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Every once in a while a movie comes along that captures a cultural moment. And, sometimes, that same movie can also offer insights into subcultures long forgotten. And, with a backward glance, the moving images and sounds seem to act as a unified predictor. A film like this becomes a touchstone to our past. A link from our current to a past that often feels foreign and alien. This is one such movie…

"This is as far as the elevator goes." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982

“This is as far as the elevator goes.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982

It was in August of 1982 that Slava Tsukerman’s notorious cult film, Liquid Sky, debuted at Montreal World Film Festival. Heads were turned, jaws dropped and the festival awarded the Special Jury Prize to the director. The film went on to receive several other key Art Film Festival awards. Sadly the movie received a minimal theatrical release. In the US it did manage to strike a chord and secure a following via its VHS release. Liquid Sky has become an essential Cult Film. The fact that it continues to be challenging to track down and watch have only added to its allure within the Cult Film Cannon.

This is not your average low-budget movie. The filmmaker, his wife and his cinematographer were fresh from The Soviet Union. They had managed to find a way to New York City to make a movie. It wasn’t long before they were collaborating with a performance artist who seemed to be on the fast track to stardom within the underworld of the Post-Punk/New Wave club scene. This history of the film’s 28 day production story can be found across the span of The Internet. The key here is understanding that this Russian filmmaker captured a moment both fantastic and scary. He may not have had a big budget, but he most certainly had a big cinematic vision filled with ideas and aspirations.

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

There are a couple of crucial elements which blast the viewer within the first three minutes of Liquid Sky:

  1. A human face framed within a sphere of neon light that reveals itself to be a mask of sorts.
  2. The music sounds vintage early ’80’s, but is just slightly off-key and deeply odd — even a bit altogether off.
  3. The Twin Towers / Empire State Building skyline (the lower midtown perspective?) is not only familiar — it is iconic. And yet, there is a myst of fog that seems sort of wrong.
  4. A flying saucer hovers toward the screen.
  5. Unhappy people in a darkly grim club jerk and dance about. The beats indicate fun, the melody warns danger and the people look more focused than happy.

Welcome to Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky. This cult film is respected for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important and immediate is the use of electronic music. The often discordantly familiar mixed with unique samplings of dialogue and other bits of music make it completely unique. We are hearing one of the earliest uses of the first true digital sampler keyboards and it is scoring the entire movie. These are the sounds of the Fairlight CMI Series 1 that pulsate out from the screen. The music manages to be at once primitive and complex. It is sinister, but with the slightest twinge of pop happy beats.This very well might be the first example of ElectroClash. The Fairlight CMI Series 1 was not actually new, but not many musicians owned them and even fewer knew how to play/use the digital sampling keyboard.

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day. EMI, London, 1978

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day.
EMI, London, 1978

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were among the first few musicians to actually purchase and pursue the use of the instrument. The Fairlight CMI gave life to Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album and his 1982 Deutsches Album. It played an even stronger role in giving Kate Bush’s sonic visions live for both Never for Ever and The Dreaming albums. And in fact it is easy to state that the sounds and looks of Liquid Sky have served as influence for a number of creative artists.

When actress, Paula E. Sheppard, takes the club’s darkly lit stage — she is straddling a cumbersome sort of electronic box. It might appear that her mic is broadcasting the inner workings of her chest, but her heartbeat has been sampled. It pulsates from her electronic box. As she lifts that microphone up towards her vexingly beautiful and malicious face she begins an odd bit of what I would call “Slam Poetry.” She seems to threaten her club audience with her words. While the verses to “Me and My Rhythm Box” might be pretentious — they are also oddly effective. In another actor and filmmakers’ hands this scene could have been painfully bad. But here, within the confines of Liquid Sky — this drone and wail of a song plays energetically and deeply weird. This is electronic music with a purpose. The cheesy happiness of 1980’s MTV is not present. Nor will you notice any of the ironic No-Wave disco-threat of Blondie. Slava Tsukerman and his synth composers — Brenda I. Hutchinson and Clive Smith — are in total and complete step with their filmmaker’s vision. Liquid Sky ‘s musical score is totally unique, worrying and unforgettable.

"Me and my rhythm box. Are you jealous, folks? My rhythm box is sweet. Never forgets a beat..." Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Me and my rhythm box.
Are you jealous, folks?
My rhythm box is sweet.
Never forgets a beat…”
Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

I suppose some might disagree, but it isn’t a far leap to realize that what we are seeing and hearing would go on to influence artists lucky enough to secure a copy of Media Home Entertainment‘s highly prized VHS tape. You should not jump to judge my assertion until you have seen this movie and compared it to early sounds/looks of artists like Fischerspoon, Miss Kittin & The Hacker as well as pop-sensation Lady Gaga.

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash "Hi Huh-I Hyper Hyper-media-ocrity You don't need to Emerge from nothing You don't need to tear away! Feels good Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too..." Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash
“Hi Huh-I Hyper
Hyper-media-ocrity
You don’t need to
Emerge from nothing
You don’t need to tear away! Feels good
Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too…”
Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Paula E. Sheppard’s Adrian is performing not on a set, but in a very real Post-Punk/New Wave NYC Underground club. The Pyramid was where Tsukerman filmed all of the movie’s club scenes. This club is legendary and has served as home to a number of NYC subcultures for decades. The lower East Village hole-in-the-wall could tell us an unlimited number of stories. At one time a home to NYC PUNKS then to their Post-PUNK / New Wave offspring and on toward to both the American Hardcore and GLBTI NYC communities.

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia... No wave here. The Radicts and The Bruisers Pyramid Club advert, 2006

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia… No wave here.
The Radicts and The Bruisers
Pyramid Club advert, 2006

Adrian’s musical performance and jaded delivery hold up to the likes of Miss Kittin and The Hacker. While she may not have the ability to fully utilize her rhythm box as well as Miss Kittin or Fischerspooner — both owe this film a nod for their sounds that would lead us into the ElectroClash sound of the early ’00’s. And it makes sense. Adrian is attempting to thrive within the dystopia of post-70’s NYC. This is Ed Koch’s nightmare of a city. As grim as it was — it did provide some surprisingly cheap housing options and opportunities.

Liquid Sky inspires... "Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra. Do you know Frank Sinatra? He's dead..." Miss Kittin & Hacker The First Album, 2001

Liquid Sky inspires…
“Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra.
Do you know Frank Sinatra? He’s dead…”
Miss Kittin & Hacker
The First Album, 2001

It was not off the Manhattan grid, but it was not an area that most would have cared to have roamed after sunset. The club offered risk of danger and lent an edge to an evening of clubbing before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the cruel leadership of Ronald Reagan. As Debbie Harry sang on her 1989 album:

“Darkness falls like a black leather jacket and melts into the sidewalk like a sleeping drunk. In the streets, the wind throws yesterday’s headlines around.
Another night comes and goes. So, for awhile back then there was someplace to go.
Somewhere more home than a house. A family of choice, not an accident, but sometimes as soon as something gets started it’s over.

Now the days are much shorter and the people from the good part of town all come around, but the something is missing even though there’s more there now.
I shrug off my attempts to explain how a torn T-shirt made it all danger again…” Debbie Harry, End of the Run, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave Debbie Harry Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave
Debbie Harry
Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

Now Ms. Harry would have been referring to CBGB‘s or MUDD Club, but it is important to note that Pyramid Club might not have been on the radar of the darlings of the NYC PUNK / POST-PUNK or New Wave of 1981 — but in perhaps an even more important way — Pyramid Club was home to the many clubbers who couldn’t quite make it to the big rooms of those more anti-popular clubs. And it was within Pyramid‘s walls that some very real shit went down.

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her. Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her.
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

It is likely that Blondie’s lead singer walked through Pyramid doors at some point. Most certainly it is likely that Madonna ventured there. Liquid Sky features Otto von Wernherr in the role of the German astrophysicist who is the only person aware of an alien presence that has invaded the home of the film’s two main characters. Wernherr was a musician / actor / artist and fixture of the late 70’s / early 80’s NYC Downtown Scene and an early Madonna collaborator. That collaboration was already happening as Liquid Sky was filmed.

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky... Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000 Cinematography | John McNulty

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky
Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat
Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie
Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000
Cinematography | John McNulty

If Liquid Sky‘s Adrian character is the symbol of artist, then the character of Margaret is more closely tied to the artist who yearns for success and validation that is almost impossible to secure. We know immediately that Anne Carlisle’s Margaret is a model. She is also Adrian‘s promiscuous lover and flatmate. As Adrian performs with her rhythm box, Margaret is backstage prepping for a fashion show. A show that will be taking place in the club. The other models seem only to be in background of Margaret‘s beauty. The only model who challenges her is an effeminate gay man, Jimmy.

"Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?" Anne Carlisle x 2 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?”
Anne Carlisle x 2
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first glance he seems to be Margaret‘s doppelgänger. The then up and coming performance artist, Anne Carlisle, is playing both Margaret and Jimmy. To Slava Tsukerman’s credit, the dual roles are only obvious when the film wants it to be. Tightly and cleverly edited, Margaret and Jimmy are two very different characters. Margaret and Jimmys’ fashion show takes place within minutes of the film’s beginning.

Striking a pose... Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Striking a pose…
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

This fashion sequence serves as not only a set-up for the film’s oddly complex world, it also pulls us into the era in which the film was made. While these models look like what we might associate with the very early 1980’s — it is important to note that these “looks” were ahead of the cultural curve in 1981. When I first saw this movie in 1983, these models/actors looked absolutely other-worldly. Their painted faces, geometric clothing and posing were all new to my eyes. While they might have shared some similarity with Adam Ant, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow, Boy George and Flock of Seagulls — the people on the screen offer no semblance of charity or fun. This clique is hard-edged and seemed almost intent on menace.

"Something strange is going on here." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Something strange is going on here.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

These hipsters want your attention, but they are not willing to beg for it. Just the opposite, these models and their respective looks are daring us not to give them our attention. The colors may be bright neon and they might be covered with make-up, but these danger boys and girls are out for blood. This is not just a fashion show — it is almost a declaration of war.

Dare you not to look and love me... Benjamin Liu Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Dare you not to look and love me…
Benjamin Liu
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Also within minutes of the film’s start we figure out that there is a lot more going down than performance, fashion and clubbing. Adrian is an established heroin dealer. That human face mask hangs in she and Margaret‘s penthouse apartment. This work of art offers dual meaning. It is the same face shared by both Margaret and Jimmy. It is also not a mask — it is the holding/hiding place for Adrian‘s supply of heroin. A supply that she sells to everyone from uptown artsy folks but to everyone within her orbit. Margaret might be the only person in Adrian‘s world who has no interest in the power of her powdered sky just waiting to be heated into milk for injection.

So here we have a film that is about clubbing, strutting and drugs. Where does the Sci-Fi element come in?

"Are you sure this has something to do with UFO's?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you sure this has something to do with UFO’s?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No one can ever accuse Slava Tsukerman of constructing a slow-moving film. We witness the arrival of invaders from space within minutes of the movie’s beginning. Liquid Sky‘s construction is tight and unusual. Things happen simultaneously. They also happen with minimal explanation or character development. In most cases this approach would stunt a film, but it is one of Liquid Sky‘s magical elements. I should note that I first saw this film when I was 16 years of age. This might seem a great trip movie, but it is not. As trippy as the film is it is not conducive to positive altered state viewing. The paranoia, cruelty and perversities work against the fun aspect of a stoned age viewing. It is most likely due to my state at the time I first saw Liquid Sky that I did not understand the invasion from space plot twister.

"In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures -- punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures — punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

We see the alien flying saucer arrive at nearly the same time we meet Adrian, Margaret and Jimmy. We also are given the alien’s perspective as it approaches the rooftop of Adrian and Margarets’ penthouse apartment. Most cleverly we are also given a view of the alien itself. The alien and its space ship interior. Both perspectives are truly psychedelic. But how does the introduction of alien invasion, surveillance, fashion, music, drug use/abuse and sexuality anchor Liquid Sky to the subcultures within which the film is placed?

"Where are the drugs?" Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Where are the drugs?”
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Most likely it was never Tsukerman’s intention to create a film that we can now view as a sort of chronicle of the NYC Post-Punk/New Wave subculture. And it is most certainly sure that he never intended the movie to serve as a signal predicting the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Wether intentional or not, there should be no denying the film’s ability to do both things. Liquid Sky is a low-budget film with big budget aspirations. It is essentially a science fiction horror movie, but its genre goals are almost buried beneath a polarizing depiction of the New York City Underground Club scene of 1981. It is a depiction that stings and slips under the viewer’s skin.

"Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first, in 1981, it seemed that a disease was being caught / spread by members of the gay community. It was quickly becoming an outbreak. Initially the sicknesses was coined as The 4H Disease as the syndromes seemed to be inflicting homosexual men, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Despite some obvious signs, that initial name did not catch on as well as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) It wasn’t long before the CDS realized this was not an illness restricted to any one segment of the population. Certainly those living in cities like New York were realizing this long before the tragic epidemic was assigned the name AIDS in July of 1982. But in 1981 the young people populating the New York City Underground had not yet fully grasped the meaning of what was beginning to strike their respective communities. Paranoia and fear were already running rampant for a number of socio-political reasons. Liquid Sky captures an artistic world caught in the magic and the horror of the era.

"Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn't depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don't you think? Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don’t you think?
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The world of Liquid Sky takes place in the rag-tag world of the Artist as Outsider. More specifically, the world of Tsukerman’s film is concerned with outsiders and misfits. As in reality, the world of the arts is populated with youth, creativity and sexual experimentation. Sexuality is either fluid or leaning toward homosexuality. The Post-PUNK/New Wave NYC subculture is tightly connected to the pulse of the NYC Gay subculture. And both are freely connected to sex, drugs, music and art. Liquid Sky has a morality, but it is based in humanism rather than in the political.

Early on we watch Margaret attempt to seduce her male counterpart, Jimmy. It is here we are granted a cruel view of misogyny. It isn’t that Jimmy is just turned off by the idea of fucking a woman  — he makes it fairly clear that he detests women across the board. He treats Margaret as if she were nothing more than a link to drugs. Margaret has a tough shell, but something about Jimmy‘s cruelty eggs her on toward him. This seems to be a girl who is not used to being turned down. Despite his cruelty she is unwilling to write the mean queen off.

The only character who seems concerned with any other’s sexual preference is Adrian‘s uptown client. A failing artist who seems to have once clung to the idea that heroin will spark his artistic vision is now just uncomfortably numb. He finds Margaret’s androgynous beauty alluring, but he is far too concerned regarding her sexual preference. To Margaret and Adrian this junkie is normal and dull.

"What kind of drugs will you have?" Anne Carlisle Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“What kind of drugs will you have?”
Anne Carlisle
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Adrian clearly identifies as lesbian and seems to be disgusted by Margaret‘s promiscuity. And like Margaret she too has dreams of fame and success. Both women are damaged, but while Margaret has soaked up her sadness — Adrian funnels an insane level of sadness and rage into her work. Theirs is a dysfunctional relationship beyond reason, but they seem to cling to each other. Sex is merely fun and a tool. All of these characters trade in sex and shared works. Adrian is repulsed by the idea of her client wanting to have sex with Margaret but is totally cool with sharing her spoon, syringe and rubber band. Margaret attempts to procure cocaine by snuggling up to straight dude at the club. In the end she is brutally raped. She seems to accept this act of cruelty as a dark part of her life with which she must deal. She also seems totally committed to being mistreated by her girlfriend.

"I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?" Otto von Wernherr Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?”
Otto von Wernherr
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Both Anne Carlisle and Paula E. Sheppard are highly effective in their respective roles. We may not know these two characters but they feel genuine. The same is true for much of the cast. Otto Von Wernherr would never win an award for acting, but he is believable as the befuddled West German scientist trying to understand what these space aliens are doing in this circle of artists. At first he suspects the aliens are only interested in the heroin which shoots so freely among these characters, but soon it is revealed that these invaders are even more interested in the chemical reaction that orgasm creates within the brains of these humans. The interesting trick of the film is that while the film is never formerly concerned with character development, it fully utilizes the skills and charisma of the actors.

"For me it's easy. Hell to Hell. I'm not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing  the world. I don't lie to myself that love can cure because I know I'm alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well."  The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep. Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“For me it’s easy. Hell to Hell. I’m not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing the world. I don’t lie to myself that love can cure because I know I’m alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well.”
The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep.
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Sex has become an empty act. It no longer means anything to Margaret. So when the people who force their way with her sexually begin to die at the instant of orgasm she has little to no concern for the deaths. She is more curious than concerned. When an older artist brushes aside her need for conversation, she barely puts forward an argument as he rapes her. Thing take on a perverse edge when Adrian walks in do discover the nude male body. She slips into a sort of trance and begins a grim sort of rap to the beat of her fist on her thigh. When she reveals her deepest sexual fantasy is to have sex with a dead man, Margaret is repulsed. However it takes a good deal of necrophiliatic  attempt before she tries to stop Adrian.

All the more upsetting when we realize that Margaret mistakes the aliens murdering her sexual partners to be a sign of power. For the first time in her life she thinks she is found her awakening. Her sex is no longer something to be traded or abused. Alien intervention has allowed her sex to become a threat. A threat she is more than happy to put to work.

"How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?" Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?”
Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The characters of Liquid Sky are sick, twisted and sad. And yet we feel compelled to watch. This is not the sort of interest one experiences while watching a John Waters movie. Despite a few goofs and a low-budget, Liquid Sky is an interesting film. Once the movie begins, the viewer is going to be in for the long haul. The alien aspect of the film is largely secondary. We are concerned with the people. Margaret‘s misguided interpretation of the strange events that have started to happen all around her lead her down a very dark alley of self-examination.

And it doesn’t take deep thinking to discover that Slava Tsukerman’s film serves most effectively as horrific predictor of the AIDS epidemic.

"I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn't it fashionable?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn’t it fashionable?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky is not a movie for the squeamish, but neither is it actually an example of “shock cinema.” Much of what we think we see is never really shown. And what is shown is potent. This is a horror film, but it is less a horror film about alien invasion than it is a horror film about human nature. Before everything goes inside out and upside down, Margaret is offered the chance to be interviewed for a cool underground fashion magazine. The reporter who would appear to be totally linked in with the whole gang takes a cruel turn when she interviews the would-be model. The aggressive reporter informs Margaret that her style of dress, make-up and living are tacky. Even though she is able to put the reporter in her place, her privilege is not granted or acknowledged. Margaret dares to be different, but ultimately she only finds power in what she thinks is her ability to kill.

"You wanted to know whom and what I am? I'm a killer." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“You wanted to know whom and what I am? I’m a killer.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky finds a surprising, clever and fitting conclusion. But the film’s resolution is not so easy that it makes the viewer comfortable. As low-fi as it sometimes is, Liquid Sky disturbs. It also entertains, informs and inspires. Going on 35 years, it continues to enlarge its following. Over the last couple of years there have been screenings held at BAM, MOMA and other venues. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle have always made themselves available to discuss the film, their work and their hope to find funding to restore and preserve Liquid Sky‘s original negative print.

It is decaying. Literally.

"This subculture is not like 'The Mods' or 'The Rockers.' The punks don't need help from the outside to kill themselves..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“This subculture is not like ‘The Mods’ or ‘The Rockers.’ The punks don’t need help from the outside to kill themselves…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The VHS tape still fetches a good price on the market. Several DVD’s are floating around, but the quality is not good. Unlike most film art, Liquid Sky has actually managed to become more controversial with time. It also has the rare distinction of having aged like fine wine. This movie is more interesting every time I see it.

Despite the film’s strong following and the fact that it continues to inspire new generations of audience, there have been no takers to restore, preserve and redistribute. When the 1970’s slasher film, Alice Sweet Alice, began receiving some delayed glory there was hope that it might help Liquid Sky find a new life. After all  Alice herself is one of the key stars of this movie and Paula E. Sheppard has a cult following of her own.

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was "Alice." ...And she was scarier than the mask. Paula E. Sheppard Alice Sweet Alice Alfred Sole, 1978 Cinematography | Chuck Hall

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was “Alice.” …And she was scarier than the mask.
Paula E. Sheppard
Alice Sweet Alice
Alfred Sole, 1978
Cinematography | Chuck Hall

However she has always run from attention and rumor is that she found the experience of Liquid Sky negative. And sadly, Alfred Sole’s under rated horror film is still more famous for featuring a young Brooke Shields than it is for being an interesting and unusual genre film.

Liquid Sky continues to flow... "I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, "is it right or is it wrong?" If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here..." Lady Gaga Applause, 2013

Liquid Sky continues to flow…
“I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, “is it right or is it wrong?”
If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here…”
Lady Gaga
Applause, 2013

Even still, there is always hope. Tsukerman and Carlisle have even scripted a sequel that is ready to roll. No matter what the future holds for Liquid Sky, it is a movie that deserves attention. Seek it out if you dare.

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

"Killing all the teachers..." Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Killing all the teachers…”
Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

“A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

Master cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, was asked to comment on the way neon lights and lighting have impacted his work. As as part of the online exhibition from Mobile M+ and NEONSIGNS.HK, he revisited some of the locations in which he and Kar-wai Wong filmed some of iconic work:

The films we made at a certain period in the 80’s and 90’s wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for the space in which they were made…

Beauty hides in the shadows... Carina Lau Days of Being Wild Kar-wai Wong, 1990 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Beauty hides in the shadows…
Carina Lau
Days of Being Wild
Kar-wai Wong, 1990
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

…And our space is a neon space. It’s a light space. It’s a space of energy that is electric. It’s the way people move. It’s the energy of Hong Kong. It’s the excitement of the encounters on the street. And it’s lit by neon, basically. Especially at that time.

