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I shall tell of another adventure that is all the more strange...” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

A film by Andrzej Zulawski Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A film by Andrzej Zulawski
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

This sentence was more or less lost in a late 1960’s translation of Kosmos. Sadly it would be that sentence that served not only as my introduction to a novel but to the Polish writer. Memory is a funny thing. While I forgotten most of the novel, it is that first sentence that stayed forever branded into my mind. I decided I needed to revisit  When I learned that Andrzej Zulawski was about to shoot a film adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s Kosmos, I decided to refresh my memory beyond a single sentence. I expected to be confused as I did remember it had been clunky regarding translation. I was excited to discover that the novel that had been warded the 1967 Prix Formentor Award for literature had been re-translated from Polish into English. Yale University Press published Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Gombrowicz since I had last thought of it.

Kosmos Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Kosmos
Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Witold Gombrowicz has always interested me. While he was a fiction writer he is equally known as a diarist. Where does his fiction merge into his reality and experience? How does the English reader know he/she is able to understand his prose’s complexity? German and French readers had better access to his work thanks to more accurate translations. My introduction to his work came with an understanding that he had to firmly defend his most popular work, Ferdydurke, from critics who felt it was satire. Satire had not been Gombrowicz’s purpose. His novels are known for exploring issues of identity and existentialism under the pressures of Nationalism and fast social change. But these explorations were made with a sense absurdity that tied closely to dark humor.

His characters are not fully developed. Their identities are fragmented by the repression, oppression and tyranny imposed by both culture and society. These characters roam about trying to formulate understanding of self/life under the strain and disturbing acts that forever alter the circumstances of being. And while there is a grim level of pessimism that leans against established institutional rule — Gombrowicz disagreed that his work was connected with nihilism, but the darkness is most definitely waiting.

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz's often mistranslated "Kosmos" is resurrected through another lens. Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz’s often mistranslated “Kosmos” is resurrected through another lens.
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Revolutions, wars, cataclysms — what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? …My literature must remain that which it is. Especially that something which does not fit into politics and does not want to serve it. I cultivate just one politics: my own. I am a separate state.” — Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Published 1988.

The improved translation helped me in understanding that much of my frustration was something Gombrowicz intended. The characters navigating within his Kosmos are never fully fleshed out. We know that our protagonist, Witold  has trouble waiting to crush him back in Warsaw. We also know that Fuks hates his boss. But we never know what the trouble is or why the boss is hated. In fact we are given limited information about every character. The novel’s extremes and paranoias begin to feed the reader’s imagination. Every action and decision seems to be a reaction to matters we can never fully understand. This vastly improved translation offers more insight into Gombrowicz’s complexity but it also grants permission to not second-guess the awkward phrasing.

The new English translation for Kosmos provides an entirely different read. In the novel two young men seek refuge from the pressures and hardships they experience in Warsaw. They escape the city to what they anticipate will be the nourishing warmth of the country, but they arrive with mutual respective existential crisis and life fatigue. They will soon face a series of random incidents that begin to shift Wiltold further into paranoia, existential crisis as he feels threatened. Gombrowicz brings humor into the equation. Paranoias, fears and angst begin to leap off the charts of rationality. The characters magnify the situations and incidents. They soon feels less coincidental and can be assumed to be intended threats. Witold is unable to consider these incidents as “random.” The unexpected chaos signals pending doom.  His ideas of existence and identity are as fragile as they are extreme.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'the pretty' with 'the good.'" Jonathan Genet Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘the pretty’ with ‘the good.'”
Jonathan Genet
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Isn’t it true? I thought, that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a halfhearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings.” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Boris Neleop interviewed Zulawski after Cosmos had received its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival receiving the Best Director honor. Neleop discussed the difficulty of finding accurate translations of Kosmos. The director agreed and pointed out that the film was based from the novel’s original Polish language.

Luckily, I’m Polish so I can read it. More luckily still, words like “bleurgh” in Gombrowicz mean nothing. What is it? Alban Berg, the composer? A cliff maybe? But in French it means the retching sound—bleurgh. Meaning you want to vomit. If you see a bad movie and someone asks you how it was, that’s what you say: bleurgh. So, it’s a happy coincidence.

