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One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15

 

"Get the hell outta my fortress!" The crime of home invasion is about to take a twisted turn... Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966

“Get the hell outta my fortress!”
The crime of home invasion is about to take a twisted turn…
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966

*This post contains spoilers in the event that you have not seen Cu-de-Sac.

The term “Cul-de-sac” is usually defined as a street or passage closed at one end or a route or course leading nowhere. After Roman Polanski had made Repulsion, he turned his attention to very different forms of isolation, paranoia, psychology and identity impacted by both surroundings and circumstances. The title of this strange and vibrant film is particularly appropriate on more than a few layers.

The film begins with two wounded gangsters on the lam from an apparently failed heist. Their tiny stolen car gives out on a lonely stretch of road. Lionel Stander plays “Dickie.” His wound is minor, but his partner has been shot in the gut. As Dickie attempts to push the car off the road he slams it into an odd concrete bar. These two men are lost and they are unaware that they have driven down a road that becomes useless when the tide comes in.

The two failed gangsters have attempted to find passage that only leads to water submergence. As Dickie heads off on a walk to find a phone, he promises his pal that he will return as quickly as possible. Little does he know that his walk will only take him to an 11th Century castle on the sea.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland's Lindisfarne Castle is the home of George & Teresa Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland’s Lindisfarne Castle is the home of George & Teresa
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The chateau is none other than the famous Lindsfarne Castle on the UK’s Holy Island in Northumberland. It overlooks the ocean from one side and the tidelands on the other. This is the home of middle-aged George and his young French wife, Teresa. Played by Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac, these two form a dead end that will present an even greater challenge for the gruff but somehow vaguely innocent gangster. While Lionel Stander’s performance is filled with brutality and rage, there is a feeling that this man’s “bark” is far worse than his “bite.”

When Polanski introduces the audience to Teresa, she is topless and shamelessly rolling about on the sand with a handsome young man. This boy’s parents are on the other side of the castle chatting with George. It only takes a minute to realize that these two visitors are more than a little anxious to escape the company of George and his wife. And even though it is obvious that their son has just had sex with Teresa, he doesn’t seem to mind skipping out as quickly as possible. All the while chickens appear to run free.

Dickie ignores the pain and spies from inside the decaying chicken coup at his intended victims... Lionel Stander Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Dickie ignores the pain and spies from inside the decaying chicken coup at his intended victims…
Lionel Stander
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There is a chicken coop, but it is a state of almost ruin. Dickie slips in to have a few eggs and waits for the right moment to step into George and Teresas’ domestic world. Suffering further injuries as he attempts to use the coop’s ladder, one almost gets the sense that Dickie might be better served to make his way back to his partner in crime for a “re-think.”

When Gilbert Taylor’s masterful camera allows us inside the castle and bedroom we discover a seemingly bored young wife and a nervous hen sort of a husband. It is amazing how believable and natural Pleasance and Dorleac pull off their first shared scene.

"Put it on!" Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“Put it on!”
Donald Pleasence
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It is not a sex scene. It actually leads to nothing remotely sexual, but to an interesting sort of psychological gender game in which Teresa convinces George to wear one of her frilly “nighties” and proceeds to apply make-up to his face. While George does protest, he seems to find as much amusement in the game as his wife. He begins to prance and speak with girlie voice. Teresa immediately moves into the role of the dominant male.

What's so funny? Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

What’s so funny?
Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As they laugh and play, there is a clear difference in the way each character is going at the game. George is amused and comfortable, but his wife’s amusement seems to be tainted with a hint of the cruel. There is a joke going on that George does not “get” and he is the “butt” of it.  As Dickie makes his move into the castle, Teresa hears him. She is concerned, but George is frightened. Were it up to George, they would stay up in their bedroom. This is not an option as Teresa basically demands that he check it out. Then, as if not able to trust him, Teresa shadows George as they make their way downstairs where they will meet Dickie.

Finding Dickie in the kitchen... Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Finding Dickie in the kitchen…
Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The castle’s interior is shot in a why that feels more than a little claustrophobic. A space that seems to spiral up rather than move out. An oddly paired couple living in eccentrically isolated bohemia. This does not fit our perception of a home. Yet this is the house and Dickie is mastering a home invasion. Roman Polanski is about to pull, twist, strain, tilt sideways and subvert every perceived idea of home invasion crime.

It isn’t that George and Teresa are unafraid of Dickie. They are. Most especially is afraid is George. Teresa’s fears are quickly overwhelmed by her frustration at her husband’s cowardice. In fact, the friction building between husband and wife will begin to challenge the worries of Dickie’s gun and invasion of their home. A thin and hopelessly beautiful woman and a shivering short man wearing Cleopatra style make-up and a sheer nightie hardly seem like a pair of hostages posing any level of concern for the gangster. Dickie feels assured in his role as the captor and potentially dangerous criminal. From Dickie’s perspective, he’s got this under control and both people safely under his thumb. But perception is a tricky thing. What Dickie can see is not what he is about to get.

Threat before them. The criminal stands with menace and the couple appears afraid. Or are they? Lionel Stander, Donald Pleasance & Françoise Dorléac Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Threat before them. The criminal stands with menace and the couple appears afraid. Or are they?
Lionel Stander, Donald Pleasance & Françoise Dorléac
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Forcing his way through the situation and understanding the daunting challenges of the tides, Dickie takes charge. After making a call to the Crime Lord for whom he and his partner have failed, Dickie is certain that his boss will be coming to pick them up as soon as the tide recedes. Facing more derision from the wife and a confused mix of passive-aggressive fear from the husband, Dickie forges forward with his plan. The phone cord has been severed, his gun at the ready and his intimidation clearly asserted, he forces both George and Teresa to help him bring his partner back to the castle. By the time they reach the stretch of road where Dickie has left his fatally injured partner, the car is nearly lost in the tide.

Fatally injured and waiting to be rescued from the incoming tides. Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Fatally injured and waiting to be rescued from the incoming tides.
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Forcing George and Teresa to assist him in pushing the car back up to the castle, it almost seems as if none of the three notice that Teresa has taken the most difficult position of pushing the drowned car from the rear.

As this often darkly comical film unspools we see cowardice, fear, threat, menace, flirtation, gender roles, sexism, cruelty, danger, brutality, friendship, love and identity splinter off in unexpected directions. Polanski not only deconstructs the concept of Film Noir to Neo Noir, he seems to be pushing under the concepts of Neo Noir toward domestic horror. While not at all a horror film, the film is filled with suspense. But just as the suspense starts to take hold something comical happens. The audience never obtains solid footing.

Dickie might have the gun, but is he really in control? Françoise Dorléac, Donald Pleasence & Lionel Stander Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Dickie might have the gun, but is he really in control?
Françoise Dorléac, Donald Pleasence & Lionel Stander
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In some of the movie’s most memorable scenes, George and Teresa receive some unexpected guests. Guests who Dickie thought was his gang. In a bit of brazen assertion of power, Teresa opts to treat Dickie like a servant. This is both comical and more than a little disconcerting. Teresa simply does not care that Dickie’s rage might turn on their guests which include a bratty child and a very young Jacqueline Bisset as clueless Swinging London Hipster.

It is a risk she is more than willing to take. It is hard to watch this film in the 21st Century and not be reminded of Lionel Stander’s later turn as “Max” on Hart to Hart. As he grumbles and comically falls in line with Teresa’s bold play, it is an unintended comical pop culture reference point. Dickie serves the guests. He is annoyed, but oddly concerned with performing the duties as correctly as possible.

Unforgettable in one of her few roles before her tragic death, Catherine Deneuve's big sister Françoise Dorléac as Teresa Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Unforgettable in one of her few roles before her tragic death, Catherine Deneuve’s big sister Françoise Dorléac as Teresa
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It is during these scenes that lack of sleep act as a catalyst for George to start to reach his turning point. His patience with his guest is limited. Before long he is barking at them to “Get the hell outta my fortress!” One can hardly blame him. These “friends/family” are horrible. We have already learned that George has lost every penny to purchase their castle. He is also lonely on the island. When his guest mention a person by the name of “Agnes” it seems to strike George to his core.

Who is Agnes? This is one of those strange strands of plot that is never revealed. She is probably the former wife to George. Most likely he was widowed. It is never clear, but one thing is certain: Teresa is no Agnes. She has captured George’s lust, but she is clearly disinterested in him. And it seems that he might be losing interest in her. Before long Dickie begins to fall into line with both of his “victims.” He begins to trust them. Dickie opens up to him. Teresa has even offered a bit of support after she and George are forced to assist in burying his dead partner in crime. After the guest are forced to leave, Dickie is comfortable in lying about with the unhappy couple.

The brat damaged the record. Krzysztof Komeda's odd and effective musical score... Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The brat damaged the record. Krzysztof Komeda’s odd and effective musical score…
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

While Dickie and George nap in the yard, Teresa attempts to catch up on some magazine reading. Dickie has become a part of this dysfunctional family. Teresa is playing her favorite record album as she reads. Turns out the bratty kid who just visited permanently damaged the record. Frustrated, she matches to her record player and shuts the music off.

This is a good time to mention the film’s frantic sort of experimental jazz musical score. Krzysztof Komeda’s score is of note. It is at once a toe-tapping bit of jazz, but it features a discordant use of what was most likely a theremin. Credited in the mid-60’s simply as Komeda, the music sounds like something you might hear on the radio until it takes a quirky turn with the theremin. This fits the film like a perfectly crafted suit. It is of interest that the musical score almost comes to a complete full-on stop when Teresa stops the record. Poor Dickie doesn’t even have any control over that oddly threatening jazz music. It belongs to Teresa and it has been damaged.

Uh, oh. Dickie has just pressed his "luck." Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Uh, oh. Dickie has just pressed his “luck.”
Françoise Dorléac & Donald Pleasence
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The damaged record album signals the film’s final act. Teresa has had it. Yet instead of actually taking a solid course of action, she pranks Dickie. Already a confirmed sexist pig, Dickie immediately responds by giving Teresa a fairly brutal whipping. This act proves to be the final straw for George. Dickie has out stayed his “welcome.” And, make no mistake, once the couple takes back the reign of their castle it is fairly clear that he was in a very strange way “welcomed” into their home.