 

Surviving in a Neon World Tony Leung Chungking Express Kar-wai Wong, 1994 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Surviving in a Neon World
Tony Leung
Chungking Express
Kar-wai Wong, 1994
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

It’s a garish, exuberant possibly empty world if you’re not careful. I think that’s what neon is representing.” — Christopher Doyle, Filming in the Neon World.

For the full film/interview click here:

"Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don't know how long she'll stay." Fallen Angels Kar-Wai Wong, 1998 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don’t know how long she’ll stay.”
Fallen Angels
Kar-Wai Wong, 1998
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s work for Kar-wai Wong is some of the best cinematography one can ever expect to see. As he explains, it is exuberant — It is also erotic, unique, sensual, dangerous, disorienting and staggeringly beautiful. The shot posted above takes place in a space few of us would want to actually spend time. Much of Fallen Angels seems dirty and possibly even sinister, but eyes do not want to part with the visuals Doyle has captured. Less than a year later he would make his debut as a feature filmmaker. Away With Words featured one of Japan’s hottest  actors, Tadanobu Asano, and an impossibly cool use of music. Most importantly, it was visually amazing. The images of Away With Words imprinted on my brain. Sadly Doyle’s movie was never lucky enough to receive adequate distribution. But for those of us who did see it — the movie lives on.

The criminally neglected and forgotten... Tadanobu Asano Away With Words / San tiao ran Christopher Doyle, 1999

The criminally neglected and forgotten…
Tadanobu Asano
Away With Words / San tiao ran
Christopher Doyle, 1999

The world contained within Away With Words is magically infused with neon light. The movie actually seems to radiate much of the time. This film can still be found via DVD, though it has never received a proper transfer. It is still worth seeing. It is also almost impossible to find any screenshots that do it justice. I must disclose that Christopher Doyle is my favorite cinematographer. For me to write this is a big deal. I love cinematography and there are many artists I admire — but it is usually hard for me to pick out one artist above all others. I do not have this problem when it comes to cinematography. No one shoots a film like Mr. Doyle.

"Turns out that lonely people are all the same." Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Turns out that lonely people are all the same.”
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The use of neon lighting for film has been going on for some time. It’s seem obvious that lighting is as key to a movie as editing, but it is far more complex than simply providing enough light to capture an image. Lighting allows the filmmaker and cinematographer to not only guide but to literally shape a film’s meaning. Cinematography incorporates all essential elements to form the essence of a movie. When one thinks of neon lighting for film, it would seem it best for creating either a sterile environment or a world of shadows with the intention of menace or horror. But the use of neon lighting is almost limitless in what it can convey. It all depends on how well the cinematographer understands lighting, is able to collaborate with lighting technicians and how creative he/she is in bringing a personal vision that highlights the essential one belonging to the film’s director.

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer. Jessica Harper suspects witchery. Suspiria Dario Argento, 1977 Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer.
Jessica Harper suspects witchery.
Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977
Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Argento’s Suspiria is a neon lit nightmare. Luciano Tovoli’s camera gives the gratuitous violence and paranormal horrors a sinister sort of beauty without getting in Argento’s way. The cinematographer works for the director, but he/she can bring forth magic that the director is often only able to imagine.

In a passive chronological order, take a look at the following shots that incorporate The Neon World into the frames and meanings of the respective films.

"How much?" American Gigolo Paul Schrader, 1980 Cinematography | John Bailey

“How much?”
American Gigolo
Paul Schrader, 1980
Cinematography | John Bailey

Bailey’s use of neon reds and blacks is the perfect concept for dark eroticism and ever-present danger and paranoia.

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous Rutger Hauer Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous
Rutger Hauer
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

I was too young when I first saw Blade Runner to be able to own the language of film, but when I noticed it was referred to as “Neo-Noir” I do remember thinking “Neon-Noir” seemed more sensical. A few years later I would begin to make the connection. I still like the term “Neon Noir” even if it isn’t real.

"This is not a marketplace." Thief Michael Mann, 1981 Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

“This is not a marketplace.”
Thief
Michael Mann, 1981
Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

Michael Mann had great luck bringing the neon world to Thief, but the same can’t be said for One From The Heart. Even still, it is a beautiful looking mess of a movie.

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow -- and nobody came to see it? Nastassja Kinski glowing... One From The Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1982 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro / Ronald Víctor García

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow — and nobody came to see it?
Nastassja Kinski glowing…
One From The Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1982
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro /
Ronald Víctor García

Tony Scott’s The Hunger is seamlessly beautiful — the film’s opening moments/credits are unforgettable and immediately set the stage. Shadowed, cool, stylish and throbbing with electricity and hyper eroticism — this world is beguiling, but we all know that Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

"Nothing human loves forever..." Peter Murphy The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“Nothing human loves forever…”
Peter Murphy
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Ken Russell may have not had a big budget, but he understood how he exactly how he wanted to capture China Blue’s surreal world of fantasy, cheap thrills and escape.  Dick Bush was a master, but it was usually his director’s who pushed him forward. And he never failed them.

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue... Kathleen Turner Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue…
Kathleen Turner
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Wim Wender’s Paris Texas seems an odd fit for utilizing the idea of a Neon-drenched world, but Robby Muller brings the idea to glorious use more than a couple of times within Wender’s concept.

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot... Paris Texas Wim Wenders, 1984 Cinematography | Robby Muller

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot…
Paris Texas
Wim Wenders, 1984
Cinematography | Robby Muller

David Lynch’s collaborations with the great Frederick Elmes never fail to seduce, hypnotize and repulse. Blue Velvet is a classic example of Neo-Noir …and Neon-Noir Surrealism.

This is not your grandparents Film Noir... Isabella Rossellini Blue Velvet David Lynch, 1986 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

This is not your grandparents Film Noir…
Isabella Rossellini
Blue Velvet
David Lynch, 1986
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

Finding the image from Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct was not as easy as I had expected. Most remember this film for Sharon Stone’s brave and no-hold-barred performance (and flash!) but I always think of that amazing scene where the detective enters a raving dance club to find his Femme Fatale. This is not a good example of the way Jan de Bont was able to capture the electric energy of this nightclub, but you can get the general idea. It was too masterful to leave out.

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist's adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club. Basic Instinct Paul Verhoeven, 1992 Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist’s adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club.
Basic Instinct
Paul Verhoeven, 1992
Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Michael Mann had already established a magical sort of neon energy for the protagonist of Thief, but he found new ways to utilize it for the visually dazzling, HEAT.

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection. HEAT Michael Mann, 1995 Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection.
HEAT
Michael Mann, 1995
Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

Terry Gilliam and Nicola Pecorini bring neon, chaos, paranoia and delirium to Las Vegas of the late 1960’s.

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Terry Gilliam, 1998 Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam, 1998
Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

Skipping ahead a few years and even Jason Statham gets the neon touch…

"Now I go back to the street and disappear." This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors. Jason Statham Steven Knight, 2013 Cinematography | Chris Menges

“Now I go back to the street and disappear.”
This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors.
Jason Statham
Steven Knight, 2013
Cinematography | Chris Menges

Yorick Le Saux adds a whole new context of meaning to Jim Jarmusch’s already cool vampiric world…

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston  Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch, 2013 Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch, 2013
Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Just as one should never attempt to mention neon lighting in film without a discussion of Christoper Doyle’s masterful work — it would be tragic to not highlight Benoit Debie’s cinematography. Harmony Korine has always been astute regarding his cinematic visions, but Debie brings a hue to Spring Breakers that only he could create.

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps... Spring Breakers Harmony Korine, 2012 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps…
Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine, 2012
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The critics may have dismissed Ryan Gosling feature film directorial debut, but I still contend they were wrong. If nothing else, Benoit Debie added neon drenched meanings, mystery and surreal horrors forward in Lost River. The film is not perfect, but it arches forward in simultaneously borrowed but eccentric uniqueness. In its own way, Lost River, if almost brilliant. This is no one’s standard coming of age movie.

"Live" Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn... Eva Mendes Lost River Ryan Gosling, 2014 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“Live” Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn…
Eva Mendes
Lost River
Ryan Gosling, 2014
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Just as Christopher Doyle will forever be linked with Kar-wai Wong — so will Benoit Debie with Gaspar Noe. It is a supreme compliment to both directors that they have been able to collaborate so beautifully with two distinctly brilliant cinematographers. While all four are linked respectively together — Wong and Noe have never been hesitant to share the credit for the power of the fieldwork.

Strong case in point, Noe actually shares cinematography credit with Debie for Irreversible. It says a great deal that I am never sure who is behind the camera in this deeply disturbing film. Irreversible is a remarkable work of cinematic art, but it is almost as problematic. One thing is most certain, the quality of the camerawork and use of lighting can only be praised. Even if you have opted to not put yourself through the inhumane horrors of this film — I suspect you will recognize this image.

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film... Irreversible Gaspar Noe, 2002 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film…
Irreversible
Gaspar Noe, 2002
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And when it comes to the power of neon lighting within the context of filmmaking, one would be hard pressed to think of a better example than Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. Intentionally a trip of a film experience, Benoit Debie’s mark is ever-present.

"It's fucking cold." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

“It’s fucking cold.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

 

"I can't believe this is real." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“I can’t believe this is real.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And while Love may not be much of a movie, it is often amazing to watch for visuals alone. Once again, Debie infuses neon light throughout.

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release... Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock Love Gaspar Noe, 2015 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release…
Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock
Love
Gaspar Noe, 2015
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And if there is one director who has spent a career studying and utilizing neon for filmmaking it would be Nicolas Winding Refn. Even under the constraint of a limited budget, his focus was on capturing the energy, insanity and terror of the drug underworld via lighting. The Pusher Trilogy shows what a skilled artist can do with very little.

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn PUSHER Mads Mikkelsen Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996 Cinematography | Morten Soborg

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn
PUSHER
Mads Mikkelsen
Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996
Cinematography | Morten Soborg

The film itself may be flawed, but Fear X is of note because it marks the first collaboration between Refn and Larry Smith. Paranoia, fear, rage, mystery and horror benefit from a very neon-ed space.

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia. John Turturro Fear X Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia.
John Turturro
Fear X
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003
Cinematography | Larry Smith

2008’s Bronson is a cinematic marvel on more than a few counts — one of them is the way in which Larry Smith pushes neon to the limits to merge reality with the fantasy of Surrealism.

 

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow. Tom Hardy BRONSON Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow.
Tom Hardy
BRONSON
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Nicolas Winding Refn and Larry Smith use Drive to serve as the perfect synthesis of their shared vision. It is all about style and manipulation of light.

"Is he a bad guy?" Drive Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

“Is he a bad guy?”
Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

The envelope got pushed off the table and then blown toward the door for their next collaborative effort, Only God Forgives. While it is not a perfect movie, it is certainly not the flop that so many critics wanted us to believe. Only God Forgives is a metaphorical nightmare that often looks more animated than real. Odd and completely unforgettable — another exorcise in style and manipulation.

"Time to meet The Devil." Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn't worried. Nicolas Winding Rein, 2013 Cinematography | Larry Smith

“Time to meet The Devil.”
Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn’t worried.
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Sadly Larry Smith was not involved in Mr. Refn’s next experiment, but it is unlikely that Refn would have budged even the slightest. The title says it all. The Neon Demon is a cinematic error. This time Refn didn’t even bother to push the envelope. He simply refused to acknowledge that an envelope existed. Beautiful, seductive, twisted and so cool it is almost frozen  — The Neon Demon stands indignant and absolutely lost in the garishness of its own neon glow.

And, cue the tipping point... The Neon Demon Elle Fanning Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

And, cue the tipping point…
The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Jenna Malone is the only actor who manages to walk away unscathed. Of course this Demon is so very neon, we sometimes can hardly see her.

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing. Jenna Malone is full of beauty... The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing.
Jenna Malone is full of beauty…
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

It may not work, but Natasha Braier is certainly up for the challenges her director presents.

The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Matty Stanfield, 9.20.2016

 

 

 

 

When 19th Century writer, Jules Michelet, wrote La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) his goal was not limited to providing a history of Medieval European Witchcraft. In truth he was seeking to do something far more interesting — his intention was to reveal that history as a cultural rebellion against the oppressions of the Roman Catholic Church and Feudalism. Michelet was sympathetic to the plight of peasant women of this era. What culture and history named as Satanic or Witchcraft, he attempted to redefine from the other side of a largely unrecognized side of this phenomenon: Paganism.

An impoverished woman doesn't quite fit into her community is to be judged as an Evil Witch. Illustration by Martin van Maele from Jules Michelet La Sorcière, 1911 Edition.

An impoverished woman doesn’t quite fit into her community is to be judged as an Evil Witch.
Illustration by Martin van Maele
from Jules Michelet La Sorcière, 1911 Edition.

The idea, as presented by Michelet, was to look underneath such dark practices as Devil Worship and discover its true origins. In fact, he viewed this with an eye to where non-prescriptive spiritual beliefs might lead to something of beauty and goodness. Was the cultural magnifying glass obstructing the goodness to propagate the fear of the people? His sympathies were given to the oppressed and victimized. Paganism was not necessarily Evil from Michelet’s viewpoint. His book would assist in laying out a model for modern Pagan Wiccan Ideologies.

Were these men afraid of Witchcraft or simply afraid of a women refusing patriarchal control? "The Witch, No. 3" Joseph E. Baker, c. 1890

Were these men afraid of Witchcraft or simply afraid of a women refusing patriarchal control?
“The Witch, No. 3”
Joseph E. Baker, c. 1890

Michelet reconstructs and reimagines a situation in which a coven of desperate women push their unique forms of social protest into darkness by the use of decadent rituals performed under the power of the moon. Black Sabbaths performed by witches. It was not the strength found in nature that was the problem. The problem was when these spiritual and empowering rituals sought to do harm. He then devotes the remainder of the book to reconstructions / imaginings taken from the horrific European witch trials. Michelet’s writings were debunked as inaccurate and problematic long ago, but he is responsible for turning a sympathetic light toward oppressed women and scorn on irrational societal fears. If nothing else, La Sorcière speaks to a very different kind of revolutionary danger that goes far beyond the simple political. If a society chooses to push large groups into oppression and misery, there is simply no telling what those groups might form to rebel.

Entering the 1970's society felt that parents had control of their children. Cue a masterful film about a pretty little girl possessed by The Devil. Linda Blair The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Entering the 1970’s society felt that parents had control of their children. Cue a masterful film about a pretty little girl possessed by The Devil.
Linda Blair
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

As the world crashed out of the 1960’s and slammed into the resulting gains and damages of the 1970’s, Japan’s Mushi Production was looking to take on a bigger slice of the Animated Movie Pie. They instructed their animation team to create three adult-oriented projects referred to as The Animerama Trilogy. Mushi Productions and legendary animator, Osamu Tezuka, were looking to keep up with an ever evolving and reactionary era. The Animerama Trilogy would be Anime / Manga with a difference. These three films were to be full-on erotica and they would also adhere to psychedelic animation.

"All those lonely people..." Taking animation into the psychedlic. Yellow Submarine George Dunning, 1968 Art Direction | Heinz Edelmann

“All those lonely people…” Taking animation into the psychedlic.
Yellow Submarine
George Dunning, 1968
Art Direction | Heinz Edelmann

Perhaps it was worries about trying to push ahead of the coolness / originality created within the animated Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine, combined with rumors of hardcore content about to explode within mainstream cinematic entertainment. This was the era of Last Tango in Paris, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist. It was at this time that two truly pornographic films enjoyed mainstream success. Deep Throat and Beyond The Green Door were not limited to creepy porn cinemas. Whatever propelled Mushi Productions to push the cinematic envelope, this was The Sexual Revolution and Liberation moving in full-tilt-boogie mode. Mushi Productions was ready to make X-Rated pornographic animated films. The sexuality was to be both erotic and graphic, but equal attention needed to be applied in the areas of plot and artistic quality.

The original movie poster Belladonna of Sadness / Tragedy of Belladonna Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

The original movie poster
Belladonna of Sadness / Tragedy of Belladonna
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

Belladonna of Sadness was actually the second of the trilogy. Tezuka assigned Eiichi Yamamoto to serve as Belladonna‘s director and visionary leader. He quickly convinced painter, Kuni Fukai, to helm the film’s art direction duties. Artistic freedom and quality were of upmost importance. Astro Boy was the money maker for Mushi Productions. This trilogy was to be creative. Concerns regarding commercial success were to be pushed off the table.

The oppressed victim transforms into a magically powerful Witch... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The oppressed victim transforms into a magically powerful Witch…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Yamamoto understood the importance of story and the importance of artistic quality. Fukai was not particularly interested in Anime or Manga, but he did want the freedom to pursue his artistic vision. He was also drawn to the idea that Tezuka was not particularly interested in movement. His goal was to focus on the detail of illustration. In other words, traditional ideas of animation were out the window. Fukai found the film’s development and production to be an enjoyable artistic experience. Based upon interviews, it is clear that Fukai captured the director’s ideas onto scrolling murals. The film’s cinematographer, Shigeru Yamasaki, then set the framing as his camera moved along the murals and other illustrations. Belladonna of Sadness took two years to create using less than ten additional animators. Masahiko Satoh was hired to provide the musical score. It is a jazzed-fused mash-up of experimental synthesizers with syrupy pop ballads. The musical score works incredibly well. Like the film itself, Satoh’s score has a large number of fans as well.

Defying conventional ideas of Anime and animation... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Defying conventional ideas of Anime and animation…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

By the time Belladonna of Sadness was ready for release, Mushi Productions was about to fall into bankruptcy. Their Japanese distributor, Nippon Herald Eiga, was at a loss when it came to marketing the movie. Even though the strange film was well received at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival, it received a limited release in Japan without any success. Having now seen this infamous movie, it seems all the more odd that it came and went with little to no interest.  It was never officially released outside of Japan. In the late 1970’s it was discovered that Belladonna had gained a minor female following.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

An attempt to re-cut the movie so that it might hold a more immediate appeal to female viewers only resulted in muting the film’s power. Much of the hardcore sexuality and sexual violence was trimmed away. It is easy to understand why the director decided to remove some of these elements as they have and continue to cause problematic issues, but those original choices still make sense to the overall reach of the film. However Yamamoto had the idea of incorporating a scan of Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix to serve as a potent closing image.

A poisonous flower? Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

A poisonous flower or a source of magical healing?
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The additional mix of Delacroix’s style makes sense given that the movie pulsates via a number of various stylistic influences. But the most logical piece of this idea is that the painting better conveys the film’s closing lines. Belladonna of Sadness has always enjoyed a strong reputation among fans of the Anime / Manga genres. Various and inferior versions of the movie floated around for years. The folks at Cinelicious Pics worked hard to secure the rights to restore and distribute an uncensored version of the movie to the world. All of the eroticism, depravity and sexual brutality has been returned. But the 1979 inclusion of Delacroix’s painting remains. Belladonna of Sadness is now available in 4K remaster.

How to describe this film without giving too much away? I’m not confident I can do that so I will keep my summary simplistic and utilize shots from the film to indicate the beauty, complexity and ultra-weird world it portrays. The over-all look of the film is tied to an idea of glam beauty that you might expect to see in illustrated adverts of the early to mid-1970’s. The film’s protagonist, Jeanne, is rendered as a slender and sublimely perfect nymphette. Her appearance is the one consistent element of the movie’s imagery. Jeanne‘s beauty does not match the world in which she has been born. She is simply too elegantly beautiful to belong here.

The identity finds no solace or safety in marriage... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The identity finds no solace or safety in marriage…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

She is a peasant girl who has just married a humble but handsome man. Only minutes into her marriage, Jeanne is raped by the land’s Feudal Lord — and his entire court including Church leadership. This might sound silly, but that animated / painted sequences of rape and sexual torture are truly horrific. Kuni Fukai and his team found ways to render this human cruelty that go well beyond the boundaries of living actors. The sequence is traumatic and may prove to be more than some are willing to watch. When the film was screened in San Francisco more than a few people opted to leave the cinema. If you thought the killing of Bambi‘s mom was harsh, that classically upsetting animated moment is rendered sweet in comparison.

Believe it or not, this film's animated depiction of rape is disorienting, visceral and horrifically disturbing. Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Believe it or not, this film’s animated depiction of rape is disorienting, visceral and horrifically disturbing.
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The ability of this film to capture both the act of rape and the consequence of the attack is nothing short of brilliant. As horrible as these sequences are — they are essential. The rape of Jeanne is not presented as erotic, but it does force forward an uncomfortable issue. While Yamamoto is clearly not looking to excite the audience, that doesn’t mean that this depiction of rape is above reproach. An argument could be made that his film goes too far. Somewhere in the synapse of the depicted horror there registers a worrying sense of the sadistic.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Is the explicit manner in which these brutalities are depicted meaningful or exploitive? While I think a case could be made, ultimately I was moved by the way the film managed to present the sheer trauma and damage of rape. Even still it must be noted that these sequences are so repulsive and shocking — they push it all so far that the viewer’s mind and body are both required to react.

It is a manipulation. It is a tough watch. Maybe too tough to be considered as an “entertaining” experience — and, no matter, this movie’s intentions are to entertain.

Draw your own conclusion.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness is obviously surrealistic, but it is persistently grounded in realistic logic. Jeanne‘s life and marriage are ruined. As she attempts the impossibility of healing and restoring her identity she falls into a spiraling depression. Pushed past the edge of sanity, Jeanne appears to retreat into an attempt at calming through sexual self release. Or at least this is how I interpret it. Instead of finding peace, she discovers The Devil. Playful and ever-ready to flirt, The Devil never attempts to hide his identity. He repeatedly points out that Jeanne has summoned him.

