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I first wrote about Johan Liedgren in November of last year. If you have not read that post, check it out here.

His most recent film continues to gain momentum and with recent shifts in the United States — it has gained even more importance.  I’m quite literally pasting an interview Kate Shifman conducted with Mr. Liedgren last year. I do so with Ms. Shifman’s permission. 

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

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

Johan Liedgren’s most recent feature film displays something very rare: a strong female protagonist who finds a very big voice in sexual controversy and moral complexity.

A witty, intense and unpredictable tale fusing rapid-fire chamber-drama with fearless acting and relentless cinematic appeal, “The Very Private Work of Sister K” starts with the story of a young nun accused of grave transgressions, who rises to battle the oldest of beliefs as the true nature of sexuality is put on trial. Award-winning director Johan Liedgren teams up with director of photography Zia Mohajerjasbi and actress Liza Curtiss as Sister K in “…a modern bar-fighting lovechild of Eyes Wide Shut and 12 Angry Men.”

I called Mr. Liedgren at his house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon in early December, curios about a male artist’s relationship to what Hollywood has been struggling with for such a long time: strong and complex female characters.

Kate Shifman: There is a scene where the female protagonist Sister K keeps telling the older male priests the sexual relationship she had was “…not just sex.”

Johan Liedgren: Sex is never just about sex.

KS: They say that it was simple. She says… it was complicated.

JL: She says it was complex. Human sexuality is complex. Not necessarily complicated. We all know how babies are made. Good sex is something very different.

KS: Complicated and complex – what is the difference?

JL: I feel like I am getting set-up to mansplain. (laughter)

KS: What’s the difference to you?

JL: One has many moving parts. The other can be simple but still mean many things on many levels. I should really look that up…

KS: It is rare to see truly strong female characters. Especially from a male director. Is this a feminist film?

Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

JL: I don’t know how much it matters that I am male. But yes, she is very strong. But for me it was never because she repeats some political line that fits an established feminist abstract narrative. Her strength is interesting because she finds her moral high ground in a very specific experience. And to make things more interesting, it’s fueled with religious context and a suitcase full of sexual taboos.

KS: But it’s different than “Spotlight” in many ways.

JL: The obvious ways, sure. And it’s more fun to watch. But even more so because it serves as allegory rather than dramatized documentary.

KS: What you describe could have happened.

JL: It did happen… I can’t find the details but I think a similar case 20 years ago in Denmark. A civil case of a nun who thought her patient needed sexual attention on a regular basis. And just as I was editing the Sister K, New York Times did an article on Anna Stubbenfelt – the therapist who fell in love with and slept with a much younger severely autistic boy. Fascinating. And complex.

“Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher. “

KS: Could this film have been done with a male nurse?

JL: Sure. But you would have to play against the cliche’s or you would be re-making Spotlight. And that’s not me. Too easy. It can’t be predictable.

KS: Could it be about something other than sex?

JL: Of course. But not for me, and not for this story. Sexuality has a absolutely singular place in our lives. It’s an everyday need and deeply mysterious at the same time. It’s giving and taking. It’s familiar and yet always new somehow. Unmatched complexity. That’s why sexuality will always resonate with divinity for me. Those hips don’t lie. (laugh) But hey, don’t forget what Sister K did to her patient.

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

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

KS: And still we root for Sister K.

JL: I agree, most people do. But you have to work for it, and you are constantly challenged in that position as the story twists and turns. And I think that is why the film turned out so well. It was not an easy project.

KS: Too controversial?

JL: Never!

KS: Are you actively staying away from politics?

JL: Sexual politics is often part of my projects. But traditional politics – yes, anything with dull and predictable categories… we are living in a world stuck in lazy narratives, selling something predictable to the already converted. Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher.

KS: More complexity.

JL: Exactly! The Hollywood machine requires simplicity and predictability. Known categories they can market too. Stories that everyone likes. It is up to independent films to dramatize more complex issues. To take real risks. Commercial and artistic. Even smaller independent film seem more concerned with making something that Hollywood likes than taking risks and breaking new ground.

KS: You don’t see much feminist film come out of Hollywood.

JL: That’s an understatement.

KS: Did you set out to make a feminist film.

JL: No. But I did set out to make a film about a woman who finds a deep female power outside the obvious, and she does so without being perfect. Clearly.

“All of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.”

Johan Liedgren

Johan Liedgren

KS: You are an accidental feminist.

JL: Love that! (laughter) – Johan Liedgren… accidental feminist. In some ways I think we can describe Sister K just the same.

KS: What would you like people to take away from the film?

JL: I would love to see someone stand up for real sexuality the way Sister K does. Bring the message home – when sex is talked about at that dinner party, as “simple”, there will be those women around the world who will push their plate to the side, empty their glass of wine, stand up and deliver the same speech Sister K did. And end it with a passionate “…Good sex, that’s where God goes to church!” Bam! Mic-drop…

KS: I can see that happening at a stale dinner somewhere.

