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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A simultaneous blending of cinematic auteur theory and active collaboration

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

Continuous exploration of identity

A unique shape of narrative structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Box Set is available from Factory 25

Swanberg Full Moon Trilogy

Or you can rent or purchase all three from Vimeo

Swanberg at Vimeo

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

@ Fandor

Matty Stanfield, 4.7.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15

 

 

 

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One of the best films to screen in 2015 will not be released to cinemas until next year. The Witch Robert Eggers, 2015

Yes, I know there are more than a couple of movies coming out before the year’s over. But none hold any interest for me. That’s just the way I roll. So, revised from the list I posted back just past the mid-point of the year:

Here are my favorite films of 2015. Some are actually from last year, but were not officially released until this year.

I’m relieved that I saw a few non-thriller/horror films that pulled me in. At the mid-point nearly all were horror movies. It has been a particularly strong year for Art Horror. Interestingly, one of the best films I’ve seen this year was a horror film that is not being released until 2016. This is despite much positive buzz on the Film Festival circuit. But you will not want to miss Robert Eggers’ The Witch.

The film may not have been exceptional, but Michael Fassbender didn't just seem to "play" the role -- for the span of the film he literally seemed to be Steve Jobs. A performance that should not be forgotten. Michael Fassbender as STEVE JOBS Danny Boyle, 2015 Cinematography | Alwin H. Kuchler

The film may not have been exceptional, but Michael Fassbender didn’t just seem to “play” the role — for the span of the film he literally seemed to be Steve Jobs. A performance that should not be forgotten.
Michael Fassbender as
STEVE JOBS
Danny Boyle, 2015
Cinematography | Alwin H. Kuchler

A number of movies that I thought might make my list just didn’t: Steve Jobs, The Walk, Carol, MacBeth, Crimson Peak, Anomalies, Room and High Rise struck me either as merely “good” or “interesting.” None were films I’d want to see again. But it is my opinion that Michael Fassbender and Brie Larson gave the impressive performances by leading actors. However, I could make an easy case for Josh Lucas’ brilliant performance as “Matt” in The Mend. But I still lean toward Fassbender’s ability to so effectively capture the truly iconic and historic master of design and marketing. I have not seen female actors come anywhere close to what Brie Larson manages to do in Room. Though Rinko Kikuchi’s work in The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko The Treasure Hunter comes close.

An odd film becomes "realistic' thanks to Brie Larson's turn as "Joy." In my opinion this was the most solid performance from a female film actor in 2015. ROOM Lenny Abrahamsson, 2015 Cinematography | Danny Cohen

An odd film becomes “realistic’ thanks to Brie Larson’s turn as “Joy.” In my opinion this was the most solid performance from a female film actor in 2015.
ROOM
Lenny Abrahamsson, 2015
Cinematography | Danny Cohen

Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara did exceptional work in the Todd Haynes latest film. The problem for me is that Carol seemed so intentionally artificial that what they both did seemed more like “performance art” than human reflection. Several other acting turns were magnificent this year: The already mentioned Josh Lucas in The Mend, Elizabeth Moss in Queen of Earth, Anne Dorval in Mommy, Paul Dano in Love & Mercy and  Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy all blew me away. Both James Hebert in Two Step and Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made an incredible impact as relative unknowns.

A parody of usefulness... Josh Lucas THE MEND John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

A parody of usefulness…
Josh Lucas
THE MEND
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

Seth Rogen also scored in his portrayal of Steve Wozniak to Fassbinder’s Steve Jobs. Of course there are the two respective turns by Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris and Lily Tomlin in Grandma. Both are exceptional, but neither are required to deliver more than variations of their personas. It worked for both, but neither exceeded what I’d expect from seasoned professional actors.

My list is in no particular order and I’m really not sure which is my absolute favorite film of the year. If I was pressed against a wall I’d probably say it was between Rick Avlverson’s Entertainment and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. But wait! What about Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe? That was amazing!  Oh! And what about both Kumiko The Treasure Hunter? And what of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy? I am just not sure which of these is best. Each of these films is unique unto itself with all have very different intentions and ideas.

See? I can’t ever pin-point just one film. Normally I require myself to restrict my list to only 10 films. But I was thinking: As this is my blog I will simply list the films that made my list of the best.  So, in no particular order…

My Favorite Films Released in 2015

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“Hi! I didn’t mean to scare you.” CREEP Patrick Brice, 2014

Technically, Patrick Brice’s film is from 2014. However, it was not released until this year. This has been a great year for Brice as a film artist. He had two film release credits to his name. His second film, The Overnight, offers itself as a very serious comedy that works quite well. But it is his collaboration with Mark Duplass that makes my list. The brilliance of Creep is largely fueled by the naturalistic performances from both Brice and Duplass. Fully plugging into Duplass’ sweet scrabby puppy dog charisma and channeling that into capturing an uncomfortable ambiguity within Brice’s own character’s fear. This odd perspective is explored just far enough to divert the audience. Creep carries itself with a darkly comic wink, but there is something far more sinister just out of the frame. Running just at about 80 minutes in length, Brice delivers a movie that elevates the concept of “found footage” to a new place and a new direction. On the surface, Creep is a fun adult horror movie. It is long after the credits roll that the underlying power really “creeps” up. This is an entertaining and deeply disturbing little movie.  Sure, it’s only a horror movie. Now, keep telling yourself that as you realize that what you’ve just seen could not only happen — it most likely has. Exceptional film.

Staying closely connected to the idea of “fact is stranger than fiction,” comes Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step. This surprising independent film lead the audience in one direction and then up-ends the whole concept down a completely different road. Johnson’s feature length directorial debut is a stunner.

TWO STEP Alex R. Johnson, 2014

TWO STEP
Alex R. Johnson, 2014

It is a rare talent to be able to do this much with a limited budget. It is all the more amazing that this filmmaker is able to take the “predictable” and twist it into something altogether “UN” predictable.  Another major asset for Two Step is the outstanding cast of actors. Every actor delivers strong and believable turns. Beth Broderick and Skyy Moore stand out in two of the film’s key roles. But the heavy hitting player is James Landry Hebert who not only brings a presence that fills the screen, it manages to raise the bar for capturing the cruelty of a “bad guy.” Watching Hebert in this role feels like we are watching a movie star who is destined to break big. This is an edge of the seat experience. An engaging, entertaining, intense, suspenseful and often shockingly brutal study of smalltime crooks. The film edges toward a truly menacing, horrific and unforgettable cinematic impression. Similar to but minus the dark humor of Creep, Two Step ‘s  most unnerving aspect is that nothing we see is outside the realm of realism. If you’ve not seen it, be prepared. This is one surprisingly mean and twisted little movie. Alex R. Johnson is another filmmaker to watch. And his supporting actor, James Hebert, is a promising actor. I would be surprised if he doesn’t have a major career ahead of him.

Next on my list is Love & Mercy.

"I was sittin' in a crummy movie With my hands on my chin All the violence that occurs Seems like we never win...: - Brian Wilson The only thing is there is nothing "crummy" about this film... LOVE & MERCY Bill Pohlad, 2015

“I was sittin’ in a crummy movie
With my hands on my chin
All the violence that occurs
Seems like we never win…: – Brian Wilson
The only thing is there is nothing “crummy” about this film…
LOVE & MERCY
Bill Pohlad, 2015

From beginning to end, a near flawless film. Paul Dano (as young Brian Wilson) and John Cusack (as middle-aged Brian Wilson) are fantastic. However, it is Dano who really appears to capture the essence of the troubled American genius. Even with a somewhat limited budget, this film rises far above the bar of celebrity stories. The film is far less concerned with The Beach Boys history or music as it is with the way creativity and mental illness form a unique, disturbing and magical dance. This is a director’s film. Bill Pohlad’s film is equal parts interesting, innovative, creative and astounding.  Unexpected and magical. I find it difficult to find any faults here. Love & Mercy lacks nothing.

Watching Xavier Dolan’s Mommy unfold is a mixture of annoyance, amazement and ultimately astonishing.

MOMMY Xavier Dolan, 2014

MOMMY
Xavier Dolan, 2014

The young director truly finds his footing between “artsy” and “eclectic” in this deceptively simple story of mother trying to come to terms with her son’s mental challenges. Dolan’s cinematographer, André Turpin, applies the director’s idea of trying to find a visual way to capture the limited and isolated reality that traps both mother and child. It is a bit challenging to adapt to this screen ratio in a cinema. In fact, if the cinema had not warned the Canadian audience, I think we all would have thought there was some sort of projection problem. As our eyes and senses adjust to both the visual concept and the intensely dire circumstances of the plot, there is no turning back. Dolan’s visual idea is fantastic. It is a transportive device. And if there are any people out there who have doubted Mr. Dolan’s skills, this movie should have put those thoughts to rest. This is a potent gut-punch of a movie! See it!

Next on the list is a whole new sort of twist on The American Movie Western. Slow West ‘s  Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character reads a poster, he is quietly corrected:

“Wanted Dead or Alive…”
“Dead or Dead, kid.”