While in some ways Cul-de-Sac seems a bit minor considering the two films he had already made, it has held up incredibly well. It is an interesting cinematic achievement that holds a great deal of respect. As it should.

Who is the victim? Who is the Victimizer? Françoise Dorléac enjoys a long puff... Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Who is the victim? Who is the Victimizer?
Françoise Dorléac enjoys a long puff…
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Never one to leave the audience comfortable, Polanski brings his brilliant twisted little movie to a close with an up-ended feeling. Just as we think all plot issues and strands have come to some rather shocking conclusions, we are thrown for another trick of identity. Now all alone on the grounds of his fortress, George should be relieved. One might even expect to see him actually achieve a genuine smile. Instead he sits looking out to sea.

The fire in the hole that the film calls the Cul-de-Sac has been distinguished. The battle for the castle has been fought and won. Despite all of the positive signs we’ve been given for George’s fate, he appears to be on the verge of an emotional break. He painfully calls out the final lines of the movie, “Agnes!

"Agnes!" Donald Pleasance Cul-de-Sac Roman Polanski, 1966 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“Agnes!”
Donald Pleasance
Cul-de-Sac
Roman Polanski, 1966
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Like almost every film Polanski has ever made, Cul-de-Sac merits repeat viewings. It was so masterfully made that it offers a number of divergent points and aspects to riddle the mind.

Matty Stanfield, 11.6.15

Like the majority of filmmakers working out of Eastern Europe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “The Tribe” is about as dark, bleak and grim as cinema can get. It is also something dramatically different than I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.

The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The plot of the film revolves within and around “life” in a sort of dystopian school, shelter, school, home, trade school or dorm for the deaf. The true purpose of where we find ourselves is suspect.

No auditory speaking, no subtitles — essentially no sound save the breathing and movement of fingers, hands and arms. This is not some cheap marketing stunt. This is the audience pulled into the perspective of the characters who do not have the benefit of sound. We are essentially pulled into a “world” within which we have no way of easily understanding what is being communicated.

Smoking and talking in the Boy's Room... The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Smoking and talking in the Boy’s Room…
The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The impact is almost without measure.

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s cast is deaf. They communicate in sign language which very few of us actually know. To the director and the casts’ credits, it doesn’t take us long to determine what is going on, but it does serve as a sort of portal toward metaphor and allegory that would not exist without this challenging perspective. Welcome to a world when all of our understanding of communication is stolen.

Ukraine, Eastern Europe,  A Community of Deaf Youth. Welcome to The Marginalized... The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Ukraine, Eastern Europe, A Community of Deaf Youth. Welcome to The Marginalized…
The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Welcome to the world of “The Tribe.”

Cinematographer, Valentyn Vasyanovych, captures everything in an almost formalist and interesting set of long-takes. The art of cinematography is crucial here and extraordinary. Without question, we would be watching closely anyway, but Vasyanovych’s work lends itself to pulling us even closer in our almost dazed gaze.

The characters speaking Ukrainian Sign Language, the audience is shut out of this world with only close observation to guide us.  The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The characters speaking Ukrainian Sign Language, the audience is shut out of this world with only close observation to guide us.
The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

When our main character shows affection toward another, the possibility of being loved seems cruel to the other. Not fully certain what is stated between these two young people, but it certainly feels as if “Anna” feels that there is no room for “love” within the world in which both are trapped.

The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The scenes between “Anna” and “Sergey” are intense, erotic and frightening. Partly because we are never sure exactly what is being communicated. Their argument seems like an outburst of violent gestures, grunts and thumps. The sexual intimacy is both beautiful and somehow disturbing. Especially given what we learn is going on within this dark and fractured world.

The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

There are a great many disturbing aspects in “The Tribe.” In fact, some of this film is more than a bit difficult to watch. The world in which these young people live is cold, cruel and Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s pulls no punches. There may be aspects to this story that are too graphic for some. Be warned because once you start watching this film, you will most likely find it impossible to look away.  We have no choice but to watch, to blink or look away is to miss out on vital information about his grim world.

The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

This film is an often traumatic sort of reminder to many of us in the audience who only have limited access to this tribes’ world. In more than a few ways we are transported into their world.

Certainly not an easy film. But the vitalness and the cinematic magic is impossible to deny. And in my opinion, it would be tragic to miss this movie. An unforgettable sort of silent movie. …with no title cards to guide you.

Each is required by some enforced duty... The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Each is required by some enforced duty…
The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Sadly “The Tribe” is receiving a very limited US release. But it will be coming forward via VOD, DVD and Blu-ray soon and is already available in the UK. If you love the art of film, you will not want to miss this movie. Add this to my list of the best films I’ve seen in 2015.

Being pulled into a different sort of world... The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014 Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Being pulled into a different sort of world…
The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014
Cinematography | Valentyn Vasyanovych

Don’t miss the opportunity to see this film. The San Francisco Roxie Theater only has 2 remaining scheduled screenings starting today. The VOD, DVD and Blu-Ray will be released to the US by http://drafthousefilms.com

Matty Stanfield, 9.13.15

On Monday, August, 31st The New York Times shocked me. It was there that I read Wes Craven’s obituary.  Another of the most culturally important American filmmakers was gone.

“Wes Craven, a master of horror cinema and a proponent of the slasher genre who was best known for creating the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 76.”

It is always sad when someone dies. Family and friends lost someone far more significant than an iconic filmmaker. Mr. Craven was a father, husband and friend. For the rest of us who did not know him, the loss is far less, but all the same impactful sad blow.

A key member of the innovative and creative Film Masters of his generation who managed to lift their cinematic work higher than the genre or audiences anticipated. Wes Craven’s early films appeared to be in line with typical Grind House or Drive-In horror movies of the time, but they offered something far more artistic.

Robert Englund is ready for his close-up A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Robert Englund is ready for his close-up
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

The goal was to scare us with a degree of cinematic intelligence that was unheard of for low-budget horror at that time. Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, George Romero, Argento and Tobe Hooper were also among this group. They made movies to attract this audience base, but with artistic intention that lifted them and the genre of horror to a whole new level.

After reading the shocking news in The Times, I found myself thinking of how Craven’s films had impacted my life and my psyche. And those of my childhood friends and our culture. Despite the fact that art takes up most of our spare time and conversations, all too often we forget just how much art has seeped into our beings.

Walking through a department store a Muzak version of an old pop song plays above us as we navigate toward a register. Even the poor “revisit” of a great song can momentarily transport us back in time. We scroll through movies available via VOD and spot an old film that resonates on multiple levels. These are two minor examples, but so much art is tied to our past, our experiences (individual and shared) and often serve as some cathartic or even healing emotional source. Sometimes there is light to be found in the dark.  

The first time I was aware of Wes Craven’s name was in relation to his iconic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Back in 1984 on a crisp November Friday afternoon it opened in my hometown. some friends and I decided to ditch the second half of the school day to make our way to a cinema long since gone. We were off to see a historic movie.

Can you remember when movie posters were still works of art?  A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984

Can you remember when movie posters were still works of art?
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984

This cinema was one of two that was strict on “carding” to follow the “R-rating rule” and not all of us were yet 17. We took a few hits of weed to work up our “courage” and act like we owned the bodies of 18 year olds. It worked. The lady sold each of us a ticket.

We had seen ads for A Nightmare on Elm Street on TV, but none of us really knew what to expect or what we were about to see. This is an aspect of The Film Experience that has long since faded away. It is almost impossible to attend a screening of any movie in the 21st Century without knowing every single aspect of the casting, the production, the plot and an often  anticipated idea of how the movie is “supposed” to make us feel. Even before the movie starts we are usually forced to sit through “making of” commercials for new TV shows or upcoming movies.

For those of you too young to know what it was like before social media and 24/7 marketing, going to a movie was often a serious proposition. While all of us worked part time, a $4.75 matinae was a gamble. Of course if the movie sucked, we could always spend an hour or two playing on video games in the lobby. PacMan, Space Invaders, Centipede and pinball were always a fun compensation. (you just needed to have a friend with drilled-string coin and you were golden)

As A Nightmare on Elm Street started it was clear we were in for something different.

Um, your slasher horror movie just took a very strange new turn... A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Um, your slasher horror movie just took a very strange new turn…
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

This was a slasher movie, but it was deeply demented and Surreal in the way it pulled it’s characters to their ends or limits. It also had a very sinister subplot for the monster, Freddy Kruger. This was some sort of paranormal being who had been a serial pedophile rapist and murderer. Despite all of this, the movie was still fun. We jumped, we laughed and teased each other as we left the cinema to head to our respective jobs or homes praying that we would not be caught for skipping school. But that night I could not sleep. For whatever reason, I was haunted by the way Freddy killed “Glen.” The dude had been lying on his bed with his headphones on. I had a whole lot of trouble falling to sleep that night and for several nights to

Glen just wants to chill on his bed with some music. Freddy has other plans... Johnny Depp A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Glen just wants to chill on his bed with some music. Freddy has other plans…
Johnny Depp
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

come.  I didn’t know “Glen” was Johnny Depp. That hadn’t clicked on my register yet. This was largely a cast of unknowns which created a somehow more shocking vibe. Back then I had a habit of lying on my bed with my clunky “Radio Shack Realistic” cushioned head phones and listening to music. This was how I feel asleep. At this time that music was usually Pink Floyd, The Who or Led Zeppelin. But all I could think of were those blade fingers grabbing me down into Hell with my blood and guts spewing out all over my room. I believe I changed to Fleetwood Mac for the next week or so. It is funny to think back to that feeling, but it was real to me. My friends had similar reactions. Two others admitted to sleeping with the lights on.

This was the interesting power of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In 1984 it was a completely new approach to horror. It was a horror that came in dreams in a very disturbing way. The cinematic trope of Surrealism was not fully formed in out minds. We were not yet sophisticated enough to notice the admittedly low-fi effects.  At that time, they seemed pretty real.  It is also important to note that we all laughed throughout the movie. It was funny. But it was also horrifying and intense.

Poor Nancy. She better wake her ass up! The experience of relaxing in the tub was about to change for a while... Heather Langenkamp A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Poor Nancy. She better wake her ass up! The experience of relaxing in the tub was about to change for a while…
Heather Langenkamp
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

It worked its way under our collective skin. It was like riding a really dark roller coaster. It was cinematic magic.

