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

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

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

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

Well, easily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However my knee-jerk might be a bit off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A24 has employed two tag lines to promote The Witch:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Matty Stanfield, 2.25.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

004-the-devils-theredlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015

 

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

 

“I was wondering if you could do me a favor and write a think piece on Polanski’s Repulsion? Perhaps you could post it on your blog. I’d really appreciate it.”

"The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!" REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965

“The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!”
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965

This request brought me back to my college daze. An English Major, during my sophomore year a professor challenged me to form my semester thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The challenge was not the thesis, but the actual assignment:

Create a thesis “with something new” to offer about the Scarlet Letter.

An odd and somewhat cruel way to make or break my grade. I wanted to bang my then-stoner-head into a wall. I took a real leap into my deconstruction of Hawthorne’s novel. And, I pulled out all the stops.

On her way up to the flat she shares with her sister, Carol bites her nails. I was doing something similar as I tried to find something "new" in "The Scarlet Letter" Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

On her way up to the flat she shares with her sister, Carol bites her nails. I was doing something similar as I tried to find something “new” in “The Scarlet Letter”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

My thesis argued that the book was an account of actual demonic possession. As I made my presentation to a class full of actual adults, I was met with snickering and eye-rolling. However, I had strange supporting information for every question designed to make me look the idiot. In the end, the professor gave me a “B.”

Not a horrible grade, but this was an advanced course in which I was the only student not yet working on their Masters. It was the lowest grade I ever received in a literature course. A year later I asked this professor why he gave me such a task. His answer? The conversation went something like this:

I wanted to take you down a peg or two. I didn’t feel a Sophomore should have been in that class.

So you wanted to humiliate me by having me read a book normally studied in Freshman year?

Yes and I wanted to give you an impossible assignment. I had no intention of failing you. My plan was to give you a “C” no matter what you presented.”

You gave me a ‘B.‘”

Yes. Your thesis was absurd, but you supported it well. I almost gave you an ‘A-‘ but your ridiculous rebellion against grammar would not allow me that opportunity.”

The following semester I discussed this with another professor who would become my university mentor and friend until her death in the mid-1990’s. She indicated that my experience was actually a surprising compliment from that professor.

So when an individual of some note asked me to write a piece about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, I had to laugh. What can one possibly write about that infamous film that hasn’t been written about six million times before? I thought about it and politely declined. But as it turns out there is a strangely valid reason for this person’s request.

And so I now ask for your indulgence as I attempt to take another exploration into Repulsion.

Catching her reflection in a vase, Carol seems transfixed by the contour's warped perspective. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catching her reflection in a vase, Carol seems transfixed by the contour’s warped perspective.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It speaks volumes that 50 years after it first screened, Repulsion continues to not only entertain, but unnerve audiences. Roman Polanski’s first English-speaking film is at simultaneously experimental and resoundingly accessible. It also happens to be one of the most intimately disturbing films ever made. The intimacy of this film emanates not only from the style in which it is crafted but also from a universally shared fear of losing grasp with our own perception of reality. The film gradually pulls us into the protagonist’s hysteria leaving the viewer disoriented and distressed. I do not care for the term “hysteria” but I think it is perfectly suited here. By the time Polanski’s grim little movie comes to its ambiguous ending and circular cinematic “logic,” it is impossible to not relate to Catherine Deneuve’s character.

This resonation is the film’s most horrific element: deep down we all worry that sanity is just a few pegs away from leaving us alone, isolated and afraid beyond recognition.

Roman Polanski has always refused to answer direct questions about what we are seeing or how we are to interpret what is shown. While this is a smart move for any filmmaker, I suspect Polanski’s refusal is actually deeply valid. Certainly the movie is about a young woman going insane, but questions about “reality” vs. “hallucination” or simply “Surrealism” continue to form Repulsion‘s Film Theory discussion. However, the idea that Polanski himself was not entirely sure of what he was striving to present fails to hold water. Roman Polanski is far too intelligent a filmmaker and Repulsion is far too acutely acted, set-up and edited to have come from an unsure footing.

Moving closer is the vase's distortion somehow more aligned with Carol's perceptions? Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Moving closer is the vase’s distortion somehow more aligned with Carol’s perceptions?
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

I’ve read so many essays on this film. I would not know how to reference all of the different theories. These range from “Feminist Statement” to “It all really happens!” to “Childhood Rape Survivor / PTSD” all the way down to Cinematic Metaphor on a wide range of topics. One of the many metaphors tied to the film is the Counter-Cultural Impact of the 1960’s. Another ties the film to Sexual Revolutionary Reaction. Going even further beneath the surface of the film’s simple complexity have been theories about the actual meaning of the protagonist’s name. I must admit that even the most far-out theories interest me. The way we deconstruct artwork is always interesting and revealing.

Perhaps the most valid of the many theories is grounded in three Polanski films that are often referred to as The Apartment Horror Trilogy. One would have a hard time arguing against the connections between Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. All three of these films play with senses of perception, claustrophobic induced fears, paranoia and insanity. Then of course there is the knee-jerk tendency to connect Polanski’s profoundly horrific childhood, the devastating tragedy he endured in the late 1960’s and his personal sexual transgressions of the 1970’s which led him into exile. Certainly an artist’s life experience will color his/her work, but unless the artist is willing to discuss the connection — it really feels inappropriate to read the personal into the work. And yet can we just dismiss the facts that two of the characters are immigrants, deal with sexual confusion, are put in the position of outsiders and all fall prey to paranoia.

But my personal concept of this strangely timeless film is tied to perception. A deeply warped and disassociated perception that has been manifesting within the mind that when faced dead-on with confrontation, loneliness and isolation triggers a spasm into the darkest corners of insanity. The most telling signals Polanski delivers, with a great deal of assistance from Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, are the ways in which he starts and ends the film. The first thing we see on the screen is Carol’s eye in extreme close-up. As the camera pulls back we realize that we are seeing Deneuve’s “Carol” staring out into space. She is clearly not looking at anything, yet there is something “off” about her expression. It hints that she might be looking at something which is not visible to us. In reality, she has sort of spaced-out during application of a manicure in the beauty salon that employees her.

The opening shot... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The opening shot…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Her client, her co-worker and her boss all seem to think she is caught in the dewy haze of love. The pretty manicurist is daydreaming of her Prince Charming. If only they knew. Carol is an immigrant and she lives with her sister, Helene, in a fairly spacious and charming apartment. It is important to note that Carol’s apartment is simple and it appears spacious. However, after we enter the apartment with Carol it is clear that it is not all that large. Upon entering this home which will soon morph into a sort of self-imposed prison of horrors, we note that the entry way is short. The living room is off to the immediate left, the kitchen off to the immediate right. The hallway leads to the modern bathroom. The bedrooms appear at first to be opposite each other at the end of the hall.

Carol's "safe place" quickly transforms into a living, breathing, shape-shifting space of horrors. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol’s “safe place” quickly transforms into a living, breathing, shape-shifting space of horrors.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It is also interesting to note that the apartment is appointed with furniture that would have most likely been accumulated from various sources. Only Carol’s elder sister seems to have taken the time to actually fashion a look for her bedroom. Both young women still have remnants of childhood in their respective rooms. However, there is an important difference between Carol and Helenes’ rooms: Helen has a couple of stuffed animals, but a sexy feminine atmosphere. Carol’s room is oddly void of personality. Yet there a few things of note: a child’s night lamp and a sense of untidiness. The living room has a cluttered collection of items which we can safely assume have all been placed by Helene. LifeMarie-Claire and gossip magazines lay near a simple turntable/radio with some 45’s and a couple of record albums. Judging by the way we will later see Carol rummage through the items in the living room — none of these things are hers and none seem to interest her. Except for one item.

It is Polanski’s repeated return to this item that it is clear that is great meaning here. An old childhood family photograph which we will later learn was taken in Brussels. This photograph seems draw Carol’s attention. She clearly wants to look it, but it seems to hold a threat within the borders of the frame.

A childhood family portrait taken in Brussels... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A childhood family portrait taken in Brussels…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Early in the film Helene points out that Carol needs to be more social. She needs to get out more and meet people. As Helene begins to prepare a meal with a freshly skinned rabbit as the core component, Carol seems to only be interested in two things: Helene’s boyfriend who has begun to leave his personal items in Carol’s bathroom glass and a crack springing out from what appears to be some sort of kitchen ventilation screen. Helene has little patience for Carol’s dislike of her boyfriend. An impatience which we later will understand comes from the fact that Helene is dating a married man.

When Carol studies the crack in the kitchen wall she mutters, “I must get this crack mended.” Helene only briefly appears to be concerned by the comment. It is only with hindsight that the viewer wonders if that initial crack was ever there in the first place.  Helene’s boyfriend is loud, jovial and more than a bit of a flirt. He clearly disgusts Carol. When he dismisses the idea of eating a rabbit dinner, he promises to take Helene out on the town for a grand meal. Helene quickly places the skinned and seasoned rabbit in the tiny kitchen refrigerator. Carol is clearly upset that Helene is leaving her alone in the apartment but refuses to admit it. As Helene and her man step into the elevator to leave for some fun he points out that “something” is wrong with Carol and she should see someone. It is the first time we see Helene become upset. Perhaps a little too upset. She seems furious that he would insinuate that anything is wrong with her little sister.

Auto-pilot at the salon... Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Auto-pilot at the salon…
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

We have already witnessed Carol’s strange manner of falling into her thoughts. She has drifted away while applying nail polish causing the client to ask if she is asleep. Despite this sort of behavior she is able to communicate well with her boss explaining that the salon is out of a particular shade of polish, she is polite and she never appears hostile. If anything, she appears shy but friendly. When we follow her on her lunch break it is clear she is on a sort of auto-pilot as she walks. The only things that cause her to snap out of her “daydreaming” are the sexual catcalls that greet her as she passes a street construction crew.

A quiet walk seems to be an open invitation to sexual advances... Catherine Deneuve faces the catcalls. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A quiet walk seems to be an open invitation to sexual advances…
Catherine Deneuve faces the catcalls.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The initial shot shows Carol’s back and working class construction men. But after the catcalling begins, Carol can’t help but glance. Suddenly the camera perspective on the loudest of the crew presents a somewhat distorted shot of the man. The camera’s perspective makes him appear slightly distorted and evil. Of course, anyone would feel uncomfortable in this situation. This male public assertion of sexuality and sexual intent displaces the identity of women. They become nothing more than an object for sex. It is threatening. However, there is something about that camera angle and the way in which Carol reacts that seems to be not quite right.

Cracks in the walls and the pavement. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Cracks in the walls and the pavement.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The other thing that snaps Carol out of “daydreaming” or zombie-like walking are a couple of cracks in the pavement. These cracks upon the cement ground which Carol treads cause her to halt and study them. It is as if the cracks in the pavement have pulled Carol into another type of “daydream.” So intense is her interest in these cracks, she calmly takes a seat on a public bench and stares at them. This is far more than “daydreaming.” This is at the very least OCD behavior only without any level of energy. Once again with hindsight, one can’t help but wonder what Carol is actually seeing as she stares at the cracks.

