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Every once in a while a movie comes along that captures a cultural moment. And, sometimes, that same movie can also offer insights into subcultures long forgotten. And, with a backward glance, the moving images and sounds seem to act as a unified predictor. A film like this becomes a touchstone to our past. A link from our current to a past that often feels foreign and alien. This is one such movie…

"This is as far as the elevator goes." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982

“This is as far as the elevator goes.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982

It was in August of 1982 that Slava Tsukerman’s notorious cult film, Liquid Sky, debuted at Montreal World Film Festival. Heads were turned, jaws dropped and the festival awarded the Special Jury Prize to the director. The film went on to receive several other key Art Film Festival awards. Sadly the movie received a minimal theatrical release. In the US it did manage to strike a chord and secure a following via its VHS release. Liquid Sky has become an essential Cult Film. The fact that it continues to be challenging to track down and watch have only added to its allure within the Cult Film Cannon.

This is not your average low-budget movie. The filmmaker, his wife and his cinematographer were fresh from The Soviet Union. They had managed to find a way to New York City to make a movie. It wasn’t long before they were collaborating with a performance artist who seemed to be on the fast track to stardom within the underworld of the Post-Punk/New Wave club scene. This history of the film’s 28 day production story can be found across the span of The Internet. The key here is understanding that this Russian filmmaker captured a moment both fantastic and scary. He may not have had a big budget, but he most certainly had a big cinematic vision filled with ideas and aspirations.

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

There are a couple of crucial elements which blast the viewer within the first three minutes of Liquid Sky:

  1. A human face framed within a sphere of neon light that reveals itself to be a mask of sorts.
  2. The music sounds vintage early ’80’s, but is just slightly off-key and deeply odd — even a bit altogether off.
  3. The Twin Towers / Empire State Building skyline (the lower midtown perspective?) is not only familiar — it is iconic. And yet, there is a myst of fog that seems sort of wrong.
  4. A flying saucer hovers toward the screen.
  5. Unhappy people in a darkly grim club jerk and dance about. The beats indicate fun, the melody warns danger and the people look more focused than happy.

Welcome to Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky. This cult film is respected for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important and immediate is the use of electronic music. The often discordantly familiar mixed with unique samplings of dialogue and other bits of music make it completely unique. We are hearing one of the earliest uses of the first true digital sampler keyboards and it is scoring the entire movie. These are the sounds of the Fairlight CMI Series 1 that pulsate out from the screen. The music manages to be at once primitive and complex. It is sinister, but with the slightest twinge of pop happy beats.This very well might be the first example of ElectroClash. The Fairlight CMI Series 1 was not actually new, but not many musicians owned them and even fewer knew how to play/use the digital sampling keyboard.

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day. EMI, London, 1978

Stephen Paine demonstrated and sold The Fairlight CMI Series One to both Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel on the same day.
EMI, London, 1978

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were among the first few musicians to actually purchase and pursue the use of the instrument. The Fairlight CMI gave life to Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album and his 1982 Deutsches Album. It played an even stronger role in giving Kate Bush’s sonic visions live for both Never for Ever and The Dreaming albums. And in fact it is easy to state that the sounds and looks of Liquid Sky have served as influence for a number of creative artists.

When actress, Paula E. Sheppard, takes the club’s darkly lit stage — she is straddling a cumbersome sort of electronic box. It might appear that her mic is broadcasting the inner workings of her chest, but her heartbeat has been sampled. It pulsates from her electronic box. As she lifts that microphone up towards her vexingly beautiful and malicious face she begins an odd bit of what I would call “Slam Poetry.” She seems to threaten her club audience with her words. While the verses to “Me and My Rhythm Box” might be pretentious — they are also oddly effective. In another actor and filmmakers’ hands this scene could have been painfully bad. But here, within the confines of Liquid Sky — this drone and wail of a song plays energetically and deeply weird. This is electronic music with a purpose. The cheesy happiness of 1980’s MTV is not present. Nor will you notice any of the ironic No-Wave disco-threat of Blondie. Slava Tsukerman and his synth composers — Brenda I. Hutchinson and Clive Smith — are in total and complete step with their filmmaker’s vision. Liquid Sky ‘s musical score is totally unique, worrying and unforgettable.

"Me and my rhythm box. Are you jealous, folks? My rhythm box is sweet. Never forgets a beat..." Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Me and my rhythm box.
Are you jealous, folks?
My rhythm box is sweet.
Never forgets a beat…”
Paula E. Sheppard rocks the mic at The Pyramid Club, East Village NYC, c. 1981
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

I suppose some might disagree, but it isn’t a far leap to realize that what we are seeing and hearing would go on to influence artists lucky enough to secure a copy of Media Home Entertainment‘s highly prized VHS tape. You should not jump to judge my assertion until you have seen this movie and compared it to early sounds/looks of artists like Fischerspoon, Miss Kittin & The Hacker as well as pop-sensation Lady Gaga.

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash "Hi Huh-I Hyper Hyper-media-ocrity You don't need to Emerge from nothing You don't need to tear away! Feels good Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too..." Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Liquid Sky Influencing Electroclash
“Hi Huh-I Hyper
Hyper-media-ocrity
You don’t need to
Emerge from nothing
You don’t need to tear away! Feels good
Looks good Sounds good Looks good Feels good too…”
Fischerspooner, Emerge, 2001

Paula E. Sheppard’s Adrian is performing not on a set, but in a very real Post-Punk/New Wave NYC Underground club. The Pyramid was where Tsukerman filmed all of the movie’s club scenes. This club is legendary and has served as home to a number of NYC subcultures for decades. The lower East Village hole-in-the-wall could tell us an unlimited number of stories. At one time a home to NYC PUNKS then to their Post-PUNK / New Wave offspring and on toward to both the American Hardcore and GLBTI NYC communities.

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia... No wave here. The Radicts and The Bruisers Pyramid Club advert, 2006

By 2006 Pyramid Club presents PUNK by way of nostalgia… No wave here.
The Radicts and The Bruisers
Pyramid Club advert, 2006

Adrian’s musical performance and jaded delivery hold up to the likes of Miss Kittin and The Hacker. While she may not have the ability to fully utilize her rhythm box as well as Miss Kittin or Fischerspooner — both owe this film a nod for their sounds that would lead us into the ElectroClash sound of the early ’00’s. And it makes sense. Adrian is attempting to thrive within the dystopia of post-70’s NYC. This is Ed Koch’s nightmare of a city. As grim as it was — it did provide some surprisingly cheap housing options and opportunities.

Liquid Sky inspires... "Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra. Do you know Frank Sinatra? He's dead..." Miss Kittin & Hacker The First Album, 2001

Liquid Sky inspires…
“Every night with my star friends. We eat caviar and drink champagne. Sniffing in the VIP area we talk about Frank Sinatra.
Do you know Frank Sinatra? He’s dead…”
Miss Kittin & Hacker
The First Album, 2001

It was not off the Manhattan grid, but it was not an area that most would have cared to have roamed after sunset. The club offered risk of danger and lent an edge to an evening of clubbing before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the cruel leadership of Ronald Reagan. As Debbie Harry sang on her 1989 album:

“Darkness falls like a black leather jacket and melts into the sidewalk like a sleeping drunk. In the streets, the wind throws yesterday’s headlines around.
Another night comes and goes. So, for awhile back then there was someplace to go.
Somewhere more home than a house. A family of choice, not an accident, but sometimes as soon as something gets started it’s over.

Now the days are much shorter and the people from the good part of town all come around, but the something is missing even though there’s more there now.
I shrug off my attempts to explain how a torn T-shirt made it all danger again…” Debbie Harry, End of the Run, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave Debbie Harry Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

The Ultimate Queen of NYC PUNK / Post-PUNK / New Wave
Debbie Harry
Photograph | Arthur Elgort, 1989

Now Ms. Harry would have been referring to CBGB‘s or MUDD Club, but it is important to note that Pyramid Club might not have been on the radar of the darlings of the NYC PUNK / POST-PUNK or New Wave of 1981 — but in perhaps an even more important way — Pyramid Club was home to the many clubbers who couldn’t quite make it to the big rooms of those more anti-popular clubs. And it was within Pyramid‘s walls that some very real shit went down.

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her. Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No. This is not Lady Gaga, but the looks / sounds may have inspired her.
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

It is likely that Blondie’s lead singer walked through Pyramid doors at some point. Most certainly it is likely that Madonna ventured there. Liquid Sky features Otto von Wernherr in the role of the German astrophysicist who is the only person aware of an alien presence that has invaded the home of the film’s two main characters. Wernherr was a musician / actor / artist and fixture of the late 70’s / early 80’s NYC Downtown Scene and an early Madonna collaborator. That collaboration was already happening as Liquid Sky was filmed.

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky... Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000 Cinematography | John McNulty

The more famous attempt to capture the NYC underground Post-Punk/New Wave movement is actually less revealing than what is found in Liquid Sky
Debbie Harry & Jean-Michel Basquiat
Downtown 81 / New York Beat Movie
Edo Bertoglio, 1981/2000
Cinematography | John McNulty

If Liquid Sky‘s Adrian character is the symbol of artist, then the character of Margaret is more closely tied to the artist who yearns for success and validation that is almost impossible to secure. We know immediately that Anne Carlisle’s Margaret is a model. She is also Adrian‘s promiscuous lover and flatmate. As Adrian performs with her rhythm box, Margaret is backstage prepping for a fashion show. A show that will be taking place in the club. The other models seem only to be in background of Margaret‘s beauty. The only model who challenges her is an effeminate gay man, Jimmy.

"Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?" Anne Carlisle x 2 Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you going to come to my roof tomorrow night?”
Anne Carlisle x 2
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first glance he seems to be Margaret‘s doppelgänger. The then up and coming performance artist, Anne Carlisle, is playing both Margaret and Jimmy. To Slava Tsukerman’s credit, the dual roles are only obvious when the film wants it to be. Tightly and cleverly edited, Margaret and Jimmy are two very different characters. Margaret and Jimmys’ fashion show takes place within minutes of the film’s beginning.

Striking a pose... Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Striking a pose…
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

This fashion sequence serves as not only a set-up for the film’s oddly complex world, it also pulls us into the era in which the film was made. While these models look like what we might associate with the very early 1980’s — it is important to note that these “looks” were ahead of the cultural curve in 1981. When I first saw this movie in 1983, these models/actors looked absolutely other-worldly. Their painted faces, geometric clothing and posing were all new to my eyes. While they might have shared some similarity with Adam Ant, Missing Persons, Bow Wow Wow, Boy George and Flock of Seagulls — the people on the screen offer no semblance of charity or fun. This clique is hard-edged and seemed almost intent on menace.

"Something strange is going on here." Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Something strange is going on here.”
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

These hipsters want your attention, but they are not willing to beg for it. Just the opposite, these models and their respective looks are daring us not to give them our attention. The colors may be bright neon and they might be covered with make-up, but these danger boys and girls are out for blood. This is not just a fashion show — it is almost a declaration of war.

Dare you not to look and love me... Benjamin Liu Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Dare you not to look and love me…
Benjamin Liu
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Also within minutes of the film’s start we figure out that there is a lot more going down than performance, fashion and clubbing. Adrian is an established heroin dealer. That human face mask hangs in she and Margaret‘s penthouse apartment. This work of art offers dual meaning. It is the same face shared by both Margaret and Jimmy. It is also not a mask — it is the holding/hiding place for Adrian‘s supply of heroin. A supply that she sells to everyone from uptown artsy folks but to everyone within her orbit. Margaret might be the only person in Adrian‘s world who has no interest in the power of her powdered sky just waiting to be heated into milk for injection.

So here we have a film that is about clubbing, strutting and drugs. Where does the Sci-Fi element come in?

"Are you sure this has something to do with UFO's?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Are you sure this has something to do with UFO’s?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

No one can ever accuse Slava Tsukerman of constructing a slow-moving film. We witness the arrival of invaders from space within minutes of the movie’s beginning. Liquid Sky‘s construction is tight and unusual. Things happen simultaneously. They also happen with minimal explanation or character development. In most cases this approach would stunt a film, but it is one of Liquid Sky‘s magical elements. I should note that I first saw this film when I was 16 years of age. This might seem a great trip movie, but it is not. As trippy as the film is it is not conducive to positive altered state viewing. The paranoia, cruelty and perversities work against the fun aspect of a stoned age viewing. It is most likely due to my state at the time I first saw Liquid Sky that I did not understand the invasion from space plot twister.

"In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures -- punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“In the beginning Aliens were spotted in places with large amounts of heroin. Later Aliens appeared in specific subcultures — punk circles. Still around heroin, but in these circles even more. Strange deaths have occurred…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

We see the alien flying saucer arrive at nearly the same time we meet Adrian, Margaret and Jimmy. We also are given the alien’s perspective as it approaches the rooftop of Adrian and Margarets’ penthouse apartment. Most cleverly we are also given a view of the alien itself. The alien and its space ship interior. Both perspectives are truly psychedelic. But how does the introduction of alien invasion, surveillance, fashion, music, drug use/abuse and sexuality anchor Liquid Sky to the subcultures within which the film is placed?

"Where are the drugs?" Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Where are the drugs?”
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Most likely it was never Tsukerman’s intention to create a film that we can now view as a sort of chronicle of the NYC Post-Punk/New Wave subculture. And it is most certainly sure that he never intended the movie to serve as a signal predicting the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Wether intentional or not, there should be no denying the film’s ability to do both things. Liquid Sky is a low-budget film with big budget aspirations. It is essentially a science fiction horror movie, but its genre goals are almost buried beneath a polarizing depiction of the New York City Underground Club scene of 1981. It is a depiction that stings and slips under the viewer’s skin.

"Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Jimmy is the new Miss. America! he has all the mannerisms of a sex symbol.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

At first, in 1981, it seemed that a disease was being caught / spread by members of the gay community. It was quickly becoming an outbreak. Initially the sicknesses was coined as The 4H Disease as the syndromes seemed to be inflicting homosexual men, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Despite some obvious signs, that initial name did not catch on as well as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) It wasn’t long before the CDS realized this was not an illness restricted to any one segment of the population. Certainly those living in cities like New York were realizing this long before the tragic epidemic was assigned the name AIDS in July of 1982. But in 1981 the young people populating the New York City Underground had not yet fully grasped the meaning of what was beginning to strike their respective communities. Paranoia and fear were already running rampant for a number of socio-political reasons. Liquid Sky captures an artistic world caught in the magic and the horror of the era.

"Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn't depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don't you think? Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on the kind of genitalia they have. As long as I find someone attractive. Don’t you think?
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The world of Liquid Sky takes place in the rag-tag world of the Artist as Outsider. More specifically, the world of Tsukerman’s film is concerned with outsiders and misfits. As in reality, the world of the arts is populated with youth, creativity and sexual experimentation. Sexuality is either fluid or leaning toward homosexuality. The Post-PUNK/New Wave NYC subculture is tightly connected to the pulse of the NYC Gay subculture. And both are freely connected to sex, drugs, music and art. Liquid Sky has a morality, but it is based in humanism rather than in the political.

Early on we watch Margaret attempt to seduce her male counterpart, Jimmy. It is here we are granted a cruel view of misogyny. It isn’t that Jimmy is just turned off by the idea of fucking a woman  — he makes it fairly clear that he detests women across the board. He treats Margaret as if she were nothing more than a link to drugs. Margaret has a tough shell, but something about Jimmy‘s cruelty eggs her on toward him. This seems to be a girl who is not used to being turned down. Despite his cruelty she is unwilling to write the mean queen off.

The only character who seems concerned with any other’s sexual preference is Adrian‘s uptown client. A failing artist who seems to have once clung to the idea that heroin will spark his artistic vision is now just uncomfortably numb. He finds Margaret’s androgynous beauty alluring, but he is far too concerned regarding her sexual preference. To Margaret and Adrian this junkie is normal and dull.

"What kind of drugs will you have?" Anne Carlisle Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“What kind of drugs will you have?”
Anne Carlisle
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Adrian clearly identifies as lesbian and seems to be disgusted by Margaret‘s promiscuity. And like Margaret she too has dreams of fame and success. Both women are damaged, but while Margaret has soaked up her sadness — Adrian funnels an insane level of sadness and rage into her work. Theirs is a dysfunctional relationship beyond reason, but they seem to cling to each other. Sex is merely fun and a tool. All of these characters trade in sex and shared works. Adrian is repulsed by the idea of her client wanting to have sex with Margaret but is totally cool with sharing her spoon, syringe and rubber band. Margaret attempts to procure cocaine by snuggling up to straight dude at the club. In the end she is brutally raped. She seems to accept this act of cruelty as a dark part of her life with which she must deal. She also seems totally committed to being mistreated by her girlfriend.

"I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?" Otto von Wernherr Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I am a stranger in this country. How can I see what they do on private property?”
Otto von Wernherr
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Both Anne Carlisle and Paula E. Sheppard are highly effective in their respective roles. We may not know these two characters but they feel genuine. The same is true for much of the cast. Otto Von Wernherr would never win an award for acting, but he is believable as the befuddled West German scientist trying to understand what these space aliens are doing in this circle of artists. At first he suspects the aliens are only interested in the heroin which shoots so freely among these characters, but soon it is revealed that these invaders are even more interested in the chemical reaction that orgasm creates within the brains of these humans. The interesting trick of the film is that while the film is never formerly concerned with character development, it fully utilizes the skills and charisma of the actors.

"For me it's easy. Hell to Hell. I'm not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing  the world. I don't lie to myself that love can cure because I know I'm alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well."  The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep. Paula E. Sheppard Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“For me it’s easy. Hell to Hell. I’m not dancing in marijuana jungles. I live in concrete mazes. Stone and glass hard like my heart. Sharp and clean. No romantic illusions for changing the world. I don’t lie to myself that love can cure because I know I’m alone. And you fought that every day. You lied. You lied. You go to hell. Suits you well.”
The nihilism of the slam poet runs deep.
Paula E. Sheppard
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Sex has become an empty act. It no longer means anything to Margaret. So when the people who force their way with her sexually begin to die at the instant of orgasm she has little to no concern for the deaths. She is more curious than concerned. When an older artist brushes aside her need for conversation, she barely puts forward an argument as he rapes her. Thing take on a perverse edge when Adrian walks in do discover the nude male body. She slips into a sort of trance and begins a grim sort of rap to the beat of her fist on her thigh. When she reveals her deepest sexual fantasy is to have sex with a dead man, Margaret is repulsed. However it takes a good deal of necrophiliatic  attempt before she tries to stop Adrian.

All the more upsetting when we realize that Margaret mistakes the aliens murdering her sexual partners to be a sign of power. For the first time in her life she thinks she is found her awakening. Her sex is no longer something to be traded or abused. Alien intervention has allowed her sex to become a threat. A threat she is more than happy to put to work.

"How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?" Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“How many of you want to see me fuck Margaret and not die?”
Paula E. Sheppard & Anne Carlisle push past the R-rating of the day…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The characters of Liquid Sky are sick, twisted and sad. And yet we feel compelled to watch. This is not the sort of interest one experiences while watching a John Waters movie. Despite a few goofs and a low-budget, Liquid Sky is an interesting film. Once the movie begins, the viewer is going to be in for the long haul. The alien aspect of the film is largely secondary. We are concerned with the people. Margaret‘s misguided interpretation of the strange events that have started to happen all around her lead her down a very dark alley of self-examination.