Evil has not come to Jeanne without invitation. 

Jeanne makes a pact and gives her body and soul for as she phrases it, “something bad.” The something bad is actually empowerment and full claim of her sexual liberation.

Surrendering to Satan... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Surrendering to Satan…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Our protagonist is angry when she awakens from her surrealistic fuck-fest with Satan. She has anticipated that she would wake in Hell. She thought her hair would have turned into snakes. She expected to be a scary old hag. Instead she wakes refreshed, clean, energetic, healed and surrounded by flowers that seem to radiate energy.

"You had already died, anyway." Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

“You had already died, anyway.”
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

I want people to turn away in horror when I pass by in the street. I don’t want to forget anger and hatred!” Jeanne seethes to The Devil.

You have become beautiful, Jeanne. Like a young girl in love. Radiant. You are even more beautiful than God,” The Devil replies.

The One who owns her soul explains that a woman can be angry, scary and raging with hatred and remain beautiful. Why? Because she does not fully understand the power of her own self and beauty. The Devil teaches her that she can channel her beauty, charm, intellect and intelligence to do good or utilize those same powers to cause righteous evil. Nature will bend to Jeanne‘s will. Why? Because she is woman.

Meet Jeanne, The Witch. Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Meet Jeanne, The Witch.
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Yamamoto’s vision of The Devil is a penis of various sizes and compulsions. Evil is represented by the penis. It is comical, but it is also oddly effective in depicting Jeanne’s initiation into the sensual. The vagina is used to symbolize a wide range of ideas and aspects of life, but the key to Belladonna of Sadness‘ use of yonic symbology are related to joy, pleasure and life.

"Are you The Devil?" "Yes," replies the cock along with an opportunity for empowerment... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

“Are you The Devil?”
“Yes,” replies the cock along with an opportunity for empowerment…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Welcome to Eiichi Yamamoto’s take on Feminist Theory. As Jeanne allows herself to shed inhibitions — she evolves into a powerful sexual predator. She seduces and gains strength as the men begin to lose theirs. Jeanne has long left her former life, she is now surrounded by beauty. She finds creative and magical ways to return to her fellow peasants.

Jeanne magically creates food and wine. She brings sexual education to her fellow peasants. She turns the poisonous Belladonna flower into medicine that stops pain — most importantly notes is that her magic flower  takes away the pain of childbirth for the women of her village. And she pulls the peasants back to her Sexual LSD’d-like trip’d out home for orgy sabbaths. All of which are depicted in stunning ways and in a multiple manner of styles. Some of the film’s stylings are truly beautiful, others are crude, some are silly, some profane and all are aiming to shock.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Eventually Jeanne must decide how she really wants to use her new found power.

Ultimately there is a reason Yamamoto named the protagonist “Jeanne.”

Jeanne d’Arc, anyone? Did I mention the story takes place in France? 

Do ya wanna hold me? Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Do ya wanna hold me?
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Regarding the film’s X-Rated ideologies — Belladonna of Sadness aims to sexually excite. This is eroticism. To be more specific, this is experimental eroticism.

Why is it experimental? For more reasons than I care to list, but this is an animated film. Depictions of the human body morph from realistic renderings to the profanely abstract. This is even more true when applied to genitalia.

Is Belladonna of Sadness actually erotic? I guess that depends on what winds your clock. Personally, I do not find illustrations all that sexy. But that is just me.

Eroticism morphs... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Eroticism morphs…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

I should also point out that I’ve no interest in animated film, Anime or Manga. The fact that I wanted to write about Belladonna of Sadness indicates a great deal regarding how I feel about it. I loved the experience of this movie.

I admire the artistic audacity, experimentation and the epic go-for-broke approach. And I take great pleasure in seeing something totally new and unique. I have never seen a movie like this one. It is unique. It is also a problematic film and it doesn’t always work. But when Belladonna of Sadness does work — it compulsively pulls us into its own astounding world.

Erotica Abstracta / Fascinating to watch Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Erotica Abstracta / Fascinating to watch
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Belladonna of Sadness has been gyrating for over 43 years. It isn’t going anywhere. For more info: http://www.cineliciouspics.com/belladonna-of-sadness/

Matty Stanfield, 8.25.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the infamous Vincent Canby reviewed Fellini’s Casanova he spent some time praising what he saw. It almost feels as though he wanted to like flawed movie, but as he reached his closing summation he issued a frustrated dismissal:

The production is gigantic, but the ideas and feelings are small. One longs to go home and listen to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1977

"And Now...after four years of preparation and production..." Fellin's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976

“And Now…after four years of preparation and production…”
Fellin’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976

Mr. Canby was not alone. Even Woody Allen seemed to take a stab at the film. As Alvy and Annie Hall wait in a cinema ticket holders line, they are forced to listen to a pretentious fellow film-goer rant about the Federico Fellini’s latest self-Indulgence. The latest work was Fellini’s Casanova. I suppose one could argue that Mr. Allen disagreed as he magically pulls Marshall McLuhan into frame. Alvy has the enjoyment of seeing the esteemed media philosopher bring the pompous jerk down to size.  Alvy‘s contempt for this cinephile has more to do with forcing his opinions on everyone around him. No defense is made for Fellini’s Casanova. It is doubtful that the narrator and that film’s title character would find much in Fellini’s adaptation of Giacomo Casanova’s Storia della mia vita or The Story of My Life. The doomed movie simply serves as a jumping point for a great comic bit.

"What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!" Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with horse manure in it!”
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Vincent Canby’s review of the then long delayed Italian production was a fair and astute critique. If you are familiar with Canby’s style of criticism — he gives the movie a thumbs down, but also manages to praise more than a little of what he saw unspool on the screen. This is not something he was prone to do.

I’m not an expert on Federico Fellini, but I have had reason to watch this film quite a bit in the last two years. In that time I have also researched a good deal regarding the troubled production of Le Casanova de Fellini. As the genius mind often does, the great filmmaker had become obsessed with translating Casanova’s memoirs. His obsession had nothing to do with Casanova. He was fascinated by a man whom he considered to be an evil character.

As Fellini’s film well charts, Casanova did not love. The existence of his being relied upon sexual encounters with no connection to the objects of his interests. Interests would be the best way to term it. Fellini’s Casanova does not even really lust. It was only after shooting began that Fellini began to feel a level of empathy towards his title character. It would be this change of heart regarding his Casanova that would end up framing the entire film.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

The production began with a fundamental problem. His key financier, Alberto Grimaldi, had some very strong opinions about who would play Casanova. These two iconic figures of European Cinema entered into a battle of the wills. Grimaldi insisted that Fellini cast one of several major movie stars of the era: Brando, Redford, Newman or Pacino. Eventually Grimaldi gave in a bit and suggested Michael Caine. It is interesting that the producer even attempted to reign-in the auteur.

Fellini could never be reigned in. He got his way. He cast Donald Sutherland in the role. It was a bit of an odd choice, but it makes sense. Mr. Sutherland was a solid movie star, but not at the titan level of Grimaldi’s suggestion. He knew that Sutherland was a true actor and he also knew that he would not need to wrestle with the typical American Movie Star Ego. Fellini also saw a sadness in the deeply skilled actor. Sutherland’s casual approach also seemed to offer a sort of open canvas upon which he could paint. Or to be more precise — Sutherland was a tall thin form he intended to sculpt.

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini put his star through the paces, but Sutherland was stellar and did all and more than was needed. Fellini had hired him to play an unlikable and hopelessly alienated man. Before and when the shooting began Federico Fellini held the character in contempt. He had Sutherland’s head half shaven, applied a prosthetic nose, chin and other odd distortions served totally re-shape Sutherland. The actor looks the same from every angle. His face and being have been largely restricted. Often the only English speaker in front of the camera, he was not always able to communicate effectively. His eyes are really all he had to utilize on his own. At times it feels as if Sutherland is little more than a puppet with Fellini orchestrating his every move. Surprisingly this restrictive appearance serves Fellini’s purpose effectively, but not well enough to distinguish Sutherland as an essential player within the film.

The film was shot under extremely tight supervision and behind the closed gates of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Nothing about this film looks real. Quite the opposite, the entire movie feels like a gorgeous formation of a nightmare. Cold, barren and yet full of things to look at — Fellini’s Casanova is even more obscure than the far superior Fellini Satyricon. This is Surrealism to the infinite. As one expects, every actor on the screen is interesting to study. As is often the case with later Fellini, the grotesque is magnified. The movie is as much perversely disturbing as it is often stunningly beautiful. Anyone who doubts that Fellini was not calling and insisting on every single choice can be satisfied to discover that he had an articulated explanation for every aspect of the movie.

 

Only the actors are real... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Only the actors are real…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

If one wonders why the production design suddenly replaces actual water with black garbage bags, Fellini had demanded this odd choice to his esteemed Production Designer/Art Director/Costume Designer, Danilo Donati. The director chose to replace water with plastic garbage bags to serve as a metaphor for Casanova’s fraudulent identity and fruitless self-journey. Fellini knew exactly what he wanted and refused any level of compromise. As he was walking his actors through a key scene involving nuns, Fellini discovered a feeling of empathy for Casanova.

He quickly came up with two incredibly complex studio set ideas which changed the point of the film and would serve as cinematic bookends within which to hold the film. And these were not simple last minute decisions. They were complex and expensive. Donate and the artists at Cinecittà Studios had to continually succeed against tight deadlines. It speaks volumes for Federico Fellini that his cast, crew and the studio artisans did next to no complaining. The filmmaker was beloved and respected. Only the best work was put forward for their director. And it shows in the finished film.

 

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

The opening scene of Fellini’s Casanova is remarkable. An ornate and rowdy crowd assembles on the city’s banks waiting for something to emerge from the water. Impossibly complex rigs and tethers begin to pull and strain — a huge statue of Venus begins to emerge. The swelling crowed slips into jubilation as the Goddess of Love begins to peer out over the very real water. It is as if she is rising from the water as a blessing of desire, lust and love. Sadly the ropes and levers quickly buckle. The rigs and ropes snap under the strain. The giant statue promising erotic love and happiness slips forever lost to the bottom of the ocean. It is as if all hope for satisfaction and happiness has sunk. Nino Rota’s brilliant musical score adds to the potency of the visual. This is how Fellini’s Casanova begins.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

It is far more than grim metaphor. The failed attempt to raise Venus out of the water is never corrected. The film ends with a striking return to the film’s early warning sign. As Casanova attempts to find some form of connection and solace, he will realize that he is standing alone on a vast area of frozen water. The peering eyes of Venus are looking up at both him. Venus’ cold eyes are forever frozen beneath the lonely womanizer’s feet. It all sounds amazing, but one needs to be aware that this is a two hour and thirty-five minute epic of calculated iciness.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

A pal recently suggested that Fellini’s Casanova must be a bit like Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. But this is not a good comparison. True, Ken Russell’s highly experimental and comic-book take on everything from Franz Liszt to Richard Wagner to anti-semitism to WWII may be overtly eager, but there is sense to Russell’s unhinged film. If a person knows their history, Lisztomania is filled with an intentional goofy sort of logic that ties to the truth of the people and situations it satirizes.  Ken Russell was also smart enough to keep his film under the two hour mark by twenty minutes. He keeps the pace up with the surreal actions taking place on the screen.

 

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness... Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness…
Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Beyond the fact that both films were greeted negatively by critics and audiences, there is really very little that actually connects the two films. Lisztomania is a Surrealist’s absurd study of music composers connected to the rise of Facism presented through a Looney Tunes like lens. This interpretation is really not that far off base.  

Fellini’s Casanova has no interest in history. This epic film is steadfast in its indifference to logic, time or space. The lover, his reality, his Italy and even the horrific Inquisition are not based in any realm of reality. When those support beams and ropes break and Venus sinks to the bottom of the water — so do the film’s strings to logic. Additionally, the movie is not particularly well paced. Fellini’s Casanova takes its time. However the sets, the costumes, the odd assortment of actors, Rotunno’s cinematography and Rota’s haunting score aid in the propelling motion of the gloomy plot.

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

As laborious as it sometimes is, Fellini’s Casanova is visually unforgettable. I cringe as I write the following words, but as Woody Allen’s pompous ticket holder annoyingly laments,  Fellini’s Casanova is painfully self-indulgent. This fact does not mean that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this excessive film. A couple of DVD and BluRay distributors have managed to secure limited releasing rights to this film. One even claimed to have fully restored the film to its initial flawed beauty. Those claims have yet to demonstrate any truth. However a restoration should be coming in the not too far future. When it does eventually arrive, I do think  this 40+ year old film warrants owning for home viewing.

I know I’ve just criticized it fairly harshly but… Well… Um, yeah. I really do suggest purchasing a copy when it does become available. Fellini’s Casanova is a brilliant mistake!

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

This experimental epic failed in the 1970’s and it fails now, but not without a great deal of interest. Fellini’s Casanova is a visually stunning mess. Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is even better than usual. Danilo Donati and the work of Cinecitta Studios is truly other-worldly. Incidentally, Fellini’s film flopped — but Donati won an Academy Award for the innovative costume design. Nino Rota’s score is beautiful, effective and iconic. Chances are you have heard the melody even if you’ve never seen the movie. Odd, grotesque, surreal and lovely —  it is virtually impossible to look away from the screen. Even with a running time over two hours, Fellini’s Casanova is not a dull experience. It just isn’t much fun. This is a true flaw.

Fellini approaches his subject with a strong degree of hubris and judgement. Despite the perversities on display, this film is highly moralistic. The dialogue is often smartly witty, but never comical. This is another critical error. Fellini has checked his sense of humor outside the studio. There is no fun to be found within the gorgeous frames of his Casanova. As if in opposition to the dire tone is the clunky manner in which the film has been dubbed. It’s not that the voices fail to match the mouths as much as it is the intelligence runs against the film’s grain. The actors often appear to be lost within their director’s Mise-en-scène.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

Donald Sutherland lumbers his way through the film. He is essentially nothing more than a sad puppet at the mercy of his filmmaker’s whim. In a strange way, Sutherland’s performance works. Though watching the film now it is hard to wonder if it wasn’t just dumb luck. Vacant, sleepy and possibly bored — his confusion plays directly into the director’s ill-advised endeavor.

It is truly vexing how Fellini has opted out of offering any rays of humor or sexiness in his translation of the infamous Seducer and supposed Lover of women. This film is not the erotic adventure you might anticipate. It is actually un-erotic. Casanova‘s libido and desire have long been lost. Fellini’s film is not just a study of an aging womanizer — it is focused on the tragic existential journey of man who has failed to connect any meaning to sexuality. In fact Fellini’s Casanova does not appear to have ever connected to anyone or anything. This is a lover who’s identity and meaning have gone limp. …both figuratively and literally.

 

Seducing a robotic woman... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Seducing a robotic woman…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Clearly Fellini is pointing a finger at the growing sexual revolution. It is a point not off-mark, but it is consistently made in a haze of staggering showmanship that is often so bad it works its way ’round to being somehow valid.

A man who never speaks ill of women does not love them. For to understand them and to love them one must suffer at their hands. Then and only then can you find happiness at the lips of your beloved.” — Fellini’s Casanova

This character does not dislike women. He is simply indifferent to them. It doesn’t take long to realize his two-way street dilemma. The women do not care about Casanova either. They are only interested in his ability to sex. And sex he can. At least this is true in his youth. But the sex is presented in a dry and often disgusting manner.

Win! He has fucked! Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Win! He has fucked!
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I think some first time viewers make the mistake of associating this movie with the nunsploitation of the 1970’s. Do not expect that. Sure, the nuns get on the action, but Fellini has no interest in providing even a glimmer of titillation. Yes, it is visually interesting — but there is nothing remotely “naughty” here. It is intended to trouble, worry and depress. Like the bubbling sexual revolution going on just outside the film studio’s gate, Fellini’s Casanova is fucking to prove something.

Sex as sport. Sex as a game. Sex as a dare. Sex as a way to avoid. Sex as a weapon. Sex to hide the pain. Our lover fucks till he can fuck no more. The sexuality expressed in the movie feels like a harbinger of doom. With hindsight this is an interesting perspective. When Casanova finds himself in a sexual tryst with a robotic woman it is visually fascinating, but intellectually heavy-handed.

 

A gift of something to love for the title character... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A gift of something to love for the title character…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I find it interesting that the inclusion of this robotic doll of a woman was something Fellini dreamed up just after he began shooting. On the one hand this is a brilliant bit of story telling. Casanova is unable to connect to a living woman. Here Fellini offers him a fuck doll to end all fuck dolls, but there is a major problem. Casanova can pour his sexuality on her without any fear of rejection, failure or need to care. It is a poor choice that Fellini refuses to let up on the dreary tone. Casanova‘s tragic plight with the robotic woman could have been more clever if we were allowed to chuckle. But we are offered no relief from the gloom. Casanova‘s ice cold fuck doll feels like it might be the one thing that Casanova can love. The problem is obvious — a robotic fuck doll is unable to reciprocate love.

Doomed and slipping into the shadows... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Doomed and slipping into the shadows…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

And here we see the simultaneously effective but disappointing cinematic bookend ending. Casanova is left spinning with his love object atop a frozen bay. Peering up at him is the drowned concrete Venus. She is simultaneously a representative for his empty life as well as a goddess who judges him.

It is impossible to deny the artistry. And while the film is too long, it really is not boring. Fellini supplies plenty of eye and ear candy. The movie also has more than its share of WTF Moments. These moments are as not off-putting as they are simply interesting. A film like this could never be made today.

And while I really do disagree with the comparison to Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, it is easy to make the connection. Each film allowed both master filmmakers to pursue their respective visions without interference or restraint. But it must be noted that Russell’s vision and purpose is never placed above the viewers watching out there in the dark cinema. Fellini opted to simply dive into his obsession. A more fitting comparison might be to Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-fated and self-financed indulgence into the movie musical, One From the Heart.

Another director's obsession resulting in a cinematic error. One From the Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1981 Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

Another director’s obsession resulting in a cinematic error.
One From the Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1981
Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

But this is not really fair. One From the Heart is neon beautiful and features some amazing musical work from Tom Waits, but it requires true grit to sit through it. In the case of this 1981 Epic Flop, the director’s passion is dull. There is something maddeningly fascinating about Fellini’s Casanova. If you see it once, you will want to see it again. If you make it through One From the Heart you will want to demand a cookie for your effort.

It should be noted that Fellini’s infamous cinematic misstep continued to be challenged with production woes. This was in part due to Fellini’s last minute major changes of fancy but other issues came up. Much of the film was stolen and subsequently lost forever. The notorious theft was actually aimed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. A great deal of shot footage was forever lost. This included an entire sequence involving actress Barbara Steele. She was unable to return to Italy for reshoots. Sutherland and the other actors made themselves available. Fellini’s Casanova was delayed almost two years.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

When it became clear that the film was a fail Federico Fellini was crushed. It is important to note that he had considered this his finest work up to that point in his career. It is not difficult to understand how soul-draining a film’s flop can be for its maker, but there is an added measure when it happens to someone of Fellini’s abilities and stature. Fellini’s Casanova was an epic fail. But an epic fail from a cinematic master like Federico Fellini is still a masterful design. Being dull or uninteresting was simply not possible for this cinematic genius. This is a film that merits watching. And if you happen to love experimental film — you will most likely love this oddly flawed cinematic gem.

 

La Casanova de Fellini Federico Fellini, 1976

La Casanova de Fellini
Federico Fellini, 1976

Fingers crossed that we see it arrive to DVD/BluRay in a truly restored/remastered version soon!

Matty Stanfield, 6.16.2016

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago I became aware of something called CineSecrets. I was on Twitter and I saw a post from http://www.audienceseverywhere.net shouting out for individuals to freely share their CineSecrets as a celebration of Honesty Day. I really liked this idea, but the problem is I do not have secrets. I most especially do not have secrets regarding cinema and/or movies. I will freely admit that I am a total Movie Snob, but I also adore a good number of films that are often deeply bad. Quite seriously, I do love some really crap movies. I have no CineSecrets. I mentioned this to a friend who disagreed with me immediately. My friend pointed out that I have a great number of CineSecrets.

"I played with the Ween!' It's Pat Adam Bernstein, 1994

“I played with the Ween!’
It’s Pat
Adam Bernstein, 1994

She quickly listed a number of movies I deeply love which most of the world hates. But the thing is I make no secret of these profoundly bad films that I love. Sometimes a film can be so bad that it works its way around to being brilliant. Once again, she took exception with my comment. Apparently I do not share my joy/pleasure of these movies via my blog, http://letterboxd.com , Twitter, Facebook or even in conversation. Of course I did protest:

Wait a minute, I’ve written about The Eyes of Laura Mars and Mommie Dearest at length!

I was informed that these two movies do not count. I didn’t know it, but I guess these two movies are considered Classic Cool Bad Movies. Really? They are now considered cool? Soon I found myself in corner…

Have you ever written about your love of It’s Pat?

No. I haven’t. However in my defense, the only reason I haven’t written about it or a number of movies is because I have never thought anyone would want to read anything I might write about Julia Sweeney’s cineplex flop. A flop that I saw at a cineplex on the opening day. My eyes were glued to the screen and my mouth agape in confusion till the bitter end.

I do not even know how many times I’ve watched Adam Bernstein’s film version of Sweeney’s SNL character, Pat. The concept of Pat as a short late night skit was really funny. Well,  funny for at least 3 skits. The idea of stretching an old skit into a 77 minute movie was odd even in the early 1990’s. Yes, It’s Pat is 77 minutes long. I know the running time just as I know every line of the ill-fated movie by heart.