What does Carol see in the cracks? Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

What does Carol see in the cracks?
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Perception and Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography is key to understanding Repulsion. Returning to the film’s opening shot, if one thinks about the way in which Polanski chose to displays the film’s credits — it is clear that was far more than a “creepy” method to indicate a genre. Initially the title and words appear to be coming out from behind the iris of the eyeball, but very quickly any logic to the way the words appear on the screen are not limited to the eye itself. The letters and names float about without any level of logical editing. The credits present themselves in a visually discordant manner. And as the words scroll about the screen, the eyeball and eye socket seem to be twitching, blinking and gaze out and around but not at all in coordination with the words. Actually, if a person only sees this film once there is a feeling that Polanski’s budget has caused the credits to be done in a ramshackle messy manner that might have been intended to be a harmoniously clever horror-genre opener that has failed and simply looks like a poor but ambitious choice. After viewing the film even only once, it clear that these credits and the way in which Deneuve’s eye is reacting is all intentional. There is no connection between the eye and the credits that roll about it.

Throughout the film’s first act, we see Carol’s limited interactions in only a few spaces. Actually, the spaces in which we see Carol interact are essentially limited to three places: The beauty salon, the streets on which she walks and her shared apartment. Polanski and Taylor are careful to pace the presentation of Carol’s perceptions of these spaces and interactions slow enough so that our awareness is initially limited. We visit the salon and the streets about three times. Each time a bit more is revealed. The reveals are not so much about the spaces or interactions as they are about the way in which Carol is perceiving them.

"Are you alright?" Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“Are you alright?”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The busy beauty salon appears small and a bit cramped. The client, the beautician and Carol barely seem to fit into the room where facials, massages and manicures are performed. But when Carol loses her focus, drifts off and cuts the finger of her client — her tray falls to the ground. Suddenly it appears there is far more space in the room than we initially thought. As Carol stares at a spinning nail polish bottle we become disoriented by Gilbert Taylor’s camera. There is an odd expansion of space and shadow. Carol seems almost animalistic as she watches the spinning bottle. A tiny bottle which due to the placement of camera and use of lens looks bigger than it is.

When her boss inquires about what is wrong, we realize that she has missed three full days of work without having ever called the salon. When pushed for an explanation, Carol clumsily mutters that an “Aunt arrived for a visit unexpectedly.” The salon boss automatically assumes that Carol is telling her that she was ill due to menstruation, it is apparent that this was not the meaning Carol was attempting to imply. As a co-worker helps her into her street clothes she encages Carol in a conversation. She suggests that Carol take in a movie. She manages to bring Carol out of her “shell” and gets her to giggle as the girl describes a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie she has just seen. Carol seems connected, but her laughter becomes to feel like a nervous reaction. As the girl goes to hand Carol her purse, she notices it is open. She looks inside and discovers the head of the rabbit waiting amongst a compact and lipstick.

Walking without focus and ever-increasing ticks. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Walking without focus and ever-increasing ticks.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In the beginning of the film we meet a potential suitor for Carol. Played by John Fraser, this would-be suitor seems harmless enough. This is not to say that he isn’t persistent. He follows Carol on her lunch break. Sits himself down at her table and pushes to get a date. Carol is polite, but clearly not interested. Or is she? She never clearly brushes Colin off. As he follows her back to the salon he presses for a date. She seems shy, but not entirely dismissive. She smiles. The second time she encounters the ever-pushy Colin, she is clearly forcing a smile. Despite his humor and flirtation, she never gives a clear signal. However, most men would let it go. She clearly is not going to fully agree to a date, but Colin presses on.

The viewer’s first time in the sisters’ apartment, we discover that Carol can hear her sister having sex. As Helene reaches orgasm, Carol looks forward toward her sister’s room and covers her ears with her pillow. We know she dislikes Helene’s married boyfriend, but it is never clear why. However, she does not hesitate to toss out his things. When Helene asks Carol why she has thrown out his things, Carol gives a strong declaration that she simply does not like him. However she states this in a passive tone. We have already noticed that his straight razor has caught her eye and thoughts. The second time she notices it she picks it up and studies it. Her face and eyes dulled, she is physically mute of thought.

Studying a straight razor. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Studying a straight razor.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

When Helene and her boyfriend leave for a trip to Italy, Carol seems more than a little panicked. How long will they be gone? 10 or 15 days. Maybe. Carol’s need for more rigidly defined dates is not just for reassurance, it is as if despair and fear demand it. Helene refuses to cater to the silly insecurities of her grown sister. But as the two leave, Carol is clearly concerned. As much as she despises Helene’s boyfriend, she’d rather put up with him than be without her sister.

She is physically repulsed by Helene’s boyfriend. Even the scent of an undershirt makes her vomit. Yet when she pulls out the plate of uncooked rabbit, she stares at it in the same way she has stared at the cracks and the straight razor. There is no clear indication of what she might be thinking, but she is not repulsed. The scent of an undershirt makes her ill, but as the rabbit begins to rot in the living room it causes her no concern. The phone rings and we discover she has the straight razor which she sits on the rabbit’s plate. As we will soon learn, she uses that razor to cut off the rabbits head. A head which she stores in her purse.

Sister's uncooked rabbit does not seem to bother Carol, but something about the bunny's head is of particular interest. The first use of the straight razor. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Sister’s uncooked rabbit does not seem to bother Carol, but something about the bunny’s head is of particular interest. The first use of the straight razor.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Looking back earlier in the film after her sister leaves for Italy, Carol walks about the apartment. She looks at the family photograph. She glances through her sister’s record collection. She walks into her sister’s bedroom. She looks around. She approaches her sister’s wardrobe. She opens the door and examines one of Helene’s sexy dresses. Carol seems to study the dress. As she moves the wardrobe’s mirrored door, we catch a quick glimpse of a man’s reflection behind her. It is a jarring moment. Without any sort of musical cue, it is a scene that never fails to make me jump.

It is shortly after this that the audience is put in the position of not knowing if the steps Carol seems to hear in her apartment are actually in her apartment or in one above or below. No, they must be in her apartment. We notice that her wardrobe is blocking a thus far unknown door. A light goes on behind that door. It may not always become obvious to the viewer upon the first viewing of the film, but this door is suspect. Where does it lead? Carol’s bedroom is opposite from Helene’s. Isn’t it? Wait, are the two bedroom now next to each other? Later those steps behind that door will force the door open — pushing Carol’s wardrobe out of the way. The man who emerges rapes Carol.

Sometimes the hall's walls turn into a flesh-like surface. Other times aggressive male arms emerge to ravage and rape Carol. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Sometimes the hall’s walls turn into a flesh-like surface. Other times aggressive male arms emerge to ravage and rape Carol.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There is no question that these are rapes. But there no confusing the fact that Carol has imagined them. There is a bit of confusion regarding her reactions to these sexual violations. She seems at once horrified and aroused. We know these rapes are rape fantasies. We know this because we have seen Carol rush from her sister’s bedroom into the hall. She touches the hall wall and it appears to be a soft porous surface in which her hands leave an impression. Wait. Is the hall suddenly a wall of flesh? Soon arms will emerge from the wall body and seemingly sexual violate Carol. Once again, her reaction is a mix of shock, horror and possibly sexual pleasure. Later she will walk down the hallway which fills with outreaching, grabbing male arms.

A walk down the hall becomes a sexual threat that offers no escape. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A walk down the hall becomes a sexual threat that offers no escape.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

During one particularly brutal rape, the screen fades to black. When we return we find Carol laying nude on the floor of the hall. She does not look traumatized. It is actually the only time in the film that Carol looks relaxed. A jarring phone ring will snap her back into a state of frenzied paranoia and fear. The cracks are getting worse. They are no longer limited to just the two in the kitchen. At one point Carol cautiously approaches the childhood family photograph. As we see discomfort and fear grip her eyes and body, the wall behind the photograph cracks apart threatening to crumble to pieces. Carol flips on a light only to see the entire wall crack apart.

She had planned on getting the crack in the kitchen mended, but new cracks are emerging everywhere. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

She had planned on getting the crack in the kitchen mended, but new cracks are emerging everywhere.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As Carol descends into insanity her perspective has taken over every aspect of the apartment’s space. After her desperate suitor has attempted to call her over and over again, he has a few drinks and works up the nerve to show up at her front door. The once pushy, but somehow nice guy suddenly takes on a threatening aspect. Carol looks through her front door peep hole and so does Gilbert Taylor’s camera. Distorted and furious, Colin demands that Carol open the door or he will bust it down.

Turns out this is not an idle threat. He lunges at the door. Carol backs away from the door. She reaches for a heavy metal candle stick. Her once kindly suitor breaks through the front door’s lock and busts into Carol’s warped space. Even though he tries to apologize for his behavior and expresses his love and desire for Carol, it is too late. He is a threat. He is danger. The small entry way no longer appears small. It seems very dark and long. The camera’s perspective reveals a nosy elderly neighbor looking in as Colin tries to defend his actions.

Does this potential suitor really have good intentions? If so, why did he break the door's lock to secure access to Carol's apartment? A nosy neighbor watches from the hall. John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Does this potential suitor really have good intentions? If so, why did he break the door’s lock to secure access to Carol’s apartment? A nosy neighbor watches from the hall.
John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol refuses to make eye contact. When Colin notices the old neighbor spying on them, he walks down the once short entry way, the elderly woman rushes into her apartment. As he attempts to close the door, Carol’s fear turns to rage.

He just wants to be "with her." Metal candlestick at the ready... John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

He just wants to be “with her.” Metal candlestick at the ready…
John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol is no longer passive. She brutally attacks her suitor. Putting all her force into it, Carol bludgeons Colin to death. Blood splatters all over the door. Carol does not seem to be concerned that she has just murdered someone, but she is very upset by the sight of blood coming out of his ear and staining the door. She drags Colin down the ever-expanding hallway and manages to get his body into the tub of water that she had drawn earlier and had allowed to overflow. Suddenly full of manic energy, Carol uses the candlestick to hammer a shelf she pulls from the kitchen to act as a barricade for the apartment entryway.

It isn’t long before the landlord shows up. Carol gives us a peep hole view of Patrick Wymark. Like Colin, the landlord must bust his way into the apartment. At first angry at the state of the apartment, he quickly changes his tune as he looks at Carol in her almost sheer night gown. Soon rage gives way to lechery.

Peephole perspective: the unwanted visit from the landlord. Patrick Wymark REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Peephole perspective: the unwanted visit from the landlord.
Patrick Wymark
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As he brutishly attempts to mount Carol, she pulls out the straight razor and viciously begins slashing him. Filmed in black and white with Catherine Deneuve’s maniacal slashing, blood spurts everywhere. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that Carol has hit some vital veins.

"You would not even have to worry about the rent..." Patrick Wymark propositions Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“You would not even have to worry about the rent…”
Patrick Wymark propositions Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

She has committed her second murder. Once again, she seems more concerned with the mess than the murder. She pushes the sofa over on top of the dead landlord to hid him and his mess from her view.