And it doesn’t take deep thinking to discover that Slava Tsukerman’s film serves most effectively as horrific predictor of the AIDS epidemic.

"I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn't it fashionable?" Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“I was taught that to be an actress one should be fashionable. And to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful. And I kill with my cult. Isn’t it fashionable?”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky is not a movie for the squeamish, but neither is it actually an example of “shock cinema.” Much of what we think we see is never really shown. And what is shown is potent. This is a horror film, but it is less a horror film about alien invasion than it is a horror film about human nature. Before everything goes inside out and upside down, Margaret is offered the chance to be interviewed for a cool underground fashion magazine. The reporter who would appear to be totally linked in with the whole gang takes a cruel turn when she interviews the would-be model. The aggressive reporter informs Margaret that her style of dress, make-up and living are tacky. Even though she is able to put the reporter in her place, her privilege is not granted or acknowledged. Margaret dares to be different, but ultimately she only finds power in what she thinks is her ability to kill.

"You wanted to know whom and what I am? I'm a killer." Anne Carlisle Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“You wanted to know whom and what I am? I’m a killer.”
Anne Carlisle
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky finds a surprising, clever and fitting conclusion. But the film’s resolution is not so easy that it makes the viewer comfortable. As low-fi as it sometimes is, Liquid Sky disturbs. It also entertains, informs and inspires. Going on 35 years, it continues to enlarge its following. Over the last couple of years there have been screenings held at BAM, MOMA and other venues. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle have always made themselves available to discuss the film, their work and their hope to find funding to restore and preserve Liquid Sky‘s original negative print.

It is decaying. Literally.

"This subculture is not like 'The Mods' or 'The Rockers.' The punks don't need help from the outside to kill themselves..." Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“This subculture is not like ‘The Mods’ or ‘The Rockers.’ The punks don’t need help from the outside to kill themselves…”
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

The VHS tape still fetches a good price on the market. Several DVD’s are floating around, but the quality is not good. Unlike most film art, Liquid Sky has actually managed to become more controversial with time. It also has the rare distinction of having aged like fine wine. This movie is more interesting every time I see it.

Despite the film’s strong following and the fact that it continues to inspire new generations of audience, there have been no takers to restore, preserve and redistribute. When the 1970’s slasher film, Alice Sweet Alice, began receiving some delayed glory there was hope that it might help Liquid Sky find a new life. After all  Alice herself is one of the key stars of this movie and Paula E. Sheppard has a cult following of her own.

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was "Alice." ...And she was scarier than the mask. Paula E. Sheppard Alice Sweet Alice Alfred Sole, 1978 Cinematography | Chuck Hall

A strange little girl. Before she slammed with her rhythm box she was “Alice.” …And she was scarier than the mask.
Paula E. Sheppard
Alice Sweet Alice
Alfred Sole, 1978
Cinematography | Chuck Hall

However she has always run from attention and rumor is that she found the experience of Liquid Sky negative. And sadly, Alfred Sole’s under rated horror film is still more famous for featuring a young Brooke Shields than it is for being an interesting and unusual genre film.

Liquid Sky continues to flow... "I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, "is it right or is it wrong?" If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here..." Lady Gaga Applause, 2013

Liquid Sky continues to flow…
“I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong. To crash the critics saying, “is it right or is it wrong?”
If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here…”
Lady Gaga
Applause, 2013

Even still, there is always hope. Tsukerman and Carlisle have even scripted a sequel that is ready to roll. No matter what the future holds for Liquid Sky, it is a movie that deserves attention. Seek it out if you dare.

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

"Killing all the teachers..." Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape... Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

“Killing all the teachers…”
Rebellion, Fashion, A Warning, Electroclash and a bit of history all in one VHS tape…
Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

“A glowing spaceship appears over the New York City skyline as dissonant New Wave music fills the multiple ears with their dangling rings. Junkies, models, poseurs and performance artists feed off each other in a battle to be the most fierce, all the while unaware that tiny aliens are harnessing their ecstasy. Most visitors to New York go to Serendipity for a frozen hot chocolate — these buggers are literally fueling their space ship with the power of the human orgasm, which turns the screen electric blue and red and green and purple.

“Liquid Sky” is set in New York City in the few years between disco and AIDS when young denizens indulged in exhibitionistic sex and hard drugs and took their fashion cues from the gleefully androgynous English New Romantic movement (big hair, frills, ruffles, theatrical make up). They danced like rusty robots in neon lit nightclubs. Within this odd demimonde Margaret (Anne Carlisle) lives and works as a successful model. She has the perfect life, with one exception: she kills everyone she has sex with, whether that sex is loving, non-consensual or even with her male doppelganger “Jimmy” (also played by Anne Carlisle, then a face at the Mudd Club, a key hangout of the period). Margaret is high maintenance (“You know this bitch takes two hours to go get ready to go anywhere,” says girlfriend Adrian, who nearly steals the film with her performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box”).

Shot in Ed Koch’s crumbling New York on a tiny budget, “Liquid Sky”’s now highly-influential look, which has informed the costumes of everyone from Karen O to Lady Gaga and Sia, came largely from Carlisle’s closet or thrift shop shopping bags. Carlisle, director Slava Tsukerman and co-producer Nina Kerova created a new kind of glamor queen who, Bowie-like, quite easily stokes the desire of the men and women — before leaving a crystal spike in the back of their brain. “I kill people that fuck me,” the character confesses. Is it worth it? Almost. Is it almost ghoulishly predictive? Absolutely. This was 1982.

“They already had AIDS, but it wasn’t that publicized,” says Tsukerman, who swears the film was conceived as science fiction. Tsukerman, who traveled from Moscow to Hollywood and then found himself in Carlisle’s fast-fashion world, where it seemed that everyone was a dancer, painter, band member, filmmaker or actor, adds, “The information about AIDS came after Liquid Sky.”

Carlisle was equally aghast when her real life friends began dying of this new sexually transmitted disease. “It was so amazing, because the film is really about dying from sex and then everyone started dropping. It was really, really eerie. That happens sometimes in creative life. You do something and it’s an accident that it actually comes true. It’s mystical.”

The two were already well established in the world of downtown film before “Liquid Sky” was co-conceived. Tsukerman had a film called “Sweeet Sixteen” which was nearly financed. “It was about a girl who was killed in a car accident in 1935 and her father, a crazy scientist, saves her head and makes a mechanical body,” he says. Andy Warhol was supposedly committed make an appearance. Carlisle had a film called “The Fish” which she was showing around the clubs. When the pair met, it was clear that Tsukerman found his muse — but he had reservations, once “Liquid Sky” began pre-production, that Carlisle, primarily a painter, model and self described “nihilist” who attended the School of Visual Arts, could handle the role of both Margaret and Jimmy, even though, as she recalls, “I had a boy’s haircut and a mini skirt. No one else was doing that.” Carlisle convinced him one day. “We were scouting locations and I dressed as a man and I picked up a girl in front of him and that was my audition,” she says. “She thought I was a boy. I admitted I was a girl and she said she was still into it.”

“Liquid Sky” has a pre-apocalyptic feel of the Cold War sci-fi with the slickness of much more expensive films like its contemporary “Blade Runner,” but the budget (about a half-million) nearly sparked a mutiny. “The crew was paid very little and they did revolt at one point over the food,” Carlisle says. “They were worked day and night. We worked terrible hours. That the film got made at all was a miracle. It was really — at one point, I was arguing with them, we’re making art here and you’re worried about food. And he said you’re making art here. We want pizza!”

Johan Liedgren’s latest film, The Very Private Work of Sister K, begins with a priest telling a story. He is doing so at the request of a young nun who sits at the end of a table. It’s the tale of a little rabbit who decides to take the opportunity to eat a bit of meat. The little rabbit discovers that being a vegetarian is too limiting. The tale’s ending is simple but disturbing. The little rabbit begins to hunt and consume meat. Soon it transforms into a bloodthirsty beast. His listeners are not only unsatisfied with this ending — they do not seem to understand the point. The priest is attempting to use his story as an ice-breaker, but he provided a revealing analogy.

His little fable is really more of a parable in which a meek creature has become a life-threatening menace. Sister K wants to hear his story once more before her hearing begins. The men in the room are far too polite and cautious to call the meeting by the appropriate term. Sister K, a young nun, has apparently committed several grave transgressions. Despite their initial protests, this is not a gathering to protect and assist Sister K. This gathering only appears informal and friendly. Four priests, a lawyer and a doctor have gathered to issue a judgement regarding the young nun. An older nun sits off the side. This young nun finds herself seated in front of the patriarchal order of Catholic Hierarchy.

A witness for persecution... Marty Mukhalian The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

A witness for persecution… “I speak loudly in German and pour cold water in the tub.”
Marty Mukhalian
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Johan Liedgren has effectively used a rabbit analogy before. The protagonist of his 2013 film, Mother Nature, is bullied, threatened and maligned as being the equivalent of a “little rabbit.” In that intense film, the father is gradually pushed to adapt the far more sinister powers to prove that he is far more than an innocuous creature. In both Mother Nature and The Very Private Work of Sister K, the idea of the respective protagonists as furry little creatures fit easily into one rabbit-like archetype. The only shared rabbit attribute is that they both manage to lead others down into deeply rooted holes.

Johan Liedgren’s Mother Nature came to my attention by accident. A friend had mentioned him as a potentially important emerging film artist. As it turns out he was not “emerging.” Liedgren was already firmly emerged and established. He is a respected and savvy storyteller who has been thinking out-of-the-box his entire career. And it is a career of note. Just press a few buttons to discover how successful he has been at creatively utilizing his skills in more than a few disciplines. Mother Nature is his first feature length film. It is a potent and unforgettable debut.  My friend had not seen the movie and I could find no reviews posted to iTunes when I took a chance and purchased a copy. It turned out to be a rewarding investment.

"I don't know why I feel like fucking with you. It's weird, but it was from the moment I saw you." Karina Deyko Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013 Cinematography | Trevor Fife

“I don’t know why I feel like fucking with you. It’s weird, but it was from the moment I saw you.”
Karina Deyko
Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013
Cinematography | Trevor Fife

Mother Nature presents itself within the trappings of an Art Horror film, but it is actually a surrealistic journey to the core of male identity. Liedgren’s film masterfully pushes the main character to his primordial core. Phillip Roebuck’s performance is perfectly matched with the manner in which the movie unfolds. We first see him playing with the family dog. Within a couple of minutes we know that he is a father taking his son and their dog on a short camping trip. This appears to be an outing designed to foster bonding. Father is out of sorts. His marriage has failed and now he wants to connect with his son.

This is not a father who easily fits into the mode of a fun loving dad. The son is not looking forward to hanging out with his father and the audience can’t help but understand. It is difficult to articulate, but Father is somehow unlikeable. Roebuck is brilliant in the role. With each small gesture and glance, this character just feels like a frustrated mass of inertia and depression. In the first portion of the movie, Father is of no interest. A skilled film actor is always welcome in any movie, but here it is of particular note. Roebuck is playing a character who turns out to be something far more than anticipated. Liedgren has written a character who will soon inhabit The Jungian Archetype. We do not see that coming and the transformation is unhinged and believable.

A father's identity is challenged to the core. Will he be up for the challenge? Phillip Roebuck Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013 Cinematography | Trevor Fife

A father’s identity is challenged to the core. Will he be up for the challenge?
Phillip Roebuck
Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013
Cinematography | Trevor Fife

At first, the “hero” of Mother Nature is not someone we can like. Roebuck rightfully plays the father as passively aggressive and slump shouldered. He is disagreeable and awkward. Karina Deyko’s character hates him upon first sight. His very existence annoys her. And she is more than eager to let him know. Thanks to exceptional directing, acting, writing, editing and cinematography — we can’t help but agree with her. This is a bold choice but effective. It is also in keeping with the film’s odd dark humor.

The surrounding nature is beautiful, but somehow sinister. It doesn’t take long for Father to piss off all of the neighboring campers. And all of these fellow campers seem to possess natural weirdness that lends itself to cruelty. The son rightfully wants to leave, but his father becomes determined to stand their ground. Passive anger begins to simmer to the boiling point. Father‘s inner animal instincts begin to take control. It never feels unbelievable. The father’s transformation to Warrior is warranted and, with hindsight, it is inevitable. Like a cunning animal waking from a deep sleep to defend his turf, Father no longer fears anything. External threats have provoked his realization of identity. This provocation leads him to primal instincts and it is  visceral. Father‘s strength was always there. It was just sleeping.

Thinking a snake has slithered under a fellow camper’s tent, he warns her and begins to poke beneath her enclosure to force the snake away. Instead of being appreciative — she seeks to humilate him. She refuses acknowledgment of his attempted kindness. Instead she incredulously accuses him of wanting her to like him. As if he has committed a crime by getting her attention she considers this snake to be of the Freudian variety. Frustrated and emasculated, he mutters that the snake is probably gone. Head bowed he admits he never actually saw it. His son claims to have seen it.

Well, not seeing it won’t make it go away.

"How do you want to play it? Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013 Cinematography | Trevor Fife

“How do you want to play it?
Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013
Cinematography | Trevor Fife

Like the priest in The Very Private Work of Sister K, father has a story to share with his son. Before he can even begin to tell it the son attempts to stop him.

Whenever you tell me stories you want something from me.

Father does not attempt to argue with him. He merely points out that this time it is only a story.

The story tells of an Alaskan park ranger who, while conducting a bear population study, ends up becoming trapped with a sleeping bear. This bear is pure beast who will most definitely kill and eat the ranger. The ranger manages to use a small pair of clippers to slice deep within the bear’s neck to severe its main artery. The triumphant ranger falls asleep atop the bear who has died in a pool of its own blood. The son is impressed, but the point is not clear.

But Father is already thinking that they are now trapped in a situation that is equally dangerous. A sociopathic camper begins to threaten Father and taunts him as being no more than “a little rabbit.” Liedgren’s film takes an unexpected turn. Mother Nature presents one man’s fight for survival. A meek little man transforms to Warrior.

Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013

Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013

Trevor Fife’s cinematography is simple but articulate and masterful. Ben Lukas Boysen’s musical score is pitch-perfect. The real star here is the ways in which Liedgren has collaborated with his crew of artists and then achieved a tightly edited story that is  as equally intense, unnerving and entertaining. It is of note that this film manages to register so deeply. Mr.Liedgren has not attempted to cash in on cheap effects. There is no sentimentality here, but we relate. We understand.

Mother Nature is one of those great movies that has never managed to secure the audience it deserves. It is available for rent or purchase on both Vimeo and iTunes. I highly recommend it. Watch the trailer for Mother Nature here.

The Very Private Work of Sister K is every bit as bold, provocative and surprising as Mother Nature, but the protagonist has a different sort of conflict. While it is far removed from the visceral world established in Mother Nature, the ideas of identity and the primordial inner battles of sexuality pulsing just beneath her habit is just as unrelenting.

Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share... The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share…
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

After she successfully nudges the priest to share his story, Sister K sits patiently awaiting the Catholic patriarchy attempt to lull her into believing that they have not gathered to judge her. Sister K’s gaze signals she knows better. Utilizing Catholic hierarchy to funnel age-old misogyny, sexually conflicted fears and hypocrisy, Liedgren has created a darkly comical and often sharp edged take on the parlor drama. This is a highly intellectual work that is fueled by words, but make no mistake — this is cinema.

Zia Mohajerjasbi’s camera is truly masterful and it reflects a majestic scope. Bryson Michael’s editing is decisive and elegant and smooth. Both of these of these crucial elements serve to elevate and add additional impact to Liedgren’s witty film. There is a simple complexity to both Mother Nature and The Very Private Work of Sister K that lead to almost quietly deafening resolutions. As I watched this film I could not help but think of Michael Haneke’s collaborations with Christian Berger and Monika Willi. While Haneke’s cinematic visions go to different places, Liedgren’s stylistic approach is similar. This is a film of ideas presented in a passionate but unsentimental language.

It should be noted that while the movie articulates dark comedy — it never sacrifices a thread of potency. It is refreshing to witness a filmmaker who can color outside the lines without surrendering to any level of uncertainty. This is a small film with big ideas — and all are pushed forward with style to match their substance. Essentially a chamber drama that takes place in one room, Liedgren never loses a cinematic hold. This is not a filmed play. This is cinema of ideas that flows easily and it never backs down from standing its ground.  Sister K and her judges are angry. But hunger trumps anger. Sister K is far to hungry to put with their repressive fear, stupidity and misogyny.

"Well, there's no story without evil." Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

“Well, there’s no story without evil.”
Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Thinking that they have safely hidden their true selves behind the fraudulent mask of fatherly concern, the judges are eager to punish their little rabbit. The priests appear to be ascetic, but they each have agendas that oppose this concept. Liza Curtiss plays Sister K with quiet resolve. She is no one’s martyr. It isn’t her future that seems to concern her. It is the hypocrisy and evil that thrives within the walls of her chosen faith. As the nature of her transgressions become clear so do the illogical viewpoints of the men who lead the Catholic Church. These men of God are all too eager to paint facts to match the color of their vileness. It is from this perspective that we understand that this young nun has become a bloodthirsty monster rabbit intend on defiling all they hold sacred. The story of that little rabbit transformed to bloodthirsty beast turns out to be more fable than parable. These holy men see unsuppressed women as menacing beasts.

Sister K is thirsty, but it is not for blood. She hungers for the knowledge, blessing and love of God. And from where Sister K sits — God has long left the Catholic Church. He has left the building and it is crumbling from the decay of corrupt power, repression and suppression. Sister K has found truth and salvation through the access that these so called men of God have refused her.  The priest most eager to deliver punishment is also the first to lick his lips and salivate as the detail of Sister K‘s transgressions are revealed. She sits accused of rape, but her judges are not concerned with the crime. Their worry is rooted in the fact that this young woman shows no remorse.

Did she take pleasure in her work? Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Did she take pleasure in her work?
Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Sister K disagrees that she has done any wrong. She has followed a path that offered both she and her supposed victim a freedom not thought possible. She is grateful for what she has experienced. The “victim” that her judges refuse to name has brought her close to God. She has experienced true salvation. But her accusers disagree. When she tries to explain how the sweetness of sexuality delivered her lover to the light of knowledge and contentment, a priest attempts to shame her.

He filled a nature!”

He woke up.

With an apple shoved down his throat!

An adam’s apple we would deny no other man!

It was just sex!

It was just an apple!

Her refusal to retreat like a sweet little rabbit is not going to happen. And she leads these men to the source of their problem: a fairy tale of a garden in which a woman lures all mankind to the doom of knowledge.

Johan Liedgren has made a film almost as angry as Ken Russell’s The Devils, but he contains that anger into a fascinating exchange between the accused and her accusers. The Very Private Work of Sister K is a cinematic provocation that relies on the power of ideas to spark a light in a dark world. In many ways Sister K is far more dangerous than a deranged flesh eating rabbit — she is an intelligent woman who smells the fraud. Our protagonist will not to be hunted or victimized. Actually, her work has only just begun.