Kathy Griffin can't decide if her creepy neighbor is hitting on her or simply stalking her. Neither do we... Kathy Griffin and Julia Sweeney It's Pat Adam Bernstein, 1994 Cinematography | Jeff Jur

Kathy Griffin can’t decide if her creepy neighbor is hitting on her or simply stalking her. Neither do we…
Kathy Griffin and Julia Sweeney
It’s Pat
Adam Bernstein, 1994
Cinematography | Jeff Jur

It’s Pat was actually the 5th movie to be produced by SNL Films. It followed some very successful films including the two Wayne’s World movies. It’s Pat had a budget of $10,000,000.00 but just barely made $60,000.00 at the box office. It was a flop of epic proportions. One of the aspects that made it singularly unique among the SNL films is that it presented itself as something far smarter than it actually was. Sure there were plenty of gross-out jokes, but it featured a cast of truly talented comedic actors. It never feels like anyone on the screen isn’t thrilled to be there. Julia Sweeney’s androgynous character is intended for awkward moments and strange character quirks and noises. However, It’s Pat wears that thin within the first ten minutes.

The reason I found myself at the cineplex on that fateful Friday early afternoon was because I ended up having the day off. The reason I chose to see It’s Pat was because I had heard that one of my then favorite bands was featured in the film. If you were around in the early 1990’s and liked cool indie-rock you were aware of Gene and Dean Ween. Ween quickly eclipsed Bongwater as Kramer’s Shimmy Disc label’s premiere band. A profoundly strange band that brought forward Lo-Fi Psychedelic rock combined with a twisted stoner sense of humor. The thing about Ween was and remains that while the band never seems to take itself seriously, they are a great band.

featuring the hit single, "Pollo Asado" Ween POD Shimmy Disc, 1991

featuring the hit single, “Pollo Asado”
Ween
POD
Shimmy Disc, 1991

I had been won over by their 1991 second album, POD. The original Shimmy Disc release included songs like Strap On That Jammymac, Demon Sweat, Can U Smell The Waste?, Awesome Sound, She Fucks Me, Pork Roll Egg And Cheese and Molly! (a song in which Gene & Dean simply sing/speak the name “Molly” over and over. But the album’s “Hit Single” was Pollo Asado.

“...Let me start of with a basket of chips. Then move on to the pollo Asado taco. I would like two pollo assado tacos with one beef chimichanga.
On the chimichanga, I would like a side of sour cream. I would like tomatoes and onions on my casadia.
For the dessert I would like the… I would like extra cinnamon.
Do you make guacamole?
Yes, I do make guacamole.
Uh, I would like a side of guacamole on my Tostitos. I like to dip the Tositos in the guacamole.
Can I get a basket, I told you about a basket of chips. I would like a large iced-tea, 2, uh, 2 large iced-teas. Ok, that’ll be $16.07.
Out of $20? Ok, $16.07’s your change.” — Pollo Asado by Gene & Dean Ween, 1991

It must be heard to fully appreciate, but I felt confident that if Ween were involved — It’s Pat must have something to offer. From my perspective it offered far more than I had bargained for. The truth is I had figured it might make me laugh a couple of times. It’s Pat made and continues to make me laugh to this day. It is one of the most clunky and awkward movies I’ve ever seen. During my in cinema screening the other members of the audience were silent. Many left before the film’s mid-point. After the first ten minutes or so I began to chuckle at the impossibly silly line and scenarios. David Foley’s Chris becomes Pat‘s ideal love and soulmate. Of course we never know if one if male, the other female or possibly both of the same sex. This is intended to be the film’s main plot point — or lack thereof. The late Charlie Rocket plays Pat‘s neighbor who begins psychotically obsessed with the title character. He eats scenery like nobody’s business. Poor Kathy Najimy works her scenes well beyond what they are worth. She is a mass of panic and worry every time Pat enters her convenience store. Often murmuring comments like “I’m now in Hell.” or “Please just leave.” “Oh Sweet God!

David Foley's Chris and Sweeney's Pat find love... It's Pat Adam Bernstein, 1994 Cinematography | Jeff Jur

David Foley’s Chris and Sweeney’s Pat find love…
It’s Pat
Adam Bernstein, 1994
Cinematography | Jeff Jur

Ween are fully present and accounted for and offer the title character what appears to be a big musical break! Turns out Ween are not so interested in Pat‘s tuba playing skills as they are in, well, Pat. While on stage with Ween poor Pat ends up being raised up above the rockin‘ cool audience without clothing. We are treated to a back view and never know what they see. It is a confidently timed bit that falls flat on its face. And yet it makes me laugh.

By this time in 1994 Ween had actually managed to move into the mainstream. It’s hard to know if they lost their way due to the timing of the movie’s release. I doubt it. Like everyone else in the movie, Gene and Dean seem to be having a great time. This is the thing that I just have to love about It’s Pat: it is so clearly confident that everything happening and being said is hysterically funny. The bad jokes quickly turn themselves into a sort of Anti-Comedy that I find impossible to resist.

Julia Sweeney & Harvey Keitel Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino, 1994

Julia Sweeney & Harvey Keitel
Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino, 1994

Ween are still rocking onwards. Adam Bernstein may have lost his bid to be a feature filmmaker but he has gone on to be a valued TV director. Julia Sweeney had an odd cinematic year in 1994. She co-wrote and starred in It’s Pat at almost the same time as appearing as Harvey Keitel’s cool girlfriend in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Her life would take a tragic and challenging turn soon after, but she returned in victory with a brilliant one-woman show, God Said ‘Ha!’, that would also be turned into a feature film.

I can’t be alone in my love for It’s Pat. It is still available in DVD format and for VOD purchase / rental from iTunes. I stand by it. It’s Pat is so very bad it rises to ridiculous levels of off-kilter brilliance.

The “success” of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Epic re-working of Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be debatable in some quarters. It is my opinion that this highly stylized and largely self-financed movie is a beautiful mess of a movie. Critics were surprisingly kind and this odd movie somehow managed to pull in over 5 times what it cost to make. No way we look back at it, Coppola’s movie was a major box office hit. Very little is actually “right” about this movie, but when it is “correct” it is exceptional. Sadly, when it is bad — and, it is truly bad most of the time — it actually manages to be somehow audaciously interesting. There are more than a few painfully comical moments co-mingled with much that fails to even make much sense. For a movie that I didn’t really like — I sure enjoyed and continue to enjoy it.

"Beware!" Bram Stoker's Dracula Francis Ford Coppola, 1992

“Beware!”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992

Coppola can’t seem decide if he wants to make a Gothic Horror Movie or an overtly silly supernatural romance. Winona Ryder is about as 19th Century as an iPhone. She seems lost most of the time. Her attempts at erotic desire feel about as heated as a mall girl who has found the perfect skirt. Yet there is a certain level of passion conveyed that sometimes starts to feel genuine. Anthony Hopkins seems to be on the verge of a heart attack throughout the movie. At times one suspects he might start chewing on his fellow actors. In many ways he seems the creepiest monster. Tom Waits shows up and eats insects like they were gin-filled chocolates. It is not he that is bad here, the film lets him down. Renfield is never actually explained or developed. He just sort of shows up and seems to be blessed with some sort of supernatural power — or is it just a telepathic connection to his Master? Hard to tell. But Waits has been filmed and edited for Mel Brooks instead of the majestic film he is in.

Dude! Score!! Hot Vampyre Wives!!! Keanu Reeves Bram Stoker's Dracula Francis Ford Coppola, 1992 Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

Dude! Score!! Hot Vampyre Wives!!!
Keanu Reeves
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

But The Worst Performance of 1992 belongs to Keanu Reeves. It really doesn’t feel fair to be too hard on Mr. Reeves. Clearly miscast, he seems to be doing his best. His accent comes and goes, his hair is totally 1991 stylin’ and it inconsistently appears to be black and then suddenly gray the next. Keanu’s hair color is so inconsistent, it becomes consistent. Wooden and oddly overly excited all at the same time, he actually becomes the funnest player in the movie. The acting is all over the map here save two featured actors: Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra and Gary Oldman as our Count Dracula. 

Sadie Frost gets everything perfect, but poor Miss. Westenra has never been quite this Satanic! Sadie Frost Bram Stoker's Dracula Francis Ford Coppola, 1992 Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

Sadie Frost gets everything perfect, but poor Miss. Westenra has never been quite this Satanic!
Sadie Frost
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

If Ryder seems to be at odds with the film’s eroticism, Sadie Frost is more than ready to fill in those erotica shoes. Frost’s performance is just about perfect. Her Miss. Westenra may not be much like what Stoker imagined, but her sexual desires are busting out all over! Her transformation from High Society Belle to Erotic Satanic Bride-From-Hell is about as dark as it can get. To her credit, Frost seems the most able to keep up with Coppola’s often schizophrenic script. This script changes tone and moods faster than sets (and there are a whole lotta sets going down!) — She perfectly matches her half of the film. If only the whole movie had been blessed with this sort of Erotic Nightmare quality! Sadly, Sadie Frost is the only actor who actually gets the opportunity to fully grasp the Full-On Goth Groove of this strange big movie.

Just offer me your sex. You know you want it... Gary Oldman Bram Stoker's Dracula Francis Ford Coppola, 1992 Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

Just offer me your sex. You know you want it…
Gary Oldman
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

As good as she is, Sadie Frost pales in comparison to the film’s most valuable player: Gary Oldman. Though for this film I almost feel like he should be referred to as Gary FUCKING Oldman. As is his talent, Oldman fully embodies the title character. The problem is that he is required to constantly shape-shift to suit Coppola’s confused vision. When he is meant to be vile and evil — he is. As the animalistic vampire roaming about the decaying mansion, he is perfectly goulish. Despite the odd wig choice, Oldman rises above it. He also is clearly going to have a bit of fun. His scary Dracula is dementedly sadistic but always with a bit of a wink. Keanu Reeves is like a limp piece of cheap wood when sharing the screen with Oldman in whatever style/costume he is given. Our vampire is soon a true dandy-boy — luxurious long hair, cool specs and a tightly tailored suit. It is hard to know if this version of Dracula belongs to Coppola’s world or to that of Prince video. And of course we also see Oldman as a blood hungry soldier. It doesn’t matter how silly it all gets, this is a truly brilliant performance from one of the most skilled actors of all time.

Despite running over 2 hours, this movie is fast paced. It is also incredibly well designed and Michael Ballhaus frames it all in a consistently stunning manner. Bram Stoker’s Dracula may not be very scary, sexy or even sensical, but it is absolutely beautiful to look at. What the film misses is made up for by the style in which it never manages to achieve anything it seems set to do. This movie is a gorgeous mistake. Sadly it is never fully satisfactory. What brings me back to it time and time again is the passionate way in which Coppola films his uneven take on Bram Stoker. There is nothing smart about this movie, but it is an oddly entertaining sort of cinematic train wreck.

Oh, he's just gotta get him some Keanu-blood! Keanu Reeves contemplates his accent as Gary Oldman licks the straight razor. Bram Stoker's Dracula Francis Ford Coppola, 1992 Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

Oh, he’s just gotta get him some Keanu-blood!
Keanu Reeves contemplates his accent as Gary Oldman licks the straight razor.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992
Cinematography | Michael Ballhaus

I should add that some people really think this is a good movie. I can’t defend that assertion, but it is lovely and often unintentionally funny. A couple of years ago Sony actually remastered this film for blu-ray. I secured my copy as soon as possible. You should, too. Another of my favorite Cinematic Guilty Pleasures is a lot older and a lot worse! Sadly, I discovered this movie really late in the game of life — but once I found it, there was no going back. Never mind the fact that Diana Ross decided to follow-up her successful turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues with a glam take on success, her beauty, her taste as a fashion designer and Norman Bates in pants so tight it hurts to see him — but she did. Yes, Diana Ross followed up her Oscar nominated turn with Berry Gordy’s mind-blowing Mahogany!

"Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with." And the World of 1970's Fashion would never be the same. Miss. Ross is MAHOGANY Berry Gordy, 1975

“Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.”
And the World of 1970’s Fashion would never be the same.
Miss. Ross is
MAHOGANY
Berry Gordy, 1975

Yes, I intentionally uploaded a huge image of 1975’s movie poster for Berry Gordy’s Mahogany. I had no choice. This was and remains a big ass cinematic mess worthy of praise and love. Berry Gordy’s horrifyingly funny cinematic error offers poor Miss. Ross as an ambitious young would-be fashion designer who must climb the depraved, but totally glamorous, ladder as Super Model before she can achieve superstar success. We cringe as she is forced into awkward situations with Anthony Perkins. Playing a celebrated fashion photographer, Perkins is once again cast as Psycho with a very dangerous camera instead of a knife. Apparently sewn into his immaculately pressed jeans, he is obsessed with Mahogany. Well, but who wouldn’t be? Billy Dee Williams is present as a safer boy-toy. The problem is Williams’ is playing a slick brotha out to save the world via the upstanding and moral world of politics. …in Chicago.  He might be smooth in the sack, but he ain’t got no cool fashion soul! He simply is not cool enough for our soon-to-be-Super-Model! You know that Miss. Ross is destined for Model Success by the way she likes to spin around in front of cameras squealing “Weeeeee!

"Give it to me, baby!" Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin “Give it to me, baby!” Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Give it to me, baby!” Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin
“Give it to me, baby!”
Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

But things take a quick and savage turn when Mahogany must fight against those who would steal her privacy and the meanies who allow her success to go to her head — which is only just barely supported by her painfully thin frame. Seriously, Miss. Ross actually goes topless for about 25 seconds. 1975 Michael Jackson had bigger breasts. She ends up getting a little too down at a depraved Fashion Party and begins to pour candle wax on her body. Later when poor Billy Dee tries to woo Mahogany back to his ethically correct world of Chicago politics, she readies herself for yet another close-up and screeches:

The men love me, the women love me, the children love me… You’re just jealous Brian ’cause no one loves you. I’m somebody! They love me! They want me! They want Mahogany!

"Must I do everything myself!?!?!" Yes. Diana Ross actually bites at air and writhes about in anger when people fail to get her stunning designs exactly as she sees them in her head. Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin “Give it to me, baby!” Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Must I do everything myself!?!?!”
Yes. Diana Ross actually bites at air and writhes about in anger when people fail to get her stunning designs exactly as she sees them in her head.
Diana Ross
Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

Actually, I might have that quote a bit jumbled. I’m going off my memory. The bottomline is that I’ve yet to watch this movie when this scene doesn’t cause an entire room into laughter and gleeful applause. Perkins’ crazy photographer decides he wants to capture “fear” in a fashion shoot. This leads to a crazy scene in which Miss. Ross must model-mug furiously will trying to take control of the car which Perkins is driving with insane precession. Cut to our Mahogany covered in plaster and bandages. But fear not, she is in full make-up. She is lost. She knows not where she is going to…

Miss. Ross designed this dress herself! Weeeee! Everybody wants one! Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

Miss. Ross designed this dress herself! Weeeee! Everybody wants one!
Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

Equally uncomfortable is the fact that Diana Ross saw this movie as chance to show off her personal “fashion design” brilliance. Yes, she personally designs all of the fashion monstrosities that appear on the screen. This movie had a big hit song. It’s a nice song, but if you see this movie you will be ready to shoot anyone who tries to make you listen to it again. Millions of Mahogany fans were sent into a depression when Miss. Ross pulled a Super Diva and actually paid to hold on printed DVD’s of the movie hostage. Apparently Diana did not want this remastered DVD to find its way to release. Eventually she gave up and Paramount secured the warehouse of DVD’s and released them to the masses. Those of us who are smart grabbed our copies as soon as possible. I suggest you do the same. Mahogany is so profoundly bad it is exceptionally fun to watch!

The other bad movie I choose to love and honor is Kathryn Bigelow’s box office champion, Point Break! This 1991 movie is much loved. I love it. I watch it all the time. But it is terrible. Come on. You know that it is. I really have nothing further to say except: Back off Warchild, seriously.

"You want me so bad, its like acid in your mouth." Keanu Reeves & Patrick Swayze POINT BREAK Kathryn Bigelow, 1991

“You want me so bad, its like acid in your mouth.”
Keanu Reeves & Patrick Swayze
POINT BREAK
Kathryn Bigelow, 1991

 

 

 

In 1982 Tangelos' synthesized music, narrator and ill-fitting ending attempt to tell the audience to feel happy as a seminal film classic comes to its original ending. Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

In 1982 Tangelos’ synthesized music, narrator and ill-fitting ending attempt to tell the audience to feel happy as a seminal film classic comes to its original ending.
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

A person has just lost their life partner and sits in a crowded room. A concerned friend approaches and sits next to the grieving individual. The friend awkward touches the friend on the arm.

I’m so sorry. I know just how you feel.

The friend should have stopped at “sorry.”

The absolute worst comment that can be made to a person who has just suffered a life-changing loss is “I know how you feel.” We might think we know, but the truth is we only have an empathetic idea of what another feels at such a time. It may sound trite, but human beings are like snowflakes. We are each slightly different in comparison to each other. A person has clue regarding the feelings of another human being who has just suffered a tragic loss.

The Narrator is unreliable, but Bob offers comfort. Edward Norton & Meat Loaf Fight Club David Fincher, 1999 Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

The Narrator is unreliable, but Bob offers comfort.
Edward Norton & Meat Loaf
Fight Club
David Fincher, 1999
Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

A driver sits in her/his car at a red light. The light turns green. The driver is in a hurry, he/she applies a bit more pressure to the gas peddle than normal. Her/his car slams into the back bumper of another car traveling the intersection. The driver of the car crossing the interaction is furious. Both of these drivers will normally have opposing views of this fender-bender. In fact it is quite probable that the other drivers and pedestrians who witness the accident will have differing views regarding who is at fault.

An aging parent espouses

Perception is a tricky thing when evaluated between two or more other people. Hardly any one wants to be told how to feel. Very few like to be told what to do. But absolutely no one wants to be made to feel like an idiot.

"I feel the words building inside me, I can't stop them, or tell you why I say them, but as I reach the top of the bridge these words come to me in a whisper. I say these words as a prayer, as regret, as praise, I say: 'Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'" Despite the dewy-glow of a silly subplot, the movie actually works save for a painful narration. Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and nails The Prince of Tides Barbra Streisand, 1991 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“I feel the words building inside me, I can’t stop them, or tell you why I say them, but as I reach the top of the bridge these words come to me in a whisper. I say these words as a prayer, as regret, as praise, I say: ‘Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'”
Despite the dewy-glow of a silly subplot, the movie actually works save for a painful narration.
Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and nails
The Prince of Tides
Barbra Streisand, 1991
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

I began with reality examples to point out that the use of voice-over narration is most often a major mistake. Not all the time, but most of the time when I see a film utilizing voice-over narration my eyes want to roll up into my head. This is a knee-jerk response that I hold at bay to give any such film in question a chance to prove the use a wise one. Most of the time when a film features a narration it comes across as lazy filmmaking. The other problem is that this style of cinematic story telling has been over used for decades. It often feels less “old-school” and more simply “old” and completely outmoded.

But there are filmmakers who can use voice-over narration to benefit their films. A solid example of a good narration use — maybe even one of the best — is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. In Annie Hall Allen not only provides narration — he breaks the fourth wall. And it works! He is far from being the only film artist to successfully break that wall between the film and the audience. When Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner adapted Bret Easton Ellis notorious novel, American Psycho, for the big screen they took a major gamble for a lower budgeted independent film: They had Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman constantly breaking the fourth wall and act as not only a narrative device but an unreliable and darkly funny one.

"I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing." Christian Bale not only serves as a narrative device which breaks the fourth wall, he brings unreliable narration to a whole new level. Christian Bale American Psycho Mary Harron, 2000 Cinematography | Andrzej Sekula

“I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
Christian Bale not only serves as a narrative device which breaks the fourth wall, he brings unreliable narration to a whole new level.
Christian Bale
American Psycho
Mary Harron, 2000
Cinematography | Andrzej Sekula

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums smartly employees Alex Baldwin to provide a voice-over narration that not only serves the film — it totally enhances the film itself. But perhaps the three best examples of voice-over narration that not only works but makes their films even better are Sunset Blvd., Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. Billy Wilder was way ahead of his time when he had a dead character narrate the sad, twisted, tragic and darkly comical tale of Norma Desmond in a sure-footed feat of detailed flashback. Wilder does not rob his film of suspense by revealing that William Holden’s Joe Gillis has been killed. The use of this device adds multiple perspectives to a surprisingly blunt slap at the film industry and the notion of aging celebrity.

"The poor dope. He always wanted a pool." Unique twist of narration assists a movie that a cinematic game-changer. William Holden is your dead narrator. Sunset Blvd. Billy Wilder, 1950 Cinematography | John F. Seitz

“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.”
Unique twist of narration assists a movie that a cinematic game-changer.
William Holden is your dead narrator.
Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder, 1950
Cinematography | John F. Seitz

Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who has always understood how to employee voice-over narration to work in his film’s favor. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle‘s narration not only truly drives Taxi Driver forward, it offers the viewer insights into the horrifying motivations of the title character. The film rattled cages 40 years ago and continues to do so today because we are allowed to see inside the mind of a psychopath who is humanized in our minds. His anguish and anger accelerates to a crescendo of violence that luckily resolves a horrific problem. Scorsese does not let the audience off so easily. We certainly are unable to trust Travis anymore than we can buy into his insights. The film ends with a scene that may or may not have happened, but one thing is for certain — Travis has not changed. The jarring final editing and perspectives of the closing scene leaves the audience startled.

"Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up." A chilling voice-over narration that lingers forever... Robert De Niro Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese, 1976 Cinematography | Michael Chapman

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
A chilling voice-over narration that lingers forever…
Robert De Niro
Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976
Cinematography | Michael Chapman

My personal favorite voice-over can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s amazing adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange. Meticulously designed and filmed, this iconic and controversial movie opens with an unforgettable shot. We appear to be entering an unknown world but are greeted by Malcolm Mcdowell’s unmistakable voice. It is his Alex who introduces us to Kubrick’s setting in which we find ourselves:

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova Milk Bar sold milkplus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Our pockets were full of money so there was no need on that score, but, as they say, money isn’t everything.”

"Giddy well, little brother. viddy well." A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick, 1971 Cinematography | John Alcott

“Giddy well, little brother. viddy well.”
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick, 1971
Cinematography | John Alcott

And with that we are introduced into some future state of what must be England. And judging from Alex‘s Northern Lad Accent, our narrator is somewhere in the limited world of what we have come to know as council estate life. The use of this rebellious teenaged troublemaker as our narrator not only fits the film — it serves to offer us a voice to the illogical and shocking actions of our criminally insane protagonist. This mixed with Kubrick and John Alcotts’ camera perspectives delivers a disturbing evaluation of an attempt to control human cruelty by a brutality that might be even more horrid than our narrator’s psyche. Kubrick asks more questions than he answers and all he really needs is the voice-over of the film’s protagonist to deliver the gut-punches.

Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr had an exhausted Martin Sheen read a voice-over for Apocalypse Now as an attempt to provide structure to an epic film that wanted to spiral out of control.  Some will argue that it was valid, I am not among them. This oddly effective mess of a movie is not nearly as interesting as the complexities involved in the making of it.

 "Never get out of the boat." A rather bored and sleepy narration attempts to assign meaning to the meaningless... Martin Sheen Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

“Never get out of the boat.” A rather bored and sleepy narration attempts to assign meaning to the meaningless…
Martin Sheen
Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

It has always seemed to me that Apocalypse Now would have been better served in under two hours. Marlon Brando’s rambling mixing with the horrifying ritual of animal slaughter would have helped to deliver a more satisfying film than the one (or ones) we have received. Despite itself, this is a film that cannot be dismissed.

Much like the use of sentimental orchestrated strings cue the audience that it is time to allow tears to well up or gather goosebumps as we watch the boy get the girl or the girl lose the boy — voice-over narration is usually an exercise in manipulation that most films really do not need. One of the most shameless uses of voice-over narration would have to be Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. When this movie first came out I remember thinking that there was something wrong with me. So many people seemed to love a seemingly retarded Tom Hanks intermingling with iconic events with the offer of vomit inducing non-witicisms as narration just left me annoyed. As it soon turned out — I was not alone.

"Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Tom Hanks Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994 Cinematography | Don Burgess

“Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Tom Hanks
Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994
Cinematography | Don Burgess

Even when an argument can be made in favor of the poorest voice-over narrations, a counter-argument nearly always defeats it. To roll back to the beginning of this post, when Barbra Streisand decided to star and film The Prince of Tides a viewer pretty much knew what to expect. However what she delivered was a bit more and also a bit less than anticipated. Streisand was able to secure Conroy to adapt his own novel with the assistance of Becky Johnston, but a film belongs to its director. The most problematic aspect of Conroy’s novel is the romantic situation that develops between the protagonist and his sister’s shrink. This challenge found in Conroy’s novel could have easily been pushed aside for what is really at the core of the novel’s beauty. Instead Streisand pushes adultery and reckless ethics to center stage without ever noting either issue of the soft-focused love affair. What is interesting is that this is not the film’s main issue.

"I don't know when my parents began their war against each other - but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children." Despite the cheesy narration Kate Nelligan delivers an amazing turn. The Prince of Tides Barbra Streisand, 1991 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“I don’t know when my parents began their war against each other – but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children.”
Despite the cheesy narration Kate Nelligan delivers an amazing turn.
The Prince of Tides
Barbra Streisand, 1991
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

It is Streisand’s use of Nick Nolte’s voice-over narration that most harms The Prince of Tides. This is important to note. While we all might roll our eyes at the director’s need to center herself as both the protagonist’s object of Savior and Sexual Goddess, it is harder to blame her for wanting to lose the beauty of Pat Conroy’s writing. However it is crucial for a filmmaker to remember that The Book and The Movie it inspires are two very different animals. Pat Conroy’s writing often approached poetry, but to have even the most gifted actor read it as a narrative device will usually reduce it to mush. As we see three young children holding their breath under the water and race to the top to reveal the film’s title card is cinematic. But to have that scene accompanied by Nick Nolte narrating:

“We found a silent soothing world where there was no pain. A world without mothers or fathers. We would make a circle bound by flesh and blood and water and only when we felt our lungs betray us would we rise towards the light.”  It should work and for some it might, but for most of us these poetic remarks are borderline cringe-inducing. Cinema is already a language in and of itself. Narration like this is heavy-handed at best.

"It seems every day ends with a miracle here." Kevin Costner chose to provide the narrative voice-over for his 1990 epic. Dances With Wolves Kevin Costner, 1990 Cinematography | Dean Semler

“It seems every day ends with a miracle here.”
Kevin Costner chose to provide the narrative voice-over for his 1990 epic.
Dances With Wolves
Kevin Costner, 1990
Cinematography | Dean Semler

If you notice a stronger opinion against Streisand’s The Prince of Tides than Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, the only reason is sexism. Like Streisand’s film that would come a year later, Kevin Costner’s directorial effort was equally invested with genuine importance. Michael Blake’s book inspired Costner to make a film that offers insight into the atrocities against Native Americans. The core message does survive within the once acclaimed film, but mostly this is a vanity project in which the director casts himself in the role of object.

Consistently back lit and in soft-focus, we even get to see Mr. Costner run about nude. And even with Mr. Blake writing the screenplay, Costner leans heavy into his character’s love for an oddly 1980’s coiffed Mary McDonnell. Even the dirt on her face seems to have been placed there by Max Factor. The two white characters become pretty much take center stage bathed in light and breezy soft-focus. However barely anyone noted this at the time. Unlike Streisand, he is a man and has the auto-right to showcase himself exactly the way he chooses. But it is when Costner recites the narration that the film really rides off the rails. While the film wants to shed light on the indignities suffered by Native Americans and demonstrate the beauty that the white men destroyed, it is up to the whitest man on the planet to save the day and take center screen.

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Part of the problem with the narration of Dances With Wolves is its earnest self-importance, but the underlying issue is the fact that Costner sounds like a weed-lovin’ surfer about to take a nap every time he speaks. Of course it does match his flawless hair and ill-suited swagger for the era in which the story takes place.

Luckily Bob Fosse didn’t lose his focus while shooting Cabaret or we might have a film musical featuring Michael York reading from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories! And, yes, that would have been awful.

"A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar..." A brilliant actor goes for broke but a voice-over narration just about wrecks the whole thing. Tom Hardy & Tom Hardy Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

“A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar…”
A brilliant actor goes for broke but a voice-over narration just about wrecks the whole thing.
Tom Hardy & Tom Hardy
Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Last year it was rumored that Brian Helgeland had finally directed a film that would match if not exceed his artistry as the writer of 1997’s LA Confidential. Having penned the script himself from John Pearson’s book about the strange and horrific story of England’s infamous Kray Brothers with Tom Hardy cast to play both brothers — the rumor seemed like it might just be a safe bet. However my gamble of seeing Legend failed to fully reward the promise of the bet.

Uh, oh. Double trouble! Better give 'em some voice-over narration! Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Uh, oh. Double trouble! Better give ’em some voice-over narration!
Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

It is my opinion that Tom Hardy is one of if not the most important movie actor of his generation. The guy has it all. Blessed with talent, skill, on-screen presence, charisma and rugged incredible good looks — Tom Hardy is poised to become a screen legend himself.

As both Reggie and Ronald Kray he is clearly having fun. Equally invested in both characters, Hardy plunges into the two very different but complicated psyches. Walking a sort of tightrope, Hardy manages to be touching, scary and always without fail funny as hell. Shot crisply but relying a bit too much on the limited budget to create the actor on both sides of the screen, the special effects are not always on spot.

Even though the budget has severely restricted the digital effects -- These 3 are poised to creep you out and make you laugh... Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston & Tom Hardy Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Even though the budget has severely restricted the digital effects — These 3 are poised to creep you out and make you laugh…
Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston & Tom Hardy
Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Christopher Eccleston approaches his role as the copper out to stop the two brothers as if he was speeding on cocaine. Mr. Eccleston is in over-drive and manages to make a predictable cliche of a character memorable. But this is Tom Hardy’s show and it would seem to be aiming for intentional darkly twisted comedy.

Or were my laughs intended by Mr. Helgeland? Sadly if they were, he must have had a change-of-heart in post-production.

Emily Browning is not the greatest actor working, but she is certainly a capable performer. It is poor Ms. Browning who has been assigned the task of providing Legend ‘s voice-over narration.

And, this narration is bad. Painfully bad. And to make it all the worse she has been cast as the fiancée who committed suicide prior to marrying Reggie Kray. Yes, this is a voice-over narration from the grave minus any snarky sense of humor. Helgeland appears to have pushed Browning for a deadly serious reading.

And it just about strangles his film of any life. To make it all the worse, Frances Shea ‘s commentary from the dead fails to actually connect with her living character. Frances certainly displays issues regarding her intended’s way of making a living but she seems game enough to look the other way. If anything, Frances seems a bit dim-witted or simplistic in her thinking and displays none of her dead self’s anger and intelligence.

"I'm a giver. Not a receiver. I am not a faggot!" Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

“I’m a giver. Not a receiver. I am not a faggot!”
Tom Hardy as The Kray Brothers Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

But what is truly baffling about Helgeland’s use of voice-over narration is that the film needs none at all.

If a sound editor were to wipe away Browning’s narration — the film would still flow. In fact, it would flow better.

If only a few of Ms. Browning’s scenes were cut, the film would have succeeded as a demented comic take at something that really happened under the noses of England’s leadership and celebrity brass.

Legend most likely could never be a perfect film, but it could have been perfectly entertaining. As it is now, Legend nearly crumbles under the weight of a dead girl’s lofty narration.

Intentional or not, this film is often criminally comic. Tom Hardy x 2 Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Intentional or not, this film is often criminally comic.
Tom Hardy x 2
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Sometimes the less said, the better.

Matty Stanfield, 3.8.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you scared or bored? The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016

Are you scared or bored?
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016

Ever since Robert Eggers’s The Witch screened at the 2015 Sundance word of mouth praises for the film have pushed expectations through the roof. A24 opted to wait over a year before releasing the movie to cinemas. This decision was no doubt to build up audience anticipation. Their plan seems to have worked, but was marketing The Witch as a horror movie might not have been the best strategy.

While a great many have been left spellbound (pun intended) — it would seem an almost equal number of people have left the movie disappointed. Some have even felt bored by the movie. I among those who consider this film as a cinematic gem and a great example of the Art Horror genre. In my opinion Robert Eggers is a much needed breath of creative air to the current world of cinematic art. So I scratch my head when I hear/read cinephiles bash The Witch. Why don’t they all love it? Why is The Witch failing to capture all imaginations? How can someone see this low-budget film and not be impressed?

Well, easily.

Has Mia Farrow been impregnated with the child of Satan or date raped by her husband? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Has Mia Farrow been impregnated with the child of Satan or date raped by her husband?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

What constitutes a great horror movie? A film that scares us on some level seems an essential requirement, but is there a way to make the definition of that word fit us all as a group? Of course not. We are all scared and disturbed by different things and styles. There are two horror films which can both be easily defended as cinematic masterworks: Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Both of these films terrified audiences upon their initial releases.

What would happen if Roman Polanski were 35 years old in 2015 and Rosemary’s Baby had debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival? Would it frighten audiences and be eagerly snapped up by A24? Let’s pretend it would. So it is February 2016 and you sit yourself down at a cineplex and watch it.

"All of them witches" Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“All of them witches”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Are you pleased with Rosemary’s Baby as a horror film or did it make you chuckle and feel resentful because the “pay-off” failed to make you jump or dumbfound you in awe?

Sure you might admire William A. Fraker’s cinematography, the eccentric performances and the ambiguity of what is actually happening on the screen — but would this movie disappoint as a horror film?

I have a knee-jerk reaction to this “what if” scenario. I want to dig my feet into the sand and answer, “Yes! It is provocative, entertaining, creepy, amusing and most certainly haunts my mind long after I see it!

However my knee-jerk might be a bit off.

"Your mother sucks cocks in Hell." Linda Blair The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Your mother sucks cocks in Hell.”
Linda Blair
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Ideas of what constitutes a horror film have dramatically changed since 1968. This is no longer the 20th Century. We have become jaded to violence and horrific events depicted in film. Movies are no longer presented as “Events” and most audiences demand more than looming threat and ambiguities from horror films. A solid example of this is to revisit William Friedkin’s  The Exorcist. Upon this film’s release in late 1973/early 1974, it literally caused an international sensation. Reports of heart attacks, fainting and full-on panic attacks in cinemas filled the news. Lines to ticket counters wrapped blocks and an endless slew of cinematic rip-offs soon littered cinemas for years to come. Even back in the early 1970’s there were people who found the grim horror film funny, but it would seem to have been a small minority of the film’s audience.

"The power of Christ compels you!" The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“The power of Christ compels you!”
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

In 2000 a new remastered and cut of the film was released into cinemas. This was The Exorcist: Version You’ve Never Seen. I was in the cinema to watch the movie with a sold-out audience. Parents with babies, sullen teens and eager fans of the 1970’s flick filled the theatre. Endless chattering throughout the on-screen commercials and previews led me to expect that I’d be watching the movie with children running around, teens giggling and older folks calling for silence. Instead something odd happened. The entire audience sat in silence once the jarring music of Krzysztof Penderecki met the film’s title card. I saw this film with 3 friends from my office. I didn’t care for the new ending, but was satisfied that The Exorcist had stood the test of time. Only minutes later as we exited the building I began to hear people talk about how comical the movie was. Yet why had there been no laughs during the screening? The 2000 release still brought in a significant amount of money for Warner Bros.

For those who would dismiss both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist as dark or even unintended comedy, it is important to access both films within the appropriate and respective contexts. By the time Rosemary’s Baby was released the Hippie Movement had taken a dark turn toward addiction, homelessness and the horrific introduction to The Manson Family truly crushed ideas of peace and harmony for many. Theories regarding the corruption of government was starting to brew over the top of the cultural pot. The important growth of the Women’s Movement had started to challenge the cultural status quo. Roman Polanski’s film worked on both the straight-on horror of the story presented, but it also offered plenty of ambiguous subjectivity to allow viewers to see the film as hallucination or even as a metaphor. When The Exorcist was released filmmakers had already begun to push the cinematic envelope far beyond what was accustomed. However, no one had really pushed it as far as William Friedkin’s film.

The guilt that will not die. A demon takes the form of a deceased mother... The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

The guilt that will not die. A demon takes the form of a deceased mother…
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Marketed as a horror film, The Exorcist presented horror in a whole new way. The Exorcist takes itself very seriously and the actors perform as if cast in a highly important work of dramatic cinema. This was horror movie gone the way of The Actors Studio with elevated production values. The Exorcist was missing most of the normal cinematic clues that it was a horror film. It also depicts the sadistic and perverse possession of an innocent little girl. In 1973 / 1974 no one had ever seen a child in such peril or scenes this shocking. This was a film of firsts.

And of course there is a whole other level of understanding at play in this iconic film — a reflection of its time. The government was letting us down from the Watergate Hotel to a meaningless war that continued to ravage despite overwhelming protest. The post Hippie Movement had evolved into the Sexual Revolution and Drug Culture was causing some serious cultural rifts. Parents no longer felt any control over their children. The Exorcist was a particularly incisive cut into the once communal ideas of cultural aspects once considered sacred. It expertly captured the Western World’s deepest fears into a manifestation of demonic possession of innocence that could no longer be protected.

No matter how you want to look at it, this was a whole different kind of world 48 / 43 years ago.

"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths..." Title Card The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Tobe Hooper, 1974

“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths…”
Title Card
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper, 1974

Horror films took a swift and dark turn that blended the fantastical with reality. What many might funny now, were visualizations of all too real horror for many in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. Kobe Hooper’s drive-in movie was far more realistically articulated than anything that had arrived there with the possible exception of his earlier The Last House on the Left. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was really not all that graphic, but it sent audiences into a horror of a different order. These two films manifested horrors of parents as well as their children.

"...consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer." John Malkovich looks into a portal that leads to his own mind. Being John Malkovich Spike Jonze, 1999 Cinematography | Lance Acord

“…Consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer.”
John Malkovich looks into a portal that leads to his own mind.
Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze, 1999
Cinematography | Lance Acord

The next film that comes to my mind will most likely lend a glimpse into what scares me. I saw Being John Malkovich on the afternoon it opened in Boston. I had heard nothing of it. I walked into that cinema free of any anticipation of what I was about to see. I wanted to see it because I quite like both John Cusack and Catherine Keener. While there was some very comical moments, this movie creeped me out. That night I met some friends at a bar and told them that Being John Malkovich was exceptional but quite disturbing. I think I actually called it a comical horror movie.

Dissatisfied, misunderstood and lonely. John Cusack contemplates falling into the consciousness of another... Being John Malkovich Spike Jonze, 1999 Cinematography | Lance Acord

Dissatisfied, misunderstood and lonely. John Cusack contemplates falling into the consciousness of another…
Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze, 1999
Cinematography | Lance Acord

I would later get questions from my pals who found the movie awesome, but not at all disturbing or horrifying. But for me the idea of someone finding a way into my mind or even worse, me being stuck in the brain of another is an absolutely horrifying concept. Talk about an identity crisis from Hell. Being John Malkovich still freaks me out a bit. I usually have at least one nightmare after having seen it.

Perhaps the most polarizing horror film of my time is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Unlike with Spike Jonze’s movie, I was well aware of TBWP. We all were. And I saw it during its first weekend run. This film had created a whole new way to market a movie.

Heather Donahue turns the camera on herself as she panics and fears she is facing her end. The Blair Witch Project Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

Heather Donahue turns the camera on herself as she panics and fears she is facing her end.
The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

The cinema was sold out. A good number of the audience was frustrated by what they saw. For me it was a positive horror experience. I had not ever seen a film quite like it. As Heather Donahue slipped into hysteria, I felt her panic. I’m not a person who enjoys camping. The very idea is scary to me. So this film already offered something that I find creepy — nature after dark. I quite admired the lo-fi ingenuity of both Daniel Myrick Eduardo Sanchez. The online marketing blitz was fascinating. Please note that the Internet was still kind of new. The fake documentary that screened on television sporadically at the time was equally odd. It seemed to be a real documentary. The film really felt like found footage. All three characters seemed like people you might know. Their shared and respective fits of rage and panic felt like the real thing.

The movie made a ton of money and spawned an endless stream of found footage horror films continuing to this day. The difference is that other filmmakers would learn to avoid aspects of The Blair Witch Project that deeply annoyed audiences. If ever a horror movie arrived carrying strong word-of-mouth it was The Blair Witch Project.

To say that it fully satisfied audience expectations would not be correct. Many found the jittery camera movements nauseating. Others found the whole film to be tease for over an hour resulting in deliverance of a limp pay-off. But I was among those who was impressed by the movie. I was not so impressed from a technical standpoint, but the style matched the plot. I liked it, but I could understand the reservations of others.

A very clever use of TV and Internet marketing The Blair Witch Project Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

A very clever use of TV and Internet marketing
The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

After wowing audiences at The Cannes Film Festival in 2014, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was released to limited cinemas and shortly after to VOD in 2015. The surreal and odd film received a great deal of red-hot press and strong word-of-mouth prior and just after it came out in the US. A meticulously crafted low-budget film that looks a great deal better than most low budget films, It Follows is far more than your average horror film. As praise mounted the movie became a painful example of falling victim to heightened expectations from horror movie fans. Even worse, Mitchell’s clever and disturbing little movie had sparked debate among Film Critics and cinephiles regarding its worth as Film Art.

How in the world do we define terms like “Horror Movie” and “Film Art” in a way to determine which films fit within each? More importantly, who has the right to set the terms?

I might detest movies like I, Frankenstein or Pixels, but to some these films are fantastic and should be considered “Film Art.” What gives me the right to argue their points down? No one or organization issues this right. Even if such a person or institution existed I would proudly rebel against it.

The subjectivity of art is what makes it great. And the freedom to voice opinions and evaluations is what makes being a cinephile fun, but lately differing opinions have really taken an ugly turn.

Is this where sex can lead? It Follows David Robert Mitchell, 2015 Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Is this where sex can lead?
It Follows
David Robert Mitchell, 2015
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Our 24/7 connection in the 21st Century has created a platform on to which international magazines, paid Film Critics and every member of the Audience can have an equal voice. This provides an awesome potential for the individual. From blogs like this to the exceptional podcasts, people now have the power.

The downside to this is that more than a few have opted to use that platform to be cruel and mean-spirited.

Such is the sad way of human nature. But every once in a while great films get unfairly gut-punched by the meanest and loudest voices. The result is that many individuals who might have been open to evaluating a movie that has gotten some negative feedback are led to believe that doing so would be jump on the wrong bandwagon. In other words, people are afraid of being bullied or appear ignorant to take a chance on a particular film.  The loudest and often most cruel voices manage to force a hand in keeping others from making up their own minds.