Insanity has almost completely taken over. As we see Carol sitting in the once small and modern bathroom, we notice that the tub is no longer directly next to the bathroom door. The tiled walls are gone. The bathroom looks old, wet and moldy. It also appears to go deeper than possible. This is not the bathroom we have seen before. Welcome to Carol’s perspective.

Over the course of the film nearly every aspect of Carol’s apartment has been shifted, re-shaped, extended, shortened, architecturally re-arranged and bent to fit within Carol’s skewed perception. It isn’t until Helene and her boyfriend return from their holiday that the apartment’s spacial and visual aspects are fully formed back into the spaces to which we were first introduced. In other words, as Helen enters the wrecked blood stained apartment that “reality” returns to our perspective.

As our realistic perspective returns we discover that Carol has slipped far beneath insanity. Her eyes appear to be frozen open. She almost appears to be dead. But in the most horrifying way, our protagonist has slipped into something far worse than death. She is found under her bed in a catatonic state. While we are given no clear indicators, it feels as if this will be the state she will remain. Can there be anything more terrifying than be shut off from reality and stuck in the darkest and murky waters of a ill mind.

There are more than a few things wrong with this "picture." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There are more than a few things wrong with this “picture.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As brilliant as Roman Polanski’s film and his use of Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography and Seamus Flannery’s art direction, there is another essential element to Repulsion that often is dismissed as “accidental” or “luck.” Catherine Deneuve gives a superb performance as Carol. At the time she was cast in Polanski’s film she was thought to be incredibly beautiful and might possibly have a strong career ahead of her in fashion modeling or light entertainment. Her appearance in the sensational French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The film and she had garnished a great deal of well deserved attention, but once again — she was hardly more than a beautiful face. Jacques Demy had not required a great deal from her in the female leading role. Her own singing voice was not used. Essentially all she needed to do was look happy, mad and sad while lip synching to another’s voice. (Actually, she and all the actors were dubbed and they were required to sing along with the recordings.)

But her work in Repulsion is not just happy accident. Her presence and being fill the screen and linger in the mind. Her mannerisms, twitches, horror and cautious use of words is never doubted. It should be noted that Polanski and the two others who assisted him in adapting the screenplay knew very little about mental illness.

Catherine Deneuve proves her on-screen value as Carol REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve proves her on-screen value as Carol
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Deneuve’s stares and facial expressions are never over or under done. Somehow she captured the presence of a fractured mind. And she did so brilliantly. Barely a year would pass before Luis Buñuel pursued her to play the lead in the still controversial and highly regarded experimentation into the Surreal, Bell de jour. His decision to cast her laid not just in her angelic beauty, but in what he saw in Polanski’s film. This might be the other overly examined film from the 1960’s.

I cringe when I hear film scholars or critics dismiss her 1965 portrayal as a lucky use of “icy beauty.” …This is a memorable and valid on-screen performance. In fact there is very little of the “real” Catherine Deneuve present. If one is to fault any aspect of her performance it lies in the hands of the film’s stylist. The only thing about Repulsion that fails is Deneuve’s always flawless hair. Her face covered in sweat and smeared-on lipstick with eyes reflecting sheer terror, her hair is still brilliantly coiffed. Hair aside, I find it hard to believe that any other could have played this role better. And, of course, Deneuve has gone on to build one of the most enduring and important film careers in cinematic history. A year ago Pierre Salvadori managed to convince her to take the female lead in his little seen cinematic gem, In the Courtyard.

Oh no. Not another crack!?!? Catherine Deneuve at 72 plays Mathilde In the Courtyard Pierre Salvadori, 2014 Cinematography | Gilles Henry

Oh no. Not another crack!?!?
Catherine Deneuve at 72 plays Mathilde
In the Courtyard
Pierre Salvadori, 2014
Cinematography | Gilles Henry

This was the first time I’ve ever seen a filmmaker sneak in a nod to her Repulsion performance. In the 2014 French independent film she plays a retired elderly woman who is slipping into a state of depression. Her character becomes obsessed with a crack in her living room.

Returning back to the theory of Repulsion being an examination of insanity’s perspective, as Helene stands back in shock and her boyfriend lifts the now catatonic and mentally absent sister to carry her toward the ambulance and police who are on their way — Polanski has Gilbert Taylor expertly flow through and over the apartment’s wrecked state. As always, Taylor’s camera work is steady and intently focused to slowly capture the film’s closing image. As we move closer to Carol’s childhood picture, Polanski finally allows us to actually see Carol as a child. The whole family is encaged and posing happily. Save Carol. The little girl stands rigid and staring off at something. Many cinephiles like to say that we are meant to think that she is staring at the man (father? uncle?) to her left. The idea being that the child is looking at her victimizer.

This does not hold up. As the camera moves in it is clear that she is not looking at anyone in this photograph. And based on the film’s shared perspective, her gaze has never been focused on anything within the realm of perceived reality. Polanski drives this point even more precisely as the image has been edited slowly to black out the rest of the photo. We can only see a little girl with a disturbing look on her face. The camera never stops it’s slow zoom. Taylor’s camera is aiming directly into young Carol’s right eye. The same eye from which the film’s title slipped out at the beginning of the film. The zoom continues until little Carol’s eye becomes nothing but speaks blurred into darkness.

Repulsion attempts to pull us to a restricted place that has been growing since childhood: the warped psyche of insanity.

And we come back to the childhood photograph of Carol. Polanski chooses to slowly zoom into Carol's eye until it becomes a blur of particles. An isolated stare into horror. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

And we come back to the childhood photograph of Carol. Polanski chooses to slowly zoom into Carol’s eye until it becomes a blur of particles. An isolated stare into horror.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Matty Stanfield, 10.22.2015

Like being strapped into an amusement park ride, sitting in the darkness as a horror movie begins there is a mixture of giddy fun and an often embarrassing dread of what we are submitting ourselves to — will it be a fun rush of the senses or a stomach churning sort of emotional litmus test?

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?
Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Does the rollercoaster that tilts and sends on a loop turing us upside down at a high speed offer more fun than one limited to fast turns with slow accents followed by forced down hill trajectory offer more satisfaction?

The answer is subjective. There is no right or wrong.

But what is it about some horror films that not only frighten us, but linger long after the house lights come back up? Most horror films offer a quick intensity that leaves us fairly quickly. Sometimes, however, a horror film comes along that offers something a bit more jolting. The kind of jolt that leaves us entertained, afraid, shocked and unsettled. This is the sort of jolt that comes back to haunt us as we try to fall asleep or walk down a dark corridor.

"I don't like them there." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“I don’t like them there.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In 1965 Roman Polanski delivered a new sort of horror film. Repulsion shocked audiences upon initial release. It still upsets many. Why? Catherine Deneuve plays Carol. A beautiful but seemingly perpetual daydreamer who discovers that she is to be left all alone in the large apartment she shares with her older sister. What happens to Carol and those who venture into this apartment while the sister is out on a brief holiday is more than unexpected, it is lethal. Carol is not a daydreamer, she is clearly suffering with some sort of emotional problem. Is this an issue related to some form of sexual trauma? Is this mental illness? Is this some form of depressive exhaustion? What is wrong with Carol? 

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Repulsion wastes no time in establishing something clearly: the camera’s perspective is simply off. We are following Carol through her mundane life as a beautician, then walking through the streets of London and finally at the apartment she shares with her sister. Roman Polanski and Cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, carefully set each shot from strange angles. As the film progresses, the camera’s perceptions become more odd. We are seeing reality through Carol’s perception of it. As Deneuve’s character slips into reality filled with threat and menace, we are not entirely sure if what we are seeing can be trusted.

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Surely those are not arms slipping out of the walls to grab and molest Carol. Right? Or have we just entered some twisted sort of paranormal horror? Before long the audience comes to understand that we are witnessing a psychotic break. A break that slips so far into the darkest corner of human psyche that no one is safe. Repulsion stays with the viewer.

But the threat filled menace of human perception would take on a far more ambiguous stance in Polanski’s 1968 horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.

"Pray for Rosemary's Baby." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At first glance or after an audiences’ first viewing, this would appear to be a full-on exorcise in Satanic horror at it’s most dire. An innocent woman has been set up to procreate with The Devil and deliver The Anti-Christ. As Rosemary’s life in her new home begins she is faced with a creepy basement laundry room, the death of a new friend and an uncomfortable forced friendship with nosey and eccentric neighbors.

Polanski and Cinematographer, William A. Fraker, begin to establish an interesting camera perspective almost as soon as Rosemary and her husband move into their new apartment. The use of cinematography is not immediately noticeable, but it is there from the beginning.

A gift or a curse?  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A gift or a curse?
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Halls and doorways take on a suspicious and curious perspective. As Rosemary’s paranoia and fears begin to mount, the audience becomes pulled into a literal sort of maze of unanswered perspective. The first of Fraker’s shots that really grabs our attention is the use of Rosemary’s front door peephole. Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet is truly iconic movie character. At first comical, then slightly annoying — and slowly she shifts to something altogether horrifying. When Rosemary looks out her peephole, we gain a distorted perception of Minnie that is warped and unsettling. She no longer looks like the kooky old bat next door. She looks suspicious and vaguely reminiscent of a clown. Not the kind of clown at whom you might laugh, the sort that would make you pull your child back and avoid at all costs.

large_rosemarys_baby_cesar-zamora-5

Rosemary and the audience get a whole new perspective on the eccentric woman next door. Ruth Gordon Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A building suicide, nosy people and a dear friend’s creepy stories related to the old building which contains her new apartment — Rosemary is understandably more than a little shaken. But after the wacky Minnie creates two cups of chocolate “mouse” for Rosemary and her husband, she finds the taste feature an unpleasant aftertaste. Her husband almost becomes angry that she doesn’t want to eat it. She only eats a bit. Soon she is feeling drugged. Once again slightly tilting the perspective, Rosemary passes out.

Blame it on Minnie's "chocolate mouse" or is it a symptom of something else? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Blame it on Minnie’s “chocolate mouse” or is it a symptom of something else?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

We are then brought into Rosemary’s dreams. We have already been here briefly before when she dreams of a childhood incident with a Catholic Nun yet hears the annoying banter of her odd neighbors, Minnie and Roman. Their voices take the place of the Nun’s. But this time Rosemary’s dream is far more articulated and disturbing. She dreams of a sort of sexual ritual wherein all of the old neighbors of her building are standing around her bed.

"Perhaps you'd better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Perhaps you’d better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They are nude. Suddenly a demonic animal is running it’s claws across her body. Rosemary is in dream state. She observes and follows instructions without objection. But suddenly, she is alarmed and seems to have awoken.

“This is no dream! This is really happening!”

But then she does wakes up and it is the next morning. She is nude and she has long scratches across her back. She quickly realizes that her husband has ravished her in what is an inappropriate sexual encounter. Filmed in 1967, while her character feels her husband has raped her, she pushes this feeling down. But we can tell Rosemary almost hopes it was all just a bad dream rather than face the fact that her husband had her while she was passed out ill. Alas, this is not an option for Rosemary. Her husband has violated her. Trauma much?

