart. But I am shocked at the level of female anger toward Feminism. I don’t get it. But then, I am puzzled by hate in general. It is so very extreme. The level of hate “out there” is staggering, but the level of misogyny and self-loathing is even more horrifying.

Jason Banker, the filmmaker who made the most out of a tragic and senseless tragedy into a surrealistic experimental horror film we know to be Toad Road, has now matured into a far more self-assured Film Artist. A potent Cinematographer as well, Banker brings a great deal of talent to the table. Felt came about thanks to accidental meeting between Amy Everson and Banker. During a visit to San Francisco, Everson caught Banker’s attention because of her playful yet aggressive demeanor — and the fact that she was running around the city in one of her provocative costumes.  As I understand it, Everson showed her artwork to Banker. The work he first saw was all contained in her bedroom. A hybrid of “Sesame Street” kitsch intertwined with sex toys, phallic symbols, dildos, vaginas, assholes and soft doll-like re-enactments of menace. All or much of the work utilizing felt as a key media. Amy Everson is brilliantly talented, fearless and a provocateur. Even the seemingly most innocent creation achieves a vaguely erotic danger.

Art by Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Art by Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Her work is often tinged with a twisted sort of humor and some of it is just deeply disturbing.

Although, I share my life with a San Francisco artist and know a good many, I’ve only heard/read her name a couple of times. There is a whole other aspect to her work which incorporates Performance Art with her costume creations. Jason Banker was equally impressed as he was disturbed. It was from this jumping point that the two artists began to collaborate toward what would become Felt.

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

If you are interested in Amy Everson’s art, a link to her website is below. She is a completely unique and important voice. Check it out, but please don’t “flame” her. It takes a whole lot of guts to lay your soul out for all to see. As I look at her work, it seems to me she is sharing some very intensely intimate glimpses into her being. I’m sure the recent release of Felt has been more than a bit challenging. Though, I hope it has been rewarding.

http://www.amyeverson.com

And now, my opinion/review for Felt:

Jason Banker’s film begins with a painfully thin young adult woman who appears to have fallen into a deep depression. We first hear her voice in the form of narration. Her voice sounds a bit like “a little girl” yet what her voice delivers is a firm thud of certainty  “My life is a fucking nightmare.BAM! It is this line that propels us forward into not only into the film, but her mind.

Amy Everson is more than the film’s lead actor. She also shares “co-writing” credit with Jason Banker.  And she is doing more than playing a character, the film’s core ideas are based not only on her artwork, but certain aspects of her  personality. Amy Everson is playing a “fictionalized” version of herself. While it is sometimes clear she is not a trained actor, she carries a great deal of charisma. You want to watch and understand this character. You want to try and like her.

"My life is a fucking nightmare." Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

“My life is a fucking nightmare.”
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Felt‘s Amy has survived some form of sexual abuse. The actual abuse is never stated or confirmed, but it seems obvious. Her friends want to help her, but are growing weary of her artistic and creative coping skills. Not only have these coping skills become isolating, they seem to have opened some dark portal into which she falling. These pieces of art and the costumes she creates are disturbing, provocative and somehow menacing and they are fusing into her identity. She has become dazed, lonely and nihilistically numb. Amy’s costumes allowed her to access inner-strength. Their designed to not only give her a sense of worth and purpose, it feels as if they were initially conceived to act as healing tools with which she might be able to push away her fears of men.

Amy” has found a way to funnel her anger and fears through her art. But now, these subversively-twisted anatomically-“correct” costumes offer no comfort. By the time we enter her story what were once empowering tools for healing have turned against her as well as against others. She has taken on an inappropriate role of “protector” for her friends from the men in their lives. Her artistic expression of comfort are turning into a weapon. Her isolation within these “armors” made of felt and other materials is starting to fuel a fantastical idea which is taking over her reality. She has taken to wearing her costumes beneath her street clothing. She wanders off into private corners of nature within the Bay Area and Redwood forests where she can strip down and assert her power with a wooden sword. While on a walk with a girlfriend, the friend tries to encage Amy in a conversation about her friends’ concerns.

"You have to be very delicate..." Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

“You have to be very delicate…”
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

But Amy has already put on her mask and just as quickly has unzipped her pants to brandish her swollen plastic penis. Her friend tries to reason with Amy to no avail. All her friend can do is force her keep her clothes before she can make a break and run away. Before she rushes off Amy shares an alarmingly sincere desire for the two of them to become “Super Heroes” committed on seeking vengeance against all the predators society calls men.

Jason Banker is very careful to limit the information we receive and how we receive it. At times Felt may not be “linear.” Other times it could be argued that what we see may only be within the confines of Amy’s damaged psyche.  This is not a flaw. This is a smart move on Banker’s part. It allows the audience to form individual conclusions and to assess the situations as they unfold. We see Amy in several scenes with single men of her own age. In one scene she is alone with an ill-advised OKCupid Match-Up from Hell. Other scenes she shares these experiences with her girlfriends. These scenes of interaction with ‘normal’ men feel so real it almost hurts to watch. Each interaction reveals aspects of male behavior about, toward and with women that we might not always pick up were it not for Banker’s camera. The truth is these scenes feel “real” and it is alarming to note the way the men attempt to manipulate, control and harass the women. What might feel “normal” is now unsettling. The men Amy meets are dismissive, aggressive, inappropriate and passively menacing. If there is even an initial “friendliness,” it quickly feels false.

Is this hope? Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Is this hope?
Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

In another scene she meets her best friend’s new boyfriend. Amy is nervous and is unable to adequately hid her insecurity. Her friend’s boyfriend immediately chooses to make fun of her and insinuates that she is nothing more than a spoiled entitled bitch. A few minutes later the boyfriend is pissed as Amy’s girlfriend chides him for being mean to her best friend. His response is in the form of humor. He disagrees. He wants to know why his girlfriend is friends with such a “freak” and he teasingly wraps his hand around her neck warning her to not to hang out crazy “bitches.” Amy immediately attempts to attack him for threatening her friend. This new boyfriend chooses to meet her aggression with an even stronger level of anger and threat. To him, Amy is a “crazy bitch” and he informs her that just because she is a “girl” will not prevent him from taking her down.

Later, her girlfriends sit down with her. One attempts to “lay hands” on her with a prayer for healing. Once again they try to reason her to understand that these men are “not all that bad” — they just want sex. But the hope is that they might want more down the road. Their intervention backfires on them as Amy stays calm and points out the obvious. Her girlfriends seem to be “aware” of the cruel, debasing and threatening attitude. It appears it is easier to just “accept” this cultural misogyny. Amy’s more well-adjusted and functioning friends have and are assimilating into “Rape Culture.”

Kentucker Audley plays “Kenny.” Kenny’s arrival into Amy’s life comes with tenderness, understanding and concern. He comforts her. He cares about her. He is able to show that he is impressed with her art while also expressing sadness for whatever pain life has given her. Kenny never does this in a patronizing way. He truly appreciates her artistry and her.  When she speaks to him he actually listens. Eventually, Amy is not threatened by Kenny. She seems to be healing as she discovers that she can be herself with him and he offers no judgement. He offers no threat. Kenny seems to offer only love.

Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

It is never clear if Amy and Kenny have consummated their relationship. Just as it seems we might be given this information regarding their romance, we discover that Kenny is not what he seems. It is unclear, but he has not been deceptive with Amy. When he attempts to open up and discuss this deception, it is too late.  Amy’s discovery of Kenny’s “deception” alters not only her perception of him. It seems to send her off-the-rails of sanity. And everything Amy shifts. Every little gesture seems to convey something different than before. We see everything about her change.

As she leads the audience into an act of horrific violence, it is not a surprise. Everything seems to be pointing to something horrible, but witnessing it is profoundly unsettling.

Playing 'Dress Up' Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Playing ‘Dress Up’
Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Jason Banker’s film leaves the audience in a state of shock that is not scary. It is far more serious. We are left adrift in Amy’s madness. The “victim” has become an even worse “victimizer.” It brings us back to a scene in which she explains to Kenny that most forms of rape “are perpetuated by people you know and trust.”

There is no way Kenny would have interpreted Amy’s comment as a warning. It might not have even been clear to her.  Amy’s decision is not rational. It is insane.

Provocative, disturbing, challenging, oddly beautiful and repulsively ugly, Felt is one of the clearest articulations of our culture’s continuing escalation of violence against women. “Rape Culture” is not some “hip” catch-phrase. It is a sad reality in which many of us play without even realizing. Jason Banker has crafted a firm depiction of cultural misogyny that never seems to wain. He has done so within the framework of Art Horror. The artistic mastery of this film can’t be denied.

Into the woods... Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Into the woods…
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

The implications of Felt‘s result leave us with one question:

How does a sexual assault victim heal in a world that almost seems to support the assault?

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

And for those who thought Jason Banker’s feature film directorial debut, Toad Road, was an accident or a “one hit” cinematic wonder, Felt blows any doubt of possessing an important cinematic filmmaker out the window.  This Film Artist is not limited in his scope of obtaining  understanding from more than one perspective. This is a filmmaker to watch.

matty stanfield, 7.22.2015

Things are about to get very strange... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Photograph | Jan Kudela

Things are about to get very strange…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Photograph | Jan Kudela

“The Dreamer awakes.
The shadow goes by.
The tale I have told you, that tale is a lie.
But listen to me, Bright maiden, proud youth.
The tale is a lie; What it tells is the truth.”
— Author Unknown, Traditional folktale ending

When we are children and an adult reads or tells us a story from the realm of “fairy tales” or folklore, a profound logic seeps into our psyche that never leaves. An aspect or a key moment in one of these stories becomes a core foundation of our identity. It seems impossible that some bit of a childhood story has worked its way so deeply into our perception of logic. When given a period of time to “digest” this idea it no longer seems  impossible. It is valid truth. This is not a bad thing. The illogical silliness of some old folklore bears a great deal of truth that is easier for a child to grasp when told in the form of a “Once Upon A Time..” context. Folklore, mythology and fairy tales are grounded in some subversion of truth. It isn’t the fox in Little Red Riding Hood or the witch in Hansel and Gretel that scares us and merges into our logic. It is the deception perpetuated by these character archetypes that grabs our tiny minds and never lets go.This is an important understanding  for every human being: Don’t trust strangers. It is certainly a crucial idea that every child must understand.

On the flip-side of this logic, sometimes those terrifying allegories form such a strong hold within our minds it aids in a perpetuation of illogical paranoia.

Horror is fast approaching... Father Tucker's Play-Time Series Edition of Little Red Riding Hood, c. 1910

Horror is fast approaching…
Father Tucker’s Play-Time
Series Edition of Little Red Riding Hood, c. 1910

Unfounded feelings or suspicions that can linger with us well into our adulthood. While it is absurd to think your Grandmother or anyone upon whom you depend could morph into a fanged sort of demon intent on eating you, it doesn’t mean that in a crisis of an elder’s illness you won’t have a nightmare in which this happens. This is the subconscious creating a metaphor out of the stressors involved in your worries for and about her care. On a conscious level, that a walk in the woods might seem fun but something inside you worries that it could easily become a walk into unspeakable dangers.  A jump into the ocean for a swim can sometimes be met with a fear that somewhere just below us,  John Williams’ musical notes are trying to warn us of that giant shark that is about to attack. We know that the forest and the ocean contain dangers, but these are dangers that are very low from a realistic perspective. This is when those parables, allegories, metaphors and movies come to the surface of our adult identities. It is easy for many to push back these illogical concerns, but for some it gets a bit more murky.