It Follows is not for all members of the collective audience. Very few, if any, movies will entertain everyone, but the quality of a film should not be made to serve as a barometer by which individuals are judged and causally dismissed as if each were a movie themselves. A person should be comfortable in being able to state she/he enjoyed a movie without fear of being flamed by others on the platform.

David Robert Mitchell’s surreal film explores everything from fears associated with sex to sexually transmitted diseases and all the way around to ideas about potential dangers of friendship and meditations on death. It is also an outstanding example of how much can be done with a very limited budget. It Follows is a great looking film.

"Okay, like I told you, all you can do is pass it on to someone else." It Follows David Robert Mitchell, 2015 Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

“Okay, like I told you, all you can do is pass it on to someone else.”
It Follows
David Robert Mitchell, 2015
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

When I first saw It Follows I was blown away. I was invited to an advance screening. I had only read a couple of things about it at the time. I came out of the viewing experience disoriented and loved the film. I thought of it as Surrealism. I did not immediately identify the movie within the Horror Film genre. To be honest, my biggest concern was trying to determine if the movie had taken place in the not so distant past or present day.

The negative backlash against It Follows caused a number of folks to avoid the movie. I’ve noted a strong number who have seen it via DVD or streaming and loved it and wished they could have seen it on a big screen or sooner. Sadly I’ve also come across a rather large number of folks who loved it but avoid ever stating or sharing this fact for fear of being flamed by fellow bloggers, twitters and other Internet Communities. This really bums me out. It is all too easy to think these people are weak and need to assert themselves. For many the Internet which had once welcomed them has de-evolved to a High School-like experience in which they feel the need to conform.

"This may hurt a little." Perspectives go askew in more way than several. Seconds John Frankenheimer, 1966 Cinematography | James Wong Howe

“This may hurt a little.”
Perspectives go askew in more way than several.
Seconds
John Frankenheimer, 1966
Cinematography | James Wong Howe

The film genre of horror has always been a wide genre. It includes the silly and inane as well as well as the highly artistic and innovative. It can also bleed more easily into other genres than others. A good example of this is John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. This movie is usually considered a “thriller” or “drama” but it has also been read as “science fiction.”

I’ve always considered Seconds to be a horror film of the highest order, to which I assign the label “Art Horror.” Frankenheimer’s vision depicts what is perhaps one of humanity’s greatest fears: aging and mortality. Look just a bit deeper and you will notice the capture of committed relationship horror. Aging and life’s ultimate natural end is not for sissies. Nor is a relationship such as marriage. As we see in Seconds, love may spark passion but down the line that passion often slips away. If there is no love between life partners, facing the natural perils of life can be hard if not impossible. Seconds has enjoyed a re-evaluation thanks to the folks at The Criterion Collection. Label or genre it as you like, but this is a disturbing movie from all aspects. This is a generally accepted film. Sadly we are not so open to respect for a newer movie like It Follows.

Patrick Wilson about to get a fright... Insidious James Wan, 2010 Cinematography| Brewer / Lenenti

Patrick Wilson about to get a fright…
Insidious
James Wan, 2010
Cinematography|
Brewer / Lenenti

In 2007 yet another found footage movie found its way to cinemas. Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity made a good deal of money for very little financial investment. I paid to see it. It was most certainly a horror film, but it failed to interest me and it certainly failed to scare me. It has spawned a franchise that continues to make money from one idea. James Wan’s Insidious also enjoyed success and has spawned at least one sequel. I saw it as well. Once again, Insidious is most certainly a horror movie. It attempted to offer a bit more thought and ideas than Paranormal Activity and featured some decent acting. The idea of a child in a coma and his parents trying to bring him back does provide some interest, but this film was focused on making the audience jump.

No new ground here. Nothing wrong with that if it floats your boat. Movies like this do not even get my boat a foot from its pier.

Robert Egger’s The Witch is currently generating an oppositional mix of awed praise to condemnation. The core of this largely online battle seems to be annoyance that The Witch has been sold to audiences as a horror film. A great number of the audience are frustrated if not straight up angry that The Witch failed to be scary by their definitions. This is a debate that has left me more than a little confused. Had we all seen the same movie? I did think that many might be disappointed to not find themselves jumping in their seats or clinging to arm rests, but the whole Anti The Witch attitude against the film has caught me by surprise.

Peek-a-boo! Anya Taylor-Joy The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Peek-a-boo!
Anya Taylor-Joy
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

True enough A24 should have gotten The Witch out sooner. Almost a year worth of praise has most definitely put the movie in the uncomfortable position of living up to hype.

If you’ve not yet seen The Witch, there will be some spoilers to follow. Simply stop reading. If you are not sure you will see it then reading should not offer a problem.

Robert Eggers’ film has been carefully researched. Almost all of the film’s dialogue has been lifted from 17th Century records which transcribe reported events of suspected or assigned evil witchery. The movie is also closely aligned with this sort of folklore and fear of that time. The Witch captures the feeling / ambiance that matches my idea of what life must have looked and been like within the unsettled 17th Century America to which the Puritans and other settlers ventured. I could almost smell this world flowing out from the movie screen. Eggers may have only had a budget of $1.5 million, but this movie looks like it cost a great deal more. Carefully framed by Jarin Blaschke’s camera, The Witch manages to be both lush and rustically threatening all at once. The film works on two levels from beginning to end.***

 

 

Welcome to a New England folktale... The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Welcome to a New England folktale…
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

On the one hand the film can be viewed as a horror film based on ancient folklore regarding Satan and Satanic Ritual lensed as reality. The idea that what one perceives as little more than silly fairy tale is given life as something deeply menacing, horrible and real. The Witch is also smart enough to function on a less literal levels. What we see unfold could be a manifestations resulting from misunderstood happenings to the unimaginable struggles for survival in an unknown place. And within the metaphorical read of the movie, the confusions and frustrations of two children on the verge of adulthood struggle with both the urge to rebel against and fear the changes/longings they experience under the repression of a puritanical daily life.

A pious family is banished from their Puritan Settlement for being a too hardcore with Christian beliefs. This in of itself is more than a little telling. It seems that their fellow settlers who left England in pursuit of an even more repressed life now feel that this particular family has taken worship of Christ to an unacceptable level. The father’s fevered preachings of faith are so intolerant that his words seem to border on perversity. The father stands proud and happily accepts his family’s fate of banishment. We follow the family on their devout journey for a new home. When Father decides he has found the perfect clearing of land for their own settlement, all fall to their knees and pray for thanks and blessing. It is not clear how long it takes the family to construct a bone-bare basic home, a small barn, a fence and the beginnings of a small crop — but they have managed to do it. But problems are not far behind end everything begins to crumble around them in horrifying ways.

Ralph Ineson as the father leads his family in prayer before they begin to eat a very sparse dinner. The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Ralph Ineson as the father leads his family in prayer before they begin to eat a very sparse dinner.
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

The mysterious loss of a child, a failing crop, lack of food and an approaching winter sends this family into a deep crisis.

Could this crisis be a test from God or the work of Satan? The first indication that something far sinister is gripping the family presents itself very early in the film. Eldest child and daughter, “Thomasin” played with searing naturalism by Anya Taylor-Joy is to keep an eye on her youngest sibling. A cute baby lies in front of Thomasin. She begins to play a game of “peek-a-boo” with the baby. After a couple of rounds she covers her eyes but when she removes her hands, the baby has simply vanished. We see that the baby has been magically stolen by a naked crone of a witch. It becomes apparent that this elder witch has butchered the baby, devoured the meat and spread the babe’s blood all over her body. Is Eggers camera meant to be taken literally or is this the POV of a young woman’s darkest fear? We really do not know.

What we do know is that the family has no choice but to assume the very logical worst. The baby must have been snapped up by a wolf. Thomasin never seems to make a big point of the fact that there could be no way a wolf could have taken the baby so quickly and without a sound. And if she feels guilt it would appear to be suppressed for fear of her parents wrath. The mother slips into depression and clearly holds her eldest child responsible. It should be noted that the style in which Eggers shoots the old witch is different to what we have seen displayed in the movie.

A witch's lair, perhaps? The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

A witch’s lair, perhaps?
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

We soon discover that the eldest son has feelings for his beautiful sister that are not appropriate. He is aware of this, but does his best to hide it. While it is never fully articulated, there is a sense that Thomasin is aware of her brother’s interest. She does not encourage it, but there is a vague sense that she enjoys the attention. She passively finds ways to disguise her touches on her brother as innocent when their might be a shared desire at play in these touches. There are a pair of twins who are now the youngest of the clan. At first it would seem these two playful children are simply a bit spoiled, but their behavior is revealed to be far more sinister. They have taken to playing with the family’s black goat to which they have assigned the name Black Phillip. They claim to speak with him and that he has told them things. Most of which are more than a little worrying. The family’s misfortunes only continue. Eavesdropping, keeping secrets, lying, anger, hunger, depression and accusations soon engulf this family. Along the way we see horrific incidents that may or may not be actually happening. A goat appears to provide blood instead of milk. A seemingly ready to consume chicken’s egg is dropped to reveal a fully formed chick dead and bloody. An innocent rabbit appears to the father and his son but seems to serve as some sort of hiding beast of omen. Black Phillip does some very odd movements for the twins. The eldest boy stumbles upon what appears to be a witch’s lair. A beautiful woman emerges with an apple and gives the child an adult kiss. This woman soon appears to turn into an old crone. Thomasin takes to staring into the woods that border the newly created home land.

An odd plaything for an odd pair of twins... Meet Black Phillip. The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

An odd plaything for an odd pair of twins… Meet Black Phillip.
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

The father, expertly played by Ralph Ineson, has the look of a somehow perverse version of a stereotypical idea of Jesus. He seems to be the most conflicted by the events that are pushing the family beyond the edge of reason. Before long their eldest son falls prey to what appears to be witchcraft or black magic and dies. The mother slips further into hysteria. Ineson’s William is torn by accusations from the twins that Thomasin has been consorting with The Devil. Most especially due to the fact that they claim it is Black Phillip who has informed them of this as well as Thomasin herself.

But continuing events which he is unable to explain push him to put all three children into the small barn. He barricades it so they can’t leave, but the twins’ Black Phillip is sealed in with them. Disturbing visions come to the mother in her fevered night’s sleep. William emerges in the morning to discover that the barn has been essentially destroyed, the twins dead and Thomasin lies on the ground covered in the twins’ blood. Tragedy strikes yet again leaving Thomasin alone among the carnage. Exhausted and traumatized she makes her way into the hovel of a home, sits at the table and allows her head to fall.

Locked up in the barn with Black Phillip or The Devil? The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Locked up in the barn with Black Phillip or The Devil?
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Is Thomasin sleeping? It is not entirely clear but it would seem she is awoken by a male presence. Could it be the vile Black Phillip? It is. But then perhaps it isn’t.

Thomasin does not seem particularly surprised. Why should she? She has witnessed what can she can only attribute to Satan’s darkest magik destroy her family. She demands or rather “conjuresBlack Phillip to speak with her. We do not see the goat speak but we hear a deep male voice respond. A conversation ensues in which he asks the young girl what she might want from life. The voice assures her she will live life “deliciously” if she will simply sign a book that has magically been sat before her. Thomasin hesitates, but is instructed to remove her shift and that he will guide her hand to sign her name in the book.

The last images we see are of a nude Thomasin walking toward a gathering of nude witches in the midst of a Satanic ritual. As the chanting reaches a pitch, the witches began to levitate and fly upward. A calming look comes over Thomasin’s face and she begins to levitate toward the sky.

And here is a bit of cinematic magic — in another director’s hands this moment in the film might have come across in another way. But under Robert Eggers steady direction, this young woman’s take to flight is not a moment of female freedom or rebirth. This is the film’s most chilling moment. We see a young woman ascend naked toward her destiny in celebration of her evilness. She embraces all that is evil and leaves all kindness behind. It is a nightmare awakening and is horrifying.

Ralph Ineson The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Ralph Ineson
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

The Witch weaves a spell that takes on a slow burn within the mind. I was never afraid as I watched the movie unfold, but I was disturbed as much as I was fascinated. Hours after I saw The Witch, it began to haunt my thoughts. This is a movie that stays with you.

A24 has employed two tag lines to promote The Witch:

Evil takes many forms and A New-England Folktale  — both makes sense for the film. Each expresses the two ways in which the film can be viewed.

Neither tag line makes any promises that the movie is unable to keep. The Witch may not make you jump in your seat or cling to your arm rests, but you very well might squirm. And it is highly likely that you will ponder what you have seen long after you have left the cinema.

A work of Art Horror that deserves praise. I think The Witch comes close to being a brilliant exercise in Art Horror. Make fun of me, flame me and dismiss me if you wish.

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" The Witch Rober Eggers, 2016 Cinematography |

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
The Witch
Rober Eggers, 2016
Cinematography |

***There is a third “read” to be found while watching and evaluating The Witch. While this reading is more than a bit dark, there is correlation to be made between a metaphorical rejection of patriarchal ideas regarding the identity of women. A story which leads a young woman out of repression, oppression and up to the sky in a celebration of her own identity, sexuality and power. The thing is that most feminist thinkers are likely to take exception to using such actions as vivisection murder of male baby and ultimate violent destruction of a family unit. However, we are dealing in metaphors here.

 

Matty Stanfield, 2.25.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was once a time when Madonna presented ideas far deeper than that of “Pop Star.” While those days seem to have past, many of the ideas she presented and asserted remain.

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's insightful novel for the screen. Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, 2015 Photograph | Sam Emerson

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s insightful novel for the screen.
Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller, 2015
Photograph | Sam Emerson

One of the last times I recall finding myself thinking about something she co-created was her 2000 single:

“Skin that shows in patches.
Strong inside but you don’t know it.

Good little girls they never show it.
When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world…” — Madonna

Aside from being catchy, this pop song did elevate itself more than a little by what it had to say about the ever-mounting challenges and societal/cultural indifference and injustices perpetuated against and projected upon the idea of female identity. Sadly, the iconic superstar chose to have her then filmmaker husband create the song’s vid-clip. The video for this song was crass and violent for reasons of shock-value vs. offering any level of content truly relevant toward a song that seemed tied to a young woman attempting to indicate the cruel patriarchal views to a young male. A missed opportunity to say the least.

Marguerite Duras' novel about a young woman's sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard. Jane March / Tony Leung The Lover Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992 Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

Marguerite Duras’ novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard.
Jane March / Tony Ka Fai Leung
The Lover
Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992
Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

It has taken a tragic and centuries long tyranny for women to finally make significant strides in the areas of filmmaking. Such recently formed groups like The Alliance for Women in Media have smartly utilized social media to promote, promote and organize female film artists. While the idea of the female filmmaker is not at all new, the voices of these film artists that have managed to gain attention are painfully few. Those voices that have managed to obtain success have largely been built on celebrity [think Nora Ephron, Julie Delpy, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Susan Sideman, Anne Fontaine, Diane Keaton or Kathryn Bigelow] or controversial films that were either too scandalous or provocative [think Claire Denis, Lina Wertmüller, Patty Jenkins, Liliana Cavani, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Doris Dörrie or Catherine Breillat] to be ignored.

Note: this statement and the listed artists is not intended toward the quality of work or respective importance. However significant gains have been made in just the last ten years.

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King SELMA Ava DuVernay, 2014 Cinematography | Bradford Young

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
SELMA
Ava DuVernay, 2014
Cinematography | Bradford Young

As Film Art moves forward we will be given more opportunities to see female characters written and presented by women. It is interesting to experience the “knee-jerk” reaction of fellow cinephiles when I bring this up. It seems that the majority of people seem to feel it is not all that important or different to have a female vs. male filmmaker. From a technical proficiency standpoint it really does not make a difference. However, good luck at convincing most Big Money producers or film studios that there isn’t. The shift in this perspective is resulting from peer and societal pressures. Sexism and Racism still run the show, but this might be changing. What interests me is seeing how a female filmmaker might be able to bring a more balanced depiction of female characters and their situations.

A great deal more than "a sex comedy" that the film's marketing team led us to believe. Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film. Afternoon Delight Jill Soloway, 2013 Cinematography | Jim Frohna

A great deal more than “a sex comedy” that the film’s marketing team led us to believe.
Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film.
Afternoon Delight
Jill Soloway, 2013
Cinematography | Jim Frohna

Would Ava DuVernay’s Selma have been different if it had been made by a man? A white woman? I suspect so, but Selma was crafted with such a steadfast and sure handed — it is hard to say. Would Jill Soloway’s under-appreciated Afternoon Delight have been different if it had been written/directed by a male filmmaker? I’d say most certainly so. Would Diary of a Teenage Girl have presented themes of sexuality and identity have been handled in a different manner by a male? Would Mia’s frustrations, anger and sexual awakening been explored differently if a man had directed Andrea Arnold’s screenplay for Fish Tank? I’d say most definitely. Or what if we stop and imagine what might have happened if Lynne Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kenner, had directed their screenplay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Would Michelle Williams’ Margot had received a more typical level of exploration had Sarah Polley not written and directed Take This Waltz? Would a male director had handled Father of My Children in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve so grimly caring as she was able?

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate. Katie Jarvis Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009 Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate.
Katie Jarvis
Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold, 2009
Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

If we think back to some of the more controversial European films of the past 50 years it brings up an even stronger concern. Imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had directed Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter? …A film that still makes both female and male audiences squirm some 40+ years after it was originally released. Try to imagine if Jacques Audiard had directed Claire Denis’ White Material. Actually this might be the true exception to the rule. I do not think there are any filmmakers who think and film anywhere near to the manner in which Denis approaches her distinctive and intimate films.

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working -- who happens to be a woman. Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley FUNNY BUNNY Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working — who happens to be a woman.
Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley
FUNNY BUNNY
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Even so, just think what might have happened. A similar exception might rule for both Catherine Breillat and Josephine Decker — both of whom seem to have a very unique and intimate connection to their work. Decker’s voice is still taking form and I think we are approaching an era where it will be allowed to do just that. The same did not happen for the likes of Claudia Weill and Elaine May. Two incredibly gifted artists who had the unluck of making a flop each. Male filmmakers can make a flop movie and move on, the same has not been true for women.

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May's directorial career to an abrupt end. Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty ISHTAR Elaine May, 1987 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May’s directorial career to an abrupt end.
Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty
ISHTAR
Elaine May, 1987
Cinematography |Vittorio Storaro

An even more vexing concern for female artists comes up when we do think of all the inaccuracies of treatment for male filmmakers vs. female directors. Men can misbehave. Does anyone out there think that a female artist would have been allowed to put a cast / crew through emotional tantrums thrown by David O. Russell during the making of I Heart Huckabees? You are living in a make believe reality if you do. You would also be in an equally confused reality if you think a male PEO could have gotten away with this behavior on a Hollywood set. Ironically, the artist who paid the price for Mr. Russell’s bizarre behavior ended up being an innocent bystander. Unlike her co-stars, Isabelle Huppert and Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin refused to sit quietly while Russell blasted them with unprofessional rage-fueled insults.

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.  Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell, 2004 Cinematography | Peter Deming

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.
Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 2004
Cinematography | Peter Deming

It was as if the highly respected and skilled actress had made a grave error against Hollywood’s Good ‘Ol Boy Club when she dared to respond to her director’s cruelty. Ms. Tomlin’s film career suffered a great deal due because she was unwilling to sit passively and suffer the indignity of O’Russell’s tyranny. This sad result of a YouTube leak has been little discussed. David O. Russell had already come to blows with George Clooney a few years earlier. Clooney seemed to earn “respect points” for standing up to the bullying. Tomlin did not fare as well. She was largely relegated to playing nightclub gigs. It would take more than a couple of years before she found worthy television / film prospects. Yet David O. Russell continued to excel up The Hollywood Food Chain despite not only his behavior but the box office fail of I Heart Huckabees.

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.  Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.
Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

However, I’ve gone way off point here. There are a slew of amazing films dealing with the psychology of women. Films that are rightly revered and studied. In no way would I want to discount these films, but it is interesting to think about them from the perspective that they were imagined, written and directed by men. Are these depictions any less valid because women were relegated to the role of “actor” vs. creator of these unforgettable cinematic masterpieces? It is an interesting talking point.

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.  Julianne Moore SAFE Todd Haynes, 1995 Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.
Julianne Moore
SAFE
Todd Haynes, 1995
Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

I was recently thinking of four films in particular. I don’t pretend to know the full answer to this hind-sighted reflection. For starters I am not a filmmaker, but most importantly I am a white male. These films were made by professional filmmakers — all of whom were white men.

Millie aims for perfection within a man's nightmare... Shelley Duvall  3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie aims for perfection within a man’s nightmare…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The first film that crosses my mind regarding this line of questioning is one of my personal favorite movies: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I’m not sure this is a good film to discuss in this vein as the entire film can be ascribed to dream-logic. Altman never made it a secret that the entire film was born of a personal nightmare. It is also no secret that this incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

The battle for identity... Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The battle for identity…
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost all of the film’s trajectories emanate from Duvall’s Millie‘s actions. Another aspect of this film that more or less eliminates it from this topic is the fact that the entire film does feel like a manifestation of male-based fears about women. This is not to say that 3 Women is not a fully potent vision of identity horror, but it does not actually seem to present itself entirely based female psychology. This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific three female characters.

The second film I think of this respect is a more likely candidate for this type of analysis: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Experiencing a John Cassavetes film often leads the viewer to the mistaken idea that every aspect of what is being seen is an improvised experimental film. This is never the case.