JL: But also… I think the film – and certainly actress Liza Curtiss – does a brilliant job of having us drift deep into the complexity of what is going on long before we know we are in it. She uses all our pre-conceived notions of gender and sex to take us somewhere very different. She’s that good. You are laughing, but then suddenly realizing you are caught rooting for some very questionable behavior. Good story is a beautiful trickster – leading us to places we otherwise would not see. Film can and should do the same. I think all of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.

KS: Your film starts out with a funny, almost childlike story within the story – a rabbit who decides to stop eating his vegetables.

JL: Right. It’s a good example of how story can be a trickster – it’s not long before we fully embrace the rabbit as a brutal nocturnal carnivore.

KS: Accidental Carnivore?

JL: Nice. (laughter). But yes, Sister K in similar fashion seems harmless and benign in the beginning only to reveal incredible potency. No one sees her coming.

KS: Is she deceiving them all from the very beginning?

JL: Well, if she is, it’s not to save herself. It’s to make sure the story that survives is told right.

KS: Several times she talks about what happened to her as a story, a story to be told – told over and over again. The film eludes to the work of Eve, and the story of Eden.

JL: The value and currency of her actions is the story that will be told about her. And that is also how the rabbit story ends, with that story living on, retold over and over again, from generation to generation. I love story. The rabbit story even survives one of my films and appears in the next. Lives on… and if you end the interview now, the story of the film through this interview will live on – and it would provide for almost perfect symmetry. (laughter)

KS: What a director! (laughter). Thank you, Johan – a wonderful film and a surprising and incredibly potent female protagonist where we least expect it.

JL: It was all my pleasure.

The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Kate Shifman is a NYC freelance writer, consultant and photographer traveling the world, currently based in Portugal. Johan Liedgren is an award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant. His work with large brands, design, media and technology companies is extending narrative thinking and storytelling to products and disciplines far outside traditional application. Johan lives a relatively balanced life with his two sons in Seattle. More info  here

The Very Private Work of Sister K can be rented/purchased here

I highly recommend it.

Matty Stanfield, 1.29.2017

 

 

 

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Uh, oh. Trouble is coming from all sides as Ken Russell takes British Film into the 1970’s. Despite on-going demand, Time Warner still refuses to allow us to take a full-on second look back. Britain’s most infamous film actually belongs to a United States based corporation. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

When one thinks of 1960’s Film Art, the mind does not immediately jump to thoughts of British cinema. Most of us think of France’s La Nouvelle Vague, Germany’s Neuer Deutsche Film, Italy’s NeoRealism film movement, The Japanese New Wave or The Polish New Wave from which Britain did snatch Roman Polanski. Certainly there were groundbreaking British films that caught the spirit of London’s Swinging 60’s Era, but many of these films have aged rather poorly. Just think of Petulia, Morgan!, Darling, Billy Liar or Georgy Girl.  If honest, what really still works about these films is related to a time capsule interest. Many of these British films are quite valid (think A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Room At The Top, A Hard Day’s Night, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Performance ) but the majority have not held up as well as one might hope.

This is not true across the board. Stanley Kubrick’s British work has only gotten better with time and Michelangelo Antonioni’s visit into Swinging London culture of the time, Blow Up, remains a vital work. However, are these truly British films? It would seem that both of these filmmakers were in a sort of transitionary position. Antonioni was visiting England. Kubrick was still fairly new to British culture.

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The great Julie Christie is The Ideal Woman of 1965’s British satire of Swinging London, but the film barely registers beyond nostalgia now. Darling John Schlesinger, 1965 Cinematography | Kenneth Higgins

Most of the iconic British films of the 1960’s are simply limited to nostalgia. Guy Hamilton, Andy Milligan, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Shonteff are exceptions but much of what they were trying to convey would soon better estimated by the likes of Alan Parker and most especially Mike Leigh. Ken Loach would not truly find his voice until he entered his 50’s in the 1990’s. There was also a good share of attention to The Angry Young Man of the day. Tony Richardson had moments of brilliance but looking back he seemed to have been challenged by what style of film best suited his voice. Richard Lester certainly left a mark, but here again we are slipping into time capsule pop culture moments.

The British New Wave is also largely obscured by the mega-epics of David Lean’s heavily praised, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are considered to be a cinematic masterpieces. I’ve never been particularly impressed. To be honest, I’ve never made it through Lawrence of Arabia without falling asleep. Carol Reed’s adaptation of the stage musical, Oliver! was another huge British hit of the 1960’s that pushed pass the more reflexive films of the day.

