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When I hear or read “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” I want to curl myself into a cataclysmic ball of rage and explode. No. The horrors and challenges in life that do not kill you do not really make you stronger. In reality they make you cynical, confused, damaged and tired. When discussing the survival of child abuse trauma we enter a whole new realm of fresh Hell.

Jean-Luc Godard Editing "Weekend" Paris, 1967 Photographer | Unknown to me

Jean-Luc Godard
Editing “Weekend”
Paris, 1967
Photographer | Unknown to me

For me this saga continues. It isn’t like I’m not fighting like hell to resolve it. But as I’m so tired of hearing: “There is no time limit on these things.” or “Let’s just take it day by day and further develop coping skills” or worse yet, “But you are getting better!” But I push onward and forward as best I can. I don’t know, maybe I am stronger because of what I endured or survived. However, I can’t help but thing I’d be more effective had I not had to survive such things. I suspect I’d still be strong. Who knows? It is hardly worth considering. As much as I hate this phrase, it does hold true: “It is what it is.

And sometimes we just don’t have the ability to change “it.” The “it” just sits on us as we try to understand exactly what “it” needs or wants so that we can be free of the weight. Damage is impossible to avoid. If you are 30 and have not been seriously damaged in one way or another – you are most likely not actually living life. You are probably avoiding it. Sadly, some damage is more significant than other types.

And this brings me to Film Art.

And chaos reigns. Surrealistically, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are working through some of life's cruelest turns. Antichrist Lars von Trier, 2009 Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

And chaos reigns. Surrealistically, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are working through some of life’s cruelest turns.
Antichrist
Lars von Trier, 2009
Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

Much to the bewilderment of my love, my family and my friends — I often find “comfort” in the darkest of film. Steve McQueen’s Shame is especially important to me. As is Christophe Honre’s Ma Mere or Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream or Lars von Trier’s Anitichrist.

These are very bleak and almost apocalyptic movies. Yet, each one seems to offer me a chance to escape into someone else’s personal horrors and remind me that not only am I not alone — but it could be ever so much more worse. These films also offer resonation and catharsis.

Sugar-sweet brain candy cinematic manipulations tend to annoy me. I find no means of escape within them. If one is particularly good, such as Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein — if I’m in the right mood I will love watching it over and over again.

Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Persona
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

But if one of those toxic waves crash into me I’d much prefer to watch Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or David Lynch’s Earaserhead. Another couple of films that provide me with escape is Luis Bunuel’s Belle de jour, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Ki-duk Kim’s Pieta. As well as David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Godard’s Weekend. All of these movies project complex ideas and themes that require the mind to focus and think about what is being shown (or often not shown) — therefore, I find a way to temporarily escape my problems.

I jump into the problems and horrors examined in these dark films.

A serial killer roaming through the canals of Venice are the least worries facing Julie Christie as she and her husband face the despair, grief, isolation, guilt and tragedy of loss. Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

A serial killer roaming through the canals of Venice are the least worries facing Julie Christie as she and her husband face the despair, grief, isolation, guilt and tragedy of loss.
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

The resonation most likely comes from the one actual gift of survival: The ability to understand. While I do not suffer with Sex Addiction or an inability to connect beyond the sexual, I do feel an understanding and empathy for those who suffer with it. When life teaches one that his/her’s worth is tied to sexuality, it leaves that individual with every limited abilities to connect and encage. If ever mankind is haunted by demons, they are manifestations of Self-Loathing, Isolation and Loneliness. The two characters in Shame roam about a blue-toned Manhattan lost, unsure, impotent and desperate.

"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Michael Fassbender Crushing under the weight of human damages SHAME Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
Michael Fassbender
Crushing under the weight of human damages
SHAME
Steve McQueen, 2011
Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

Neither knows how to escape their respective prisons. The actors, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan do not even need much dialogue. So strong are these talents, they can convey more with a glance, a gesture or most powerfully for Mulligan — in the singing of a song. Mulligan’s deconstruction of the standard, New York, New York, belongs on a pristine shelf of the perfect actor moment.

"If I can make it there..." Carey Mulligan SHAME Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

“If I can make it there…”
Carey Mulligan
SHAME
Steve McQueen, 2011
Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

In her hands and voice, the infamous anthem becomes a defeatist glimpse into grief and regret.

In Ki-duk Kim’s dark and angry, Pieta, we are stolen into a world of injustice, cruelty, betrayal and vengeance. Min-so Jo plays “the mother” to Jung-jin Lee’s “son.” Both navigate with minimal use of words. Contrary to what one might expect from the often soap-opreaish work one normally sees these two actors in, here they are both given the freedom to fully explore the veins under the skins of their characters.

Ki-duk Kim’s film is a set-up for both the viewers and the two leading characters. There is nothing holy to be found in this Pieta. The catharsis of vengeance comes with a price that I can only believe is absolute truth. While one might fantasize of extracting vengeance, the reality is far removed from the pleasure we might expect.

Jung-jin Lee opens the door to the parent, Min-so Jo, who abandoned him with a knife at the ready... Pieta Ki-duk Kim, 2012 Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

Jung-jin Lee opens the door to the parent, Min-so Jo, who abandoned him with a knife at the ready…
Pieta
Ki-duk Kim, 2012
Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

Being a survivor, I often find myself imagining what I would do to my attacker if I could and how very happy it would make me. However, being a survivor has also taught me how to examine the tragedy from all sides.

There would be no happiness or pleasure in securing vengeance even if I could. My attacker has long since died. The bitter truth is that we humans are complicated animals. The reality is a child not only needs the love of his parent, he requires it. No matter how cruel a parent might be, there is something in us that needs to be able to love that person who gave us life. And while I have no children, I’m mature enough to know that a parent can feel great love for a child and still manage to deeply harm him/her.

It is a set-up. Despair, Grief & Anger turn to Vengeance.  Min-so Jo Pieta Ki-duk Kim, 2012 Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

It is a set-up. Despair, Grief & Anger turn to Vengeance.
Min-so Jo
Pieta
Ki-duk Kim, 2012
Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

The insanity that drives the parent to such acts in many ways has nothing to do with the love they might feel for the child. It is a tricky proposition to understand and requires a great deal of emotional logic to place this in the appropriate context, but often a victimizing parent is a victim themselves. The strange and very twisted truth is I know my father loved me. I know this to my core. I also know that he damaged me in ways beyond repair. Despite this, when he died I felt no relief. I only felt grief. A grief far deeper than I had ever felt before or since. So much unresolved and so much confusion. As the characters in Pieta secure their “need” for revenge — there is no turning back. They reduce themselves to the level of the victimizer. The “victory” comes at a price too strong to bear.

It is interesting and very telling that I seem to avoid films which tackle the subject of fathers raping, harming and emotionally abusing their sons. Perhaps this is too dark for even me. When I see a film addressing this it rings too close to my own horrors and confusions related to my late father. It is as if I need a bit of distance. These kind of conflicts involving a mother and a son are distanced enough from my life that I’m able to find something to gain.

Perhaps the most confusing film in which I find escape is Christophe Honre’s controversial and often banned film, Ma Mere.

"Wrong isn't what we're about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it." Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Wrong isn’t what we’re about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it.”
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Very loosely adapted from the infamous and posthumously published George Bataille novel which intended to shock as a way of both societal and cultural commentary — Christophe Honre had something a bit different in mind. Honre is very intellectual filmmaker. He is almost cliched French. He will stubbornly create a grim musical that refuses denial by a culture which seems to hold little value or appreciation of film musicals. He likes to force his hand. With the great Isabelle Huppert as his leading lady, Bataille’s novel is transferred to the modern day Canary Islands. We are expected to already know that this beautiful place has long succumbed itself to serve as both a tourist destination and a location for anything goes morality. Public sex, sex workers and fringe-dwellers litter the beaches and fill the after hours bar-hopping mall where the characters wonder about in the film’s first  act. Honre does not care to focus his attention to that.