Neleop attempted to engage the artist into a discussion regarding what he perceived to be a shared sort of spasmodic manner in both Gombrowicz’s novel and the great filmmaker’s work. Zulawski disagreed with the connection and seemed intent on avoiding the spasmodic with either work.

I don’t agree with you. I don’t think Gombrowicz is spasmodic: he’s quick, he’s rapid, he’s short and extremely rhythmic and… Do you know the word “caustic”? His writing is never hysterical. It’s caustic. It’s galloping but dry. I don’t think the actors are spasmodic at all. They are in their own delirium, but for them this delirium always has a profound logic. It’s not a bunch of mad men in an asylum. They are petit bourgeois. Witold wants to write a novel until he falls in love with this girl, who never has anything intelligent to say. His relationship with his young friend is really close, almost homosexual. So, it’s a complicated little cosmos.”

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014 Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014
Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

In answering a question regarding his decision to lift the novel out of its pre-war Polish context and moving it to 21st Century Portugal where a group of French people are living, Zulawski responded:

If Cosmos had been filmed according to the novel, it would’ve been a very depressing and ugly film. Why the hell should I see those terrible people? Sounds like a basically stupid question. It’s not. It’s like life. Why should I spend my life with ugly stupid petit bourgeois people? I won’t. I won’t spend my life in Hollywood either. I don’t like these people, I don’t like their stories. So it leaves you to stay alone for fifteen years. In my forest.”

Zulawski’s rejection of cinematic norms is nothing new, but after he made La fidélité he retreated. That film was released in 2000. He never retreated into a forest of seclusion, but it would be fifteen years before he made Cosmos. His return to cinema was not a safe one. Adapting a complex work like the Polish novel, Kosmos, was never going to be an easy cinematic proposition. And while his final film does articulate itself with some newly discovered levity, Cosmos has a great deal in common with some of his key works.

"Love me." Romy Schneider That Most Important Thing / L'important c'est d'aimer Andrzej Zulawski, 1975 Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

“Love me.”
Romy Schneider
That Most Important Thing / L’important c’est d’aimer
Andrzej Zulawski, 1975
Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

This film’s title is actually translated as The Most Important Thing is Love and Romy Schneider’s performance would have been enough to secure the film’s place in French film history. But there is far more continued within the frames than an iconic actor’s work. The film marked a new turn in filmmaking. Zulawski’s examination of the artist finding fulfillment in France’s mid-1970’s theatre scene leaves a mark. It is not so much the point of the movie that matters but they way in which that point flows off the screen. Visceral, angry, obsessive, compulsive and often frantic — L’important c’est d’aimer takes the concept of a tragic love story to poetic heights. The film’s fever-pitched passion and energy haunt the viewer long after the film ends. A contemplation regarding abysmal cinematic opportunities, the protagonist is often looking directly into the audience. While the film is realism it wants to push itself off the screen, into the theatre and run rampant. The characters Zulawski presents are not really all that odd, but the way in which they move, speak and propel is most assuredly eccentric.

"It doesn't hurt." Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance... Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“It doesn’t hurt.”
Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani gave Zulawski the performance of a lifetime in one of the most confounding films of all time. No one was prepared for 1981’s Possession. Adjani’s work on this film was so taxing that it triggered a very real emotional break. It only takes one viewing to underscore this as valid truth. Adjani was dancing on a high wire without a net. Zulawski was able to inspire her to start her performance with emotional hysteria set at Level 5 and then required her to turn it up to Level 21 before the experimental film comes to a crashing end. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Possession remains a testament to the talents of both the leading actor and its creator.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s 1981 film. At its most obvious level it is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to turmoils of the psycho-sexual. And, from another perspective, it is a metaphorical depiction of divorce. And it is a matrimonial breakup that takes on apocalyptic proportions. Possession is completely unique, surreal and metaphorical study of identity it extreme crisis. And it is fueled by an inhuman and intolerable repression of control. This control might be that of a stifling marriage or one propelled by government control. Or it could be a combination of both. It doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession — it works from any vantage point.

The passage of time has not dulled its sharp edges. The special effects and gore are still jaw-dropping. This is an Art Film that has become Cult and it continues to spark provocative reaction. It took decades for this very personal film to find its audience. There are several different versions of Possession floating around — all the result of censorship. Mondo Vision beautifully restored this film several years back. It is an essential film for any fans of Surrealism and Horror.

