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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

La Casanova de Fellini Federico Fellini, 1976

La Casanova de Fellini
Federico Fellini, 1976

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

Matty Stanfield, 6.16.2016

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Sweeney & Harvey Keitel Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino, 1994

Julia Sweeney & Harvey Keitel
Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino, 1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would it all still break the film strip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016

 

When David Lynch and Mark Frost initially pitched the concept that would become the TV series, Twin Peaks, the idea was really about creating a satire on American small town culture. The show’s mystery of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was intended to take a backseat to the show’s plot once the quirky characters identities and respective double lives gained the audiences’ interest. Starting off with a two hour special pilot that truly brought a whole new level of quality and subversion to the firmly entrenched ideology of small town American life. It was during the run of Twin Peak‘s first season that the idea of “Lynchian” would truly take form. This series was less a satire of soap opera and television mysteries as it was a subversive and highly experimental experience.

"In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent." Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992

“In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

To the eyes of 21st Century eyes, this series might seem tame. But in 1990, this was shocking and pushed the boundaries of what was being shown on television. It was also far more “cinematic” than standard television. The pilot was a slam-dunk hit. The ratings took a significant drop after the two hour pilot.  The ratings for the rest of season one were not consistent, but never truly low.

This show was being, watched, discussed, analyzed and studied. Twin Peaks gained an almost instant cult following. Contrary to Lynch and Frosts’ idea, the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death never moved to the background. Despite already being dead and presented only in the now iconic photograph and limited POV screen captures, Laura Palmer was the driving force of the show. There a number of logical reasons that the idea of each character’s dual personas never became the vital interest(s) of the viewers. For those of us old enough to remember when this ground-breaking television show premiered, there was something alluring about that image of the seemingly perfect All-American Prom Queen captured in a High School year book photograph. There something intriguing about the beautiful yet somehow ethereally strange look of Sheryl Lee’s photograph as Laura Palmer. Like every other character roaming the streets and dirt roads of Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer had a double life. And both sides of Laura’s identity seemed to serve as a trigger for every other character on the show. The fact that we slowly gained information that she may not have been the sweet Girl-Next-Door or the earnest Meal-On-Wheels volunteer was far more curious than any of the living characters on the show.

The public wanted to know more about her and most of all wanted to know who killed her.

This, of course, would be the show’s undoing. Lynch and Frost had never really solved this mystery. Resolution of Laura Palmer’s killer was filmed in several different ways. It quickly became a an odd Pop-Culture Moment. A moment in which much of the audience was watching closely to see where all of the many clues being offered between, above, under and around all of the disturbing, comical, supernatural and off-kilter perspectives were pointing.

The final episode of season one had a huge rating. I can remember sitting in a room full of fellow college students to see who “iced” Laura. But Lynch and Frost did not reveal the killer. Simply more intense clues. It would not be until season two that Laura’s killer was finally revealed to be her father.  The mystery’s ultimate resolution made perfect sense for David Lynch’s continuing artistic examination beneath the tainted soil upon which Middle America stood, but was also somehow unsatisfying. It also made all the hints toward the paranormal suspect.

The Good Witch descends to offer some advice for Sailor... Sheryl Lee Wild At Heart David Lynch, 1990 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

The Good Witch descends to offer some advice for Sailor…
Sheryl Lee
Wild At Heart
David Lynch, 1990
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

Lynch remained involved with the TV series, but in many ways he might as well have left.

Twin Peaks was really a stunningly brilliant artistic experiment, but David Lynch’s true interest was/is grounded in cinema. While it may not be his finest hour as a filmmaker, 1990’s Wild At Heart, remains my personal favorite David Lynch film. A road movie from Hell, the adventures of Sailor & Lula almost felt like Lynch had been given free reign to create this gleefully surreal and perverse exploration. And wait. Isn’t that Laura Palmer giving Sailor advice?  Advise which led his character to deliver a perversely politically-incorrect apology to those thugs?!?!  When we saw Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) come down from the heaven’s to help Sailor get back on track, it seemed like possibly another clue.

As die-hard Twin Peaks fans were now sorting through Jennifer Lynch’s clever The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer to sort out the show’s red herrings from true relations, the iconic television series took a quick downward spiral.  Twin Peaks‘ first season directors were hand-picked by both Lynch and Frost. But the with the doomed second season the show’s director choices were disjointed and ill-fitting to the original concept. Everyone from Uli Edel to Diane Keaton took the director’s chair. It was canceled and ended in June of 1991. I had just graduated from University and relocated across the country as the second series started. I had no TV, but my interest in the show had faded to disappointment.

Wild At Heart was an Art House film. It was far from a box office blockbuster, but it added value to the director’s reputation. It was also the hit of that years Cannes Film Festival. And even though the industry may have viewed Twin Peaks as a sort of Cult TV Oddity that had ultimately failed, Lynch was in a fairly good position professionally.

Where would he go next?

What new strange world would he create for the cinema?

As it turns out Twin Peaks was still strong on his mind. Many of the ideas he had originally had for Twin Peaks had to be pushed aside to sort of conform to the standards and regulations of Network Television. He had the funding both from America and France to do what he wanted. And he could do it the way he wanted. David Lynch decided to return to the world of Twin Peaks, but this “re-visit” would be a prequel.

How does a cinematic genius top a TV Series that changed the face of network television? He breaks it... David Lynch as FBI Agent Gordon Cole Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

How does a cinematic genius top a TV Series that changed the face of network television? He breaks it…
David Lynch as FBI Agent Gordon Cole
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

This would be the opportunity for the show’s legion of fans to actually meet that beautiful High School Prom Queen gone wrong. It would also offer David Lynch the opportunity to actually work with the actress who had set so many hearts and minds a-flutter. Sheryl Lee was more than a simple, engagingly beautiful face — She possessed charisma and an interesting on-screen energy. She was and is an extremely talented actor. Lynch was to make a motion picture focused on the final week in the life of Twin Peak‘s most alluring citizen, Laura Palmer. To the film’s backers, this seemed the perfect idea. To the legion of Twin Peaks fans news of the film set hearts aflame.