"The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit." Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit.”
Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

In the film version of Ma Mere, he seeks to tell the very complex, grim and perverse relationship of damaged mother to her damaged son. This is not a sexy movie, but it is very much about sexual experimentation, humiliation and a vexingly profane philosophy that the mother is hellbent on searing into the mind of her barely adult child. Louis Garrel has been raised by his strict Catholic grandmother — a family decision to “protect” him from his depraved parents who have long been exiled to The Canary Islands far from their families. We learn a great deal about the family history in the most casual of ways. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is a below the belt gut punch of realism over what must have appeared as absurd in script form.

Yet as Isabelle Huppert delivers a stream of profane and almost comical ideas, it is never funny. It feels real.

As Garrel’s “son” grapples with his own torn feelings about the loss of his Grandmother and her faith, he is also pulled toward this cruel version of a mother. While he may be technically adult, he is an innocent. He desperately craves the love and acceptance of his mother. He is unable to filter this need.

As she leads him into her confused and brutal world of psychological cruelty, BDSM and most certainly sadomasochistic rituals, the son becomes a sort of pawn with which his mother cannot decide to crush or love.

Victim turned Victimizer Isabelle Huppert and "Friend"  Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Victim turned Victimizer
Isabelle Huppert and “Friend”
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

We learn that her marriage to his father was born of statutory rape. Most likely he himself is the result of this rape. The film goes farther than it needs, but it is clear that the mother’s abuse is a conflicted result of anger, insanity and love.

As I watch these two almost surrealist characters perform their tragic dance, I do feel a worrying reality to it all. And of course this is the point of Ma Mere. We love our mothers. Our mothers love us. It does not mean they are not capable of inflicting cruelty beyond measure. The mother could just as easily be replaced with a father and a daughter for the son. But Mon Pere would be even more controversial and serve the idea of the film in an even more complex way.

Even his early childhood nanny can't seem to stop the son from desperately seeking the love of his mother... Dominique Reymond and Louis Garrel  Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Even his early childhood nanny can’t seem to stop the son from desperately seeking the love of his mother…
Dominique Reymond and Louis Garrel
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Most importantly, Christophe Honre’s film never seeks to eroticize or celebrate the profane actions of its characters. It also  does not seek to judge them. It doesn’t need to. As Ma Mere grinds into its abrupt and deeply disturbing end, the tragic implications of human damage are clear. Worst yet, they seem to be on-going.

"Maybe now you know desire reduces us to weakness." Isabelle Huppert Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Maybe now you know desire reduces us to weakness.”
Isabelle Huppert
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

While none of the above is my experience, I relate enough to feel the resonation of the art. It acts as a catharsis. I take a great deal of solace in knowing that I caught and understood what I “survived” soon enough to ensure that the abuse stops here with me. But in an all too clear way, what I survived has not made me stronger. The tragedy of what happened to me follows me constantly. And like the son in Christophe Honre’s tragically forgotten film, the implications seem on-going.

Matt Stanfield, 9.20.2015

An Adam Sandler

By 1995 Communist Poland was long gone. The state no longer restricted the artist or oppressed it’s people. Capitalism was to be embraced. Along with this sudden shift in economy and freedom came many challenges. For the Film Artist, there seemed to be a freedom. A cinema without restriction.

In reality, the entire Polish infrastructure was unstable. The state no longer funded the arts. Film had to be funded privately. However, there was no real film studio or film producers wiling to fund much beyond silly comedies, biographies and other projects that criticized the former Communist regime. When Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland to film Szamanka (She-Shaman), he had to secure funding from France and Switzerland in order to bring his vision to the screen.

Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Those of you reading this most likely know who Andrzej Zulawski is, but despite his genius and success he remains a largely marginalized film artist. Best known and accepted in France, he obtained some degree of success there. In the US and the UK he is best known for leading Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil into the dark, disturbing, twisted and innovative cult film, Possession. If that controversial and infamous 1981 film is his most personal work, where does that place Szamanka?

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This might be one of his more philosophical films, but it is unquestionably his most sexually obsessed film. Looking at the movie from a strictly surface perspective (a mistake when it comes to the films of Andrzej Zulawski) this could be interpreted as a frantically impulsive sexual relationship between a wounded and angry Anthropologist and a clearly disturbed young woman. A sort of demented take on the battle of the sexes. However, this is far too simplistic a way to watch or understand this erotic film that hinges on apocalyptic horror.

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

If you’ve not heard of Szamanka or seen it, it is likely due to the fact that upon its release it faced an incredible amount of rage from the Polish Catholic Church. Censorship by the State of Poland may have ended, but a new form of repression had sprung up in the form of Post-Communist Catholic Poland. This tale derived from the ideas of Polish writer, Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his controversial coining of the phrase, Naked Soul and Zulawskis’s desire to wake up the Polish masses with his own sort of “Santanic Antidote” to his two contemporaries of Polish Cinema. While both Kieslowski Krzysztof and Zanussi Krzysztof were both brilliant filmmakers, from the ideology of Zulawski were playing into some spiritual idea to which he took exception.

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Filled with contradictory ideas around Catholicism, good, evil, sexuality and love this film faced a whole new level of censorship that Zulawski had never faced. Communist Rule was tough, but the unbridled adherence of Religion truly knows no bounds. The film is so graphic sexually that it probably would have been banned anyway, but the controversial ideas of this philosophical, mystical and erotic journey remain blasphemous. The Polish community almost immediately began to call this film The Last Tango in Warsaw. Even though they had not seen it, this was and remains the oft-mentioned joke about Szamanka.

The film has been compared to Lars von Trier’s controversial, Antichrist, in that it depicts a male who suffers the wrath and sexual rage of his female wife. Antichrist plays with ideas around cultural misogyny and grief in equal measure. Like Lars von Trier, Zulawski has been accused of misogyny. The problem with this accusation is that it doesn’t hold up when one watches Szamanka with some knowledge of where it’s maker is coming from and where the film ultimately takes us. It is also important to note that the screenplay was written by Manuela Gretkowska, a young Feminist and acclaimed writer who played a key role in founding The Polish Women’s Party. Certainly Andrzej Zulawski pushes forward his own agenda, but he never veered far from Gretkowska’s script.

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of "The Last Tango in Warsaw" Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of “The Last Tango in Warsaw”
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda was an established Polish movie star when he was cast as Michal, the unhappy and profoundly conflicted anthropologist who has just come into the job of investigating the rarest of anthropological finds. There are more than a few stories about the casting of the female lead. Zulawski was not known to work with “unknowns” or “untrained” actors, but something about Iwona Petry’s beauty and presence deeply fascinated Zulawski. She was just barely twenty years of age when he saw her ordering a cup of coffee. Described as a bit eccentric and a strict vegetarian, Zulawski convinced her that she was meant to be his star and to play the role of Wloszka / The Italian.

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras. Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA "The Italian" Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras.
Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA “The Italian”
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

While Szamanka was a huge critical and commercial failure in Poland — largely because the Polish Catholic Church. Honestly, the film was never even given a chance to screen much at all due to protests and the ultimate banning of the film. However the film scored incredibly well in Italy and France. It was expected that Petry would be a major and perhaps first true Polish female movie star. She didn’t. In fact she has become a huge part of this movie’s infamy. During production the Polish media had a frenzy in reporting that Zulawski was manipulating, forcing and abusing the young woman. Rumors ranged from beatings to forced sex to psychological torture.

Looking back at the situation, it would seem that Zulawski’s dark sense of humor had some fun playing with what were clearly rumors. When the film finally screened to great acclaim at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, Zulawski answered the charges with his typical blunt intellect. There was no truth to any of it. Yet another ploy to set the film up by the oppressive Polish Catholic Church.