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

Cassavetes was an articulate film writer as well as director. He had a very specific story to tell and he told it in his unique visionary way. Certainly not one to run from collaboration and open to ideas — he was nearly always set on how and what he wanted his films to say. He was blessed to share his life with one of the most important film actors to ever breathe, Gena Rowlands. However it is a major mistake to think that as Mabel, Rowlands was free-forming her dialog as she went along. It is both to her credit as an actor and her husband’s credit as a filmmaker that it feels that way. Even Rowlands’s Mabel odd and/or quirky hand gestures and ticks were already thought out in the filmmaker’s head. Do a Google and you will find images of Cassavetes acting out the hand movements and gestures for Rowlands to incorporate into her performance. It is also somewhat crucial to remember that Cassavetes main interest in his film storytelling was the pursuit of love. Yet it would seem difficult for even this great filmmaker to not note that there was something removed from that going on here.

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.  A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.
A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

A Woman Under the Influence works on all levels and remains a fascinating and deeply disturbing screen capture of a woman in full-tilt emotional breakdown. How or if she is full able to “heal” and return to life is more than a little ambiguous. What is clear in the film is that she is loved and loves, but this might not be enough for her to survive the life in which she has found herself. And this is one of the primary reasons this 1974 film continues to feel alive and real. The hair styles, the decor, the cars and clothing may all be dated — but the situations all feel profoundly current.

Mabel is not well. She is losing her grip on sanity. Something that the film never bluntly states but shows is that she is also deteriorating in imposed isolation, loneliness and suffocating within what begins to feel like a sort of familial pathology. The Longhetti Family is not well. The working-class husband / father is over-worked and seems more than a little under-educated. With the exception of a paycheck, he seems to leave all other responsibilities to his wife, Mabel. She is left alone with three children in a sort of lower-middle class hell.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

She loves and adores her children, but they are all she has in the way of connection to the world. She may or may not be a bit smarter than her husband, but it does not really matter. We can see that she is overwhelmed. We can also see that her husband hasn’t a clue as to why or how to help her. He takes to what can only be described as domestic abuse toward his wife. He ultimately pulls his children into emotionally-damaging situations and allows indulgences into inappropriate behavior as a father. Mabel may not be a reliable parent, but she seems to be trying harder to set a better example than her husband. The 21st Century reaction to Peter Falk’s Nick is to take offense and become angry. However his performance and the film itself is so stunningly human, it is almost impossible to dislike Nick. We know he cares and is simply lost. The resulting film is powerful, sad and oddly inspiring in that it offers us a bit of hope for this woman.

When film acting no longer feels like "fiction." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

When film acting no longer feels like “fiction.”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

There was and will only ever be one John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is cinematic masterwork from every angle.

But have you ever wondered what this movie might have been like if a woman had directed it?

Would we be given a bit more information regarding those gestures or movements to understand the pressures of both the inner and outer worlds of Mabel? Would Nick have had more room to understand or even less? Would he have become a savior or more of a victimizer? When it comes to A Woman Under the Influence, one thing that was discussed when it was first released has come much more clearly to the forefront with the passage of time: there is an idea presented which is far less ambiguous today as was back in the 1970s. As viewers we do not really know if it is Mabel who is having the real problem here. Mabel appears to be more a victim of circumstance than one of mental illness. Is The Woman ill or is she simply a experiencing the logical result of a life so severely limited and oppressed? Perhaps it is Nick who really needs help. Mabel just might need to demand more freedom or walk away. Would the entire situation of this family be illuminated in a different way had it been in the hands of female filmmaker? Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know…

The female psyche deconstructed... PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The third and final film is also one of the greatest films ever made. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a milestone work of art for more reasons than I’d be comfortable attempting to articulate. This largely experimental film is less about the core of Human Identity as it is about the twisted manipulation of identity by one of the two female characters. Bibi Andersson plays Alma. A young and inexperienced Psych Nurse assigned the task of caring for a highly respected stage and film actress played with equal mastery by Liv Ullmann. This is a Surrealist take on human cruelty and ideas of identity. It is also female-centric. Yet as much as it is concerned with female psychology, it is equally concerned with experimenting against the normal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Ingmar Bergman and his legendary cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist are both concerned with conveying ideas through image and editing even more than what the two actors present through performance and dialogue.

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?  Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?
Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We see both women react to their respective worlds and situations. Soon enough we see them react to each other. In uncomfortable silence as her patient has withdrawn from speech and human contact, Alma begins to find herself in the unique position in having a person of note who serves as her private audience. She begins to share her deepest and most intimate secrets to her Elisbet. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to realize that Liv Ullmann’s character is somehow using her nurse for her own perverse needs and pleasures. We might think that it is the patient who is falling apart, but viewers quickly realize that the character who truly comes to the end of her mental and emotional rope is the nurse.

Silent prey or captive audience?  Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson  PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Silent prey or captive audience?
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

One of the splinters the film that makes is truly jolting, but it is never fully clear as to why. Was this always going to happen or has Ullmann’s Elisabet pushing buttons and limits for her own sick gain? I suspect most of us would agree that this revolutionary bit of filmmaking is at least a partial off-spring from Freudian thought. In fact, it seems that Bergman was playing off Freud’s idea of both primary and normal narcissism. Persona almost seems to be constructing itself off Freud’s self-titled definitions of Demential Praecox and Paraphrenics (sp?) — Elisabet appears to an off-shoot example of Schizophrenia who is incapable of love or loving. Alma is the hysterical woman unable to escape the grasp of a sociopathic woman hellbent on ruining her. It would be irresponsible and lazy to dismiss Persona on sexist grounds as it comes from a very specific point in time and achieved a whole new sort of cinematic language. Persona is still a gut punch to the senses. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s film remains ahead of time. However it is firmly grounded in the world of Art Horror or Psychological Thriller. It is not and can’t be weakened by ideas that we now might deem as outmoded.

But it does beg a bit of examination regarding the ways in which Bergman crafted his two female characters? It is possibly unnecessary, but curious to wonder what a female film artist might have done with the ideas of female human beings in this situation. Would a female or a Feminist-perspective have changed this film for the different or better? Would Alma‘s memory of her sexual exploit be articulated differently? Would Elisabet‘s reactions and actions have been different? Would a sickly little boy reach out for the female faces or would he be replaced by a little girl? Would a female perspective lead us further than Bergman’s conclusion?

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act... Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act…
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Would it all still break the film strip?

Perhaps of all male filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was the most interested in female-centric movies. He is not alone. Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Woody Allen and David Lynch are just a few of the white male filmmakers who pursue the stories and even the POV of female characters. Much of their work feels right, but how to know? Can a man really ever know what it feels like for a girl?

Or perhaps more on point: can a male film artist really ever know what it is like to be a woman? …much less even partially understand what it is like to be in her head?

Judging by many films, it would seem more than a little possible.

Intent to harm or heal? Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Intent to harm or heal?
Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We have yet to have an equal opportunity to experience female film art perspective in equal measure. Let’s hope that we see and hear more from Female Film Artists and Women In Media as we move forward.  It has never been more important to support films made by women and people of color.

Aren’t we all pretty much bored with seeing the vast majority of movies limited to the white male perspective?

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016

 

Watching, thinking and studying from all perspectives. Separation Jane Arden Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

Watching, thinking and studying from all perspectives.
Separation
Jane Arden
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

The collaborative work between artists and lovers, Jack Bond and Jane Arden, had become the thing of legend. While all three of their feature length films had been acclaimed and considered to represent two of the most important voices in British Cinema, this was largely thanks to the film reviews that lingered on long after they had screened. Jack Bond was coasting on the British New Wave film scene of the 1960’s seemingly destined for great success when he met Jane Arden. She proved to be the perfect match for the talented filmmaker both personally and professionally. Jane Arden was an actor and frequent BBC talking head when she met Jack Bond. Eccentric, intellectual, beautiful, talented, innovative and always controversial — Jane Arden flourished to great heights after she met Bond. Neither of these artists were content to go with the flow of their time. Arden proved to be an outspoken Feminist, provocateur and filmmaker. Jack Bond’s views often matched hers and while every bit as experimental as Arden, he seems to have possessed a key eye for editing that lent itself to giving shape to Arden’s visionary work.

Pain, Rage and Sanity are pushed to extreme limits. The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Pain, Rage and Sanity are pushed to extreme limits.
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Jane Arden committed suicide in 1982. Devastated by her death, Jack Bond quickly set out to secure and store all copies of their 3 feature length films and impressive short feature within the vaults of the British Film Institute. He did so with the legal restriction that none could be screened or released. It is easy to imagine most film artists rushing to promote and celebrate their work, but for Jack Bond these films were far too intimate, personal and revelatory. It was not until some 20+ years had passed that one of Jane Arden’s children contacted Jack Bond. It was her youngest son who convinced him to reconsider his infamous decision to lock away the films. It would not be until 2009 that these three films would be screened and another one to two years before BFI could distribute the newly restored prints to DVD/Blu-ray. Even still, this work remains largely lost to American audiences — and a good many Europeans as well. It was only in the last several months that I began to slip into the worlds that Arden-Bond co-created.

A totally unique cinematic language form this disorienting and disturbing psychological thriller... Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

A totally unique cinematic language form this disorienting and disturbing psychological thriller…
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

These films are all available via the British Film Institute on region-free Blu-ray. They can be found on Amazon or BFI‘s own website. If you truly love innovative, challenging and remarkable Film Art — viewing these three films is essential. Each film stands alone, but all three share a common thread of searching for equality, understanding and full formation of identity. The purpose of this blog post is to promote this work so that it can reach the audience who has not yet discovered it.

Transcendental Meditation and Video Experimentation lend toward an attempt to understand self and environment. VIBRATION Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1975

Transcendental Meditation and Video Experimentation lend toward an attempt to understand self and environment.
VIBRATION
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1975

I will do my best to not provide spoilers. I will also do my best to restrain my enthusiasm so that this is shorter. I will rely upon more than a couple of images from the work. It is key to note that imagery is of utmost importance to the work of Arden-Bond. But it is also crucial to note that their work was not style over content. The content of these films is rich and urges repeated viewings. These films were made by rebellious thinkers and none fit neatly into categorization.

Separation

London's Swinging '60's is explored with equal amounts of intellectualism, style and unique innovation. Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography | Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

London’s Swinging ’60’s is explored with equal amounts of intellectualism, style and unique innovation.
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography | Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

While Jack Bond is credited as this film’s director, it is clear that Jane Arden was closely involved with almost every aspect of the film. Considered to be one of England’s first truly avant-garde films, Separation is actually a great deal more. Once the viewer adjusts to the film’s often dated but striking innovative method of storytelling, this experimental movie is a highly effective study of a woman falling apart — or away from life.  A middle-aged woman’s emotional and mental crisis results not so much from a failed marriage or poor choices — but from the societal and cultural judgements made against women as they age. Ideas of “reality” and “fantasy” are constantly blurred. Most certainly surreal but never dislodged from logic or realism.

The future, the present and the past all whisper our leading lady further into conflict... Iain Quarrier, Jane Arden and David de Keyser Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

The future, the present and the past all whisper our leading lady further into conflict…
Iain Quarrier, Jane Arden and David de Keyser
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

This is as close as Arden-Bond got to “light cinema.” It could be argued that the majority of this film takes place in the female protagonist’s inner self. As viewers we can only ever be certain of her past. Her present and future slip between what feels like cerebral fantasy to an alienated realism. Has she left her husband or has she left what appears to her idea of an out-dated Patriarchal Institution? Has she abandoned her child or has she lost the child? Is this good-looking, young and eagerly hip dude her new lover or imagined? And what of this other women who populate the film’s non-linear storyline?

Forever late or too early... Jane Arden Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

Forever late or too early…
Jane Arden
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

For a film shot on the streets of the ever-styling streets of late 1960’s London, Separation does not look like most of the British films that came out of this period. The editing is never self-conscious or overtly eager to confuse the eye. Procul Harum provide a good deal of the film’s music and Mark Boyle’s celebrated Pop Art lava lamp-like projections jolt the film with sporadic uses of vivid color. Unlike most movies of this era and place, these are not used to trip us out — but almost more to stumble us further into the protagonist’s crisis. Much of the film is filmed in lush black and white.

Groving by force or choice? Jane Arden Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

Groving by force or choice?
Jane Arden
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

At turns naturalistic and stiffly artificial, Separation brims over with ideas and theories. Jane Arden’s Feminist Theory has started to take form but is still growing. This is largely a film of questions, doubts and fear. Our character is falling apart, but it is unclear if this is headed toward Nihilism or hope. There is a strong possibility that Jane Arden’s character is not so much falling apart but might have already broken into pieces. She might actually be in the process of reformation from the ruins of oppression and conformity. This magical film is sharply focused toward the struggle of Feminist Equality. It is sometimes sad, but often quite funny. Separation offers more insight than can be caught in one viewing. The film’s power grows with repeated viewings. It is a cinematic work of surprises and insights.

Looking deeper into the self than the viewer might anticipate. Jane Arden Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

Looking deeper into the self than the viewer might anticipate.
Jane Arden
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

In many ways, Separation can be viewed as Jane Arden’s first step into understanding the self from both the intimate and cultural perspectives. She has latched on to the ideas and the importance of Feminism, but is still aching to understand how to grab it without breaking into a million tiny pieces. Jane Arden wrote the film and stars. Jack Bond’s hand as a filmmaker pulls all of it together into a cohesive cinematic work. Truly brilliant and way ahead of its time.

The battle of the sexes takes a darkly comical turn... Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography | Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

The battle of the sexes takes a darkly comical turn…
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography | Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

An artistic and Nihilistic study in Feminist Theory takes a truly cinematic dive into a woman’s subconscious. This film is fascinating, intellectual and surprisingly current. Tragically it was given a rather limited release after it was made. It says a great deal that the reputation of this film survived as the movie itself sat on shelves in the dark corner of The British Film Institute‘s vault.  If you like films that make you think and take you to unexpected places, this is not a film to be missed.

A man's death offers a woman a way out. She put a pretty ribbon on "it" Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography | Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

A man’s death offers a woman a way out. She put a pretty ribbon on “it”
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography | Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

Whether Jane Arden’s fictionalized Self is falling together or apart is debatable, but one thing is most certainly clear: she is separating herself from the constraints of her society and culture. She is looking outward for equality and refusal of oppression. She is looking inward for understanding her self and why her identity is so fragmented and torn. Another important element which has already taken form in Arden and Bonds’ philosophy is the teachings and theories of Jacques Lucan. Most correctly called Lucan Theory is most often referred to as The Anti-Therapy Ideology. This rejection of typical Freudian and psychoanalytical thought is certainly hinted at within the frames of Separation. Ideas of symbology, the real, the imaginary and the power of the mirror are present thought the film, but Arden-Bond would soon be pulling their audience full-on into these concepts with their next film.

Symbology, projection, imaginary and real mix to form not only a film, but an entire philosophical approach to the art of filmmaking. Iain Quarrier, Jane Arden and home movies... Separation Jack Bond, 1968 Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

Symbology, projection, imaginary and real mix to form not only a film, but an entire philosophical approach to the art of filmmaking.
Iain Quarrier, Jane Arden and home movies…
Separation
Jack Bond, 1968
Cinematography| Aubrey Dewar & David Muir

As I’ve already mentioned, Separation was a critical hit at the time of release. Arden-Bond made a film that captured the Counter-Culture and Swinging London of the day but made something far more than a time capsule piece or celebratory work. It could have pushed both forward into the world of cinema, yet neither chose to go in that direction. Instead both continued their mutual and individual personal journeys. It would be over four years before they re-entered the filmmaking world. Arden focused on theatre. Her focus was the thing of legend. Never afraid or shy of controversy or public self-examination that she felt was important for other women as well as men, she wrote, directed and acted in several notorious experimental theatrical productions.

The most important of these were Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven and, most importantly, Holocaust: A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches. While these plays were carefully scripted, Arden loved collaboration. She encouraged her actors to follow their instincts. Improvisation and audience participation happened. These experimental pieces were controversial and pushed well past the British Theatre boundaries. Yet they were successful. Constantly on the verge of being banned and/or jeered, these performances are as discussed as the work of Joan Littlewood. Yet whereas Littlewood was concerned with finding ways for lost teens of East London to channel their anger, boredom and frustration into art, Arden was deeply and profoundly concerned with pushing forward Feminist Theory.

What is identity? The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

What is identity?
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Tied up within Lacan Theory as well as her own personal demons she felt and saw reflected back to her from the Self-Mirror, this Feminist work was more focused on shaking off the pain, rage and cruelty of centuries patriarchal oppression. Sexuality was discussed full-on and often turned from sex objectivity to sexual confrontation. Pain and Rage were explored from both the practical and a growing ideology of Arden’s in which she connected the oppression of women directly to colonialism. These two plays would lay the groundwork for a number of important artists and careers. Of the artists, Sheila Allen was become the most prominent. Natasha Morgan would go on to play a crucial role in the British Women’s Liberation Movement and is now a respected and sought-after psychotherapist. Both of these women gave oral histories for BFI at the time that Arden-Bonds’ next film was restored and re-issued. And what a film it is…

The Other Side of the Underneath

Born out of both of her successful experimental theatre pieces, this film was intended to a combination of both plays. Jane Arden wrote the screenplay and insisted that Jack Bond give her full reign as the film’s director. He would go on to participate as cinematographer and “actor.” He would hire David Mingay as the film’s editor. Both Arden and Bond worked closely with Mingay as the film was pulled together. Bond would also take on the responsibility of getting the funding and all the required “items” for filming. These “items” included a brown bear, participation of local Wales coal miners, community members, a band of roaming gypsies, participation of actual mental hospital patients, several mentally/physically challenged individual from government institutions and most famously — Bond would secure a steady supply of LSD. The production of this film is notorious.

Centuries of Cruelty projected on to the face of a bride... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Centuries of Cruelty projected on to the face of a bride…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Most shocking is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any distortion or untruth in its infamy. The bear would break free and threaten the safety of the tripping cast, the locals would break into fist fights, the mental patient and the mentally retarded would run away. And the actors would trip out. Led by a drunken but self-assured Jane Arden, these trips often took dark turns. She seems to have been able to lead them all through it. The ethics of this film production are most certainly questionable. But this was also what Arden-Bond and friends were after: A deadly pursuit of understanding the pain and rage of the oppressed and repressed.

"Mine! Mine! Mine!" "She has a pretty face!!!" Sheila Allen taunts with her human puppet... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

“Mine! Mine! Mine!”
“She has a pretty face!!!”
Sheila Allen taunts with her human puppet…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Armed with an endless supply of wine and cigarettes, Jane Arden secured a number of volunteers to appear with her in front of the cameras. Both Sheila Allen and Natasha Morgan were present. The idea was that the entire cast and their director would live “on set” in a decaying old farm house for the duration of the filming. They also agreed to wear their costumes, Victorian Era type nighties, for the duration. Oh, and they also agreed to drop Acid repeatedly throughout all filming. Sheila Allen refused to live on set or to trip out on LSD. Accommodations were made for her to stay at an inn a few miles away. Natasha Morgan was initially hesitant to participate. She agreed to come along as the casts’ cook. However, she changed her mind and joined in. These two actors would figure prominently in the film. Penny Slinger was another actor and activist of import who participated. The lead role was given to an unknown woman who was new to the whole scene, Susanka Fraey. She would end up playing the leading character of the piece.

Susanna Fraey is the Protagonist... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Susanna Fraey is the Protagonist…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Sally Minford, a Cellist, and her daughter would also participate. Obviously the child did not receive drugs. And as far as I can tell, Ms. Minford declined to take part in the LSD tripping. However, her role was limited to that of Cellist. She would compose and perform the film’s musical score throughout. Clearly skilled, the musical goal here is not beauty or melody but danger and threat.

I do not view it as a bad thing that I have had to watch Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath three times before I could form a solid opinion. Quite the contrary, I love the fact that this film’s complexities run so deep that it requires a great deal of thought. There is nothing “easy” about this bold work of film art. This profoundly disturbing film goes places to which I’ve never seen filmed before. Reckless, Dangerous and Bad To Know, this movie rattles more than just cages. This film amps its way from frenzy to hysteria and on to a sort of free-form descent into hippie dystopian vagrancy. The film pulls no punches as it is far too busy bluntly plummeting the subject matter and the cast into a submission of unfettered pain and self-examination. This is a particularly collaborative work and everything in the film depends upon the female cast members who agreed to participate.

The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Decidedly not plot-driven, this film does present us with a protagonist. A young woman “played” by Susanka Fraey is “fished” from a lake where she has attempted suicide. She quickly finds herself in a sort of mental asylum where all the women are dressed in Victorian style nightgowns and roam about freely. Both patients and gate keepers, it almost appears as if this insane asylum is self-contained. Only one person seems to be “in charge” within this madhouse and that is a firm psychiatrist played by Jane Arden herself.

While the film is largely concerned with the Anti-Psychiatry Movement evolved from Jacques Lacan, it is actually far more concerned with the seemingly unbearable rage repressed within the women that takes on an epic level. The strong feeling is that this rage and pain has been individually and universal-shared history of oppression and patriarchal cruelty. Our unnamed protagonist is forever roaming the corridors, hidden spaces and grounds of a madhouse that is truly “mad” and in mortal danger from the pain it all seems to inflict. She along with her fellow inmates are searching through the wreckage of self and shared identity / identities. There is a constant and unrelenting energy conveyed which is full of menace and danger. Nothing feels “acted” and everything we see takes on an importance that is hard to grasp and often even more challenging to watch.

LSD Manipulated to project the deepest pain... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

LSD Manipulated to project the deepest pain…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Sheila Allen serves is a sort of evil Court Jester who uses patients as a puppets and torments everyone with mind-numbing insanity. She also morphs into a Burlesque Stripper From Hell who uses her sexuality and body as a threat instead of an object. Her voice and performance haunt the entire film. This was a long way from The BBC or Harry Potter. Susanna Fraey is almost ever present and carries a great deal of presence on the screen. Possessed with a haunting face and effortless beauty, she is at once victim and victimizer. Penny Slinger gives a particularly potent and oddly focused performance. It is opposite Slinger that we see our protagonist’s as a source of danger.