A sluggish Rosemary says, "I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman." And her husband responds, "Thanks a lot."  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A sluggish Rosemary says, “I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman.”
And her husband responds, “Thanks a lot.”
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

William A. Fraker’s masterful camerawork continues to pull us back. Perceptions are never quite right again. in one of the cinema’s best shot scenes, Ruth Gordon’s Minnie rushes to Rosemary’s bedroom to phone Manhattan’s top Obstetricians. From a filmmaking perspective, this entire scene is one elegant and fascinating manipulation of the medium. Faker’s camera only allows us to see a bit of Minnie as she makes this call. I dare a viewer of this film on a big screen to successfully fight the urge to tilt his/her head to see what is going on in Rosemary’s bedroom.

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what's really going on as she speaks into the phone... Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what’s really going on as she speaks into the phone…
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Masterful and perplexing: we are now officially and fully immersed in Rosemary’s paranoia.

The truly magical aspect that has helped Rosemary’s Baby to not only remain valid but alarmingly disturbing is the fact that perception of reality is so skewed that we are never fully certain that Rosemary’s paranoia is valid. Upon the first viewing of Polanski’s film, one is likely to walk away with a bit of a chuckle that Rosemary was quite right: She has given birth to The Anti-Christ. All we saw was true.

All of them were witches united to trick Rosemary into being fucked by Satan. 

The true reality solved by Scrabble? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

The true reality solved by Scrabble?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

If one watches Rosemary’s Baby again, and watches it a bit closer — something odd emerges.

This creeping idea is one of the reasons this film is a true cinematic masterpiece that refuses to go away from our subconscious. At no point in this horror film is the validity of Rosemary’s paranoia and fear fully confirmed. As the movie pulls us into the final act of the story, the question of whether or not what we are seeing is “correct” or “real” is brought into question. This could all be a fever dream of exhausted and terrified human psyche. Rosemary’s world has been rocked enough to understand how her perceptions of reality might be pushed into subversion.

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Her husband has essentially raped her while sick, this results in a pregnancy. Hormones surging and her choices and opinions constantly challenged — she soon finds herself in a great deal of pain. Everything in Rosemary’s reality has derailed. Death and darkness seem to envelope her. Her husband is distracted by new career opportunities and possibly some guilt. Whatever the cause he is distant.

Rosemary feels trapped. She must escape. She runs away to her original first choice Obstetrician. A very pregnant woman carrying a heavy suitcase on a record-setting hot Manhattan day arrives to this younger and far more modern doctor’s office. She insists he “save” her and her baby. She spouts a rant about Satanic witches and elaborate plans to harm both her and her baby. She pulls out an old book on the supernatural. The doctor calms her down. She finally relaxes and her official Minnie-hired Obstetrician arrives with her frustrated husband to take her home.

But, she did seem to slip into a dream prior to the “betrayal” of the young doctor.

As we enter the final act of the movie, how reliable is Rosemary’s perception? Every single thing is from her perspective?

Is Rosemary’s reality real? Is this a perspective we can believe and trust? 

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts... Mia Farrow in that doorway Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts…
Mia Farrow in that doorway
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

There is no clear answer to be found in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. We will never know for sure if she has delivered The Anti-Christ “To 1966! The year One.

This level of unresolved tension doesn’t even need to fully register for the viewer to pick-up on it at some level. The truth of what we see is questionable. Rosemary’s perception (as well as our own) has been altered and put into a state of limited and distorted vision.

What is scarier? The reveal that human fear and paranoia is fully validated or the understanding that we are simply unsure. The fear and paranoia remain unresolved.

Reality or Delusion? Mia Farrow looking into Hell Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Reality or Delusion?
Mia Farrow looking into Hell
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

For years I used to debate this opinion with friends. Everyone seemed split down the middle. Some felt I, myself, was reading too much into the movie. Others agreed.

Finally I was validated when Roman Polanski himself stated that his goal was to present a depiction of human perception skewed to leave the audience wondering if Rosemary was seeing the “truth” or imagining some grand conspiracy.

Warning: TO AVOID ANY SPOILERS RE: TO THE FILM, LYLE, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

Which brings me to Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 but newly-released film, Lyle. As much a tribute to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it is a low-fi re-working of the same sort of diabolical idea, Thorndike and her Cinematographer, Grant Greenberg, have created an intense psychological horror film. Or so we might think…

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Greenberg’s camerawork is simple, yet carefully articulated. Like William A. Franker, he has paid close attention to perception. Doorways, large open-spaces, halls and angles are all designed to make us look closely. Visual information is provided in a suspect manner. More than a few times in this tightly-edited film, we want to see beyond the boundaries established by Greenberg.

Also of great credit to both he and the film’s director/writer, Stewart Thorndike, Lyle features the best use of a Skype-like call I have ever seen. Limiting the audience view to the shared computers’ perceptions is a brilliant device.

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day... LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day…
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

As any sensible film-buff would expect, Gaby Hoffmann is brilliant in the film’s leading role. As the mother, Leah, Hoffmann delivers a perfectly nuanced and powerful turn toward hope, grief, fear, paranoia, panic, sheer horror, desperation and ultimately rage. Unlike Mia Farrow’s passive Rosemary, there is nothing oppressed about Gabby Hoffman’s Leah. A devoted wife and mother, she fully embraces her role in the family. She also places correct value to her identity and worth.

Yet she senses something “removed” or “distant” regarding her wife. Played by Ingrid Jungermann, June is appears to be the family provider. One gets the feeling that June is either ambivalent about parenting or is deeply upset that the newly pregnant Leah is carrying a girl child. June was clearly hoping for a little boy, but her frustration is both uncomfortable and suspicious.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Moving into a swank new Brooklyn apartment, Leah loves their new home. She does not love the new landlord. Rebecca Street is the only other actor in this film who can rival Hoffmann’s skills. Street is cast in a role that is somewhat similar to Ruth Gordon’s Minnie. Excepting that Street’s Karen is quite a bit younger. Younger, but not young. Leah is immediately concerned to discover that her landlady who she suspects is entering her 60’s claims to be trying to get pregnant. In fact, before long Leah (and the audience) catch limited glimpses of Karen pregnant and then not but expressing milk through her top.

Like Rosemary, Leah is constantly having to re-evaluate her perception of reality. After suffering the loss of her firstborn child, she is aware that the loss of Lyle has caused an understandably confused and disoriented emotional chain of reactions. As the circumstances around Lyle’s accidental death grow more suspicious to her and as she discovers increasingly worrying information about her home and the people who live in and near it — Leah becomes more than a little paranoid. To Stewart Thorndike’s credit, this film packs a great deal of suspense and tension.

"Help me!" Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

“Help me!”
Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Running just a little over an hour in length, Lyle does not let the audience down. The film is encaging, disturbing, creepy and solidly entertaining. The only issue I noted with this sinister little movie is the director’s decision to fully resolve the paranoia and fears of the lead character. At the moment we discover the validity of the mother’s fears and the fact that she has not been paranoid, the horror of Lyle becomes mutedly blunt. All answers are resolved and Leah is left to do what she must in an attempt to save her child. While Lyle is a potent little film, it loses his grip by giving us too much.

To what point has Grant Greenberg’s cinematography served? Do we feel relieved or all the more dire that Leah’s darkest fears turn out to be true? Lyle leaves the audience with an uncertain future for Leah, but there is no articulated logic to the dark pact with Evil for career success. It isn’t clear.

The aspects of the paranoia that are not fully revealed or explained leave a sort of emotional hole where a cinematic “pay-off” should have been. The intention is unclear, but not the human perspective. In what felt like the shaping of horror reveals itself to be more aligned with a taught thriller minus logic.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Unlike Polanski and Frakers’ manipulation of paranoia and character perspective, Lyle has teased the audience. And the emotional result is one of frustration. Lyle is not likely to scare the audience. Instead it plunges us further into darkness without any room for ambiguity. Stewart Thorndike is a flimmaker with a a strong future ahead of her. She has a great deal of skill in telling her story. But the question for me remains, is it more effective to bring a story of paranoia and human fear to fully articulated explanation or better to limit the audiences’ ability to fully know? From my perspective, Lyle gives an unsatisfying ending.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is an example of a horror film that leaves the audience unsure. Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step fits more toward Thorndike’s Lyle. However, Alex R. Johnson’s film is not intended as a horror film as much as a modulated thriller that escalates far beyond audience anticipation. Within that mode of operation, a fully resolved ending makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of current cinema that illustrates the idea of ambiguity is Alex Ross Perry’s polarizing examination of identity and insanity, Queen of Earth.

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism... Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry, 2015 Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism…
Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss
Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry, 2015
Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

While this film may not be a straight-up horror film, it does depict the most horrific aspect of being human: Insanity. The idea of not knowing when what is perceived is “reality” or “delusion” is oddly effective. Much like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston will be forever stuck in a sort of nightmarish mire of rage, distrust and warped perspective.

We do not have all the pieces of their puzzles.

It fascinates.

It pulls us further into the ideas of the films.

Most of all, these stories of human frailty, fear and possibly insanity stick with us. The ambivalence sears into our shared subconscious. 

Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Life is a mystery and is forever full of “WTF” moments. It is in those moments where we are least sure and are forced to go into “full alert” that the uncertainty of our realities become the most worrying.

In a strange way, Roman Polanski’s Art Horror remind us of life.

At the ready to attack, but still unsure... Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At the ready to attack, but still unsure…
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They jolt us into the present of our mind. And we are forever a bit unsure.

Matty Stanfield, 10.1.15

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

Tastes being subjective, Film Theorist and Film Preservationists are and will always need to continually “re-assesing” the value and merit of the art form.

A good football coach can get away with murder. ...And, if the coach is a closeted movie star he can get away with even more!  Pretty Maids All in a Row Roger Vadim, 1971

A good football coach can get away with murder. …And, if the coach is a closeted movie star he can get away with even more!
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

Perhaps the most challenging sort of movie to asses are those cinematic oddities that simply refuse to go away. Cult Films are an essential part of the cultures that produced them. Some are worthy of their “cult” status and others require massive abuse of drugs to share in the “joy.”

However, just because something is “exploitive” or “tacky” does not immediately excuse if from being re-visted, restored and re-distributed. Very often it boils down to the fact that a movie is “exploitive” and “tacky” that ends up making it relevant. A movie might create a permanent stain on our cultural fabric. Sometimes it is better to cover the stain with a Ron Howard movie and hope no one ever notices it again. Other times we need to frame that “stain” and celebrate it.

I love all kinds of film. But I have a soft spot for misfits and movies so painfully “bad” they work themselves around to being “exceptionally fun” — such is the case of Berry Gordy’s horrifyingly funny 1975 cinematic error, Mahogany, in which poor Ms. Diana Ross must climb the depraved ladder of fashion to achieve superstar success.