What no one seemed to think about was that this was not going to be a normal sort of prequel. And for those of us who thought Wild At Heart presented David Lynch at his most unfiltered and unrestrained, we were about to discover we were wrong.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was not so concerned with much from the original series and this film presented David Lynch’s cinematic vision completely unbridled.  He had no plans of returning the audience to the same beautiful but provocatively seedy small town. Without censor, without a Major Television Network breathing down his neck, Mr. Lynch took us back to the same town. But now we saw it from a completely different vantage point.

"If I had a nickel for every cigarette your mom smoked, I'd be dead." Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

“If I had a nickel for every cigarette your mom smoked, I’d be dead.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Now working my way up the corporate ladder in Boston, I stood in line with two new friends to catch a 1992 midnight premier screening of the film. We had all heard it had been met with jeers and booing at The Cannes Film Festival, but it just didn’t seem possible that the movie could be bad. Fire Walk With Me may not have been the movie the television show’s cult following wanted to see, but it was one hell of a cinematic ride. A sort of hot-dripping Freudian fever dream. Or perhaps more accurately, seeing this experimental film on a big screen was like being dropped into an Edvard Munch painting gone very wrong.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me didn’t just take the iconic TV Series to a new level, it jolted that quirky universe into a whole new cinematic galaxy.

The opening moments of the film feature a television screen on scramble. A vision we no longer see in the 21st Century. The opening scene of this television’s screening scrambled mess indicates that we are on a dead channel or that the National Anthem has already played and the channel has closed for the viewing day.  But then, just as Angelo Badalamenti’s potent score finally seems to reach a clear volume and credits have screened — this television is literally destroyed. A sharp and horrifying woman’s scream and the TV is obliterated.

David Lynch has just destroyed the restrictions and limitations of not only his TV series, he has broken out of the very concept of television itself.

As the film starts we realize that the murder of Teresa Banks has just taken place. Her body wrapped exactly like that of Laura Palmer floats on the water. The film’s first iconic image or scene is one that is never explained, but it carries an odd and comical impact. We first see Special Agent Chester Desmond arresting two grown women at the side of a school bus filled with screaming and crying children. The bus seems to be parked in an open field. Nothing about this scene is treated by the adult characters as odd or strange. Yet it is an unforgettable little scene that sets the film’s space.

Unexplained situation: An FBI drug bust and a school bus full of terrified children... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Unexplained situation: An FBI drug bust and a school bus full of terrified children…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

While nothing was as it appeared on Twin Peaks the TV show — in the movie’s Twin Peaks the same holds true with a major difference: Nothing even appears “right” or “normal.”

There is a constant auditory and visual discord at work. Surrealism and Absurdism is closely tied to whatever “reality” we may be shown. In the television series, actors played their characters with an edge of hamminess and often camp. In the Twin Peaks film, the actors are performing as if stuck in some vacuum that is constantly threatening to suck them up into oblivion. The acting here is not so much about “camp” as much as it is about keeping in step with the energy of David Lynch’s subversive, perverse and often hysterical vision.

David Lynch re-creates his own character from the TV series. The hearing-impaired Agent Gordon Cole summons Chris Isaak’s Special Agent Desmond to meet him. In typical Twin Peaks‘ logic, this meeting is simple and yet complicated.

"Her name is 'Lil'" Kimberly Ann Cole Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

“Her name is ‘Lil'”
Kimberly Ann Cole
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Gordon Cole leads Agent Desmond over to meet an odd woman who seems to be hiding inside a small airplane hanger. As she emerges, Gordon explains that this is his “mother’s sister’s girl, Lil“. Lil proceeds to make a sour face.

What’s a sour face? Well, that is a face that has a sour look on it.

Lil keeps one hand in a pocket of her ill-fitting dress. Opens and clenches her other hand into a fist and stomps in place. Later Special Agent Chester Desmond explains to the confused Forensic Pathologists what this meeting of Lil actually meant:

Sour Face = problems with local authority awaits

Both Eyes Blinking = trouble with the higher-ups

One Hand in Pocket = something is being hidden from the FBI

Fist = there is a whole lotta beligerence

Walking In Place = there’s going to be a lot of legwork

Dress Tailored To Fit = this is code for drugs

Blue Rose Pinned To Lil’s Dress = “I can’t tell you about that…Meaning that the agent is not comfortable revealing this meaning to Kiefer Sutherland’s befuddled pathologist.

"Her name is 'Lil'" Kimberly Ann Cole Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

What was missing in Agent Cole’s introduction for Lil? …No uncle is mentioned.
Kimberly Ann Cole
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Already well over ten minutes into the film and David Lynch has yet to bring us back to Twin Peaks. It is not far away, but as we watch the Special Agent and Forensic Pathologist navigate the odd waters of their location it feels more like the familiar world we knew in the television series. After a particularly grueling autopsy of Ms. Banks, the intrepid men go to a local all-night cafe. The same cafe that had employed Teresa Banks. A comical question and answer with Teresa’s former co-worker reveals that Teresa was involved in drugs.

"Who's the towhead?" Sandra Kinder as "Irene" That is her name and it is night. Don't go any further with it. There's nothing good about it." Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

“Who’s the towhead?”
Sandra Kinder as “Irene” That is her name and it is night. Don’t go any further with it. There’s nothing good about it.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Then we follow them to the Big Trout Trailer Park where we are led by a hilarious Harry Dean Stanton as the park’s manager to Teresa Banks’ home trailer. It is here that Surrealism and an ever-menacing level of horror creeps onto the screen.

Loose ends from the series continue to pop up. The hanging electric lines seem to emit a sort of horrific transmission or energy. This is new.