This was used as John Maclean’s Slow West movie’s tagline. It is one of those rare marketing moments when the tagline truly fits the film it seeks to catch your attention.

"So, now... East. What news? "Violence and suffering. And West?" "Dreams and toil." SLOW WEST John Maclean, 2015

“So, now… East. What news?
“Violence and suffering. And West?”
“Dreams and toil.”
SLOW WEST
John Maclean, 2015

John Maclean’s Slow West defies expectations and stereotypes. Featuring some remarkable performances from Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelssohn and many others — this movie is aiming far higher than a genre film. This UK-New Zealand Independent Film takes the ideas of a The Wild West and the American Pioneers and delivers something altogether different and new. There is a constant sort of struggle going on between “myth” and “reality.” To further the point, Maclean’s film constructs itself from a rather tepid story into something far deeper. The subversion and dark humor only drive the heart of this film further.  Slow West is a darkly comical, brutal and violent examination of survival and determination.  But make no mistake, this amazing movie is all heart and incredibly human. Survival of the fittest means a great many things. And almost all of them are examined in one way or another within the confines of this movie.

Another film dated back to 2014 but released in the US early this year, Catch Me Daddy is another film that examined to what extent we humans will go to obtain freedom and personal chosen destinies.

"A great bird landed here. Its songs drew men out of rock. Living men out of bog and heather. Its song put a light in the valleys and harness on the long moors. Its song brought a crystal from space and set it in men's heads. The bird died. Its giant bones blackened and became a mystery. The crystal in mens' heads blackened and fell to pieces. The valleys went out. The moorland broke loose." CATCH ME DADDY Daniel & Matthew Wolfe, 2014

“A great bird landed here. Its songs drew men out of rock. Living men out of bog and heather. Its song put a light in the valleys and harness on the long moors. Its song brought a crystal from space and set it in men’s heads. The bird died. Its giant bones blackened and became a mystery. The crystal in mens’ heads blackened and fell to pieces. The valleys went out. The moorland broke loose.”
CATCH ME DADDY
Daniel & Matthew Wolfe, 2014

Daniel & Matthew Wolfe’s film begins as a steady slow burn that quickly boils into a sort of cinematic rollercoaster of suspenseful human horror.  An unrelentingly dark glimpse into an under-belly of current Britain. This film is not afraid of offending. In fact, I suspect these two filmmakers would be upset if some were not offended. Often shot in a bright neon candy drench, the film wisely allows the audience to put what we are initially seeing together. This is about as far from mainstream formula filmmaking as it gets. Solid performances and brilliant use of music propels the audience on a cinematic ride that is impossible to stop. Even as we swoop down and start our way back up to a final drop, we can’t help but look. Knuckles turning to white as we slam down the the track, we are on the edge of our seats waiting to see where this ride is going to take us.

Catch Me Daddy is a dark vision that refuses to be ignored or dismissed. A stunning cinematic experience that deserved a better theatrical distribution.

I was largely disappointed with what the major studios released this year, but there were some exceptions. Disney’s Pixar released Inside Out and it blew me away.

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“I’m Sadness.” “Oh, hello! Uh, I’m Joy. So, could I just… If you could… I just wanna fix that. Thanks.” INSIDE OUT Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen, 2015

It took me far too long to finally see Pixar’s Inside Out. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmens’ film has a whole lot going on — funny, sad, touching, clever, innovative, intelligent and all around brilliantly conceived reflection of the inner-workings of the human mind.  It’s hard to conceive anyone not enjoying this film. It’s appeal is not limited to children. In fact, there is a great deal here that will most likely soar over the heads of many children. I was captivated. Exceptional from all vantage points. I’m not a big fan of animation, but this one really caught my attention.

Unless you live in a major city, it is quite possible that you totally missed Roy Andersson’s fascinating Swedish film, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence. If you did, time to catch up. It is now available via VOD.

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The final installment of his “Living Trilogy” is a series of sketches tied together with common themes. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence Roy Andersson, 2014

Roy Andersson’s final film of his “Living Trilogy” is my personal favorite the series. Featuring some of the best droll humor and exceptional set design captured with Istvan Borbas and  Gergely Palos’ stilted cinematography, this is a droll masterpiece.  Essentially a series of sketches loosely tied together by a pair of hapless, depressed and angry “entertainment” salesmen “dedicated” to bringing joy to their customers.

Starting with topics such as death and dying to the futility of lust to the cruelty of human nature to one of the most disturbing metaphors for the true horror of European Colonialism — our salesmen sort of fumble their way through it all.This film is more likely to put more people off than it entertains. That being stated, I was deeply entertained. Intentionally slow and awkwardly paced, this is Absurd Surrealism at it’s most comic and effective. Totally matching my own personal cinematic tastes, Andersson had me within the opening 4 minutes before the credits even begin. A Must see!

And then the surprisingly artistic cinematic journeys into the realm of Art Horror…

It-Follows-Movie-Poster

“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.” IT FOLLOWS David Robert Mitchell. 2014

It amazes me that David Robert Mitchell made It Follows for just at $2,000,000. This film is more sleek, professional and better crafted than most films with a budget towering closer to $50 million. An impressive feat to say the least.

The film is masterful from every perspectives. Mitchell has created a sort of alternate world in which his characters and story reside. This world feels “familiar” but somehow none of it is quite right. It seems like we are in a sort of dream where everything seems like it could be from another era — even as far back as the mid-70’s — yet there are cell phones and modern cars, but there do not appear to be any modern televisions or computers. Instead, this is a world filled with typewriters, somewhat out-dated medical supplies and odd mixtures of clothing/hairstyles that don’t quite seem “current” or appropriate to the 21st Century. This disoriented world helps Mitchell achieve a deeply creepy vibe that starts almost immediately.

Horror does feels like the main goal of this movie. Mitchell is more concerned with psychology, paranoia, sex. And most specifically a sort guilt or worry attached to casual sex. The lead characters fears are immediate and are presented as “fact” — these paranormal stalkers are unnerving. As Jay’s fear and paranoia take over her life, she finds herself facing ethical decisions which she quickly dismisses. Jay is being stalked not only by some sort of paranormal rage, but guilt.

The importance of this smart and polished movie is the way Mitchell manipulates every aspect of his production to create an almost immediate tone of danger/doom. This tone is carefully articulated that it becomes a character. More profoundly creepy than scary, It Follows slips under your skin long before you recognize it.

The entire cast is exceptional, but it is the synthesis of cinematography, musical score, precise editing and such well planned writing fuses into an absorbing and unforgettable film. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography and Rich Vreeland’s retro score deserve a great deal of credit. And Julio Perez IV demonstrates film editing at its best. But this film is clearly constructed by its director. David Robert Mitchell provides many clever details that draw viewers back for repeated viewings. A great example: An abandoned “Foursquare” style house in which the characters explore. It is not clear if Jay or any of the characters realize why this construction is so related as means of hiding and escape, but we are. A partial reading from a T.S. Eliot poem is also another way of articulating what is happening. If you enjoy horror or experimental films, It Follows will satisfy fans of both genres. I suspect that love and admiration for this film will only grow stronger as time goes on.

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The hierarchy and corruption of a sort of boarding school for the deaf becomes something of staggering depth. The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014

Like the majority of filmmakers working out of Eastern Europe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe is about as dark, bleak and grim as cinema can get. It is also something dramatically different than I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. The plot of the film revolves within and around “life” in a sort of dystopian school, shelter, home, trade school or dorm for The Deaf. The true purpose of where we find ourselves is suspect.

No auditory speaking, no subtitles — essentially no sound save the breathing and movement of fingers, hands and arms. This is not some cheap marketing stunt. This is pulling the audience into the perspective of the characters who do not have the benefit of sound. We are essentially pulled into a “world” within which we have no way of easily understanding what is being communicated. The impact is almost without measure.  Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s cast is deaf. They communicate in sign language which very few of us actually know. To the director and the casts’ credits, it doesn’t take us long to determine what is going on, but it does serve as a sort of portal toward metaphor and allegory that would not exist without this challenging perspective.

Welcome to a world where all understanding and communication is stolen. Welcome to the world of The Tribe.

Cinematographer, Valentyn Vasyanovych, captures everything in an almost formalist and interesting set of long-takes. The art of cinematography is crucial here and extraordinary. Without question, we would be watching closely anyway, but Vasyanovych’s work lends itself to pulling us even closer in our almost dazed gaze. When our main character shows affection toward another, the possibility of being loved seems cruel to the other. Not fully certain what is stated between these two young people, but it certainly feels as if “Anna” feels that there is no room for “love” within the world in which both are trapped. The scenes between Anna and Sergey are intense, erotic and frightening. Partly because we are never sure exactly what is being communicated. Their argument seems like an outburst of violent gestures, grunts and thumps. The sexual intimacy is both beautiful and somehow disturbing. Especially given what we learn is actually going on within this dark and fractured world of a state-funded (?) school / dorm. There are a great many disturbing aspects in The Tribe. In fact, some of this film is more than a bit difficult to watch. And watching is key here. We have no choice but to watch, to blink or look away is to miss out on vital information about his grim world.