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

However, Iwona Petry failed to show up for the premiere. She actually went missing for a short while. Apparently exhausted from the tough shoot and terrified by the media attention she took her money and ran off to India. In 1998 she gave a few interviews and admitted that the sudden brush with fame was far more than she had bargained. A roll of eyes to the rumors that continue in Poland to present day. She returned to university and is now a published fiction writer. She has no interest in returning to the world of acting.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This is a shame as her performance in the film is quite impressive. Iwona Petry had the presence of a movie star and she played the role of the She-Shamen with an almost insane level of erotic energy. One hardly has time to notice the well-trained middle-aged Boguslaw Linda. When Petry is on screen, it is she you watch. And, no. She is not nude the entire time. It is an interesting and terrifying performance. Once you see this odd film, you will never forget her.

Most importantly, you will never forget Szamanka.

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman  covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda’s Michal is a frustrated scientist about to marry a woman for whom he feels no love or passion. During an unseen excavation with his students, a mummy is discovered. It is determined that this mummy is close to 2,000 years old. Michal’s interest in this mummy goes far beyond the academic or scientific when he discovers this is the body of a Shaman.

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God
Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The body is incredibly well preserved. Covered in mystical tattoos, they also find a pouch full of what turns out to be  hallucinogenic mushrooms. While Michal and his team try desperately to understand the cause of the Shaman’s death, there is only one clue: the back of the Shaman’s skull is crushed. This does not signal the cause of death but an ancient pagan ritual in which after death, the Shaman’s skull is opened to release the potent spirit free.

Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s camera seems to be drawn to offering us views of the Shaman’s rather pronounced penis. And Michal is unable to hold back. He breaks protocol and touches the Shaman with his bare hands. Clearly there is a sense of connection for Michal, but the reason for this is not entirely clear to us or him. It is as if he wants to find a way to truly connect with this ancient dead being. This need verges toward the sexual.

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?  Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The Anthropologist and his mummy are a a constant subplot of the film. The main interest is on the strange young woman who captures the lustful attentions of the scientist almost as strongly as the mystical-pull of the Shaman. A rude and socially inept, but beautiful woman. We first see Petry’s The Italian as she lunges and plunges her way along a buffet of food which she shovels into her mouth and down her throat as if her hunger can never be satisfied.

Erotic desire beyond reason... Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Erotic desire beyond reason…
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

She is to rent an apartment owned by Michal. The modest flat was formerly occupied by his brother. The Italian wants the apartment. The deal is done, but signed with a frantic and brutal sort of sex that feels as angry as lust-driven. Like the mummy, Michal seems to want to somehow merge more into this beautiful girl than sexual penetration will allow. And like with her food, The Italian’s erotic desire seems to be unhinged and impossible to satisfy.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Between the ever-mounting frenzied levels of brute force, kink, domination, submission, pain and pleasure, Michal attempts to communicate with this woman of his sexual dreams. She, however, seems more concerned with her consuming passion and seeks more to “commune” than communicate. She is obsessed with him and seems to ache to form a possession of his desires. Not articulate, but psychical in her nature.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal is becoming more and more obsessed with her. He attempts to discuss philosophy with her but to not ready interest. He discusses religion with disdain. Here she seems a bit more interested, but it always comes down to sex. Our Anthropologist suspects his fever-pitched lover might be no more than a beautiful idiot. The Italian seems unable to offer him nothing more than hot sex. He wants more.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

You see, that’s why there are common saints, just God’s morons with a soul. No brains.

This sort of comment seems to cause a pulse within the ever-sexually-rabid woman. And as hard as Michal seems to want to walk away from her, he simply can’t. She mystifies him. Occupies his thoughts. Drives him to rage-fueled sexual encounters. The sex becomes desperate. Yet for her, the sex is almost magical. A sort of erotic ritual.

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more? Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

He finds himself more miserable with her than he had been with his loveless marriage potential. The mummy no longer holds the power over him. This crude, intolerant, polymorphously perverse, tyrannical and hysterical woman seems to offer an inexplicable power over him.

This is not just unrestrained passion, this is something sinister.

Or is it possibly something that offers our Anthropologist a meaning to his existentially challenged existence. He no longer fits in. Poland offers opportunity, but it seems a false promise. His mummy holds no answers. But there seems to be something bleakly powerful in these cruel sexual encounters. The Italian becomes transformed. Already beautiful, during sex she seems to become transformed to the level of sexual goddess. But the orgasm appears to be more like gasoline tossed on some spiritual fire.

There is no pay off or hope in this sex.

Defile. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Defile.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And as this deeply odd but impossibly fascinating Art House film pulls us deep into this mire of confusion, identity crisis, sexual obsessions, perversions and religious conflict. It is also as the film enters it’s third and final act that Zulawski and Manuela Gretkowska push us into the dark theatrical thinking of Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his outright Satanic symbolism.

For Przybyszewski there is no such thing as “love,” it is nothing but a magical illusion. When Michal meets The Italian he his helpless. There can be no free will here. Michal cannot turn away from his She-Shamen even when he seems to realize this girl’s insanity is something of a mystical and most-likely demonic nature. He is rendered to the state of the somnambulistic when it comes to this darkly magik lover who seems to have access to fully influence him to the very core of his being. This “love” is truly apocalyptic. It does not seem to matter if the She-Shaman influences for good or evil. If her ritualistic sex is served for healing or wounding. For Michal has no choice in the matter.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And, here is the clear separation from the Nihilistic turn of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Unlike the husband in that film, Michal is not meeting a mere symbol of angry female energy oppressed by centuries of human cruelty, Michal has fallen prey to a demonic sort of force. He is nothing more than a sort of life-force for the She-Shaman. He is one of those common saints. He has been deceived. His nothing more than brains for the She-Shaman‘s food.

As Stanislaw Przybyszewski might have appraised it, for this man survival is not an option. He must submit to the illusion and power of love. In a strange way, this intellectual is taking part in a consensual murder. In this odd bit of socially conscious cinema, everything is fucked.

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Without love. Without hope. Szamanka must be satisfied.

Even to write about this true cinematic anomaly makes one feel a little loopy. By the time Andrzej Zulawski’s grim film comes to it’s conclusion the viewer is left spent and more than a little dazed.

The folks at Mondo Vision have done an outstanding job at restoring this deeply weird but exceptional film. Sadly, there are no plans to issue it to VOD or Blu-Ray format. It is only available from them on region free DVD. But they have loaded it with extras. If you’ve an interest in Eastern European cinema or the work of Andrzej Zulawski, you really can’t afford to miss it.

You can find it, and several of Zulawski’s titles here: http://www.mondo-vision.com/szamanka.php

Matty Stanfield, 9.15.2015

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 8.10.2015

In a Q&A held in 2011 at SXSW, Rick Alverson speaks to the inspirations that led him to become a filmmaker, he recalls his childhood interest in Steven Spielberg’s films.  He finds his then fascination with Indiana Jones as both disturbing and horrifying in the power of a movie and it’s impact on his childhood identity. Alverson then recalls when he first saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker at The Film Forum when he was a young adult.

Rick Alverson 2015 Sundance Film Festival Photograph | Larry Busacca ©Getty Images

Rick Alverson
2015 Sundance Film Festival
Photograph | Larry Busacca ©Getty Images

It would be this film and it’s maker that would ultimately inspire him. Rick Alverson states that he discovered a whole new way of approaching cinema that intrigued him.. “‘Active Cinema‘ has potential for the audience to be a part of the experience as opposed to that of recipient or passive role of viewer…”  It was within Tarkovsky’s 1979’s film which is most noted for rejection of traditionally rapid editing and storytelling for a purposefully slowed pace and re-examination in how cinema speaks to “reality.”