A Mirror Identity Game to the Death... Penny Slinger & Susanka Fraey The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

A Mirror Identity Game to the Death…
Penny Slinger & Susanka Fraey
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Utilizing the Lucan Mirror Theory, the two young women sit opposite each other with large splinters of mirror all around them. What begins as a sort of Identity Game to the death, it is clear that Slinger is intending to murder Fraey, but with a sneak of a tender kiss she is able to throw Slinger off course. Intended killing swept away by tenderness, Fraey had trapped her in her own glass web. Just as the kiss ends, her knife slips into Slinger.

The film is built around a long sequence that is a sort of support group / open therapy. Tripping out on acid and under the guidance of the project built from the stage productions — these women have been led to a place while in mind-expansion mode. The melt-downs are intense, horrific and almost unbearable. It is here that Natasha Morgan’s participation would become most valuable. Her emotional break is at once horrific, painful and almost unbearable. At the same time, it is here that the film presents itself at its most human. Mixing with all of the production challenges, these pseudo group therapy sessions add to the movie’s intention of pure hysteria.

A victim of her own game... Penny Slinger The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

A victim of her own game…
Penny Slinger
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

As these women demonstrate their emotional pain and personal rages/horrors — our protagonist is led into a danger game of mirrors, sexuality, psychic death and crucifixion. Sexuality is explored in various ways. At times the female body is shown as an object for men to rape or harm. Other times it is shown as pleasure born from pain and fear. And then it is also shown as something beautiful, pleasing and erotic. According to the record of production, Arden decided late in the filming to have her lover/collaborator make love to actress, Penny Slinger. Pushing them to extremities, this scene is tender, soft and erotic. Jack Bond’s “character” clearly understands female anatomy and brings pleasure — not threat, rape or pain.

Unscripted, Arden has her lover make love to one of the inmates. Jack Bond & Penny Slinger The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Unscripted, Arden has her lover make love to one of the inmates.
Jack Bond & Penny Slinger
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

As the film amps its way to conclusion, the protagonist’s journey feels more ours than hers. We follow her through a house and landscape of pain, horror and sometimes promise to abject confusion. In the end the question of identity and self-acceptance is tossed onto a dirty cold slab of a floor. Is there to be redemption or healing? More likely it is a struggle that has only just been recognized and has a very long way to go.

As erotic desire is expressed the audience holds its breath only to discover that the male lover understands the woman's body. Jack Bond & Penny Slinger The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

As erotic desire is expressed the audience holds its breath only to discover that the male lover understands the woman’s body.
Jack Bond & Penny Slinger
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Intentionally unpleasant and contradictory, Jane Arden created a film that demands your attention. This is less a movie and more of a cinematic experience. Not for the faint of heart, this is a grim and repulsive study of female identity that refuses to let you go. Strange, darkly comical, surreal, horrifying, raw and truly unforgettable — Jane Arden’s film floats somewhere between Jean-luc Goddard and Ken Russell, but with an entirely different goal in mind. The horrors she and Jack Bond captured are all the more devastating because we realize that beneath the surface — what we see is real.

Going mad... Sheila Allen The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Going mad…
Sheila Allen
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

The next couple of years found Jane Arden and Jack Bond exploring further into the self with use of Transcendental Meditation, Chanting and the aid of Gurus and other mystics. One gets the sense that Jack Bond followed his love on her quest to grapple with her own depression. The result of these mystical exorcises would be put to use in their short film, VIBRATION. To 21st Century eyes, the videography feels grounded and dated. However when one realizes this film was made in 1975, the artistry must be admired.

Jane Arden had developed her own theory regarding the self and coping against repression and anxiety. I will not go into detail, but she called this idea RAT. Essentially the idea was to reject all rational thought. Arden’s life’s journey begin to slip away from Feminism and toward The New Age ideology of Humanism. The problem was that both she and Bond could see how this ideology was not only threatened by a larger control — plans seemed to already be falling into place to control not only individual actions, but our thoughts as well. What might have seemed paranoia rising above the slams of inflation and PUNK, turned out to be somewhat prophetic.

"This is my Anxiety Survival Broadcast ensuring a past future programing. My brain is recreating a negative repeat pattern." Sebastian Saville Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

“This is my Anxiety Survival Broadcast ensuring a past future programing. My brain is recreating a negative repeat pattern.”
Sebastian Saville
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

Keep in mind that the final film made by Arden-Bond was before anyone in England knew about CCTV which would soon be filming almost every human movement in the country.

Anti-Clock

Unlike Separation and The Other Side of the Underneath, Anti-Clock less concerned with Feminist Theory than that of retaining humanity in the face of cultural and societal oppression  as the standpoint for understanding identity. The exploration of Self had culminated toward a Humanist ideology. The central character of this highly experimental “thriller” is a suicidal man played by Arden’s son, Sebastian Saville.

"Life force cannot be controlled by your little brain machine." Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

“Life force cannot be controlled by your little brain machine.”
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

Filmed in London during Great Britain’s dark economic dystopia and the rise of Punk Rock, this film is interestingly disengaged from that history. Even more interesting, is the contradiction that it would be hard to imagine a more “Punk” film. Decidedly more punk than anything Alex Cox or Derek Jarman made at the time, Arden and Bond had not let go of their anger and rebellion against societal and cultural repression, but this film crafted a whole new sort of cinematic language. A linguistically intelligent use of carefully filmed and found video/film material forms something altogether new and unique.

As our suicidal protagonist works toward trying to survive, he is “assisted” by an archetypal psychiatrist (also played by Saville) and a group of scientists, mathematicians and others who rely upon constant video surveillance to monitor his every movement. Most fantastically, they are using these transmissions as connection into his cerebral logic. It is fairly clear that these persons are connected to the government. Less assisting and more studying in an attempt to control their subject, Joseph Sapha. Joseph quickly becomes suspect of these who claim to want to help him. It is particularly chilling that this film was made just a few years prior to the creation of CCTV.

"open your eyes." "they are open." "then why can't you see?" Sebastian Saville Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

“open your eyes.”
“they are open.”
“then why can’t you see?”
Sebastian Saville
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

The style/styles of the film may not seem as cutting edge as they must have some 30+ years ago, but this film retains a subversive, disturbing and unsettling impact. It is also still very sharp. It is a film experience to be handled with a careful eye and ear. One missed action of sound and the viewer can become lost in Joseph Sapha’s delima. Watching Anti-Clock is not an easy film. But unlike I anticipated, it is NOT a pretentious work of art. It is a clever manipulation of the medium to convey a story that is not only horrifying but alarming relevant to the 21st Century.

"Thoughts hang around for a very long time. To be precise: forever." Sebastian Saville Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

“Thoughts hang around for a very long time. To be precise: forever.”
Sebastian Saville
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

A sort of Proto-Punk exploration into humanity and a government that dares to study, manipulate and control those who dwell within its borders. Joseph is a young sort of “Every Man” who, like many of us, has had a troubling childhood and life. As this experimental and innovative film pulls us into the video and sound-looped world, the experience is an intellectual, surreal and disorienting jolt to the senses. Slowly the viewer becomes a part of the film’s strange logic. As Joseph grapples with his sexuality, guilt, loneliness and vexing non-purpose in life — the past, present and future are filmed and played discordantly against the idea of order. In a profoundly confused and desperate state of identity crisis, the “help” being offered is not aiming to provide what he anticipates.

But “they” and “he” are all led to a truth that is chilling and unforgettable.

"The patterns inside me were beginning to disconnect. By patterns, I mean those cycles or spirals of thought or behavior which i have been taught to call 'myself.' This 'I' is simply space. And where the strands of energy costs is a dot. And this dot is the delusion called 'my identity.'" Sebastian Saville aims the gun. Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

“The patterns inside me were beginning to disconnect. By patterns, I mean those cycles or spirals of thought or behavior which i have been taught to call ‘myself.’ This ‘I’ is simply space. And where the strands of energy costs is a dot. And this dot is the delusion called ‘my identity.'”
Sebastian Saville aims the gun.
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

NOTE: The BFI disc contains a newly re-edited version of this film by Jack Bond. Bond re-crafted the film in 2005 in an attempt to make the film more clear to modern viewers. Skip this version. Bond does not improve the film or create a more coherent film experience. If anything he saps a great deal of he and Ardens’ exceptional creativity. To be honest, his 2005 re-edit reminds us how crucial Jane Arden was the vision.

This movie may not be everyone’s idea of a thriller, but it is a powerful work of art. Anti-Clock also serves as a fitting end to the Arden-Bond collaboration. These three films form a logic circle of journey to Self. It is a provocative, controversial, difficult, dark and brilliant cinematic journey. It took Jack Bond close to two years to edit the film together. Filmed with various forms of media — largely 1970’s video cameras of different sorts. Very often he applied chemical “treatments” to video footage to gain new and very unique images. These are interlaced with old assembled footage of dictators, monarchs, war, propaganda and a constantly unrelenting manner of sound editing.

"There is a continuum which links all living things together so that the smallest cell does not pulsate without its effect being felt in the furtherest reaches of the solar system. So, everything being one is not some romantic ideal, but an indisputable scientific reality. When this information seeps into our consciousness, it must change the moral structure of society and destroy the value system of the rational world." Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

“There is a continuum which links all living things together so that the smallest cell does not pulsate without its effect being felt in the furtherest reaches of the solar system. So, everything being one is not some romantic ideal, but an indisputable scientific reality. When this information seeps into our consciousness, it must change the moral structure of society and destroy the value system of the rational world.”
Anti-Clock
Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979
Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

The look of this film remains oddly potent and totally unique in the way it has been assembled. This odd and disturbing film was championed in 1979 as a brilliant psychological thriller. However, it only played in a few cities in the US and a very brief run in London. It also served as a connector to French Film Master, Claude Chabrol, with whom Arden was to work. By the time the film opened Jack Bond and Jane Arden had ended their relationship. It might have seemed that Jack Bond was lost while Jane Arden was on her way to a new artistic vision in France. This was not the case.

Jane Arden would take her own life in December of 1982 at the age of 55. Jack Bond would go on to work as a documentarian for the BBC. He remains an artist of note in Great Britain.

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Anti-Clock Jane Arden & Jack Bond, 1979 Cinematography | Jack Bond (Uncredited)

The film work they co-created remains vital, powerful and very much alive.

Matty Stanfield, 12.30.2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Uh, oh. Trouble is coming from all sides as Ken Russell takes British Film into the 1970’s. Despite on-going demand, Time Warner still refuses to allow us to take a full-on second look back. Britain’s most infamous film actually belongs to a United States based corporation. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

When one thinks of 1960’s Film Art, the mind does not immediately jump to thoughts of British cinema. Most of us think of France’s La Nouvelle Vague, Germany’s Neuer Deutsche Film, Italy’s NeoRealism film movement, The Japanese New Wave or The Polish New Wave from which Britain did snatch Roman Polanski. Certainly there were groundbreaking British films that caught the spirit of London’s Swinging 60’s Era, but many of these films have aged rather poorly. Just think of Petulia, Morgan!, Darling, Billy Liar or Georgy Girl.  If honest, what really still works about these films is related to a time capsule interest. Many of these British films are quite valid (think A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Room At The Top, A Hard Day’s Night, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Performance ) but the majority have not held up as well as one might hope.

This is not true across the board. Stanley Kubrick’s British work has only gotten better with time and Michelangelo Antonioni’s visit into Swinging London culture of the time, Blow Up, remains a vital work. However, are these truly British films? It would seem that both of these filmmakers were in a sort of transitionary position. Antonioni was visiting England. Kubrick was still fairly new to British culture.

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The great Julie Christie is The Ideal Woman of 1965’s British satire of Swinging London, but the film barely registers beyond nostalgia now. Darling John Schlesinger, 1965 Cinematography | Kenneth Higgins

Most of the iconic British films of the 1960’s are simply limited to nostalgia. Guy Hamilton, Andy Milligan, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Shonteff are exceptions but much of what they were trying to convey would soon better estimated by the likes of Alan Parker and most especially Mike Leigh. Ken Loach would not truly find his voice until he entered his 50’s in the 1990’s. There was also a good share of attention to The Angry Young Man of the day. Tony Richardson had moments of brilliance but looking back he seemed to have been challenged by what style of film best suited his voice. Richard Lester certainly left a mark, but here again we are slipping into time capsule pop culture moments.

The British New Wave is also largely obscured by the mega-epics of David Lean’s heavily praised, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are considered to be a cinematic masterpieces. I’ve never been particularly impressed. To be honest, I’ve never made it through Lawrence of Arabia without falling asleep. Carol Reed’s adaptation of the stage musical, Oliver! was another huge British hit of the 1960’s that pushed pass the more reflexive films of the day.

There were two particularly strong and solitary British Film Artists who were finding new methods of cinematic language. Nicolas Roeg would soon move from the cinematographer chair to that of director and change the face of film editing as it was known. Ken Russell’s work for the BBC and his adaptation of Larry Kramer’s adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love all stand alone and unique in offering new ways of using film to express ideas and to tell stories. And he really stole the anticipated reigns of the film biography when The Music Lovers slammed onto movie screens across the world in 1970.

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Ken Russell welcomes us to the 1970’s via way of 16h Century France as “the wife” of a Priest makes her way past the destruction of the Roman-Catholic Church… Gemma Jones The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

As British Film headed into the 1970’s some firm and potent voices formed. Certainly Stanley Kubrick’s A Clock Work Orange is a British Film. All American cultural ideas have fallen off his cinematic map. John Schlesinger pretty much left England for America. Ken Russell defied all expectations with his searing and important 1971 film, The Devils. As it turns out Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick were not alone. The thing is some of the new British voices got somehow lost in the mix. Barney Platts-Mills’ may have only made one film in the 1960’s, but it is a powerful entry into British Film History. Three other filmmakers also created work not only ahead of the cultural curve — they challenged it and ran their work close to the edge of the rails.

As we stumble forward toward the third decade of the 21st Century, The British Film Institute has gone deep within the corners of their storage closets to re-release a couple of seldom seen motion pictures that capture 1960’s London in whole new ways. Most of these titles were dusted off, restored, re-released within the UK and issued to DVD/Blu-Ray between 2009 and 2011.

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The British Film Festival pulled several legendary but almost forgotten films and re-issued them to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2010 and 2011. These “lost” films of Jack Bond, Jane Arden, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq teach us that Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick were not alone in finding new ways to capture stories and ideas for the British Screen.

Two of these four filmmakers were actually Canadian born. Even still, these two ex-pats of Canada artists show no signs of unfamiliarity with the setting of their two crucial films that BFI re-issued several years back for the first time in over 40 years. The other two filmmakers are most certainly British and have cinematic voices which come close to that of Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. Like Russell / Roeg, these two British Film Artists were well-versed but often Anti-Intellectual in the way they approached their work. They were far more focused on the visual and the use of film editing. Rebels all, but each were reeling out their rebellion from different core identities. Unlike Ken Russell and Nicolas Roegs’ work of the 1960’s, all four of the other Film Artists will not appeal to a number of people, but it is hard to imagine anyone disputing their importance.

I’m currently exploring the work of a number of British filmmakers who are new to me. I plan on writing more on the art and collaborations of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. The work these two created almost defies terminology, but I’m going to give it my best shot!

But for this post, I want to touch on two films. The first of these two was born out of the mixed theatre and social service ideals of the great Joan Littlewood. “The Mother of Modern Theatre” devoted the second half of her life working with the young people of East London who were lost, without purpose or supervision. These young people were in constant threat of falling prey to all manner of trouble. Her idea was to create a space where these teenagers could be allowed to hang out and “act” out their issues, challenges and ideas. Firmly grounded in the arts but against what she viewed as Elitism of The National Theatre. Her Theatre Royal Stratford East was free of pretension and open to everyone. It was here that Barney Platts-Mills was inspired to scrap together a bit of money to make an amazing little film called Bronco Bullfrog.

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, "play" fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures. Bronco Bullfrog Barney Platts-Mills, 1969 Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, “play” fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures.
Bronco Bullfrog
Barney Platts-Mills, 1969
Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Bronco Bullfrog stars non-actors who had been working with each other under the loose guidance of Joan Littlewood. While the plot is deceptively simple, a great deal of information about the grimness of urban decay, lack of parenting and dystopian boredom come through loud and clear. Glam and style-free, this is a study of teenagers floating along without purpose, direction or hope. Interestingly, it is not all gloom and doom. The characters of Bronco Bullfrog start to find their way as the film heads to conclusion. This is a gem of a film that has never received the praise or attention it deserved. As good as this movie is, it can hardly stand-up when positioned next to Joseph Despins and William Dumaresqs’ ultra-strange and unforgettable twisted little movie, Duffer.

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A good 6 years before anyone had seen the dark surrealism and humor of David Lynch, this low-budget experimental film serves as welcome warning that the art of filmmaking is about to take an innovative, creative and altogether new turn. Kit Gleave as Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq crafted this weird and entertaining movie on a budget so low it is probably best not to state it. The camera work is surprisingly solid. Actually the cinematography is far more than solid, it is artistically sound. Cinematographer, Jorge Guerra, may not have had the best equipment but he most certainly knew how to use it. The shots are often brilliant.

There is no sound. The narration and voices were recorded by a different cast. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that the lack of sound was not going to be a deficit. In fact, the creative dubbing actually adds to this film in more ways than one. Comical and often horrifying, the dubbed dialogue serves exceptionally as an aide to the film’s surrealism, dark comedy, menace and horror.

"WoManAmal!!!" Duffer's junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.  William Dumaresq as "Louis-Jack" Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“WoManAmal!!!” Duffer’s junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.
William Dumaresq as “Louis-Jack”
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

The dubbing actually heightens the discomfort as we watch a young man attempt to reconcile the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of his older junkie boyfriend by engaging in an affair with a female prostitute. Enduring the sort of sadistic torment one seldom sees addressed in film, Despins and Dumaresq were extremely clever in presenting it in very dark comical ways that disturb but never so much that one needs to run for cover. The kind but obviously more than a bit twisted herself, prossie called Your Gracie gives the lost teen some solace while fully utilizing him as a tool.

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Erna May as “Your Gracie” is using Kit Gleave’s “Duffer,” but he hopes she is saving his masculinity… Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the KINK/BDSM with his male keeper becomes more severe and his trysts with his female lover decrease — Duffer is pulled into his male lover’s Horse addiction and begins to suffer one of the most bizarre psychosomatic delusions I’ve ever seen. The poor kid’s delusions continue to morph into what appears to be a psychotic break. This twisted, funny, unsettling and fascinating experimental film deals with almost every aspect of human cruelty and horror imaginable. And just to amp up Duffer’s already potent cinematic stew, we gradually begin to suspect that our protagonist may not be the most reliable narrator.

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.  Kit Gleave in his only film role... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.
Kit Gleave in his only film role…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the film unspools more perversities and jaw-drop moments at break-neck speed, we are constantly given an exceptional examination of 1970’s Notting Hill. You may think you’ve seen urban decay and dystopian-like settings, but Duffer presents an England few of us have seen. Filmed on location and on the very cheap, this is perplexing and truly extraordinary view of the state of things circa 1969-1970. I realize that some of you will be annoyed that I’m grouping this film into the 1960’s British New Wave, but Duffer is clearly set in the 1960’s. This is not the 1970’s.

The film begins with Duffer sitting alone by the water. A pretty young woman pauses as she crosses a bridge far above the handsome boy. As the film whirls to conclusion we find him once again in the same place. It is impossible to not ponder where the film’s reality begins or ends. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that none of it is real. However there are just as many clues that all of what see presented has happened in reality. I’m not dropping a spoiler here, the viewer begins to distrust poor Duffer almost immediately. This is a narrator we are unable to trust. But the most jarring aspect of this film is that it presents itself solidly within the Surrealist Context.

All alone in his thoughts... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

All alone in his thoughts…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

It is important to note that as much as I praise Duffer, it is not for all tastes. While never truly graphic, it is most definitely profane and very perverse. The humor is so dark that many will feel guilty laughing. This is one demented movie. It also features a deeply strange musical score from the composer who gave the world the 1960’s Broadway smash, Hair. Galt McDermot’s score plays like something you would hear in an alternate universe Tin Pan Alley. Just when you think you will only be hearing a piano — a quickly use of electronics starts to grind forward.

"Mind how you go..." No where in Notting Hill is safe! Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“Mind how you go…” No where in Notting Hill is safe!
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Duffer screams out for repeated viewings to understand, to ensure that what you think you’ve just seen was actually shown and for the simple fact that this movie is endlessly entertaining. And trust me, this movie gets under your skin. Once it slips under, it stays there. In addition, something about Duffer seems to be signaling the audience to watch out for David Lynch. Were it not so very British, it could easily be mistaken for something a young David Lynch might have created. Unique, innovative, disturbing, haunting, funny and altogether original, Duffer is a must see lost British Cinematic Treasure.

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover's home movies abusing you... Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal. Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover’s home movies abusing you…
Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal.
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

Just pulled back into darkness after being "fixed" for activities best kept there... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just pulled back into darkness after being “fixed” for activities best kept there…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

I loved this film, but the work of both Jane Arden and Jack Bond really blew me away. Blown out the window and lying on the pavement outside our San Francisco home, the collaborations of Arden and Bond require more than a little thought and meditation. I’m still letting their three films digest, but I’ll be writing about them soon.

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015