In the coming year or so, Freddy Krueger would somehow become a rather disturbing “anti-hero” — the sequels were not of interest to me or most friends. They were more like dark comedies than horror movies. And gradually, A Nightmare on Elm Street would become a sort of twisted comedy.

Watching it now it still amuses me. But I now can see the imperfections of low-fi special effects. “Glen” is now Johnny Depp pre-stardom. Ideas of his later career cloud my ability to access the movie in the same way. The idea of Freddy Krueger has become tainted for me. Children dress up as Krueger on Halloween. This pedophile sadist character has become a sort of family-friendly cartoon that I find more than a little worrying.

But long after the blu-ray has been ejected, replaced in it’s blue jewel box and I’m drifting off to sleep, a creepy thought crosses my mind: “Oh, fuck. I hope I don’t dream of blade fingers pulling me into my mattress!

Painting the bedroom "Glen" A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Painting the bedroom “Glen”
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

That teenage thought still comes up.

Mostly, however, the movie brings me back to a time long gone. This odd, gritty and iconic movie is forever seared into my brain. Like a great rock song, it brings me back to a time in my life when drugs were not a problem, sex was still an idea, all my friends were still alive, my heart had not yet been broken, divorce had not altered my views on life and one could see a movie at the cinema for under $5.

There were of course a great many other horror movies we saw and enjoyed. But Children of the Corn, Splatter University, Fright Night, Pieces, Christine and Sleepaway Camp were all easily forgotten. Nancy her creepy mom (Ronnie Blakley of Nashville fame) and their tormentor has never left my mind. As Freddy snatches up Nancy‘s mom it is both comical and oddly disturbing. Craven was smart enough to tie it into dream logic.

Robert Englund teases before he strikes... A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Robert Englund teases before he strikes…
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Craven, De Palma, Carpenter, Romero, Hooper, Argento and Cronenberg created films that will forever hold a place in our collective psyche and memory. Wes Craven was particularly solid with casting and creating situations that tied into the culture of the day. This is not to say that the others didn’t. All of these filmmakers created and create work impossible to forget. But Wes Craven had a unique ability to approach horror with a skewed sense of humor without sacrificing the scare element.

It would be not too long after A Nightmare on Elm Street that I would see Craven’s directorial debut, The Last House on the Left via VHS. The slightly out-of-focus and cropped VHS appearance added a strange sort of disturbing element. Another thing of the past. Though, to be honest, it is nice to not wonder what was lost in those non-anamorphic versions.

"To avoid fainting..." The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

“To avoid fainting…”
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

I first saw it at a friend’s house while his parents were out of town. There were about five of us. Once again, we really didn’t know what to expect other than this film was from the same director as A Nightmare on Elm Street.

We had no idea how dark and grim this mean little movie would be, but we soon found out.

Set 1972 upstate New York, this movie presents two pretty high school girls off to the city to see a rock concert. Their paths cross with four sociopaths who lure, brutally rape, torture and kill both. The special effects are low-fi, but this film was truly shocking to our eyes at the time. We were all kind of stunned at what we were seeing. None of us said anything. We simply watched in silence as the brutality took place. When the film’s main protagonist manages to say a prayer and slip into a lake, the leader of this gang shoots her dead.

It is not “scary.” It is horrible.

This is not a horror film, this is a film about horror... The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

This is not a horror film, this is a film about horror…
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

Craven didn’t stop there. The atrocities committed by these vile people are about to be met with an untethered parental vengeance that knows no bounds. Their vengeance is not cathartic. It is actually as bleak as what has been done to their daughter and her friend.

The film ended. The FBI warning on the VHS tape came up.

I’m not sure any of us actually discussed the film beyond the basic “Holy shit!” “What the fuck?” kind of reactions we would normally shared.

The truth is we were not scared, we were horrified. None of us knew how to even articulate what we had just seen. One friend commented, “Man. That was some hardcore shit.

This must have been in 1985. I had not yet become the full-throttle film snob I am today. But I knew a good deal about movies even then. It was clear to me that this low-budget Grind House movie was a very warped retread of Ingmar Bergman’s tragically beautiful, The Virgin Spring. And it was also clear to me that this film had an agenda.

The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

Comparing Craven’s film to The Virgin Spring is a futile effort. There was nothing “beautiful” about The Last House on the Left. Most importantly, there was no hope. I can remember wanting to point this out, but opting not to do so. This was Beaumont, Texas. Having knowledge of foreign film was not exactly cool in this circle of stoners.

Not too long ago I saw Craven’s The Last House on the Left again. This must have been shortly before the lame “remake” was released. Unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left still carries the same gut-punch as it did when I saw it in 1985. It is a bleak and disturbing vision. Wes Craven pushes the envelope just far enough without the film turning into a perverse celebration of human cruelty. It remains a brutal depiction of just how horrible human nature can be.

This angry little movie is neither cautionary or drenched in cultural commentary. It is what it is: a study in human cruelty.

As in life, this film presents a story in which the human capacity for inhumanity knows no bounds. It may not be a fun viewing, but it is a very powerful one. The Last House on the Left is a deeply disturbing and important film of note.

Craven never stopped making great movies. 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow still stands it’s surreal and creepy ground.

"There is no escape from the grave." The Serpent and the Rainbow Wes Craven, 1988 Cinematography | John Lindley

“There is no escape from the grave.”
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wes Craven, 1988
Cinematography | John Lindley

Around the time of David Lynch’s iconic TV series, Twin Peaks, Craven would make borrow two of Lynch’s more memorable supporting cast members for The People Under the Stairs. A darkly funny horror film which is really a comment on racism.

His Scream franchise would reach a whole new generation of viewers.

Drew Barrymore is given yet another iconic screen moment... Scream Wes Craven, 1996 Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Drew Barrymore is given yet another iconic screen moment…
Scream
Wes Craven, 1996
Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Mixing comedy with horror like only he could. Drew Barrymore’s small role is every bit as unsettling now as it was then. I think it is worth mentioning that Craven even ventured into the more “respectable” when he directed the successful Music of the Heart staring Meryl Streep for which she and the film’s music received Academy Award nominations. I didn’t care for this film, but it speaks a great deal to Craven’s skills that he could so seamlessly move into an entirely different genre with such success.

Wes Craven is gone, but his work will continue to live, inspire, be copied, remade and scare the hell out of someone at any given time.

Freddy snatches up Nancy's Mom.  Ronee Blakley A Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven, 1984 Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

Freddy snatches up Nancy’s Mom.
Ronee Blakley
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, 1984
Cinematography| Jacques Haitkin

 Wes Crave

1939 – 2015, RIP

matty stanfield, 9.4.2015

Adversity’s sweet milk: philosophy.

"You want me to take you someplace dark?" Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“You want me to take you someplace dark?”
Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Abel Ferrara’s attempt at the vampire genre is blended with a surprisingly effective mix of visceral horror and philosophical meditation of humanity. Ferrara did not write the script for this film. It was written by Nicholas St. John, but it is easy to see what attracted him to the screenplay. Abel Ferrara’s approach to filmmaking as always been tied to his provocateur. If ever someone else’s words would lend them toward his cinematic motivation, it would be in St. John’s controversial re-visit to one of cinema’s most tired genres: The Vampire Movie.

The topic of vampires is metaphor and allegory from any vantage point. Ferrara was at the top of his game and obviously inspired when his 1995 film, The Addiction, slipped into Art Cinemas across the world. He had some major assistance in bringing the film to life. Ken Kelsch’s black and white cinematography is ideally-suited to what Ferrara is exploring. And the movie offers Lili Taylor, Annabella Sciorra, Christopher Walken and a pre-Sopranos/Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco with ample opportunities to display their individual skills.

"Dependency is a marvelous thing. It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctoral material." Lili Taylor The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“Dependency is a marvelous thing. It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctoral material.”
Lili Taylor
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Lili Taylor plays a profoundly dedicated and serious NYU Philosophy Major. She seems almost lost in her world of study save for one friend with whom she continually challenges her own ideas. She may have some connections to this person and her professors, but she is a loner. Even more than that, she is an intellectual alone in her complicated theories and thoughts.

She makes what appears to be a tragic mistake of running into Annabella Sciorra’s “Casanova” one night on a dark Manhattan street. This strange woman seems to emanate an erotic allure for Kathleen. When Casanova advices Kathleen to “order” her to go away, Kathleen, while clearly frightened, is far too intrigued is follow this beautiful Femme Fatale’s advice. Casanova attacks her. This attack is executed with a sort of clumsy, messy and animalistic attack of a feral vampire.

"We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we're sinners." Annabella Sciorra "feeds" on Lili Taylor  The Addiction Able Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners.”
Annabella Sciorra “feeds” on Lili Taylor
The Addiction
Able Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

But this is only temporary. Casanova may not be quite as deep as the other characters in this morbidly fascinating film, but she is not stupid. She offers Kathleen advice, but this is one victim who is far too pre-occupied with the application of philosophy and her own personal theoretical ideas to actually accept guidance freely.

Thus Abel Ferrara pulls us into his odd, unsettling and controversial Vampire Movie. Kathleen begins to turn into what we can only determine is a vampire.

Turning into a vampire within the limitations and endless theories of academic philosophy The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Turning into a vampire within the limitations and endless theories of academic philosophy
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Repulsive acts of horror begin and culminate to an orchestrated “event” in which academics and fellow students gather together to celebrate a graduation quickly turns into an orgiastic vampire’s delight. It isn’t so much that the violence is particularly any more graphic than what one would expect, but via the careful manipulation of post-production sound and editing — it all takes on a disturbing turn toward gore.

But we have a great deal to sort though as we follow Kathleen toward her academic graduation and her ultimate transformation into The Un-human Vampire she seems destined to become.

As Kathleen and her one pal, Jean, approach the end of their academic careers — they are immersed in studying devastating acts of human cruelty and atrocity. Naturally, this sort of study leads them into a dense study of The Holocaust.

Kathleen is already slipping toward the edge of subversive theory when she attempts to encage Jean in a disturbing viewpoint of Hitler, his Nazis, Germany and the many who fell victim to his insane manipulation of an ailing culture and economy into a personification of genocide and hate.