Exploring fairy tales, folklore and mythology is nothing new for filmmakers. They often hold the same sort of spell over us as do the stories that inspire them. Movies have always played a strong role in my life. Partly because I grew up constantly seeing them, but also because I desperately needed to escape my reality. My father was insane. It was mistaken for “eccentricity” at the time. But he was a scary man. He was brilliant at deception. For the first nine years of my life, I viewed him as constant threat. But that is a whole other blog. For now, let’s stick with the fact that my father was insane and he had no clue regarding “appropriate boundaries.” The few boundaries he had were skewed at best.

Interestingly, it would be my greatest source of fear who led me to the power of movies and the escape they offered. This started very early in my life. He seemed to have no idea as to what was acceptable for a child to see. Naturally, as child I didn’t mind this at all. But often I would see images and stories that left me feeling deeply confused and afraid. Children are far aware that culture gives credit. A child may not be able to articulate an understanding, but they understand much more than most think. I can remember my father making a last minute decision that we were going to the movies. My mother was not home. As we walked up the ticket counter he must have requested one adult and one child. I’m not sure, but I the woman behind the ticket counter became quite upset, “Sir, this is not a movie for a child! How old are you, sweetie?” I still remember the shocking way her tough voice suddenly took on a honey-dewed sweetness. Before I could form an answer, I felt the seemingly giant hand of my father firmly clenched my head. “His age is none of your business. How much do I owe you?”

"Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?" Linda Blair inciting heart attacks and long lines at the box office. The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

“Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”
Linda Blair inciting heart attacks and long lines at the box office.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

The Exorcist did not scare me at that time. To be honest, I was just confused. My biggest concern regarding the movie was trying to understand why people around us seemed so disturbed. When I whispered, “Her voice don’t match her lips.” was greeted with hushes from all corners. It would be years later that the horrific side of this film became apparent to me. As a child, it seemed more silly than scary. I understood I was not tell mom we saw it. Later my father took me to the drive-in. Drive-in’s always showed movies in “double bills.” Pay one price per head and see two movies. The movies were usually older and more obscure than what one would find in a traditional cinema. As my father adjusted the speaker to his window the show began. The first movie was about vampires. Later I realized that this was Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I’m not exactly sure how old I was, but I am thinking I was about 8. Once again, I wasn’t particularly scared. To be honest, I remember being more concerned about this odd dude who walked around my father’s car. My father pulled out his pistol and the odd man quickly vanished.

The second feature would have a much dramatic impact and it intoxicated my tiny brain. It was scary to me, but it seemed to require my attention. I might not have been able to state what the film was about, but I suspect I understood it better than most of the adults sitting in their cars. This girl was in trouble and none of it was her fault. I was worried for her. And the images that were projected on that outdoor screen were searing into my being. I did ask my father about it. He said something to the effect that it was an artsy-fartzy movie. He was bored and wanted to leave, but I begged him to stay and let us watch it. It would be years later that a friend’s older cousin produced a beat-up old VHS tape for us to watch. The images were pretty muddy, but these were the same ones I had seen as child. I was pulled into the screen of my friend’s television. As I watched it all flow out too quickly for my stoned consciousness to read the blurry subtitles my friend kept muttering, “What the fuck? No, Matty! What the fuck? Make it stop!” She rolled around laughing. Occasionally sneaking a peak, she would scream in a sort of mocked horror.

The movie we were watching was  Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Returning to this film with a clear and adult perspective, it is easy that my childhood reality lent this surreal film a great more power than it intended.

Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

Shot in 1969 and released in 1970, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders marks the end of The Czech New Wave. No doubt it ended up on a double-billing with another old movie at the drive-in. I’m not sure where my friend’s cousin got his tape. I would be in my 30’s before it was even remotely “restored” and released via DVD. After a good deal of work, Criterion has recently re-issued a pristine version with improved subtitles. Watching Jaromil Jireš’ bizarre movie within the context of the 21st Century is challenging. Based on Vítězslav Nezval 1930’s Surrealist novel, the entire production is almost drenched in Gothica.

“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow” by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896 Was thought to have had an impact on Vítězslav Nezval

“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow” by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
Was thought to have had an impact on Vítězslav Nezval

Nezval was key member of the Czech Surrealist Movement, and Jireš’ utilizes his dialogue and adheres to Nezval’s core aesthetics. Nezval wrote the following in his “Forward” for his book, Valerie and her Week of Wonders:

“I wrote this novel out of a love of the mystique in those ancient tales, superstitions and romances, printed in Gothic script, which used to flit before my eyes and declined to convey to me their content. …If, with this book, I will have given [the readers] an evocation of the rare and tenuous sensations which compelled me to write a story that borders on the ridiculous and trite, I shall be satisfied.”

Nezval’s book still holds interest, but it is far more complex than the movie it would inspire. At times the book seems like it is intended to be comical, but then takes a twisted turn to the grotesque. It is filled with narratives of the Gothica tradition. It is also creepy in the use of eroticism. Unlike the book, the film adaptation forms an immediate tie to the Pohádka. This is the term for the Czechoslovakian concept of “fairy tales” which is more than a little different from our perceptions of parables. The Pohádka holds an important place in Czech culture and is often steeped in religious ideologies. From what I’ve been able to gather, the “Evil” characters are even more cruel and the “good” characters are quickly identified as victims who may or may not take vengeance. The victims may not even survive. I apologize if I offer a weak definition of Pohádka. Please feel free to leave a comment to correct or clarify my description.

Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie, the dutiful granddaughter practices her piano lessons.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie, the dutiful granddaughter practices her piano lessons.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

The plot is deceptively simple: a beautiful 13 year old orphaned girl has her first period and, as she starts her path toward womanhood, she is confronted with a series of horrify and menacing people and situations.  These individuals and the circumstances in which she meets and experiences them is in a world that may or may not be strictly limited to her imagination. Poor Valerie seems to be living in a sort of disorienting dream state.

The film begins with a beautiful young girl napping in some form of surreal post-hippie gazebo. In the first of many “forms” a thief arrives. Dangling upside down he magically slips Valerie’s earrings off. She awakens just in time to see him running away. She runs after this thief to determine his identity and why he took her earrings. Valerie seems more intrigued than upset. As she roams about her village people began to take a grotesque formations. We have already met her grandmother. Grandma is strange from the first moment she enters our view.  Valerie seems to realize that something is not quite right with Grandma, but she doesn’t let on. Later as she floats in a small pool of water in her village’s fountain. As she prepares to emerge from the water, she becomes entranced by the water’s ripples. The thief returns. This time he magically slips her earrings back on. Seemingly content she begins her walk home.

A First Menses has never appeared this easy or so pretty as Valerie admires her blood drips on the daisies.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

A First Menses has never appeared this easy or so pretty as Valerie admires her blood drips on the daisies.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

In what must be the oddest cinematic depiction of a female’s first menstruation, Valerie notices drips of blood falling on the daisies over which she gently glides. She does not appear alarmed or upset. She simply marvels at the beauty of the red blood droplets on the flowers. She then dashes home to the safety of her pristinely white and innocent bedroom. She falls into a deep sleep. It is very hard to know if the rest of what we see is a nightmare or her reality.

 

Valeris is becoming suspect of her Grandmother.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Valeris is becoming suspect of her Grandmother.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

Her ghostly Grandmother begins to form into a sinister threat. Other females enter her world who seem to share her Grandmother’s face. And each new version of Granny offers a new level of terror. Her yearning to know who her parents were takes on an odd level of horror. As she looks through her Grandmother’s dining room window she sees a procession of interesting and happy-looking people. Her Grandmother states that these are the missionaries and that they will be providing sleeping quarters for one of the priests. As Valerie looks at the people she begins to notice a number of things that seem “off” but most noticeably is a horrific looking man hiding his face behind an equally disturbing mask.

Oh, not to worry. He is just a former lover of Grandma's.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Oh, not to worry. He is just a former lover of Grandma’s.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

This “man” looks more like a monster than a person. But Grandma dismisses Valerie’s concerns. There is no need to be alarmed. Granny reveals that this vile creature is just a former lover.

Valerie receives an invitation to a sermon for all of the village virgins. Valerie, being a virgin and a “good girl” goes to the sermon. It isn’t long before Valerie meets the man who took and returned her earrings. He proclaims his love and desire for Valerie. The physicality of this man has changed twice already. Valerie seems hesitant, but she clearly finds this form attractive. He warns that the monster she saw is not some just some former lover of her Grandmother but true Evil in human form.

Before long Valerie discovers that this monster might be her father. And that the boy who seeks her affections might be her brother. Or, her father. Identities change so often that we are more confused than Valerie. When she returns home where she is led to a secret chamber.  She is forced to witness her Grandmother in a series of sadistic and perverse sexual tortures for her “former lover” who now looks like a priest. From Valerie’s perspective it is hard to know if Granny is ‘getting off’ or in jeopardy. This sadistic priest is called Gracian. This vile priest proves to be one of the most cruel of Valerie’s world. When Valerie refuses to give in to his disgusting sexual advances which quickly turn to the threat of rape, he conspires to have the whole village turn against Valerie. He claims she is a witch entrancing everyone with her beauty. They attempt to burn her at the stake! Oh, poor Valerie! What is she to do?

Wait? Is this really my week of wonders or are all my friends and family trying to burn me at the stake??!? Oh, poor Valerie! Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Wait? Is this really my week of wonders or are all my friends and family trying to burn me at the stake??!? Oh, poor Valerie!
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Fear not, despite the flames and rope — Valerie never seems too concerned with this situation. She makes fun of the priest and spectators who were once her friends and neighbors. She magically escapes the fate of the burning stake only to find more horrific challenges ahead. It would seem that her creepy old Grandma has made a pact with Evil. She will surrender Valerie to him in exchange for the return of her youth and beauty. It all gets quite upsetting for little Valerie. Upon learning of her Grandmother’s cruel pact with Evil, she discovers that her recently wedded neighbor has been assaulted by a vampire! But not before this adult neighbor attempts to seduce Valerie. As with most of Valerie’s interactions, she is just curious enough to allow an erotic opportunity to start, but then she immediately finds a way to break free of the erotic commitment. This is the case regarding what appears to lesbian sex is actually feeble attempt to suck Valeri’s blood for strength. Oddly, once Valerie manages to calm her “friend” they both seem to fall asleep. Or that is what appears to happen.