There were two particularly strong and solitary British Film Artists who were finding new methods of cinematic language. Nicolas Roeg would soon move from the cinematographer chair to that of director and change the face of film editing as it was known. Ken Russell’s work for the BBC and his adaptation of Larry Kramer’s adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love all stand alone and unique in offering new ways of using film to express ideas and to tell stories. And he really stole the anticipated reigns of the film biography when The Music Lovers slammed onto movie screens across the world in 1970.

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Ken Russell welcomes us to the 1970’s via way of 16h Century France as “the wife” of a Priest makes her way past the destruction of the Roman-Catholic Church… Gemma Jones The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

As British Film headed into the 1970’s some firm and potent voices formed. Certainly Stanley Kubrick’s A Clock Work Orange is a British Film. All American cultural ideas have fallen off his cinematic map. John Schlesinger pretty much left England for America. Ken Russell defied all expectations with his searing and important 1971 film, The Devils. As it turns out Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick were not alone. The thing is some of the new British voices got somehow lost in the mix. Barney Platts-Mills’ may have only made one film in the 1960’s, but it is a powerful entry into British Film History. Three other filmmakers also created work not only ahead of the cultural curve — they challenged it and ran their work close to the edge of the rails.

As we stumble forward toward the third decade of the 21st Century, The British Film Institute has gone deep within the corners of their storage closets to re-release a couple of seldom seen motion pictures that capture 1960’s London in whole new ways. Most of these titles were dusted off, restored, re-released within the UK and issued to DVD/Blu-Ray between 2009 and 2011.

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The British Film Festival pulled several legendary but almost forgotten films and re-issued them to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2010 and 2011. These “lost” films of Jack Bond, Jane Arden, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq teach us that Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick were not alone in finding new ways to capture stories and ideas for the British Screen.

Two of these four filmmakers were actually Canadian born. Even still, these two ex-pats of Canada artists show no signs of unfamiliarity with the setting of their two crucial films that BFI re-issued several years back for the first time in over 40 years. The other two filmmakers are most certainly British and have cinematic voices which come close to that of Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. Like Russell / Roeg, these two British Film Artists were well-versed but often Anti-Intellectual in the way they approached their work. They were far more focused on the visual and the use of film editing. Rebels all, but each were reeling out their rebellion from different core identities. Unlike Ken Russell and Nicolas Roegs’ work of the 1960’s, all four of the other Film Artists will not appeal to a number of people, but it is hard to imagine anyone disputing their importance.

I’m currently exploring the work of a number of British filmmakers who are new to me. I plan on writing more on the art and collaborations of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. The work these two created almost defies terminology, but I’m going to give it my best shot!

But for this post, I want to touch on two films. The first of these two was born out of the mixed theatre and social service ideals of the great Joan Littlewood. “The Mother of Modern Theatre” devoted the second half of her life working with the young people of East London who were lost, without purpose or supervision. These young people were in constant threat of falling prey to all manner of trouble. Her idea was to create a space where these teenagers could be allowed to hang out and “act” out their issues, challenges and ideas. Firmly grounded in the arts but against what she viewed as Elitism of The National Theatre. Her Theatre Royal Stratford East was free of pretension and open to everyone. It was here that Barney Platts-Mills was inspired to scrap together a bit of money to make an amazing little film called Bronco Bullfrog.

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, "play" fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures. Bronco Bullfrog Barney Platts-Mills, 1969 Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, “play” fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures.
Bronco Bullfrog
Barney Platts-Mills, 1969
Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Bronco Bullfrog stars non-actors who had been working with each other under the loose guidance of Joan Littlewood. While the plot is deceptively simple, a great deal of information about the grimness of urban decay, lack of parenting and dystopian boredom come through loud and clear. Glam and style-free, this is a study of teenagers floating along without purpose, direction or hope. Interestingly, it is not all gloom and doom. The characters of Bronco Bullfrog start to find their way as the film heads to conclusion. This is a gem of a film that has never received the praise or attention it deserved. As good as this movie is, it can hardly stand-up when positioned next to Joseph Despins and William Dumaresqs’ ultra-strange and unforgettable twisted little movie, Duffer.

duffer_banner

A good 6 years before anyone had seen the dark surrealism and humor of David Lynch, this low-budget experimental film serves as welcome warning that the art of filmmaking is about to take an innovative, creative and altogether new turn. Kit Gleave as Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq crafted this weird and entertaining movie on a budget so low it is probably best not to state it. The camera work is surprisingly solid. Actually the cinematography is far more than solid, it is artistically sound. Cinematographer, Jorge Guerra, may not have had the best equipment but he most certainly knew how to use it. The shots are often brilliant.

There is no sound. The narration and voices were recorded by a different cast. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that the lack of sound was not going to be a deficit. In fact, the creative dubbing actually adds to this film in more ways than one. Comical and often horrifying, the dubbed dialogue serves exceptionally as an aide to the film’s surrealism, dark comedy, menace and horror.