The trailer can be viewed and the film can be rented or purchased here

 

"Good sex. That is where God goes to church." The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

“Good sex. That is where God goes to church.”
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Matty Stanfield, 11.9.2016

 

 

Master cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, was asked to comment on the way neon lights and lighting have impacted his work. As as part of the online exhibition from Mobile M+ and NEONSIGNS.HK, he revisited some of the locations in which he and Kar-wai Wong filmed some of iconic work:

The films we made at a certain period in the 80’s and 90’s wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for the space in which they were made…

Beauty hides in the shadows... Carina Lau Days of Being Wild Kar-wai Wong, 1990 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Beauty hides in the shadows…
Carina Lau
Days of Being Wild
Kar-wai Wong, 1990
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

…And our space is a neon space. It’s a light space. It’s a space of energy that is electric. It’s the way people move. It’s the energy of Hong Kong. It’s the excitement of the encounters on the street. And it’s lit by neon, basically. Especially at that time.

 

Surviving in a Neon World Tony Leung Chungking Express Kar-wai Wong, 1994 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Surviving in a Neon World
Tony Leung
Chungking Express
Kar-wai Wong, 1994
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

It’s a garish, exuberant possibly empty world if you’re not careful. I think that’s what neon is representing.” — Christopher Doyle, Filming in the Neon World.

For the full film/interview click here:

"Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don't know how long she'll stay." Fallen Angels Kar-Wai Wong, 1998 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don’t know how long she’ll stay.”
Fallen Angels
Kar-Wai Wong, 1998
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s work for Kar-wai Wong is some of the best cinematography one can ever expect to see. As he explains, it is exuberant — It is also erotic, unique, sensual, dangerous, disorienting and staggeringly beautiful. The shot posted above takes place in a space few of us would want to actually spend time. Much of Fallen Angels seems dirty and possibly even sinister, but eyes do not want to part with the visuals Doyle has captured. Less than a year later he would make his debut as a feature filmmaker. Away With Words featured one of Japan’s hottest  actors, Tadanobu Asano, and an impossibly cool use of music. Most importantly, it was visually amazing. The images of Away With Words imprinted on my brain. Sadly Doyle’s movie was never lucky enough to receive adequate distribution. But for those of us who did see it — the movie lives on.

The criminally neglected and forgotten... Tadanobu Asano Away With Words / San tiao ran Christopher Doyle, 1999

The criminally neglected and forgotten…
Tadanobu Asano
Away With Words / San tiao ran
Christopher Doyle, 1999

The world contained within Away With Words is magically infused with neon light. The movie actually seems to radiate much of the time. This film can still be found via DVD, though it has never received a proper transfer. It is still worth seeing. It is also almost impossible to find any screenshots that do it justice. I must disclose that Christopher Doyle is my favorite cinematographer. For me to write this is a big deal. I love cinematography and there are many artists I admire — but it is usually hard for me to pick out one artist above all others. I do not have this problem when it comes to cinematography. No one shoots a film like Mr. Doyle.

"Turns out that lonely people are all the same." Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Turns out that lonely people are all the same.”
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The use of neon lighting for film has been going on for some time. It’s seem obvious that lighting is as key to a movie as editing, but it is far more complex than simply providing enough light to capture an image. Lighting allows the filmmaker and cinematographer to not only guide but to literally shape a film’s meaning. Cinematography incorporates all essential elements to form the essence of a movie. When one thinks of neon lighting for film, it would seem it best for creating either a sterile environment or a world of shadows with the intention of menace or horror. But the use of neon lighting is almost limitless in what it can convey. It all depends on how well the cinematographer understands lighting, is able to collaborate with lighting technicians and how creative he/she is in bringing a personal vision that highlights the essential one belonging to the film’s director.

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer. Jessica Harper suspects witchery. Suspiria Dario Argento, 1977 Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer.
Jessica Harper suspects witchery.
Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977
Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Argento’s Suspiria is a neon lit nightmare. Luciano Tovoli’s camera gives the gratuitous violence and paranormal horrors a sinister sort of beauty without getting in Argento’s way. The cinematographer works for the director, but he/she can bring forth magic that the director is often only able to imagine.

In a passive chronological order, take a look at the following shots that incorporate The Neon World into the frames and meanings of the respective films.

"How much?" American Gigolo Paul Schrader, 1980 Cinematography | John Bailey

“How much?”
American Gigolo
Paul Schrader, 1980
Cinematography | John Bailey

Bailey’s use of neon reds and blacks is the perfect concept for dark eroticism and ever-present danger and paranoia.

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous Rutger Hauer Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous
Rutger Hauer
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

I was too young when I first saw Blade Runner to be able to own the language of film, but when I noticed it was referred to as “Neo-Noir” I do remember thinking “Neon-Noir” seemed more sensical. A few years later I would begin to make the connection. I still like the term “Neon Noir” even if it isn’t real.

"This is not a marketplace." Thief Michael Mann, 1981 Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

“This is not a marketplace.”
Thief
Michael Mann, 1981
Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

Michael Mann had great luck bringing the neon world to Thief, but the same can’t be said for One From The Heart. Even still, it is a beautiful looking mess of a movie.

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow -- and nobody came to see it? Nastassja Kinski glowing... One From The Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1982 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro / Ronald Víctor García

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow — and nobody came to see it?
Nastassja Kinski glowing…
One From The Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1982
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro /
Ronald Víctor García

Tony Scott’s The Hunger is seamlessly beautiful — the film’s opening moments/credits are unforgettable and immediately set the stage. Shadowed, cool, stylish and throbbing with electricity and hyper eroticism — this world is beguiling, but we all know that Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

"Nothing human loves forever..." Peter Murphy The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“Nothing human loves forever…”
Peter Murphy
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Ken Russell may have not had a big budget, but he understood how he exactly how he wanted to capture China Blue’s surreal world of fantasy, cheap thrills and escape.  Dick Bush was a master, but it was usually his director’s who pushed him forward. And he never failed them.

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue... Kathleen Turner Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue…
Kathleen Turner
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Wim Wender’s Paris Texas seems an odd fit for utilizing the idea of a Neon-drenched world, but Robby Muller brings the idea to glorious use more than a couple of times within Wender’s concept.

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot... Paris Texas Wim Wenders, 1984 Cinematography | Robby Muller

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot…
Paris Texas
Wim Wenders, 1984
Cinematography | Robby Muller

David Lynch’s collaborations with the great Frederick Elmes never fail to seduce, hypnotize and repulse. Blue Velvet is a classic example of Neo-Noir …and Neon-Noir Surrealism.

This is not your grandparents Film Noir... Isabella Rossellini Blue Velvet David Lynch, 1986 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

This is not your grandparents Film Noir…
Isabella Rossellini
Blue Velvet
David Lynch, 1986
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

Finding the image from Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct was not as easy as I had expected. Most remember this film for Sharon Stone’s brave and no-hold-barred performance (and flash!) but I always think of that amazing scene where the detective enters a raving dance club to find his Femme Fatale. This is not a good example of the way Jan de Bont was able to capture the electric energy of this nightclub, but you can get the general idea. It was too masterful to leave out.

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist's adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club. Basic Instinct Paul Verhoeven, 1992 Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist’s adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club.
Basic Instinct
Paul Verhoeven, 1992
Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Michael Mann had already established a magical sort of neon energy for the protagonist of Thief, but he found new ways to utilize it for the visually dazzling, HEAT.

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection. HEAT Michael Mann, 1995 Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection.
HEAT
Michael Mann, 1995
Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

Terry Gilliam and Nicola Pecorini bring neon, chaos, paranoia and delirium to Las Vegas of the late 1960’s.

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Terry Gilliam, 1998 Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam, 1998
Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

Skipping ahead a few years and even Jason Statham gets the neon touch…

"Now I go back to the street and disappear." This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors. Jason Statham Steven Knight, 2013 Cinematography | Chris Menges

“Now I go back to the street and disappear.”
This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors.
Jason Statham
Steven Knight, 2013
Cinematography | Chris Menges

Yorick Le Saux adds a whole new context of meaning to Jim Jarmusch’s already cool vampiric world…

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston  Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch, 2013 Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch, 2013
Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Just as one should never attempt to mention neon lighting in film without a discussion of Christoper Doyle’s masterful work — it would be tragic to not highlight Benoit Debie’s cinematography. Harmony Korine has always been astute regarding his cinematic visions, but Debie brings a hue to Spring Breakers that only he could create.

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps... Spring Breakers Harmony Korine, 2012 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps…
Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine, 2012
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The critics may have dismissed Ryan Gosling feature film directorial debut, but I still contend they were wrong. If nothing else, Benoit Debie added neon drenched meanings, mystery and surreal horrors forward in Lost River. The film is not perfect, but it arches forward in simultaneously borrowed but eccentric uniqueness. In its own way, Lost River, if almost brilliant. This is no one’s standard coming of age movie.

"Live" Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn... Eva Mendes Lost River Ryan Gosling, 2014 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“Live” Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn…
Eva Mendes
Lost River
Ryan Gosling, 2014
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Just as Christopher Doyle will forever be linked with Kar-wai Wong — so will Benoit Debie with Gaspar Noe. It is a supreme compliment to both directors that they have been able to collaborate so beautifully with two distinctly brilliant cinematographers. While all four are linked respectively together — Wong and Noe have never been hesitant to share the credit for the power of the fieldwork.

Strong case in point, Noe actually shares cinematography credit with Debie for Irreversible. It says a great deal that I am never sure who is behind the camera in this deeply disturbing film. Irreversible is a remarkable work of cinematic art, but it is almost as problematic. One thing is most certain, the quality of the camerawork and use of lighting can only be praised. Even if you have opted to not put yourself through the inhumane horrors of this film — I suspect you will recognize this image.

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film... Irreversible Gaspar Noe, 2002 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film…
Irreversible
Gaspar Noe, 2002
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And when it comes to the power of neon lighting within the context of filmmaking, one would be hard pressed to think of a better example than Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. Intentionally a trip of a film experience, Benoit Debie’s mark is ever-present.

"It's fucking cold." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

“It’s fucking cold.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

 

"I can't believe this is real." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“I can’t believe this is real.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And while Love may not be much of a movie, it is often amazing to watch for visuals alone. Once again, Debie infuses neon light throughout.

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release... Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock Love Gaspar Noe, 2015 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release…
Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock
Love
Gaspar Noe, 2015
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And if there is one director who has spent a career studying and utilizing neon for filmmaking it would be Nicolas Winding Refn. Even under the constraint of a limited budget, his focus was on capturing the energy, insanity and terror of the drug underworld via lighting. The Pusher Trilogy shows what a skilled artist can do with very little.

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn PUSHER Mads Mikkelsen Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996 Cinematography | Morten Soborg

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn
PUSHER
Mads Mikkelsen
Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996
Cinematography | Morten Soborg

The film itself may be flawed, but Fear X is of note because it marks the first collaboration between Refn and Larry Smith. Paranoia, fear, rage, mystery and horror benefit from a very neon-ed space.

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia. John Turturro Fear X Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia.
John Turturro
Fear X
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003
Cinematography | Larry Smith

2008’s Bronson is a cinematic marvel on more than a few counts — one of them is the way in which Larry Smith pushes neon to the limits to merge reality with the fantasy of Surrealism.

 

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow. Tom Hardy BRONSON Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow.
Tom Hardy
BRONSON
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Nicolas Winding Refn and Larry Smith use Drive to serve as the perfect synthesis of their shared vision. It is all about style and manipulation of light.

"Is he a bad guy?" Drive Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

“Is he a bad guy?”
Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

The envelope got pushed off the table and then blown toward the door for their next collaborative effort, Only God Forgives. While it is not a perfect movie, it is certainly not the flop that so many critics wanted us to believe. Only God Forgives is a metaphorical nightmare that often looks more animated than real. Odd and completely unforgettable — another exorcise in style and manipulation.

"Time to meet The Devil." Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn't worried. Nicolas Winding Rein, 2013 Cinematography | Larry Smith

“Time to meet The Devil.”
Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn’t worried.
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Sadly Larry Smith was not involved in Mr. Refn’s next experiment, but it is unlikely that Refn would have budged even the slightest. The title says it all. The Neon Demon is a cinematic error. This time Refn didn’t even bother to push the envelope. He simply refused to acknowledge that an envelope existed. Beautiful, seductive, twisted and so cool it is almost frozen  — The Neon Demon stands indignant and absolutely lost in the garishness of its own neon glow.

And, cue the tipping point... The Neon Demon Elle Fanning Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

And, cue the tipping point…
The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Jenna Malone is the only actor who manages to walk away unscathed. Of course this Demon is so very neon, we sometimes can hardly see her.

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing. Jenna Malone is full of beauty... The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing.
Jenna Malone is full of beauty…
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

It may not work, but Natasha Braier is certainly up for the challenges her director presents.

The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Matty Stanfield, 9.20.2016

 

 

 

 

2016 is now officially in the fast lane toward its end. I wanted to come up with my list of the movies that have most impressed me and discovered that very few films released this year have really impressed me. But then I realized that there were more than a few I had seen last year that were only released this year. This has helped my ability to come up with a list, but 2016 has not been a great year at the movies. Film Art created for the television is slowly taking over. Here is a list of the movies that really held my attention so far this year. Please note that I am not listing in any particular order and that these are my personal opinions. None of my opinions are connected with any distributor, film festival or artist. These are my thoughts and mine alone.

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" The Witch Robert Eggers, 2015

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2015

Robert Eggers’ The Witch works on both literal and metaphorical levels. It is also fairly flawless in execution, style and complete formation. Repeated viewings only further enforce its power. This is a masterful bit of Art Horror that aims far higher than being scary. Taking itself seriously, The Witch weaves a story that is as simple as it is complex.

On one level this is a straight up horror film. Jarin Blaschke’s camera work is fully intertwined with Eggers’ vision. The entire cast is exceptional. The sense of dread never lets up, but the implications of what we see come to a sharp tipping point. More than a film about evil taking over the lives of supposedly devout family of settlers, The Witch is a very dark contemplation on both the repression and oppression of women. In many ways this film points toward a parable regarding empowerment. This is an empowerment that is as grim as it is magical.

"Peek-a-boo!" The Witch Robert Eggers, 2015 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

“Peek-a-boo!”
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2015
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Many horror fans have expressed displeasure over this movie. For some it just isn’t scary enough, but for many of us it is chilling to the bone. Highly literate, creative and a brilliant use of a low budget — The Witch is something altogether new. A rare feat within the realm of horror filmmaking, this movie has a wider wing span.

Brady Corbet proved his skill as an actor quite a while back. He has been working since he was a child. Over the course of the last several years his career’s focus has been a bit off the grid comparatively speaking. He has worked for some expertly talented directors over better financial and fame-oriented jobs. This year he made his directorial debut and his choices as actor make perfect sense. I suspect Corbet was learning how to make films that strive to do more than simply entertain. The Childhood of a Leader is one of the most impressive actor-to-director debuts I’ve ever seen.

"A Stunning Debut." The Childhood of a Leader Brady Corbet, 2015

“A Stunning Debut.”
The Childhood of a Leader
Brady Corbet, 2015

There is nothing “safe” about The Childhood of a Leader.  This unusual film is masterful and keenly tuned into Auteur Theoretical Filmmaking. Just as it disregards filmmaking predictability, it shuns the idea of subtly.  Audacious in what it pursues, The Childhood of a Leader is not aimed at the cineplex and is not concerned with the possible difficulties it might offer members of the audience. The goals and stakes are high from beginning to end. Corbet and co-writer, Mona Fastvold, are smart enough to keep the proceedings minimal in the visual sense. There are no signs of low budget film present. Corbet has wisely invested his budget where it will benefit the highest yield.

"He's been acting out a little bit." The Childhood of a Leader Brady Corbet, 2015 Cinematography | Lol Crawley

“He’s been acting out a little bit.”
The Childhood of a Leader
Brady Corbet, 2015
Cinematography | Lol Crawley

Scott Walker was secured as the film’s musical composer and his skills / work are utilized to maximum impact. Corbet has applied the same level of trust regarding cinematography and editing. Both of these essential elements are applied with deceptively simple approaches. Lol Crawley and David Jancso bring forward their finest work. The same can be said for every artist Corbet has secured both behind and in front of the camera. And no artist involved is required to color within the lines. If there are a few cracks from strain, these flaws are minor and easily forgiven.

Do not be fooled by the impressive scoring, cinematography, editing and various styles of acting. This film’s impact is not owed singularly to any one artistic aspects. The real power belongs to a director who is unafraid to allow his excellent players the opportunity to bring forward their best respective games. Corbet confidently conducts every aspect of this movie for his orchestrated gut punch. This is artistic collaboration at its best. The Childhood of a Leader comes close to perfection. Intense, passionate and memorable — Childhood builds scene upon scene achieving a pure cinematic crescendo. It is sublime and totally apocalyptic.

"He's just a little boy..." Tom Sweet The Childhood of a Leader Brady Corbet, 2015 Cinematography | Lol Crawley

“He’s just a little boy…”
Tom Sweet
The Childhood of a Leader
Brady Corbet, 2015
Cinematography | Lol Crawley

This study in sociopathic tendencies pushes us toward a culturally shared visceral nightmare. Corbet’s film arrives at a time that makes it all the more potent. For whatever reason, IFC did very little to promote this challenging film. This is not an easy movie. It requires attention and thought, but it never bores. There is most certainly an audience for films this amazing. If you did not have the opportunity to catch it during its brief appearance on cinema screens, seek it out now. It  is currently available via VOD. I’ve seen it twice and I can’t wait to see it again.

Unlike many of my friends / associates, I have never been all that excited about Matteo Garrone’s work. I’m embarrassed to write that I passed up the opportunity to see his latest, Tale of Tales. This was my loss. I so wish I had experienced this strange film on a big screen.

"A feast for the imagination" Tale of Tales Matteo Garrone, 2016

“The equilibrium of the world must be retained.”
Tale of Tales
Matteo Garrone, 2016

Matteo Garrone’s film is adapted from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, but is unfolded in a confoundedly unique manner. I always got the sense that Garrone’s visionary sense was unique, but I had no idea he was this imaginative. Surrounded by only the finest of artists, he has concocted something unexpected and unforgettable. Fantastical, gothic, dark and often disturbing — these are not the sort of “fairy tales” one would tell a child.

The presentation is “adults only,” but the lack of “lessons” or “moral points” are completely childlike. When one thinks back to the fairy tales shared with us as children, we often only remember the scary or darker details. As a child the moral compass is only starting to form. The level of experience is too limited to fully grasp the philosophical. The same can be said of this Tale of Tales.

"It was a mistake! My Love, please! John C. Riley Tale of Tales Matteo Garrone, 2016 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

“It was a mistake! My Love, please!
John C. Riley
Tale of Tales
Matteo Garrone, 2016
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography here is more reminiscent of his earlier work under Ken Russell’s tutelage. Images of spaces, faces and reveals convey levels of absurdity, passion, curiosity and awestruck attention. Garrone’s film is as grotesque as it is beautiful. As provocative as it is innocent. These tales are largely unknown to American audiences. Garrone delivers them with a giddiness that is contagious.

IFC did not do a great job with theatrical promotion and I skipped the short opportunity to see it because it felt like it was going to be a low-rent copy of Terry Gilliam.

It wasn’t and it isn’t.

It received a very limited run, but is now available from the folks at Shout! Factory on DVD/Blu-ray. Tale of Tales should not be dismissed or ignored. See it.