This film is a traumatic reminder to the audience who only have limited access to this tribes’ world. In more than a few ways we are transported and trapped within their world. Certainly not an easy film. But the vitalness and the cinematic magic is impossible to deny. And in my opinion, it would be tragic to miss this movie. An unforgettable sort of silent movie. …with no title cards to guide you. Sadly The Tribe received a very limited US release. But it will be coming forward via VOD, DVD and Blu-ray soon and is already available in the UK. If you love the art of film, you will not want to miss The Tribe.

One film that really surprised me was a movie that never seemed to capture the attention of audiences or film critics as it really should have: Hannah Fidel’s 6 Years.

"I can't not see you every day. I can't not be with you." 6 YEARS Hannah Fidell, 2015

“I can’t not see you every day. I can’t not be with you.”
6 YEARS
Hannah Fidell, 2015

“6 Years” is not an obvious film, but it may have been the way the film was marketed and filmed that confused potential viewers. At a time when it is literally almost amazing that any woman is able to command a film both as Director and Writer, it disappointed me that Fidell received such little support for her film. Brutally honest, 6 Years offers a great deal of insight into the messiness of the human condition. After six years of times spent in love, a couples’ mutually shared lives are on the cusp of major change. The question Fidell’s film poses is notWill they be able to make it work?” The question here isShould 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, in a role that comes close to equaling the skill of her older sister, plays a young woman with some very serious issues. As kind and loving as “Mel” is, she can be equally abusive. It doesn’t take long to realize that this beautiful and seemingly petit woman has very little control over her anger and frustration. Thanks to the filmmaker’s script, direction and her leading actors’ skills — this topic does not have to be discussed or overly analyzed. 6 Years presents the male of the relationship as the one who is actually the most vulnerable. “Dan” has no recourse. He has no way of protecting himself. He could, but to do so could harm the person he loves and could potentially crash his entire future. Ben Rosenfield’s performance is the magic of the film. He is able to portray “Dan” in a compelling mix of love, hurt, fear, anger and confusion. These are two actors to watch. A great deal of skill is presented by both from the film’s start to finish.

This is not your average cinematic “love story.” But this is most certainly about two people who are very much in love. The use of romantic tone is counter-balanced by the startling honesty with which the film bluntly steers us. Within the first few minutes, Hannah Fidell drenches her film in the glow of teen romance. Rays of sunlight drip over her two lovers as if waiting for a pop ballad to fill the aural space around them. This is not a mistake. It was a smart choice. The sunlit-kissed and dewy world of 6 Years, both informal and lush, reminds us that we are entering that magical and exhilarating feeling of first love. And this is true love. These two people have not yet forged forward enough into life to be fully weary, tired or jaded. They are young and full of promise. The power of their connection resonates and entices. So when our two protagonists come to the crucial moment of answering the film’s core question, it makes the reality of the film all the more potent. 6 Years is exceptional and deserves attention and a critical revisit by many.

When Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine smiles and jokingly says to her best friend, “Thanks for the exile.” It is more than half way through Alex Ross Perry’s odd film that we realize that a whole lot more can be read into Catherine’s seemingly sweet note of thanks to her pal. Welcome to the unique and somewhat familiar universe of Queen of Earth.

queen-of-earth-poster-07252015

Alex Ross Perry’s film is clearly inspired by several key films of Robert Altman, Roman Polanski and even Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But make no mistake: This film is absolutely true and unique unto itself. Carefully articulated and masterfully crafted, this film never veers. And if the audience is able to channel back to the idea of psychological melodramatic Surrealism, it will hold attention from beginning to end. It is as if the writer/director has created the perfect cinematic symphony with an orchestra full of exceptional players: Keegan DeWitt’s musical score, Sean Price Williams’ cinematography, Robert Greene’s tight editing and three actors in key supporting roles — all pull together to form an ideal “stage” for the Perry’s two key leading ladies.

Katherine Waterston’s portrayal is a mix of “ice” and “fire.” She moves about the film fully formed like twisted idea from a Modigliani painting merged with a 1970’s Holly Hobby Doll. But the heart, soul and ultimate power emanates from Elisabeth Moss. The camera seldom moves away from her and you don’t want it to — she is captivating and brilliant. Alex Ross Perry has created a real bit of magic with Queen of Earth. Despite a low budget and an idea that seems ripe for parody — he has created a stunning film as interesting as it is disturbing. Long after the film ends, the true horror of what has been played out takes on a deeper and more sinister element. This is most especially true when we realize that the ideas of reality, dream, paranoia, anger and insanity reach points where it is impossible to know what has actually happened. I’ve not been able to get this film out of my head since I saw it.

As much as Queen of Earth caught me off guard, John Magary’s The Mend threw me off the road.

Brotherhood explored in a whole new way... THE MEND John Magary, 2014

Brotherhood explored in a whole new way…
THE MEND
John Magary, 2014

This is John Magary’s feature length film debut is impressive. In fact, there is no sign of a first time filmmaker to be found. And he was blessed to secure Josh Lucas as Mat. Lucas delivers his best on-screen performance thus far. Essentially an incisive character study of two brothers. Both are miserable. One represses everything and attempts to force his way through. The other, Mat, seems to have slipped into an empty world of damage. As cruel as it is deeply and artistically insightful. These brothers are caught in vicious cycle of dysfunction that may or may not have been “passed-on” or “pulled” into their respective psyches. Often very angry, grim, profane and always somehow consistently subversively comic — Magary’s movie does something almost unheard of as we move well into the first quarter of The 21st Century, it is original in every way. This is not a celebratory man-boy movie. Nor is it comfortable with positioning itself as a revelatory study of family healing. The Mend reminds me a great deal of loose comedy I would expect to see come to us from France. This is a smart movie. Realistic and non-satirical, there is nothing cute or twee here. A bit like a dirty puppy you can’t decide to pet or lock out of your home, this film is compulsively bounding about with little to no concern for things that get broken as it runs about. This surprisingly dense film stays with you and invites repeated viewings. And it gets better every time I see it.

Filming with smart phones... TANGERINE Sean Baker, 2015

Filming with smart phones…
TANGERINE
Sean Baker, 2015

Sean Baker’s Tangerine is raw, crude, profane and full of heart. It also happens to very funny. Filmed using only iPhones and other smart phone related devices, Baker creates an unexpected and effective look for the movie. The film follows two girlfriends on Christmas Eve into the early hours of Christmas morning. These are two trans-women of color. They also happen to make their livings as sex workers. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s “Sin Dee” has just been released from a month stay in jail. Her best and far wiser pal, “Alexandra” (played with equally realism by Mya Taylor) makes the mistake of mentioning that Sin-Dee‘s man has been having an affair with another woman. …A non-trans-woman!!!  News of this sends Sin Dee into a full-on freak-out which we quickly suspect is a daily part of her routine. We follow these two friends and a taxi driver pursuing their day. There are a number of reasons this film works so well. The actors are pitch-perfect in their roles. Nothing happens that isn’t believable. And Baker smartly offers no excuses for or judgements on his characters’ lives. These people are presented for who they are. Also, as sordid as the movie gets, this is really a film about survival and friendship. Rodriquez and Taylor manage to consistently convey a kindness beneath the rough demeanors. The fact that the film is focused on two Trans-women and people who love them is not presented as plot. It is presented as a matter of fact.  See it.

Jason Banker’s second feature-length film, Felt, is possibly the most polarizing movie released in 2015.

Felt Jason Banker, 2014

Felt
Jason Banker, 2014

The San Francisco audience sat in silence as the credits rolled. The majority of the audience was female. I am male. But I approached and discussed the film outside with three young women. They were obviously shaken and unable to articulate how they felt about Felt. But each agreed that Banker’s movie conveyed an all-too real experience. The most expressive of the three women told me, “It’s so weird I hardly ever allow myself to think about it. But I’m always so uncomfortable when I’m in a room with more than a few men.” The other two women agreed, but none could articulate why. As I walked away one noted to me, “Actually, it was in that movie.

The first line of the movie is “My life is a fucking nightmare.” It is delivered in an almost “little girl” voice of a young adult woman. The woman is our protagonist. Amy Everson is more than the lead actor of Felt, she is also the co-writer of what appears to be a fictionalized and possibly “amp’d-up” version of her own experience. The movie’s Amy has obviously survived some form of sexual abuse. The actual abuse is never stated or confirmed, but it clearly happened. Her friends want to help her, but are growing weary of her coping skills. Not only have these skills become isolating, they are provocatively inappropriate and she is becoming too over-protective of them. Amy creates artwork and most importantly artistic costumes in which she has allowed herself to find her inner-strength and push away her fears of men. The costumes are perversely anatomically-correct. She has found a way to funnel her anger and fears through her art. The dark side of this coping method is that her once comforting art (stylized armor to self-protect) has begun to form into a sort of weapon with which she can project. “Armors” made of felt is starting to fuel a fantastical idea into a warped realistic alternative.