"WoManAmal!!!" Duffer's junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.  William Dumaresq as "Louis-Jack" Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“WoManAmal!!!” Duffer’s junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.
William Dumaresq as “Louis-Jack”
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

The dubbing actually heightens the discomfort as we watch a young man attempt to reconcile the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of his older junkie boyfriend by engaging in an affair with a female prostitute. Enduring the sort of sadistic torment one seldom sees addressed in film, Despins and Dumaresq were extremely clever in presenting it in very dark comical ways that disturb but never so much that one needs to run for cover. The kind but obviously more than a bit twisted herself, prossie called Your Gracie gives the lost teen some solace while fully utilizing him as a tool.

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Erna May as “Your Gracie” is using Kit Gleave’s “Duffer,” but he hopes she is saving his masculinity… Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the KINK/BDSM with his male keeper becomes more severe and his trysts with his female lover decrease — Duffer is pulled into his male lover’s Horse addiction and begins to suffer one of the most bizarre psychosomatic delusions I’ve ever seen. The poor kid’s delusions continue to morph into what appears to be a psychotic break. This twisted, funny, unsettling and fascinating experimental film deals with almost every aspect of human cruelty and horror imaginable. And just to amp up Duffer’s already potent cinematic stew, we gradually begin to suspect that our protagonist may not be the most reliable narrator.

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.  Kit Gleave in his only film role... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.
Kit Gleave in his only film role…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the film unspools more perversities and jaw-drop moments at break-neck speed, we are constantly given an exceptional examination of 1970’s Notting Hill. You may think you’ve seen urban decay and dystopian-like settings, but Duffer presents an England few of us have seen. Filmed on location and on the very cheap, this is perplexing and truly extraordinary view of the state of things circa 1969-1970. I realize that some of you will be annoyed that I’m grouping this film into the 1960’s British New Wave, but Duffer is clearly set in the 1960’s. This is not the 1970’s.

The film begins with Duffer sitting alone by the water. A pretty young woman pauses as she crosses a bridge far above the handsome boy. As the film whirls to conclusion we find him once again in the same place. It is impossible to not ponder where the film’s reality begins or ends. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that none of it is real. However there are just as many clues that all of what see presented has happened in reality. I’m not dropping a spoiler here, the viewer begins to distrust poor Duffer almost immediately. This is a narrator we are unable to trust. But the most jarring aspect of this film is that it presents itself solidly within the Surrealist Context.

All alone in his thoughts... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

All alone in his thoughts…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

It is important to note that as much as I praise Duffer, it is not for all tastes. While never truly graphic, it is most definitely profane and very perverse. The humor is so dark that many will feel guilty laughing. This is one demented movie. It also features a deeply strange musical score from the composer who gave the world the 1960’s Broadway smash, Hair. Galt McDermot’s score plays like something you would hear in an alternate universe Tin Pan Alley. Just when you think you will only be hearing a piano — a quickly use of electronics starts to grind forward.

"Mind how you go..." No where in Notting Hill is safe! Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“Mind how you go…” No where in Notting Hill is safe!
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Duffer screams out for repeated viewings to understand, to ensure that what you think you’ve just seen was actually shown and for the simple fact that this movie is endlessly entertaining. And trust me, this movie gets under your skin. Once it slips under, it stays there. In addition, something about Duffer seems to be signaling the audience to watch out for David Lynch. Were it not so very British, it could easily be mistaken for something a young David Lynch might have created. Unique, innovative, disturbing, haunting, funny and altogether original, Duffer is a must see lost British Cinematic Treasure.

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover's home movies abusing you... Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal. Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover’s home movies abusing you…
Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal.
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

Just pulled back into darkness after being "fixed" for activities best kept there... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just pulled back into darkness after being “fixed” for activities best kept there…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

I loved this film, but the work of both Jane Arden and Jack Bond really blew me away. Blown out the window and lying on the pavement outside our San Francisco home, the collaborations of Arden and Bond require more than a little thought and meditation. I’m still letting their three films digest, but I’ll be writing about them soon.

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015

 

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

As there are less than three months of the year left, I find myself thinking of the films that had the biggest impact on me. In other words, my favorite films of the year. My list is not finalized and could easily change as we move into January. There are more than a few films I’ve not yet seen that will be coming out within the next three months are so. This views are my own and should not be attached to any other person or entity but me. 