Oh, Valerie! Trust your instincts! Your Granny wants your youth and beauty! Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Oh, Valerie! Trust your instincts! Your Granny wants your youth and beauty!
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Valerie’s week of “wonders” is really turned into a week of confusion. She soon learns that her parents are quite alive. When they show up, Valerie notices that her mother looks just like her Grandmother, her father looks just like her would-be suitor who she had originally thought might be her brother. And as for the Evil Monster, like the others who populate her world, he is continually vacillating his intentions.

For Valerie, evil becomes the one constant that is seemingly always wanting to kill, seduce or trap her.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

For Valerie, evil becomes the one constant that is seemingly always wanting to kill, seduce or trap her.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

He is clearly some sort of vampire. But just as soon as he seems hellbent on sucking away all of her life’s blood, he is more interested in seducing her. Then, and without warning, he seems intent on raping her. Just when Valerie thinks she know what this Evil Monster wants, he offers to save her. Valerie is amongst every sort of imaginable identity of harm and danger. Possible familial connections turn toward incest, neighbors become enemies in the form of potential lovers or vampires or just plain old ghouls. Every one she encounters is loaded with vile intent.

All while filmmaker, Jaromil Jires, fills her world with symbolic colors, constantly alternating tones and metaphors of all shapes and sizes. From beginning to end the movie is a total trip into stunningly beautiful and ugly oddness. The strange appearances of the actors and Jan Curík’s stunning cinematography make it almost impossible to look away. Is should be noted that Ester Krumbachová served as the film’s Production Designer. Film buffs will note that she was also responsible for the look of Vera Chytilova’s groundbreaking 1966 film, Daisies. Her work here is actually more impressive.

Wow. This is some week alright... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Wow. This is some week alright…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

I’ve essentially been making fun of this truly amazing movie. But it is clearly intended to make us laugh as much as it makes us squirm. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a surreal view of the implications of pending womanhood. The most surprising thing is this film is made by a man based upon the book by another very famous male writer. So is this is a limited male perspective on the challenges of women? Being a male, I’m not qualified to answer. At times the film’s depiction of women is most certainly grounded in a male perspective. However much of what the film explores feels relevant to the all-too-real threats that constantly loom over women.

As soon as the lead character receives the biological sign that “womanhood” is shortly pending, everyone around her seems to shift in motivations and interests regarding Valerie’s identity. Men seem intent on either seducing, molesting or raping her. And if that is not the intended goal, the sexual is over-ruled to hurt, theft, torture or murder. The women in Valerie’s world change as well.  Women now seem to view her as a threat to their own individual identity and worth. Or they desire her in sexual ways that she can’t quite understand. She is an innocent, but those in her world no longer view her as such. She is now essentially “an object” on which they feel free to project love, lust, desire, anger, jealousy, pain, degradation, humiliation and even death. Valerie is no longer a sweet little girl. Valerie is now a potential prize or victim.

Beautiful Innocence is now an object available for the taking. Or so they think... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Beautiful Innocence is now an object available for the taking. Or so they think…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

 

It is important to note that Valerie manages to escape and conquer all the challenges that come her way. She is no one’s victim. She sometimes falters as she attempts to understand or is sometimes even partially pulled toward some of the eroticisms — but those are fleeting moments. Valerie is steadfast in protecting herself. Her goal is to survive. And to survive with her dignity in place. Jaromil Jires offers one scene twice in the film: a small group of sensually enraptured women are engaging in an intense but somehow banal level of erotic play in a flowing stream of water. These women seem taken over by sensual delight in every aspect of themselves, each other, the sheer clothing that covers that wet bodies. They tease each other with soft kisses and even attempt to catch the fish swimming by to drop down their “barely-there” dresses and skin. We see Valerie walk past the stream twice from opposing sides of the stream. Our Valerie is clearly amused and passively interested in what these sultry lady-girls are up to. However, when one or more of these women notice Valerie and invite her to join them — Valerie becomes embarrassed or troubled and rushes her way past them. In between her her views of these lusty maidens, she runs across the river. As she crosses she notices the horror of one of the men from her world left for dead in the rapids of the stream that lead to these water vixens. Is there a connection to their perpetual state of wet eroticism and the dead man just a ways up stream?

Uh, oh. What fresh hell is this?  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Uh, oh. What fresh hell is this?
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Sadly, Valerie’s “wonders” or “curiosities” is most likely going to be longer than a week.  This surreal dreamscape now might be her fate. It is hard to determine the intention of the film’s ending. As her horrifying and eroticall-fueled week comes to an end, all she wants to do is escape back to the safety of her pristinely innocent bedroom that has been bathed in warm white light. Her bedroom may be small, but it contains all she loves and treasures. True, Valerie awakes in her own bed. The problem is that her bed is now placed in the wilderness of her villages’ forrest. It is here we leave her. Alone in her bed surrounded by the natural elements of the forrest. The ending is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

The dilemma Jaromil Jires’ film presents for modern viewing is almost as challenging as Valerie’s week. The part of “Valerie” was played by a 6th grade girl, Jaroslava Schallerová. The movie has no problem in sexualizing this child. Filmed in what can best be described as “dewey erotic lighting” — the actress is often semi or nude and constantly being pulled into sexual intended kisses and caresses. The film veers into the realm of the inappropriate in the way this child actor was filmed.

Valerie in the privacy of her innocent room strikes an alluring pose.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Valerie in the privacy of her innocent room strikes an alluring pose.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

The current view of Film Scholars is that Jires did not film the girl as a “sex object” but more as a “symbol of innocence” trapped in a world filled with sexual desires and constant threat. This defense is weak. I’m not able to buy-in or agree with this attitude.

In defense, the film never even approaches the level of “pornography” or “soft core adult entertainment,” but it does go too far. The actress now in her early 50’s has always been proud of her fleeting moment of fame. Her mother was present for the entirety of the shoot. A fairly recent interview with the adult woman discusses some of these concerns. Adding to my own conundrum regarding the way a child was filmed is the fact that I still admire Louis Malle’s 1978’s Pretty Baby. Brooke Shields was 13 when she appeared as a prostitute and is filmed nude several times. Pretty Baby is highly regarded in the world of film. Because no male touches her while nude, it falls into the legal realm. Brooke Shields, a highly educated and clearly intelligent woman does not look back on the experience as negative. Both of these women appear to be healthy and unharmed.

Welcome to the adult world in which your earrings as well as your innocence are up for grabs.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Welcome to the adult world in which your earrings as well as your innocence are up for grabs.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

I still wonder if either Ms. Shields or Ms. Schallerová would allow their 12 or 13 year old daughter to be in these films.

Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby, created some controversy at the time it was released. But it never generated any legal doubts that Brooke Shields was exploited. It remains a potent film, that feels suspect.

Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby, created some controversy at the time it was released. But it never generated any legal doubts that Brooke Shields was exploited. It remains a potent film, that feels suspect.

 

I would not. I somehow suspect they would not either.  Audiences should be warned that this envelope is pushed. Though no where near to the point that Louis Malle pushed it in 1978.

Despite this ethically concern, I can’t help but love the artistry and the film itself. It is a highly effective surrealist attempt to capture both the human psychological and emotional experience of gaining a mature understanding of the world. A world that will very quickly become her/his own. In many respects the morphing of the familiar into the unknown or monstrous is resonating. Of course this lies at the heart of many fairy tales. And Valerie and her Week of Wonders never strays too far from a world that feels like that of twisted folklore. The film is edited and shot in ways that allow the viewer to constantly find new ideas or points with each viewing. It applies a circular sort of logic which invites multiple interpretations. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a totally unique cinematic experience.

Now we fast-forward 44 years later and approximately 250 miles away to a modern-day village in Germany. Till Kleinert’s Der Samurai is a newer but equally puzzling re-examination of “identity” within a fairy tale-like world.

Trying to catch a wolf without harming it. But will that satisfy the deceptive wolf?  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Trying to catch a wolf without harming it. But will that satisfy the deceptive wolf?
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

In his amazing and  jolting directorial debut, Til Kleinert is exploring deception in a more familiar setting. It also should be noted that there is a growing concern in parts of Germany regarding wolves. For decades the German Wolf was near the point of extinction. In the last decade these wolves have returned to the point of near over-population. This has generated valid concern for the towns that exist near forested areas. While much of our fears regarding wolves is out of proportion to reality, when they start roaming in packs or are hungry — the question of “proportional fear” becomes trivial. We catch a glimpse of the German village in which this story takes place at the beginning. The homes are gathered closely together as if in group formation. The modern windows have metallic-like shades that close from the inside. This is not uncommon in Europe, but to our eyes it seems kind of creepy. This village would appear to be formed out of a shared fear of the woods that surround it.

Der Samurai  Till Kleinert, 2014

Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014

Our innocent hero appears to be a sincere, kind, gentle and lonely man. There are also hints that he hides his intentions very well. He seems almost stubbornly stern when it comes to expressing himself. Jakob may be young but he is a grown man. He is a cop. And he takes his job more than seriously. Jakob seems truly dedicated to protecting the law those who reside in his environment. His village is experiencing a series of minor but annoying mishaps relating to a wolf. It seems the filmmaker’s intent that we notice that this community’s shared fear is aimed at a wolf — there seems to be no clear articulation of the plural version of wolf. This appears to be a fear of one wolf. Jakob does not seem to fear the wolf like his village. He seems more concerned about trying to stop the wolf from bothering the villagers.  We first see him tying up sheer-thin bags of bloody raw meat from low hanging branches to allow easy access. Jakob appears to hope that these bags will satisfy the wolf and prevent it from lurking out into the village.  Or not? We are presented with an unanswered question regarding our hero’s actions. Is this an attempt to keep the wolf out of the village or is this merely an attempt to feed the wolf.

Jakob’s concerns relating to this wolf are very different than his fellow residents. The threat of this wolf is taking on a strange level of horror. Knocking over outdoor trash containers and the alarmed barking of family dogs is resulting in a seemingly illogical reaction. Jakob not only seems perplexed by the level of fear this wolf is causing, he is at a loss at just how concerned everyone seems to be. Michel Diercks plays Jakob with a cautious and thoughtful performance. Diereses’ performance seems to hint at something that the viewer can’t quite understand. His concern for the wolf’s safety seems as odd as the villagers fear. Kleinert frames his story within the context of being afraid of something “out there” that is not only on the prowl but poised for menace.

Something is out there. Just beyond the trees. Is it a wolf? A werewolf or something altogether different?  Der Samuari Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Something is out there. Just beyond the trees. Is it a wolf? A werewolf or something altogether different?
Der Samuari
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

One evening as Jakob starts to leave the sherif office for home,  he discovers a package delivered to his attention.  The package is actually addressed to “Lonely Wolf.” And so the tale begins. Jacob receives a phone call. A whiskey and cigarette damaged female voice advises him of the address to which he needs to deliver the package. It is difficult to articulate why the phone call is so erie. Part of it is in the delivery of what is said and the other part is the way in which Jacob reacts. As we hear the caller’s voice it is clear that she is flirting, but also daring the cop to follow her directions. The package is for her and she strongly urges that he must deliver it to her. There is a tinge of cruelty in her chuckle as she provides her address.