"A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he's worth something. And if I know for sure that I'm a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?" Stalker Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979 Cinematography | Aleksandr Knyazhinsky & Georgi Rerberg

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?”
Stalker
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979
Cinematography | Aleksandr Knyazhinsky & Georgi Rerberg

 

Indeed, when viewing Stalker the audience’s understanding of reality is limited to the slow and high contrast of brown sort of monochrome colors and rules. It is only when the film’s characters are forced into The Zone of the story where the banal and monotony restrictions of brown tones are left behind and normal rules of reality are no longer applied.It would later be in his highly controversial, debated, hated and deeply admired 2012 film, The Comedy, that he would most fully explore his opposing interests which grate against the accepted grain of American Cinema. Or as Alverson as accused typical American Film as carrying a “numbing” effect, impact and ramification. It would be difficult to not stand back and agree with his viewpoint. Most American film work is mediocre, predictable and a reflection of a culture that is at once rage-filled and complacent in following and falling into what often feels like a sort of void of tedium predictability.

 

"Oh, wow. So good, so funny! You're so funny!" The Comedy Rick Alverson, 2012

“Oh, wow. So good, so funny! You’re so funny!”
The Comedy
Rick Alverson, 2012

 

When Rick Alverson’s The Comedy first came out it created reactions ranging from high praise to condemnation.  At the time, I was quite perplexed by AO Scott’s dismissive review. I found a great deal of “interesting perspective” on not only the main character but also the limited views I was offered of his pals. And regarding Scott’s review, there is no “critical distance” to be found in Alverson’s film. That is largely the point. The film presents white male entitlement and human cruelty without offering any evaluation or background. With an amazing cast of realistic and effective actors, all we really need to know is passively communicated in the sad eyes and pointless actions.

For Swanson and his "friends" male-bonding seems to take turns at once "intimate" and "distanced." The one true shared aspect of male friendship is that it is usually "inappropriate."  The Comedy Rick Alverson,  2012

For Swanson and his “friends” male-bonding seems to take turns at once “intimate” and “distanced.” The one true shared aspect of male friendship is that it is usually “inappropriate.”
The Comedy
Rick Alverson, 2012

We might not like “Swanson” or any of his friends. Actually, I hated them. But viewers would need to be as equally emotionally-stunted, damaged and as casually cruel as these characters to not see the tragic darkness displayed. There is nothing “funny” about The Comedy. It is an effectively disaffected and provocative character study of disconnection, anger, and sadness that appears to be rendering Swanson and his “friends” into a state of sociopathic cruelty. To add to the audiences’ conflicting feelings is the style in which Alverson delivers his film.

Rick Alverson is a brilliantly skilled Cinematographer. Nearly every shot feels planned and subsequently artistic in composition. The “style” of The Comedy works in opposition to the ugliness of the characters’ interactions and actions. At times his cinematography offers a counter-meaning to what we “assume” is actually taking place. The opening scene is unexpected as it appears to depict some sort of erotic wrestling or messy sexually hedonistic gay orgy. As the style lets up and the frame adjusts, what appeared to be sexual in nature is just several drunk/stoned male friends “showing off” for the females who seem as uncomfortable as amused. It is a “party” gone somehow wrong. Yet no one on screen seems to realize this. Later, three of these friends gather inside a Catholic church. It is unclear why. Are they there to mock the ideas of religion and faith? Or is there some need for the comfort provided by those ideas? Either way, these men are left only with the ability to form a child-like game of moving themselves across, around and over the pews.

Tim Heidecker / Eric Wareheim / James Murphy The Comedy Rick Alverson, 2012

Tim Heidecker / Eric Wareheim / James Murphy
The Comedy
Rick Alverson, 2012

I don’t like labels. They are too easy and lazy and tend to reduce the idea of “categorization” into a form of negative judgements toward specific groups of people. And applications “labels” can often restrict understanding of what life and art offer. I’m not sure that it was Alverson’s intent to make a sweeping cultural commentary. And, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that The Comedy is horrifyingly realistic.

I know some of these men and the women who always seem to be attracted to them. I’m willing to be that most of us under the age of 50 do know these characters in one way or another. When Swanson takes a job as a “dishwasher” for an upscale restaurant, it is not out of need for money but a result of boredom. When he attempts to humiliate and rant at a stunningly beautiful waitress, she responds in kind.Their interactions are tinged with cruelty aimed at the other.

"There was something I was meaning to ask you, have you tried using the dish soap to clean out your asshole?" Kate Lyn Sheil The Comedy Rick Alverson, 2012

“There was something I was meaning to ask you, have you tried using the dish soap to clean out your asshole?”
Kate Lyn Sheil
The Comedy
Rick Alverson, 2012

This becomes flirtation which leads to one of the most awkward and disturbing “date” on Swanson’s small houseboat. Kate Lyn Sheil plays the waitress, and like all the female roles in this film, she is nameless. Sheil is an expert actor. When her character slips into what appears to be an epileptic seizure, Swanson just watches her partially nude character convulse. He shows no sign of concern and attempts to do nothing to protect her head or tongue. He simply watches in passive interest. As he brings her back to the docks from his anchored home. He shows no clear sign of any emotional or logical register. The unnamed woman simply walks away.

Alverson’s film offers no opinion or goal. He doesn’t need to. We have become a part of the comedy. It is disturbing, sad, tragic and more than a few different commentaries on male-entitlement, rape culture, human cruelty and the way we all seem to play into it. Like the waitress we are not sure how to interpret this world. We simply interact with it as best we can. There is no joke. This idea of “comedy” does not fit.  A viewer does not always need to “like” or “empathize” with a character to find value in what is presented.

Profound, unsettling and unforgettable, The Comedy is a masterful film from all perspectives.

Tim Heidecker as Swanson The Comedy Rick Alverson, 2012

Tim Heidecker as Swanson
The Comedy
Rick Alverson, 2012

How could a Film Critic as intelligent and “tuned-in” as A.O. Scott is not discover this within the movie? Perhaps it is just too grim. The joke or comedy is on us. It is a bold and subversive idea. One that most likely was just too perverse and real for many to “digest.” Over 3 years later, cinephiles still discuss and debate this film. I suspect The Comedy will always cause mixed feelings and reactions. This seems to be a part of Alverson’s intention. It worked.

At the time of The Comedy‘s release Rick Alverson stated that the audience doesn’t want to believe. In fact, as he points out the audience almost refused to accept “the legitimacy of the thing that disturbs them. If there is even a small moment when you believe in the thing as an actuality and not as a film, if some actuality creeps in and not something that you’re accustomed to seeing on film because it is too real — it is disturbing. That’s why John Cassavetes’ films are so disturbing. I mean, Woman Under the Influence is like a fucking horror movie to me. That is why I love it. Because there are moments when ti is so uncontrolled it becomes real and he had the depthness to actually keep that in the fucking thing as opposed to throwing it on the cutting room floor.”

Alverson's Idea of a Fucking Horror Movie Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974

Alverson’s Idea of a Fucking Horror Movie
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

If we look back Rick Alverson’s 2010 feature-length directorial debut, The Builder, which emerged from a collaboration with the film’s lead actor Colm O’Leary — we can see many pieces of Alverson’s vision taking form.  An immigrant construction worker pursues building his perception of the ideal American house. His pursuit quickly grows to the point of obsession. Alverson provides almost no context in which we can place this builder, his desire, his obsessive focus and bewilderment when the “structure” fails to take form. It seems as if the builder takes a nose dive into isolation, financial ruin and depression.