Uh, oh. This might present more fright than you expect... Mark Duplass CREEP Patrick Brice, 2015

Uh, oh. This might present more fright than you expect…
Mark Duplass
CREEP
Patrick Brice, 2015

There are a few things that come to my mind as I look over my list of favorite films:

  1. I’ve never noted so many “horror” films to make my list.
  2. The salary gap between female and male actors has never been so bad, but there have been a number of truly exceptional work by female actors. And contrary to the general tone of what I’ve been reading/hearing, there are a number of amazing performances by women.
  3. The voice of women is most notably strong in my current list. This is wicked cool! 
  4. This will read as “crass” but I do not give a shit about Oscars, BAFTAs and the slew of other awards. These are political in nature and most usually always suspect in terms of artistic evaluation.

    According to The Oscars, this is THE BEST Film Director of 2012. I content this as one of many reasons to disregard The Oscars.

    According to The Oscars, this is THE BEST Film Director of 2012. I content this as one of many reasons to disregard The Oscars.

  5. In my view, there is no such thing as a “best” when it comes to collaborative art. Actually, art in general is subjective. What resonates for me might not register for the person next to me. It is rare that I see one movie or one performance that I feel deserves title of “best.” And usually, when I grow to feel that someone did present “the best” it is a number of years after the fact.
  6. These are just my personal favorite films thus far. No reason to get upset with me. 
  7. You might not agree, but if you are like me — when I read the list of another individual’s favorites it often gives me pause to revisit my opinions regarding certain films. It also sends me out to view films I might have somehow missed.
  8. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is not among my favorite films. Stop! Don’t be flaming me! I didn’t say I hated
    Cinematic Masterpiece, Relentless Visual & Audio Assault, Creative but not among my favorite films of the year. Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller, 2015

    Cinematic Masterpiece, Relentless Visual & Audio Assault, Creative but not among my favorite films of the year.
    Mad Max: Fury Road
    George Miller, 2015

    it! Leave me alone. Granted it was an impressive visual and audio assault, but I didn’t see it go anywhere particularly “new.” For me this exorcise in unrelenting violence was of merit, but I didn’t think it particularly “great.” Far from being “bad” but equally far from being “great.” The movie was essentially a smartly executed 90’s metal demolition derby race from one point to another. …Twice. I honestly expected more. Just my opinion.

  9. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton had more of an impact for me, but had too many flaws for me to consider it a “great” movie. I thought it was good. But I really wanted to love this movie. I thought it was interesting in the way it opted to depict the women in the N.W.A. history without comment. Also interesting to me was what often felt like a celebration of, in my 1990’s ingrained brain, sees as a sort of corporate appropriation or selling out. In many ways this film is as much about business than Hip-Hop culture or art form. And an interesting culture and art form in which women are relegated to important roles as “holes” of one sort or another rather than fully fleshed out female characters.  I am not sure “interesting” is a good thing, but I’m certain it is not altogether “bad.” Straight Outta Compton has as much to not say as it does. This is an entertaining, important and good film.But it did not make my list.
  10. The Safdie Brothers film, Heaven Knows What, refuses to leave my mind.
    There can be no denial of this film's import and power. However, this film verges toward a an uncomfortable line... Heaven Knows What Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie, 2015

    There can be no denial of this film’s import and power. However, this film verges toward a an uncomfortable line…
    Heaven Knows What
    Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie, 2015

    This effective and disturbingly passive view of young homeless junkies kicked me in the gut. I’m still unsure how I feel about this dark film. It is an ethical issue for me. But I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t include it on my my list. Arielle Holmes’s story and The Safdie Bros. filming of it is unforgettable to me. But I squirm as I list it. The intention of this film is worrying to me, but the artistic value and what it ultimately presents are far too powerful for me to dismiss. Also, I’m very tender-hearted when it comes to issues relating to mental illness and drug addiction. My feeling about this film may say more about me than the art of the film.

  11. I have seen legal and invited screenings of rough cuts for Rick Alverson’s Entertaiment, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth and Todd Haynes’ Carol. As far as I know only Carol has not been re-edited. Boyle’s film has apparently been completely re-cut and faces more tweaking as it’s official release edges forward. No amount of editing will be able to steal the power that Fassbender brings to the film. He is reason enough to see this film. Trust me.
    Tiny rainbow circulates as more editing goes on... Michael Fassbender IS Steve Jobs Danny Boyle, 2015

    Tiny rainbow circulates as more editing goes on…
    Michael Fassbender IS
    Steve Jobs
    Danny Boyle, 2015

    Maybe the new edit will ease some of the worrying issues with Kate Winslet’s accent — or perhaps explain it if it was intentional. It is my understanding that Macbeth has been shortened (and hopefully some of the far too mumbled/quiet dialogue has been somehow enhanced.) There was a constant struggle to understand what Fassbender and Cotillard were saying.