Jacob seems more curious than concerned. It is a disturbing moment in a horror film that very quickly pushes the boundaries of tension to surprising level of creepy horror. As Jakob approaches the dilapidated old cottage occupying carrying the thin long package which he has been “advised” to deliver, a unexpected unease fills us. You don’t want Jacob to go in. You want him to call for ‘back-up.’ The cottage not only looks sinister, it feels sinister. Carrying the box up the seemingly grimly rotted stairs he soon meets the owner of the voice that called him. Sitting crouched in front of an old dresser mirror, her face is hidden. It is clear that she has been applying a great deal of make-up. An abandoned doll hangs by a noose. Pictures from fashion magazines hang around this obviously well muscled person. The pages have been defaced and are fading away. The room is damaged from years of neglect and water damage. It is impossible not to note that what appears to have been yellow wallpaper has been illogically covered with streaks of red. Blood red.

Pit Bukowski is getting ready to really give the villagers something to panic about... Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Pit Bukowski is getting ready to really give the villagers something to panic about…
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

It is difficult to pin-down what it is about this movie that is so unnerving. The two lead actors are great. The film is incredibly well styled. But Till Kleinert finds a way to really get under our skins. The villagers’ fear is not misplaced. Indeed, there is something waiting in the woods to roam out after sunset to wreck havoc upon their quiet little village. But is it not the wolf they have imagined. This wolf is a man made-up and wearing an elegant sort of long slip. The true object of fear is a homicidal and feral transvestite. As this visage pulls the huge samurai sword from Jakob’s package, we instantly know that this “something” is no longer happy merely causing havoc and generating this mini-societal fears.  This is our wolf and it has a blood-lust of epic proportion. If you are thinking this subversion of fairy tale is mired in what can easily issue a reaction of concern, you are correct. Only the most homophobic of viewers will not feel a pang of “Political Incorrectness” warning flags poking at them from the screen. Before the audience has a chance to become offense, Kleinert’s film literally jumps into a frantic level of strange and undeniably fascinating horror film.

Jakob is fully aware of the potential for danger as this almost feral, androgynous and seductive figure carefully caresses her new weapon. He tries to talk this self-proclaimed Samurai out of jumping out of the house. Jakob attempts to apply logic that somehow feels confused. Der samurai seems to take on a sort of perverse beauty in his elegant white slip as well as a sense of supernatural strength. She has no time or interest in listening to Jakob’s concern and protests. She has an axe to grind with this tiny village cloaked away within the German forests. She is out for vengeance and blood.

Pit Bukowski as Der Samurai who takes no prisoners.  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Pit Bukowski as Der Samurai who takes no prisoners.
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

As tensions mounts so do the ever expanding Surrealist stylings. Der Samurai is almost unrelenting in generating our guilt and fear. And while the gore goes to extremes, it is intentionally unreal. Jakob follows this raging “wolf” down deserted streets filled with her violent vengeance. Everything has been slashed and torn up. And Jacob has forgotten his gun. It gradually becomes clear that the kindly Jakob is not as much “hunting” this wolf down, he is starting to encage in a grim sort of dance. This is both figurative and literal.

Facing the werewolf or an identity long repressed? Or maybe not.  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography| Martin Hanslmayr

Facing the werewolf or an identity long repressed? Or maybe not.
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography| Martin Hanslmayr

As we follow this pursuit or dance, more and more of the the villagers are being laid to brutal waste. It may be silly and even look “unreal” but Der Samurai has entered into a truly disturbing frenzy. To be honest, there were more than a few times I had to ask myself, “Did that just happen?” And just as the audience thinks that it has got the whole thing figured out, Till Kleinert turns it all around again. This demented twist on the “fairy” tale continues to escalate along with our unease and fear. Jakob has no choice. He must stop this dance and slay this maniacal “wolf” in tranny clothing. As he approaches to to take this mythical evil creature down, we discover that Der Samurai has shed the costume. Ravenously eating the contents Jakob’s blood-drenched meat bag, Der Samurai is nude. It is a deliberate choice that Kleinert shows that our nude monster is now packing more than a huge sword. His “excitement” has swelled to form the potential for a whole other type of “swordplay”. This is only one of many darkly comic and inappropriate moments in the movie. Jakob is clearly more afraid of a penis erection than a samurai sword or the muscular threat of this wolf who we now know was only hiding in monster’s clothing. This is a problematically loaded bit of metaphor.

Feeding the wolf or attempting to put out the fire with gasoline. It doesn't matter. Der Samurai is ready to fight our hero. Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Feeding the wolf or attempting to put out the fire with gasoline. It doesn’t matter. Der Samurai is ready to fight our hero.
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Jakob would at first seem to want to repress or stifle the beast that threatens his village. But in the end he must face the evil and destroy it. Once again a sort of circular logic is displayed. We do not know where this tale has taken us. The final shot of the film is as confusing as it is entertaining. The grande finale is really as surprising as it is awesome. As Jakob appears to go on full attack of the monster terrorizing the quiet village, the musical score gives sway to a silly and  diametrically opposed pop song by The Ark. Suddenly Der Samurai slips into a sort of parody of 1980’s Rambo-like hero anthem. On paper is seems like a truly ludicrous idea, but in practice it is a magical way to relieve the audience tension and remind us that we are seeing a sort of fairy tale. The lessons of which only really reveal themselves after we achieve some distance from the work. Is there actually a wolf at all? Is our “hero” also our “monster?” It is unclear. Once again the Surrealistic circular logic prevents an established answer. However one very realistic idea is formed: When a society oppresses the individual and that individual gives in and represses their own identity — the results can be catastrophic. Eventually the needs of the “self” must be addressed in one way or another. More than likely the self will assert in a skewed ideology that not only matches the societal ideology, but surpasses it.

Slaying the Beast of the Village? Or not?  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Slaying the Beast of the Village? Or not?
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Der Samurai is wide open for interpretation. I’ve heard and read it described as “Queer Surrealist Horror” to a “perverse reworking of ‘The Big Bad Wolf.'” I do not agree with either label. This is a sleek and effective spin on folklore presented in both a Surrealist and Absurdist way. ,While Til Kleinert is willing to risk his metaphor and parable being misunderstood as “self-loathing” or “homophobic” or “misogynistic,” it clearly is not. Kleinert is willing to trust the intelligence of his audience to understand the film. This film is far too smart, polished and subversively rebellious to be considered as inappropriate art or offensive. This is a spin on a fairy tale and folklore is taken to an unexpected place. It is a thrilling and unforgettable film. Kudos to ArtSploitation for releasing it via VOD, DVD and Blu-ray. The Artsploitation label usually restricts itself to gore horror of the lowest denominator, but in this case they have helped secure the release of a valuable work of Art Horror.

One thing is for sure: There is 'something' on both sides of that window. And neither offer a 'happy ever after' Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

One thing is for sure: There is ‘something’ on both sides of that window. And neither offer a ‘happy ever after’
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Der Samurai is more of an experience than a typical narrative film. It washes over you.  You are left both exhilarated and confused. Both of these film present themselves with a non verbalized, “Once upon a time…” and bring us to the conclusions that while the world offers us “choices” they are seldom easy to chose. To deny the reality of the deceptions that hide along our life paths is not only problematic — it is dangerous.

And like most fairy tales, these are not for children. In truth, the origins of fairy tales and folklore were really simple ways to explain the complexities of human existence and survival. These parables attempted to explain what is often unexplainable.

At the end of a journey, we may find our way back to bed. But our bed has been moved to a place than can offer no happy ending or safety.  More to the point: there is no such thing as a “happily ever after.”

Fairy tales do not always offer happy endings. When viewed as initially intended, there was never such a thing as Happily Ever After.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Fairy tales do not always offer happy endings. When viewed as initially intended, there was never such a thing as Happily Ever After.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession was initially unleashed to its first audience 35 years ago at The Cannes Film Festival. The film and Isabelle Adjani’s performance was and remains the stuff of legend.

"Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness." Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

“Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness.”
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

She received the festival’s Best Actress Award. The film itself had a profound and lasting impact on Cannes Film Festival audiences.  Many film critics present appeared to like it, but were unable to explain what it was. It defied genre. While many critics liked it, almost as many hated it. Not too long after rumors began to circulate that Adjani had suffered a nervous breakdown which many blamed on the pressures of playing the film’s lead. Initially it seemed that Adjani was eager to promote the film. As the film began to screen in Europe, audience reactions ranged from “confused” to “repulsed” to “angry.”

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

As French audiences began to dwindle at an alarming rate, Adjani’s attitude toward her role, the movie and the director became critical. It didn’t seem to be a “marketing ploy” — and if it was, Andrzej Zulawski was not happy about it. While I’m unaware of the actor ever directly blaming Zulawski or her role in Possession for what appears to have been a very real breakdown, she never gave a definite answer. It was clear that Adjani was initially eager to work with Zulawski. It was clear she fully understood what she needed to do as the character.

"Do you believe in God?" Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Do you believe in God?”
Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

If one tries to sort the “gossip” from “truth” — it becomes clear that Adjani gave herself over to this particular role unlike she had ever done before or since. Despite the honor and the acclaim she received for her performance, Adjani seems to have opted to distance herself from the movie as quickly as possible. Since it’s brief release in France, she has never spoken of the experience beyond the implication that she felt she had been manipulated by Zulawski.

Isabelle Adjani  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The one thing she did state has remained firmly intertwined with Possession‘s history:

Zulawski, Bruno Nuytten (Cinematographer and soon-to-married to the film’s lead actress), Adjani and the crew were assembled under the infamously long and deep passenger tunnel beneath U-Platz der Luftbrücke Subway Station in Berlin. The film’s special effects crew had just fitted Adjani with surprisingly realistic fluid-filled bags. It is doubtful that anyone knew that Isabel Adjani was about to go far and beyond her director’s expectations. Just before Andrzej uttered “Aktion!” Adjani approached him and asked how she should approach the violent seizure as described in her script. He thought about it and was not completely sure how to articulate what he wanted, but the first words that came to his mind and through his lips to Adjani’s ears were essentially that this scene should look like a tribal sort of violent dance.

Reportedly Adjani thought this over for a minute. Turned to her director once more for guidance that was a bit more specific.

“Fuck the air.”

It was with this very direct response Isabelle Adjani would create what would soon become and remains one of – if not the most disturbing scenes in cinematic history. What Adjani does far below the Berlin subway system is almost impossible to describe. I think the aspect of Adjani’s convulsive “dance” is that it never feels false. You don’t need to have ever been to Berlin to realize that she is writhing and slamming about the dirty walls, floor and the air of a real space. This is no film set. It is profoundly repulsive and fascinating all at once. And just as you think this “fit” is over, Adjani begins to drain her rigged bags. Suddenly the entire scene somehow manages to amp-up to a whole new level of horror.

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.  Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The most horrific and disgusting aspect is not the impact of the lo-fi but highly effective bags — it is Adjani’s face, eyes and the sounds she emits as the infamous scene comes to its end.