"Could you just read the part where they kiss?" Salma Hayek Tale of Tales Matteo Garrone, 2016 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

“Could you just read the part where they kiss?”
Salma Hayek
Tale of Tales
Matteo Garrone, 2016
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Oscilloscope Laboratories put forward a great deal of care and time in the promotion and release of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. It was thanks to this that I made the effort to see the movie. I was also more than a little curious to see where ARH would take the audience. One of the most fascinating films in years, The Fits does not fit easily into a category and simply refuses all labels. The film’s promotion gave very little away regarding The Fits. It was not the movie I was anticipating. How often does that happen after we see a distribution company’s trailer?

Never flinching... The Fits Anna Rose Holmer, 2015

Never flinching…
The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer, 2015

The Fits is essentially about a young girl slipping into young adulthood, but it would be misleading to limit it to “the coming of age” troop. There is absolutely nothing expected about this movie. When I sat down to watch it for the first time it turned my expectations inside-out. Anna Rose Holmer’s film follows an eleven-year-old girl, played with disarming realism by Royalty Hightower, as attempts to shift her attention from the boys’ side of a community center to enter what she perceives as the magical other side. The girls’ side of the community center is focused on team spirit dancing.

What it feels like for a girl... Royalty Hightower The Fits Anna Rose Holmer, 2015 Cinematography | Paul Yee

What it feels like for a girl…
Royalty Hightower
The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer, 2015
Cinematography | Paul Yee

Suddenly the tomboy desires to be a member of an all female dance team. More than a little unsure of herself and the young women who she knows occupy the thoughts of the boys with whom she has always played, Toni must decide if she has what it takes to fit in with this feminine bunch. This is a visual and auditory film experience. The dialogue is limited, but when we are allowed to hear what Toni hears it is crucial information.

One more week, ladies!” a woman coach announces to the young women. Adults do not figure into Toni‘s perception of her world. They are not yet key players, but Toni hears the adults when it is required. The marker of a week becomes an important tracker within the film’s story. Toni’s decision to attempt to assimilate is crucial. ARH never demonstrates the least amount of bombast or over-statement of actions, but we understand that Toni’s every movement is a key predictor to her future.

Paul Yee’s camerawork is tight and fluid all at once. Composers, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, provide the film with a hypnotic musical score. Anna Rose Holmer, like Brady Corbet, is unafraid to share the glory. I point this out because the collaborative element of filmmaking seems to be once again slipping away from many film productions. ARH fully utilizes all artists involved to spark her film into life. The Fits does not merely spark to life, it is almost a living organism unto itself. What happens in The Fits is not a totally unique turn, but the way in which the film’s dance moves are constructed / conveyed is jaw-dropping.

It's not what you think... Royalty Hightower The Fits Anna Rose Holmer, 2015 Cinematography | Paul Yee

It’s not what you think…
Royalty Hightower
The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer, 2015
Cinematography | Paul Yee

A child’s attempts to join a dance team form into something that edges well beyond any expected boundary. Often disturbing, mysterious, strange, sensual and magical — The Fits is cinematic poetry. Many cringe at the intermingling of words like cinema and poetry. This mashup has become over-used, but never has the concept fit better than attributing it here. Anna Rose Holmer did not need a big budget to make her movie breathe, throb, squirm and float magically to life. This movie never falters in its movements toward alchemy. The Fits is not a movie that a film lover can afford to miss.

"Let's be clear. It won't end well." Green Room Jeremy Saulnier, 2015

“Let’s be clear. It won’t end well.”
Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier, 2015

Jeremy Saulnier’s film manages to establish all characters with minimal screen time or information, but this does not mean that we do not know these characters. Green Room speaks to Saulnier’s ability as an exceptional storyteller who can put forward all required quickly thanks to the way in which he writes and shoots. We know everything we need to know about the members of a desperate and rag-tag American Hardcore band within less than ten minutes.

An odd but exceptional casting choice. Patrick Stewart Green Room Jeremy Saulnier, 2015 Cinematography | Sean Porter

An odd but exceptional casting choice.
Patrick Stewart
Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier, 2015
Cinematography | Sean Porter

Green Room‘s horrors come fast and are packed with surprisingly intense cruelty. Even more surprising is the fact that this film is perversely fun but never lacking in realism. Green Room takes itself seriously. When our messy heroes decide to piss off their Fascist audience by crashing into a wicked cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” the comedy of the moment is stained with the menacing reality of their situation. It is difficult to articulate why this movie is so much fun, but sick fun it is. Alia Shaukat, Patrick Stewart, Imogen Poots and the late Anton Yeltsin deliver top tier work for this twisted cinematic adventure. Always pushing past the normal boundaries of the exploitation genre, Green Room is close to brilliant.

A down-and-out hardcore band's gig takes more than a couple of very bad turns... Green Room Jeremy Saulnier, 2015 Cinematography | Sean Porter

A down-and-out hardcore band’s gig takes more than a couple of very bad turns…
Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier, 2015
Cinematography | Sean Porter

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is another movie that cleverly pushes beyond the horror exploitation genre. This is a highly effective example of not only great storytelling, but the power of tight cinematic construction. Kusama has mastered the basics of movie making to a point that she manipulate all of them to create something exceptional that in the hands of another filmmaker would play as tired or even predictable.

"There is nothing to be afraid of" The Invitation Karyn Kusama, 2015

“There is nothing to be afraid of”
The Invitation
Karyn Kusama, 2015

The Invitation never pushes itself so much that the low-budget is reflected and Kusama is not aiming to re-invent the wheel, but she adheres to smart editing, clever writing and talented actors to create an expanding element of suspense, dread and fear. As the movie leads into what appears to be The Dinner Party from Hell, we become invested and ultimately shocked. What probably should have been a mediocre film has been transformed into a highly entertaining and mesmerizing exercise in cinematic horror. I feel this is one of the best films we will see this year.

Maybe this guest is just paranoid. Logan Marshall-Green The Invitation Karyn Kusama, 2015 Cinematography | Bobby Shore

Maybe this guest is just paranoid.
Logan Marshall-Green
The Invitation
Karyn Kusama, 2015
Cinematography | Bobby Shore

Mickey Keating is all of twenty-five years of age and he has already accomplished more than most film artists can muster in an entire career. It is still unclear if he plans to move beyond the horror film genre, but it does not really matter. Having been mentored by the great Larry Fessenden, this filmmaker has already cemented a place among horror fans. Keating made two films for 2015 release. The first, POD, is an exceptional cinematic brew of paranoia and human horror. The second film did not actually secure a release date until 2016 and it is one of the most impressive films of the year.

"A lonely girl's violent descent into madness..." Darling Mickey Keating, 2015

“A lonely girl’s violent descent into madness…”
Darling
Mickey Keating, 2015

What Keating’s Darling lacks in originality is made up for by stylization and expertly modulated cinematic manipulation. Intended as much as an ode to the great psycho-dramas of the 1960’s/1970’s as full stand alone movie, Darling is so well made that it manages to morph itself into something borrowed but very new. This slow-burn psychological horror movie transcends extreme budgetary limitations and pulls the audience into a hypnotically disturbing ride into madness.

"Don't concern yourself with that room, dear." Sean Young Darling Mickey Keating, 2015 Cinematography | Mac Fisken

“Don’t concern yourself with that room, dear.”
Sean Young
Darling
Mickey Keating, 2015
Cinematography | Mac Fisken

Filmed in simplistic video black and white, Mickey Keating sets the mood immediately and is unrelenting in holding us there through to the film’s final image. Sean Young makes a brief but memorable appearance that allows Keating to establish everything in a matter of a few minutes. Clearly inspired by Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Ingmar Bergman and more than a little Robert Altman — Keating’s cinematic exorcise demonstrates not only his knowledge but his resourceful skills. The young director is having a blast and so does his audience. Though it should be pointed out that this fun comes with more than a little white-knuckle suspense, tension and horror.

"I was waiting for you." Lauren Ashley Carter Darling Mickey Keating, 2015 Cinematography | Mac Fisken

“I was waiting for you.”
Lauren Ashley Carter
Darling
Mickey Keating, 2015
Cinematography | Mac Fisken

Mac Fisken’s cinematography is meticulous and easily recalls a sort of mashup of Gordon Willis, Gilbert Taylor and Sven Nyqvist. Yes, you read me right. Fisken manages to recreate visual suspense intermingled with beauty. Valerie Krulfeifer’s editing is a perfect match for Keating’s odd retro-horror stylings. Fiona Ostinelli’s musical score is equally effective. But the key collaborating artist is actor, Lauren Ashley Carter. In the film’s title role, this actor’s babydoll eyes and on-screen presence manage to not only win us over — she is able to spin these aspects on a dime. While we do like her — she is also able to repulse us. This actress literally haunts the screen.

" I don't think you realize what a godsend you are." Darling Mickey Keating, 2015 Cinematography | Mac Fisken

” I don’t think you realize what a godsend you are.”
Darling
Mickey Keating, 2015
Cinematography | Mac Fisken

Unconcerned with plot, Darling has only two true goals: it wants to get under the skin, but then it intends to imprint into our brains. It achieves both. Low-fi but exceptionally crafted from all perspectives — Darling signals that Mickey Keating is playing for keeps. His second film of this year is currently in cinemas. Carnage Park has a bigger budget than both POD and Darling and it is a solid horror film, but it lacks Darling‘s power punch. I walked out of Darling a fan.

There was no way Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise would match the media promotion that launched it. I knew that going in, but I was under-whelmed with this adaptation of JG Ballard. Impeccable production values, cinematography and exceptional performances — High-Rise should have worked, but it fell short. So to speak. Ballard’s High-Rise is a complex and dated novel. It might not have helped that Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley opted to keep it all grounded in the original time period. The smart use of Thatcher’s infamous speech at the close was a good one, but it came a bit late into the film’s game.

"Welcome to the high life..." High-Rise Ben Wheatley, 2015

“Welcome to the high life…”
High-Rise
Ben Wheatley, 2015

The mixing of satire with dark comedy loses focus. This could largely be related to the fact that the punch of the story has lost much meaning some 40 years later. Ballard’s ideas rooted in that decade often feel more “twee” than “provocative.” There is not enough context to understand why “we” are in the 1970’s. Without directly mooring Ballard’s ideas to the 21st Century, much of what he was thinking feels flimsy within the trappings of Wheatley’s chosen genres of satire and comedy. It is also hard to fathom the task of capturing Ballard’s novel in a 2 hour movie. The actions in High-Rise move far too quickly to really understand.

"Looks like the rot's set in." Tom Hiddleston goes for broke... High-Rise Ben Wheatley, 2015 Cinematography | Laurie Rose

“Looks like the rot’s set in.”
Tom Hiddleston goes for broke…
High-Rise
Ben Wheatley, 2015
Cinematography | Laurie Rose

It’s as if the pears sold on the shopping floor are ripe one minute and then rotting the next.  The building’s descent into madness and chaos is presented here as an extreme switch. Wheatley does not give the movie enough time to chart the plot’s key initiative. The actual connection of the doctor’s professional life to the new place he inhabits is never fully formed. I find it hard to understand why we even needed to follow the doctor’s fall into professional lethargy. I was also confused by the excessive use of Hiddleston as a sex object. I have no problem with it, but I do not understand why this was important. And worst of all, the connections between the residents is never fully fleshed-out. These people are over-sexed but it is not presented in the appropriate context. It is a hazy mess of societal revolution, sexual perversity and insanity.

A fall from the upper class... High-Rise Ben Wheatley, 2015 Cinematography | Laurie Rose

A fall from the upper class…
High-Rise
Ben Wheatley, 2015
Cinematography | Laurie Rose

High-Rise is flawed, but credit must be given to an independent film that strives to be this ambitious. High-Rise attempts to do so much. Sadly most of these attempts are simply out of reach. Or maybe I’m mistaken. It is quite possible that Ben Wheatley might be ahead of the curve. My opinion regarding High-Rise might shift as the years go by. I know my opinion has improved with only four viewings. And I’m certain I will be watching it again. When I take into account that I have seen this film five times, I feel obliged to include it in my list.

Yes, it is a very unconventional love story... The Lobster Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015

Yes, it is a very unconventional love story…
The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015

No one can complain that Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster isn’t a unique. Lanthimos addresses some of humanity’s deepest concerns and challenges by use of a Surrealistic bit of Existentialism gone to Absurdist artistic gestures. The most surprising aspect of The Lobster is that is intentional not funny. It is also not limited by what might seem like a One-Joke Idea. Loneliness, isolation, desperation and the craving for meaningful connections are never treated as comical. While there are comical elements to the situations, this is a dramatic film. The situation is a result of societal judgment. A judgement that lands these lost souls to a last resort to secure a life partner or face being turned from human into an animal. For the most part, this situations are rendered relatable. Colin Farrell delivers his best on-screen performance as a recently jilted man who doesn’t seem to be able to find his footing in life. He is the sole reason this film resonates so well. He is a sort of “Every Man” who has gotten lost in the shuffle of his life.

" Back then, he didn't know how much it hurts to be alone..." Colin Farrell The Lobster Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015 Cinematography | Thimios Bakatakis

” Back then, he didn’t know how much it hurts to be alone…”
Colin Farrell
The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015
Cinematography | Thimios Bakatakis

He didn’t burst into tears and he didn’t think that the first thing most people do when they realize someone doesn’t love them anymore is cry,” Rachel Weisz’s emotionlessly blunt narration tell us. It is up to Farrell to provide the emotional resonation. And he does. It will be interesting to see if the Hollywood Power Elite choose to allow him an Oscar nomination. He does deserve it.

As this story of uncomfortable misfits attempting to attract a partner, or remain human or live as hunted loners — The Lobster lulls us into thinking that things just might work out. Lanthimos’ isn’t going to let anyone off easily. Our protagonist is not exactly the kind fellow you might expect. He, too, is capable of extremes to avoid a great deal. David can be cruel and he often feels little to no pity for others. In many ways, David is the ideal protagonist for The Lobster. The film’s resolution offers a truly sharp edged view of what we are willing to do for love — perhaps even a delusion of love. The Lobster offers no comfort or easy outs.

"I'm going to do it with a knife." Colin Farrell The Lobster Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015 Cinematography | Thimios Bakatakis

“I’m going to do it with a knife.”
Colin Farrell
The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015
Cinematography | Thimios Bakatakis

The film’s first act is amazing. The second half becomes a bit sluggish. And the Michael Haneke -ish ending note is not the surprising gut-punch that Lanthimos was most likely going for, but it does make a point. It is a memorable film. My main objection to keeping this film as one of my favorites is that it ultimately disappointed me. In comparison to both Dogtooth and Alps, The Lobster seems weak. I list it here because it does stand out as one of the better films of the year. If this 2015-intended film had actually come out last year it would not have made my list. The Lobster feels like a bit of compromise. Lanthimos can do better. And he should.

This might be fantastic... Isabelle Huppert Things to Come Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016 Cinematography | Denis Lenoir

This might be fantastic…
Isabelle Huppert
Things to Come
Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016
Cinematography | Denis Lenoir

The year is not done and my list of favorites could change, but I somehow doubt it. I do have high hopes for Isabelle Huppert’s collaborations with both Paul Verhoeven (Elle) and Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come) Both have some strong buzz, but this sort of buzz has been off before.

On paper, it seems like the perfect director and lead actor for the subject matter. But I can't be the only person now suspecting that it's not going to work. ? Joseph Gordon-Levitt SNOWDEN Oliver Stone, 2016 Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

On paper, it seems like the perfect director and lead actor for the subject matter. But I can’t be the only person now suspecting that it’s not going to work. ?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
SNOWDEN
Oliver Stone, 2016
Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

Time will tell. And I’ve a growing worry that Snowden is destined to fail. I hope I’m wrong. But of the films listed for release between now and year’s end, this was the one that seemed the most exciting.

We will see…

Matty Stanfield, 9.9.2016

*** ADDENDUM!!!

I’m an idiot who often attempts to do too many things at one time. In the above blog post I wrote, “But of the films listed for release between now and year’s end, this was the one that seemed the most exciting.” This is a major error on my part.

In that sentence I was referring to Oliver Stone’s Snowden. I have a roster of upcoming film releases. I track film releases with this roster. I had printed an updated roster this past Monday. As I marked the upcoming films that I am waiting to see, I marked Elle, Things to Come and Snowden. I somehow failed to mark a fourth film that I am very eager to see.

"She loved men..." The Love Witch Anna Biller, 2016

“She loved men…”
The Love Witch
Anna Biller, 2016

Anna Biller is a Film Artist I’ve been following since the late 1990’s when she made a short entitled, Fairy Ballet. Back in 2007 she made a brilliant feature film, Viva, which remains firmly imprinted in my psyche. Never one to compromise her vision or voice, I was worried that it might take a long time to have the opportunity to see her latest film, The Love Witch. The media industry of the 21st Century has never been more hostile toward original visionary work than it is right now. But there are still a few distributors who are more interested in quality than major studio concerns regarding conforming to concepts of mainstream appeal — Oscilloscope Laboratories demonstrated their savvy when they secured distribution rights for The Love Witch!

Will the use of The Craft bring her love? Samantha Robinson The Love Witch Anna Biller, 2016 Cinematography | M. David Mullen

Will the use of The Craft bring her love?
Samantha Robinson
The Love Witch
Anna Biller, 2016
Cinematography | M. David Mullen

What really puzzles me about my error in not only marking but mentioning the inevitableness that I will love Ms. Biller’s new film is that I’ve been following this film so closely over the last several months. D’oh!

But Anna Miller’s The Love Witch is a film that is destined to make my list for Favorite Films of 2016. And, no, I am not headed into the cinema with anticipations that will fail to live up to the work on the screen. Ms. Biller is one of those filmmakers who consistently manage to construct work that entices me.

Samantha Robinson The Love Witch Anna Biller, 2016 Cinematography | M. David Mullen

Coming soon… Samantha Robinson
The Love Witch
Anna Biller, 2016
Cinematography | M. David Mullen

So for the record, I’m very excited about this upcoming film. I apologize for failing to mention in my initial post.  A note of thanks to Dave for the call!

M. Stanfield, 9.10.2016

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see.” —  Michelangelo Antonioni

"Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out." Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out.”
Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

The most important films of Michelangelo Antonioni’s career came in the early 1960’s when he placed his muse, Monica Vitti, at the core of plots involving alienation within the spacial landscapes that furthered her character’s emotional turmoil. She was the perfect actor for these roles which required an odd intermixing of passion, panic, eroticism and almost overwhelming passive boredom. Writing this description it is hard to understand how she was able to do it.

There are very few film actresses that look anything like she did. In Antonioni’s films she seems like she might fall over at any moment and yet oppositional in that she also seems capable of knocking anyone down who might get in her way. In these films, Monica Vitti is both passive and aggressively demanding. She presented a sort of quiet introspection that threatens as much as it begs. Like Antonioni’s camera she is lost within the framework of her surroundings. As his films progressed her characters seemed to be simultaneously formed, informed and destroyed by every “thing” around her.

"A new adventure in filmmaking..." Monica Vitti contemplates. L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

“A new adventure in filmmaking…”
Monica Vitti contemplates.
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

1960’s L’Aventura is entirely dependent upon Monica Vitti’s presence. Vitti has such a strongly unique erotic charisma, being and mystifying beauty and everything that happens in the film requires her to make it believable. It is impossible for the viewer to take their eyes off of her. Within only a few minutes of Claudia entering the camera’s frame, the audience is placed in a surprisingly uncomfortable position.