    Wait. What did Lady Macbeth just say? What accent is that? What did Macbeth say? Speak up! But it and they look pretty! Marion Cotillard Macbeth Justin Kurzel, 2015 Cinematography | Adam Arkapaw

    Wait. What did Lady Macbeth just say? What accent is that? What did Macbeth say? Speak up! But it and they look pretty!
    Marion Cotillard
    Macbeth
    Justin Kurzel, 2015
    Cinematography | Adam Arkapaw

    I LOVED Alverson’s film, Entertainment, but as it is still in “post-production” I’m not sure it will be the same version that I saw. As for Carol, I thought it was a great art piece. Cate Blanchett was almost flawless in her performance, but the whole of the film felt like a Sirkian-drenched non-ironic soap opera. The movie is beautifully shot but trapped within a box of it’s own design. It feels pretty but false. It was a sort of lifeless film to me. I’ve a feeling I’m going to be alone in my opinion. I do plan on seeing it again when it is officially released.

So Here Are My Favorite Films of 2015 Thus Far In No Particular Order:

  1. The Wolf Pack | Crystal Moselle’s documentary is as much an ode to human survival as it is to the magical power of movies.

    Learning and understanding the world from movies... The Wolfpack Crystal Moselle, 2015

    Learning and understanding the world from movies…
    The Wolfpack
    Crystal Moselle, 2015

  2. Love & Mercy | Bill Pohlad’s bio film about Brian Wilson is as realistic as it is surreal in the exploration of a deeply troubled but incredible visionary mind. Deconstructed scene-by-scene, Pohlad’s film is an amazing study of Art and Artist.

    A masterful and surprising film that seemed to come from nowhere completely by surprise. Pure Cinematic Magic. Bill Pohlad, 2015

    A masterful and surprising film that seemed to come from nowhere completely by surprise. Pure Cinematic Magic.
    Bill Pohlad, 2015

  3. Turbo Kid | I didn’t expect to even like this movie, but I feel head over heels in love with it quicker than the opening credits could finish. Filled with early 80’s synth music and a gleeful gore-filled energy. This is a smart film. 
    Welcome back to artistic movie posters. Grab your BMX and be a hero! TURBO KID François Simard, Anouk & Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2015

    Welcome back to artistic movie posters. Grab your BMX and be a hero!
    TURBO KID
    François Simard, Anouk & Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2015

    Anouk Yoann-Karl Whissell and François Simard have created a mini-masterpiece of retro Sci-Fi BMX magic.

  4. Queen of Earth | Alex Ross Perry’s experimental and often surrealistic study of an emotional break has stirred up so many heartfelt opinions it’s hardly worth debating it’s impact.
    You are the reason there is no escape from indecency and gossip. And, lies." Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry, 2015

    You are the reason there is no escape from indecency and gossip. And, lies.”
    Queen of Earth
    Alex Ross Perry, 2015

    Any work that causes so many conflicted, passionate and opposing reactions is obviously touching a nerve. I love absolutely every aspect of this movie.

  5. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter |  David & Nathan Zellners’ latest film is their best and interestingly most experimental.
    "Solitude? It's just fancy loneliness." Rinko Kikuchi Kumiko The Treasure Hunter The Zellner Bros, 2015

    “Solitude? It’s just fancy loneliness.”
    Rinko Kikuchi
    Kumiko The Treasure Hunter
    The Zellner Bros, 2015

    Taking the concept of “meta film” to a whole new level. This is a fascinating, unique, original film that plays with truth and horror in much the same way that The Coen Bros. did in 1996 with the film that inspired the events that inspired the movie that inspires. Amazing film from all perspective.

  6. It Follows | David Robert Mitchell’s slick horror film plays out like a horrible nightmare.
    "You don't believe me do you?" IT FOLLOWS David Robert Mitchell, 2015

    “You don’t believe me do you?”
    IT FOLLOWS
    David Robert Mitchell, 2015

    The movie flows the audience into a dark, scary and often opposingly beautiful dream. As disturbing as the film is, I always hate to see it end. Like Ana Lily Amirpour’s horror film, Mitchell’s elevates beyond the horror genre in which it resides. It is all the more amazing when you realize how low the budget for this film was. Also worth noting is the way in which David Robert Mitchell plays around with eras. It is impossible to know when this dark tale is taking place — and this is intentional.  Since this film’s release, there has been a critical backlash that I find problematic. This is an extraordinary bit of filmmaking. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night almost made my list. I quite liked it.

  7. Creep | Patrick Brice’s film took me by complete surprise — in a very good way.
    "I got a little surprise for you in there. See ya soon, Buddy!" Creep Patrick Brice, 2015

    “I got a little surprise for you in there. See ya soon, Buddy!”
    Creep
    Patrick Brice, 2015

    The movie is truly horrifying. You might find yourself laughing, but later as you rethink what Brice and Mark Duplass co-wrote, the strange realism that exists here is unsettling.