Um, do you know where you're going to?  Miss. Ross is  Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975

Um, do you know where you’re going to?
Miss. Ross is
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975

We cringe as she is forced into awkward situations with Anthony Hopkins. Playing a celebrated fashion photographer, Hopkins is once again cast as a psycho in  jeans so tight they actually might have been sewn onto him. Equally uncomfortable is the fact that Diana Ross saw this movie as chance to show off her personal “fashion design” brilliance.

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

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

Yes, she designs her own clothing. And it hurts. But Mahogany goes about everything just a bit too hard and too much to make it worthy of trying to save. It will always offer fun to some, but not enough to warrant a restoration. Don’t flame me if you disagree. I’m just stating an opinion.

Richard Elfman’s one directorial effort is insane, offensive, profane and an incredibly bad movie. Yet, The Forbidden Zone, is so strange and brimming over the top with creativity, ideas, talent and sheer force of will — It will never go away!

"Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?" Susan Tyrrell & Hervé Villechaize The Forbidden Zone Richard Elfman, 1980 Cinematography | Gregory Sandor

“Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?”
Susan Tyrrell & Hervé Villechaize
The Forbidden Zone
Richard Elfman, 1980
Cinematography | Gregory Sandor

And it shouldn’t. In addition, TFZ is a musical staring Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell and Danny Elfman! Danny is Richard’s little brother. The Forbidden Zone demanded a revisit! It was restored and re-distributed. It is just as bad as Mahogany, but what it offers is so unique, entertaining and odd that it’s horrible glory can’t be ignored or forgotten. In it’s own way, The Forbidden Zone is a brilliant off-kilter work of art.

I thought I’d briefly mention some movies that have recently been revisited/restored and a couple that I feel deserve to have a re-visit or reconsideration.

Warner Brothers often makes odd choices regarding what films within their massive achieve are deemed to be of value for restoration and redistribution. They continue to release Ken Russell’s controversial The Devils. They also refuse to allow Irvin Kershner’s Up The Sandbox to be properly re-stored and issued to HD/Blu-ray quality and format. Yet, they are more than eager to restore the Bette Davis & Robert Montgomery contractual obligation of 1948, June Bride. They have also allowed the forgettable Herbert Ross George Burns and Walter Matthau vehicle, The Sunshine Boys, to be restored.

Angie Dickinson as Miss Betty Smith, well versed in grammar, murder and free sexual guidance to her more advanced students.  Pretty Maids All in a Row Roger Vadim, 1971 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Angie Dickinson as Miss Betty Smith, well versed in grammar, murder and free sexual guidance to her more advanced students.
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Roger Vadim, 1971
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

It took Warner Brothers decades to decide to offer a “clean-up” but not fully restored DVD/VOD of Roger Vadim’s infamous exploration film, Pretty Maids all in a Row. This nasty little 1971 movie features an unforgettable cast of actors — almost all of whom appear to be a little uncomfortable for the duration of the movie. The idea in 1970 was to allow Roger Vadim free-reign to create a satirical and perverse sex comedy to bring in the big bucks and to revitalize Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinsons’ respective careers.

Interestingly, it would go on to inspire a major network to create a classic iconic TV series for Telly Savalas called Kojack. Yes, kids. We have this amazingly twisted and so-bad-it’s-good Cult Film to blame (or thank) for the 1970’s Kojack. The film didn’t do much for anyone else. If anything it killed a few potential careers as casually as it kills cheerleaders. Joy Bangs, anyone? With a name and body like that she was expected to go far, but this would be one of her last bids of fame.

But rest easy, plans are lurking to fully restore and redistribute this cinematic oddity to HD/Blu-ray. But keep your fingers crossed just to be safe. But within the next 6 to 8 months!

Check out Todd Gaines review of this film on LetterBoxd. He sums this film up better than I ever could:

http://letterboxd.com/todd_gaines/film/pretty-maids-all-in-a-row/

Warner Brothers has also finally surrendered and agreed to “restore” Tony Scott’s infamous, iconic, controversial and much admired cult classic of Vampiric-Cool, The Hunger. Sadly, WB has taken it upon themselves to do this. The Blu-Ray will be released next Tuesday, 8.18.15! The transfer looks good and the sound is improved from the DVD release. It could have been better, but it is still worthy improvement.

Nothing loves forever. Especially Catherine Deneuve.  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983

Nothing loves forever. Especially Catherine Deneuve.
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983

Very loosely based on Whitley Strieber’s novel, Tony Scott was far more interested in style and the hopelessly cool cast he managed to assemble in this very entertaining Art-Horror Film. It often seems like we are seeing only the coolest of the early 1980’s NYC Art Scene hiding around the corners as Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie pursue their blood-lust. One of their first victims is Eternal Hipster, Ann Magnuson. Not to mention the fact that movie opens with Peter Murphy and the legendary British Goth Rock band, Bauhaus – crooning their seminal hit, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

"undead. undead. undead" Peter Murphy / Bauhaus The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“undead. undead. undead”
Peter Murphy / Bauhaus
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

It is an artfully and darkly shot bit of early 1980’s stylistic chic. It is also one of the most erotic vampire films you will ever see. Man, woman, gay, straight, trans or any existence between — you’re bound to find Catherine Deneuve’s seduction and love-making to Susan Sarandon hot. …hot as well as kind of funny and still a bit surprising.

Lesbian Vampire Sex was never meant to be this hot!  Sarandon / Deneuve  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Lesbian Vampire Sex was never meant to be this hot!
Sarandon / Deneuve
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Tony Scott loses his way with the story. As the film sleeks casually and oh-so-cool toward it’s end, you realize that it may not make any logical sense whereas in the novel the ending was truly disturbing and unforgettable. With this awesome movie, the ending is not so important as how neat it all looks! Seriously. This graphic film of obsession, lust, fear of aging and AIDS metaphor is amazing.

Uber-Cool Ann Magnuson is about to get more from David Bowie than she probably anticipated.  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Uber-Cool Ann Magnuson is about to get more from David Bowie than she probably anticipated.
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

The Hunger even manages to be creepy. Oh, and be sure to play this film really loud. Crank that sound up! 

Sandy Dennis does her unique Sandy Denis-thing as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Sandy Dennis does her unique Sandy Denis-thing as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

We have Olive Films to thank for rescuing Robert Altman’s deeply odd / disturbing 1969 psycho-sexual thriller, That Cold Day in the Park, back from the land of the forgotten. While Olive Films restoration abilities are severely limited, they do a decent job. It is a far cry better than allowing this classic film from rotting somewhere at Paramount.

Initially, this Canadian movie was brought back to life by Bruce LaBruce’s 1991 super-lo-fi film, “No Skin Off My Ass.” LaBruce’s framed that entire film off a distorted VHS copy of Altman’s movie.  Altman’s 1969 film was dismissed and quickly faded into obscurity. Thanks to LaBruce’s underground film and Altman fans this film has returned from its imposed exile. It would take two decades but Olive Films brought the original film back to life!

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors.  That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors.
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

Now, we'll just play a little game.  Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Now, we’ll just play a little game.
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in “Images” — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in “TCDITP” Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche. Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis.  The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

"I'm not going to get under the covers or anything. I'll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it's all right. I want you to make love to me. Please." Sandy Dennis on the verge of something... That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography |  László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one. After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie.  The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick:

The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing.

Just because it says "Exit" doesn't mean it is a way out.  Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

A long neglected bit of cinematic magic has been saved by Olive Films. Do not miss it. Unlike the above mentioned films, this one is truly outstanding. There are really no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect.

Like Olive Films, Shout Factory has also done an amazing job of saving, restoring and re-distributing forgotten cinematic history. Unlike Olive Films, Shout Factory has a been more of a budget and access to more fully restore film. While far from being able to achieve what The Criterion Collection can, Shout Factory does great work. Perhaps their most important gift to Film Restoration is it’s recent release of Werner Herzog: The Collection. The set features 15 of the brilliant director’s best work. Thus far, Shout Factory has released 3 of those individually.

Their collection continue to grow. Thus far the films that they have restored and distributed that meant the most to me have been Cat People, Audition and The Herzog Collection. That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed other re-discoveries. Perhaps my most personal favorite film that Shout Factory rescued would be Lewis John Carlino’s much neglected and forgotten pretty mess of a movie, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.

Kris Kristofferson / Sarah Miles The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Kris Kristofferson / Sarah Miles
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Yukio Mishima’s exceptionally interesting, disturbing and thematic novel lost almost all of what makes it so brilliant when Lewis John Carlino adapted it for the screen in the mid-1970’s. It would be wrong to state that this film starring Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson is good. But it would be equally unfair to say that it holds no interest or merit. Carlino’s film is just strange enough to make it all interesting. Carlino’s interest in bringing Mishima’s book to the screen is limited to the perverse eroticism and sociopathic tendencies of the stepson. And, get ready. This is one of those “WTF” 1970’s Cinematic Moments.

Jonathan Kahn as the son and stepson to The Sailor has a few issues... The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Jonathan Kahn as the son and stepson to The Sailor has a few issues…
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Filmed in a “Vasoline Gauzed Haze” a loney and sex-starved widow/mother sits in isolation. She is unaware that her seemingly sweet son has drilled a peephole into her bedroom so that he can watch her. The son watches her masturbate as well as cry. Now, one would assume that the son is “getting-off” on this. But that is not necessarily the case. It is never clear.

Anne's son likes to watch.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Anne’s son likes to watch.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

When a tired and weary sailor meets “Mummy,” Sarah Miles falls immediately in love as does Kristofferson. At the time of the film’s release much to do was made over some infamous sex scenes between the two actors. Though, most of those scenes failed to make it into the movie, but went straight to Playboy Magazine for marketing.

The Sailor falls... Kris Kristoffers getting very personal with Sarah Miles The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The Sailor falls…
Kris Kristoffers getting very personal with Sarah Miles
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

But what a campaign it was! Interestingly, the eroticism remains running between Miles and Kristofferson, but their on-screen eroticism is not as bold as the following snaps from the movie that went to the cutting room floor to avoid an “X-Rating” — they served to promote the movie even today.

“Mummy’s” sweet son is troubled by the Sailor’s decision to abandon his life at sea to live with he and his mother. His level of cruelty as “the leader” of his band of fellow “enfant terrible” begins to even make his followers a bit nervous.

This is one poor little kitty who should make a run for it!  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

This is one poor little kitty who should make a run for it!
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The Sailor catches the sun watching him make love to his wife and the boy’s mother. Well, things just take a very twisted turn after this.

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson made the news with this infamous scene.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson made the news with this infamous scene.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The movie is a cinematic error. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work so well that it offers a sort of interesting appeal that almost slips into “camp” but instead loops itself into a decidedly sick and twisted cult movie. The sad thing about this film is that Yukio Mishima’s novel would make for an amazing film if the filmmaker were talented enough to translate/adapt it for the screen. The book is so dark and the themes so complex, it is doubtful any will attempt it.

AVCO Embassy Pictures did a great deal of cutting to secure an already-pushed R-Rating The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

AVCO Embassy Pictures did a great deal of cutting to secure an already-pushed R-Rating
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

As silly as the movie is, be warned that the depictions of animal cruelty and sexuality are fairly realistic/graphic. The actors do a fairly decent job. For most of us, however, the movie will neither shock or disturb us as much as it causes pause.