Poor Special Agent Chester Desmond vanishes into an unexplained sort of paranormal vortex.  As Kyle MacLachlan enters the film as Special Agent Dale Cooper we finally are treated to feeling like we may be back in the familiar territory.

Special Agent Chester Desmond's abandoned car. "Let's Rock" Kyle MacLachlan and Harry Dean Stanton Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Special Agent Chester Desmond’s abandoned car.
“Let’s Rock”
Kyle MacLachlan and Harry Dean Stanton
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Special Agent Dale Cooper also pays a visit to The Big Trout Trailer Park, but his reasoning doesn’t seem to match-up.

It is not too long after he and Harry Dean Stanton look at Agent Desmond’s forgotten car and study a lip-stick written message on the windshield that we will soon hear Badalamenti’s familiar theme song and see the famous opening to the TV series.

Pulses raced as the film came to this point. At long last we would finally actually meet Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer. Since the TV series began she had been seen only as photographs or brief glimpses. Or most annoyingly, as a doppelganger brunette cousin.

But now we will see, hear and get to know Laura Palmer.

And now, Ladies & Gentlemen, meet your all-American Prom Queen: Laura Palmer. Beautiful, dazed, confused and abused. Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

And now, Ladies & Gentlemen, meet your all-American Prom Queen: Laura Palmer. Beautiful, dazed, confused and abused.
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The actual return to Twin Peaks and meeting Laura Palmer was not what anyone quite expected.

Just like the high school Prom Queen photograph, that charismatic look does transform into an even stranger mix of beauty and somehow perverse energy all channeled brilliantly by Sheryl Lee.

Within what we now call Lynchian Cinema, his female actors are essential keys. Both Laura Dern and Naomi Watts are pitch-perfect actors for David Lynch. Both are deeply skilled actors, have on-screen presence / charisma and have the ability to at once convey an All-American kind of blond beauty and ambition. They also are fairly fearless performers who are unafraid to tap into the darker and obscure aspects of humanity without crossing the line into “camp.” Isabella Rossellini was also a key actor for David Lynch. She may not be the greatest in level of skill, but she carries a bizarre mix of beauty, innocence and with a strange lean toward the perverse. Rossellini fit into Lynchian Cinema with ease. Sadly, due to complication of a romantic relationship we were only able to enjoy her within this world twice.

However, Grace Zabriskie is without question the ultimate David Lynch actor. In Fire Walk With Me, we see Mrs. Palmer before one of life’s truest devastating losses has caused her to become unhinged in her despair, sorrow, guild and grief. Here Zabriskie is given a surprisingly small but difficult challenge: establishing Mrs. Palmer as a damaged person. Of course, this fine actor was more than up for the challenge.

Mom knows something is very wrong, but she is Dad's victim too. Grace Zabriskie is Mrs. Palmer Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Mom knows something is very wrong, but she is Dad’s victim too.
Grace Zabriskie is Mrs. Palmer
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Already a solidly employed and respected actress, when David Lynch first cast her, she found the perfect film artist to assist her in channeling her unforgettable energy and presence. A highly skilled actor, Zabriskie is able to easily convey human emotion realistically — but most importantly, she can access them in the most inappropriate, perverse and hysterical of ways.

She walks the tight rope with ease: Camp and B-Movie Exploitation Horror await her slip and fall, but she never loses her balance. She straddles the lines between Realism, Surrealism and Absurdism without any sputtering or error. Like the other three actors, she is beautiful. Also like the other three, her beauty is somewhat convulsive. Unafraid of aging, this actress can summon a great degree of sexual allure in the strangest and most menacing of ways. Another shared gift all four of these actresses: they are likable. It is almost impossible not to root for Ms. Zabriskie even in the darkest and evil of roles.

While those four actors have experienced amazing success working for David Lynch, the same luck did not hold true for Sheryl Lee. It is perhaps the greatest fail of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that Sheryl Lee’s career was that it almost completely de-railed it.

It is impossible to watch this film and not note the incredible Movie Star Presence she exudes. Sheryl Lee also presents a chillingly accurate performance. This is an actor with a great deal of skill. And, like Zabriskie, she is able to easily walk that line between Realism and The Surreal. Like all of the above mentioned actresses, she is very likable on screen. And, in reality, there is probably only one of the four who could rival her beauty and that would be Rossellini.

However Sheryl Lee possesses an easy access to eroticism that is not quite as easy for the other actors mentioned. Sheryl Lee was and remains a hot-looking actress. Never extreme, convulsive or too thin — her shape is always right on form with erotic ideal. And even when she flaunts it and teases, there is something fragile at play that makes the viewer want to protect her.

High school journal keeping has never been this erotic or perverse... Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

High school journal keeping has never been this erotic or perverse…
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Another key trait for a David Lynch actress, Sheryl Lee has no fear. In Fire Walk With Me she goes for broke in some of the most uncomfortable scenes. Most if not all of her scenes in this film act almost as individual Cinematic Abstract Art Pieces. She is given some of the oddest and most difficult lines of any Lynchian character. In an early scene we see an in-between classes sexual encounter between Laura and her love-sick suitor, James. James attempts to make her understand how much he loves her and that he can protect her from anything. The lines in this scene are intentionally comical, but at the same time carry an skewed sense of tragic truth within this warped film:

Laura refuses James’ love.

I’m gone. Long gone. Like a turkey in the corn.”
You’re not a turkey. A turkey is one of the dumbest birds on earth.
Gobble-gobble. Gobble-gobble.”

Even though you will find yourself chuckling or laughing, Sheryl Lee manages to evoke a damaged sort of “gobble” that haunts.

While the actor playing James handles the scene like a bad soap opera, Lee takes the wording and invests them with meaning. Yet, she never allows her skill to get in Lynch’s way. Sheryl Lee “gets it” and she takes that understanding and runs with it throughout Lynch’s experimental exploration of human cruelty, horror and abuse via means of the human psyche.