"Are you lost?" Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love. L'amour braque / Mad Love Andrzej Zulawski, 1985 Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

“Are you lost?”
Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love.
L’amour braque / Mad Love
Andrzej Zulawski, 1985
Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

Andrzej Zulawski’s adapts Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a neon-drenched fever dream. 1985’s L’amour brace’s characters, sets, cinematography, editing and acting indicate that we might have landed in some alternate world. The film moves as if it was pulsating forward via an amphetamine, cocaine and whiskey fueled injection of psychotic convulsions. Zulawski’s experimental film is a twisted Neon and most certainly avant-garde. The film is violent, but the violence never feels “real” and the graphic sexuality is presented in paradoxically restrained ways. The only time the film seems to be able to slow down is when Sophie Marceau and The Idiot consummate to a point of erotic “enjoyment” — And, even then, it almost feels like the camera is so jacked-up it can barely wait to continue it’s frenzied trajectory.

Easily one of the most stylistically influential films to ever come out of French cinema — Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan among them. And it had an impact on music videos of the day. This world of thieves, addicts, artists, whores, drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, anarchists, perverts and lovers is chaotic but somehow organized. Mutually-conflicted screeching rants, dances and terrorism form into a sort of dancing race against time. Zulawski seems to be inspecting everything from political activism, perversion, addiction, insanity, rage, the theatre, criminal motivation, rebellion, sex and love — but through a camera that is dependent on hallucinogenics for vision. Like PossessionL’amour braque is completely unique unto itself. It is safe to state that no other filmmaker will manage to make a movie remotely like these two.

"That's why there are common saints. God's morons with a soul but empty brains." Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity... Szamanka / She-Shaman Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

“That’s why there are common saints. God’s morons with a soul but empty brains.”
Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity…
Szamanka / She-Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland for 1996’s SzamankaShe-Shaman. Filmed in the newly freed Poland, the director brought the level of intense sexual obsession beyond expectation. It earned the nickname The Last Tango in Warsaw. While it is true that this film pushes further with graphic sexuality, it is seldom actually erotic. Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry push themselves to the extremes that are defined within the script. This might very well be the most challenging of Zulawski’s work. The cinematic provocation is not within the frantic obsessive actions and sheer frenzy, but lies far deeper within the film’s political and philosophical context. The two protagonists pursue their sexual and existential needs toward a deeply nihilistic end. Szmanka aches toward a brilliance that is almost impossible to endure.  Inexperienced actress, Iwona Petry, is near brilliant in her role, but she opted to end her acting career after Szamanka‘s release. Another interesting example of an artist agreeing to join the director on his journey but emotionally exhausted to the point of breaking once arriving at the destination.

Capturing "reality" in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame. Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory La fidélité / Fidelity Andrzej Zulawski, 2000 Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Capturing “reality” in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame.
Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory
La fidélité / Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Zulawski’s La fidelity / Fidelity was released in 2000. The film’s plot is more conventional, but once again his characters burn with almost convulsive urgency. This film forges a path that left many viewers cold. Its highlight is Zulawski”s great love and former muse, Sophie Marceau. She is brilliant in the role and her director understands how to capture not only her beauty but her energy. Years later I remember thinking that it seemed a pale sort of entry to serve as this filmmaker’s final work. Luckily it wasn’t.

Available from Mondo Vision La femme publique Andrzej Zulawski, 1984 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Available from Mondo Vision
La femme publique
Andrzej Zulawski, 1984
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

My admiration for Andrzej Zulawski runs deep and it is based within the realm of the personal. He was a brilliant artist who refused to be repressed, suppressed or held to any strict rule when it came to his art. And despite what some have attempted to insinuate, Zulawski was an admirable and kind person. His heart and passion shine through all of his films. Zulawski was always reaching into, under, over and well above the human need for love and understanding.

Even within the bleakness of Possession and Szamanka beats the heart of a very human filmmaker. I’ve decided not to touch on Diabel, La femme publique or On the Silver Globe  — these three films are unique masterworks that I am unable to address in a short blog. I will note that these three films are not really the best starting points for a Andrzej Zulawski neophyte, but then again — maybe they exceptional places in which to take that first plunge.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Boris Neleop’s attempt to engage Zulawski in a conversation about “spasmodic” characters is valid. Nearly all of Zulawski’s characters are extreme. While everything around them might be pushing inward to restrict / oppress — his characters refused to stay within the bounds of circumstances had designed. The need for knowledge, satisfaction, love and understanding leave them no choice other than to be extreme.