Colm O'Leary appears to know what he is doing as The Builder Rick Alverson, 2010

Colm O’Leary appears to know what he is doing as
The Builder
Rick Alverson, 2010

Colm O’Leary has an interesting presence, but Alverson’s film refuses to give viewers enough information about the character to actually understand what is happening. We know that The Builder is an immigrant, we know that he has a professional reputation of sorts, we see him proceed with his goal of building this home and we begin to sense that his “idea” of the resulting construction is something far deeper than it first appears. He breaks off contact with his girlfriend, he scams some money from his mother and then turns to a friend’s generosity as more than a simple “layover” — it almost seems like our builder is hiding.

The inner-turmoil and intensifying depression within his head is never fully articulated. We are given very limited “clues” to understand his actions or his lethargy. Artfully filmed in under 90 minutes, The Builder is not without value. When I first say it I walked away unsatisfied. It was too vague for me. I could find no way of validating a film that for some reason did fascinate me.  This might have been the point. But it struck me as film without any form of “solid structure” about a “Builder” and his dream.

However, Alverson has said the reason he so loves The Builder is “because I could lose myself in the thing I could react to viscerally to the environment that made more sense to me than in my brain. The director’s responsibility is to look naively, not callously. The director’s responsibility should be to listen and to look and to look at things naively.”

Constructing a dream in a culture which no longer offers dreaming as a reality. The Builder Rick Alverson, 2010

Constructing a dream in a culture which no longer offers dreaming as a reality.
The Builder
Rick Alverson, 2010

There is an interesting cinematic logic here. When looking back at The Builder, our main character isn’t just reacting to what is happening to him, but maybe even more importantly — this lost man is reacting to the encroaching challenges of his environment. And this environment is far more open that to the limitation of the land on which he is trying to build. The Builder’s environment takes it all into account. Even still, nothing can change the fact that this beautifully-shot film is challenging.

Less than a year later another collaboration with Colm O’Leary would led to New Jerusalem.

Will Oldham forces Colm O'Leary to say a prayer.  New Jerusalem Rick Alverson, 2011

Will Oldham forces Colm O’Leary to say a prayer.
New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

Alverson’s film offers a study of two very different men trying to form a friendship for two very different reasons. The film is intimate, intense and disturbing. It is also oddly, but effectively ambiguous.  Both are employed at a tire station. Their work is labor intensive, but oppressively mundane. Colm O’Leary plays an immigrant new to the US via a stint in US Army in Afghanistan. He is clearly being pulled deep into depression. It is not entirely clear if this related to PTSD, the challenges of adjusting to life in a new land, loneliness or combination of them all. Will Oldham plays a Born Again Christian who is determined to connect with Sean and convince him that the key to life and resolving depression is faith in Jesus Christ. Or is it? Oldham’s character’s intentions for connection with Sean seem suspect.

What motivates Will Oldham's Ike? New Jerusalem Rick Alverson, 2011

What motivates Will Oldham’s Ike?
New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

As a forced bond begins to form, it comes with intensity as the two begin to feel conflicted regarding the intimacy of this friendship. This is an uncomfortable exploration at male bonding. While Alverson is focused on these two specific characters, it raises challenging and largely repressed ideas regarding the needs of male bonding. Ultimately, the viewer is never clear on why these two characters put up with each other. Aversion is not interested in resolving this tension and conflict. This is an interesting choice.  On some levels, Alverson’s stubborn refusal to offer further insight is smart. But it also presents a challenge for the viewer.

What is Colm O'Leary's Sean getting from Ike?  New Jerusalem Rick Alverson, 2011

What is Colm O’Leary’s Sean getting from Ike?
New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

 

The audience is left with a film that manages to convey sadness, loneliness and isolation, but fails to offer any sort of emotional or narrative pay off. The viewer walks away with a great deal to think about it. The problem is that I’m not sure I was given enough information to actually feel like my thoughts are grounded to anything more than the way I perceived the limited information I was given. Both Oldham as “Ike” and O’Leary as “Sean” are exceptional in their respective roles. And Alverson’s cinematography is particularly effective. But the viewer is likely to be as confused as the two characters. It is a risky proposition as a from of cinematic satisfaction or enjoyment. Sometimes that risk pays off.

This was my viewpoint of New Jerusalem when I had first seen it, but Alverson has discussed the film at some length. His idea was not to study “male-bonding” — the idea derived from a symbiotic relationship in which both men need the other. During a SXSW Q&A held in 2011, Alverson is asked if Ike loses his faith. Aversion’s clearly states that Ike needed a receptacle for his faith so that these doubted views might reflect back to him. And Sean as receptacle refuses to provide that reflection back.

Symbiotic Needs New Jerusalem Rick Alverson, 2011

Symbiotic Needs
New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

Alverson goes on to explain that both male characters reach a conclusion that “they do not want the other person to become true reflections of themselves. The believer needs the disbeliever and the disbeliever needs the believer.” Here we are given a unique perspective on how people bond. What might at first appear a need to help or teach is actually a misunderstanding of actual need. Ike would only be disappointed if Sean agreed with him. This on-going struggle is a part of the reason they both reach for the other. They are both lost and need the other to validate their own separate but equally conflicted identities.

Which brings us to Rick Alverson’s latest and most full realized film, Entertainment. Magnolia Film is distributing and it will be released soon.

"Why? Why?! Why!?!?!!?" Gregg Turkington as The Comedian Entertainment Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

“Why? Why?! Why!?!?!!?”
Gregg Turkington as The Comedian
Entertainment
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

The film also marks the first time Alverson has surrendered the duties of Cinematographer to another artist. The film’s look is starkly different than his first three movies. Lorenzo Hagerman has applied a sometimes neon-like, deserted and mirror-reflected world which is clearly Alverson’s vision, but also recalls a new influence for the filmmaker. There is something very Stanley Kubrick about Entertainment. It is difficult for me to articulate, but both in look and tone I sense some Kubrickism going down. It works to good impact in Alverson’s new and strange and experimental cinematic vision. The link to Kubrick is most-likely very lose as there is no way to not realize we are watching a Rick Alverson film as it unspools. It has a most definite Surrealism running through it. This is reality, but it is skewed by loneliness, isolation and the fragmentary trajectory of the comedian’s tour of the road.

Failing, Aging and A Dead-Beat Father, The Comedian tries to sleep... Entertainment Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Failing, Aging and A Dead-Beat Father, The Comedian tries to sleep…
Entertainment
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Gregg Turkington is a failing and aging comic. He is in the midst of a tour that seems to be trapped in the California desert. Run-down venues, tacky Negative-Americana tourist attractions and the eccentricities of this world are aimed full force at “The Comedian.” He pushes forward in what is most likely an unattainable successful chance at a career in Hollywood. He tries in vain to regain a connection to his daughter. His point of view, reasonings and his jokes continue to come against the clash of audiences, family and friends. Each encounter and experiences seems to escalate his Existential Crisis as well as formed into further Surrealism that threaten to pull him loose from the grip of reality into delusion.

Gregg Turkington and Tye Sheridan both looking in the mirrors, but what is being reflected?  Entertainment Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Gregg Turkington and Tye Sheridan both looking in the mirrors, but what is being reflected?
Entertainment
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

The only comfort he can find is to more and more take on his exaggerated onstage persona. Constantly struggling for center stage, acceptance, success and connection he is pulled further and further down a sort of rabbit hole. Entertainment was formed by a collaboration between Alverson and Tarkington (AKA Neil Hamburger.) This is an interesting, but unsurprising collaboration. Rick Alverson has always seemed to have a connection to the underground comic movement. And as Gregg Tarkington’s work is largely tied up in on-stage persona comic-art-pieces the resulting film makes sense. The stand-up ideas come directly from Tarkington, but all else appears to be coming from Alverson. This is an enchantingly twisted, surreal, odd and encaging sort of horror-comedy. All of it seems largely rooted in the role of performer, identity, isolation and above all else human loneliness.

In an interview conducted earlier this year for Beyond Cinema, both Alverson and Tarkington were asked, “What was the seed of this movie?