  8. FELT | Jason Banker’s film is clearly based on the artwork and traumatic experience of Bay Area artist, Amy Everson. This sleek, twisted and disturbing examination of rape culture from the perspective of a recovering female victim is a polarizing movie. Some hate it, some love it, some consider it flawed beyond redemption and others are simply confused by what Banker presents. I loved it.
    "My life is a fucking nightmare." FELT Jason Banker, 2015

    “My life is a fucking nightmare.”
    FELT
    Jason Banker, 2015

    True, Amy Everson is not a professional actor and there are limitations as a result. However, she comes through when it matters. And this is a topic that should matter to all of us. It is certainly a risky proposition to make a “horror” film out of a tragedy that so many women face. This movie is nothing if not bold. In my view, the film “discusses” Rape Culture in an acutely articulate manner. The film manages to creatively remind us that we are all playing into this culture whether we realize it or not. The main character of FELT is clearly wrong, but much of what she attempts to communicate is valid. Kentucker Audley is highly effective here as a sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing. I stand by this movie.

  9. Ex-Machina | Alex Garland is not re-inventing any wheels, but he polishes them brilliantly. This is a creative, innovative and brilliantly executed Sci-Fi horror film featuring two great turns by Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson.
  10. Reality | Quentin Dupieux’s latest film remains tied to Surrealism and Absurdism.
    The ever-growing farce of culture... Reality Quentin Dupieux, 2015

    The ever-growing farce of culture…
    Reality
    Quentin Dupieux, 2015

    Here he is exploring the barren wasteland that is quickly taking the place of culture.

  11. The Falling |  Carol Morley’s British film is less horror than a sort of lush cinematic poetry fully supported by Maisie Williams who gives an amazing performance. This is Peter Weir territory made with a stronger Feminist viewpoint. A filmmaker to watch. This film seems to have slipped beneath the radar for many. It is more than worth a look.
  12. 6 Years | Hannah Fidell’s masterful film has been tragically missed by a majority of film critics and audiences. I suspect this has something to do with the promotion of the film. This is tragic because the promotion was actually rather brilliant in a unique way.
    "Look me in the eye and tell me." 6 Years Hannah Fidell, 2015

    “Look me in the eye and tell me.”
    6 Years
    Hannah Fidell, 2015

    Fidell drenches her film in a sort of idealistic dewy haze intended to capture that amazing powerful feeling of true first love. I suspect that many expected this film to actually be a lush and romantic “chick flick.” This movie is as far from that universe as a film can get. The question Fidell’s film poses is not “Will they be able to make it work?” The question here is “Should they even try to make it work?” As in “real life” – the answer is not simplistic or easy to face. 6 Years explores a relationship from a perspective that few filmmakers have been willing to take. This film isn’t aiming to provoke. It aims to be honest. Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield both provide brutally realistic performances. The all too serious topic of domestic abuse has never been captured in this way. It is potent and heart breaking. 6 Years is a Must See film. Do not miss it. 

*** SABBATICAL | Brandon Colvin’s masterful film is actually from 2013, but it has yet to secure a distribution deal. It is however available for rental/purchase here:

http://sabbatical-mossgarden.com

Robert Longstreet and Rhoda Griffis stand out among several potent performances.

A challenging film virtually flawless in execution remains without a distributor. Sabbatical Brandon Colvin, 2013 Poster Design | Jenni Dickens

A challenging film virtually flawless in execution remains without a distributor.
Sabbatical
Brandon Colvin, 2013
Poster Design | Jenni Dickens

Aaron Granat’s cinematography and Tony Oswald’s editing like all of the actors involved merge perfectly into Colvin’s Formalist approach which reminds of Robert Bresson, remains firmly unique unto itself. Brilliant and rewarding. I continue to “pimp” this film out to everyone I know in the World of Film Art. I have no choice but to mention it again here.

As for the performances that most resonated for me:

Paul Dano as Young Brian Wilson is incredible.

Paul Dano is the Young Brian Wilson Love & Mercy Bill Pohlad, 2015 Cinematography | Robert D. Yeoman

Paul Dano is the Young Brian Wilson
Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad, 2015
Cinematography | Robert D. Yeoman

Michael Fassbender’s doesn’t so much play Steve Jobs as he literally seems to become him. Jason Segel almost does the same in his performance as David Foster Wallace in End of the Tour. Ben Rosenberg is brilliant as the torn young man who must make a tough choice in 6 Years.

Everything else aside, the line between "acting" and "reality" feels blurred by the strength of Michael Fassbender. Steve Jobs Danny Boyle, 2015 Cinematography | Alwin H. Küchler

Everything else aside, the line between “acting” and “reality” feels blurred by the strength of Michael Fassbender.
Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle, 2015
Cinematography | Alwin H. Küchler

James Hebert probably made the most startling film performance in Two Step.