Distributors pushed Possession out to Europe with a great deal of hesitation. It failed to attract audiences but it was a most definite part of pop culture conversation. It was banned by a large number of European townships. Most unlucky, the UK banned it before it could even find a screen. It would be another 2 years before Possession screened ever so briefly in Manhattan. Another year or so later the film was secured by several different distributors who edited the film to make it shorter, to censor the more “offensive” moments and to re-construct the entire film. Several different versions were released on VHS. These versions make no sense. Yet something remained that made a younger generation more curious. As bad as those VHS versions were, a cult-following was born. It would not be until 1999 that an “uncut” version of Possession would finally find its way to DVD.  It didn’t take long for word to get out that it was not the version as Zulawski intended. It has barely been a year since Mondo-Vision out of Irvine, CA fully restored and issued the actual full length version to DVD/Blu-ray. It has been the first “hit” Mondo-Vision has issued.

"I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil." Isabelle Adjani with knife Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.”
Isabelle Adjani with knife
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Even with the passing of 35 years, Possession remains unaged and is still upsetting the viewers.

The most casual mention of it among fellow cinephiles incites repulsion, annoyance, unexpected emotions resulting in adamant claims of misogyny and cinematic atrocity. In 1999, I made the mistake of suggesting a Andrzej Zulawski Retrospective at a film festival board meeting. My suggestion was resoundingly turned-down. I would later chat with several of the board members who were particularly frustrated with my suggestion. I was disappointed to discover that not a single opinion was valid. None of them had ever seen it. One key member of the board told me, “I don’t need to see it. I’ve heard about it for years and it will never screen here.”

Perhaps the most almost violent reaction I’ve witness came from an esteemed and infamous filmmaker herself. Actually she has probably upset as many audiences as Zulawski. She dismissed Possession as  “pretentious meaningless human cruelty disguised as Art House Cinema.” One particularly brave soul pointed out that most of her films could be explained in the same way. I am not sure if he said this to provoke her or to make a point. But her face took on a shade of red I had never seen. She stormed away muttering something about the need for a cigarette.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

A week later I found out she hadn’t actually ever seen it. Since then she has and her opinion has taken a dramatic turn. It is rather funny that she now seems convinced that she always knew Possession was a work of “breathtaking cinematic art far ahead of its time!”

It would be unfair to expect an audience to to have an understanding of the artist’s identity or a grasp of how this artist’s identity was formed. The art needs to be able to stand on its own. One should never have to research to access a work of art. There must always be something within it that either entertains or resonates to an audience. But art would be so boring if all of it only served to entertain or resonate. From time to time an artist creates work that is deeply challenging. It is at that time the audience must adjust their eyes to gain more perspective on what is being shown. In the world of Film Art, this is often the case. Not every member of the audience will feel the need to engage with a film beyond the superficial or visual perspectives.

"Because you say "I" for me."  Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Because you say “I” for me.”
Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

But I am one of many who marvel at what a filmmaker sometimes achieves. While we are entertained to a point and we might feel a pull toward resonation — it is not always so easy to identify the “points” or the aspects that try to resonate.

This is especially true when approaching a filmmaker like Andrzej Zulawski. Most of his films are beyond “visual.” Often his films take on an almost epic scale of the visceral.  This is especially true of his films prior to 1999. Zulawski films seem propelled by a frantic intensity that fuses with his equally visual sense which highlights the metaphorical or allegorical aspects of his stories. To fully encage with is work the viewer needs to gain some insight into his life and what has formed his view/philosophy. This allows access to a myriad of meanings lurking just behind or within one of his characters. Most importantly the viewer secures a  perspective on why his films tend to illicit an often mixed bag of reactions. Understanding more about him allows the audience to tap into why what we see matters to us.

As I sit here and attempt to pursue a “request” to articulate my opinion of Andrzej Zulawski, his film Possession and the opposition it continues to generate,  I suspect it is important to note my reality.  All of the factors that have formed my identity is what continually draws me into his specific cinematic world. My fear of narcissism, pity and losing what I think is best called “anonymity” prevent me from sharing what I’m inclined to share. Beside this self-clarification “need” might be beneficial here, but it might just be a “desire” that would work in opposition to what I’ve been asked to convey. It seems like such a basic fact, but I’m often surprised how many people fail to realize that what we see in art is largely derived from what we bring to it. In the case of Film Art, what we project mingles with what is projected on the screen. It is a fundamental understanding of how we relate to art.

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Yet this core concept escapes a number of people. Suffice to say, that if life has presented a number of fucked-up challenges in life — what resonates or draws you into a art will be very different from someone who has been blessed with easier or more reasonable challenges. This lucky individual is less likely to be immediately drawn into darker examinations of the human experience. It does not mean that this lucky individual should avoid these challenging works, but they might have to work a bit harder to access them.

The slow emergence of “re-evaluation” of Andrzej Zulawski and Possession has been a long time in coming.  In large part this is due to Mondo-Vision’s beautiful restoration work on some of his most vital work. Following a successful run of Possession at New York’s Film Forum in late 2011, two organizations decided to hold retrospectives of the director’s work. If there were any concerns when the Brooklyn Academy of Music held their retrospective in 2012, they vanished as soon as tickets went on sale.

"There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you." Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you.”
Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

BAM titled their retrospective “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski.” This did not rest easily with the filmmaker. It was because of this title he chose not to attend or participate.

Film Comment‘s Margaret Barton-Fumo spoke with Andrzej Zulawski and asked him how he felt about the BAM’s title, “This is the exact reason I am here in Warsaw and not in New York. I hated it so profoundly, it sounded so base—and I thank you for asking. On the other hand, I understand that these nice good people want to have something catchy. But I’m totally, totally aghast. I’m against this, and this is the reason I never came.”

It is of great import that he takes offense at the use of the word “hysteria” to describe his work. The word has not only taken on a pejorative meaning, it is a politically unethical word choice.  It is so easy to disagree. Both of the central male and female characters seem to be in a state of frantic panic which “hysteria” makes perfect sense. One on of the amazing feats of Adjani’s performance is that she seems to ampying her level of frantically shrill and manic energy up with each passing scene. When we first see “Anna” she appears tensely coiled-up — trying hard to suppress something. A few moments later she has uncoiled and emotions and panic jump from 1 to 10. It is a high wire act without a net in which Isabelle Adjani somehow manages to escalate her “hysteria” well out of measurable range. If the maximum scale is 10, Adjani seems to be closer to 100 by the mid-point of the film. The important difference that offends Zulawski is that he is using a concept of “hysteria” to criticize what causes it. The work is frantic about what culture perceives as “hysteria” — it is unfair to sum up the total of his work to “hysterical excess.” Baron-Fumo was able to discuss the film and the fact that the filmmaker had always called Possession his most “personal” film.

"Love isn't something you can just switch from channel to channel." Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Love isn’t something you can just switch from channel to channel.”
Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Zulawski went into great detail of how the disintegration of his marriage seemed to mirror what he saw in Eastern Europe at that time. His response to Baron-Fumo’s questions are exactly as he is — open, honest and extremely articulate. For the filmmaker, Possession is a film he still thinks about in relation to what it means outside his own very private experience. It is clear that he is aware it carries a universal story that morphs into something completely unique, but he is not comfortable in fully addressing this aspect.

"For the first time, you look vulgar to me." A married couple on the verge of... Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“For the first time, you look vulgar to me.”
A married couple on the verge of…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

His on-going struggle to reflect beyond his 1981 film remains too close to the bone to claim ownership beyond what he sees as a tragic experience that happened in his life. It is clear that he would prefer to dismiss the concepts of metaphors, allegories, horror and surrealism — but Zulawski is far too intelligent not to realize that those concepts exist within the frames of the movie.

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

While he recoils at the word “hysteria” and its origin as misogynistic and psychologically confused attitude toward women. He is equally repulsed at the idea of referring to his work as “excessive.” He does understand the confusion his cinematic world creates. He is self-aware. He continues to feel it essential that the audience understand how these earlier films are rooted in his own experience.

The first half of his filmmaking career is intensely experimental. This visionary and challenging use of cinema seems to be reaching for that idea of compulsive beauty or psychic automatism almost as André Breton defined it in his Surrealist Manifesto. Almost. I am not only uncomfortable in putting too much surrealist emphasis on his work — I suspect that the links to Berton’s philosophy are purely accidental. Andrzej Zulawski makes his own rules and he ends up breaking a lot of unstated “rules” related to depicting “reality.” Zulawski seems to be creating new “rules” as it is difficult to find any level of “the predictable” as he leads us through a perverted idea of “reality.” This is a world that it wound-up in the environment, culture, repression and oppression to which this artist was born. The challenges he experienced formed him into a powerful artist whose vision pushes beyond the realm of anticipated boundaries. In the world of these early films, characters are forever fighting and clawing at reality of world that undervalues the individual as well as the ability to live the life they want to live. They become both victim and victimizer.

"I can't exist by myself..." Doppelgänger or projection? Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I can’t exist by myself…”
Doppelgänger or projection?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

This is true of several of his films, but most certainly true of his infamously 1996 film,  Szamanka (She-Shaman) — a film that confused and shocked as much as it entertained. It is also found in the neon-drenched, adrenaline fueled kinetic and insanely unhinged power of 1985’s  L’Amour braque/Mad Love. This loose re-interpretation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot retains a vital piece of experimental cinema — and those who see it now will realize that much of what they thought was “original” in American mainstream cinema was really directly borrowed from L’Amour braque. Christopher Nolan or Kathryn Bigelow, anyone? But it is Possession that must reflects the imagination and perspective of an artist formed through the fires of a government intent on suppressing and oppressing the individuals caught within it.

Andrzej Zulawski was in 1940 Poland. The great nephew of writer Jerzy Zulawski whose The Lunar Trilogy, it almost seems predictable that Andrzej as Film Artist was pre-destined to clash with the Polish government. He studied the art of film in the world of 1950’s Paris, but returned to Poland to establish himself as an artist. He achieved fame in Poland, but that fame was tied more to the controversy of censorship than art. Eventually he opted to leave his native country in 1972 for France. He quickly established himself as a filmmaker of note. As it can easily be understood, I doubt he has ever gotten over the level of despair he felt as his artistic voice was continually muted, defeated and wasted by his homelands’ government. In France his work was and remains highly regarded. 1975’s L’Important c’est d’aimerThat Most Important Thing: Love remains a classic and beloved film.

But no one was prepared for what he unveiled at The Cannes Film Festival in 1981.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

I can easily write “a review” of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession on RottenTomatoes, IMDB and Letterboxd. Assigning a rating and a quick review is simple. I have done that. As far as I am concerned Possession is a cinematic masterpiece. The challenge is slip into the movie’s frantic energy, darkness and apocalyptic / nihilistic nightmare and still avoid giving out “spoilers.” Because the whole point of the “request” to create this post is to possibly spur more people to see it. And if you did see it and didn’t like it, maybe this post will lead you to “re-evaluate” what you saw.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s notorious and brilliantly insane film. And these meaning are not limited to the director’s sole opinion. He knows this.