We see Amy in several scenes with single men of her own age. These scenes feel so real it hurts to watch. Each of these interactions reveals aspects of male behavior about, toward and with women. It is unsettling. The men Amy meets are dismissive, aggressive, inappropriate and passively menacing. If there is even an initial “friendliness” — it quickly feels false as a sort of menace or agenda seems to constantly be put into play. Her girlfriends seem to be “aware” of this, but almost come short of stating that it is easier to just “accept” the cultural misogyny. In essence it appears that Amy‘s more well-adjusted and functioning friends have and are assimilating into “Rape Culture.” The film is a slow-burn that seems to ask one core question: “How does a sexual assault victim heal in a world that almost seems to support the assault?” By the time a seemingly understanding and caring male (played beautifully by Kentucker Audley) enters her world it might be too late.

Bold, disturbing and infuriating, Felt is a movie that seeks to provoke. Jason Banker has filmed it all within the framework of Art Horror. The artistic mastery of his filmmaking can’t be denied. The casting of a non-actor in the lead role she has inspired is the film’s weakest link. However it does feel as if Amy Everson’s mono-tonal and expressionless visage often feels as if it might have appealed to Banker’s intentions. Amy wanders and wonders throughout the film as if numbed to her own body. Felt spews a firm depiction of cultural/societal misogyny that never seems to wain. Inappropriate and angry, Felt offers no middle ground. Audiences either hate or love it.

 

 

When Gregg Turkington appears on the screen of Rick Alverson’s Entertainment as Neil Hamburger, you know you’re in for a unique film experience.

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“Why? Whyyy? Whyyyyyy?!?!?!?!” ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2015

Gregg Turkington (AKA Neil Hamburger) plays The Comedian. Our comedian is on a tour of Mojave Desert run-down nightclubs as the headlining comedian. With Tye Sheridan as his Opener Act, it is clear that this kid’s rather ironic clown-act is a more pressed and post-modern take on what The Comedian is trying to do. Subverting normal cinematic convention, Rick Alverson takes us into the increasingly disturbed mind of a depressed, aging, failing and lost comic. The Comedian‘s self-loathing and existential crisis start out as rants to the audience and then quickly escalate via a series of increasingly strange and surreal encounters and experiences. John C. Reilly makes a great appearance as a somewhat “defective” but concerned cousin. Michael Cera and Amy Seimetz also pop up along the tour.

Profoundly strange, magical, grim, comical and impossible to forget. Rick Alverson has crafted an amazing experimental film. Entertainment is his best work yet and one of the most impressive films to screen this year.

When Cynthia’s lover, Evelyn, assures her by saying, “I love you. I know I have a different way of showing it. But I love you.” It is hard to know if her idea of “love” is far more “show” than “true.” Of course, in a relationship true knowledge of the other is sometimes places on unquestionable ground. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy presents a great deal more than expected.

"Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?" THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY Peter Strickland, 2014

“Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?”
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Peter Strickland, 2014

It is interesting to note that Peter Strickland’s initial motivation to make this film was inspired by the early sexploitation films of European filmmakers like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Just as 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio sprouted from an interest in the infamous giallo Italian films of the 1970’s, The Duke of Burgundy is only loosely tied to Franco and Rollins’ cinematic ideas. While Berberian Sound Studio took place in the paranoid psychosis created by assisting in the sound design of a giallo horror film, that movie went some place far deeper than giallo ever ventured. The same can be said of Strickland’s latest film which follows two lovers as they approach a troubling shift in their relationship. Carefully and artfully constructed, the film’s lush and surreal setting serves as more than an erotic set-up. Peter Strickland refuses to restrict his story to the limitations of eroticism or to the perverse objectifications of the couple’s BDSM games. As the meticulous film unfolds, there is an unsteady feeling that The Duke of Burgundy has no limits. This film offers its audience no safe word.

While the film is ripe for erotic exploration, Strickland and cinematographer, Nicholas D. Knowland, apply surprising restraint. Whereas Franco or Rollin would have felt the need to push the boundaries of KINK or nudity or introduce a full-force menace, Strickland actually goes to the most vulnerable aspect of humanity. This is a film of the heart. This is less about kinky sex games as it is more about love that has begun to bore, sour and fade. Despite the many uses of Surrealism and Cinematic Metaphor, this movie is about two people who must either accept the other’s need for power or refuse it and move forward.

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are both up to the films challenges. And they are challenged. Much of what we learn is told in their eyes, movements and phrasings. For a film so firmly rooted in a lesbian couple’s sexual games, one might anticipate that there would be a high degree of eroticism. What might have once been a mutual erotic game of desire has grown into twisted ritual that could easily be misread as a cruel boss and her over-worked maid. Only one lover is being satisfied. The attraction of mutually shared joy related to entomology appears to be the only truly intimate connection. Hence the film’s odd title, The Duke of Burgundy is a type of butterfly unique to southern England’s spring butterfly. But even this connection is becoming a challenge for both. As we watch the two women listening or leading lectures to other entomology-concerned women, we notice that there are perfectly dressed and coifed mannequins sit in the audience with the live women.

More neurotic than erotic, the characters fight to stay within the lines constructed by desire. One or possibly even both feel as if intimacy has reduced each to mannequins being placed in position. As often the case, the bottom is the master. The top or dominating is actually the slave. This film’s meaning is not limited to a lesbian relationship or BDSM. This is a film about love and trying to work through the challenges of a relationship. Unlike those mannequins seated for the lectures, this film is alive, vibrant and pulsating with blood and tears. And by the time reaches the ending point we understand that both women are vested to each other, but can love survive such rigid rules and restrictions? Strickland’s movie is spot-on and unforgettable.

A kind older woman offers a bit of insight to her uncomfortable house guest who she has mistaken for a Japanese tourist, “Solitude? It’s just fancy loneliness.” This comment offers no solace to the heroine of The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, 2015

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER
David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, 2015

David and Nathan Zellner’s film is an abstractly loose variation on an actual incident involving a Japanese woman who died in the unforgiving climate of Fargo’s winter. The real “truth” was she was there to revisit memories of a past love before killing herself. But due to misunderstanding her English prior to her death, a false rumor began to morph into a “truth” that she had traveled to Fargo to find what she “believed” to be the stolen money buried in The Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, Fargo. Kumiko, Treasure Hunter plays with the the idea that has remained firmly grounded in the realms of urban myths generated by The Coen Brothers movie.

Ringo Kikuchi gives a painfully realistic performance of a woman so depressed and detached from her own world in Tokyo she has begun to slip into a world of isolation and retreat. Kumiko has lost the ability to apply logic. She no longer knows reality from fantasy. Wisely, it is never explained why or how Kumiko manages to “unearth” a battered VHS tape of Fargo. But it is clear she mistakes that iconic film’s opening statement, “This is a true story” for “fact” and assumes she is seeing some sort of documentary. Her inability to apply logic to her situation and desires leads her to abandon everything, including her beloved pet rabbit, to find her way to Minnesota in pursuit of what she now perceives to be her life’s mission. She is hellbent on finding that case of money she saw Steve Buscemi burry in the snow.

David Zellner’s film is even more quirky than Coen’s Fargo. This quirkiness is established in the ways we see a clearly unstable woman interacting with her Japanese peers, boss, family and the local Americans as she refuses to relent in her pursuit. It is a fascinating journey to follow. Mixing realistically comic encounters with the increasing uneasy tone is achieved by a balance of acting fused with effective musical score, elegant editing and stylistic camera work. Sean Porter’s cinematography is of particular note.

The movie is constantly challenging the viewer to know if it is “ok” to chuckle/laugh or if this reaction is inappropriate. Rinko Kikuchi never drifts away from what is clearly a tragically lost character in dire need of help. This entire cinematic experience is both fascinating and devastating in equal measures. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is one for whom we cheer. And she is also a tragic parable of humanity pursuing dreams that are impossible to achieve. This masterful film weaves its way into our minds and hearts. One should not miss the opportunity to see this movie. It carries a disarming level of power.

It might be that I will forever remember 2015 as the year that Ana Lily Amirpour made her feature-length film debut. I am unable to choose the best or my absolute favorite film of the year, but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the one I’ve seen the most. Unlike many artists of her generation, Ms. Amirpour appreciates the audience. Clearly intelligent, effortlessly interesting and always engaging when asked to sit down for a Q&A — Ana Lily Amirpour is honest but never at the expense of the individuals asking her questions or offering her insights. Her first film is often compared to the work of Jim Jarmusch. This is not a comparison she can agree with and she handles it with humor and kindness. She is clearly not a big fan of Jarmusch’s work, but she never takes the opportunity to slam him or the idea that he influenced her film. If there is any clear influence that shines through this amazing film it is that of the late 1960’s Spaghetti Western.