Is this young woman someone we can trust? Do her actions seem disconnected from her motivation?

It says a great deal that we contemplate these ideas so early on. As the film moves forward the viewer must decide if Claudia is actually concerned or simply curious. There seems to be a deception playing out within the geographical and interior spaces.

lavventura-movie-poster-1960-1020428776

L’Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960

 

Antonioni finds ways to casually push a suspicious and possibly tragic disappearance further way from his film’s plot. What at first seems like an essential motivation for Claudia and that of her vanished friend’s lover eventually becomes nothing more than a back story. By the time the film drifts to its midpoint, the audience becomes accomplices in Claudia‘s warped journey. Like her, we no longer care longer about this missing friend, daughter and fiancee. Our primary concern becomes the possibility of love between Claudia and the “worried” fiancee. There is an ever unsettling feeling that the two leading characters hope the respective friend and lover is never found. The real kick-spin is that both have different reasons for wishing this woman to stay vanished. It is an alarming shift of gears that doesn’t really hit you until the “Fine” title card emerges on the screen.

 

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

 

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

 

Is she thinking of her friend or obsessing about herself? Monica Vitti L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

Is she thinking of her friend or obsessing about herself?
Monica Vitti
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

 

1961’s La Notte is less interested in telling a story than pulling the audience into a different world. The world in which we find ourselves alternates between cold and intimidating to abandoned and decaying. It seems to be in a state of change that threatens to push our characters even further into isolation. The film is an effective, textured and sensual exploration of a specific place during a specific moment in time. The time is 1961 and the place is Milan.

 

“I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961

 

La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

The modern architecture is carefully photographed and it seems to reflect, deflect and motivate the film’s characters. The schism between the ultra-modern designs and the remainders of pre-WWII Italy the audience is allowed to see seems to play roles in the way characters relate or fail to relate to one another. The old and dilapidated appear to be falling away and replaced with sleek and modern youth. The same appears to be happening to a married couple. As we follow the two halves of a near middle-age couple roam through their day and evening ideas fill both the screen and the mind.

Jeanne Moreau's character is reduced in self-worth and hope as she wanders the streets of Milan. La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Jeanne Moreau’s character is reduced in self-worth and hope as she wanders the streets of Milan.
La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

The ideas do not form a unified thought or purpose. Nor does the roaming lead to anywhere specific. This is the point.

Jeanne Moreau roams the mansion while Monica Vitti basks in her boredom... La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Jeanne Moreau roams the mansion while Monica Vitti basks in her boredom…
La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

As the old falls away so do the walls that have protected generations from exposure are now given way to a certain transparency that forces the characters to see the truth of not only strangers but of each other. A brilliantly effective, evocative and sensual mood piece of European cinema. An ideal film for a viewer who likes to think and experience an art form.

Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni fail to connect. Monica Vitti listens in... La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni fail to connect. Monica Vitti listens in…
La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

It is unlikely that it will appeal to those who seek out movies for story and escapism, but it is hard to imagine a more human experience. Hearts are damaged and there seems to be no comfort found in a marriage that has failed to flourish alongside the urban civilization that is only beginning to sprawl. The ideas associated with architecture mirroring its inhabitants is again pursued by Antonioni’s next film, L’Eclisse.

36a

L’Eclisse Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962

Michelangelo Antonioni’s vision is perhaps most strongly applied with L’Eclisse. This movie has become better every time I see it. It is framed as a love story, but the actual focus takes on a deeper perspective regarding the mixed and differing feelings between two would-be-lovers. The architecture of La Notte often fights to be a leading character. L’eclipse embraces both Monica Vitti and Alain Delon as the primary characters, but the architecture seems to emerge as a third.

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti are actually fitting into their environment, but are their emotions? L'Eclisse Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti are actually fitting into their environment, but are their emotions?
L’Eclisse
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Post WWII Rome’s architectural conflict is very much present, however it often feels like the two human characters are informing it rather than the other way around. Gianni Di Venxnzo’s cinematography fully utilizes the Rome land/inner-scapes, but our two characters are essential elements in their mutual and respective worlds. Minimal in the way of speech, Antonioni still expertly captures two young people and a city in the midst of adapting to post-war changes.

There is a great more between these two lovers than a structural support column. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

There is a great more between these two lovers than a structural support column.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Nearly every emotion or concern felt is reflected back to them from the buildings, walls and all surroundings within which they are attempting to live, grow and love. It as if this “love” is wanting to return to the old world comforts. The problem facing both characters is how can they use love in a modern world that refuses to go back? If there were to be a means of escape, would they lose more if they left?  An essential and magical film.

A poster seems to be offering an escape, but it could be a trap of another sort. L'Eclisse Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

A poster seems to be offering an escape, but it could be a trap of another sort.
L’Eclisse
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

In 1964 Antonioni hired Carlo Di Palma as his cinematographer. He shot Red DesertIl deserto rosso in color. This film is deceptively beautiful because society’s landscape and territory are no longer simply imposing and reflecting emotions. In Red Desert the man-made structural landscapes and architecture is actually attacking the film’s leading character. Monica Vitti’s Giuliana is not merely trapped within the identity and isolation imposed by her environment — she is suffering as her environment is literally attacking her. The world in which Giuliana moves is toxic.

il-deserto-rosa-the-red-desert-optimized_54ed072b0822f

In dying color… Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Unforgettable and operatic in her performance as a mentally unstable wife/mother, Monica Vitti becomes a walking analogy for the environment in which she must live. Surrounded by the bleakness of destructive industrial plants and the cold interiors which have been created in the surrounding suburbs. Red Desert marks a major turn in Antonioni’s vision regarding the human condition and surrounding environments.

Monica Vitti takes a walk in a post-industrial nightmare. Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Monica Vitti takes a walk in a post-industrial nightmare.
Red Desert
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

 

"I dreamed I was in bed and the bed was moving. I looked down and it was on quicksand. It was sinking deeper and deeper." Monica Vitti Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“I dreamed I was in bed and the bed was moving. I looked down and it was on quicksand. It was sinking deeper and deeper.”
Monica Vitti
Red Desert
Michelangelo
Antonioni, 1964
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

The captured images are surprisingly lovely, but the meanings conveyed through them come close to post-industrial horror. In many ways this film is the most experimental the director had ever made. He is clearly in love with Vitti and renders her unique beauty in the most sensual of ways. And while this movie is obviously aimed to be societal commentary, it also features a fascinating performance. As Monica Vitti forms her character she lends the film a possibility of other meanings.

"She loved that spot. The colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise. She'd leave only when the sun did too." Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“She loved that spot. The colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise. She’d leave only when the sun did too.”
Red Desert
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

This is realism and one is never quite sure if perhaps her challenges might be more connected to mental illness than environmental. It is easy to imagine Todd Haynes taking notes. It is hard to imagine that Red Desert did not inform his brilliant 1990’s Safe. While Red Desert is most certainly a turn in a different direction for Antonioni, his next film really swerved off his expected cinematic path.

“What do you they call you in bed?” Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966

Blow-Up finds Antonioni in a different country and films the entire film in English. This infamous 1966 film offered more than just a language and location change. Gone is the angst-ridden female protagonist. Monica Vitti is no where in sight. The new protagonist is a young man enjoying, manipulating, exploiting and indulging in the expanding excesses of Swinging London. David Hemmings plays a sly, bored and seemingly hollow fashion photographer who pursues sex and human connection with the same amount of passive interest as a random purchase at an antique store.

For our protagonist, models are not people. They are objects that he arranges.  Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

For our protagonist, models are not people. They are objects that he arranges.
Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Not without talent, Thomas is an emerging hot talent in the world of Fashion photography. He is clearly well paid, but not yet where he wants to be. Women are no longer people to this man, they are pretty little things he photographs and seduces. Actually, he doesn’t bother with seduction. The hot young women are as hungry for fame as he is for money. People do not seem to hold much value for Thomas. Surrounded by the excitement of his city and the era in which he moves, Antonioni establishes that his protagonist is not enjoying much of anything.

It's all in a day's work... Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

It’s all in a day’s work…
Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

It is isn’t until he makes the mistake of photographing a private moment between two lovers in a park that he is forced to actually re-evaluate his measure as a human being. Antonioni crafts a magical film. Make no mistake, he captures the ambiance of 1960’s Swinging London with the same carefully articulated method he applied to the re-emerging post-WWII Italy.

Is it just a pretty picture?  Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Is it just a pretty picture?
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

The film is slowly paced as it begins to pull the audience into the photographer’s depressingly vacuous world. But then, just as the audience thinks Blow-Up is taking in a certain direction the gears shift. Antonioni offers something that he has never given the audience before: A Hitchcockian plot twist that would have served any other filmmaker in a dramatically different way.

Not your typical Swinging London Party Girl, Vanessa Redgrave assess the photographer, the situation and her options.  Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Not your typical Swinging London Party Girl, Vanessa Redgrave assess the photographer, the situation and her options.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

 

Vanessa Redgrave’s Jane rushes into the film like a breeze of erotic curiosity and panic. Her visit to the photographer’s home and studio should lead the film in a what seems the logical place — instead this scene serves as a catalyst for introspection. As Thomas rushes through his study to blow-up the negatives of Jane‘s seemingly romantic entanglement in the park, he shows an unexpected aspect of himself. Thomas is actually interested in understanding why Jane was so desperate to secure the film he had taken of she and a lover in the park.

For the first time in the film, David Hemmings shows some passion in his pursuit of understanding. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

For the first time in the film, David Hemmings shows some passion in his pursuit of understanding.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

David Hemmings’ Thomas has no connection to Monica Vitti’s Antonioni’s characters. He is not alienated. He is neither riddled with insecurity, ennui or angst of any sort. He sees something he wants, he puts forward only the required energy or money to get it. But as an artist, Thomas is curious. Of course Blow-Up wants the viewer to think it is a thriller. Once the twist is revealed, Antonioni shifts cinematic gears once more. If one must call this movie a thriller, then that person most likely needs to Anti to the term. This is one thrill that turns against the protagonist inward toward self-introspection. In some ways the cost of the plot’s thrill is far more horrifying than the stalking of a killer. Thomas soon finds himself not so much in pursuit of the answer to a mystery — he is left to contemplate the empty shell of a person he has allowed himself to become.

"What did you see in that park?" Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“What did you see in that park?”
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Less a mystery of human cruelty as it is a study humanity lost in decadence. In the end Thomas has more in common with the female protagonists of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Italian films. The only real difference is that he is male and has been allowed more access to freedom. That societally entitled power takes him no closer to fulfillment.

Matty Stanfield, 5.16.2016

 

Uh, oh... Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Uh, oh…
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

I have always hated being told what to do. I prefer to be the boss. My blog is my own as and so are the opinions expressed within it. The odd thing is that I tend to write better when under the pressure to fulfill the needs of another. When left to my own devices my words tend to gather in formation for unorganized tangents or obscure ideas.  This challenge continues to plague me. Sometimes I allow my words to flow out and I either attempt to edit / correct myself or I simply delete what has been written. I’ve attempted to write about two Ken Russell films in one post several times.

As he is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers his movies hold themselves as personal time markers in my life. If I’m having trouble remembering what year or when something of note in my life has happened I very often only need to think about when I saw a Ken Russell film. Please note I also love a number of other great filmmakers, but Ken Russell Movies serve as folded pages in my personal history journal. Robert Altman and Claude Chabrol do not connect to my life tracking in the same way.

You see? There! It just happened again!

This variation of Norman Bates has paid the ticket price, but the fact that he snorts poppers and whispers to himself as he watches is more than a little worrying... Anthony Perkins Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

This variation of Norman Bates has paid the ticket price, but the fact that he snorts poppers and whispers to himself as he watches is more than a little worrying…
Anthony Perkins
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

All I really needed to write was that I am somewhat passionate about the work of Ken Russell. That would have sufficed. Yet the combination of my brain and the corresponding fingers had to type more information than is required.

Ugh! Here they go again — I am not an argumentative person. I prefer logic. It is not unusual to encounter cinephiles and individuals who sometime enjoy an Art House film who become not only dismissive but often upset to discover that three is a Ken Russell film fan sharing breathing space. I’ve always expected opposition to the art I love. I will only discuss my defense of Ken Russell if asked or pushed into an intellectual corner. For the record, I’ve been pushed into that corner more times than I can count. As I get older I care less about what others think of me. Not too long ago a pal pointed out that I had failed to not only speak up to defend my opinion related to both Andrzej Zulawski and Ken Russell.

Were you expecting restraint or restraints? Kathleen Turner fully utilizes a night stick to the delight of a cop/client, Randall Brady. This scene was cut for US release, but returned in place for the unrated video release. Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Were you expecting restraint or restraints?
Kathleen Turner fully utilizes a night stick to the delight of a cop/client, Randall Brady. This scene was cut for US release, but returned in place for the unrated video release.
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

At that moment my response seemed perfectly logical to me: Why should I waste my time to try and bend favor from another who felt it appropriate to take a pseudo-intellectual stab at two of my beloved film artists?

It seemed to me that no matter the reasoning, this would have been a waste of my energy.

My pal would have much preferred a potentially unpleasant film theory debate. My response to this individual’s dismissive comment had been,  “Well the audience tends to either love or hate artists like Zulawski and Russell. I understand why you might not agree with me.” For my pal, this was a defeatist way of handling a rude comment. Perhaps it was, but the truth is that it is rare for artists as impassioned, expressive and unique as these two to illicit a middle ground response. The very nature of their respective works aim to force a response. These two were Cinematic visionaries who fought against an industry that often tried to reign them in to conform to what would have been compromises.

No worries. It's just some mother observations to her daughter... Imogen Millais-Scott and Glenda Jackson Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

No worries. It’s just some mother observations to her daughter…
Imogen Millais-Scott and Glenda Jackson
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

See? I didn’t need to inform any person who might be reading my blog any of that. I just rapt my fingers with a book, but they continue for want of following my often mis-wired brain despite logic’s protest.

But seriously why would I want to see D.H. Lawrence given a Masterpiece Theatre approach? Why would I rather look just at the scenery and listen to a British actor read snippets from a once forbidden novel? I’d much rather watch Glenda Jackson face and dance down free-roaming cattle of Scottish longhorn cows. Or watch Alan Bates seductively and almost pornographically dissect and consume a fig. Why would I want to see Oliver Reed and Bates chat their hidden desires when I can watch them strip naked and literally wrestle the other into submission? Isn’t that what Merchant and Ivory were for?

It's quite lovely. A bit of male nudity in a rather polite critique of early 20th Century English Society... Rupert Graves A Room With A View James Ivory, 1985

It’s quite lovely. A bit of male nudity in a rather polite critique of early 20th Century English Society…
Rupert Graves
A Room With A View
James Ivory, 1985

Oh man. Blah, blah, blah. My fingers will not be restricted as easily as my tongue.

What I want to discuss are two Ken Russell films that were made in the 1980’s when Russell’s options with major studios had come to a close. These options closed not so much as a result of disdain for Mr. Russell, but Mr. Russell’s disdain for the industry majors.

I’ve discussed this with both my brain and my fingers and I think we have all reached an agreement: I will write a bit about each film. I will try to avoid losing myself in meandering thoughts.

My hope is that if you’re reading my blog and have never seen either of these two films that you might actually think about checking them out.

"A lady of the night, a man of the cloth. and a passion worth killing for!" Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984

“A lady of the night, a man of the cloth. and a passion worth killing for!”
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984

1984’s Crimes of Passion was born of anger. Screenwriter, Barry Sandler, had finally managed to get a screenplay he cared about produced. Making Love was a bold film for it’s time. The idea of presenting a romantic love story between two men who were not somehow psychotic or dangerous was a whole new idea for Hollywood. By the time Making Love was released the world of sexuality was about to slip from a revolution directly into of all-consuming danger. Conceived and made before AIDS changed everything but release just as it was about to, the movie failed to do what it intended. An outstanding Activist and a sex positive artist walked away from the experience of Making Love ‘s failure and the hypocritical Hollywood viewpoint to write a scathing satire called Crimes of Passion. Fresh from losing a battle to adapt/create an innovative and good film version of Evita to the big screen, Ken Russell was looking for a new project. After battling against unimaginative and Hollywood/Broadway suits, it is easy to imagine Ken Russell hugging Sandler’s screenplay.

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve seen this highly entertaining and crude comical satire on everything from Identity, Marriage, Religion and most of all — Sexuality. I stopped counting a long time ago.

"It is truly an honor to be named Miss. Liberty 1984!" Kathleen Turner Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“It is truly an honor to be named Miss. Liberty 1984!”
Kathleen Turner
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

If you are easily offended by crass humor or graphic sexuality, this will not be your movie. But if up for the envelope-pushing fun, this movie will not disappoint. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion is all at once funny, raunchy, rude, eccentric, profane, politically incorrect, unapologetically erotic, surprisingly suspenseful, unhinged and neon-drenched — This is surreal romp that entertains and shocks from beginning to end. Russell had no fear of shock or of being camp. The shocks and camp are not only intended, they are celebrated. Anthony Perkins was more than game to poke fun at his “Norman Bates” role with precision. But make no mistake, this movie belongs to Kathleen Turner.

"Is this a cruise missile or a Pershing?" Kathleen Turner as China Blue inspecting The Dildo of Death. Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Is this a cruise missile or a Pershing?”
Kathleen Turner as China Blue inspecting The Dildo of Death.
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Turner’s participation in this film caused jaws to drop, but that reaction seems odd. It is very easy to understand why Kathleen Turner embraced the opportunity to play both Joanna Crane and China Blue. Aside from the fact that these two roles in one offered her a chance to act her ass off — it offered her the unique opportunity to demonstrate what she did best. This was Ms. Turner before the tragic illness of rheumatoid arthritis would force her into pause mode. In 1983 it seemed that the cinematic world was about to be hers. In fact she was at the very top of the A List, but she was in many ways imprisoned by an industry caught in contradictory conflict. From 1980 to 1981 everything changed within the world of Hollywood Cinema. She was an instant and well deserved movie star after she not only pulled off playing Lawrence Kasdan’s Femme Fatale in Body Heat — she owned the role.

"Save your soul, whore!" "Save your money, shithead." Kathleen Turner grows bored with a John. Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Save your soul, whore!”
“Save your money, shithead.”
Kathleen Turner grows bored with a John.
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Although widely praised, Kathleen Turner never quite fit into the 1980’s Hollywood Era. Turner had the skills to be as naturalistic and real as any Actors Studio graduate, but she also conveyed the sort of charisma and on-screen presence more easily aligned with the great stars of the 1940’s cinematic era. It always seemed that when a film offered her the chance to fully utilize her considerable skills something else within the movie would let her down. It is actually rather comical to realize that Geena Davis received more praise for The Accidental Tourist. In retrospect it is Turner who steals that movie. Kathleen Turner does not perform in half-measure. This was largely lost on 1980’s filmmakers and their industry of the day.

"Sorry. I never forget a face. Especially if I've sat on it." Kathleen Turner blowing bubbles Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Sorry. I never forget a face. Especially if I’ve sat on it.”
Kathleen Turner blowing bubbles
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

It was not lost with Ken Russell and she knew that. Ms. Turner took a good deal of crap for taking on the lead role in Crimes of Passion, but she has always stood by the film. This was one of many key gifts of Ken Russell. He actually knew how to fully utilize his actors. Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave could not fail in any role, but under his direction they were both challenged and inspired. Jackson could not get by with her natural witty charm — for Russell she always had to dig just a bit deeper. As for Redgrave, her interesting reading of character mixed with often odd little mannerisms or ticks was given full flight in The Devils. As for Oliver Reed — no director ever captured his presence and talent as well as Ken Russell.