This auteur was always a bit sensitive when pressed to discuss the hyper energy or over-the-top passion found in his films. A word like “spasmodic” would make Mr. Zulawski recoil. He shut this sort of commentary so far out of his mind that consideration was no loner possible.

Mr.Neleop is correct: Witold Gombrowicz’s characters are a bit, well, spasmodic. And I suspect that it was their very nature that attracted the great director.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Zulawski had grown up with Gombrowicz’s literary work. My initial knee-jerk reaction toward Zulawski adapting Gombrowicz was that these two thinkers formulated thought in direct opposition to the other. I do not think Gombrowicz liked people. He thought and wrote about the existential, but these pursuits seemed formed from an essential repulsion toward humanity. This is interesting because his fiction is more than a little autobiographical. The way in which Gombrowicz creates the characters of his Kosmos is not kind. Zulawski’s entire film career was focused on the darker aspects of human nature — yet he loved people. He was a fighter and a rebel, but he was never anti-social. And he most certainly was not a pessimist. And, unlike Gombrowicz, he was not vain or concerned when it came to criticism or reward.

decorating lips. Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

She paints her lips as if with blood because she really wants to be an actress…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

I’m scared of the forests. In the midway of this mortal life I found myself in a gloomy world, astray. Gone from the path and even to tell, that forest, how robust its growth, which to remember only, my dismay. Renews in bitterness not far from death. All else will I relate discovered there.

Witold is frantically walking through the edge of a forest. Jonathan Genet has the look of someone from another era, but we already know that Zulawski’s Witold is a 21st century character. At first glance he could be a European fashion model, but his behavior is based within panic. He seems to be consistently on the verge of a mental break. When we meet Zulawski’s Fuchs, played by Johan Liberia, we discover they have traveled in a nice car. Fuchs’ name has been altered in spelling but he is still trying to escape the tyranny of two horrible bosses. In this new universe we know that his employers are high-end fashion designers.

While Wiltold is fragile and paranoid, Fuchs is robust and seemingly up for just about anything. Both behave in ways that lean toward the aberrant. Wiltold wants only to study, but he detests what he studies. Fuchs is primally focused on off screen violent sexual conquests. He reassures his friend that he plays safe, but bleeding wounds, bruises and other bodily issues are scars to his masochistic tendencies. And while it is never fully stated, these two friends would appear to share a bond that goes further than brotherly love. There are hints of a mutual sexual attraction and romantic fondness.

Something sinister is going on! Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Something sinister is going on!
Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Here, in Zulawski’s Cosmos, the two friends have run from France to Portugal. Fuchs is more lighthearted but still aches. Witold’s neurotic need to examine every move / object under his philosopher’s magnifying glass fractures his grasp of reality. The first thing Wiltold experiences after he secures his navigational balance is an encounter with a forest. It is one of the aspects of the world he hates most. As he rushes through the wilds of this forest he encounters the first of many grotesque encounters — a dead sparrow dangling from a string laced noose.

Soon he will discover ghost-like stains upon his rented room’s ceiling. These stains seem to be point toward something.

Fuchs also notices but is more curious than repulsed. The shape of a rake appears in the stain — and soon they discover an actual rake that directs their gaze upward to two small planks of wood hanging from a tree. The planks are tied together and hang by the same string from which the sparrow hangs. They hear talk of a chicken that was spotted hanging not too far away, but they never see it. And thus Wiltold and Fuchs begin to play a paranoid sort of game to attach meaning to these seemingly random signs. The game leads to an axe, a hammer, murder, death and metaphysical omens.

Madame is just overexcited... Sabine Azema Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Madame is just overexcited…
Sabine Azema
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A murdered cat hangs in the courtyard of the Bed and Breakfast. An eccentric married couple have been renting two of their rooms to keep up with mounting expenses. The wife, called Roly-Poly in the Polish novel, is played with goofy  nervous energy by the ever stylish Sabine Azema. We never hear her referred to with the novel’s cruel nickname. Here she is known as Madame Woytis. We soon notice that the female head of the house has a tendency to abruptly shut off in mid speak / movement. Frozen like a photograph. Her beautiful daughter explains, “Oh, it happens to her when ever she gets overexcited.