The chador as cape... Sheila Vand shows her teeth A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014 Cinematography | Lyle Vincent

The chador as cape…
Sheila Vand shows her teeth
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014
Cinematography | Lyle Vincent

 

I think the reason we think of Jim Jarmusch as we watch A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not because it is sleekly shot and designed in black and white. It is because the movie utilizes amazing music, is quietly intellectual and from beginning to end the movie oozes natural cool. The best kind of cool. Amipour’s film never feels like it is trying to be “cool” — it simply is.

The stunning film alternates between being an observation of humanity and vampiric horror.  Ultimately, the stronger emphasis is on loneliness, isolation, the need for acceptance and love. There is actually a whole lot going on in this tight movie. This stylized movie is captivating, magical, mysterious and unique. It is a dark visionary movie that manages to evoke an air of hope. As I watched Ana Lily Amirpour’s film for the first time, I got the distinct feeling I was sharing in the impact and realization that every one of us in that screening room was witnessing the emergence of an important cinematic voice. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this sleek film. The perfect balance of image, sound and ideas.

It begs for repeated viewings. And it offers something we rarely see in film these days: You hate to see it come to an end. 

I can’t wait to see what Ana Lily Amirpour does next. Her next film is in post-production. I can’t wait to see if I can get lost in it the way I can in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

There are several movies that have yet to open. They are what most would call “Oscar Bait.” The older I get the less patience I have for those kind of movies. I’m not sure if any of my favorite films of 2015 will make it to Oscar consideration. The thing is, this has become more a sign of quality to me than if they were. Let’s reject the brainless mainstream and strive to find art that offers more than the predictable. Support the Film Artist. 

Cool not because it tries to be, it simply is... A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

Cool not because it tries to be, it simply is…
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

Matty Stanfield, 11.27.2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015

You may not not fully recognize Memorex’s slogan or Steve Steigman’s iconic photograph unless you were born before 1978. Memorex Tapes were challenging listeners’ ability to judge between live performance and recordings of something that was once a live performance.

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.  Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.
Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is gained sometime between the ages of 3 and 5. That doesn’t mean that a 7 year old will  trust his mother when she tells him there are no such things as monsters.  It also doesn’t mean that the child’s mother might not be able to fight the need to look in her own closet or under her own bed from time to time. The concept of “monster” changes as we grow into adulthood.  Mom and Dad know there are no monsters in the house, life’s brutal truths leaves us all with a vague uncertainty about what potentially could be hiding under our beds. The mind’s perceptions related to “truth” and “false” are constantly shifting. Movies constantly challenge our process of thought.

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?  Jaws, Steven Spielberg Cinematography | Bill Butler

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?
Jaws, Steven Spielberg
Cinematography | Bill Butler

Logic tells us that being attacked and consumed by huge shark is not only highly unlikely, but close to impossible. Logic also refuses to let go of the very real horror that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws lodged deep within our collective consciousness. We know that Michael Myers is not in our house, but there will always be a vague worry that someone like him might not have followed us and now waits to attack us. Movies play an important role in life beyond entertainment. Film Art projects our hopes, dreams, fears and reality in deeply effective ways. Our ideas and certainties often find themselves being challenged by the Film Artist’s motivation. Whether the intent is to manipulate us into fear or to bend it to suspend them to accept fiction as fact or to force our attention on an idea in a whole new perceptive. Defining the art of documentary from the art of fictional film is often more difficult than can be easily articulated.

The Blair Witch Project played with the idea of turning “found footage” intended for a film student’s documentary into the horror film genre. In the years since Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 low-budget classic seeped first tripped many film viewer up at the cineplex, this idea is has been explored so much that it is increasingly hard to fool us. The Blair Witch Project has become a symbol of parody and a lingering source of cinematic inspiration. It is interesting how most refuse to admit how this 1999 movie has changed the experience of camping in the woods. Interestingly, the sounds of what could potentially be a very real threat of a bear has morphed into an idea of some paranormal demonic presence. It takes only a few seconds to push the irrational fear away so the we can focus on what could be a “real” concern.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

The power of a talented film director lies in his/her ability to utilize motivational intent to sculpt fiction into reality or reality into fiction to form a bridge toward “the truth” that leads the audience. It is not unusual for an artist to be somewhat fixated or even obsessed with one or maybe two core themes that runs his/her entire collected works. It is also not usual for an artist to approach a wide variety of themes by use of one particular style. What is rare is to discover an artist as self-aware of not only his work but what truly motivates him to pursue it. Werner Herzog never uses vague or opaque terminology when he discusses film. He is blunt in addressing questions related to his work and his opinion of the type of film art that appeals most to him.

“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise.” – Werner Herzog

His interests revolve in the way humanity attempts to interact with nature which inevitably lead his audience to an idea that seems to bother many. The core idea is that nature’s beauty is deceptive. Herzog sees nature as a place of cruelty, chaos and danger. Despite this bleak view, he is a major advocate of saving it. But the most interesting aspect of Herzog’s work is that he loves exploring the perplexing ambition of humanity to bend nature to his needs and dreams. Werner Herzog loves dreamers and the pursuit of their dreams. These dreamer might take the form of a sociopathic warrior, an obsessive music fan, a drug addled cop, a brave soldier, a naive amateur environmentalist, or a vampire — These dreamers eventually must wake and face their irrelevance to “The Beast” of the earth’s natural power. Aside from the fact that Herzog has always expressed his logical views and awareness of the chaotic world of nature, he still fully relates to his flawed cinematic dreamers.

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982. Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Herzog seldom applies any trace of what I would call “style” — even his surrealist work is grounded in a very simple application of camera. Both Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are both amazingly beautiful and take full advantage of the surroundings in which his dreamers find themselves. But the camera work is economical and usually static. They both have the look of a documentary. Regarding the making of both these movies, Herzog and his team encountered more than a few major challenges. These challenges were often as dangerous and unbelievable as the stories themselves. Defining documentary as “truth” and narrative film as “fiction” restricts artist, subject and audience from understanding how to engage.

Herzog’s brilliant film is not a fictional film. It is based on the Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a 19th Century Peruvian rubber barron who managed to fight all odds and transport a 30 ton steamship across a treacherous isthmus (or strait of land) and then onwards from one challenging river to another. He and his team did this by dismantling the ship into pieces and reassembling it once destination was reached. This feat obviously caught Herzog’s imagination, but he had no problem in mixing fiction with truth. As  Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski conveys a passion that quickly turns into almost insane obsession. So strong is his love of opera that is determination knows no bounds in bringing that music to the culture in which he lives. The core of Fitzcarraldo is one man fighting any and all odds in pulling a 300 ton steamboat over an isthmus between the Urubamba and the Camisea rivers. Herzog not only increased the boat by ten times the truth, but he had his protagonist achieve it without any dismantling.

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself  "Conquistador of the Useless"  The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.  Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself “Conquistador of the Useless”
The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Not only did Herzog, his dedicated crew, and the tribal Aguaruna people of the region have to join forces to make this happen they also had to deal with the insanity of Klaus Kinski while doing it. Herzog uses no special effects. He and his crew really pulled that huge boat up and over the mountain. Misunderstandings between cultures resulted in tribal members destroying camp sites. Frustrations and exhaustion created intense fits of rage. Friendships and cultural relations were pushed beyond well past acceptable boundaries. Mount all of this with the perspective that the tribal Aguaruna men so detested Klaus Kinski they wanted to kill him.

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.  Fitzcarraldo Werner Herzog, 1982 Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.
Fitzcarraldo
Werner Herzog, 1982
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Tragically, three of the six film artists on the boat as it crashed against the rapids were seriously injured. To be clear, Herzog was one of the six on the boat. Consistently honest and open to discussion, Herzog has stated that he used all tensions to the benefit of the energy we see in the film. All challenges were faced and ultimately met head-on. The result is one of the most interesting films of not only its era, but of all time. Even with 34+ years of time since, Herzog is still often in the position of defending his choices during the staggering production of the iconic movie.

The sheer beauty and idea of a man and his pursuit of a dream against all obstacles may not be new in “concept” but never has it been portrayed in such a painfully realistic way. How does one actually define “truth” and “fiction” when it comes to Fitzcarraldo?

The level of will, risks of danger and dedication required by the production is the stuff of legend. But this is legendary truth.  Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, is focused on Herzog making Fitzcarraldo is almost as interesting as the film itself. Les Blank captures The Artist grappling with not only incredible odds of completing production — it also captures Werner Herzog worn down past the point of exhaustion, but on the brink of re-thinknig his own personal identity to filmmaking, to nature and to life itself. It serves as a historic document of filmmaking. The distinction between “truth” and “fiction” are more clear in Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Or are they?