How in the world did this movie ever get made?!?!?

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson serve as specimens for voyeuristic interest and psychotic interests. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson serve as specimens for voyeuristic interest and psychotic interests.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

If we didn’t need further proof that 1970’s decade was truly odd era, Carlino’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel actually fit right into the cinematic syntax of it’s day.

I am currently working “covertly” and “off the grid” to help find another flawed but interestingly potent b-grade mishap from the World of Grind House Cinema.

I first saw this strange drive-in / grind house movie in 2005. I had been asked to view it as a potential for a film festival. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. The festival passed and last night I discovered that my “screening” DVD had died. Bummer. This movie is awesome and strange. The date of 1977 is incorrect. This film was actually shot in The Bay Area in the very early 70’s. It has been released under a number of times with different names. The original title was “The Seducers Deadly Game.” It found it’s way on double bills in NYC and LA between 1974 and 1975.

An odd venture into "Feminist" Fury is as flawed as it is interestingly brilliant.  Seymour Cassel, Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp  Death Game / The Seducers Deadly Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977/1974 Cinematography | David Worth

An odd venture into “Feminist” Fury is as flawed as it is interestingly brilliant.
Seymour Cassel, Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp
Death Game / The Seducers Deadly Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977/1974
Cinematography | David Worth

Eventually thanks to Sondre Locke’s fame as Clint Eastwood’s leading lady, it was released again in 1977 as Death Game. This is the name that stuck and it’s 1977 release was wide at drive-in’s across the nation. There are also several versions floating around out there. One is an edited 91 minutes in length. The other is the one I owned which runs at about 105 minutes.

You realize that this might be a strange movie as it begins with a title card warning that everything shows is completely true. But then the screen fills with some children’s artwork of family that feels a little “off” from the get-go. And a purposely annoying little sing-a-along song accompanies the credits.

The film stars Seymour Cassel as a father/husband/business man who has the house for the long weekend. All to himself, he decides to have a bit of fun. He lets it to “post-hippie-love-children” sex vixens played by the infamous Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp. Rule #1: if it is 1971/1972 and two hippie chicks knock at your door after sunset, don’t let them in.

Sadly, nobody taught Mr. Cassell Rule #1 for the early 1970’s.

Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

“Sorry to bother you, really. But we’re lost!”

It is important to point out that this screen caps are deeply lacking in value because the current copies available all suck. Amazon sells one, but it is shorter in length and fairly poor quality.

They seduce poor Seymour Cassel in hazy 3-way and then the sick/twisted games begin. Turns out our hot hippie vixens have more in common with Charles Manson than Rod McKuen. They also each have a bone to pick with men. And for better or worse Seymour Cassel comes to represent “Daddy” to both of them. Though, clearly adult women both claim to be minors and that he has raped them.

They quickly began calling him “Daddy.” They are out for sex, blood and major home invasion wreckage. They also decide to put “Daddy” on trial for all the horrible things men have done to not only them, but for all of woman kind. Their mock trail is as comically bad as it is rather disturbing. And much like The Sailor, Seymour’s cat attracts some very unwanted attention from these two crazy sisters with a grudge.

This sick movie is just wrong, but infectious. If you’re like me you will be hooked to the screen until you come to the movie’s equally odd thud of an ending.

The Official 1977 Movie Poster Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

The Official 1977 Movie Poster
Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

This movie was shot in 13 days with very limited audio-recording capabilities. The entire film had to be re-dubbed. The great Jack Fisk served as set designer and his wife, Sissy Spacek, is said to have had a hand in the costuming. She apparently declined to be in the movie. Seymour Cassel hated making this movie so much that he refused to show up and dub his lines. His lines are actually spoken by a member of the crew. The dubbing impact is annoying at first but it starts to take on a sort of Surrealistic vibe as the movie progresses. It is sort of like being dropped into a total nightmare.

The thing about “Death Game” / “The Seducers” is that it is impossible not to watch. It just keeps “one-up’ing” itself scene after scene. The movie is completely insane. If you get the opportunity, see it. Be warned, as silly as it all is — this is not a movie for all tastes. Heaps of inappropriate nudity, cruelty and violence. But seriously, this movie is so bad it becomes brilliant! I’d put it one notch above Roger Vadim’s also odd but big-budget “Pretty Maids all in A Row.” ...this is a major compliment.

"We find you Guilty!" Sondra Locke  Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

“We find you Guilty!”
Sondra Locke
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

I had the pleasure of asking Mr. Cassel if he would be willing to attend a screening and a have a “Q&A” with the midnight audience for a 2004 film festival. He was nice, but he quickly turned the offer down.

From my brief conversation with the great film actor, I gathered that Fisk/Spacek were involved in the production to raise some funds for a David Lynch project. Cassel could not remember, but I’ve always wondered if this was “Eraserhead‘ — much of which was actually shot in Fisk/Spaceks’ garage.

At any rate he also told me that he had been informed he would receive a script, but when he showed up the plan had been changed. The entire film was to be improvised by both Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp!  Improvising all of their lines under the guidance of the director, Mr. Cassel was to improvise toward their lead only. When it became clear that “sound” was not a logical expectation of this “off the grid” movie project, Mr. Cassel lost his patience. And who can blame him?

Clearly there was no love lost between this great actor and his two leading ladies and the film’s director. Mr. Cassel preferred to talk about Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek and David Lynch. Though, he couldn’t remember if Lynch was ever present at the messy shot in which an entire home was essentially destroyed. However I did push him a bit.

He was genuinely shocked to discover that the screening was expected to sell out and that this little film has a following as well as having served as the subject of more than a few Doctoral Theses.

What more evil things can we do?  Sondra Locke Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

What more evil things can we do?
Sondra Locke
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

The last thing he said to me was, “I don’t know, Kid. Go figure. Shocks the shit out of me.”  And then he just laughed.

The truth is we never really know how a work of art — no matter it’s intention or motivation — will age.

But Film Art is far too important for us individually as well as a culturally.

We should never dismiss anything too quickly.

Like Mr. Cassel, it may shock us, but we never really know — for 20 years at least.

Catherine Deneuve is watching, hunting and smoking hot The Hunger Tony Scott, 1973 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Catherine Deneuve is watching, hunting and smoking hot
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1973
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Matty Stanfield, 8.13.2015

In the final act of William Friedkin’s 1973 iconic film, The Exorcist, the film’s struggling priest and his wiser elder discuss the nature of evil, how to address it and how to understand it’s logic:

Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.”

Why her? Why this little girl?  Max von Sydow The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Why her? Why this little girl?
Max von Sydow
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Why her? Why this girl?”
“I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”

The Exorcist first arrived to cinemas in December of 1973. This film’s reception and the reactions it caused are of historical note. Financed and distributed by Warner Brothers the movie caused fear, panic attacks, a couple of heart attacks, repulsion, anger and accusations of “blasphemy.”  While The Exorcist is essentially a Supernatural Horror Film, William Friedkin’s epic film was approached with a level of realism and artistry that could not be refuted. It was a highly artistically-valid film. As for being an exploitive use of a child actor and blasphemy, well The Vatican gave this film the seal of approval. It was even blessed for “realistically depicting demonic evil.” Cue priests, nuns, ministers and most God-fearing people line up and see it.

Marketing The Exorcist was challenging for Warner Brothers. It was clear to everyone that this was more than just a horror film. This early poster was rejected.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

Marketing The Exorcist was challenging for Warner Brothers. It was clear to everyone that this was more than just a horror film. This early poster was rejected.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

If one is able to take pause and look at Friedkin’s film independent of it’s source novel and The Vatican, this movie also offers an interesting spin on the state of American Culture at the beginning of the 1970’s.

Another "mock-up" idea for promoting that felt a little too After School Special for most at Warner Brothers.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

Another “mock-up” idea for promoting that felt a little too After School Special for most at Warner Brothers.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

It can easily be summed up as metaphor for the feeling that parents had lost control of their children amid the emergence of “Anti-Establishment Movement” to “Sexual Revolution” to “Drug Culture” to the ever-increasing power of Rock rebellion.

Eureka! And Warner Brothers creates an iconic marketing campaign by using an "altered" shot from the movie itself.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Eureka! And Warner Brothers creates an iconic marketing campaign by using an “altered” shot from the movie itself.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Both the novel and film also indirectly address the tragic side of becoming a priest. The film conveys that Jason Miller’s Priest is something more to his best priest buddy. While his friend seems to be able to repress his sexual desires, it appears to be bit more of a strain for Miller’s “Father Karras” a repressed and guilt-ridden former boxer who has escaped into the Priesthood as much to do good as to escape his all-too moral desires. Interestingly, the self-proclaimed Atheist mother find it easier to accept that her daughter might be possessed by The Devil than this conflicted priest. This film is also examining the impact of repression and the reasons men decide to become priests. Granted, it is in a somewhat passive way, but it is there.

"Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker." Whether it by taunting into Father Karras' most repressed fears of self-identity or by picking at his guilt for not having cared for his mother the way he feels he should have -- this demon knows the priest better than he knows himself.  Subliminal Experimental Editing - so fast you can almost mess it.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker.” Whether it by taunting into Father Karras’ most repressed fears of self-identity or by picking at his guilt for not having cared for his mother the way he feels he should have — this demon knows the priest better than he knows himself.
Subliminal Experimental Editing – so fast you can almost mess it.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

No matter how you want to interpret or view The Exorcist – the power of this infamous film is beyond denial. I remember sitting in sold-out huge Boston cineplex auditorium in 2000 to see the “Restored” and the “Version I Had Never Seen.”  I was actually curious to see how a modern day audience would react to this early 1970’s film. I think I was expecting that we would all find the movie darkly comic. I was wrong. This was the normal “cineplex” audience. You know, the one that freely converses, talks back to the screen and generally rude masses. True to form, as the commercials and previews screened children were screaming, teenagers were tossing candy at each other and all sorts of mayhem that will ruin a movie viewing experience for me. But as soon as The Exorcist started, the entire tone of the packed auditorium changed.

The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

By the film’s midpoint you could have heard a pin drop. Almost 30 years later, this movie was freaking us out. And it still shocks.

Which brings us to one of those long pondered questions which forever escaped logic. How did WB’s The Exorcist secure an
“R-Rating” by the MPPA in 1973? How did it reclaim that same rating 30 years later? Other far less sadistic or graphic films had been slapped with an “X-rating” and by 2000 we had seen the arrival of the dreaded “NC-17” label. Why would the MPAA give an art film like “Henry & June” an “NC-17” and “The Exorcist” an “R-Rating?”

One of the tamer blasphemies of Holy Icons The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1971 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

One of the tamer blasphemies of Holy Icons
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1971
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Granted, neither or films for children, but if I were a parent and asked to pick which of these two films were “less appropriate” for a child under 17 years of age — I would select The Exorcist. I think most would.