On the most superficial level Possession is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to the psycho-sexual.

From another perspective that directly ties to it’s creator’s intent, it is a depiction of the devastation, rage, despair and horror which divorce can cause for wife, husband and child. The tragic implications of a family destroyed takes the form of of a surreal and metaphorical crisis of identity. As the husband fights to keep the marriage together he only manages to “twist the knife of already fixed pain” for both himself and his wife. The wife slips into a full-tilt conflict over “the auto-piolt” implications of motherhood and deep need to rebel against repression and isolation her marriage has provided.

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

As the husband slips into a sort of existential stupor, his wife seeks out sexual validation and the intense need for connection that very quickly leads the audience into the realm of repulsive horror. A horror in which the wife seeks to replace her spouse with something of her own creation. As the husband begins to climb out of his stupor, he starts to sense the implications of his wife’s choice. He tries to protect their son but is faced with his own challenge. His need to recapture his spouse leads him into a less violent but equally disturbing attempt to replace his wife. Of course the most tragic aspect of the situation is their child. He becomes nothing more than a vague symbol to both Anna and Mark.

From another point of view, and this is the one I apply, Possession is a masterful articulation of the dire implications and consequences of forcing identity/identities into a tiny box not of her/his/it’s own design. Under what amounts to mind-numbing surveillance, control, oppression, repression and judgement — the identity/identities are pushed to the point of insanity. A tiny box is not an appropriate home for a human. It is an even more insurmountable task to contain marriage, parenthood, desire, expression, anger, sex and love into a tiny box. Rebellion must occur. But it will not be a sane rebel who emerges. It will be an outrageous blood thirsty psychotic who comes out of that box seeking vengeance, power and a misplaced understanding of love. What comes out of this boxed world is a perversion of humanity. And it is not a human perversion. It is an inflicted perversion created by the very “entity” that creates, seals and surveils the box.

"He's very tired. He made love to me all night." Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

“He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”
Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten
The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

It really doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s  Possession. When the viewer applies thought to the extreme horrors we are shown, the film works from any vantage point.

It goes without saying that Possession is not for all tastes. It most certainly is not for the the faint of heart or the squeamish. And it would be child abuse to allow a child to watch this movie. It is equally important to understand that should you not be shocked, offended, repulsed or even a bit amused by some or most of what you see — Zulawski has failed. It is Andrzej Zulawski’s motivational intent to upset the viewer.  The challenging and disturbing nature of Possession is fact. But it is a mistake to think this film is perverse, misogynistic or meaningless. This film is wrought with meaning and it is a critique / study of why human beings can become perverse or insane.

Love struggles against  tierney Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Love struggles against tierney
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

To deny Possession a place on the shelf of Cinematic Masterpiece within the context of “experimental” would be short-sighted.

Andrzej Zulawski’s cinematic artistry and Possession offer no way out. You have no choice. Both he and his iconic 1981 film refuse to be forgotten.  Possession is true Film Art. And, if anything, it’s validity has never been more potentially viable than now. As we move further into the 21st Century the challenges of individual freedoms, privacy and the ability to control our own lives seem to be mounting against us.

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves. Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves.
Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Just because the Berlin Wall came down does not mean it will not be reconstructed.

 

If you have not seen it, seek it out. And if you think you saw it and didn’t like or understand it. Consider a re-evaluation. You might be surprised. I can assure that you will not be bored.

I can’t help but add that should you ever have the opportunity to hear Andrzej Zulawski, Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders speak, always take advantage of it. These three important filmmakers are widely different and yet oddly aligned.  Just listening to each of these filmmakers discuss their work, art or life in general is fascinating. All three are highly intellectual without any air of superiority. A discussion with one of these men is a true experience. One of the aspects of each of these artist is that they do not crave or need your approval. In fact if approached from the perspective of “a fan” that are less likely to respond. These three men — especially Andrzej Zulawki — are very much grounded in reality and logic. They do not thrive in the “celebrity bubble” that encapsulates most of their contemporaries.

Only their work takes flight…

So I find myself coming back to a key scene in Possession where the husband, played by Sam Neill, is essentially interrogated. A question is posed to him, “Does Our Subject Still Wear Pink Socks?”  It is this line that starts the journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche as well as the darkest corners of a world that equates the color of socks to assessing individuality.

Conformity at all cost... Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Conformity at all cost…
Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Before you step into the experience of Possession, this might assist you.

"I'm afraid of myself" Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself”
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Are you ready or not?

Please Note: The validity of the information I’ve translated in the following post must be viewed as conjecture. Time and emotional perspectives seem to distort, amplify and confuse “fact” into varying degrees of truth, unfairly skewed opinion, and incorrect analysis. Sadly, old grudges, resentments and jealousies can lead  “logic” to “mythologic.” The fact is that a number of people who were directly involved in a specific situation often remember it differently. What they have adapted to “truth” is sometimes little more than gossip. It is a challenge to determine how to look back in cinematic history. I’ve done my best to “filter” through the questionable to include what is most likely true. Please be aware that my “filtering abilities” are very limited in scope. It is not my intention to play into or further tighten untruth. 

“Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed.”  — Erica Jong

In the Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Shelley Duvall gleefully informs Sissy Spacek, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Duvall explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!” …her delivery of those lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, some are not sure how to react, but many viewers feel the need to squirm.

"1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1" 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

When 3 Women debuted, nearly all of the major critics swooned. But the most powerful Film Critic of the day, Pauline Kael, truly disliked the movie. Her negative viewpoint of this film is of particular interest because up until this movie, Kael had been a consistently staunch Altman ally. When 20th Century Fox released it into cinemas, audiences were either entranced, confused or indifferent. In 1977 there was no Internet. There were no cell phones. While many people took the time to read serious film criticism, access to “Art Films” was largely limited to major cities like Manhattan, Boston or Los Angele. Before any sort of “word of mouth” regarding Robert Altman’s surreal experimental film had the chance to spread, it was pulled out of circulation within 8 days. Over the following two decades 3 Women became not only a “Cult Classic” but was largely considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s.  Yet only a very few had ever actually seen an uncut or clear presentation of the film.

Shelley Duvall improvises Millie Lammoreaux with an mid-mix of comedy and looming horror. Welcome to Robert Altman's dream turned to film. 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Shelley Duvall improvises Millie Lammoreaux with an mid-mix of comedy and looming horror. Welcome to Robert Altman’s dream turned to film.
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Robert Altman’s study of identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is pure cinematic magic. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are pitch-perfect. The cinematic experimentation employed is fully realized. Altman had a strange dream. He then brought it to life allowing his two key actors the freedom to improvise and create their individual visions which could blend with his. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." Sissy Spacek prepares to take aim. 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
Sissy Spacek prepares to take aim.
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

If you’ve not seen it, prepare yourself for a film completely different and oddly disturbing. Were it not for the help of Altman and the dedication of some folks at Criterion, 3 Women might have been forever lost in an abbreviated and muddy form of a memory. In 2004, just two years prior to Altman’s passing, it was finally properly restored and placed within the correct ratio. There are more than a few people who hated it when it was released for brief week in 1977 who now find it hard to believe that they didn’t like it. Most interestingly, a lot of viewer’s who parodied Shelley Duvall’s carefully articulated “Millie” discovered there was a great deal more to her artistry than realized via YouTube and scruffy VHS tapes revealed.

Shelley Duvall has been the victim of gossip and collective mythology. Duvall is not insane. Rest assured she is not wandering around the heat of Texas trying to runaway from UFO’s. People actually believe these ridiculous rumors. The truth is that Shelley Duvall just tired of the pressures of the business.  After a great deal of success creating a television series that artfully retold fairy tales, she decided to focus her attentions

"I had the most wonderful dream..." Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall Robert Atlman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“I had the most wonderful dream…”
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
Robert Atlman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

to the care and promotion of animal rights. As the 1990’s came to a close, she relocated permanently back in Texas. She likes her privacy, but she is not a recluse. She remains an endearingly eccentric but highly intelligent woman. It would have been interesting to gain her perspective regarding the production and  her experience of  3 Women and subsequent reception. It was out of respect for her wishes to go under the radar of “celebrity” that she did not take part in Criterion’s restoration or release. But Shelley Duvall will always hold a fascination of the collective consciousness. 3 Women and The Shining remain her most studied work. You would be hard pressed to think of two more oddly-effective performances in two films that hold a great deal of power in film lore.

What is it that pulled you up into that cinema screen?

What is it that pulled you up into that cinema screen?

It is challenging to even attempt to articulate how difficult it often is to secure these “lost” or “forgotten” films. My reaction to the stubborn dedication to find these films: “Man, it is really cool she loves this movie so much she is willing to devote several years trying to secure the rights to restore and distribute it.” At the same time, I do get it.

The logic is found in answers to questions like: What draws us to movies? What is about a particular movie that makes it important? Why do some important works of Film Art fail to gain notice when first released? How do important films get lost? What makes you want to watch a movie more than once? What is in this movie that resonates for you? What lost cinematic treasure would you be willing to pay $30 to own on blu-ray?

And then, come the questions from the organization that needs to fund the pursuit: What makes you think that a re-master/re-transfer of this movie will yield profit? Are we sure that the people who made this movie are willing to encage or revisit the failure of this movie? What makes you think that this person wants to remind people of this movie flop? Don’t you know that the person who needs to be involved in this re-issue is incredibly difficult? Are you not aware that this person is insane? Why do you think anyone in this century would be interested in those filmmakers? If this movie is important, why haven’t I heard of it?

"Well, here we are on the road." "Yup, that's where we are all right." Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman, 1971 Cinematography |  Jack Deerson

“Well, here we are on the road.”
“Yup, that’s where we are all right.”
Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
Cinematography |
Jack Deerson

Long out of circulation and “non-distributable” because of disputes over music rights, all it really took were several people who loved Two-Lane Blacktop to swerve around obstacles and navigate challenges with the kind of dedication the two lead characters apply to drag racing.  But this amazing film was eventually transferred to HD/Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection. Monte Hellman’s film is so effortlessly brilliant, it is hard not to wonder if he had any idea that what he was filming would result in a cinematic masterpiece.

What at first appears to be a vague character study of two dudes drag racing their way across the country slowly develops into a surprisingly insightful art film. In truth, the movie offers only 2 characters: The primer-coated / souped-up ’55 chevy and the lonely landscape of late 1960’s America. And of the two, only one of these is fully formed. The only reliable thing “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” have in life is their powerful American car and a shared need to speed.

"You can never go fast enough..." Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and Jame Taylor Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman, 1971 Cinematography | Jack Deerson

“You can never go fast enough…”
Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and Jame Taylor
Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
Cinematography | Jack Deerson

Monte Hellman captures a country sad, detached, lonely and half asleep. With the gift of hindsight, it seems as if Hellman’s US is falling asleep as culture slips into a stew of sexual experimentation, identify assertion, self-absorption and paranoia. As we ride alongside these two half-formed men and the free-willed woman they have picked up — we see a world of loneliness, suspicion and isolation. It is all very minimalist in approach, but unbelievable in power.