But the example that most like struck someone like Kathleen Turner was Ann-Margret got away with in Tommy. Ann-Margret is not short of talent, but what she excelled at was interplaying an undeniable erotic energy tempered by a magically conveyed sense that she was nobody’s object. This really seemed like the girl next door who would marry but still go for broke in the bedroom.

And millions of men melted while millions of women wished they could be this sexy without actually being bad... Ann-Margret Bye Bye Birdie George Sidney, 1963

And millions of men melted while millions of women wished they could be this sexy without actually being bad…
Ann-Margret
Bye Bye Birdie
George Sidney, 1963

George Sidney really didn’t do much in bringing Bye Bye Birdie to the screen, but he got one thing very right. The idea of putting Ann-Margret in front of a bright blue backdrop which she sang and moved in a hard bit of tease and bait was genius! This was the Sex Kitten personified! It would take almost a decade before Mike Nichols would give her a part suited to her talent. In 1971’s Carnal Knowledge she actually challenges Jack Nicholson as his needy girlfriend. But it was a supporting role.

When Ken Russell cast her as Nora in Tommy it caused a bit of head scratch. Here was a beautiful young woman who would be playing Roger Daltrey’s mom when they were essentially the same age. But here was a filmmaker offering Ann-Margret the opportunity to do the things she did best: Sing and emote. For Russell, Ann-Margret brought forward that idea of sexuality that fit perfectly into Tommy‘s damaged psyche.

Well, really. It was only a matter of time... Ann-Margret going the distance. TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Well, really. It was only a matter of time…
Ann-Margret going the distance.
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Tell Ann-Margret to sing and dance while covered in pork-n-beans, chocolate sauce and bubble soap residue — it only takes a minute before she finds a way to hump a phallic pillow with an erotic intensity. This surreal cinematic moment among several other surprisingly potent moments and Ann-Margret became a fully respected movie star with a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Crimes of Passion and Ken Russell offered a similar opportunity for Kathleen Turner. In this 1984 role she was allowed to do what she did best: everything. As Joanna Crane she could play the realism of torment, sexual repression, loneliness and fear.

Joanna Crane: The repressed reality hiding within the surrealism... Kathleen Turner Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Joanna Crane: The repressed reality hiding within the surrealism…
Kathleen Turner
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

As China Blue she could go full throttle movie star. The role would require her to be erotic, funny, sad, transgressive, daring, bold and most importantly it allowed her to explore the full range of human emotion. At last she would be on a screen big enough to capture her talent and beauty. Kathleen Turner delivered a masterful display of performances and Russell framed them exquisitely.

Unfortunately, the world of 1980’s new conservatism was not a welcomed place for a movie like Crimes of Passion. In the 1980’s graphic sexuality was allowed. Or, rather, it was allowed to a certain point. Crimes of Passion moved well beyond that point. It also pushed against the most stringent rule of the era — wild sexual abandon had to come at a price. The 1980’s sexually unrestricted character had to pay some moralistic price for indiscretion. Not to give too much away, the sexual pleasures in Crimes of Passion are not penalized. In fact, they are actually rewarded. That was a big “NO! NO!” in 1984. This was no longer the 1970’s.

This was a Regan and Thatcher world.

China Blue was not welcomed in it. For release in the US, Russell was required to make cuts in order to secure an R Rating. Even then, more than a few cinemas closed the film after the first day or two. This was especially true where I lived: The American Bible Belt.

These heels draw blood... Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

These heels draw blood…
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Wait! My brain and fingers did it again! Damn!

Look, Crimes of Passion has been largely lost on the shelf of Cult Cinema for far too long. Sure, it is a Cult Film — but it is a great deal more as well. Just half an hour into this film and you will note its influence in modern cinema. Crimes of Passion is Neon-Noir. It is also hopelessly entertaining and very artistic. Dick Bush’s cinematography is excellent. Stephen Marsh’s production design is really quite brilliant. Rick Wakeman’s synth score is interestingly current. In fact, FOX TV’s American Horror Story owes a good deal to many aspects of this movie. It has been and continues to be influential.

"Don't fight me, child. I'm the messenger of God and I only want to heal you!" Anthony Perkins gets more than he bargained for... Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Don’t fight me, child. I’m the messenger of God and I only want to heal you!”
Anthony Perkins gets more than he bargained for…
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

The UK’s Arrow Video has secured all the licensing rights, has restored and will be releasing Crimes of Passion to DVD/Blu-Ray this coming July. Finally a new generation will be able to enjoy this twisted bit of cinematic magic!

Arrow Video Presents Crimes of Passion

Crimes of Passion Arrow Video Art Design by Twins of Evil

Crimes of Passion
Arrow Video
Art Design by Twins of Evil

This is a film that has never received the praise it deserves. It most likely never will, but for those of us smart enough to recognize it — Crimes of Passion is a film of complex and rude brilliance. Although it failed to please the majority of film critics and was a cinematic flop, the film did yield some return via the VHS market. I am sure Mr. Russell would have been much happier had the movie had performed better, he was not one to give up. It is key to note that Ken Russell always got the joke. He also made the film he set out to make.

Man! I did again — meandering about and ranting to the choir. If you’re reading this you are interested and I do not need to point these things out to you. Anyway, there is that second Ken Russell movie I want to discuss. Let’s see if I can restrain myself with more success.

O, Salome! Is that a banana you're eating or are you pinning for something a bit more... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988

O, Salome! Is that a banana you’re eating or are you pinning for something a bit more…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988

It would not be true to write that I needed an excuse to cut school. I hated being told I had to be “present” every school day. I skipped school often. However it was unusual for me to call in “sick” to work. But I was so excited to discover that Ken Russell’s latest movie was actually playing at a cinema in Houston that I did both. I remember worrying that my shitmoblie might fail me on the drive there. Worse yet, I wasn’t sure I had enough money to make it back home. But it was worth the risk. Salome’s Last Dance was playing at a cinema located in the heart of what was then known as the gay section of Houston.

Fran Leibowitz has noted that while AIDS stole far too many great artists — it did something actually just as if not more devastating to the arts — it stole the best persons of the audience.

It was a very hot and humid day in Southeast Texas, but it was freezing in that cinema. Wearing shorts and a torn OP shirt, I was wanting for a coat. I was alone in the theatre until three men entered. All three of them were emaciated-looking and clearly quite ill. They sat a few rows in front of me. Once the movie started it was clear that these three men were clever enough to allow their literary knowledge to serve as an instrument to fully appreciate Ken Russell’s jokes vs being offended.

Caged and about to get a rough poke... Douglas Hodge  Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Caged and about to get a rough poke…
Douglas Hodge
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

As the miserable and insufferable Bosey is being tormented by half nude Amazonian dominatrix guards, these three audience members got the giggles. I laughed as well, though I was really puzzled by the spears with which they threatened Douglas Hodge’s Bosey. What were those fist things that were covering sharp tips? I was yet “mature” enough to know about dildo fisting toys.

Several queens form The Nazareans . As well as the late Imogene Claire.  Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Several queens form The Nazareans . As well as the late Imogene Claire.
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

When the head dominatrix shoves the fisting spear up Bosey‘s ass the three men fell into hysterics. Almost immediately after Bosey‘s little surprise, Ken Russell made his cameo entrance as a brothel photographer capturing Bosey/John The Baptist‘s torment with his camera. I’ve never really seen Russell’s cameo as Hitchcockian so much as I think they served more as naughty wink. As if to indicate the silliness of the filmmaker putting himself in a movie should serve as more of a cinematic jester. I could be wrong on that, but these three gay dudes totally “got” this movie and they loved every minute. Every snarky innuendo and every time Glenda Jackson hammed a line up, they chortled in glee. I understood the literary references and caught the camp, but some of the more adult ideas most likely escaped me.

I remember making a mental note that I really had to get my ass out of Texas as soon as I graduated from university. I mean, only three people in a cinema to see a Ken Russell movie?!!?

The same had happened when I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a couple of years earlier.

"I will kiss your lips, John the Baptist!" Douglas Hodge and Imogen Millais-Scott Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

“I will kiss your lips, John the Baptist!”
Douglas Hodge and Imogen Millais-Scott
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Wait. I’ve done it again. I’ve lost myself and allowed my prose to wander off into a memory tangent. O my brain and fingers! Why do you fail me?!?

Salome’s Last Dance came into being thanks to a deal Russell had secured with Vestron after he made Gothic. He had some freedom, but his hands were tied when it came to the budget. He had to bring the movie in for under $1,000,000. About $200,000 under that million dollar mark. Ken Russell was a filmmaker who drew his own path in cinema. And he never had a problem with coloring along as he drew.  But he certainly wasn’t always going to color within the conventional lines. By 1987 his abilities to secure the kind of financing his films deserved were gone. The master filmmaker carried on and simply improvised.

Sitting just outside "the well" or, um, the dumbwaiter to listen to John The Baptist's rants... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Sitting just outside “the well” or, um, the dumbwaiter to listen to John The Baptist’s rants…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

After managing to find a way to turn Paddy Chayefsky’s overtly cerebral and ultra-thick dialogue into a watchable film, Altered States — Russell had no patience for Hollywood studios. They certainly had no patience for him. In the 1980’s he made several odd movies. Only one of these received any amount of critical praise. The Rainbow would be Mr. Russell’s final film that even slightly approached a standard or conventional narrative. It approached it very well, but at the time I remember thinking that The Rainbow lacked the sparks of innovation I had grown to love, but it appealed to a larger audience.  Looking at it now, The Rainbow is a solid and polished film. But pales in comparison to Russell’s more experimental and twisted films of this era. Over the years Crimes of Passion,  Gothic, and The Liar of the White Worm have secured  Salome’s Last Dance valued Cult Film status. There is certainly nothing wrong with being labeled a Cult Film, but some 20 to 30 years later — a couple of these movies reveal something far more than they did when first released. This is particularly true of both Crimes of Passion and Salome’s Last Dance.

Glenda Jackson takes a well-earned smoke break... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Glenda Jackson takes a well-earned smoke break…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Salome’s Last Dance ‘s strange play-within-a-film has aged brilliantly. As Ebert noted in 1988, a low budget did not prevent Ken Russell from securing top noted artists both in front and behind the camera. The production design is both realistic and surrealistic in equal measure. It is also lush, erotic, witty, profane and “Wilde-ly” entertaining.

Russell does not change  Oscar Wilde’s play. Instead he constructed a way to offer some perspective on just how bold, daring and witty Wilde truly was. He also finds creative and clever ways to tie Oscar Wilde’s tragic personal life tied directly to the action of his Salome play. The film’s plot involves a surprise performance of Wilde’s play with the playwright as the only audience member. Russell bends history a bit to also tie this odd fictional staging to coincide with the arrest that would ruin the great writer’s life.

Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns having a lot of fun and bringing it all to life... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns having a lot of fun and bringing it all to life…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Heading up Russell’s cast is the always brilliant Glenda Jackson, Nickolas Grace and Stratford Johns. Russell cast an unknown to play the brothel maid who is plays Salome.  Imogen Millais Scott was quite an amazing discovery. She quite literally manages to steal the movie away from Jackson. This in of itself is a masterful feat! Salome’s Last Dance would be Scott’s only film. The talented actress had caught a dangerous virus and lost her eyesight just before filming was to begin. To his credit, Ken Russell refused the idea of replacing her. While this might have been an act of kindness, it was a very wise decision. Imogen Millais Scott bites into each word with a demonic bratty precision. Ms. Scott’s performance is off-kilter brilliant. It is hard to know exactly, but there is something truly disturbing about the way Salome directs her eyes. Imogen Millais Scott had an unusual look about her anyway. She looks at once like a little girl and other times like someone far older. I find it difficult to articulate why, but this actress has a rather disorienting appearance. The role itself is perverse, but there is something uncomfortably disarming regarding her individual carriage. This Salome is envisioned as a Lolita gone to seed.

Uh, oh. Herod is boring Salome... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Uh, oh. Herod is boring Salome…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

The brothel workers and customers perform the play with rabid energy. Michael Arrals’ created costumes that were both period and wonky/cheesy BDSM. The production is decidedly kinky and perverse. As the film’s concept dictates, the largely male brothel goes for broke which allows Russell to amp up the erotic subtext of the play itself. Every member of Herod’s court is sexualized beyond belief. It seems as if Ken Russell called Central Casting London and asked for 15 British Nasties wanna-be’s. These ladies are not great actors, but they are not meant to be. It works effortlessly.

The concept of metanarrative is fleshed out in more ways than one. As Oscar Wilde watches his play once intended for Sarah Bernhardt but banned by the British government is now presented by sex workers and their customers. Russell is playing off real-life tragedy. By the time this film reaches the mid-point, the reality of the film’s “audience” and those “acting” on stage have already interlaced. Wilde’s play takes on additional meanings of transgression and emotional betrayals. Bosey is playing John The Baptist which takes on the inference that it will soon be Wilde being tortured in prison while Salome’s dance should have been performed by Bosey. And here we are watching the play with Oscar Wilde himself.

Stratford Johns and Imogen Millais-Scott Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Stratford Johns and Imogen Millais-Scott
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

The result is an avant-garde and Surrealist film that never loses its energy or the viewer’s interest. Considering that none of Wilde’s original play has actually been altered, it is a bit of cinematic genius that this film is so nasty and darkly comical. Russell’s staging of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils is spectacular and more than a little surprising. Gender is up for grabs. It has to be seen to appreciate the audacity. If you are familiar with British Literature and Oscar Wilde, you already know that this dance was an essential plot point and key to the general theme of the play. So it is somehow fitting that Ken Russell has found a whole new way to bring this dance to life — and with some new meaning. These shifts in meanings and the use of perverse comedy are Russell’s own imaginings — yet they fit Wilde’s play like a lubed up latex glove. Harvey Harrison’s cinematography is exceptional and the costumes are only rivaled by Michael Buchanan’s production design and Christopher Hobbs set work. The brothel’s perverse take on Salome is intended to look cheep and crass, but Russell still finds ways to often make it all look spectacularly lush. In place of a musical score, Russell wisely choose various pieces from the realm of public domain and was lucky enough to have use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to fill the soundtrack of the movie.

But did you enjoy our little play? Nickolas Grace, Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

But did you enjoy our little play?
Nickolas Grace, Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Glenda Jackson is at her comedic best. It is clear that the great actress is having fun as both Herodias and Lady Alice. Stratford Johns is particularly invested in his performances as both Herod and Alfred Taylor. Like Jackson, he is clearly having fun, both actors are so shrewdly funny it is hard to take your eyes off them. It’s all a lot of fun, but both Jackson and Johns are able to turn it on a dime. The ultimate joke of the film is the absolute cruelty of what we have just seen. Wilde’s play ends with a thud, but Russell’s film manages to find a louder one. Innovative, hilarious, perverse, intelligent and stunning to behold — Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance could have easily been made yesterday. It feels current.

This is more than a Cult Film. Salome’s Last Dance is cinematic art. The problem is that Ken Russell was about two decades ahead his time. Certainly not a conventional film and most likely not a movie for your grandparents — This is one film that deserves a new viewing and reassessment. It is currently available via US iTunes. The quality is not quite up to par with the now out of print DVD, but it is strong enough to see the magic that Ken Russell created with almost no money but a great deal of skill, imagination and limitless artistic abilities. It is more likely that we will see Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm restored before Salome gets a proper platform on which to dance.

Ready for her kiss... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Ready for her kiss…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

But at least her final dance can still be seen. There is some magic there and Ken Russell’s visionary work refuses to be silenced. Thank goodness.

matty stanfield, 4.15.2016

 

 

I really do not care for the term “Mumblecore.” This term feels like an insult to the films and artists who have emerged within this assigned “genre.” Labels are always problematic. But we humans love to categorize and label. Admittedly I am the first to reject a label assigned to me and often the first to assign one. I do like things to be organized. So just in case you are unaware I will provide definitions and examples for two terms.

The heart and soul gets investigated, critiqued and exposed in Joe Swanberg's mumblecore Full Moon Trilogy. JOE SWANBERG: COLLECTED FILMS 2011 DVD Box Set from Factory 25 http://www.factorytwentyfive.com/joe-swanberg-collected-films-2/

The heart and soul gets investigated, critiqued and exposed in Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore Full Moon Trilogy.
JOE SWANBERG: COLLECTED FILMS 2011
DVD Box Set from
Factory 25
http://www.factorytwentyfive.com/joe-swanberg-collected-films-2/

Mumblecore refers to a subgenre of low-budget independent film in which focus is placed on dialogue over traditional plot. Mumblecore films utilize naturalism which is not only limited to dialogue and performance but usually extends to the manner in which production is executed. The concept of plot takes on a sort of organic or even seemingly accidental and it usually revolves around relationship issues clouded by the characters’ inability to articulate individual emotions or the lack of understanding individualistic identities. I have always felt this fairly new subgenre is really an extension of the early La Nouvelle Vague films that come out of France as the 20th Century began to move into the 1960’s. The style of the French New Wave was often less about choice as it was about limited budgets. No matter the intention, this wave of film ushered in whole new manners of speech within cinematic language. Mumblecore has also played a huge influence into the mainstream of film and television.

He may have directed it, but Frances Ha ties itself to both Mumblecore and The French New Wave with ease. And it reached a very large audience. Frances Ha Noah Baumbach, 2012 Cinematography | Sam Levy

He may have directed it, but Frances Ha ties itself to both Mumblecore and The French New Wave with ease. And it reached a very large audience.
Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach, 2012
Cinematography | Sam Levy

As an example of Mumblecore I offer a film made long before the idea of Mumblecore existed:  Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983) –  A highly acclaimed film running for 90 minutes about little more than three irresponsible adults confused about what love is and how to secure it. In this quietly brilliant film, there is no real plot. The dialogue feels improvised. It is the teenage title character who seems to have even a remote understanding of love and life. The film has no visual style. It is slowly paced. But when Pauline leaves and the credits begin to roll an unexpected punch has been delivered. Kentucker Audley’s Team Picture (2007) Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax (2009) Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever (2012) and Lynn Shelton’s Humpday all lead the audience to similar melancholy conclusions.

Feodor Atkine and Arielle Dombasle have very different ideas related to "love" Pauline at the Beach Eric Rohmer, 1983 Cinematography | Nestor Almendros

Feodor Atkine and Arielle Dombasle have very different ideas related to “love”
Pauline at the Beach
Eric Rohmer, 1983
Cinematography | Nestor Almendros

Meta-Film is also often called Metacinema and it is used to describe films that are either about the filmmaking process, business or movies that dare to break the fourth wall or even present a film within a film. The concept of the Meta-Film is directly related to the literary device of Metafiction. Examples of Meta-Films are Annie Hall, Adaptation, Fight Club, Sunset Blvd, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Synecdoche, New York and Mulholland Drive. As you will note the genre, tone and intention of the Meta-Film unlimited. My personal favorite example of the MetaFilm is Francois Truffaut’s acclaimed Day for Night (1973)

"Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive." Day for Night Francois Truffaut, 1973 Cinematography | Pierre-William Glenn

“Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.”
Day for Night
Francois Truffaut, 1973
Cinematography | Pierre-William Glenn

While this film is most certainly dated, it is still very much alive. Truffaut is clearly playing a version of himself as he tries to make a movie while dealing with the many little dramas of his actors and crew threaten to throw the whole production down the drain. What I really love about Day for Night is its total lack of cynicism. Despite all of the troubles the director encounters, there is a love not only for each of the actors playing characters — this movie’s main intention is to serve as a shout out of love for movies and movie making. Day for Night refuses to commit to realism, surrealism or even satire. This quirky little 1970’s movie brims over with the sort of magic that only a film can provide.