A sweet little girl transformed into murderous and blasphemous monster.  Linda Blair watches her Exorcist die a painful death with a mix of interest and annoyance. She didn't get his soul.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

A sweet little girl transformed into murderous and blasphemous monster.
Linda Blair watches her Exorcist die a painful death with a mix of interest and annoyance. She didn’t get his soul.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Or maybe not? I’m not a parent. Maybe I have it wrong.

To put The Exorcist‘s “R-Rating” in perspective, in the same year the MPAA rated The Exorcist as “R” it slapped the dreaded “X-Rating” to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In comparison this rating makes no sense. Luckily, Nicolas Roeg’s film had Paramount behind it’s distribution. Somehow the MPAA rethought it and relented an “R-Rating” for Roeg’s experimental film. But only two years earlier the MPAA assigned Ken Russell’s The Devils with an “X-Rating.” And, this was after WB required Ken Russell to cut out a significant amount of footage. Warner Brothers held on to two copies of Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut. While Russell’s The Devils is a provocation, it never goes anywhere near the level of having a 14 year-old girl defile herself with a crucifix.

"Hell will hold no surprises for them!" Warner Bros marketing campaign for  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971

“Hell will hold no surprises for them!”
Warner Bros marketing campaign for
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971

Interestingly much has been made about William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist novel having been based on an actual and true incident involving a teenage boy in the 1950’s. However, when one actually looks into the “true story” much more of what actually happened is unclear. In most ways, this “true incident” appears to be largely lost within the shadows of marketing and urban legend. As grim and horrifying as The Exorcist is, both the 1973 and the 2000 versions offer the audience “hope.” This is a hope grounded in faith and the power of good over evil. There is nothing at all wrong with that. But it does seem a flimsy excuse to let it pass with an “R-Rating” when Friedkin’s more recent independent movie, Killer Joe, was given an “NC-17.”

Interesting to note that until the MPAA introduced the "NC-17-Rating" -- The official "X-Rating" was actually less restrictive in number of states. It was left to individual states and cinemas to determine the age restricted. News to me.

Interesting to note that until the MPAA introduced the “NC-17-Rating” — The official “X-Rating” was actually less restrictive in number of states. It was left to individual states and cinemas to determine the age restricted. News to me.

In Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Rated, hidden cameras and a number of covert activities were utilized to break in to the odd world of Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. The documentary revealed several things, but only one was surprising: Every screening held by the individuals who are “chosen” to serve as raters is blessed by both a Christian Minister and a Catholic Priest. While neither is supposed to lecture or push any decision of the raters, they are free to include whatever they wish in their blessings.

And here is the answer to the mysterious reasoning behind The Exorcist rating. It is Vatican approved.

Father Granier's use of The Confessional is questionable to say the least.  Georgina Hale / Oliver Reed The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Father Granier’s use of The Confessional is questionable to say the least.
Georgina Hale / Oliver Reed
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

It may contain graphic and obscene scenes of blasphemy, but it has a Catholic Intent. The priests fix it all! Or at least it seems to be thought.

The intent of Killer Joe is to satire the impact of greed on marginalized lower-class family dysfunction.

As for Ken Russell’s The Devils? The intent is aimed as satirizing both politics and religion. It depicts both fundamental aspects of most human life as opportunities for corruption, greed, ambition and power.

Graham Armitage as France's King Louis XIII performs for Cardinal Richelieu, his assistant nuns and a slew of The French Royal Court's most depraved. The Catholic Church doesn't mind The King's sins, they just want to share in the power and the wealth... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Graham Armitage as France’s King Louis XIII performs for Cardinal Richelieu, his assistant nuns and a slew of The French Royal Court’s most depraved. The Catholic Church doesn’t mind The King’s sins, they just want to share in the power and the wealth…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Oh, and unlike The ExorcistThe Devils is actually based on “historic fact.” I only put that in quotation marks because I am referring to 17th Century French history. However, the sources and descriptions of the events that Russell fictionalizes in The Devils tie much closer to what he shows us than anything of truth connected to The Exorcist. This means The Devils depicts a very scary moment in both French and Catholic history in which greed and power not only “suggested” nuns to blaspheme,

The Ursuline nuns are not there by choice, but because they form society's rejects. Repressed and Caged. They do not require too much in the way of pressure from The Catholic Church to slip into hysteria that quickly morphs into Satanic blasphemy.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Ursuline nuns are not there by choice, but because they form society’s rejects. Repressed and Caged. They do not require too much in the way of pressure from The Catholic Church to slip into hysteria that quickly morphs into Satanic blasphemy.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

a primary Cardinal and his priests most likely “required” their nuns to comply or face torture — nothing is too much to  a rebellious priest and assist the Catholic Church forge closer to a demented French King. Ken Russell didn’t even feel it necessary to change any of the actual names of the individuals who have already been forged into history.

This might explain Warner Brothers refusal to relinquish Ken Russell’s infamous and acclaimed 1971 art film, The Devils. Restoration of this film is of growing concern to Film Historians and Film Art Preservationists. Film only lasts so long and only WB knows where and how their 2 copies of The Devils are being stored. WB is not known to always apply a great deal of logic to their catalog. And they have an essential collection of cinematic work.

In many ways,  Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, is the only "innocent" character in this film. She is ill and then sexually-assulted by Exorcists and Priests to extract false confession. From the very beginning we know she is hanging on to sanity by a string.  Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

In many ways, Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, is the only “innocent” character in this film. She is ill and then sexually-assulted by Exorcists and Priests to extract false confession. From the very beginning we know she is hanging on to sanity by a string.
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Going into it’s 45th year, this film may soon be lost forever unless WB takes care of it or releases it to a company who will. As you read this you might feel the need to roll your eyes or dismiss it, but this is worse than censorship: it comes at the risk of losing a valuable piece of cinematic history.

While I’m not sure one could state that Ken Russell’s The Devils is a better film than Friedkin’s The Exorcist.  William Friedkin made the better film. The Exorcist is a cinematic masterpiece. No questions asked.

Ken Russell’s cinematic work is challenging. An eccentric British filmmaker, he shares more in common with the films of Michael Powell or even more like those of Andrzej Zulawski. Russell’s films tend to have a manic pace and no restraint. They are often bombastic, loud, crass and dangerous to know. “Women in Love” and “Tommy” are probably his two most accessible films. But his work is often magical and intellectual. In the case of The Devils, it is angry. No question that Russell was a cinematic genius. But as is the case with many genius artists, he often had a hard time restraining himself from excess and obsession.

That being stated and noting that The Exorcist is the better film. I do think a case could be argued that The Devils is an equally important film. It is also worth noting that The Exorcist has been such an influential and cultural juggernaut of world-wide scope, multiple copies in all formats exist in a number of places. The future preservation of The Exorcist is secured.

However, as time and investigations move further along — it is becoming clear that there might only be two remaining prints of The Devils as it was originally to be released in 1971. For quite a while there was thought to be a secured copy held by Ken Russell’s daughter. It would appear that this is not the case. One other possibility for a print of the full film turned up as invalid. It would appear that Warner Brothers is the only one who has a pristine print of the original film.

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels swoons her way into a disturbing world of Christ Imagery erotic daydreaming... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels swoons her way into a disturbing world of Christ Imagery erotic daydreaming…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Despite pleas from The British Film Institute, The Great Britain Historical Society, The Ken Russell’s Estate, The BBC, The Criterion Collection and a power-laden Official Petition — Warner Brothers simply refuses to relinquish the film to anyone for any reason. It was viewed as a major victory for BFI when WB finally agreed to supply them with with limited licensing rights and a copy to “restore” and transfer limited to British Region Code DVD/Blu-Ray (no cinema screenings allowed) It didn’t matter. At last an organization would be able to properly restore and save the film. It was a bit of shock for the distinguished BFI to discover that Warner would not “loan” or “share” an actual print of the film. Instead BFI received a Digi-Beta tape of the American X Certificate version. The American “X-Rated” version was even more cut up than the UK version. This Digi-Beta tape greatly limited the ability to “restore” quality and it was not the original theatrical release of the movie.

Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier. While presented as a man of faith and ethics, he is also a cruel and callous man who is more than happy to seduce the females of his flock. The line between good and evil is a thin one for this "progressive" priest.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier. While presented as a man of faith and ethics, he is also a cruel and callous man who is more than happy to seduce the females of his flock. The line between good and evil is a thin one for this “progressive” priest.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

BFI did their best. The quality is better than the briefly and highly censored VHS tape WB released in the mid 1980’s. Some scenes are fuzzy, some aren’t, some have audio issues that could only be minimally-addressed. Worst of all, the most crucial scenes of Russell’s work are still missing.

Welcome to 17th Century France. Plague is in full force as Catholic and French Histories take a dark turn. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Welcome to 17th Century France. Plague is in full force as Catholic and French Histories take a dark turn.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

South Korea also secured a limited licensing from WB, but this was also made from a similar Digi-Beta tape that was an “R-rated” cut of the film that had never been seen. This version actually doesn’t completely make sense so much has been cut. There is one bootleg copy floating around, but the quality is so bad it is almost impossible to watch — and very often is impossible to hear.

Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne is both amused and disgusted when faced with a woman who actually seeks to devote her life to Christ. After eloquently dismissing her devotional intention to be a waste as this f Ursuline nunnery is a safe home for the deformed and unmanageable. When she discovers Father Granier has already seduced the would-be-devout-nun her jealousy and rage holds back no punches: "Whore! Strumpet! Hypocrite! You tell me you have no vocation? Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator! Sacrilegious bitch! Seducer of priest, that's your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!" The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne is both amused and disgusted when faced with a woman who actually seeks to devote her life to Christ. After eloquently dismissing her devotional intention to be a waste as this f Ursuline nunnery is a safe home for the deformed and unmanageable. When she discovers Father Granier has already seduced the would-be-devout-nun her jealousy and rage holds back no punches:
“Whore! Strumpet! Hypocrite! You tell me you have no vocation? Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator! Sacrilegious bitch! Seducer of priest, that’s your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!”
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Warner Brothers has never actually officially addressed the reasoning behind their refusal to allow access to The Devils. Because they have stated that Ken Russell’s original cut of the film is within their possession and protection, many thought that the executives were holding off to “cash in” once the film’s notorious and infamous director had died. However, we lost Mr. Russell in late 2011 at the age of 84. Warner Brothers continues to refuse requests, petitions and any individual writer seeking information. The reasons for not letting the film out run deeper than any possible profit or historical cinema preservation merits.

It is particularly interesting in an age where any controversy is viewed “a selling factor” if it can make a buck. WB is a huge corporation. The bottomline and increasing profit is a main concern. So why keep The Devils hidden away? No one connected to the film’s controversy is left who would care.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The only living artist who could object would be Vanessa Redgrave. She, like many who worked for Ken Russell, remained a close friend until the end of his life. She has also expressed pride in having been a part of the film and considers it one of her best bits of work. Her role was originally intended for the equally esteemed Glenda Jackson. Jackson, also a life-long friend of Ken Russell and family, had discussed the fact that she turned down Redgrave’s infamous role because, at that time, she was tired of playing Russell’s sexually neurotic and hysterical muse. She made that statement both in truth and jest. Years later she would film her final role in Russell’s experimental and demented film Salome’s Last Dance. At the time Jackson noted that she had some regrets at having not played Sister Jeanne.