Alverson didn’t seem to need to even think about it: “A mutual disdain for certain things and curiosity as well as like-minded interest with trouble-making.”

However, Rick Alverson goes on to explain that with Entertainment, was largely a way for him to take “cinematic tropes” or cliches one all too-often sees reflected in film. Not only does he not like them, he feels this type of cinema minimizes what art should be intended to maximize. In other words, Alverson is seeking to subvert the ideas of recurring, rhetorical devices, motifs and other cinematic cliches in Entertainment. As he pointed out to Beyond Cinema, using a depiction “of a desert as a place of spiritual transformation or renewal is ridiculous and problematic. I hate metaphors.” He adds with a spark of energy, “I use them in this movie like building blocks in contending with all these ideas of representation,” Rick Alverson seeks to upset our cliched ideas.”

Waiting to go "on" and "off" Gregg Turkington Entertainment Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Waiting to go “on” and “off”
Gregg Turkington
Entertainment
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

The Mojave Desert, a doppelgänger, a recurring use of mirrors, reflections, self-reflections all point to loneliness and the horrific idea of losing your identity within a made up character. It is a dark and cynical viewpoint. Ultimately our Comedian views his audience as his enemies who seem to have played a major role in his formation of his persona. But we are not as easily deceived as The Comedian. This persona is an invocation of his own addiction, depression and self-loathing. Assistance from a chemo-therapist who presents a world that only leads him to an even darker view of the world. Cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, utilizes different lenses of color to further throw everything off balance.

The Comedian‘s opening act or performer seems to taunt him with his youth and seems to be hellbent on stealing the show from his headliner. As the movie along we meet The Comedian‘s obsession with Mexican Soap Operas, an awkward reunion with his cousin, played with a comically-confused-state-of-consciouness by John C. Reilly, or getting a tour of a celebrity home, an uncomfortable situation with a stranger played by Michael Cera and to the film’s most disturbing and deeply odd scene which takes place in a roadside public bathroom.

Best not to discuss this scene until the film arrives in cinemas. Let’s just say it takes us to level of the grotesque one will not easily forget.

Gregg Turkington's The Comedian visits his oddly-off cousin, John C. Reilly.  "Where is the growth potential?" Entertainment Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Gregg Turkington’s The Comedian visits his oddly-off cousin, John C. Reilly.
“Where is the growth potential?”
Entertainment
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Rick Alverson dismantles our “Cinematic Tropes” with ease as The Comedian‘s world begins at a panic of about a 4 till we reach the truly nightmarish level of panic screeching off the charts. In the end, the only possibility is an escape into a damaged mind’s imagination. Entertainment is unforgettable. It should not be missed. The thing to keep in mind, once you let this movie “in” you’re not likely to shake it off very easily.

Entertainment Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Entertainment
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

As John C. Reilly’s seemingly “drug-challenged” character awkwardly observes The Comedian, “Yer tryin’ to tell jokes and make people happy. That’s what’s important.” Within a few minutes screen time John C. Reilly’s character pushes The Comedian, “Where are ya at? Where is this leadin’ you? Where’s the growth potential?” But The Comedian’s cousin is really only partially there.

In my head our protagonist is roaming the heat and cold of the desert trying to figure out “Why?” and “What’s so funny?”  This time around, I’ve a feeling that Alverson’s vision is going to be a better fit into the minds of audiences. At least I hope so. I’m not the only one waiting to see where Rick Alverson will take us next.

ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2015 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

ENTERTAINMENT
Rick Alverson, 2015
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

Rick Alverson’s Entertainment will be officially released on November 13th in limited release to cinemas and iTunes. Don’t miss it.

 

Matty Stanfield, 8.7.2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within the first minute of Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film, Beloved, we are told that we are entering a cold and lonely house in 1865 Ohio. As Tak Fukimoto’s careful camera approaches this odd house we already know that The Civil War has only just ended and the legal abolishment of slavery is most likely only started to sink into the American culture. Barely two more minutes pass before we become aware that something paranormal is threatening this newly-freed African-American household.  Is it demonic? Is it a menacing ghost? It doesn’t take long before this dangerous force is openly discussed. The truly jolting aspect of these brief discussions is the passive manner in which the topics are engaged.

The film’s main character seems to be simultaneously depressed and almost relieved that her two young sons have just runaway. It is only a brief after thought that Sethe might have been able to hang on to her sons if she had made more of an “effort.” She ponders that maybe if she had moved her fatherless family to a different house or an entirely different place things might have worked out or be better. An old woman who we understand to be Sethe’s mother-in-law and grandmother to Sethe’s children, shakes her head and says “What’d be the point? Not a house in the country ain’t packed to the rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky our ghost is a baby. My husband spirit come back? Or yours? Don’t talk to me! You lucky. You got one child left, still pullin at your skirts. Be thankful.”

Within another few minutes the story travels several years in time. Baby Suggs, the wise mother-in-law, has died and Sethe’s daughter, Denver, has grown into a sad young woman. A weary but upbeat man shows up at the house. This is clearly an old friend. After the two friends catch-up we can see that there is a vaguely shared erotically loving connection here. Sethe leads her old friend, Paul D, into her dilapidated, creepy-looking old house. Barely into the house Paul D stops. Looking down the Sethe’s hallway he becomes terrorfied.

“Good God! What kind of evil you got in there?”

“It’s not evil..It’s just… It’s just sad. Come on. Just step through.”

Beloved Oprah Winfrey Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved
Oprah Winfrey
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey’s Sethe’s guidance is given to Danny Glover’s Paul D,  but it also also seems as if the audience is invited to enter into this home of profound loneliness, sadness, fear and hidden horrors.  Beloved is challenging, complex, graphically violent and viscerally disturbing film. Beloved is also almost as difficult to approach from a film criticism angle. Jonathan Demme’s movie, like it’s source novel is a masterful, shocking and cogently artistic work. It seems almost impossible that a white male filmmaker created this largely experimental neo-gothic and Feminist examination. It is a profound work, but the use of “horror” as metaphor sometimes creates results that seem almost oppositional to Toni Morrison’s brilliant and Pulitzer Price winning 1987 novel. It is hard to miss the allegory and metaphor contained within the pages of her book. The crucial ideas are not always so clear in the film adaptation.

As Alan A. Stone noted in his 1999 article in The Boston Review titled Oprah’s Nightmare, the esteemed and amazing media mogul “wanted Beloved to be an experience, not just entertainment. The film, like Toni Morrison’s novel, was meant to answer the question, what was it like to be a slave? In answering it, Morrison makes her readers feel, perhaps for the first time, the extraordinary psychological damage done by slavery. There is, says one of her characters, “a kind of madness that keeps one from going mad.”  

With the gift of close to 20 years hindsight, it is clear that Oprah Winfrey’s decade long desire to bring Morrision’s book to the screen is largely successful. Sometimes the movie’s success is achieved in spite of itself. No doubt, the idea of translating this book into a movie was more than a daunting task. This was a task that Winfrey was more than thrilled to pursue, but it was not just from her love of Toni Morrison and her book that drove her to get this epic film made — it was even more than passion. If you should ever read Oprah Winfrey’s book, Journey to Beloved, you will discover that Winfrey viewed the task as a personal requirement and unrelenting sense of duty. Toni Morrison’s novel is more than just an important literary masterpiece.

Epigraph: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”  Romans 9:25 Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade." Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

Epigraph:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
Romans 9:25
Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.”
Beloved
by Toni Morrison, 1987

Toni Morrison’s novel is a vital depiction of not only the abhorrent and almost unimaginable horror of slavery — it is a work that strives to remind readers that while slavery might have been abolished in 1865, it still looms as more than just a lingering injustice. The United States legalized slavery of the past remains as a looming shadow of an entire race of people. Going even deeper, Toni Morrison’s novel ties the history of slavery accurately to the dynamics that run through African-Americans lives. Dynamics and understandings of faith, family, fatherhood and motherhood continue to be challenged by the remaining shared pain of a past that is horrifyingly still clutching onto the present.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is also inspired by Margaret Garner, a Pre-Civil War era slave who opted to kill her two-year-old daughter to save her from suffering the fate of slavery. This act shocked not only our nation but the world.