Having just had the rare opportunity to rematch the film via a pristine and new 4K transfer that will hopefully find it’s way to US distribution. It is miles ahead of the Region-Free German Blu-Ray and certainly far better than the treatment it received by Paramount in last year’s Twin Peaks box set. Criterion, are you there?

Prom Queen, a diary, some booze, a bit of coke and a lot of eroticism. Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Prom Queen, a diary, some booze, a bit of coke and a lot of eroticism.
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Sheryl Lee should have become a major player in the world of filmmaking. Yet the film’s failure and her achingly-inter-connected performance was misjudged. Sheryl Lee’s work in this film is an exact match to Lynchian negative energy and dire need of redemption. Like the film itself, Sheryl Lee never falters as both she and the film go exactly where David Lynch wanted it to go.

Grace Zabriskie has stated that she felt that Lee gave so much to David Lynch and the character while filming the movie that it took her several years to find her way back to herself. This might seem like an “over-the-top” statement, but when discussing the art of Method Acting and The Method Actor, it is painfully accurate. As hard as Sheryl Lee worked to give Lynch what he needed, he would push her even harder. The film obviously left the young actor exhausted, but the film’s critical and commercial failure were most likely like receiving a universal gut punch.

The Log Lady offers a bit of comfort and a warning that serves as key to the strange world in which we roam... Sheryl Lee & Catherine E. Coulson Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The Log Lady offers a bit of comfort and a warning that serves as key to the strange world in which we roam…
Sheryl Lee & Catherine E. Coulson
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

When the midnight screening I attended in 1992 reached the closing credits, I felt as if I had been on some strange metaphysical trip of a cinematic ride. I had been entertained, horrified, engaged and left in awe. However, my two friends and what felt like the entire sold-out audience had hated it.

People in the cinema literally Boo’d at the screen. A couple of folks even threw their popcorn containers at the screen. I was confused. As I stumbled back into the reality of a hot New England evening, I was equally disoriented and excited.

The Boston bars had closed, so the three of us retreated to a now long-gone sort of coffee-house that served the homeless, the collegiate and hipsters in equal fashion. It was a favorite hang-out. We had some cookies and coffee and discussed the movie.

Is Laura Palmer living in a very bad dream? Here she walks into a room that is more than a little too familiar. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Is Laura Palmer living in a very bad dream? Here she walks into a room that is more than a little too familiar.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

All three of us holding degrees in English, we all shared a love for deconstructing art. Each of us had a different read on what we had seen:

One of my friend’s felt it was an “Anti-Movie” through which David Lynch was laughing and giving the finger to his audience.

My other friend felt it was a sort of cinematic mistake. She pointed out that the use of Surrealism and Absurdism was pointless if neither had meaning. Unlike my first friend, she saw some merit to the movie. But I can remember her drawing her long orange finger nail between herself and me stating that the film’s flaws out-weighed the few points Lynch had made correctly.

I disagreed with both opinion. I felt they were being too superficial and lazy.

I sipped my coffee and told them that I felt the film was a spectacular experiment in exploring the psyche of a pedophile incest rapist and most alarmingly the psyche of his victim. I explained that the entire theme of the film had been quite poetically summed up by Catherine E. Coulson’s Log Lady. This film had pulled us into a confusing vortex of insane human cruelty,  confusion caused by child abuse, the impact resulting in a family / friends all living in a faked level of love, conformity and insincere sincerity. The despair, the pain, the guilt and the sorrow of both the victim and the victimizer are identities constantly walking with a fire that threatens to consume them at any moment.

My two friends sat with this for a few minutes. One started to laugh. The other’s head seemed tilted all the way on our respective walks to Muni, dorm and home.

A dream captured in a frame... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

A dream captured in a frame…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

If you’re wondering why I recall so well what we discussed and how we discussed it — it is because I have been a chronicle journal keeper since I was 18. Upon arriving back to my tiny basement apartment at 4am, I opted to write the experience down instead of sleeping. As I had to be at work for 7am it seemed a more rational use of my time. It staggers my mind to think that I could function at work without any sleep. Ah, youth.

But I digress.

Many view the movie as a complicated mess of a prequel with no other aim than to inform the Twin Peaks fans of Laura Palmer’s last week of life. This seems far too simplistic. David Lynch is far too intelligent a filmmaker to have discarded almost all of the television series atmosphere and style had this been his intent. If this were all he wanted to do the film would have been shorter and no TV set would have required breaking.

Others view it as an admirable cinematic error. One can’t really argue with this view-point. This film is so untethered, it is impossible to anticipate that everyone will like or even passively accept it. But I still stand by my opinion formed in 1992.

The angels never really went away. Laura's salvation descends... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The angels never really went away. Laura’s salvation descends…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Essentially this film is examining the ways in which “we” absorb the horrors of our lives into our psyches so that we can simply continue moving forward. Full acceptance of truth is far easier said than done. Anyone who has fallen victim to someone we should have been able to trust — or, more simply put, anyone who has been sexually abused by a family member or a trusted family friend will understand that “owning” the reality of pain/sorrow caused by sexual violation/abuse is actually more difficult than the violation itself. And PTSD is not just limited to survivors of war. PTSD can kick your ass. And it kicks it in really strange and often metaphorical ways that can cause a person to mask their own personal truth as well as take on the guilt that they have no business absorbing. The victim has done nothing wrong, but under the reality of life’s light — it can feel quite the opposite for the victim who survives.

Most of the time that monster in the closet or under the bed is just normal childhood fears, but other times there really has been a monster there.

When The Log Lady runs into Laura Palmer about to enter the Twin Peaks Townie Bar, she gently touches Laura’s face and offers a parable that applies to the entire film:

When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.