Kathleen offers ideology in the form of debate to her friend. An ideology that is not just subversive - it borders on the insane.  Lili Taylor / Edie Falco The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Kathleen offers ideology in the form of debate to her friend. An ideology that is not just subversive – it borders on the insane.
Lili Taylor / Edie Falco
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Kathleen pushes a discussion of War Criminals into the form of debate.

It was the whole country. They were all guilty. How can you single out one man?

Jean, played by Edie Falco, tries to apply logic and reason to her friend, “Well, you can’t jail a whole country, you know. They needed a scapegoat. He was the unlucky one who got caught.

No, I don’t think luck had anything to do with it. I mean, how did he get over there? Who put the gun in his hand? They say that he was guilty of killing women and babies. How many bombs were dropped that did the exact same thing? How many homes were destroyed? And who’s in, who’s in jail for that?

Jean shakes off Kathleen’s ideology with a shrug of frustration and indifference.

As Kathleen’s wounds from her attack begin to “re-shape” and transform her from human — She does not seem to view Jean as a walking blood sack. Instead, she continues to rationalize the unrationable. Is she attempting to gain insight into her physiological destiny or is she trying to hold on to her one truly human contact?

It isn’t clear, but Jean is clearly not interested in this insanely cruel level of engagement. While worried for her friend’s health, she is equally concerned about her use of ideology.

The old adage from Santayana, that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is a lie. There is no history. Everything we are is eternally with us." Shady theories from what increasingly seems like a creepy version of her friend. Jean simply focuses on her own work.  Lili Taylor / Edie Falco The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

The old adage from Santayana, that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is a lie. There is no history. Everything we are is eternally with us.”
Shady theories from what increasingly seems like a creepy version of her friend. Jean simply focuses on her own work.
Lili Taylor / Edie Falco
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

This is not your traditional “horror film” by any standard. And it is certainly not your typical vampire genre movie. In Able Ferrara’s film the vampiric attacks are animalistic, cold and methodical. There are very few “boo” moments. Actually, there really are none of those to be found.

The film’s true concern is the ways in which Kathleen (and maybe Ferrara) apply philosophy, history and intellectualism upon her own victims. These ideas are grounded in a skewed sort of logic that offers Ferrara’s provocative movie an “out.” One could state that Ferrara is offering his own screwed-up ideologies or defend the film’s subversive rationale as a manifestation of Kathleen’s insanely animal-like urge for blood and torture. But as the film leads us to it’s almost depraved operatic crescendo of vampire sadism, it would be difficult to accept any of these off-skewed pseudo-intellectual theories as serious. However, it is difficult to forgive even the articulation of these “self-intended victims” theoretical ramblings. They are so artfully presented that it is worrying.

"You think hell shuts down after a couple of years? You think what you've done isn't, isn't floating around somewhere in space? What makes you think you've been forgiven for lying to your mother as a child, huh? Or of having slept with married men in adultery or paying taxes that turn Central America into a mud puddle, huh?" Lili Taylor ideas are relegated to her spectre-like appearance. No one is really listening. The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“You think hell shuts down after a couple of years? You think what you’ve done isn’t, isn’t floating around somewhere in space? What makes you think you’ve been forgiven for lying to your mother as a child, huh? Or of having slept with married men in adultery or paying taxes that turn Central America into a mud puddle, huh?”
Lili Taylor ideas are relegated to her spectre-like appearance. No one is really listening.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Wether or not Ferrara’s vampires are immortal is never fully discussed. But we know that they are essentially “dead” as they began to prey upon victims. It is actually more of moral and ethical degradation to vampirism than a traditional “rebirth” to immortality. For these vampires blood is less a desire or requirement than it is an addiction. Could these monsters stop preying on human blood if they tried? Or is the “fix” more desirable than rehabilitation. This question is addressed when Christopher Walken’s character enters Kathleen’s world.

You know how long I’ve been fasting? Forty years. The last time I shot up, I had a dozen and a half in one night. They fall like flies before the hunger, don’t they? You can never get enough, can you? But you learn to control it. You learn, like the Tibetans, to survive on a little.

Peina offers an alternative to Kathleen. She does not have to be a cruel animal. She can be saved from the evil of nothing to the possibility of creating an existence which offers more than depending upon the blood of “innocents.”  Pena has turned his back on blood lust and cruelty. He abstains and claims that he is almost once again human. He attempts to persuade Kathleen to let him help her overcome her addiction.

It is a wasted effort.

I'm not like you. You're nothing. That's something you ought not to forget. You're not a person. You're nothing."  Christopher Walken as Peina, A Vampire Redeemed and Recovering from his addiction to blood. His choice to abstain repulses Kathleen.  The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

I’m not like you. You’re nothing. That’s something you ought not to forget. You’re not a person. You’re nothing.”
Christopher Walken as Peina, A Vampire Redeemed and Recovering from his addiction to blood. His choice to abstain repulses Kathleen.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Before Kathleen abandons all possibility of what she views as Peina’s denial of true identity, purpose and superiority, he offers her words of warning. “The entire world’s a graveyard, and we, the birds of prey picking at the bones. That’s all we are. We’re the ones who let the dying know the hour has come.” She is merely curious about this viewpoint than concerned with applying it. To the “recovering” vampire, Kathleen and all the others are nothing. They are evil and pointless. To Peina this is the same as being nothing of importance. But to Kathleen this is just “assimilation” to a lower order.

As she “de-evolves” to a blood-addict vampire, she begins to see the cruelty of human history as a tool to explain away her own guilt. Like the other vampires we see and meet, Kathleen begins to blame her victims rather herself. She seems to reject that idea that there was any supernatural aura or erotic allure projected by Casanova. She actualizes herself and her attacker as her destiny. Also due to the way in which Ferrara films it, it may not have been a spell or aura at all. It very well might have been Kathleen’s latent homosexual desire that prevented her from ordering her vampire to leave.

In one key scene Kathleen watches one of her victims, an Anthropology Major, accessing the damage Kathleen has inflicted. The young woman is in torment, pain and fear, she searches for words. “Look what you’ve done to me! How could you do this? Doesn’t this affect you at all?

Lili Taylor ponders her latest victim's fear as she examines the first bit of damage Kathleen has done.  The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Lili Taylor ponders her latest victim’s fear as she examines the first bit of damage Kathleen has done.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

In a brilliant turn of acting, Lili Taylor’s Kathleen re-asses her vile attack along with her victim. With a cold, icey and superior tone she tells the soon to be dead victim, “No. It was your decision. Your friend Feuerbach wrote that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It’s your astonishment that needs studying.”

And as Kathleen fully succumbs to her new found identity of a Vampire, she is a last able to apply her perverse theories regarding human cruelty to a logical conclusion: The “Victims” are no more than stupid beings too dim-witted to fight back or simply order their “Victimizers” away. Kathleen has found an excuse for her bad behavior. Her unforgiving acts of atrocities are “essential” and she is now free to fall into a full-on self-deception of her addiction.

Kathleen's ghoulish appearance is fully covered in make-up as she prepares to thank her teachers and colleagues at a graduating gathering.  The Addiction Able Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Kathleen’s ghoulish appearance is fully covered in make-up as she prepares to thank her teachers and colleagues at a graduating gathering.
The Addiction
Able Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Our astutely deluded vampire will admit that her addiction might be considered “evil” by some.  But she theorizes a forgiving ideology for drug of choice, blood. “The propensity for this ‘evil’ lies in our weakness before it. Kierkegaard was right – there is an awful precipice before us. But he was wrong about the leap – there’s a difference between jumping and being pushed. You reach a point where you are forced to face your own needs, and the fact that you can’t terminate the situation settles on you with full force.”

A junkie with a theory for her practice, Kathleen is confident in her pursuit of victims and their blood. She presents a newly re-freshed, sexy and confident young woman. Her ghoulish and deathly-appearance is gone. She only pauses for a few seconds to look at her once true friend, Jean. She is willing to accept compliments and credit “make-up” and “healing” for her new and improved look.

Once again to Lili Taylor’s credit, she doesn’t need dialog to inform us that it is not “make-up” or “medicine” that have given her a sensual and beautiful glow. It is the blood of her pitiful victims. Just before Kathleen and her fellow vampires turn a human celebration into an act of unbridled carnage and horror, she teasingly informs her “friends” and “esteemed professors” that she would like to share a bit of what she has learned.

Esteemed professors, my fellow colleagues and friends -- Thank you for what you are about to give us. The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Esteemed professors, my fellow colleagues and friends — Thank you for what you are about to give us.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

A blood-soaked orgy of Biblical proportions sets fourth. It is a relief that Ken Kelsch has shot the film in black and white.

At the end of the day, Able Ferrara’s The Addiction forms a disturbing nihilistic viewpoint of human history and defeating the cravings of addictions. This viewpoint is clearly an act of provocation. Ferrara is far too smart to not understand the implications and deeply problematic ideas that spring forth from this perverse ideology.

I would not want to know a person who isn’t offended by aspects of this film, but I would be equally bored by an individual who would casually dismiss the film itself.

This is a masterfully crafted and intended provocation. The intent is not clear, but the viewer is left to think about what has been shown. It is The Addiction‘s intentional vibe that haunts and worries long after the film has ended.

A victim attempts to hide in a chimney as The Vampires quench their far more than their need. She is about to supply the fix that is required.  The Addiction Able Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

A victim attempts to hide in a chimney as The Vampires quench their far more than their need. She is about to supply the fix that is required.
The Addiction
Able Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

The closing line of this incredibly disturbing film is:

To face what we are in the end, we stand before the light and our true nature is revealed. Self-revelation is annihilation of self.”

One part Vampire Movie, one part Intellectualism and two parts examinations of how addictions form and alter us, The Addiction refuses to slink away into the dark corner of cinema. It demands your attention and requires your thoughts.

Matty Stanfield, 8.2.2015

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Oprah Winfrey Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved
Oprah Winfrey
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Cincinnati Gazette.  June 29, 1856

From the Cincinnati Gazette.
June 29, 1856

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Oprah Winfrey  on set of Beloved Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey
on set of Beloved
Photograph | Ken Regan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

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

Icepick Rage Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Icepick Rage
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where can we find hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing can diminish that.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Oprah Winfrey Hollywood, 2015 Photograph | Mark Seliger

Oprah Winfrey
Hollywood, 2015
Photograph | Mark Seliger

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

 

FELT Jason Banker, 2015

FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

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

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

Ma Mere Isabelle Huppert Christophe Honoré, 2005

Ma Mere
Isabelle Huppert
Christophe Honoré, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dude! It was the credits!”