Acclaimed cinematographer, David Watkin, served as Cinematographer. He remained proud of this early film for offering him some freedom in establishing his own style while adhering to Russell’s vision. Prior to The Devils, Watkin was best known for having filmed 2 iconic movies:  The Knack… and How to Get It and The Beatles’ Help.

A perverse fantasy of a sick woman will soon help pave the way toward public execution.  Oliver Reed / Vanessa Regrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

A perverse fantasy of a sick woman will soon help pave the way toward public execution.
Oliver Reed / Vanessa Regrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

His style was really already formed, but he felt the freedom Russell allowed offered him great benefit. He died in 2008.

Another interesting aspect of The Devils is that it features the early work of the iconic Derek Jarman. Jarman’s imprint on The Devils is unforgettable. Serving as the film’s production designer, The Devils features some truly amazing sets. Jarman would go on to be an important and experimental voice in Film and the art of Queer Film.

One of many post-modern sets created by then Production Designer, Derek Jarman.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

One of many post-modern sets created by then Production Designer, Derek Jarman.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Jarman’s style was always unique, but it is clear that Russell’s aesthetic impacted his own vision.

Aside from the Film Theory aspect, The Devils is of note because it is a fictional account of something that is of historical note for both France and The Catholic Church. This is probably a page of history that both the country and The Vatican would rather forget. Interestingly, this might be the main reason WB is not letting the film go.

Aldous Huxley plunged deep within the history of what happened in 17th Century Loudun with the publication of his historical novel, Devils of Loudun. It was a controversial read then and it still is, but there is nothing in it than can be refuted. The few times Huxley actually is forced to put forward an explanation for things unexplained he offers several ideas to explain. And all are sound.

Let the "exorcisms" begin... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Let the “exorcisms” begin…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Huxley crafted a historical narrative to address the controversial, mysterious and sordid historical fact that involved Cardinal Richelieu, a rebellious priest by the name of Father Urban Grandier, An Ursuline Convent of nuns and their Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels. It is know that Father Grandier disagreed with both the King and The Catholic Church at the time. It seems fairly obvious that he seemed to disagree with idea of celibacy and was corrupt in that he engaged in sexual trysts with women of his flock. It is also of note that Father Grandier was reported to be handsome, charismatic and flirtatious. For unknown reasons, he declined Sister Jeanne’s request to act as “Spiritual Advisor” for for both she and her nuns. Cardinal Richelieu already viewed Father Grandier as a threat to the church and The Church’s desire to become closely aligned with The King. King Louis XIII, the infamous monarch of the House of Bourbon is a figure of legendary in and of himself. And both of these powerful men needed the other for a while due to political and power circumstances.

All the nuns are gathered to stand in giant burrial holes and "suggested" to convulse, blaspheme, carnally degrade themselves for the "good" of God. Or faces the same torture imposed upon their  Superior Mother. They are all eager to follow The Cardinal, The King and The Exorcists' guidance for transgressive behavior.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

All the nuns are gathered to stand in giant burrial holes and “suggested” to convulse, blaspheme, carnally degrade themselves for the “good” of God. Or faces the same torture imposed upon their Superior Mother. They are all eager to follow The Cardinal, The King and The Exorcists’ guidance for transgressive behavior.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

In what could be compared to the Salem Witch Trails only far more perverse and blasphemous in nature, Huxley put forward a number of reasons that France, The Catholic Church and the People of Loudun thought Father Grandier had made a pact with Satan that allowed the pristine Ursuline nuns to be fully possessed by demonic forces. It is of historical record to the level of debauchery that these “possessions” led the “blessed” nuns and their “heavenly” Mother Superior to act out public acts of sexually perverse behaviors including orgies and evil sexual blasphemy with religious symbols and Christ Icons.

The King and his Royal Court make an appearance to giggle at the atrocious perversion of The Catholic Church.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The King and his Royal Court make an appearance to giggle at the atrocious perversion of The Catholic Church.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Under both the blessing of the Cardinal and the approval of King Louis XIII, a series of public exorcisms were performed that involved more than just sprinkling of Holy Water. The nuns went further into “fits of hysteria” and their Mother Superior named Father Grandier as the evil responsible for their demonic actions. The public watched the acts of debauchery and exorcisms in what reads like some sick and twisted form of entertainment. The exorcisms went further into public acts of sexual torture. And then, it all stopped. The nuns and their Superior were free of their demons and redeemed  in the “Eyes of God.” 

A fellow priest begs Granier to confess and be spared. He refuses. The guilt-ridden priest seems to be praying more for himself than Granier.  Oliver Reed / Murray Melvin The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

A fellow priest begs Granier to confess and be spared. He refuses. The guilt-ridden priest seems to be praying more for himself than Granier.
Oliver Reed / Murray Melvin
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Grandier was questioned and tortured by the exorcist, the priests and their followers to extract a confession of having formed a pact with The Devil and conspiring to corrupt all of France and the Catholic Church. He never confessed or gave in to the torture. Ultimately, he was burned at the stake.

Granier refuses to give-in to the political ploy of The Cardinal's Exorcist.  Oliver Reed / Michael Gothard The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkins

Granier refuses to give-in to the political ploy of The Cardinal’s Exorcist.
Oliver Reed / Michael Gothard
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkins

This, according to history, was the only way both The King and The Cardinal could be sure that Loudun were rid of the Satanic Grip. The public execution was treated as entertainment. Everyone in the town celebrated and the nuns were also granted approval to witness the horrid death.

Father Granier's abandoned son is brought to watch his father's execution.  Georgina Hale  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Father Granier’s abandoned son is brought to watch his father’s execution.
Georgina Hale
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Huxley theorized a number of ideas. One of the most controversial being that most women who became nuns at this time had been deemed “unmanageable” and desperate for shelter. Though not completely clear, it would appear that The Mother Superior suffered some major physical birth defect. Her holiness was viewed to be a result of her plight. It is historically stated that Father Grandier enjoyed antagonizing Sister Jeanne of the Angels.

Huxley writes that the levels of sexual repressions, lack of serious faith, The Mother Superior’s disdain for the priest, the fact that many of the men in Loudun viewed Grandier as a trouble-maker with both The King and The Cardinal — and ultimately the political possibilities between a power-hungry Cardinal and a possible insane and perverse King led to one of the ugliest moments in French and Catholic history.

Huxley goes into great detail about the many realistic and human possibilities that factored into this incident. He leans toward the political, hypocracy and a shared temporary delirium or hysteria for the nuns. He also suggests that it many not have been so psychological. It might have boiled down to the nuns having to do as instructed by their Cardinal. Anyway one looks at it, it is not a pretty picture of religion or politics.

The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Filmed at the very end of the 1960’s, the political and liberal Ken Russell saw this story and the play it had inspired to be an ideal topic to explore as metaphor. Russell’s The Devils is excessive in every way possible. While often beautifully staged and crafted — the film pulses with a hysterical pace. The acting is intentionally “theatrical” and most certainly presented to shock. The political ideologies spell forth throughout. Russell does not spare Oliver Reed’s Father Grandier as solidly ethical character. He is impossible to like, but it is equally impossible that this character deserves what he is given. Especially since he is given it for entirely the wrong reasons.

Vanessa Redgrave fares best in the film. In fact she is fantastic in the role. She is able to match the operatic pacing of the film with a carefully eccentric and darkly comical read on her character. It is an impossibly brilliant performance. Russell presents both she and her nuns as women who have “devoted” their lives to God because society has no other use for them. The only character who appears to actually feel a true calling to the devoted life of a nun is quickly dismissed by Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne of the Angels. She is too pretty to waster her time locked up in the convent. And what a convent it is. While Redgrave’s character runs a strict order, she simply turns the other way as her nuns grab at vague attempts as sexual gratification.

Sympathy for the Devil? Oliver Reed The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Sympathy for the Devil?
Oliver Reed
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

When the nuns become a pawn of The Church and The State, it is as if they’ve been not only granted “permission” to explore their repressed desires, the threat of torture looms if they don’t take those “desires” to blasphemous limits. This is the portion of the film that remains controversial almost 45 years later. The scenes are disgusting. They are not erotic. They are upsetting. What’s more — these scenes which have been labeled The Rape of Christ — can be found from time to time on YouTube. BFI has access to an inferior copy from whereabouts unknown. They were shown on British television documentary about the film in the late 80’s. Compared to much of what we see now on cable, they are really barely eligible for an R rating much less an X or NC-17.

Faith and Religion Distorted For Ambition, Greed, Power and Control... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Faith and Religion Distorted
For Ambition, Greed, Power and Control…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The scenes that are the most disturbing are in the R-rated cut. Sister Jeannes’ “exorcism” is actually rape and sexual torture. 40 some odd years later, these scenes are still hard to watch. Yet these scenes get an “R-Rating” when an “NC-17” would be more appropriate. Another controversial segment which would probably secure a “PG-13” rating today is actually one of the more blasphemous scenes in the movie. Sister Jeannes convulsive sexual fantasies of Father Granier as Christ are not graphic, but oddly disturbing. Filmed beautifully and erotically, Oliver Reed emerges as Christ descended from the Cruxifiction walking upon water to Sister Jeanne. As she kisses his bloodied feet and sweeps her hair over them. She begins to move up his body as if about to engage in felatio when the wind blows her vaguely nun-like wrapping off — her hump back is revealed and she screams in horror as everyone begins to mock and degrade her.

Georgina Hale The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Georgina Hale
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils may not have been crafted with the precise and deftly serious style as The Exorcist, but Ken Russell’s film is concerned with far more serious cultural issues than Evil vs. Good. In The Devils, Ken Russell is presenting ideas that still seem to shake people to their core. It is a satirical political commentary that works incredibly well. Fever-pitched and unapologetic it is an essential film.

And when one stands back from both of these films, The Exorcist is actually the more perverse and controversial film. Welcome to the schisms of Film Theory, History, Politics and Religion.

The tragically deformed Mother Superior fosters an unhealthy desire of Christ as a source of eroticism. And her priest, Father Granier, has taken the place of Christ in her mind. Enter Erotic Surrealism... Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The tragically deformed Mother Superior fosters an unhealthy desire of Christ as a source of eroticism. And her priest, Father Granier, has taken the place of Christ in her mind. Enter Erotic Surrealism…
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

I have written about both Ken Russell, his work and this film in particular a number of times. I’ve also done some “covert investigation” in separating fact from fiction regarding Warner Brothers and possible prints of the original cut. If anyone is persistent, it a fan of film. There are a great number of Film Preservationists, Film Historians, devoted Ken Russell fans and Cinematic Curiosity Seekers who are still pushing to gain access to this film. Unless Warner Brothers is lying to us and they lost both of those prints, there is always a chance that Ken Russell’s The Devils might one day gets its moment in on the screen.

Matty Stanfield, 8.10.2015

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