FUNNY HA HA, British poster art, Kate Dollenmayer (top left), Myles Paige (top center), William Westfall (hat), Christian Rudder (center), 2002. ©Goodbye Cruel Releasing

FUNNY HA HA, British poster art, Kate Dollenmayer (top left), Myles Paige (top center), William Westfall (hat), Christian Rudder (center), 2002. ©Goodbye Cruel Releasing

I may not like the label / term of Mumblecore, but I have been an advocate of this group of Film Artists from the beginning. There are some very interesting aspects of this subgenre of Independent Film:

A simultaneous blending of cinematic auteur theory and active collaboration

The development of an artistic community and a loosely formed Acting / Filmmaking Troupe

Continuous exploration of identity

A unique shape of narrative structure

A consistent feeling of a unity between projects no matter how different they might be 

As with any labeled genre, there are certain artists who interest me more than others. Among them are Kelly Reichardt, The Duplass Brothers, Kentucker Audley, Josephine Decker, Rick Alverson, Lynn Shelton, Todd Rohal, Amy Seimetz and Michael Tully. It is essential to note that the term “Mumblecore” literally fails when held up to much of what these filmmakers do. Then again I’ve never gotten any sense that these artists worry about coloring outside the lines. Kelly Reichardt’s work is transformative. Rick Alverson’s films always contain a mix of societal criticism interlacing with absurdist or surrealist humor. His most recent film, Entertainment, is dark surreal vision of an artist pushed to the edge of sanity.

Look it, God will you fuck you up! The Catechism Cataclysm Todd Rohal, 2011 Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Look it, God will you fuck you up!
The Catechism Cataclysm
Todd Rohal, 2011
Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Michael Tully’s films are always surprising. Each of his films takes the audience to very different places. It is almost impossible to even provide a brief synopsis for his strange breath-taker, Septien. Todd Rohal’s work is always hinged uncomfortably with the Surreal or Absurdist — yet every film he makes manages to resonate. The Catechism Cataclysm, anyone? Amy Seimetz has actually only made one feature length film. However Sun Don’t Shine is so damned brilliant I keep waiting to see when she will make another. Jay and Mark Duplass and Lynn Shelton have already moved the genre into the mainstream without any sense of actually buying into full-on commercialization of what they do. HBO’s recent decision to cancel The Duplass’ Togetherness left a great many upset. Togetherness was the perfect artistic alternative to Lena Dunham’s Girls. The decision to cancel Togetherness will haunt HBO. Girls is a game-changer, but Togetherness was the intelligent result.

Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil have good hearts, but they do very bad things. Sun Don't Shine Amy Seimetz, 2012 Cinematography | Jay Keitel

Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil have good hearts, but they do very bad things.
Sun Don’t Shine
Amy Seimetz, 2012
Cinematography | Jay Keitel

Josephine Decker’s work is perhaps the most resoundingly unique of the Mumblecore Wave. Both Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely lead the audience into worlds that only seem familiar. Decker presents both stories with beauty and devastating horror. Each film is tied closely to the ways in which Ashley Connor finds to lens the director’s ideas. Decker’s work might have a connection to a Lynchian-like viewpoint, but there is something completely new found in both of these films. Each is blessed with a female voice that refuses to be restricted by societal norms or political correctness. That folk song might sound pretty and that barn may appear lovely, but Decker pushes us to the conclusion that both have been reconstructed to hide something far more sinister. Decker’s last two films deviate so far from what is considered Mumblecore that I almost hesitate to list her here. However her work is already deeply entrenched in the Mumblecore artistic troupe I do not see how I can leave her out. In truth, her most recent films seem to align closer to Shane Carruth’s work.

Everything learned by tending to the farm. And everything is offering surprises... Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Everything learned by tending to the farm. And everything is offering surprises…
Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Of these mentioned, Kentucker Audley is the artist who remains triumphantly grounded in a unique vision that so far has remained stridently Mumblecore. Ambitious and determined, Audley always seems to find a way to continue his cinematic explorations. In the process he has established himself as a solid leading man. As an actor, he is really only challenged by Robert Longstreet. As competent in front of the camera as behind it, this is a filmmaker who will continue to thrive.

This makes De Niro's "Rupert Pupkin" look safe and sane... Kentucker Audley at the mic Bad Fever Dustin Guy Defa, 2011 Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

This makes De Niro’s “Rupert Pupkin” look safe and sane…
Kentucker Audley at the mic
Bad Fever
Dustin Guy Defa, 2011
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

But there is another member of the Mumblecore Wave who is riding it with a conviction and an artistic slant that is ever-growing, expanding and convulsing ideas that seem to evolve with each of his cinematic projects. If we are to buy-into the concept of The Auteur, then we must be able to somehow chart a key thread in the work. Most importantly, the audience should be able to notice a growth from that core thread toward increasing achievement. Art is all too subjective and no artist is ever going to be able to make every step perfect. This is not what I mean when I write “increasing achievement.” The auteur filmmaker is by his/her own formation will not allow their work to fall prey to commercial interests or film criticism. The auteur will create the art no matter where it may lead him/her …or his / her audience. 

A film can be commercial without killing the intent. Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson Drinking Buddies Joe Swanberg, 2013 Cinematography | Ben Richardson

A film can satisfy the mainstream without killing the intent.
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson
Drinking Buddies
Joe Swanberg, 2013
Cinematography | Ben Richardson

Joe Swanberg is most definitively an Autuer. And if you doubt a progression in his work you only need check out the films he released in 2011. Joe Swanberg directed 6 films released in 2011. All 6 are of interest and merit, but 3 form a trilogy that I strongly recommend. I’ve always referred to these 3 films as Swanberg’s Full Moon Trilogy. This trilogy not only captures the pursuit of the filmmaker, it shines a fascinating light on the art of filmmaking and psychological puzzle that Meta-Film can create. I am not certain if this is the correct way to refer to them, but for this essay I am going to use the Full Moon label.

Silver Bullets was not the first film Swanberg released in 2011. His first film of that year was Uncle Kent. An established storyboard director / writer for such animated hits as SpongeBob SquarePants as well as a longtime member of the Mumblecore Artistic Troupe, Kent Osborne takes the title role. As “Uncle Kent” he is essentially playing a variation of himself. As is often the case in Swanberg’s films, it is almost impossible to know how much of what we see is based on truth or complete fiction. There is an uneasy feeling that Uncle Kent is serving as a sort of fuzzy staged re-enactment from Osborne’s private life. The acting is that believable. It may not be the case, but this film gives the impression that we are seeing a slanted manipulation of Osborne’s own life.

Reality, identity and situations merge with fiction. Or is it the other way around? Uncle Kent Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Joe Swanberg

Reality, identity and situations merge with fiction. Or is it the other way around?
Uncle Kent
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Joe Swanberg

It is an interesting and often voyeuristic proposition. It often feels like we are seeing something that we should not be allowed to see. Kent has a successful and seemingly profitable career as an animator, but he is getting older and is lonely. Part of that loneliness reveals itself to be a product of Kent‘s inability to fully grasp hold of maturity and the soon to arrive mid-life crisis. He does not seem to relate or even know anyone his own age. His co-worker is a good decade younger and while he has a nice home it is furnished like a college student dwelling. It would appear that Kent spends most of his free time surfing the Internet and playing the hyper-sexualized  Chatroulette. Watching these random online interactions is both fascinating and uncomfortable. When he meets Jennifer Prediger’s Kate on the site the two make the rather strange choice to not only meet up, but for her to visit and stay with him for a few days while she is in Los Angeles.

This extended adult sleepover sprouts increasingly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness. This is more than a man reluctantly facing the fact that he getting older. Our Uncle Kent is led to the realization that he no longer fits into the world he inhabits. The feeling that he might be missing out on something soon morphs into existential crisis. It is no longer enough to spend his days working on adult-oriented but infantile comedic cartoon, doodling, surfing the Internet, participating in Chatroulette, getting stoned, petting his cat and hoping against hope that a meaningless sexual encounter might lead to something resembling love. There is no resolution for Kent. We leave him stuck in a trap of his own making. There are no signs that he will be able to change the direction of his life, but there are no clear signs that he won’t. Uncle Kent is a sweetly sour experimental film of mid-life awareness.

Uncle Kent‘s idea of sexual freedom and single life is not something to desire. The film is potent and surprisingly entertaining. There are laughs to be found, but there is a dark sea of tears floating just beneath the surface. Most importantly Swanberg creates a film filled with characters that confuse typical cinematic ideas of reality. Where does Uncle Kent‘s fiction end and truth begin? Or has it all been a fiction?

Artists struggle to keep their private relationships separate from the cinematic work with some dire consequences in the first film of The Full Moon Trilogy... Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Artists struggle to keep their private relationships separate from the cinematic work with some dire consequences in the first film of The Full Moon Trilogy…
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

The first of what I believe is correctly called The Full Moon Trilogy came out not too long after Uncle Kent. Silver Bullets is a slow-burn experience into a meditation on the artist, the artistic process and the attempt to maintain relationships throughout. At first glance Silver Bullets appears to be firmly grounded in realism. While the film presents itself as realism, it really does not try to confuse reality with fiction. Even viewers coming to the film with little to no knowledge of Swanberg or Mumblecore will know they are seeing a narrative fictional film. Swanberg has managed to secure both established actors, Jane Adams and Larry Fessenden in supporting roles. They are clearly not playing versions of themselves beyond the fact that both characters are respected actors facing dwindling options as they grow older in a profession obsessed with youth.

But the idea of naturalism / realism is immediately challenged when we first see Kate Lyn Sheil’s Claire. Framed in the left side of the screen she starts to produce animalistic howling and it is here that Swanberg inserts his title card. This is not a horror film, but it is established that is most likely a film is about the making of one. In fact, the horror filmmaker is played by Indie Horror King himself, Ti West. Claire has won the lead role as a female werewolf and West’s Ben is her director. Her life partner is a filmmaker played by Joe Swanberg. Swanberg’s character is named Ethan. He is also a filmmaker who appears to be very unhappy with a film he and Claire have been making. A film that is either so bad he will never release it or is still in a stage of incompletion. This is the third film that Silver Bullets may or may not be about.

Is the latex mask doing something more than cover the skin of its actor? Kate Lyn Sheil Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Is the latex mask doing something more than cover the skin of its actor?
Kate Lyn Sheil
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

When an acting pal of Claire‘s arrives fairly unfreshly from Los Angeles, she presents her friendship with a bit of poison.

It is essential to note that the acting work in this film is very naturalistic and real. No wit or major drama. Communications are often muted and seem to oppose the actions the characters take. In a key scene, Claire‘s friend played Amy Seimetz offers a grim bit of advice. In her view, Claire has not yet had enough experience as a film actor. She advises her to go to Los Angeles and work her trade there. As Seimetz’s character abruptly walks away to change her top because she “feels fat,” she offers the observation that it is clear that Claire has not yet gained the required actor training because she still retains hope.

This advice and observation are delivered with sincerity. There is no intended irony or sarcasm. According to Charlie, the life of a working actor does not offer hope. It offers only disappointment and body issues. Yet there is an undertone to Amy Seimetz’s delivery of the lines. (if they are delivered at all — note: it is hard to know if we are seeing something fully scripted or improvised under a rough guideline) It might just be that the friend wants to push Claire away from the business to avoid competition. It is never clear.

Taking aim. Kate Lyn Sheil and Joe Swanberg Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Taking aim.
Kate Lyn Sheil and Joe Swanberg
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

As Claire pursues her staring role in a horror film about a predatory female monster, her relationship with Ethan is placed in jeopardy. Her filmmaker boyfriend views her success with jealousy and his interest in her as his muse/leading lady seems to have vanished. Ethan is interested in pursuing Claire‘s friend from LA as his new leading lady. Meanwhile back on the horror movie set, it is clear that Claire is becoming dependent upon Ben‘s attention to help her be successful as his horror film leading lady. There is confusion both on and projecting from the screen about the identities of filmmakers. Is there a difference between serving as a leading lady and being a lover? Does one supersede the other?

Is this a role or a new development in identity and all that relate to it? Kate Lyn Sheil Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Is this a role or a new development in identity and all that relate to it?
Kate Lyn Sheil
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

This is an experimental film about art and those who create it — and the impact it can have on their lives. It works. As Silver Bullets moves to it’s conclusion disorientation creeps over the entire film. Just when we feel fairly positive we are seeing a fictional narrative film rooted in realism and naturalism, Swanberg pulls the rug from beneath our feet. In a disturbing mix of realism, surrealism and possibly footage from another movie — the audience is left with the conundrum of sorting out the film we thought we were watching from the two others films we know the characters are making. But there is an added idea of psychological horror lurking and bubbling over in true horror film style.

Silver Bullets is a Meta-Film that presents a film within a film within a film and it never fully commits on which film(s) the characters are in during which scenes.

Are these the tears of a broken heart or those of an actor ready for her close-up? Kate Lyn Sheil Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011

Are these the tears of a broken heart or those of an actor ready for her close-up?
Kate Lyn Sheil
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011

It is not a frustrating result. The film satisfies and when a prologue arrives some questions are answered. But before Swanberg fades his screen to black he tosses a new idea out to the audience — Is Ethan a variation of Joe Swanberg?

The second film in The Full Moon Trilogy is Art History. This is about the making of a movie. That movie appears to be about an extended sexual encounter that becomes an intimate interaction beyond the sexual. Swanberg once again casts himself as a filmmaker directing a movie. While he is playing a character with a different name than his own, he plays it exactly like he played Ethan in the previous film. An unsatisfied and uninspired filmmaker who struggles with his private life as much as with his artistic calling. For Art History he has cast both Adam Wingard and his real-life wife and real-life filmmaker, Kris Swanberg. Wingard is clearly playing himself. He is given no name in the movie, but he is not only playing a cinematographer — he is also serving as Art History‘s co-cinematographer. Kris Swanberg’s role in the production is not articulated, though we know she is pregnant and we are given hints that she is involved with the film director. The two actors are played by Kent Osborne (who is given a different character name, but still seems just like Uncle Kent) and Josephine Decker.

What is going on here?!?! The concept of Meta-Film truly becomes impossible. Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011

What is going on here?!?! The concept of Meta-Film truly becomes impossible.
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011

The puzzle of this Meta-Film begins immediately when the first thing we see is a graphic scene of sexuality. A close-up of Kent Osborne’s penis and Josephine Decker attempting to cover it with a condom. The only clue that this may all be fiction is that Osborne’s penis is not erect. In addition, as Decker mount and grinds, the positioning and POV seem slightly off for the camera to be filming unstimulated sex. Soon enough Joe Swanberg’s character stops the filming for a quick “re-group” on the scene. None of this is presented in an erotic way. This is almost anti-erotic.

Perhaps more than any other Swanberg film, Art History looks truly ugly, unframed and clunky. The acting is first rate and firmly grounded in realism. Both Osborne and Decker seem to be doing their best to become comfortable with each other. But wait, was that re-grouping to help Osborne relax so that he can achieve an erection? Is the sex meant to be unstimulated? The conversing is painfully realistic as are the mutually awkward attempts at touching each other to both stimulate and relax. So, wait. Is this acting? We think it is. Or, hold up. Are these two actors actually involved. Decker seems to be playing the same character who showed up for a three-way with Uncle Kent and Kate in the other movie. Did they develop a relationship during that shoot and this is continuing as an idea for a movie? Where does the film within a film end/begin?

Although working with another actor, director and crew member -- Juliette is clearly feeling alone and more than a little lost. What is the point of bothering with the sheet? Josephine Decker Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard & Joe Swanberg

Although working with another actor, director and crew member — Juliette is clearly feeling alone and more than a little lost. What is the point of bothering with the sheet?
Josephine Decker
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard & Joe Swanberg

Swanberg’s character may be called Sam, but he sure seems like the Joe Swanberg I’ve seen chatting in interviews. As Osborne and Deckers’ characters seem to be warming to each other, Sam becomes jealous. Later it is clear he is developing sexual feelings for Decker’s character. And it looks like Decker is asking Kris Swanberg for relationship advice when it comes down to meeting someone in this sort of circumstance. The video stock looks different. Is this off someone’s cellphone? Was that Decker as Juliette asking Kris Swanberg’s character a question? Or was that Decker and Swanberg having a private huddle that has been edited into the film?

At what point are we in a movie within a movie or possibly a document of the whole process. Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

At what point are we in a movie within a movie or possibly a document of the whole process.
Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

One could almost accuse Swanberg of No Wave style or having absolutely no style to his filmmaking. In Art History, the absence of style actually begins to feel stylized. Interestingly, Art History contains several of the most stunning shots Swanberg has ever captured. A carefully lit in limited POV we see a swimming pool in which the two actors and director swim nude to relax. These shots serve as pause notations for the film itself. And these brief and artistically sensual shots are completely cinematic. The line between reality and fiction is blurred, but there is a lingering feeling that we are just watching a movie within a movie.

Wait a second. Who is actually swimming nude in that pool? Are these the two actors and one director or are they the three characters? Is this a movie within a movie and a documentary of both all edited together? Is there a difference?

A beautifully sensual shot. Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

A beautifully sensual shot.
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

The beautiful set-up of the swimming pool serves as the place for the film’s final scene. Art History‘s ending raises a whole new level of psychological game play for the viewer. Were the pool shots artistically set or just the blind luck of light and a perfectly placed surveillance camera? Either way, was the final scene real or scripted rage?  Did we just see documented rage? When were Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker acting? Were they ever filmed as themselves? Are they consistently acting throughout? Without knowing the artists involved it is impossible to fully know.

Unable to sleep... Joe Swanberg Art History Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

Unable to sleep…
Joe Swanberg
Art History
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

This is the magic of Art History as a Meta-Film. This is also the cinematic moment when no one can deny Joe Swanberg’s talent as a filmmaker. The expression of intimacy is a tricky business for any actor, but within Art History, this challenge seems to be creating a view from almost every angle. There again, maybe it doesn’t. No matter the answer, Art History fully demonstrates an ever growing thread started in Silver Bullets as well as a growing maturity in filming.  However Swanberg’s strangest artistic turn is delivered in the final film of The Full Moon Trilogy.

Fictional and Real in their private bedroom, these two actors and fellow filmmakers ponder questions of art, identity and consequence... Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

Fictional and Real in their private bedroom, these two actors and fellow filmmakers ponder questions of art, identity and consequence…
Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography | Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg

The Zone is the final third film of the trilogy. The first half of this movie plays like a low-rent take on Pasolini’s “Teorema.” Kentucker Audley is the mysterious visitor who is initially introduced as Kate Lyn Sheil’s  moody lover. At first it is not clear he is a mystery guest in the house. This understanding is gained when he seduces a more than willing Sophia Takal. Swanberg films the first sexual encounter in a somewhat non-erotic way. While there are many nude shots of the beautiful Kate Lyn Sheil, they do not seem overtly sensual. She and Audley play a strange game which leads to sex, but the whole exchange lacks lust or desire. Both actors appear to be a little bored.