The challenges involved in securing music rights often appears impossible to resolve. But that worry seems easy when encountering other concerns that greet the initial decision to pursue acquiring the rights to remaster, adjust and transfer a film to the 21st Century HD formats. If the initial line of questioning is met and a firm decision is made to fund the pursuit — a whole slew of new obstacles come up that will lead to a dead end.

While a major studio may have owned distribution rights in the film’s era, it usually has no has valid ownership today.  But the majors have the power and the influence. Even though former and infamous studio leadership is long gone, there can be resentments and very real grudges that are still seething just beneath the surface. Sometimes, power never forgets. But most often the biggest challenges arrive in securing the trust of some or one talented key artist(s) who have not only secured the rights to some of their own films — they often have one of the very few near-pristine mint copies safely sealed away.

"The earth is my body; my head is in the stars." Harold and Maude Hal Ashby, 1971.  It would not be until 2012 that Criterion was able to get this film re-issued in the quality it deserved.

“The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.”
Harold and Maude
Hal Ashby, 1971.
It would not be until 2012 that Criterion was able to get this film re-issued in the quality it deserved.

A more challenging situation is when the key artist(s) are no longer living and control has been handed over to an individual, an estate or some other entity. A wide spectrum of potential problems arise. The family of the deceased artist(s) have unrealistic expectations of monetary value. Or for one reason or another is unwilling to discuss the topic. This situation is almost hopeless unless another “key” player in either the film’s history or is somehow “connected” to the individuals not interested is willing to step-in and put in a good word.

When looking back at the restoration and re-distribution of many films, the use of then popular songs playing in the background of a scene is particularly difficult. To provide a fictional example: If Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach plays for over 20 seconds, an agreement much be reached with the artist or company who owns the rights to the original recording. While it might seem a minor detail that a filmmaker chose to play 65 seconds of Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach in a movie. For the filmmaker and to the fans of the film, those 65 seconds of Madonna’s pop song are vital. Unless the artist or the publishing company is willing to cut a break this can grind the whole process to a stop. In truth, the reality is usually that if one of the individual’s pursuing the film is able to connect with either the artist or someone close to that artist. The problem can often be resolved.

While some artists are truly difficult and unreasonable, most are not. And it is usually the artists who have been most often labeled “difficult” or “unreasonable” are often the easiest and logical people you will encounter. The mythology of gossip is more important to perception than reality. Chances are Madonna has no idea that a few seconds of an old song are blocking the release of a movie. And why would she? The real challenge? …finding a way to contact Madonna without causing her alarm.

Yet something within these films requires the lover(s) of film to push in pursuit of creative ways to secure the opportunity to restore/reissue the movies. Even when everyone and everything tells them “No Way!” There are always individuals who refuse to give up the pursuit. But sometimes the pursuit almost seems like an exorcise in self-torture. Some “challenges” can’t be predicted or expected.

Your hairdresser does it better... Shampoo, Hal Ashby Cinematography | László Kovács

Your hairdresser does it better…
Shampoo, Hal Ashby
Cinematography | László Kovács

A highly respected and sought-after film released over 40 years ago remains a “soft spot” for some of the artists involved. This important 1975 movie still stirs powerful feelings among several powerful senior members of The Hollywood Machine. The importance of Hal Ashby’s contribution to Film Art is not to be underestimated. He was a master of capturing his era with no concerns regarding the problematic aspects he might discover. This is one of the many reasons his films have retained power. Ashby had the ability to turn the camera on his era, the characters roaming within it and the odd logic applied to choices and actions. His films never manipulate or hold the audience hand. They simply roll out in vivid simple complexity.

And now I enter the void of “filtering” information. I hope what I have come to understand is accurate, but it is very important to note that several artists of note have wildly different perspectives of a film to which they are tied. That being said, I doubt that much of this will be news to many people who have wondered why this film has never been treated appropriately.

When Warren Beatty hired Hal Ashby to take on the role of director for Beatty and Robert Townes’ incredibly smart script in 1974, he knew what he was doing. The film that would become Shampoo was a serious examination of ambition, sexual opportunism, misogyny, politics, fear, rage, loneliness and ultimate self-loathing disguised as a sex comedy. At this point one can only theorize why Beatty/Townes decided to set the movie in the Hollywood of 1968. It would seem obvious. When it comes to modern history, 1968 is one of if not the most important years that Post-WWII United States has ever experienced. Shampoo could most certainly be viewed as a realistically scathing study of that moment in time. However, it might be more likely that the decision for setting it in 1968 was a bit more personally complicated.

Julie Christy as Jackie. Her career seems to have stalled. So her hairdresser reminds her of erotic pleasure and gives her new "do" to hopes of propelling an image change. While true to late 60's glam, does it not remind you of a certain movie star's early 60's "do"?  Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975 Cinematography | László Kovács

Julie Christy as Jackie. Her career seems to have stalled. So her hairdresser reminds her of erotic pleasure and gives her new “do” to hopes of propelling an image change. While true to late 60’s glam, does it not remind you of a certain movie star’s early 60’s “do”?
Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975
Cinematography | László Kovács

The origins of Shampoo‘s plot have always been a bit sketchy. Dependent upon which “sources” you feel are more accurate, Shampoo takes an oddly superficial motivation. The filmmakers, or a few of them, have stated that the story was “loosely inspired” by two notable hairdresser of that time. Discussion regarding this matter has always been approached cautiously. It is more than likely that one particular hairdresser is being parodied. And, more than a few people of influence in the early 1970’s were referenced within the characters. While several individuals who suspect that they were hidden inside “characters” no longer care if this was true or not. Some very much do still care. As for the hairdresser who may or may not served as the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character — it’s a problem. But it is best to not go there.

Shampoo achieved a great deal of success. Both a critical and box office hit, the movie also secured an Oscar for Lee Grant. And Grant really rocks the screen in Shampoo. Interestingly, Grant’s further career pursuits seem to have instantly become limited after she received the trophy. Like many supporting actors honored with the Oscar, she sort of fell off the map. The success of Shampoo was more than earned, but it did cause some panic within the rank and file of 1975 Hollywood. More than a few “important” people felt that they were seeing themselves portrayed unfairly. Whether they were correct in that feeling is not clear. But for a movie of such success and esteem, it seemed to take a very long time to find its way to VHS and even longer to make it to DVD. When it was released to DVD, it was given the barest of transfer improvements. Actually, the only improvement was to present it in “letter box format” It didn’t look much better on DVD than it had in an already lazy transfer to VHS. Columbia Pictures/Sony no longer own the distribution rights. However, Sony still retains a vested interest in Shampoo that is difficult to clearly define. It has never been restored and transferred to HD/blu-ray quality. Note: It is not for lack of trying. It is unclear if Shampoo will ever be pulled out of the complex mire that keeps it restrained. Yet the pursuit pushes onward.

Another film from the 1970’s which has slowly began to be “revisited” from a Film Theory / Cinematic History perspective is far more obscure than Shampoo. This other film was released in 1972. It was independently financed by a very powerful actor/singer who wanted the opportunity to make a film which more personally expressed the ways in which the cultural/societal ideals of rigid Feminism were causing a confusion of female identity. This artist was and remains one of the most misunderstood public figures in entertainment history.

Barbra Streisand at 27. Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1969

Barbra Streisand at 27.
Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1969

Barbra Streisand was not yet 30 but was already labeled “iconic” and “superstar” and she was the actor/singer.  The movie she wanted to make was Up The Sandbox. It was based on Anne Roiphe’s 1970 novel. Up The Sandbox is a particularly interesting example of the way unexpected obstacles block the ability to secure distribution rights and release in HD quality to blu-ray. Once again, it is here that it is often hard to sort out “truth” from “distorted opinions” and tacky old gossip.

In the late 1960’s many bankable film stars began to feel the major studios were consistently limiting their artistic abilities and interests. It was then super-agent, Freddie Fields, who came up with an idea for for Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. He suggested that the 3 iconic artists join together to form a new kind of film production company which would give all 3 creative power in the films they chose to make.  As all 3 knew each other fairly well, Freddie Fields felt that each of the four actors trusted each other’s individual visions. They agreed.

Film Icons McQueen, Streisand, Newman and Poitier join together to form First Artists. Hollywood, 1969.  Photographer | Unknown to me

Film Icons McQueen, Streisand, Newman and Poitier join together to form First Artists. Hollywood, 1969.
Photographer | Unknown to me

Streisand/Poitier/Newman all had the shared goal of controlling their film carriers. In less than a year, Steve McQueen joint the 3. A bit later Dustin Hoffman joined them as the 5th. McQueen/Hoffman also shared the same opinion that the major studios “did not get” who they were or what they could do as actors, producers and directors. Each of them would take on the sole responsibility for each of his/her respective film(s) that they would co-jointly fund. They also committed to produce three films each. There appear to have been other details involved how the partners would reach a consensus to “green light” each project. But I’m uncomfortable in assessing the validity of the information related to this aspect of the artists’ agreement. But it does seems to have been more of a “safety net” that these 4 movie stars secured a co-deal which made First Artists a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Interestingly, Warner Brothers seemed hesitant to serve as the distributer for films made by First Artists. National General Pictures was a new distribution company that initially distributed the first several films. Within barely 2 years, NCP was cited for Anti-Trust infringement and was shut-down. At that point WB started distributing First Artists Productions films.

But the initial spirit of United Artists became muddled fairly early in. It seems clear that McQueen liked all of his fellow partners, but he did not agree with their strongly shared political left-wing opinions. McQueen  great deal of trouble securing “buy-in” or “agreement” for to pursue the scripts he wanted because they did not reflect what the other 3 artists felt their shared films should reflect. Later on, Dustin Hoffman ran into challenges with not only McQueen but Paul Newman over several projects he wanted to pursue. It is almost impossible to know what actually happened, but one of the aspects of First Artists that continues to surface, Streisand often calm situations. While strident in her political and civil rights concerns — she didn’t seem to feel the need to make that an essential aspect of the production company. It has been noted that of the 5, Streisand had the most logical business approach: The individual artist should be granted more control, but the bottomline had to be met. In other words, she might not have been particularly interested in seeing McQueen’s The Getaway, but she understood that McQueen knew what he was doing and that his film was likely to be a hit. A clear pattern seems to emerge that Streisand had a clear understanding of the reality that First Artists had to turn profits. Freedom of control would not amount to much in the big picture if monetary success was not achieved. It seems that both Newman and Poitier understood this, but were less concerned.

One of several logos employed by First Artists in the 1970's.

One of several logos employed by First Artists in the 1970’s.

Unlike many of the film production companies that would spring up throughout the late 1980’s/1990’s, this was not a “tax write-off” or a way for actors to make more money on any film in which he/she stars. This was a legit attempt at taking control of their “individual” and “shared” artistic “visions.” First Artists managed to create minor box office hits, but only three significant money-makers:  Steve McQueen’s The Getaway was the first major hit earning an initial $37,000,000 and later approaching $50,000,000 with worldwide distribution with a budget of only $4,000,000. Both the budget and the box-office earnings were challenged, but it seems those numbers are most accurate. McQueen’s film directed by Sam Peckinpah is now a cinematic classic, but it is not clear that it did big business during its initial release.