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

As Les Blank films the ever-mounting challenges, failures, tensions, fatigue and dangers involved in bringing Fitzcarroldo to the screen —  we are able to actually see how Herzog and all involved managed to do what we see in the film. However, there are moments in Blank’s documentary that make it all too clear that everyone knows they are being filmed. There is no escaping that in any documentary, but when you are filming artists at work some of what is said or how things are done take on a greater significance. This is especially true early on before everything begins to unravel beyond control. It is obvious that Klaus Kinski’s personal vision of reality has long been loosely defined.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Most interesting is the way we first see Herzog discussing his views of nature vs. Kinski’s attitude. Herzog loves to discuss ideas. So the content of what he tells Les Blank is all familiar. But to hear these ideas within the context of “where” he is both geographically and psychologically does not seem to fit. There is a most definite air of performance. It is only as Herzog’s determination, patience and passion began to collapse from tensions and exhaustion that Blank actually captures Herzog at his most self-aware and most distanced from the concept of Blank’s camera. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that,” he tells Blank. As the production gets closer to completion, Blank asks what he plans to do next. A surprising defeatist attitude comes forward: “I shouldn’t make movies anymore.”

Lucky for us that was exhaustion speaking. Herzog would go on. As he moves further into documentary filmmaking his artistic motivation remains consistent. Contrary to what many would like the audience to think, Herzog is not a cruel man. “Exploitation” is a problematic word when it comes to The Creative Arts. I do not feel Herzog “exploits” his subjects more than any other filmmaker. He does sometimes manipulate and approaches all subjects/topics in a distinct pursuit from the moment productions star though to the post-production editing and narration. Herzog bend and adjust the focus of the camera’s lens on reality so that it captures his motivational intent of showing us his personal “truth” — and that is not far from how fictional narratives are made.

I did entertain the idea of writing about these films in a chronological order, but when discussing the art of documentary vs. the art of Narrative Film — it just seems most natural to start with Herzog and then immediately turn to Errol Morris. While the motivational goals of both filmmakers are different, there is a very strong connection in the way both artists capture humanity and the many ways we either adapt or refuse to adapt to our environment and the others with whom we share it. It is also no secret that Werner Herzog played a key role in helping Errol Morris to stick with his vision and get his film completed. Herzog even stated that he would eat his own shoe if Morris would finish his movie. Ever true, Herzog ate his shoe in front of a full house at UC Berkeley forever captured in Les Blank’s Herzog Eats His Shoe.

In support of Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven.  Herzog Eats His Shoe Les Blank, 1980

In support of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven.
Herzog Eats His Shoe
Les Blank, 1980

It is challenging to think of an art form that is more collaboratively dependent than filmmaking. Every member of a film crew and crew is crucial to the outcome of each scene. And when the crew is minimal it often only enhances the need for collaborative unity in bringing all skills and talent together to meet the director’s vision. I’ve always thought of the director as an intensely driven orchestra conductor. The director must find ways to guide, motivate and gain the trust of everyone behind and in front of the camera(s). Some are better at this than others. I’ve noticed that the directors who most interest me tend to have the reputation of being more open to new ideas and feedback from his/her crew/cast but never never to the point of breaking away from  her/his artistic intent. I suspect it is a very fine art of balancing perspective to be open enough, but finding a way to close it without turning the other artists against him/her.

Over the years since Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris has evolved a system of documentary filmmaking that is efficient and effective. But no matter how his approach has changed, Morris cares about his subjects. They trust him as much as his crew. He consistently produces powerful and polished documentaries. As good as his current work is, he has never found a way back to the casual approach applied that created as magic or human as Gates of Heaven.

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.  Gates of Heaven Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.
Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematography | Ned Burgess

No matter how many times I watch Gates of Heaven — and I have watched it over and over ever since it came out on VHS — I always notice something new or I discover something deeper of myself hiding within it. As one of the pet owners attempts to needlessly defend grief, he says “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something. Didn’t it?” Over time, these people and their respective observations Errol Morris captured have consistently taken a deeper meaning for me. I’m not alone in that feeling.

Errol Morris had not yet fully grasped what would serve as his artistic motivation. In the mid-1970’s he only knew what he found interesting. The starting point seems to have been an article he read in the newspaper. Some sort of falling out between the owners of a small pet cemetery had led to the decision to sell the cemetery’s land to a corporate developer. While the soon-to-be former owners of the cemetery have found a way to remove the deceased animals and transfer them to another pet cemetery, the former pet owners were upset. This was the starting point of Errol Morris unforgettable feature debut. His starting point would lead him to unexpected discoveries that pulled him in a number of directions. It wasn’t until he sat down to edit the footage that he found his motivation: humanity.

Gates of Heaven was a true game-changer in the world of documentary filmmaking as well as to the general Art of Film. We now know that much of what Morris achieved was due to some lucky circumstances that seem to have not only inspired him but required him to come up with a way to get these people to actually talk with him. Gates of Heaven transcends beyond the typical ideology of “The Documentary Film” — the focus and tone are always changing as we watch. What appears to be a documentary about the reasons for the creation and demolition of one pet cemetery gradually appears to be leading us to the story of a new pet cemetery. As the “stories” develop his camera continually readjust “focus” to a wide variety of people who have some vested link.  Morris’ initial interviews with the first round of owners feels familiar but somehow “off” — These people open up to Morris, but it seems as if he is attempting to stage them. There is a long shot of his first subject sitting uncomfortably under a tree. The camera’s perspective is distant. But soon we notice a distinct change in the manner Morris approaches his subjects. With the gift of hindsight information we know that Errol Morris discovered that people are more open when you allow them to decide where they will be filmed. He also discovered that the best thing he could do was simply ask one question and just keep the camera rolling. As these people begin to try and form an answer to his question(s) they began to forget the presence of the camera. They are actually speaking to Errol Morris as a person. He loses the identity of a filmmaker. They trust him.

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

If you’re taking the time and attempting to read my ramblings — I’m confident that you’ve already seen Gates of Heaven at least once if not multiple times. The above screenshot is a classic example of Errol Morris’ technique. Sitting in his office surrounded by the objects that he most prizes, Phillip Halberts begins his infamous system for being an effective salesman. It is a truly funny scene of the movie. The key hers is that the viewer never loses sight of the fact that this guy is grappling with emotional and professional challenges that are all too familiar to any adult. We can’t help but giggle as he lists out his theory for success. But we can’t help but like him. Like nearly everyone featured in the movie, you find yourself wishing you could reach through the screen and offer some support.

"Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!"  Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematographer | Ned Burgess

“Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!”
Gates of Heaven,
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematographer |
Ned Burgess

The main point here is that Gates of Heaven is important, valid and ageless documentary. Gates of Heaven offers nothing in the areas of the political, environmental, social or ethical issue. Errol Morris found an entry point into the deepest concerns of humanity.  The only artistic motivation is focused down to exploring the deep need for connection, love and understanding. In the end, it has very little to do with the pets. It is about the humans who love them.

Albert and David Maysles began their careers firmly rooted in the idea that they were not really “Documentarians” — Both brothers were devoted to the idea of cinéma vérité or, more accurately, The Maysles Brothers viewed their films as “Direct Cinema.” In other words, their artistic motivation was to capture reality as it happened and then to turn it all around to question the validity of the “reality” captured. Direct Cinema doesn’t clearly define a boundary between the filmmaker and the situation/subject that is being filmed. Albert and David Maysles and their fellow collaborators had no problem if they became a part of the situation or developed a friendship or disdain with their subjects. The idea of “reality” is always in question when Direct Cinema technique is applied. Direct Cinema film artists welcome confusing concepts of reality. But it is fairly well documented that neither of The Maysles had any idea that their interest in Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie would become a cinematic and cultural milestone.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, "...you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what."  Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles& David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, “…you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that they both found themselves caring about these two women. It would be challenging to touch on all of the aspects of culture and film that Grey Gardens influenced. Too strange and intense to match the easy-access of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven that would follow over three years later. Grey Gardens became a cult hit that slow-burned itself into the cultural thumbprint of America.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale / “Big Edie” and  Edith Bouvier Beale / “Little Edie were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At one time these two women were major players in the world of wealth and influence.

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can't forget Little Edie.  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can’t forget Little Edie.
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

But by the mid-1960’s they had officially slipped into an isolated world. They had already been living in the grand home for decades and labeled as “Crazy Recluses” for quite a while. Despite being supposedly well-monied, Big & Little Edie lived on limited funds for decades. The once stunning home officially named Grey Gardens in the 1920’s  began to fall into decay. By 1971 the wealthy residents who lived near the estate began to file official complaints. They were living without running water, tons of garbage, a slew of cats as well as wild feral animals. Grey Gardens had become more than a somewhat hidden eye sore, it was officially a health hazard. They attracted unwanted attention from the media due to their connection to The Kennedy Family just before their County Health Department was about to condemn the property and evict both women. The media speculation was so intense that both Jackie Kennedy and her sister paid for the entire clean-up and repair of the house. Neither ever seemed to ever get over what they considered an attack by the media, but it Little Edie who seemed to be the most plagued with fear and paranoia.

Little Edie wearing 'the best costume for the day' and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

Little Edie wearing ‘the best costume for the day’ and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

It has never been clear to me how The Maysles Brothers secured Big and Little Edies’ permission to film them, but they did. And the method of Direct Cinema for documentary gave these two amazing but deeply eccentric women the opportunity to freely share their history and opinions to the camera. Grey Gardens is profound in the way it captures the on-going love/hate shared between mother and daughter.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too in life.” Little Edie casually points out.
“Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” Big Edie responds with pointed glee.