Is "Bob" Dad's creation or one of his daughter? Worse yet, is Bob a demon? The American Family gets a horrifying surreal deconstruction. Ray Wise as Mr. Palmer Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Is “Bob” Dad’s creation or one of his daughter? Worse yet, is Bob a demon? The American Family gets a horrifying surreal deconstruction.
Ray Wise as Mr. Palmer
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

There is an-ongoing “discussion” of pain and sorrow, fire and angels throughout the film. It begins when Laura and her best friend contemplate life. Laying in the living room, Donna shares a dream-thought and then an odd question:

Do you think that if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?

Laura suddenly seems to be miles away from Donna as she stares off into some doomed distance, yet she has heard her friend and answers, “Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever. And the angel’s wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.

The Angel feeds and watches over the children.  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992

The Angel feeds and watches over the children.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

Later, Laura will see an angel represented in a childhood framed image in her bedroom vanish before her eyes. The three children in the painting are no longer fed or protected by the watchful angel.

The Angel has gone away  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992

The Angel has gone away
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

And of course there is that strange room that appears in Laura’s dreams and is presented to her by an old woman in a framed photograph. And The Other Place where The Man gives information with backward masked commentary. These visions are shared. The Lynchian concept of creamed corn comes into play. Referred to as “garmonbozia.”

The meaning of this term has been much analyzed by the legions of Twin Peaks fans as well as Lynch Heads. Creamed corn is mentioned in relation to Laura’s role as Meals-On-Wheels volunteer, Mr. Palmer is accused of stealing a can of it and it appears in visions. Garmonbozia is a demented symbol of pain and sorrow. A pain and sorrow both inflicted and inflicting. The normal thought is that there are two things that all inhabitants of Twin Peaks share:

  1. A darker / hidden aspect of their individual identities
  2. They each feed and give off pain and sorrow

Fire Walk With Me consumes itself with symbology and metaphors of fire, angels, masks, identity, a seemingly extra-dimensional red-curtained room, an owl ring, a one-armed man and most importantly the character of BoB.

The danger of the owl ring may be the only way out... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The danger of the owl ring may be the only way out…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Bob is Laura’s monster hiding just outside her bedroom. As she confesses to her Meals-On-Wheels home-bound client, Bob has been having her since she was twelve. As the film progresses Laura becomes aware that Bob might be “real” but he might not be who or what he appears to be. In Laura’s self-deception, Bob is tearing out pages from her diary to exert his power. He knows everything about her — Bob knows all. Most repulsive for Laura is that as afraid as she is of Bob and the rapes, she has reached a point where the attacks are expected and she now seems to be finding some sort of sadistic sexual pleasure from these unwanted attacks. In a particularly disturbing scene as Bob takes her body, she begins to reach orgasm.

She moans, “Who are you? Who are you?!?!”  Just as she slips into orgasm Bob turns into her father.

Her father’s behavior has become highly suspect for Laura and her her mother. Mr. Palmer seems to be forcing Laura into uncomfortable confrontations.

In one of the films more Extreme/Absurdist moments, Laura and her father are in his car. Suddenly the One-Armed Man is tailing them. Mr. Palmer begins to panic. The One-Armed Man is furiously attempting to communicate with Laura. Her father keeps the car racing even at a dead stop to drown out the man’s voice. A dog’s barking becomes as loud as the car, the One-Armed Man and the frenzied musical score. The impact of this scene is equally disturbing, annoying and almost funny.

During the strangely hysterical and frenzied scene, Laura thinks she smells fire.

Screaming above it all with increasing panic, “Dad! Something’s burning! Are we on fire??!?!?

In a world of horror, it is easier to face Bob than Dad. This is the All-American Girl Next Door's only way out. Bob Silva & Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

In a world of horror, it is easier to face Bob than Dad. This is the All-American Girl Next Door’s only way out.
Bob Silva & Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Just before Mr. Palmer is able to shake the One Armed Man, he is able to reach Laura’s ear with information she does not want to have:

Holding out his one arm and a finger wearing the familiar owl ring, “It’s him! It’s your father!”

When we see Mr. Palmer drug his wife in their bedroom, Laura is jumping off James’ motorcycle off to her fate deep in the woods. We have reached the final night of Laura Palmer’s life.

Beaten, tied and dragged into an empty train freight car — Laura at first thinks she is facing Bob, the man who has abused her since she was twelve. But she quickly sees through her psyche’s self-deception: This is not Bob screaming at her. This is her father.

Brutally raped and threatened, is that Angel pointing toward an owl ring? Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Brutally raped and threatened, is that Angel pointing toward an owl ring?
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

And there lies the owl ring.

Most importantly, for the first time since the film has begun to unspool — Laura receives a sign of hope: An angel seems to be descending into the train car.

In what appears to be an act of ultimate rebellion, Laura scrambles for the owl ring. As her father pleads with her not to make him do “it,” Laura slips the ring onto her finger. It is as if this ring allows both the victim and the victimizer to gain full awareness. As the angel hoovers somewhere above them, Mr. Palmer kills his daughter.

Metaphorically, she has won. She has escaped and left him with his guilt, pain and sorrow. The creamed corn is now his and his alone. He must live with what he has done. As he wraps Laura’s body in plastic to set her into the lake, we see his face from Laura’s body’s POV and it switches back and forth between Bob and himself.

Mr. Palmer must accept what is to come. The dream or vision becomes a sort of reality as his entry to The Other Places emerges in the woods.

A pedophile, rapist and murderer: Dad prepares to have his torment, pain, sorrow and human cruelty. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

A pedophile, rapist and murderer: Dad prepares to have his torment, pain, sorrow and human cruelty.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

He steps through an opening in the red curtains and enters that extra-deminsional room. The Man From The Other Place and the One-Armed Man are waiting for him. Soon Bob is standing next to Mr. Plamer. As Mr. Palmer begins to levitate, Bob is instructed to take away Mr. Palmer’s Garmonbozia.

Like some internal cancer, Bob removes the blood soaked pain and sorrow from Mr. Plamer’s gut and tosses it on the floor.