However when it turns out that Sophia Tikal is more than willing to fool around with Kentucker Audley’s character, the tone of their sexual interaction is filmed in a different way. They, too, play a game. The difference is that both characters use the game as a form of flirtation. This sexual intimacy is filmed with a casual sort of lo-fi eroticism. Graphic and interplaying the use of a quilt which highlights gestures of  body movements. It is a simple idea, but effective.  This sexual encounter is erotic.

The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

When Takal’s real life fiancé arrives home from some sort of sporting event, Kentucker Audley’s character is seated seductively without a shirt. He sips a beer bottle and follows Lawrence Michael Levine into the bathroom where he films Levine’s character taking a shower. Before long it becomes obvious that Audley’s character is putting the moves on Sophia’s soon-to-be-husband. As both remove their pants and the nude Audley walks toward the nude Levine — their images become digitally “ghosted.” We can see through both men. As Audley bends to his knees to pleasure Levine, one can’t help but wonder if the previous realistic film is taking a turn for the surreal. Is this a sexual fantasy or daydream? If it is, to whom does it belong?

What's going on? Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley get ghosted... The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

What’s going on?
Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley get ghosted…
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

At this point Swanberg gives the audience a surprising turn. Suddenly this film becomes an unfinished production with Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Dustin Guy Defa, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sophia Tikal and Lawrence Michael Levine all watching the film we’ve just seen on Swanberg’s laptop. It would appear that the actors are no longer acting. The director is no longer directing. And the co-cinematographer is no longer filming. All five artists begin to critique the film, their work and question the validity of moving forward with the production.

We are to understand that Kentucker Audley has already left and not coming back. His part in the film was finished. One of the actors questions Swanberg’s choice of filming each seduction. All find it problematic that the Kat Lyn and Sophia sex scenes are filmed for long durations without clothing while Lawrence is barely given any nude or sex time. There are also concerns voiced about Swanberg’s choice to not show much of the homosexual encounter and that he has treated it as if it might not have even happened.

Can a happy marriage of two actors handle the sexual confusion of roles? Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

Can a happy marriage of two actors handle the sexual confusion of roles?
Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

We come to realize two factors of The Zone that are presented in a rather casual ways: Swanberg is filming in the actual home that Sophia and Lawrence share with Kate Lyn. Thus another layer of fiction has been merged with reality. Acting is difficult, but it is even more challenging when the cameras are right up near the face. These are all very talented actors. Finding ways to make sexual intimacy and simulated sex look and appear real is not at all easy. It takes a large emotional toil and can often be more than a little confusing for the actors — even more so if they rely on Method Acting. To simulate sex in their own private house, bathroom, bedrooms and living room would not be any easy feat. Yet all four actors do it very well.

The second factor is revealed in such a flippant and casual manner that I’m not sure I noticed it when I first saw this movie several years back — All four artists discuss Kentucker Audley’s participation in Swanberg’s film as if he had been playing himself. They begin to compare and discuss Audley’s manner and his way of moving into a love scene. Later Michael Lawrence Levin bravely secures an on-screen erection in an attempt to recreate what Swanberg had failed to film with he and Kentucker. At this point the director and the two soon-to-be-married actors try to think of what Kentucker would have done and/or wanted. It is already been made clear that neither Audley or Levine have any interest in homosexual sex, yet that idea that these actors may not really be acting in any traditional sense.

When the four discuss filming a three-way simulated sex scene, the actors speak as if they are really going to be engaging in three-way sex. They do not appear to be talking about acting. They appear to be talking about sharing the sexual experience. Is this a tease of the of the film or do they plan to have full-on sex? Meanwhile, Swanberg shares his fears and concerns about forcing the actors to film something. They assure him that they are participating of their own free will and want to make the best film possible. Swanberg discusses how “certain past filmed scenes” in other films have caused some major hurt and anger. The mind immediately springs back to the closing moments of Art History. As the film within a film continues to challenge its own concept a surprising thing happens while Swanberg films a new scene. The occurrence is unexpected and looks very real. It sounds very real. The panic, rage, hurt and fear do not seem like acting.

Strike a pose... Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley The Zone Joe Swanberg

Strike a pose…
Lawrence Michael Levine and Kentucker Audley
The Zone
Joe Swanberg

When can know we are seeing these five artists acting and when can we know that what we are seeing is an actual documentation of The Zone‘s behind the scenes filming?

We can’t.

But then, Swanberg  does something I’ve never seen a filmmaker do — Already having totally disoriented the cast as well as the audience in the ability to understand fictional truth vs. reality truth. Already having inverted the idea of identity beyond recognition — and without warning, The Zone totally implodes upon itself.

We find ourselves in Joe and Kris Swanbergs’ living room. There they are sitting with their newly born baby. Kris is offering Joe criticism of The Zone. She begins to push him to explain what it is he was after. She comments that she has no idea if what she has seen was real. She questions the unexpected moment within the movie as not being valid. Now his wife is questioning the validity of reality vs. fiction. Neither the filmmaker or his filmmaker wife like the movie he had made.

Is this really a film within the film or has it been planned. Does reality fit into this realism? Kate Lyn Sheil, Dustin Guy Defa, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Joe Swanberg The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

Is this really a film within the film or has it been planned. Does reality fit into this realism?
Kate Lyn Sheil, Dustin Guy Defa, Adam Wingard, Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Joe Swanberg
The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

We reach a true Meta-Film Trip Out when Kris Swanberg notes that Joe has made movie within a movie in which he is questioning his motivations regarding a film within another film that unfolds to another film in which he is still complaining about all of the films — none of which has been fully produced. This is a psychological trap. It could even be called a mind fuck. Swanberg laments he may have reached a dead-end. It is a profoundly disorienting scene. Especially when you take into account that this final Meta-Film Twist may have been scripted.

While watching the final moments of The Zone I can’t help but wonder if we were really seeing the Swanberg living room. Is it a set? What’s up with the odd blue light emitting from the gap in the curtains? How is a couple with a baby able to live in such a minimal room? 

In the end Joe Swanberg’s Full Moon Trilogy is a brilliant success. One does not need to see all three in sequential order. All three films function independent of one another. But when you see Silver Bullets, Art History and The Zone together you not only see the thread and Swanberg’s progressing evolvement as an Autuer Filmmaker — the viewer experiences is a rewarding and interesting flow of cinematic ideas. These three films offer a thoroughly unique take on human psychology and the impact of fluidly mixing realism with fiction so deeply leads you into a sort of labyrinth.

Is that a real gun? Joe Swanberg Silver Bullets Joe Swanberg, 2011 Cinematography |

Is that a real gun?
Joe Swanberg
Silver Bullets
Joe Swanberg, 2011
Cinematography |

If you’ve not seen Joe Swanberg’s Full Moon Trilogy and would like to check it out:

The DVD Box Set is available from Factory 25

Swanberg Full Moon Trilogy

Or you can rent or purchase all three from Vimeo

Swanberg at Vimeo

If you are a member of Fandor, all three films are currently streaming as of April, 2016

@ Fandor

Matty Stanfield, 4.7.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He might not be the first name that pops into the minds of cinephiles, but Christopher Doyle is one of the most important cinematographers working. When he is behind the camera, the film’s world suddenly envelops us in unique perspectives blending color, movement and shadows together in such a way that even the ugliest corners of the world are transformed into a sort of rapturous beauty. At the same time, he has the gift of bringing his vision into focus with that of his director. I find it almost impossible to describe the ways in which Doyle can take dilapidated walls, cracks, rusted objects, smoke or even human brutality and create a visionary sort of rainbow.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu Wai Leung in the shadows of perspective. In the Mood for Love Kar-wai Wong, 2000 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu Wai Leung in the shadows of perspective.
In the Mood for Love
Kar-wai Wong, 2000
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

I often find myself wanting to reach through the screen and touch the objects that catch his camera’s eye. It is the fact that I always have an immediate response to not move my arms or hands. Very often what Christopher Doyle films are objects that ordinarily I would have no interest in touching. The images project a sort of beauty, but they are never denied reality.

Tadanobu Asano's good looks can't pull our eyes away from where he stands. This stance is both literal and metaphorical. Invisible Waves Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Tadanobu Asano’s good looks can’t pull our eyes away from where he stands. This stance is both literal and metaphorical.
Invisible Waves
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle’s work with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang remains as fresh and oddly sensual as when their collaborations were first released. Dark stories of lost and damaged people trying to find their way to better places. Doyle’s camera forms as much of these stories as do Ratanaruang and his casts.

A lizard slithers up the wall behind Kenji's library... Last Life in the Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A lizard slithers up the wall behind Kenji’s library…
Last Life in the Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang , 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe follows the story of a lonely man who only begins to find a bit of hope after a criminal arrives to his apartment. This hope is found in the form of another’s tragic death. The grief stricken begins to bond with Kenji, an intelligent outsider who has lost all hope.

Even the unwanted arrival of a criminal fails to fill Kenji's world. He is alone and lonely. Last Life in the Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Even the unwanted arrival of a criminal fails to fill Kenji’s world. He is alone and lonely.
Last Life in the Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s camera captures this story from a number of perspectives and frames filled with colors, shadows and meanings.

Could this really be happening? A beautiful young woman allows Kenji into her home and falls asleep within his grasp. The perspective indicates a distance, but retains a sense of warmth and possibility. Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak Last Life In The Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Could this really be happening? A beautiful young woman allows Kenji into her home and falls asleep within his grasp. The perspective indicates a distance, but retains a sense of warmth and possibility.
Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak
Last Life In The Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Last Life in the Universe is a quirky, darkly comical and often disturbing Thai film that is as realistic as it is absurd and surreal. A criminal enters the void of Kenji’s solitary life in Bangkok and a series of disturbing events leads him to enter the life of a female polar opposite to himself. Distorted and contradictory in image as it is in story, Ratanaruang’s film is a surprisingly emotional love story.

A change in perspective and a later shift of natural light indicates that our protagonist finds some momentary piece. And a frame from the film serves as the film's poster. Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak Last Life In The Universe Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A change in perspective and a later shift of natural light indicates that our protagonist finds some momentary piece. And a frame from the film serves as the film’s poster.
Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak
Last Life In The Universe
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s work with Kar-wai Wong is the thing of cinematic legend. Just take a look at the following frames.

Brigitte Lin’s hard character hides behind a blonde wig and dark cigarettes. Very often she, like most of the film’s characters, seems to be frozen while the chaos of her world speeds by her.

A world of crowded chaos whirls past as the characters navigate it. Brigitte Lin Chungking Express Kar-wai Wong, 1994 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A world of crowded chaos whirls past as the characters navigate it.
Brigitte Lin
Chungking Express
Kar-wai Wong, 1994
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Kar-wai Wong and Christopher Doyle would forge a shared vision through the 1990’s.

Our gay lovers are in love but seem to hate each other most of the time. Close but far at the same time. Happy Together Kar-Wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Our gay lovers are in love but seem to hate each other most of the time. Close but far at the same time.
Happy Together
Kar-Wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Wong’s 1997 gay-themed film, Happy Together, shows two men attempting to hold on to each other in a culture that refuses them. When they are together, they are far apart.

Alone even the mundane and sad take on a sort of beauty... Leslie Cheung Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Alone even the mundane and sad take on a sort of beauty…
Leslie Cheung
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

A Hong Kong film that pushed the envelope and delivered something very unexpected. The power largely emanates from Doyle’s camera work.

Drink, polaroids and cigs seem to fight for light. Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Drink, polaroids and cigs seem to fight for light.
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

In 1999 Christopher Doyle would make his directorial and film writing debut with Away With Words. The film was not a complete success and is largely viewed as a cult film thanks to the fact that Doyle’s pal, Tadanobu Asano, agreed to star. But Away With Words is highly undervalued. This is a brilliant slice of late 1990’s ennui. It is a fascinating snap shot of a world that would all be changing very quickly. It also features some of Doyles best cinematography.

Tadanobu Asano sleeps in a vacated neon and crushed velvet world. Away With Words Christopher Doyle, 1999

Tadanobu Asano sleeps in a vacated neon and crushed velvet world.
Away With Words
Christopher Doyle, 1999

 

A neon-drenched world of pop... Away With Words Christopher Doyle, 1999

A neon-drenched world of pop…
Away With Words
Christopher Doyle, 1999

If a film has Christopher Doyle as its cinematographer, I am there. It took me almost two years, but I was finally able to see KHAVN’s 2014 film, Ruined Heart — or full title: Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore. Khan De La Cruz, or as he prefers to be known, KHAVN, does not follow the rules of conventional cinema. Most likely he doesn’t follow rules at all. It actually says a great deal that Christopher Doyle took the job as his cinematographer for the film.

Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

When I was finally was able to sit down and experience KHAVN’s Ruined Heart the mixture of this poet turned filmmaker and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography stole my breath. As far as plot goes, KHAVN tells you everything you need to know with the title. Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore sums it all up, but don’t be fooled — there is a great deal more to be found here. This may be a story that has been told a thousand times by various film artists, but it has never been told quite like this one. With Doyle’s assistance, KHAVN finds a whole new way to tell a tired story.

 KHAVN forms two new types of mythological hybrids that roam the unnamed town in The Philippines: The criminal becomes a human with the head of a horse and our whore becomes a black-winged angel. Tadanobu Asano and Nathalia Acevedo seem to be at peace as they roam a city of violence. Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

KHAVN forms two new types of mythological hybrids that roam the unnamed town in The Philippines: The criminal becomes a human with the head of a horse and our whore becomes a black-winged angel.
Tadanobu Asano and Nathalia Acevedo seem to be at peace as they roam a city of violence.
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

KHAVN’s attentions are on music, visuals and atmosphere. “The story” is never clearly spoken and it may not even be linear or literal. Harnessing some amazing music and musical performances — particularly from Stereo Total, and swishing all of it together in front of and all around Christopher Doyle’s cameras the movie comes to a neon hypnotic life.

The film’s world is truly drenched in a sort of dirty neon light and ever-changing perspectives thanks to a cinematographer who refuses the camera even a moment of stillness.

The characters of this story are introduced to the audience via a sort of free-form police line-up. Each steps forward as the music cues them respectively. Tadanobu Asano is The Criminal. Natalie Acevedo is The Whore. Elena Kazan is The Lover. Andre Fuertellano is The Friend. And Vim Nadera is The Godfather. There are other suspects who have labels instead of names, but they are all side players to this Post-PUNK tale of love, betrayal and redemption.

Not a film afraid to go there, even a shot of the Criminal's squirt of passion is rendered a sensual and beautiful image. Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Not a film afraid to go there, even a shot of the Criminal’s squirt of passion is rendered a sensual and beautiful image.
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

As if mocking the very idea of striking any poses, KHAVN uses title cards to indicate intentions. This film is not a PUNK-noir opera. Yet it is full of music and flat out musical numbers. Even still most if not all of the musical performances are almost hidden in the shadows or foreground by Doyle’s amped cinematography.

The music and limited dialogue drifts away from us in both perspective and interest. Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The music and limited dialogue drifts away from us in both perspective and interest.
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Violence, tenderness, caresses and kisses are offered but only amid the darkest of moments. In one of the film’s many strange sequences the consuming of a duck egg is shared with a kiss. The duck egg is offered in a gritty and dirty kitchen. The egg itself appears to have gone. As the male begins to chock and spit out the contents of this shared kiss, he receives a caress. The colors and neon lights burn fast, but this is hardly a beautiful world.

As one of the film’s title cards announces, this film is based on a letter to the storm. The town in which the story unfolds appears to be on the brink of recovering from a major natural disaster. Or maybe the town is just waiting for one to come and wash all the dirt and vice away…

As the street musicians play, the camera moves with chaotic precision to show us the revelers who dance in costume and perform perverse rituals... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

As the street musicians play, the camera moves with chaotic precision to show us the revelers who dance in costume and perform perverse rituals…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

This is a world filled with violence, threat, perversity and crime. Stuck in a sort of Carnaval Fever Dream, our Criminal and Whore seem like upstanding citizens. To the film’s credit, they are not. But we do gain a sense that this world is weighing them down. At one point as they make love, The Criminal covers The Whore‘s face with what appears to be a phone book of sorts.

Is he hiding himself from her or her from himself?

As they race toward a mutually shared orgasm, the pages from the book are torn and fall to the floor near the bed. A painting of The Madonna and Child sits watching as the pages of passion fall.

Or maybe The Criminal is hiding his love's face from The Madonna who sits in the corner of the room... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Or maybe The Criminal is hiding his love’s face from The Madonna who sits in the corner of the room…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The actors have very little to no lines to speak. But each performer manages to convey what is needed. Tadanobu Asano really steps up for the film. His on-screen charisma plays a crucial role in advancing the film. He also acts briefly as Christopher Doyle’s camera operator…

Tadanobu Asano's Criminal guides the camera and perspective to world of cruelty and color... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Tadanobu Asano’s Criminal guides the camera and perspective to world of cruelty and color…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

At arm’s length, we soon see what The Criminal is feeling…

Our perspective is fully dictated by the movement of action to the beat of the drums. There is no escape offered... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Our perspective is fully dictated by the movement of action to the beat of the drums. There is no escape offered…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The entire production of artists both in front of and behind the camera are in perfect synch with the director, but none are quite as sharply invested as Christopher Doyle’s camera. As our Criminal and Whore attempt to escape the horrific world in which they are trapped — we want them to win, but we already know this score.

Tadanobu Asano can only pause to hide the pain with a smile or a laugh... Ruined Heart KHAVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Tadanobu Asano can only pause to hide the pain with a smile or a laugh…
Ruined Heart
KHAVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

I’ve not seen a film this casually cool since Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. Like that 1990’s French film, KHAVN’s Ruined Heart never feels like it is trying to be cool. It quite simply doesn’t care. This oft-told story of a criminal and a whore in love and on the lam is moving forward with or without you. KHAVN has made a movie that is cool simply because it is.

The movie is also alive with energy and new ideas related to storytelling. As KHAVN is a poet, the movie does lend itself to the idea of a Cinematic Tone Poem. However such a tired sort of label feels inappropriate.

In fact, none of the film’s characters manage to live up to their respective identifiers. This is not a real Friend. That is a withering Godfather and this Lover has very little love in her heart.

And the Whore is more a lost goddess and her Criminal is a devoted hero.

Romeo may be bleeding beneath the stone angel, but he and his love find a supernatural and mythic escape. The Criminal and The Whore follow their own beat amongst the playing children and hard-working vendors of KHAVN and Christopher Doyles’ imaginary world of ruined hearts. 

Aside from two US film festivals, this movie’s screenings in the West have been largely limited to Europe. This magical little movie was issued via region-restricted Blu-Ray in the UK. A briefly printed region-free Blu was issued, but it would appear to have been edited to secure a PG-13 rating. Ruined Heart is currently streaming in pure form on Fandor in the US. It is worth seeing — but then again so are all films lensed by Christopher Doyle.

To the good young Filipino... Ruined Heart KAHVN, 2014 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

To the good young Filipino…
Ruined Heart
KAHVN, 2014
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

See it if you can…

Matty Stanfield, 3.22.2016