At turns hilarious, disturbing, haunting, sad, grotesque — it is impossible to not love these two women. And while both take deep joy in “hamming” it up for the Maysles cameras — the film captures devastating moments of self-awareness, regret and longing that grip the audience so tight it can never let go or forget the movie. While the film is certainly a documentary, it is also just as certainly confused about what is “true” and what is “fiction” — Grey Gardens is a mysterious film that is unrelenting in confusing “reality” with “distorted truth” and often the deception of “memory” tinged with the need to “alter” truths — not for the audience but for these two women. It is a complex, fragile and beautiful film that refuses to tell us the truth.

European and Asian countries have specific eras of like-minded film artist who have created films at the same time that have resulted in what are easily identified as cinematic waves.

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,  François Truffaut, 1959. Cinematography | Henri Decaë

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,
François Truffaut, 1959.
Cinematography | Henri Decaë

I’m unaware of any such occurrence in American Cinema. Aside from the Golden Era of Hollywood, I’m hard pressed to think of any American “waves” — our culture is too young and diverse. Once the old-school Hollywood studio system fell away there was a whole new generation of almost maverick-like filmmakers. But it seems that there was no singular shared voice at the same time. There was certainly a revolutionary shift in cinematic art starting in the mid 1960’s, but typically the American Film Artist tends to be somewhat of a loner. There are two American filmmakers and one American film that I want to highlight briefly because all three touch directly on depicting fictionalized reality or fictional narrative within an almost documentary-like approach. These two American Film Artists created two unique styles with two very different artistic motivations. And, then there is one film that really stands out and remains entrenched in my brain.

I don’t think anyone filmmaker can be named as “the best” or “the most influential” — art is far too subjective for that level of claim. That being said, the work left by Robert Altman is as relevant, interesting, provocative, experimental, unique and experimental today as it must have been when it was released. Some of his films fail. A few seem to get anchored in a sort of drug’d haze that alienates the viewer. But he made more than a couple of films which are true cinematic masterpieces. And when it comes to mixing ideas around reality with fiction, he was undisputedly a genius.

Largely credited with  reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

Largely credited with reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

In this sense the key work is 1975’s Nashville. It is essentially an epic study of American culture just before it hit it’s 200th birthday. While it might seem odd that he chose to capture a snapshot of America via The Nashville Music Industry, it was incredibly clever. Like most of Altman’s 1970’s work, all the actors are mic’d.  Unlike Altman’s prior work the actors are usually in filled spaces with non-actors.  Only a very select few of the actors actually knew when one of Paul Lohmann’s cameras are focused on them. They had lines, but were free to “riff” or alter lines if it felt more believable to do so. Those actors who were playing musicians or actual County & Western Stars were required to write or co-write their songs as wall as to play/sing them. And, as Altman was constantly changing ideas or re-writing scenes, it is my understanding that no one had a full screenplay of the film while it was being shot.

Long before we had access to cyber "search engines" like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a "real" Nashville TV reporter.  Nashville, Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Long before we had access to cyber “search engines” like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a “real” Nashville TV reporter.
Nashville,
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

When combined with Altman’s grim view of the state of American culture and it’s ever-growing obsession with fame — Altman was taking a big risk. Nashville could have easily been a meandering mess. Instead it is a darkly funny, insightful and disturbing film. Nashville does meander, but all of the subplots and characters are slowly working their way to a conclusion which remains a topic of controversy within the world of celebrity. Not that entities such as The Academy Awards should ever be given the level of ultimate cinematic valuation that it is often allowed, but it is likely the disquieting view of both “celebrity” and American culture which prevented Nashville from being honored as 1975’s best film.

As Altman’s cast intermingles with valid country musicians, non-actors and actors playing versions of themselves — this fictional film takes on a vibe that feels real. Nashville is filled with awkward, comic and disturbing moments inter-laced to create an uneasy tension. We forget that it is Laugh-In’s Lily Tomlin struggling with her duties as a wife, mother, desires and self-identity within cultural and societal pressures. When she allows herself to be seduced we are surprised in the discovery that she not only fully understands the Keith Carradine’s hollow vacancy, she is not bothered by it. The womanizing soon-to-be major recording artist seems as shocked as we are when this “truth” is passively revealed. “Tom” croons that he is “easy” but he is actually very difficult. It is here that Robert Altman and three actors push fictional moments into the realm of painful reality. This points to one of the many key reasons Nashville is so powerful. Altman films his epic like a documentary. It is an essential film and a classic example fiction merging into deeper truth than the viewer anticipates. The suspension of disbelief is not really so much as an audience choice but a clever manipulation to force it.  From the most superficial to the deepest core, Nashville is disconcertingly real.

Lily Tomlin's comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not 'easy' in Nashville, Robert Altman.  Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Lily Tomlin’s comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not ‘easy’ in Nashville, Robert Altman.
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

No one filmmaker has ever been better at blurring the lines of reality and fiction than John Cassavetes. It is my opinion that all true lovers of cinematic art holds at least one Cassavetes movie close to the heart. A Woman Under The Influence is the best example of a filmmaker’s motivation applied in what appears to be either a very loose improvisation of reality or an obscure documentary of a family in crisis. With hindsight we know that nothing about this film was improvised or real, but a viewer would have to be truly emotionally stunted not to find her/himself challenging those facts as this movie unspools. Gena Rowlands has earned a unique place within the world of cinematic acting — and, when carefully studied, it is impossible to name any actor or actress who displays such effective naturalized performance. I view that statement as fact. Rowlands has charisma, presence, natural grace, impossible beauty and an ability to merge identities into characters like no other. For 135 minutes, Gina Rowlands is Mabel and Mabel is Gina Rowlands.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..."  Gena Rowlands A Woman Under The Influence John Cassavetes, 1974.

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under The Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974.

In A Woman Under The Influence Cassavetes artistically approaches everything as simply and as minimally as possible. Rowland’s Mabel is car wreck waiting to happen. The late and criminally underrated, Peter Falk, is equally realistic Mabel’s confused and helpless husband. As Mabel’s emotional grounding becomes shakier with each passing moment, Peter Falk tackles the issue from every perspective he can find. When he turns to the equivalent of domestic abuse we are so unsettled that we barely have time to recover before their children jump in to protect their mom. When Mabel finally breaks, it is disorienting to determine if it Mabel or Rowlands having a nervous breakdown. The complexity and fragility of mental illness is almost too realistically articulated. It is terrifying to watch. Without any frame of context, Cassavetes’ cinéma vérité style could easily mistaken for a 1970’s documentary of a family coping and functioning through crisis. John Cassavetes was always very clear regarding his artistic motivation. His goal was to capture real love in film. It is at the heart of every film he ever made. He had no interest in vasolined-screened mush. He sought out the realities of love. His muse was his wife. Together, he almost always hit his mark. As dark and disturbing as A Woman gets, there are two things we know about Mabel and her husband: they are in love and they have each other’s backs no matter what challenges come their way.

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?  A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.  Cinematography | Al Ruban

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?
A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.
Cinematography | Al Ruban

Many cinephiles of my generation or older feel that the levels of Film Art which which these artists’ reached is no longer possible. This opinion is not true. A number of current film artists are even more strident in applying individual motivations which artistically merge truth with fiction than ever before. Independent Filmmaking has never been easy. Technology has provided tools and platforms that potentially allow anyone to make a movie. Too many movies are being made for film festivals to fairly evaluate what films get on their screens. And Film Critics are finding it impossible to actually review the number of films that manage to get distributed. he challenges of getting worthy art shown and distributed has never been harder. There are too many movies being made. And because anyone can make them it is a challenge to determine which independently funded films are worth the time to watch. Esteemed New York Times Film Critic, A.O. Scott sendt an email to Variety this year stating, “Because of the increasing volume of new films released each year, the Times is no longer able to guarantee reviews of all New York theatrical releases.” It is not hard to understand why The Times had to make this decision, but it doesn’t minimize the impact. A review from The New York Times can “make” or “break” a film artist’s career.

Looking at the challenge from another perspective,  I’ve never seen film artists approach a challenge with this creativity, tenacity, energy and devotion.  Unlike the late ’80’s/’90’s, the artist’s who seem to really succeed are the most devoted to their art. I find the drive and work of these new filmmakers incredibly powerful. I’m not a film critic. I just love cinema. But like many of my friends I had started to feel sad about the state of American Film in the year that actually gave us some amazing film. Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Ed Wood, Red, Muriel’s Wedding, Chungking Express and even Oliver Stone’s admittedly questionable but highly experimental Natural Born Killers — all came out in 1994. But in 1994 I started to note a shift in many of my peers perspective regarding films. This next remark is likely to earn me a number of angry emails, but I loathed Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Interview with a Vampire and The Lion King. It was around this time that my closest friends begin to tell me I was a “movie snob”

"Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!" or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994

“Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!” or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994

Skip forward a decade and I actually was afraid to tell people that I detested Paul Haggis’ Crash. I can remember a friend not speaking to me for over a year because of my opinion. This is particularly interesting because I’m not an aggressive person when it comes to my opinions. I have them, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Sometimes I’m surprised when even one person agrees with me. So, I knew this movie was really a “hot” topic for white people. When I said that Haggis might be well-intentioned but the whole movie was so ham-fisted and too simplistic in resolutions that I felt insulted. I had a similar reaction when Jonathan Demme made Philadelphia over eleven years earlier. But in 1993 my “crowd” more or less agreed with me — or were at least willing to admit to the painfully “black and white” approach to only partially-formed characters. By the time every major film critic and the Academy Awards chose Thomas Langmann’s The Artist, which I hated, 2011’s best film, I seldom ventured to the cinema. The movies that were interesting me were harder to see on the screen. My two personal favorite films of 2011 were Steve McQueen’s Shame, Evan Glodell’s Bellflower and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. I was able to see two of these films on the big screen.