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

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

“Fuck you!”

“No Fuck you!”

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

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

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

Amy Everson  FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

Amy Everson  FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

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

Amy Everson Super Hero? FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
Super Hero?
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Borrowed Gender Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

A Borrowed Gender
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with fire…
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

Art by Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Art by Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

http://www.amyeverson.com

And now, my opinion/review for Felt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the woods…
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

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

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

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

matty stanfield, 7.22.2015

You may not not fully recognize Memorex’s slogan or Steve Steigman’s iconic photograph unless you were born before 1978. Memorex Tapes were challenging listeners’ ability to judge between live performance and recordings of something that was once a live performance.

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.  Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.
Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is gained sometime between the ages of 3 and 5. That doesn’t mean that a 7 year old will  trust his mother when she tells him there are no such things as monsters.  It also doesn’t mean that the child’s mother might not be able to fight the need to look in her own closet or under her own bed from time to time. The concept of “monster” changes as we grow into adulthood.  Mom and Dad know there are no monsters in the house, life’s brutal truths leaves us all with a vague uncertainty about what potentially could be hiding under our beds. The mind’s perceptions related to “truth” and “false” are constantly shifting. Movies constantly challenge our process of thought.

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?  Jaws, Steven Spielberg Cinematography | Bill Butler

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?
Jaws, Steven Spielberg
Cinematography | Bill Butler

Logic tells us that being attacked and consumed by huge shark is not only highly unlikely, but close to impossible. Logic also refuses to let go of the very real horror that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws lodged deep within our collective consciousness. We know that Michael Myers is not in our house, but there will always be a vague worry that someone like him might not have followed us and now waits to attack us. Movies play an important role in life beyond entertainment. Film Art projects our hopes, dreams, fears and reality in deeply effective ways. Our ideas and certainties often find themselves being challenged by the Film Artist’s motivation. Whether the intent is to manipulate us into fear or to bend it to suspend them to accept fiction as fact or to force our attention on an idea in a whole new perceptive. Defining the art of documentary from the art of fictional film is often more difficult than can be easily articulated.

The Blair Witch Project played with the idea of turning “found footage” intended for a film student’s documentary into the horror film genre. In the years since Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 low-budget classic seeped first tripped many film viewer up at the cineplex, this idea is has been explored so much that it is increasingly hard to fool us. The Blair Witch Project has become a symbol of parody and a lingering source of cinematic inspiration. It is interesting how most refuse to admit how this 1999 movie has changed the experience of camping in the woods. Interestingly, the sounds of what could potentially be a very real threat of a bear has morphed into an idea of some paranormal demonic presence. It takes only a few seconds to push the irrational fear away so the we can focus on what could be a “real” concern.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

The power of a talented film director lies in his/her ability to utilize motivational intent to sculpt fiction into reality or reality into fiction to form a bridge toward “the truth” that leads the audience. It is not unusual for an artist to be somewhat fixated or even obsessed with one or maybe two core themes that runs his/her entire collected works. It is also not usual for an artist to approach a wide variety of themes by use of one particular style. What is rare is to discover an artist as self-aware of not only his work but what truly motivates him to pursue it. Werner Herzog never uses vague or opaque terminology when he discusses film. He is blunt in addressing questions related to his work and his opinion of the type of film art that appeals most to him.

“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise.” – Werner Herzog

His interests revolve in the way humanity attempts to interact with nature which inevitably lead his audience to an idea that seems to bother many. The core idea is that nature’s beauty is deceptive. Herzog sees nature as a place of cruelty, chaos and danger. Despite this bleak view, he is a major advocate of saving it. But the most interesting aspect of Herzog’s work is that he loves exploring the perplexing ambition of humanity to bend nature to his needs and dreams. Werner Herzog loves dreamers and the pursuit of their dreams. These dreamer might take the form of a sociopathic warrior, an obsessive music fan, a drug addled cop, a brave soldier, a naive amateur environmentalist, or a vampire — These dreamers eventually must wake and face their irrelevance to “The Beast” of the earth’s natural power. Aside from the fact that Herzog has always expressed his logical views and awareness of the chaotic world of nature, he still fully relates to his flawed cinematic dreamers.

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982. Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Herzog seldom applies any trace of what I would call “style” — even his surrealist work is grounded in a very simple application of camera. Both Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are both amazingly beautiful and take full advantage of the surroundings in which his dreamers find themselves. But the camera work is economical and usually static. They both have the look of a documentary. Regarding the making of both these movies, Herzog and his team encountered more than a few major challenges. These challenges were often as dangerous and unbelievable as the stories themselves. Defining documentary as “truth” and narrative film as “fiction” restricts artist, subject and audience from understanding how to engage.

Herzog’s brilliant film is not a fictional film. It is based on the Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a 19th Century Peruvian rubber barron who managed to fight all odds and transport a 30 ton steamship across a treacherous isthmus (or strait of land) and then onwards from one challenging river to another. He and his team did this by dismantling the ship into pieces and reassembling it once destination was reached. This feat obviously caught Herzog’s imagination, but he had no problem in mixing fiction with truth. As  Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski conveys a passion that quickly turns into almost insane obsession. So strong is his love of opera that is determination knows no bounds in bringing that music to the culture in which he lives. The core of Fitzcarraldo is one man fighting any and all odds in pulling a 300 ton steamboat over an isthmus between the Urubamba and the Camisea rivers. Herzog not only increased the boat by ten times the truth, but he had his protagonist achieve it without any dismantling.

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself  "Conquistador of the Useless"  The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.  Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself “Conquistador of the Useless”
The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Not only did Herzog, his dedicated crew, and the tribal Aguaruna people of the region have to join forces to make this happen they also had to deal with the insanity of Klaus Kinski while doing it. Herzog uses no special effects. He and his crew really pulled that huge boat up and over the mountain. Misunderstandings between cultures resulted in tribal members destroying camp sites. Frustrations and exhaustion created intense fits of rage. Friendships and cultural relations were pushed beyond well past acceptable boundaries. Mount all of this with the perspective that the tribal Aguaruna men so detested Klaus Kinski they wanted to kill him.

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.  Fitzcarraldo Werner Herzog, 1982 Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.
Fitzcarraldo
Werner Herzog, 1982
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Tragically, three of the six film artists on the boat as it crashed against the rapids were seriously injured. To be clear, Herzog was one of the six on the boat. Consistently honest and open to discussion, Herzog has stated that he used all tensions to the benefit of the energy we see in the film. All challenges were faced and ultimately met head-on. The result is one of the most interesting films of not only its era, but of all time. Even with 34+ years of time since, Herzog is still often in the position of defending his choices during the staggering production of the iconic movie.

The sheer beauty and idea of a man and his pursuit of a dream against all obstacles may not be new in “concept” but never has it been portrayed in such a painfully realistic way. How does one actually define “truth” and “fiction” when it comes to Fitzcarraldo?

The level of will, risks of danger and dedication required by the production is the stuff of legend. But this is legendary truth.  Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, is focused on Herzog making Fitzcarraldo is almost as interesting as the film itself. Les Blank captures The Artist grappling with not only incredible odds of completing production — it also captures Werner Herzog worn down past the point of exhaustion, but on the brink of re-thinknig his own personal identity to filmmaking, to nature and to life itself. It serves as a historic document of filmmaking. The distinction between “truth” and “fiction” are more clear in Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Or are they?

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

As Les Blank films the ever-mounting challenges, failures, tensions, fatigue and dangers involved in bringing Fitzcarroldo to the screen —  we are able to actually see how Herzog and all involved managed to do what we see in the film. However, there are moments in Blank’s documentary that make it all too clear that everyone knows they are being filmed. There is no escaping that in any documentary, but when you are filming artists at work some of what is said or how things are done take on a greater significance. This is especially true early on before everything begins to unravel beyond control. It is obvious that Klaus Kinski’s personal vision of reality has long been loosely defined.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Most interesting is the way we first see Herzog discussing his views of nature vs. Kinski’s attitude. Herzog loves to discuss ideas. So the content of what he tells Les Blank is all familiar. But to hear these ideas within the context of “where” he is both geographically and psychologically does not seem to fit. There is a most definite air of performance. It is only as Herzog’s determination, patience and passion began to collapse from tensions and exhaustion that Blank actually captures Herzog at his most self-aware and most distanced from the concept of Blank’s camera. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that,” he tells Blank. As the production gets closer to completion, Blank asks what he plans to do next. A surprising defeatist attitude comes forward: “I shouldn’t make movies anymore.”

Lucky for us that was exhaustion speaking. Herzog would go on. As he moves further into documentary filmmaking his artistic motivation remains consistent. Contrary to what many would like the audience to think, Herzog is not a cruel man. “Exploitation” is a problematic word when it comes to The Creative Arts. I do not feel Herzog “exploits” his subjects more than any other filmmaker. He does sometimes manipulate and approaches all subjects/topics in a distinct pursuit from the moment productions star though to the post-production editing and narration. Herzog bend and adjust the focus of the camera’s lens on reality so that it captures his motivational intent of showing us his personal “truth” — and that is not far from how fictional narratives are made.

I did entertain the idea of writing about these films in a chronological order, but when discussing the art of documentary vs. the art of Narrative Film — it just seems most natural to start with Herzog and then immediately turn to Errol Morris. While the motivational goals of both filmmakers are different, there is a very strong connection in the way both artists capture humanity and the many ways we either adapt or refuse to adapt to our environment and the others with whom we share it. It is also no secret that Werner Herzog played a key role in helping Errol Morris to stick with his vision and get his film completed. Herzog even stated that he would eat his own shoe if Morris would finish his movie. Ever true, Herzog ate his shoe in front of a full house at UC Berkeley forever captured in Les Blank’s Herzog Eats His Shoe.