From the Cincinnati Gazette.  June 29, 1856

From the Cincinnati Gazette.
June 29, 1856

A famous trial ensued in which Garner was tried for murder. For those of you who may not have studied too much regarding the atrocity of our country’s Slave Trade and Slavery — it is important to note that it was far more common for mother’s to kill their children than is usually discussed. It was a sad reality and often hidden from view in more ways than one. However,  Margaret Garner was on the run from Slavery and her owners when her family was pushed into a small home as US Marshals surrounded to take them back into custody when she killed her daughter. This practice of filicide was suddenly thrust into public-awareness.

At the trial, Lucy Stone, an important American Abolitionist and Suffragist, took the stand to defend Garner. Not one to play into societal or cultural restraints of her time — Lucy Stone’s defense of Garner was based on a then very real but “unspoken” sexual “use” or more accurately “abuse” of white male slave owners toward their female slaves.

Unfathomable human cruelty -- except it not only happened. It was accepted.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Unfathomable human cruelty — except it not only happened. It was accepted.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

 

Something that had been a painful day-to-day existence for Margaret Garner. The concept of The Maternal has been perversely changed within the minds of many female slaves. Most tragically, it is not hard to understand how and why this happened.

Lucy Stone pulled no punch when she reminded everyone present (must of whom were demanding Garner’s execution) that the faces of Garner’s children shared as much in common with Garner’s white owner as they did with their mother. Stone then publicly and famously stated:

“The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?”

Oprah Winfrey  on set of Beloved Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey
on set of Beloved
Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey and her fellow filmmakers may have stumbled a bit in capturing Toni Morrison’s novel, but it is far too incremental to use as a valid criticism. If Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ movie made even one person seek out Morrision’s novel it would give the film merit. As it turned out the movie would inspire a whole new generation to read Toni Morrison’s unforgettable and rightfully unforgiving book. And while one could debate the differences between the film and the novel — it would be a mute discussion. Beloved, the movie, works incredibly well. Even still, it is interesting that Winfrey sought out a white filmmaker who had ever really even made one “serious” film. And that film, Silence of the Lambs, is both horrific and often satirical in approach. It even more surprising that she sought out screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese. A very competent white film writer, his work is often “hit or miss” — on the one hand he had written the screenplays for both The Fisher King (for which he received The Academy Award) and the highly underrated dark comedy, The Ref, but he had also written the screenplays for such duds as Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes and Barbra Streisand’s off-kilter, The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Beloved's wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog's eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.  Oprah Winfrey  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved’s wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog’s eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It is difficult to understand her confidence LaGravenese could handle capturing the heart of this book. I don’t intent to dismiss LaGravense’s talent. It’s just that this movie operates within an entirely different “universe” compared to what one anticipates in his film scripts.  Though, Winfrey and Demme would later enlist both Adam Brooks and Akosua Busia to assist LaGravenese in screenwriting duties. Once again, Brooks is a white male who had only written one “successful” screenplay at the time, Meg Ryan’s ill-advised romantic comedy, French Kiss. As for Busia, she had become friendly with Winfrey during the production of The Color Purple in which she was a supporting actor. She had never written for the screen at the time. However, Winfrey was confident that would be a valuable member of the writing team.  As odd as these choices seem, they appear to have been good ideas.

A topic, concept and idea of great import and interest to Toni Morrison’s Beloved is “re-memoring” or “rememory.” This is a simple idea, but it was a new one to many if not all readers of Morrison’s brilliant 1987 novel. The idea is that our leading character, Sethe, is often found remembering memories. It is an idea not too far removed from PTSD survivors and the way in which the psyche often twists “reality” when trying to recall or revisit a past traumatic event. Beloved’s Sethe mental revisit to her past takes on this aspect of rememory in which memories serves as sort of triggers off-skewed or altered-perceptions of places, experiences, people and feelings that when described take on a level of unexpected power or — even more alarmingly, are recalled in almost distant or passive way.

Billie Holiday sang of "Strange Fruit" and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film's characters but our current reality. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Billie Holiday sang of “Strange Fruit” and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film’s characters but our current reality.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Rememoring is not accurate but it is a sad reality of surviving a life filled with unfathomable horrors. In the novel, it is clear that Sethe’s re-memoring is both a literal situation for the plot but also an allegorical emphasis for The African American Experience. It is also accurate in applying it to The White American Experience. However it must be stressed, that the full context of rememory related to past and current African-American Experience is not accessible in the same way and is limited in full understanding to Non-African Americans.

Maternal love comes with a cost... Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Maternal love comes with a cost…
Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

How could it be?

No White person can possibly know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Person of Color much less understand the way the past refuses to stop impacting the lives of African American people. Even within the hearts of the most caring and politically-active White people, there are limitations of access.

The cruelty, unfairness and horrific ramification of Slavery and its lasting imprint on identities have been shaped by not only a horrifying history and current state of racial relations and self-awareness, but as Morrison asserts there remains a  devastating sort of Shared Cultural Rememory for African Americans.  A re-memory that haunts identities, understanding, self-value, societal value and the on-going cruelties that pollute the reality of being American. The concept does not just end there — it operates within the reality of the individual.

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than "reality" -- she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.  Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than “reality” — she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The impact of “rememory” from Toni Morrison’s novel illustrates how this “memory” is not so much a remembrance but a re-occuring reality. Just as it looms over an entire race of human beings, rememory is still happening to Sethe:

“what I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head … even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of whatI did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Winfrey sought a highly originally talented and somewhat eccentric filmmaker as Jonathan Demme to helm her film is because she knew he would bring an insight that would be limited in understanding the immediate importance of Morrison’s novel, but oddly effective in bridging a stronger link to culture because of that limitation. There is something to be said of the way the movie begins.

Icepick Rage Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Icepick Rage
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Beloved begins as if the film director and the writers have assumed too much. Despite the success of Morrison’s novel, many of the people who first attended screening of this movie were unaware of it. Winfrey knew this. Demme’s assumption that his audience would be familiar with the novel immediately tosses the audience into a world of shock and cruelty that worked in the film’s favor.

I had read the book, but I remember my jaw dropping.

Kimberly Elise's "Denver"  faces her mother's past as directly as her mother.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Kimberly Elise’s “Denver” faces her mother’s past as directly as her mother.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Wait! Is that Oprah Winfrey? What is she doing to that poor dog? Holy shit! Is Oprah pushing and hammering the dog’s eyeballs back into the dog’s eye sockets?!?! Did I just see that?  Hold up. Did that mirror just crack. Why are those two little boys so horrified? Why are they running away?  How can they leave their sad little sister all alone on the creepy stairs? What was whipping that poor dog around? Why isn’t Oprah upset? She walks by her daughter and folds clothes while this elderly woman lectures her that she should consider herself lucky.

This cinematic disorientation is so phantasmagorical, we’ve hardly caught our breath by the time Danny Glover’s Paul D shows up. As his character realizes that there is some sort of supernatural entity wrecking havoc in the house he is bathed in a light of red. Oprah’s character calms him down and he accepts what she says as truth. There is no hint of doubt. Paul D gets the situation and understands Sethe. The movie takes another unexpected turn in the eroticism shared between Sethe and Paul D.