The daughter is Lena who is married to a seemingly successful business man. He seems to be in constant meetings with a mysterious Russian client. Wiltold is immediately vexed by Lena. But it is her niece, Catherette, with whom he is smitten. Catherette has taken the position of housekeeper. She is devoted but worries her aunt, Madame Woytis, because she refuses to have her mutilated lip cosmetically re-defined. We are told she was in a bus crash. But her mutilation looks more biological in origin. Her lip holds an entrancing mix of disgust and erotic curiosity for both Wiltold and Fuchs.  The male head of the home is Lena‘s stepfather, Leon, played with unhinged lunacy by Jean-Francois Balmer.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'The Pretty' with 'The Good.'" Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘The Pretty’ with ‘The Good.'”
Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Interactions with the family are beyond eccentric. This is a house of organized lunacy and chaos. When Wiltold meets Lena they shake hands maniacally and for an extended time. Soon they are “secretly” copying each other’s animated hand movements. But their odd flirtation is painfully over-the-top. Yet everyone around them is too preoccupied with their own strange non-senscial conversations that only Fuchs notices. The antics of this family appear and sound like something one would see in a  slapstick comedy. There is only one catch: none of it is funny. It is simply strange.  

Unlike Gombrowicz, Zulawski has no interest in making us laugh. He aims to throw his audience off balance. As frantic action and illogical dialogues ape the gestures/sounds of Keystone Cops — the film quickly forms into absurd surrealism. And yet, the film’s cinematography and musical score tease that we are watching some fucked-up romantic mystery. And these are romances and mysteries that seem unsolvable.

As omens of sinister consequence begin to mount the two visitors only become more confused. Wiltold takes a worrying turn when he starts to adapt to sinister cruelty. Ants roam through their food, slugs slither in butter, creepy beetles crawl out of Madame Woytis‘ soup, animals are killed, midnight axe chopping, mutilated lips, fever dreams and a priest who lets loose a swarm of flies when he drops his pants — all of which formulate a sense of doom. Witold is certain that this pending doom threatens to push him into The Void.

When tragedy does strike it fails to register as anything of consequence to the family. Leon takes to the wilderness singing out into what he points out is The Void.

"Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?" Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?”
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

At the film’s mid-point Wiltold has abandoned his studies. Instead he obsesses over Lena and her family. He becomes a willing participant in the sinister happenings that bother him. He turns to philosophical rhetoric for comfort, but begins to chart ideas into some vague sort of story. When we finally see a bit of his writing it is presented on his laptop screen. It is in French and not translated for non-French speakers, but it translates as:

The weight of here and now has become, like the beurk, decisive.

This is in reference to the nausea that begins to overpower Wiltold. Of course we think that Wiltold is writing a story, but there are more than a few hints that he is as motivated by cinema as philosophy. Zulawski has Wiltold and Fuchs poke fun at his own films. At one point it is mentioned that all of these strange happenings might make a good book, but Wiltold disagrees and figures it wold serve better as a movie. Zulawski’s cinematic puzzle ultimately tosses us into meta-film, but this is not an easy-out. It is the only resolution available for Witold, Fuchs, Lena and all involved.

Zulawski takes a poke at Gombrowicz. Of course he has been poking all along. When Fuchs offers a suggestion to the mysteries that have taken place, Witold pulls a bit of met-fiction by explaining his name:

“There’s a reason I have Gombrowicz’s first name. He never knew how to finish his novels nor their meaning.”

 

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski's Universe... Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski’s Universe…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Andrzej Zulawski has said that Cosmos was not only his weirdest film — it was one of the strangest films he had ever seen. I do not agree, but his Cosmos does indeed present an alternative universe. And it forms and is presented in a bizarre range of ways and manner. There is an offer of love, but this universe refuses understanding. Zulawski’s Cosmos is simply idiosyncratic and would far prefer to leave its inhabitants with their own conclusions. But they should never give up or jump off into The Void. This universe is simply too magically odd to skip.

Find Boris Neleop’s interview with Andrzej Zulawski —  here

Mondo Vision’s restored Andrzej Zulawski’s films http://www.mondo-vision.com

Matty Stanfield, 11.22.2016

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 11.6.15

Like 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