In support of Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven.  Herzog Eats His Shoe Les Blank, 1980

In support of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven.
Herzog Eats His Shoe
Les Blank, 1980

It is challenging to think of an art form that is more collaboratively dependent than filmmaking. Every member of a film crew and crew is crucial to the outcome of each scene. And when the crew is minimal it often only enhances the need for collaborative unity in bringing all skills and talent together to meet the director’s vision. I’ve always thought of the director as an intensely driven orchestra conductor. The director must find ways to guide, motivate and gain the trust of everyone behind and in front of the camera(s). Some are better at this than others. I’ve noticed that the directors who most interest me tend to have the reputation of being more open to new ideas and feedback from his/her crew/cast but never never to the point of breaking away from  her/his artistic intent. I suspect it is a very fine art of balancing perspective to be open enough, but finding a way to close it without turning the other artists against him/her.

Over the years since Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris has evolved a system of documentary filmmaking that is efficient and effective. But no matter how his approach has changed, Morris cares about his subjects. They trust him as much as his crew. He consistently produces powerful and polished documentaries. As good as his current work is, he has never found a way back to the casual approach applied that created as magic or human as Gates of Heaven.

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.  Gates of Heaven Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.
Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematography | Ned Burgess

No matter how many times I watch Gates of Heaven — and I have watched it over and over ever since it came out on VHS — I always notice something new or I discover something deeper of myself hiding within it. As one of the pet owners attempts to needlessly defend grief, he says “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something. Didn’t it?” Over time, these people and their respective observations Errol Morris captured have consistently taken a deeper meaning for me. I’m not alone in that feeling.

Errol Morris had not yet fully grasped what would serve as his artistic motivation. In the mid-1970’s he only knew what he found interesting. The starting point seems to have been an article he read in the newspaper. Some sort of falling out between the owners of a small pet cemetery had led to the decision to sell the cemetery’s land to a corporate developer. While the soon-to-be former owners of the cemetery have found a way to remove the deceased animals and transfer them to another pet cemetery, the former pet owners were upset. This was the starting point of Errol Morris unforgettable feature debut. His starting point would lead him to unexpected discoveries that pulled him in a number of directions. It wasn’t until he sat down to edit the footage that he found his motivation: humanity.

Gates of Heaven was a true game-changer in the world of documentary filmmaking as well as to the general Art of Film. We now know that much of what Morris achieved was due to some lucky circumstances that seem to have not only inspired him but required him to come up with a way to get these people to actually talk with him. Gates of Heaven transcends beyond the typical ideology of “The Documentary Film” — the focus and tone are always changing as we watch. What appears to be a documentary about the reasons for the creation and demolition of one pet cemetery gradually appears to be leading us to the story of a new pet cemetery. As the “stories” develop his camera continually readjust “focus” to a wide variety of people who have some vested link.  Morris’ initial interviews with the first round of owners feels familiar but somehow “off” — These people open up to Morris, but it seems as if he is attempting to stage them. There is a long shot of his first subject sitting uncomfortably under a tree. The camera’s perspective is distant. But soon we notice a distinct change in the manner Morris approaches his subjects. With the gift of hindsight information we know that Errol Morris discovered that people are more open when you allow them to decide where they will be filmed. He also discovered that the best thing he could do was simply ask one question and just keep the camera rolling. As these people begin to try and form an answer to his question(s) they began to forget the presence of the camera. They are actually speaking to Errol Morris as a person. He loses the identity of a filmmaker. They trust him.

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

If you’re taking the time and attempting to read my ramblings — I’m confident that you’ve already seen Gates of Heaven at least once if not multiple times. The above screenshot is a classic example of Errol Morris’ technique. Sitting in his office surrounded by the objects that he most prizes, Phillip Halberts begins his infamous system for being an effective salesman. It is a truly funny scene of the movie. The key hers is that the viewer never loses sight of the fact that this guy is grappling with emotional and professional challenges that are all too familiar to any adult. We can’t help but giggle as he lists out his theory for success. But we can’t help but like him. Like nearly everyone featured in the movie, you find yourself wishing you could reach through the screen and offer some support.

"Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!"  Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematographer | Ned Burgess

“Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!”
Gates of Heaven,
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematographer |
Ned Burgess

The main point here is that Gates of Heaven is important, valid and ageless documentary. Gates of Heaven offers nothing in the areas of the political, environmental, social or ethical issue. Errol Morris found an entry point into the deepest concerns of humanity.  The only artistic motivation is focused down to exploring the deep need for connection, love and understanding. In the end, it has very little to do with the pets. It is about the humans who love them.

Albert and David Maysles began their careers firmly rooted in the idea that they were not really “Documentarians” — Both brothers were devoted to the idea of cinéma vérité or, more accurately, The Maysles Brothers viewed their films as “Direct Cinema.” In other words, their artistic motivation was to capture reality as it happened and then to turn it all around to question the validity of the “reality” captured. Direct Cinema doesn’t clearly define a boundary between the filmmaker and the situation/subject that is being filmed. Albert and David Maysles and their fellow collaborators had no problem if they became a part of the situation or developed a friendship or disdain with their subjects. The idea of “reality” is always in question when Direct Cinema technique is applied. Direct Cinema film artists welcome confusing concepts of reality. But it is fairly well documented that neither of The Maysles had any idea that their interest in Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie would become a cinematic and cultural milestone.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, "...you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what."  Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles& David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, “…you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that they both found themselves caring about these two women. It would be challenging to touch on all of the aspects of culture and film that Grey Gardens influenced. Too strange and intense to match the easy-access of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven that would follow over three years later. Grey Gardens became a cult hit that slow-burned itself into the cultural thumbprint of America.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale / “Big Edie” and  Edith Bouvier Beale / “Little Edie were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At one time these two women were major players in the world of wealth and influence.

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can't forget Little Edie.  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can’t forget Little Edie.
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

But by the mid-1960’s they had officially slipped into an isolated world. They had already been living in the grand home for decades and labeled as “Crazy Recluses” for quite a while. Despite being supposedly well-monied, Big & Little Edie lived on limited funds for decades. The once stunning home officially named Grey Gardens in the 1920’s  began to fall into decay. By 1971 the wealthy residents who lived near the estate began to file official complaints. They were living without running water, tons of garbage, a slew of cats as well as wild feral animals. Grey Gardens had become more than a somewhat hidden eye sore, it was officially a health hazard. They attracted unwanted attention from the media due to their connection to The Kennedy Family just before their County Health Department was about to condemn the property and evict both women. The media speculation was so intense that both Jackie Kennedy and her sister paid for the entire clean-up and repair of the house. Neither ever seemed to ever get over what they considered an attack by the media, but it Little Edie who seemed to be the most plagued with fear and paranoia.

Little Edie wearing 'the best costume for the day' and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

Little Edie wearing ‘the best costume for the day’ and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

It has never been clear to me how The Maysles Brothers secured Big and Little Edies’ permission to film them, but they did. And the method of Direct Cinema for documentary gave these two amazing but deeply eccentric women the opportunity to freely share their history and opinions to the camera. Grey Gardens is profound in the way it captures the on-going love/hate shared between mother and daughter.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too in life.” Little Edie casually points out.
“Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” Big Edie responds with pointed glee.

At turns hilarious, disturbing, haunting, sad, grotesque — it is impossible to not love these two women. And while both take deep joy in “hamming” it up for the Maysles cameras — the film captures devastating moments of self-awareness, regret and longing that grip the audience so tight it can never let go or forget the movie. While the film is certainly a documentary, it is also just as certainly confused about what is “true” and what is “fiction” — Grey Gardens is a mysterious film that is unrelenting in confusing “reality” with “distorted truth” and often the deception of “memory” tinged with the need to “alter” truths — not for the audience but for these two women. It is a complex, fragile and beautiful film that refuses to tell us the truth.

European and Asian countries have specific eras of like-minded film artist who have created films at the same time that have resulted in what are easily identified as cinematic waves.

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,  François Truffaut, 1959. Cinematography | Henri Decaë

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,
François Truffaut, 1959.
Cinematography | Henri Decaë

I’m unaware of any such occurrence in American Cinema. Aside from the Golden Era of Hollywood, I’m hard pressed to think of any American “waves” — our culture is too young and diverse. Once the old-school Hollywood studio system fell away there was a whole new generation of almost maverick-like filmmakers. But it seems that there was no singular shared voice at the same time. There was certainly a revolutionary shift in cinematic art starting in the mid 1960’s, but typically the American Film Artist tends to be somewhat of a loner. There are two American filmmakers and one American film that I want to highlight briefly because all three touch directly on depicting fictionalized reality or fictional narrative within an almost documentary-like approach. These two American Film Artists created two unique styles with two very different artistic motivations. And, then there is one film that really stands out and remains entrenched in my brain.

I don’t think anyone filmmaker can be named as “the best” or “the most influential” — art is far too subjective for that level of claim. That being said, the work left by Robert Altman is as relevant, interesting, provocative, experimental, unique and experimental today as it must have been when it was released. Some of his films fail. A few seem to get anchored in a sort of drug’d haze that alienates the viewer. But he made more than a couple of films which are true cinematic masterpieces. And when it comes to mixing ideas around reality with fiction, he was undisputedly a genius.

Largely credited with  reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

Largely credited with reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

In this sense the key work is 1975’s Nashville. It is essentially an epic study of American culture just before it hit it’s 200th birthday. While it might seem odd that he chose to capture a snapshot of America via The Nashville Music Industry, it was incredibly clever. Like most of Altman’s 1970’s work, all the actors are mic’d.  Unlike Altman’s prior work the actors are usually in filled spaces with non-actors.  Only a very select few of the actors actually knew when one of Paul Lohmann’s cameras are focused on them. They had lines, but were free to “riff” or alter lines if it felt more believable to do so. Those actors who were playing musicians or actual County & Western Stars were required to write or co-write their songs as wall as to play/sing them. And, as Altman was constantly changing ideas or re-writing scenes, it is my understanding that no one had a full screenplay of the film while it was being shot.

Long before we had access to cyber "search engines" like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a "real" Nashville TV reporter.  Nashville, Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Long before we had access to cyber “search engines” like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a “real” Nashville TV reporter.
Nashville,
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

When combined with Altman’s grim view of the state of American culture and it’s ever-growing obsession with fame — Altman was taking a big risk. Nashville could have easily been a meandering mess. Instead it is a darkly funny, insightful and disturbing film. Nashville does meander, but all of the subplots and characters are slowly working their way to a conclusion which remains a topic of controversy within the world of celebrity. Not that entities such as The Academy Awards should ever be given the level of ultimate cinematic valuation that it is often allowed, but it is likely the disquieting view of both “celebrity” and American culture which prevented Nashville from being honored as 1975’s best film.