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It isn’t that the sight of Paul D nude and freshly bathed in Sethe’s kitchen is shocking. It is actually beautifully shot and quite erotic. As Sethe begins to open up and allows her walls to go down to allow Paul D’s comfort, we first see the deep scars on Sethe’s back. Paul D is not shocked or turned off. He caresses Sethe and accepts her beauty sensually. Her scars are a part of who she is, just as his weariness is a part of himself.

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D's comforts Beloved Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D’s comforts
Beloved
Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

The eroticism and love are beautiful. What jolted audiences in 1998 will most likely still jolt a new generation today.

There is something quite effective to see all of this happen and realize that we are seeing Oprah Winfrey realistically playing the part. Oprah is more than a “star” or “icon” — she symbolizes all that we hold dear. Raising herself out of the ashes of a an abusive childhood to the role of news anchor, to Chat TV Show host to actor to International fame. A fame she is not squandered on petty vanity — Oprah has always used her struggles, her intelligence, her charm and her power to help rather than self-promote. She changed the way we look at life, literature, art and always puts her money to fund assistance and effective change. Oprah Winfrey has saturated our world with good intention and hope.

She has played a crucial role in the shaping our culture for the better at very end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries in ways more profound than any politicians, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates or the Mark Zuckerbergs. A very winnable argument could be made that Oprah Winfrey is the most culturally significant person of our time. This presents a greater impact to Beloved than can be articulated.

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

It is revelatory to see “Our Oprah” in this role. It isn’t really so much shocking as it is a jolt and a reminder that there is a reason she has invested her money, her time, her energy and her skills into what appears to be such an experimental movie.

And of course, this presents the most unsettling aspect of the film adaptation. Is this a high art horror movie? It sure feels like one. But as soon as the audience settles into the idea that we are watching a sort of metaphorical horror film, Demme pulls us into rememory — suddenly we see the hope offered by faith and church revivals. We begin to feel Sethe and Denver soften with the presence of Paul D. Serving as husband, father, lover and protector — Paul D brings some hope, love and peace to this house of horror and sadness.

But don’t dare relax. All of that foreshadowing is about to take form from the depths of an old river.

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.  Thandie Newton as Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.
Thandie Newton as
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Is this is a manifestation of guilt? Of fear? Or is the reincarnation of the little girl that Sethe opted to murder rather than to allow her to grow into the pain of life as a slave? The origin of  Sethe’s Beloved is not so important. At least not immediately. Thandie Newton’s Beloved is a stunningly beautiful personification of a half-formed being. Drooling, reaching and seeming in pain — this erie beauty is almost incapable of calming. She clings to her mother, Sethe as if she will vanish without her mother’s comfort. She is equally odd in her relation to her sister, Denver.

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

And Beloved begins to form an inappropriate erotic desire for her mother’s lover. Beloved is at once hope, love, threat, danger and pain formed into beguiling sexually-charged beauty.  Thandie Newton’s performance is as brilliant as it is problematic.

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The character of Beloved is an odd challenge to form into a character from every perspective. But perhaps the most challenging for the actor who must play this “idea” or “projection” of a human rememoried. All the more unsettling is that Newton’s style of acting deeply contrasts with the other three main actors. Winfrey, Glover and young Kimberly Elise all play their roles deeply grounded in natural realism. Their reactions may seem “off” but they feel like all-too-real people. Thandie Newtons’ performance is experimental — at turns animalistic, mentally-challenged, child-like, demonic and dangerous. It is as if she is from a whole other world or movie. As desperately as Sethe and Denver want Beloved to fit into their world, it is a losing battle and a desire that can never be fulfilled.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

As the film soars through at just short of 3 hours that feel more like 90 minutes — the audience is pulled through a world of repugnant cruelty, torture and hyper-realistic violence. By the time 30 townswomen show up on the step of Stehe’s front door we are not even surprised to discover that they have arrived to perform an exorcism of the house, Sethe and Beloved. These women have joined as one to save this family from being completely consumed by a heritage of savagery, pain, sadness and trauma.

Beloved ultimately brought Sethe and her family true Hell whether it was intended or secretly desired. She does not exist independently. She has been summoned as much from Evil as from Good. She seems to offer forgiveness for Sethe but at a price that is far too high to pay. A truly insane Sethe is rescued by the community of African-American former female slaves. They pray and aim their crosses and Beloved who appears to be swollen with child is supernaturally sent back to the place from which she came. The exorcism appears to have worked. But there is faint feeling that this relief is only temporary.

As Paul D tries to comfort Sethe, she tells him that Beloved was her “best thing.” It is to the filmmaker and Danny Glovers’ shared skills that there isn’t the slightest feeling of the contrite or easy-solution when he tells Sethe that she is wrong. “Sethe, you are your best thing.

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Even if it will be a temporary moment of calm, one can’t but hope that Sethe and Paul D will be able to move on with their lives and share in the joys that Denver is able to discover on her own. But as much as the film seems to strain to create it’s own world, it is firmly tied to Toni Morrison’s extraordinary novel. Sethe and Paul D are not those of some freed slaves who can repress and dissociate from their past. They have tried but they can’t. Their true identities, suffered horrors and shared rememories have already forced a sort of reintegration of their selves. These are not fragmented people. It is not as dismal as it sounds, there is a freedom to be found in the truth. The problem is that the indignities of Slavery’s past do not seem to resolve. This is a wounded country whose scars run deep. It will take a hell of lot more than thirty Bible-thumping strong women to cast out the demons infested in our culture.

Where can we find hope?

I certainly do not hold any clue of an answer, but the one thing I take away from Oprah Winfrey’s dedication and sense of duty:

We cannot deny the truth. We must take ownership of the past. We must destroy the Confederate Flag ideology that would attempt to disguise racism as “history” or worse yet a false and evil “pride” in the wrong side of history.

The lingering rememory of Slavery's rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.  Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

The lingering rememory of Slavery’s rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

In the end, Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ film failed to fully secure “buy-in” and approval from Film Critics of the time. Audiences attended in mass when it was first released, but those audiences soon re-treated. Many mistake this film for a Disney Project, but in truth Touchstone Pictures put in little of the film’s budget. Most to the money they invested was in the form of distribution and promotion. The film’s budget is not clear. Estimates range from $50,000,000 to $80,ooo,ooo. The production was shared between Jonathan Demme’s production company, Clinica Estetico, and Winfrey’s Harpo Films. The rumor is that Winfrey put in $50,000,00 of her own money into the movie. The film ended up only earning just under $30,000,000 at the box office. It was issued to DVD but is no longer in-print. But Amazon.com still has plenty of copies remaining and the film is available for on-line purchase or rental. It is most definitely worth your time to experience it.

While Beloved failed to achieve the success it intended. It stands alone as a brave, powerful, unforgettable and truly profound film. An achievement born out of a personal sense of duty. While things may have gotten bumpy or even confused in translation — there is no denying its message. Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme created an amazing film against all odds.

Nothing can diminish that.

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997 Photograph | Ken Regan

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997
Photograph | Ken Regan

 

Jonathan Demme agrees with many of the film’s supporters that it’s ultimate box office failure can be blamed on Disney who wanted a quicker box office pay-off and pulled the movie just as “word of mouth” was started to be heard so that they could the ridiculous Adam Sandler film, Water Boy into the cinemas that were then occupied by the R-rated Beloved.

Jonathan Demme Vanity Fair, France, 2014 Photograph | FABRICE DALL'ANESE

Jonathan Demme
Vanity Fair, France, 2014
Photograph | FABRICE DALL’ANESE

In 2013, Winfrey was asked about the “failure” of Beloved. She is quoted as having said:

“To this day I ask myself, was it a mistake? Was it a mistake to not try and make  a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the Beloved book.”

Oprah Winfrey Hollywood, 2015 Photograph | Mark Seliger

Oprah Winfrey
Hollywood, 2015
Photograph | Mark Seliger

I refuse to accept that Beloved was a failure. If anything, we failed it.