Nothing can quite prepare you for where James Hebert takes his role... Two-Step Alex R. Johnson, 2015

Nothing can quite prepare you for where James Hebert takes his role…
Two-Step
Alex R. Johnson, 2015

And, I’m sorry, but Mark Duplass scared the shit out of me in Creep. In addition, Josh Lucas blew me away in John Magary’s odd experimental character study of two brothers. If you’ve not seen The Mend, you should add it to your list to see.

Josh Lucas, e-cigs, hair balls and rage.  The Mend John Magary, 2015

Josh Lucas, e-cigs, hair balls and rage.
The Mend
John Magary, 2015

Lily Tomlin was so good in Grandma, I didn’t want the movie to end. Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen deliver clever and complex performances in Peter Stickland’s The Duke of Burgundy that are as intelligent as the are erotic and disturbing.

Searing into your brain. Sheila Vand as your vampire next door. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night Ana Lily Amirpour, 2015 Cinematography | Lyle Vincent

Searing into your brain.
Sheila Vand as your vampire next door.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour, 2015
Cinematography | Lyle Vincent

Sheila Vand is absolutely unforgettable as that girl walking home alone at night. Maika Monroe blew me away as “Jay” in It Follows. She goes well beyond the expectation of the genre. Maisie Williams was equally powerful in her turn in The Falling. Taissa Farmiga proved to be more than up to the challenge of portraying the darker side of insecurity in Hannah Fidell’s 6 Years.

Taissa Farmiga loves Ben Rosenfield into a tight corner. 6 Years Hannah Fidell, 2015 Cinematography | Andrew Droz Palermo

Taissa Farmiga loves Ben Rosenfield into a tight corner.
6 Years
Hannah Fidell, 2015
Cinematography | Andrew Droz Palermo

Cobie Smulders’ work grabbed me twice this year: Andrew Bujalski’s charming Results and Kris Swanberg’s quietly potent, Unexpected. Rinko Kikuchi’s work in The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is miraculous performance. Greta Gerwig delivered her charismatic best in Mistress America.

Lily Tomlin owns the show and the road. Grandma Paul Weitz, 2015

Lily Tomlin owns the show and the road.
Grandma
Paul Weitz, 2015

And, of course, there is Cate Blanchett. She is great as Carol, but Todd Haynes really poses some unexpected challenges for his leading ladies — this is acting in a sort of vacuum. While there are still several key films I’ve yet to see, this is one of those years when one actress stands out in my mind as “the best” — I would be shocked if any artist male or female delivers a more strange, perverse, disturbing and unforgettable turn than Elisabeth Moss in Queen of Earth.

Elisabeth Moss Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry | 2015 Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

Elisabeth Moss
Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry | 2015
Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

Even if one dislikes the film, it would be difficult to dismiss this performance.And Katherine Waterston’s performances in both Queen Of Earth and Steve Jobs are quite worthy. Curiously, I’m still confused about Marion Cotillard’s performance in the rough cut I’ve seen of Macbeth. But as that film has been re-edited I need to wait to actually form a solid opinion.  Any way I look at it, 2015 belonged to female actors. This has not been so true in a while.

Well, this is my list for now. To be honest, I’m not all that excited about the final months of 2015 film releases.

The Lobster Yorgos Lanthimos | 2015

The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos | 2015

There are a few films I’m quite eager to see: Ben Wheatley’s High Rise offers a great deal of interest for me. Can’t wait. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is also a movie of interest, even if it looks a bit too obvious and comedic than what I had anticipated. And Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette might offer more than I’m expecting. She has gathered a mighty force of acting talent!  It is one I want to see.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit The Walk Robert Zemeckis, 2015 Cinematography | Dariusz Wolski

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit
The Walk
Robert Zemeckis, 2015
Cinematography | Dariusz Wolski

I’m also curious to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a very under-rated actor, in both Snowden and The Walk. However, I’ve a great deal of worry regarding the quality of these two films. The mix of Oliver Stone with the topic and issues related to Edward Snowden looks good on paper, but cocaine and paranoia seem to have eroded Stone’s work since 1994. And I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a Robert Zemeckis film since 1992. …And, even then, Death Becomes Her was not altogether good.  I’ve also been waiting all year to see Alison Bagnall’s Funny Bunny.

Funny Bunny Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Funny Bunny
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Of all these films, this is the one I’m most excited to see.

Of course I am writing about Film Art. It is often unpredictable and surprising. As it turns out, Jean-Luc Godard was not correct. Cinema is not dead. Of course we knew that as his brilliantly perverse and wrong film, Weekend, was not at all a signal of death. It was actually an alarming reminder of the power of cinema.

the death of cinema? The Weekend Jean-Luc Godard | 1967

the death of cinema?
The Weekend
Jean-Luc Godard | 1967

Matty Stanfield, 9.8.15

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.