As Altman’s cast intermingles with valid country musicians, non-actors and actors playing versions of themselves — this fictional film takes on a vibe that feels real. Nashville is filled with awkward, comic and disturbing moments inter-laced to create an uneasy tension. We forget that it is Laugh-In’s Lily Tomlin struggling with her duties as a wife, mother, desires and self-identity within cultural and societal pressures. When she allows herself to be seduced we are surprised in the discovery that she not only fully understands the Keith Carradine’s hollow vacancy, she is not bothered by it. The womanizing soon-to-be major recording artist seems as shocked as we are when this “truth” is passively revealed. “Tom” croons that he is “easy” but he is actually very difficult. It is here that Robert Altman and three actors push fictional moments into the realm of painful reality. This points to one of the many key reasons Nashville is so powerful. Altman films his epic like a documentary. It is an essential film and a classic example fiction merging into deeper truth than the viewer anticipates. The suspension of disbelief is not really so much as an audience choice but a clever manipulation to force it.  From the most superficial to the deepest core, Nashville is disconcertingly real.

Lily Tomlin's comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not 'easy' in Nashville, Robert Altman.  Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Lily Tomlin’s comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not ‘easy’ in Nashville, Robert Altman.
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

No one filmmaker has ever been better at blurring the lines of reality and fiction than John Cassavetes. It is my opinion that all true lovers of cinematic art holds at least one Cassavetes movie close to the heart. A Woman Under The Influence is the best example of a filmmaker’s motivation applied in what appears to be either a very loose improvisation of reality or an obscure documentary of a family in crisis. With hindsight we know that nothing about this film was improvised or real, but a viewer would have to be truly emotionally stunted not to find her/himself challenging those facts as this movie unspools. Gena Rowlands has earned a unique place within the world of cinematic acting — and, when carefully studied, it is impossible to name any actor or actress who displays such effective naturalized performance. I view that statement as fact. Rowlands has charisma, presence, natural grace, impossible beauty and an ability to merge identities into characters like no other. For 135 minutes, Gina Rowlands is Mabel and Mabel is Gina Rowlands.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..."  Gena Rowlands A Woman Under The Influence John Cassavetes, 1974.

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under The Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974.

In A Woman Under The Influence Cassavetes artistically approaches everything as simply and as minimally as possible. Rowland’s Mabel is car wreck waiting to happen. The late and criminally underrated, Peter Falk, is equally realistic Mabel’s confused and helpless husband. As Mabel’s emotional grounding becomes shakier with each passing moment, Peter Falk tackles the issue from every perspective he can find. When he turns to the equivalent of domestic abuse we are so unsettled that we barely have time to recover before their children jump in to protect their mom. When Mabel finally breaks, it is disorienting to determine if it Mabel or Rowlands having a nervous breakdown. The complexity and fragility of mental illness is almost too realistically articulated. It is terrifying to watch. Without any frame of context, Cassavetes’ cinéma vérité style could easily mistaken for a 1970’s documentary of a family coping and functioning through crisis. John Cassavetes was always very clear regarding his artistic motivation. His goal was to capture real love in film. It is at the heart of every film he ever made. He had no interest in vasolined-screened mush. He sought out the realities of love. His muse was his wife. Together, he almost always hit his mark. As dark and disturbing as A Woman gets, there are two things we know about Mabel and her husband: they are in love and they have each other’s backs no matter what challenges come their way.

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?  A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.  Cinematography | Al Ruban

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?
A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.
Cinematography | Al Ruban

Many cinephiles of my generation or older feel that the levels of Film Art which which these artists’ reached is no longer possible. This opinion is not true. A number of current film artists are even more strident in applying individual motivations which artistically merge truth with fiction than ever before. Independent Filmmaking has never been easy. Technology has provided tools and platforms that potentially allow anyone to make a movie. Too many movies are being made for film festivals to fairly evaluate what films get on their screens. And Film Critics are finding it impossible to actually review the number of films that manage to get distributed. he challenges of getting worthy art shown and distributed has never been harder. There are too many movies being made. And because anyone can make them it is a challenge to determine which independently funded films are worth the time to watch. Esteemed New York Times Film Critic, A.O. Scott sendt an email to Variety this year stating, “Because of the increasing volume of new films released each year, the Times is no longer able to guarantee reviews of all New York theatrical releases.” It is not hard to understand why The Times had to make this decision, but it doesn’t minimize the impact. A review from The New York Times can “make” or “break” a film artist’s career.

Looking at the challenge from another perspective,  I’ve never seen film artists approach a challenge with this creativity, tenacity, energy and devotion.  Unlike the late ’80’s/’90’s, the artist’s who seem to really succeed are the most devoted to their art. I find the drive and work of these new filmmakers incredibly powerful. I’m not a film critic. I just love cinema. But like many of my friends I had started to feel sad about the state of American Film in the year that actually gave us some amazing film. Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Ed Wood, Red, Muriel’s Wedding, Chungking Express and even Oliver Stone’s admittedly questionable but highly experimental Natural Born Killers — all came out in 1994. But in 1994 I started to note a shift in many of my peers perspective regarding films. This next remark is likely to earn me a number of angry emails, but I loathed Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Interview with a Vampire and The Lion King. It was around this time that my closest friends begin to tell me I was a “movie snob”

"Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!" or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994

“Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!” or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994

Skip forward a decade and I actually was afraid to tell people that I detested Paul Haggis’ Crash. I can remember a friend not speaking to me for over a year because of my opinion. This is particularly interesting because I’m not an aggressive person when it comes to my opinions. I have them, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Sometimes I’m surprised when even one person agrees with me. So, I knew this movie was really a “hot” topic for white people. When I said that Haggis might be well-intentioned but the whole movie was so ham-fisted and too simplistic in resolutions that I felt insulted. I had a similar reaction when Jonathan Demme made Philadelphia over eleven years earlier. But in 1993 my “crowd” more or less agreed with me — or were at least willing to admit to the painfully “black and white” approach to only partially-formed characters. By the time every major film critic and the Academy Awards chose Thomas Langmann’s The Artist, which I hated, 2011’s best film, I seldom ventured to the cinema. The movies that were interesting me were harder to see on the screen. My two personal favorite films of 2011 were Steve McQueen’s Shame, Evan Glodell’s Bellflower and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. I was able to see two of these films on the big screen.

Living in San Francisco I was surprised when I was unaware of it having played here. I had to wait for it on blu-ray. When I suggested each of these movies to friends in West Virginia and Ohio, neither were able to find them screening in their areas. Interestingly, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life screened in their areas. Maybe I was hoping for too much as I entered The Sundance Kabuki Cinema to watch Malick’s film. I’m not sure. I was entranced by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, but I was never actually engaged by the film itself. Both of these friends contacted me after they had seen it. They were excited and loved Tree of Life, but as I discussed it with each of them — I discovered that neither understood what they had seen. The fact that I found myself explaining it twice to two very intelligent people confirmed my assessment of the movie. My two pals were claiming to like the movie because so many of the critics liked it.

This can't be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be  Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001. Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

This can’t be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be
Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001.
Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

In my spare time, I’ve worked for film festivals. I’ve even served on the board of one that has become fairly influential. It was involvement with a Film Festival that offered me the opportunity to see two films before they had secured distribution and were released. The first was Joe Maggio’s Virgil Bliss starring Clint Jordan as the title character. I was hooked from the beginning to the end. Maggio’s film was a lo-fi character study of a recently paroled criminal who desperately wants to secure a stable life. I had never seen Clint Jordan play a character this complex. It didn’t even feel like I was watching a movie so much as some profane transmission from reality’s grimmest corner. A couple of years later I would see Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, a brutally realistic story of parenting and addiction which featured an unforgettable Vera Farmiga. Granik and Farmiga pulled me into this horrifying world. Both of these films were intensely intimate and painfully “real” — I will never forget them. They did secure distribution but largely thanks to the DVD and streaming markets.

Vera Farmiga's performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004. Cinematography | Michael McDonough

Vera Farmiga’s performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004.
Cinematography | Michael McDonough

And, then I started hearing about Mumblecore. A term I still dislike as it seems more than a little pejorative. Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig were the first of the “Mumblecore Movement” I saw. Both of these artist are naturalistic actors, but most importantly they are filmmakers who have disarming ways of presenting intimate and relatable characters that often feel so real that you find yourself squirming in your seat. Early on the co-wrote and co-directed Night and Weekends. With no budget and a non-apologetic manner of presenting themselves as actors, their movie challenges the audience in determining which of the two characters are more vested in this relationship. When the two lovers eagerly disrobe and have sex, the absence of any pretense of eroticism and the immediacy of the two characters’ mutual desire makes the audience feel like ashamed. It is as if we are voyeuristically looking at something private. At some point, it is impossible to discern these two filmmakers from the characters that they are playing. Insightful, sad and real — The movie refuses to be dismissed. The same goes with Joe Swanberg’s previous film staring Gerwig, Hannah Takes The Stairs.

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends, Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008. Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends,
Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008.
Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

Both Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg have pursued their artistic goals with a vengeance. Not to be conceived as a criticism, but Gerwig seems more comfortable in moving in the higher powered/monied productions of Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen. Whether that is luck or successful networking, Greta Gerwig has firmly established herself as a unique actor and filmmaker. It would be impossible not to mention the work of Mark and Jay Duplass who have both managed to move comfortably into mainstream without selling out. The same is true for Lynn Shelton who has achieved a great deal of success. Ti West has also found a great deal of success in the horror genre. Michael Tully is another to emerge as a truly riveting filmmaker. Also of note are the works of Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal and Onur Tukel within the realms of comedy. Amy Seimetz is another incredibly amazing actor who has thus far made one film, Sun Don’t Shine, which was one of the best films of 2013. Aside from Seimetz’s skill as an actor, Kate Lyn Sheil is probably the second most valuable player as an actress.