"Punch it, Baby!" The Getaway Steve McQueen Sam Peckinpah | 1972 Lucien Ballard | Cinematography

“Punch it, Baby!”
The Getaway
Steve McQueen
Sam Peckinpah | 1972
Lucien Ballard | Cinematography

As it would turn out, Streisand was the only of the 5 artists who was able to deliver major commercial hits. Despite an epic pan by critics, her 1976 A Star Is Born earned $80,000,000 and continued to higher profits via world wide distribution. Though it is difficult to fully know what a film earned back in the 1970’s, it is thought that A Star Is Born earned well over $100,000,000 by the end of 1977. With a budget of 6,000,000 this would be the only “blockbuster” First Artist would ever produce. Her 1979 movie, The Main Event, once again escaped film critic’s disdain when it earned $43,000,000 with a budget of only $8,000,000. Once again it would earn closer to $50,000,000 via world wide release and had secured “blockbuster” status by early 1980. With only three major hits in eleven years, First Artists folded by the end of 1980.

The first two films released were from Paul Newman: Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Both of these films were released in 1972. Pocket Money failed to make money and was greeted negatively by the critics. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by the great John Huston, initially failed to make money, but critics quite liked it. It also earned an Oscar nomination for “Best Song” and several Golden Globe nominations. This would help it to eventually earn $7,000,000 in 1973. However, the actual budget for Judge Roy Bean remains a mystery. For reasons related to concerns over who would direct, First Artists ended up paying what was then termed “a record price” to secure the rights to John Milius’ script. It must have been a true record price because First Artists and Warner Bros. viewed it as a box office loss.

Up the Sandbox would be Barbra Streisand’s first venture into the world on the other side of the camera. It would also be the third film First Artists made and released. Up the Sandbox would actually earn some of the best reviews Streisand had yet to receive from serious film critics — most importantly, Pauline Kael. Similar to Paul Newman’s Judge Roy Bean, Streisand’s first venture started out with a modest budget. Once again, sorting truth from fact is difficult.

"If this is what being a mother is like, I turn in my ovaries!" Barbra Streisand  Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner,1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“If this is what being a mother is like, I turn in my ovaries!”
Barbra Streisand
Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner,1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand wisely asked Irvin Kershner to helm as director. He was her first choice and he accepted immediately. Streisand had a deep respect for Kershner and he for her. As the two began to plan and work with Paul Zindel and his adaptation of the novel to screenplay, Streisand was pressed to increase the budget. The actual truth is not clear, but it appears that Kershner’s vision was more ambitious than Streisand’s. He felt it was important to treat her character’s reality and fantasies in the same way. In other words, he was interested in applying a higher level of Surrealism than Zindel captured in his original draft. Among Kershner’s ideas was to film several scenes of the movie in Africa. During post-production, the expensive African shoot was hardly used in the final cut. He also agreed with Streisand that Gordon Willis was the best cinematographer working. Willis’ dance card was full at this time and he wasn’t just any cinematographer. But he accepted the offer and was hired. Eventually Streisand increased her film’s budget to $5,500,0000.  Streisand fully supported her director and their cinematographers’ instincts. And it bears noting that she still agrees today. She appears to have no regrets regarding Up the Sandbox. But it would be her first cinematic flop. Sandbox earned only $3,500,000. The fact that her film flopped had a more potent impact on her “cred” than the even more substantial losses suffered by her business partners. This is most certainly fact. It can’t be disputed. Hollywood’s infamous “Boy’s Club” was less forgiving toward Streisand than her male business partners. Thus ended Streisand’s attempt with experimental cinema.

Fantasies and Mundane Reality merge   Barbra Streisand (without a wig or a net) Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Fantasies and Mundane Reality merge
Barbra Streisand (without a wig or a net)
Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Up the Sandbox is dated, but it is an exceptionally interesting surreal experimental film. This not a typical Streisand film. Zindel and Kershner approached the line between realism and fantasy in ways that create a disarming sense of disorientation. What at first appears to be a fairly clear way of fusing reality into fantasy gradually becomes unclear. It is becomes difficult to know when what we have seen is real or fantasy. As the mid-point of the movie arrives, the viewer begins to suspect or wonder if what was “perceived” as a fantasy at the beginning of the film might have actually been “real”

Streisand and her lover head out to express political anarchy through terrorism. Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand and her lover head out to express political anarchy through terrorism.
Up the Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

This is achieved by slightly changing the “style” when it comes to some outlandish fantasies and applying an almost passive focus to other fantasies. The character’s reality veers into several shifts of style as well. By the time the credits begin to roll, the audience is no longer sure what has been “real” and what has been “fantasy” This intended confusion actually becomes stronger when the viewer has a bit of distance from the film itself. Irvin Kershner crafts the film in a manner that compels repeated viewings.

There was a strong and often confused political stance regarding Feminism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of the Feminist Goals seemed to have applied pressure on many women for whom these goals were not always the optimal choice within the context of daily everyday life. Up the Sandbox‘s main character is bored and constantly trying to determine where she stands in a world filled with political and sexual revolution. She is feeling uneasy and confused by a growing level of cultural pressure and expectations regarding her own female identity. Her decision to put her “career” on the back-burner to stay at home and raise her children turns a quite valid decision at odds with the culture she navigates. With the gift of hindsight, the main character’s conflict with The 1970’s Feminist Movement blended with the cinematic experimental style makes Up the Sandbox seem like a very odd career choice for Barbra Streisand both as a producer and a highly politicized public person. It also adds a distinctive underlined power to the movie.

Film critics met the movie with mixed responses. Some loved it. Some were confused. But only a handful of critics disliked it. Perhaps most significant of this era, Pauline Kael gave Streisand praise for taking on and succeeding at playing a character so far from public perceptions of Streisand. First Artist Productions and National General Pictures were equally conflicted about how to market the movie. The decision was to promote the movie as a “comedy” utilizing a Richard Amsel illustration of a pregnant Streisand tied to a baby bottle on the cover of Time Magazine declaring Streisand to be “The dust mop of the year!” It was an odd and misleading choice. By the time it reached cinemas Streisand fans were expecting an R-rated version of What’s Up Doc? — instead they found themselves watching an experimental film featuring a version of Streisand they had not seen. There were few wise-cracks. There was no glam. Streisand had not worn a wig for What’s Up Doc? but Peter Bogdanovich ensured that her hair was well appointed for each scene — as well as make-up. Up the Sandbox presents Streisand without a wig and the benefit of constant grooming and Gordon Willis applied a natural lighting when he shot her. This was Streisand “acting” and she is believable as an upper-middle class housewife of a middling academic with two children. There were very few typical funny scenes. The humor most often takes the tone of Absurdism. The marketing error is that this was film for Art House Cinemas and it should have been marketed to express that. However, even Pauline Kael’s positive assessment wasn’t enough to make Film Art supporters believe they should bother seeing the movie.

The film also fueled anger from the left. Vito Russo, a crucial Gay Rights Advocate, was very quick to criticize a liberal with strong ties to the gay community for allowing her character to say a line during what turns out to be a potential lesbian experience. Streisand’s repressed character’s response is still disturbing. Feminist were angered by this scene and were also frustrated that an ally of The Feminist Movement would even hint at playing a character who is conflicted by anything related to Feminist philosophy. But the mainstream had already ignored the movie before any of these controversies were discussed.

Are we sure she is actually seeing that? Barbra Streisand Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Are we sure she is actually seeing that?
Barbra Streisand
Up the Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand over-saw the remaster of Up The Sandbox to DVD and Warner Bros released it as a part of DVD box set in 2004. It features a commentary from Streisand as well as Irvin Kershner. Streisand’s commentary is not particularly insightful. The main “take away” is that this film was very important to her, she remains proud of the movie but seems genuinely “bruised” by its failure. As she provides her commentary it almost seems like we are hearing a tired mathematician trying to determine the answer to a difficult equation. Irvin Kershner’s commentary is more relevant. He touches on the fact that at the time they were filming, friends warned him to not to share some concerns he began to have in mid-production. He took that advice. Long after the film was completed and released, he shared this with Streisand. Both commentaries make it clear that the two were and had remained friends. Kershner discovered that Streisand was hurt that he hadn’t trusted her enough as the producer to bring his concerns to her attention. The experience of this film’s commercial failure would forever change the way Streisand approached projects. It also resulted in over 2 years of unemployment for Kershner.  As he once stated, “It’s not so easy to be the only filmmaker to direct a Barbra Streisand movie that flops.”

The other 3 DVDs initially only sold as a set with Up the Sandbox were soon offered for purchase individually. Up the Sandbox was the lone non-seller of the set.

Over the past decade this movie has started to gain the attention of number of Film Theory and Film Historians. It seems potentially posed for critical re-evaluation and an ideal time to properly restore the film. It would seem the current challenges are more tied up in confusion about distribution rights and a general mistrust that anyone would buy the blu-ray or HD stream. So the current situation is making the case for  Up The Sandbox as a valid and important film. It is a great snapshot of a woman caught in the unique Cultural Web that was spun out of the 1960’s.  I recently received an email from one of the people most vested in getting this film restored. She wrote: “The film actually feels more French than American. And yet it is filled with idiosyncratic use of ‘nameless’ iconic pop culture figures…”  She is referring to Up the Sandbox‘s odd assortment of easily recognized but somehow forgotten actors. Most of the minor supporting roles are played by soon to become key players in some very iconic television. Much of TV’s The Jeffersons, Electric Company, Laverne & Shirley, One Day At A Time and other soon-to-be-famous 1970’s TV show actors are present. Most notably, this was Stockard Channing’s film debut. It does sort of add an additional aura of disorientation.

The other “selling points” are that the film speaks to the skill of Irvin Kershner, a great filmmaker who never gained the respect he deserved. He was very much apart of the whole new American filmmaking era that gave us such artists as Altman, Ashby and Arthur Penn. History has largely relegated Kershner to being the director who got into arguments with George Lucas as he directed sequel to Star Wars. Apparently Kershner’s idea of adding “a bit more depth” was a daunting challenge for the director of Return of the Jedi. He was an odd pick for that movie and it seems strange that this is the film for which he is remembered. Additionally, Gordon Willis added his brilliance as cinematographer. Up the Sandbox appears to be a lost, forgotten and under-appreciated cinematic curiosity. But it has several key players in the world of film restoration trying to find ways to secure distribution and they are determined.

The whole world of The Film Art Restoration/Release and that of the Boutique DVD/Blu-ray fascinates me. It has also holds a seductive power. I’m intensely curious why certain movies mean so much to people. This is one of the many magic aspects Film Art. It is subjective, but is seems to stir an incredible level of passion. I find it inspirational to see that initial individual  who starts the initial journey to restore a film and manages to succeed. And usually even if I’m not particularly interested in the movie, their commitment to these films resonates for me.

Matty Stanfield