Faced with The One Armed Man and The Man From Another Place, is Dad releasing his own pain and sorrow? Or is Bob about to take care of that for him? Subconscious metaphor... Frank Silva & Ray Wise Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Faced with The One Armed Man and The Man From Another Place, is Dad releasing his own pain and sorrow? Or is Bob about to take care of that for him? Subconscious metaphor…
Frank Silva & Ray Wise
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Of course the meaning of this scene has always been debated among Twin Peaks followers.

Is this an imaginary way for Mr. Palmer to once again to slip into his self-deception?

Is this a sort of heaven in which Mr. Palmer is freed of demonic power, Bob?

Or is this something loaded with a more universal way of dealing with guilt and the unforgivable?

In a strange and hyper-intensive scene early in the film we have seen David Bowie appear at Gordon’s FBI office. He is a long missing special agent and has come to give David Lynch’s Gordon a message. A series of jump cuts and audio editing led us to The Man From Another Place, the One-Armed Man, Bob and The Chalfonts. (you will need to see the film to know these two characters) — This is of particular note as it hints to where we might be going in the upcoming Showtime Twin Peaks re-boot.

Together in a dream or some alternate universe. Laura Palmer has a worrying connection to Special Agent Cooper. "I'll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile..." Sheryl Lee & Kyle MacLachlan Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Together in a dream or some alternate universe. Laura Palmer has a worrying connection to Special Agent Cooper.
“I’ll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile…”
Sheryl Lee & Kyle MacLachlan
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Going back to 1991’s final episode of Twin Peaks, Special Agent Cooper finds himself in the extra-deminsional red-curtained room with a lovely and calm Laura. She informs him that she will see him again in 25 years.

While David Bowie’s long-missing special agent attempts to give a message to his near-deaf boss in Fire Walk With Me — we only catch bits and pieces of what he says. But we do see him point to Special Agent Cooper and bellow to Gordon,

Who do you think this is here?!?!?

This message almost insinuates that Agent Cooper is some sort of Evil Being. Toward the end of the original series we know that Agent Cooper had begun to see Bob’s reflection when he looked into mirrors. Hmmm…

It will be more than a little interesting to see what David Lynch and Mark Frost come up with for their limited Twin Peaks run on Showtime.

Written in blood. Never before in television history has the grammar and meaning of a phrase been so analyzed and debated.  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Written in blood. Never before in television history has the grammar and meaning of a phrase been so analyzed and debated.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Whatever we do learn in this mini-series will have little to do with what David Lynch explored in Fire Walk With Me. This strange and much maligned Cult Film will most likely remain where it has always been. Sort of endlessly playing into subconscious in circular logic.

Take your creamed corn for what it is or what it isn’t. Fire Walk With Me is a message that lays on a mound of bloody soil. It might be confusing or even cryptic in meaning, but David Lynch wrote it in blood.

Matty Stanfield, 10.9.2015

 

 

 

 

 

No one quiet knew what to think when Ken Russell's surrealistic absurdist comedy-rock musical opened in 1975. However a number of smart university students got in line to drop a bit of acid with their popcorn as the movie unspooled... LISZTOMANIA Ken Russell, 1975 (The UK Poster)

No one quiet knew what to think when Ken Russell’s surrealistic absurdist comedy-rock musical opened in 1975. However a number of smart university students got in line to drop a bit of acid with their popcorn as the movie unspooled…
LISZTOMANIA
Ken Russell, 1975
(The UK Poster)

I love movies. All types of movies, but most those of the Art House variety. Among the world of serious cinephillia, British filmmaker Ken Russell often causes a sort of frantic run to the nearest Exit. While nearly all will agree that his early BBC films and his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love are brilliant. The rest of his work is generally regarded as excessive and hysterical madness. In the last decade a new found appreciation has evolved for his still controversial critique of merging Church and State, Catholicism, religion and the human tendency toward cruelty in his 1971 film, The Devils.

Your senses will never be the same... Ken Russell's biggest commercial success would end up elevating the concept of something we would call "the music video." TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975

Your senses will never be the same… Ken Russell’s biggest commercial success would end up elevating the concept of something we would call “the music video.”
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975

His biggest commercial success was the filmed rock opera, Tommy. Released in 1975, film critics had a hard time dismissing it. Nothing had shown up on screens quite like it. 40 years later this loud and hopelessly entertaining film is still regarded as the perfect marriage of Ken Russell cinematic urges and mid-1970’s rock culture. That same year, feeling inspired and with a bit of film industry power he had never enjoyed, he went for the pop culture jugular: He made Lisztomania.

If you should find yourself in a room of film loving intellectuals and bring up this notorious big-budget major studio released rock musical flop, you will either encounter smirking laughter or a total silence of seething judgement. I have never really seriously cared what people think of me.

Though, I do hate it when someone thinks me to be a mean-spirited person. That I am not.

But am I a fan of Ken Russell? Yes. Do I love Russell’s odd cinematic error that is Lisztomania? Oh, yeah. I love it.

"Well, this will teach you not to BANG on the piano!" Says The Count before extracting his revenge for catching Roger Daltrey and Fiona Lewis going at it. Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

“Well, this will teach you not to BANG on the piano!”
Says The Count before extracting his revenge for catching Roger Daltrey and Fiona Lewis going at it.
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

I fully embrace the insanity that is Lisztomania. I bow my head in awe that there was ever a time in the history of Warner Bros. that they would fully engage, promote and full scale release a movie like Lisztomania. While I know the film is more than a little problematic, I struggle to understand how anyone could refute the uniqueness of this crass bit of Pop Art. I struggle even more to understand why anyone would not enjoy the insane logic of it’s existence. And my jaw drops when someone tells me that they find it dull.

Well, here I do exaggerate. Only two people have ever told me that they were bored by Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. And both of these people pointed out that they found the first 15 minutes of the movie dull. Once Roger Daltrey’s cockney-accented take on Hungarian/German composer, Franz Liszt. True enough, the only even minor slow-paced moment in the film is a concert in which Daltrey entertains an audience of mostly young female fans swooning and screaming if at a rock concert. The scene does seem a bit out of place in the film, but it makes sense given the point that Ken Russell is attempting to make.

Marie d'Agoult fumes as her lover, Franz, pulls on his rock star platform boots to head off on yet another tour to be filled with groupies and fun... Fiona Davis / Roger Daltrey Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Marie d’Agoult fumes as her lover, Franz, pulls on his rock star platform boots to head off on yet another tour to be filled with groupies and fun…
Fiona Davis / Roger Daltrey
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

And, of course, prior to this concert sequence, we are treated to a British Music Hall-sylte (the British version of similar to American vaudeville theater) gone into the profane and raunchy. The opening of the film features Count d’Agoult catching his wife, Marie, enjoying frantic sex with her piano tutor, Franz. Nude and silly antics ensue accompanied by a from of sort of Gaelic-Country musical narration. End all ends with the count having poor Marie and Franz placed nude inside a piano as the Count plays chords. Franz is panicked and Maria seems to be gaining a bit of, well, pleasure from some of the piano banging.

Suddenly they are nailed into the piano left on train tracks about to face their death. Cut to a backstage gathering of some of the great European composers, artistes and groupies awaiting for Franz to take to the stage. Enter a young, idealistic and ambitious Richard Wagner who attempts to pimp his music to Franz.

It is all quite over-the-top, silly, illogical, surreal and just straight-up weird. Please note: This was all Ken Russell’s intent. Everything in Lisztomania is intentional, profane, silly and often spastic.

Who needs the old tired religious icons of dull saints and martyrs when we can worship St. Elton and St. Pete? Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Who needs the old tired religious icons of dull saints and martyrs when we can worship St. Elton and St. Pete?
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

As Russell had just wrangled the Rock God Machine that was/is The Who to create the movie, Tommy, — he noted several similarities to the level of decadence and public sensation that followed the band and it’s lead singer to that of classical composer, Franz Liszt. It dawned on Russell that when one reads accounts of Franz Liszt’s career one could easily draw comparisons that form the idea that Liszt was in many ways the world’s first Pop Star.

Kissing The Holy Cowboy Boot of The Pope and all of his movie star saints... Roger Daltrey and Ringo Starr's foot Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Kissing The Holy Cowboy Boot of The Pope and all of his movie star saints…
Roger Daltrey and Ringo Starr’s foot
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

True enough. Liszt had legions of young women who would fight their way into the places he performed. These women were fanatical in the way they would behave as Liszt played his piano. Screaming, swooning and often having to be restrained from trying to touch the renowned artist. And if one is to believe commentary of his day, Franz Liszt quite enjoyed the attention. In the early 1800’s German Essayists and Cultural Critic, Heinrich Heine, coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe the hysteria that the composer’s playing, music and mere presence seemed to drive many of his female listeners to hysterical reactions and distractions. However, it should be pointed out that this was not really given the same levity as Beatlemania in the early to mid-1960’s. The idea of “Pop Star” or “Rock Star” and “Celebrity” had no where began to take hold of culture. This seemed more like a strange temporary illness than a “normal” fever-pitched reaction to a performer.

Soothing his audience of demanding female fans... Roger Daltrey as Liszt Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Soothing his audience of demanding female fans…
Roger Daltrey as Liszt
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Female audience members of Liszt’s piano performances were known to scream his name, swoon, attempt to climb onto the stage, scream out demands that he play the piece we all know as “Chop Sticks” and often followed him about in hopes of grabbing a tossed cigar butt to stuff down their blossoms. Up until his early 30’s Liszt was known to play the piano standing and often jump from behind the piano to speak to his audience. He was also never too far from scandal. His on-going and tempestuous affair with Marie d’Agoult was the cause of much rumor and discussion. Interestingly this only served to promote his popularity. Then there was Russia’s Princess Carolyn’s patronage and obsession with him and his work. Later in life he suffered the indignities of a piano student, Olga Janina, who could be called the first known insane “Fan Girl” who wold break into his home, steal personal belongings, stalk and even write controversial books about him. She wrote these more to get his attention than for profit.

The fans want more than music from Franz... Roger Daltrey Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

The fans want more than music from Franz…
Roger Daltrey
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

His daughter, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner. Wagner’s interests were not limited to music, but also to philosophy. A philosophy which was alarmingly worrying in it’s view of German superiority. Cosima was quick to pick up and fuel her husband’s ideals about German cultural and racial superiority. She is largely to credit with the establishment and curation of the Bayreuth Festival. This festival became more about promotion of philosophy that would lead into pure antisemitism. This would continue to grow as Germany entered the NAZI Era. Cosima died in 1930. Without question, the legacy of she and Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival remains controversial to say the very least.

Devoted daughter turns into Super Evil Goddess, Cosima finds some new uses for the doll created in the likeness of her dad, Franz. Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Devoted daughter turns into Super Evil Goddess, Cosima finds some new uses for the doll created in the likeness of her dad, Franz.
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

All of this strange history wrapped up in the lives of classical music composers was like a magnet to Ken Russell. Russell adored the biography film, but never limited himself to the typical “by-the-numbers-film-rule-book” when making them. Far more concerned about creating the passion and ideals of the artists’ works than sticking to traditional narrative, Russell’s composer bio films are unusual in the way in which he approaches their lives. He viewed the artist as rebel.

Capturing it all, and given more freedom of expression than any other filmmaker had yet to allow him, Peter Suschitzky’s work truly shines in this movie.