Joe Swanberg’s interests in film seem to be more committed to remaining the chief architect of his work. His talent and skill are unquestionable, but it wasn’t until he was able to collaborate with Kent Osborne and make Uncle Kent that his strength was crystal clear. Osborne is well established in the world of animated film art. In Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Kent Osborne is playing a version of himself which leaves a great deal of mystery for the audience. We have no way of knowing when we are seeing “truth” in fuzzy sort of staged way or in a sort of re-enactment. Osborne is so believable in this film that it is more than a little difficult to know if this is made up or a very slanted manipulation of reality. Either way, the film works incredibly well. Swanberg does not deviate from his deceptively loose and slow pacing. In Uncle Kent we see a successful LA Film Artist who, through a series of increasingly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness, must come to grips with the fact that not only is he getting older — he is now finding it difficult to fit in and relate to the friends who populate his world. And his world appears to be made up of working on adult-oriented but infantile comedic cartoons, doodling, surfing the Internet, participating in Online Roulette, getting stoned, petting his cat and hanging out with friends ten years his junior.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

It is an entertaining but precisely executed examination of the formation of what will likely be a tough mid-life crisis. Another aspect of Uncle Kent that adds a great deal is the contributions of both fellow filmmakers and actors, Jennifer Prediger and Josephine Decker. Prediger plays Kate with a mix of humor and sadness. It is a surprisingly complex performance that catches the audience off-guard. She must be acting, but it never feels like acting. When Josephine Decker enters the film she brings a level of energy that Swanberg is able to use as a major catalyst for Kent. As most of us know, the erotic idea of a three-way usually quickly dissolves into awkwardness in which usually only two of three finds any real erotic pleasure. A three way is exciting in concept, but when placed into theory it is most often an unenjoyable realization of interpersonal dynamics that are better off unexplored. This is certainly the case in Swanberg’s three-way scene. It is a powerful moment in a surprisingly potent movie.

It is important to note that Jennifer Prediger has gone to make her own mark as a filmmaker collaborating with Jess Weixler to create the quirky, funny and unique look at friendship, Apartment Problems (or known to some as Trouble Dolls)  Actually, The Duplass Brothers, Lena Dunham and Alex Karpovsky are not the only artists to find success. Meanwhile Josephine Decker continues to act, perform and create in various challenging and interesting projects. But most importantly Decker has recently made two vitally important films as both director and writer. Both of her directorial feature length films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely are truly essential films Decker’s path as Film Artist seems to be headed toward a more experimental direction. Josephine Decker is an important Film Artist that I suspect will be leading us in some very interesting directions. With her second film, she actually surpassed Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which was my favorite film of 2013.  Another independent filmmaker to note is Patrick Brice whose recent collaboration with Mark Duplass, Creep, re-examines the ideas of “found footage” and “documentary” to amazing effect.

It's creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

It’s creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

In 80 minutes Brice/Duplass manage to deliver a movie that elevates the horror genre both intellectually and emotionally. On the surface, Creep is fun adult horror movie. It is long after the credits roll that the underlying power really “creeps” up. Sure, it’s only a horror movie. Now, keep telling yourself that as you realize that what you’ve just seen could not only happen — it most likely does.

I was a little late in learning about Kentucker Audley. A friend in NYC sent me a DVD of his first feature length film, Team Picture. Perhaps more than any of the other filmmakers to emerge under the term “Mumblecore”,  Audley shines out as the boldest Film Artist. Much like Herzog, Audley is very open about his motivation regarding filmmaking. He has described his approach as being almost autobiographical documentary. It is and it most likely isn’t. The vital importance of Team Picture is the almost lazy feeling Audley applies as the minimal story unfolds. After only about five minutes into this movie, you can sense that Audley is far more schooled in the art of film than his film wants to show. A quiet film, Kentucker Audley plays David. David should be in college or seriously pursuing a career. Instead he is happy just to hang out with friends, strum his guitar and sit outside be the kiddie pool he uses to cool off in the summer sun. Despite the slow pace and drifting conversations, there is an odd pulse at play with Team Picture.

"I guess you don't need any help with anything. That's cool." The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture, Kentucker Audley, 2007 Cinematography | Timothy Morton

“I guess you don’t need any help with anything. That’s cool.” The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture,
Kentucker Audley, 2007
Cinematography | Timothy Morton

When Audley’s David decides to move on to another town it seems without any clear direction or purpose. However, we gain a gradual perspective into David’s life that reveals a childhood that offered him no clear paths to bonding with a male figure as well as a distinct level of confusion regarding his identity. A creeping sense that David’s environment and childhood have almost set him up. His expectations in life are muted. He is not a team player, but he has a confused need to somehow fit into the team if only for the purpose of momentary capture of belonging to something. Of the recent films to achieve a realism that feels more “true” than “fiction” — this might be the most powerful film.

In addition to being an important voice in modern film, Audley is an exceptional effective actor. I suspect his acting roles are how he funds his filmmaking work. But he will soon be seen in two important independent films: Jason Banker’s Felt and Alison Bagnall’s Funny Bunny. Audley has also positioned himself as vital member of the American Independent Film Artist World with his passionate approach to protecting the rights of individuality in Film Art with the creation of the user-friendly web site, NoBudge. He accepts submissions from indie-filmmakers and curates them on the site for free viewing and feedback. These are both feature-length and short films that might not hold the “commercial” accessibility required for film festivals and the increasingly powerful role of Aggregators to negotiate for independent films to be available for purchase/rental on digital media sites such as iTunes or AmazonPrime. But that certainly does not mean that they have a great deal to offer.

Check out NoBudge: http://nobudge.com

It was on Audley’s NoBudge site that I “discovered” Brandon Colvin. Colvin’s Sabbatical is a beautifully-rendered exploration of a man in crisis that adheres rigidly to Formalist Style. Colvin not only succeeds, he exceeds what one expects to find in a low budget film. Nothing about Sabbatical looks low budget. Sadly, Brandon Colvin’s masterful film is failing to secure distribution and an aggregator because Sabbatical does not “fit” or “conform” to the current ideas around what is commercial and what isn’t.

You can find out more about Sabbatical which also stars Robert Longstreet. An actor who so many of us admire. People are missing an amazing experience.

sabbatical-mossgarden.com

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture's frame in  Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.  Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture’s frame in
Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever is another crucial film within the context of modern American Film Art. Kentucker Audley’s turn as a misfit and wanna-be comedian is more than just awkward and anxiety-inducing — it is tragic. Eleonore Hendricks plays Irene who quickly becomes Edie’s obsession. His desperation for her love is not only misplaced, it is inappropriate. Even within the context of Irene’s world, Edie’s presence is too worrying. Dustin Guy Defa’s experimental film delivers a constant stream of frustrated uncomfortable confusion hinged with potential violence. Nothing about this ver low budget film “feels” like acting.

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists' existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.  Cinematography | 2011

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists’ existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.
Cinematography | 2011

Matt Boyd seems to be approaching documentary film with a style that is somewhere between the accepted notion of what documenting reality and The Maysles Brother’s type of Direct Cinema that leave the audience wondering when what we are seeing is real or possibly staged. His study of marginalized musician, Walter Bakes, and his family in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument is a challenging but rewarding examination of decay and self-absorbtion. It does not hedge from showing the warts and all of its subject but it never feels judgmental or exploitive. Matt Boyd is heading to an interesting career.

And as I come to the end of this rambling post, Rick Alverson must be mentioned. Along with Kentucker Audley, Alverson may be the most interesting Film Artist who is unrelenting in his pursuit of cinematic truth. Rick Alverson is far more concerned with style than Audley. This may end up being Alverson’s greatest challenge as filmmaker. His stylistic impulses sometimes appear to be at odds with the more immediate concerns just below the sensitive skin of his films. All the same, Alverson is building an amazing body of work. Best know for his 2012 film, The Comedy, which received a great deal of attention at the time of its release. It was praised and dismissed in equal measure. One of the dismissals came from my personal favorite Film Critic, A.O. Scott who caught me off guard when he was so frustrated by Alverson’s movie that he felt the need to attack those of us who saw the merit in it. According to A.O. Scott if I find any “critical distance” or “interesting perspective” in Alverson’s The Comedy — then I am the butt of Alverson’s joke. I do not know Rick Alverson and I have not ever read an interview with him. I only am aware of him by his work. Alverson was not joking with The Comedy. Alverson presents a level of white male entitlement and human cruelty without offering any evaluation or background. Thanks to an amazing cast of effective actors, all we really need to know is passively communicated in the sad eyes and pointless actions. We might not like the main character or any of his friends, but viewers would need to be equally emotionally-stunted, damaged and as casually cruel as these characters to not see the tragic darkness which Alverson masterfully examines.

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O'Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O’Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

In The Builder, Alverson’s first feature which was made in 2009 and very limited released 201o — he collaborates with Colm O’Leary to create a very realistic study of an immigrant who attempts to pursue construction of his American dream house. O’Leary has a strong presence, but is allowed very little to say. The film is a bleak depiction of a man fighting through a depression in pursuit of something that seems to be failed abstraction of something deeper he can’t obtain. While the film offers viewers too little information to fully encage, it carries a power that is hard to forget. It feels like a film from an alternate universe of 1970’s American Filmmaking. We don’t understand this builder, but he feels far too real and familiar to forget.

Colm O'Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.  New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

Colm O’Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.
New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

In Rick Alverson’s New Jerusalem we are given more insight into the two men we follow. New Jerusalem touches on everything from faith to immigration to PTSD but it only barely touches this topics and themes. Alverson’s motivation is to explore an uneasy connection that begins to form between two men. This uncomfortable look at male bonding provides challenging ideas regarding the needs of male bonding. Ultimately, the viewer is never clear on why these two characters put up with each other. Aversion is not interested in resolving the tension and conflict. His goal is bring the reality of it to the audience.

New Jerusalem  Rick Alverson, 2011

New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

The conclusion is left to us. The merging of “truth” and “fiction” will not always result in something simply entertaining and satisfying. Most often true art forces us to look at our own reflection and projections. Being able to fully understand the difference between real and fake is not always an asset. Most of human life is spent putting on one mask and quickly replacing it with another as we navigate our way through life. Not all of us want to escape from reality. Some of us want more from art than escape. I want to gain perspectives regarding the complexities and challenges of life. Like everyone, I want to know I’m not alone.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth.  As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth. As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens,
Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.” – Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale