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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

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

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

Draw your own conclusion.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

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

Evil has not come to Jeanne without invitation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 8.25.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I noticed Josephine Decker was when she appeared as an actor in Joe Swanberg’s 2011 film, Uncle Kent.  It is a great film and it gained a great deal as soon as Decker walked into Swanberg’s frame. Realistic, casually beautiful and charismatic — Josephine Decker made an impression.

Artist, Josephine Decker. Image from project for The School of Making and Thinking with Adriana Disman

Artist, Josephine Decker. Image from project for The School of Making and Thinking with Adriana Disman

It didn’t take me long to discover her first documentary feature, 2008’s Bi the Way (co-directed with Brittany Blockman) and her solo documentary, 2010’s Squeezebox.  She went on to act in two more Swanberg projects in 2011. Not to mention that she also created a video for Charlie Hewson’s song, Where Are You Going, Elena? which incorporated animation by Matt Monson. But it was in her 2012’s Me the Terrible short, that seems to have actually begin to find her unique cinematic voice.

Me the Terrible by Josephine Decker, 2012. A determined little girl pirate sets out to conquer NYC!

Me the Terrible by Josephine Decker, 2012. A determined little girl pirate sets out to conquer NYC!

When I first saw Josephine Decker’s first feature length film, 2013’s Butter on the Latch, it wasn’t just revelatory — it was a metaphorically saturating adventure from which presented me with a challenge to reorient myself to step out of the theater and back into the remainder of the day. Emerging out of a sort of dazed state and gradually regaining my grounding, this potent film gave me more than a fair share of food for thought. It haunted me. It would take another viewing — this time on a big screen television — before I could allow myself to grasp what Butter on the Latch was actually about. That statement is not intended to be taken as a negative, but a very positive statement regarding a layered and challenging example of Film Art at it’s most experimental. Over a year later I had the opportunity to see her next film and my initial opinion of this filmmaker’s work felt validated.

Josephine Decker’s two films are more of a “cinematic experience” than simply getting lost in a movie’s narrative or style. Once these two films start, you have no choice but to enter Decker’s worlds. I find both films to be equally hypnotic in their ability to pull me in.

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch offers a unique perspective regarding the ways society, culture, folklore, music, dance, singing, desire and creativity impact not only a friendship but the formation of identity. It would be far too easy to call the film an adventure into the psyche of friendship or an emotional break. I also find comparisons of her work to that of David Lynch almost offensive. Thanks to what appears to be an artistically shared aesthetic with her cinematographer, Ashley Connor, Decker skillfully creates a world that sometimes looks and seems “real” — but is ultimately shifted into a disarmingly “unreal” space.

Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker: 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker: 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

For me, the plot of Butter on the Latch is secondary to the way Decker constructs the world in which it evolves. For a film that runs under 80 minutes in length, the movie itself feels far shorter.  That is a rare occurrence. In the last decade or so we have seen average film lengths span far longer than necessary. Challenging and artistic cinematic work normally requires patience from the audience. Josephine Decker’s film is never rushed or slow in pace. Intensity and intimacy are so cleverly fueled throughout the movie that she is often able to slow the pace without the audience noticing. Within only a few minutes, Butter on the Latch drops us into what is clearly NYC. Or, more probably Brooklyn. It is within those first few moments that a cleverly edited one-sided cell phone call conversation morphs this artistically thriving and socially active city into a sexually menacing and dangerously intense space. Then, without warning, we find ourselves on the road in what is clearly The Bay Area of Northern California.

Sarah Small walking into the familiar but losing the trail into the unknown aspects of nature and human connection. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small walking into the familiar but losing the trail into the unknown aspects of nature and human connection. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Although it is never clearly stated, it is clear from Decker’s use of POV that we are joining our protagonist into a beautiful space of a folk culture inspired festival and workshops. And while it is clear our two main characters are reuniting within the context of a communal event. This is a gathering to celebrate Balkan culture and folklore in what I suspect is the Mendocino Folklore Camp. Any known perceptions of this community are quickly challenged. Decker’s use of folklore, storytelling, ancient music and dance fuel the film forward into a world of dread and ever present threat that is hiding just a bit further into the woods of this mystical world.

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

When Sarah asks her friend, “Why aren’t you giving me any specifics?” — Isolde seems to either side-step or dismiss this question in a manner that simultaneously feels realistic and passively annoyed. There is a consistently odd mix of concern and indifference that puts not only Sarah, but us in the uncomfortable position of having to cautiously trust Isolde. As Sarah and Isolde attempt to re-connect Isolde shares a recent massage experience that is filled with erotic pleasure but veers so far into male domination / manipulation of Isolde’s body that her reason for sharing her experience almost seems that she is trying to eroticize a sexual violation. All the more alarming, she gives Sarah the name of the “masseur” and urges Sarah to seek the same experience.

"Oh, you know that place..." Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

“Oh, you know that place…”
Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

This brief interaction of two young women chatting feels “realistic” but loaded with subversive intent.  These two women appear to be fully empowered and sexually confident, but it is here that Decker’s film  twists conventional ideas around “girl’s talk” to pull us into an ever-growing threat of predatory dangers.

"What is that drink called again?" Isolde Chae-Lawrence drinks it all down in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“What is that drink called again?” Isolde Chae-Lawrence drinks it all down in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Decker’s masterful manipulation of surroundings of nature, music, dance, and Connor’s stunning cinematography in the editing process creates a tone that refuses to become official “Surreal” but is powerfully disorienting.  Josephine Decker creates a very specific world in order to pull us into a reworking of Balkan folklore. The actual shifting point comes quite early as both friends enter an almost hallucinatory state of drunken confusion. While it appears to a be shared journey into an ancient culture and self-awareness is largely Sarah’s lonely trek into unknown realms of nature and female humanity.

"I don't know where we're going." Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“I don’t know where we’re going.” Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

The deeper Sarah steps into understanding and mastering the Balkan manner of chanting and music to express the culture’s ancient folklore as a tool of connection to the past to form a shared experience in the present — the more feelings of desire, loneliness and isolation seem to mount. What is initially so beautiful is deconstructing into something laced with intensely with madness.

The menace of dark magik and madness are hiding the woods of Mendocino. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashely Connor

The menace of dark magik and madness are hiding the woods of Mendocino. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashely Connor

Sarah reads an example of Balkan Folklore about a young maiden who is stolen away by a dragon. To escape the dragon, the beautiful maiden concocts a magical potion which will force the powerful dragon into a deep sleep so that she can escape. It is read in a relaxed way with Sarah pointing to the charm of ancient stories. Isolde seems to be slipping into a deep slumber herself and mutters this will be her bedtime story. Later, a good-looking and gentle musician is spotted by Isolde. Sarah takes notice and is immediately attracted to him. Isolde dismisses the man’s appearance and conduct. Isolde appears to be upset, but fails to communicate it. Instead they both drink excessively. The two friends lose their way back to their cabin. Isolde seems to become more than frustrated with Sarah. Blaming her for getting them lost, she storms away into the darkness. Is Isolde angry because she is interested in a man? Or, is she angry because she blames Sarah for getting them lost? Is it jealousy? Is it frustration? Or, is Sarah just confused?  It is a point that is never really fully understood. But Sarah wakes the next morning in a panic. She seems to scramble to flee the cabin. It almost feels as if she is running away from something. After calming down, Sarah begins to proactively pursue the man, the tension mounts over the relationship between the two women. Or, does it?

Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker , 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker , 2013
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson flirt in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson flirt in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Butter on the Latch
Josephine Decker, 2013
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

As tensions mount and Sarah’s advances toward the musician are reciprocated, Sarah’s perceptions start to become less trustworthy. There is a vague sense that she feels she is being pursued by something in the woods. Is it a dragon? Is it Isolde? Is it madness waiting out there? Has Sarah lost the ability to perceive the difference between reality and fantasy? Is she dealing with some sort of disorder? Fantasy Prone Personality, perhaps? Or is her paranoia real? Or is she simply worn out and lost in the mystical beauty of music and folklore?

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson at the lake. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson at the lake. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

When Sarah and the musician disrobe, the truly beautiful eroticism they start to share becomes foggy and takes a disturbing turn.  Sarah senses the presence of the threatening menace hiding just beyond her view in the trees. The film arrives to a disturbing conclusion that is vague. It is also a conclusion which is surprisingly satisfyingly. This is cinematic magic.

"What is that? Did you hear that?" Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“What is that? Did you hear that?” Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 Butter on the Latch is distinctively unique from every perspective. Most importantly, it is a fascinating experience that should not be missed. As good as it is, Josephine Decker’s evolution as a filmmaker progresses to a whole other level with her second feature length film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

It is almost impossible to imagine the the budget for her second film was just over $18,000.00. There is nothing about Mild and Lovely that looks “micro-budget” — it has the polish and glow of major studio production. Any comparisons to major studio films ends there. Though Josephine Decker has stated that Steinbeck’s East of Eden influenced several elements of the movie, other critics have compared it to Flannery O’Connor and Terrence Malick. And of course, the sad state of Film Criticism / Film Theory that automatically point to David Lynch at the slightest hint of “something weird” or “stylistically perverse” — an over-used comparison. It is usually an incorrect comparison. I think it is particularly incorrect to compare this film to David Lynch. To be honest, I can only grasp a little bit in Mild and Lovely that might have been inspired by Steinbeck. If you were to pin me in a corner and demand a comparison, the only comparisons that might be valid would be Louis Malle’s Black Moon — a sluggish but lushly experiment in Surrealism as a statement of political unrest. Or maybe some elements employed by Roman Polanski in his adaptation of Roland Topor’s The Tenant. But this constant need to compare one artist to another is usually pointless. It is especially pointless in the case of Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Sophie Traub is Sarah in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sophie Traub is Sarah in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

One should not forget to remember that this film was made by a female artist and is largely concerned with a female character who serves as a sort of narrator throughout the movie. Josephine Decker continues her exploration of ideas nature and the role it plays in the ways humanity connects to form identity, family, lovers, community and often form into subcultures that oppose the way culture/society tries to pre-determine.  Once again, Josephine Decker displays an extraordinary way of taking the familiar and bends it all into something we have never seen before. Decker employees Ashley Connor’s beautifully lush off-kilter camera work along with unexpected POV’s, editing, sound and the fascinating charisma of her actors to form a more conventionally structured narrative than she presented in Butter on the Latch.

Decker has secured a group of more professionally skilled actors. While Sophie Traub is the least known actor involved, her performance is an exceptional display of technique. This actor knows what she is doing and brings Decker’s dialogue to life. Many of Sarah’s lines and actions could easily lead an actor toward cliche and even “camp” — Traub is so invested in her role that the deep-rooted sadness and damage find their way into every movement and glance. It is a nuanced portrait of an intelligent but stunted woman. Joe Swanberg, a visionary Independent Filmmaker and a capable actor succeeds in capturing a seemingly beaten-down and depressed man. He seems to want to hide not only the truth of his life, but his sexual impulses. Swanberg’s Akin is brooding a mixture of desire and violence that serves as an uncomfortable threat to both of the other characters.

Joe Swanberg in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker,2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Joe Swanberg in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker,2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

But viewer beware: there is nothing “conventional” about this film. But the most potent actor here is Robert Longstreet. Longstreet carries a great deal of “cred” within the Independent Filmmaking scene. His talent, abilities and charisma can’t be beat. As Jeremiah he presents an unsettling and often horrific performance. We are never fully allowed access the secret that bonds him so closely to Sarah, but thanks to Longstreet’s mix of amiable redneck and a consistently cruel tension — we know that the secret must be horrific. And, it is most likely still alive under the barn. Decker is joined by both David Barker and Steven Schardt as co-editors and the film’s pace and perspectives are even more effective here than in Butter on the Latch.

"My lover knows how to love me. But things kept getting in the way." Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“My lover knows how to love me. But things kept getting in the way.” Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a fresh and constantly innovative take on the Modernist idea of American Gothic. Firmly rooted in Art Horror genre, there is a great deal more here than meets the eye or the expectations related to both of these styles. The film is structured by ever changing visual perspectives — often we see this world reflected from the perspective of animals on the farm. The world of this American farm is lensed from perspectives of  a goat, other times a dog or hog take over to provide our restricted view into the intimacies of the humans who are working and living within the confines of this world.

Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

The other narrative device Decker provides is Sarah’s voice reading her poetry. Sarah’s writing is fixated on her ideal lover. Cryptic and romantic, her free form poem carries us throughout the story. And once again, a familiar type of construction that becomes more insightful as we move forward. Sarah offers clues into not only her desires, but into her fractured view of her world. In many ways, she is still a child. But her sexual desires for Akin is almost boiling over. It is due to her stunted emotional development that she is often unaware of the way she presents herself to Akin. Like a child, she often appears to not understand when she exposes something sexual because one suspects no one has ever been there to guide her.

Dreams of Akin in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Photography | Ashley Connor

Dreams of Akin in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Photography | Ashley Connor

Prepping the lettuce. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Prepping the lettuce. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, Sarah attempts to seduce Akin. Her mode of seduction is almost as unsettling as where it leads. Covered in mud and sweat, she pursues the opportunity to catch a frog after Akin admits to having a deep dislike of reptiles.

"Bad Froggie!" Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Owen

“Bad Froggie!” Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Owen

 

She plays with the frog in a childlike-sexual manner and without any warning she gleefully resorts to animal cruelty in hopes of attracting Akin. Just as unexpected, Akin does respond. But this is not lust or desire, this is rape. Akin assaults Sarah with cruel force. But the response of  his sexual violence appears to disappoint Akin as much as it unsettles the audience.

Perverse Seduction.  Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Perverse Seduction.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Brutal Response.  Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Brutal Response.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah’s perception of sex is either learned from the animalistic nature she has seen on Jeremiah’s farm or is alarming masochistic based on whatever secret has bound her to Jeremiah. While Sarah freely calls Jeremiah “Daddy” — it doesn’t take him long to inform Akin that he is not her father. Their are moments of what appears to be love between Jeremiah and Sarah, but never without an underlying tone of danger and doom.

Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Just as soon as you suspect you might have determined the ingredients of Josephine Deckers oddly beautiful but phantasmagorical brewing stew of human tragedy, she creatively throws us off-course. The truth of what may or may not be waiting beneath the barn remains unknown.

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

This is film so comfortably committed to itself, it offers no easy “out” or clear conclusion. Its power will haunt you long after you experience it.

Joe Swanberg in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Joe Swanberg in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

The buttons have been pushed and the envelope has fallen off the desk, but it is impossible to look away or dismiss Thou Wast Wild and Lovely. Josephine Decker has crafted a world that pulls you in and holds you tight until the credits roll. The one thing that you can be sure of — there is no room for a “neutral” response to this film art. One will either love or hate it. I loved it.

Filmmaker Josephine Decker exploring the senses. Photograph | Adriana Disman from The School of Making and Thinking.

Filmmaker Josephine Decker exploring the senses. Photograph | Adriana Disman from The School of Making and Thinking.

I can’t wait to see what world she creates next.