Super Ego translates to an erection beyond expectation and worthy of a British Hall musical dance. Roger Daltrey and his Rock Cock Rock Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Super Ego translates to an erection beyond expectation and worthy of a British Hall musical dance.
Roger Daltrey and his Rock Cock Rock
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

But when he made Lisztomania, he threw out all sense of logic. He become unhinged as he crafted a a sort of Pop Culture Comic Book movie about the life of Franz Liszt. The logic of any adherence to history time lines is absent. Franz List starts out as a sexy, raunchy and sex-crazed rock star. Soon he retreats to find his spiritual core only to be called out to defend not only the sanctity of music, but his emerging arch-enemy, Richard Wagner, breaks into his spiritual isolation to feed off his talent filled blood. Like a vampire, Wagner sucks a good deal of life force from Liszt.

Paul Nicholas as Wagner turned Artistic Vampire out for Franz's special creative force blood... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Paul Nicholas as Wagner turned Artistic Vampire out for Franz’s special creative force blood…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Wagner sets out with Franz’s daughter, Cosima. They form a Nazi Cult! The Pope, played by Ringo Starr, calls on Franz to perform an exorcism to rid Wagner of the demon that has possessed him. Franz, playing at being a priest, kisses the cowboy boot of the bedazzled Pope, kicks his lover – Olga Janina (played by Little Nell) to the curb – and meets Wagner’s attempt at a German God Creation, THOR, (played by Yes’ Rick Wakeman) – this creation is a joke. The exorcism backfires. Through Cosima’s evil magik, Wagner rises up from Hell as The Hitler Monster and it is up to Franz and his harem of beautiful lovers and assorted groupies to fly down from Heaven in a rocket ship and blast Evil Old Wagner to bits!

Adorned with Saints Judy Garland, Monty Cliff, Elvis & Marilyn -- Ringo Starr is Your Pope! Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Adorned with Saints Judy Garland, Monty Cliff, Elvis & Marilyn — Ringo Starr is Your Pope!
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Along the way, Ken Russell injects more glitter and wacked-out visionary trip-outs faster than a mood ring changes colors. Franz slips into Princess Carolyn’d vaginal canal, comes out to the sirens of former lovers who manage to tease his penis out to gigantic proportions. Sporing a hard-on of about 8 feet, a an old-school Vaudeville like dance number ensues. Believe it or not, the set pieces just continue to amp-up until Ken Russell’s Franz Liszt saves the world from Nazis.

Little Nell watches unimpressed as Ringo The Pope warns Roger Daltrey's Liszt of Wagner's turn to the dark side... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Little Nell watches unimpressed as Ringo The Pope warns Roger Daltrey’s Liszt of Wagner’s turn to the dark side…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

And, just to make it all the more odd, Rick Wakeman re-arranges the music of Liszt and Wagner to early-electro-prog rock with Roger Daltrey supplying of so very modern lyrics. A&M Records and Warner Bros pimped the soundtrack album hard and released a single. The original vinyl is now a collector’s item, but Rick Wakeman re-mastered it all and released via iTunes in 2005.

Rick Wakeman gives Liszt & Wagner the FM Prog-Rock treatment for the soundtrack of Lisztomania. A&M Records, 1975

Rick Wakeman gives Liszt & Wagner the FM Prog-Rock treatment for the soundtrack of Lisztomania.
A&M Records, 1975

The movie bombed and the soundtrack failed. If you want to see the movie, you will need turn to the Warner Archive for a fairly solid transition to DVD.

http://www.wbshop.com/product/lisztomania+1000336824.do?sortby=ourPicks&refType=&from=Search

If you have a multi-region DVD player, you can still find a limited edition printing out of the UK. The quality of the UK print is fantastic and features a rambling commentary track by the great Ken Russell himself recorded not too long before his passing.

Wagner rises from Hell as The Nazi Super Monster. Only Franz and his groupies can save the day! Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Wagner rises from Hell as The Nazi Super Monster. Only Franz and his groupies can save the day!
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Lisztomania is not a great movie. Despite moments of true brilliance and experimental cinema, it is ultimately a cinematic error that holds an interesting bit of merit. This is a movie that stretches so far beyond the boundaries it is hard to use any normal criteria for judging it. It is a crazy and oddly entertaining film that sits by itself. Surrealistic, Absurdist, Satire and Super Hero Comic Book mess of a movie. It has most certainly become a Cult Movie, but it is a bit too intellectual to fully fit into the “So bad it’s good” ideology. And it is far too silly to be taken at all seriously.

Franz looks on as Wagner readies to "turn on" his creation of German Perfection. Played by Rick Wakeman, Wagner's creation drinks a whole lotta beer, belches and literally takes the piss on the floor... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Franz looks on as Wagner readies to “turn on” his creation of German Perfection, THOR! Played by Rick Wakeman, Wagner’s THOR drinks a whole lotta beer, belches and literally takes the piss on the floor…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

It sits all alone as a film completely unique unto both itself and to the Film Artist who was Ken Russell.

This is my last defense of one of my favorite movies. I’ve intentionally tried not to give too much of the film away. My hope is that someone who has not seen it will venture to see it.

Comforted only be the boob of Little Nell, Franz finds little comfort in the isolation of the Catholic Church. But hold steady, Pope Ringo is on the way... Roger Daltrey / Little Nell Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Comforted only be the boob of Little Nell, Franz finds little comfort in the isolation of the Catholic Church. But hold steady, Pope Ringo is on the way…
Roger Daltrey / Little Nell
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

From time to time the unedited R-rated film shows up in full on YouTube, tho Warner Brothers is rightly quick to yank it off. I do not expect we will ever see this film restored.

However, it’s fanbase continues to build. Just search the Internet.

Alone, odd, wacky, profane, and rocking to it's own beat -- This odd cinematic error stands alone. Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky (US Original Movie Poster)

Alone, odd, wacky, profane, and rocking to it’s own beat — This odd cinematic error stands alone.
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky
(US Original Movie Poster)

Rock on.

Matty Stanfield, 9.25.2015

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

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

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

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

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

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

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

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

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

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

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015