Living in San Francisco I was surprised when I was unaware of it having played here. I had to wait for it on blu-ray. When I suggested each of these movies to friends in West Virginia and Ohio, neither were able to find them screening in their areas. Interestingly, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life screened in their areas. Maybe I was hoping for too much as I entered The Sundance Kabuki Cinema to watch Malick’s film. I’m not sure. I was entranced by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, but I was never actually engaged by the film itself. Both of these friends contacted me after they had seen it. They were excited and loved Tree of Life, but as I discussed it with each of them — I discovered that neither understood what they had seen. The fact that I found myself explaining it twice to two very intelligent people confirmed my assessment of the movie. My two pals were claiming to like the movie because so many of the critics liked it.

This can't be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be  Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001. Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

This can’t be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be
Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001.
Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

In my spare time, I’ve worked for film festivals. I’ve even served on the board of one that has become fairly influential. It was involvement with a Film Festival that offered me the opportunity to see two films before they had secured distribution and were released. The first was Joe Maggio’s Virgil Bliss starring Clint Jordan as the title character. I was hooked from the beginning to the end. Maggio’s film was a lo-fi character study of a recently paroled criminal who desperately wants to secure a stable life. I had never seen Clint Jordan play a character this complex. It didn’t even feel like I was watching a movie so much as some profane transmission from reality’s grimmest corner. A couple of years later I would see Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, a brutally realistic story of parenting and addiction which featured an unforgettable Vera Farmiga. Granik and Farmiga pulled me into this horrifying world. Both of these films were intensely intimate and painfully “real” — I will never forget them. They did secure distribution but largely thanks to the DVD and streaming markets.

Vera Farmiga's performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004. Cinematography | Michael McDonough

Vera Farmiga’s performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004.
Cinematography | Michael McDonough

And, then I started hearing about Mumblecore. A term I still dislike as it seems more than a little pejorative. Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig were the first of the “Mumblecore Movement” I saw. Both of these artist are naturalistic actors, but most importantly they are filmmakers who have disarming ways of presenting intimate and relatable characters that often feel so real that you find yourself squirming in your seat. Early on the co-wrote and co-directed Night and Weekends. With no budget and a non-apologetic manner of presenting themselves as actors, their movie challenges the audience in determining which of the two characters are more vested in this relationship. When the two lovers eagerly disrobe and have sex, the absence of any pretense of eroticism and the immediacy of the two characters’ mutual desire makes the audience feel like ashamed. It is as if we are voyeuristically looking at something private. At some point, it is impossible to discern these two filmmakers from the characters that they are playing. Insightful, sad and real — The movie refuses to be dismissed. The same goes with Joe Swanberg’s previous film staring Gerwig, Hannah Takes The Stairs.

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends, Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008. Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends,
Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008.
Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

Both Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg have pursued their artistic goals with a vengeance. Not to be conceived as a criticism, but Gerwig seems more comfortable in moving in the higher powered/monied productions of Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen. Whether that is luck or successful networking, Greta Gerwig has firmly established herself as a unique actor and filmmaker. It would be impossible not to mention the work of Mark and Jay Duplass who have both managed to move comfortably into mainstream without selling out. The same is true for Lynn Shelton who has achieved a great deal of success. Ti West has also found a great deal of success in the horror genre. Michael Tully is another to emerge as a truly riveting filmmaker. Also of note are the works of Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal and Onur Tukel within the realms of comedy. Amy Seimetz is another incredibly amazing actor who has thus far made one film, Sun Don’t Shine, which was one of the best films of 2013. Aside from Seimetz’s skill as an actor, Kate Lyn Sheil is probably the second most valuable player as an actress.

Joe Swanberg’s interests in film seem to be more committed to remaining the chief architect of his work. His talent and skill are unquestionable, but it wasn’t until he was able to collaborate with Kent Osborne and make Uncle Kent that his strength was crystal clear. Osborne is well established in the world of animated film art. In Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Kent Osborne is playing a version of himself which leaves a great deal of mystery for the audience. We have no way of knowing when we are seeing “truth” in fuzzy sort of staged way or in a sort of re-enactment. Osborne is so believable in this film that it is more than a little difficult to know if this is made up or a very slanted manipulation of reality. Either way, the film works incredibly well. Swanberg does not deviate from his deceptively loose and slow pacing. In Uncle Kent we see a successful LA Film Artist who, through a series of increasingly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness, must come to grips with the fact that not only is he getting older — he is now finding it difficult to fit in and relate to the friends who populate his world. And his world appears to be made up of working on adult-oriented but infantile comedic cartoons, doodling, surfing the Internet, participating in Online Roulette, getting stoned, petting his cat and hanging out with friends ten years his junior.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

It is an entertaining but precisely executed examination of the formation of what will likely be a tough mid-life crisis. Another aspect of Uncle Kent that adds a great deal is the contributions of both fellow filmmakers and actors, Jennifer Prediger and Josephine Decker. Prediger plays Kate with a mix of humor and sadness. It is a surprisingly complex performance that catches the audience off-guard. She must be acting, but it never feels like acting. When Josephine Decker enters the film she brings a level of energy that Swanberg is able to use as a major catalyst for Kent. As most of us know, the erotic idea of a three-way usually quickly dissolves into awkwardness in which usually only two of three finds any real erotic pleasure. A three way is exciting in concept, but when placed into theory it is most often an unenjoyable realization of interpersonal dynamics that are better off unexplored. This is certainly the case in Swanberg’s three-way scene. It is a powerful moment in a surprisingly potent movie.

It is important to note that Jennifer Prediger has gone to make her own mark as a filmmaker collaborating with Jess Weixler to create the quirky, funny and unique look at friendship, Apartment Problems (or known to some as Trouble Dolls)  Actually, The Duplass Brothers, Lena Dunham and Alex Karpovsky are not the only artists to find success. Meanwhile Josephine Decker continues to act, perform and create in various challenging and interesting projects. But most importantly Decker has recently made two vitally important films as both director and writer. Both of her directorial feature length films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely are truly essential films Decker’s path as Film Artist seems to be headed toward a more experimental direction. Josephine Decker is an important Film Artist that I suspect will be leading us in some very interesting directions. With her second film, she actually surpassed Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which was my favorite film of 2013.  Another independent filmmaker to note is Patrick Brice whose recent collaboration with Mark Duplass, Creep, re-examines the ideas of “found footage” and “documentary” to amazing effect.

It's creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

It’s creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

In 80 minutes Brice/Duplass manage to deliver a movie that elevates the horror genre both intellectually and emotionally. On the surface, Creep is fun adult horror movie. It is long after the credits roll that the underlying power really “creeps” up. Sure, it’s only a horror movie. Now, keep telling yourself that as you realize that what you’ve just seen could not only happen — it most likely does.

I was a little late in learning about Kentucker Audley. A friend in NYC sent me a DVD of his first feature length film, Team Picture. Perhaps more than any of the other filmmakers to emerge under the term “Mumblecore”,  Audley shines out as the boldest Film Artist. Much like Herzog, Audley is very open about his motivation regarding filmmaking. He has described his approach as being almost autobiographical documentary. It is and it most likely isn’t. The vital importance of Team Picture is the almost lazy feeling Audley applies as the minimal story unfolds. After only about five minutes into this movie, you can sense that Audley is far more schooled in the art of film than his film wants to show. A quiet film, Kentucker Audley plays David. David should be in college or seriously pursuing a career. Instead he is happy just to hang out with friends, strum his guitar and sit outside be the kiddie pool he uses to cool off in the summer sun. Despite the slow pace and drifting conversations, there is an odd pulse at play with Team Picture.

"I guess you don't need any help with anything. That's cool." The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture, Kentucker Audley, 2007 Cinematography | Timothy Morton

“I guess you don’t need any help with anything. That’s cool.” The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture,
Kentucker Audley, 2007
Cinematography | Timothy Morton

When Audley’s David decides to move on to another town it seems without any clear direction or purpose. However, we gain a gradual perspective into David’s life that reveals a childhood that offered him no clear paths to bonding with a male figure as well as a distinct level of confusion regarding his identity. A creeping sense that David’s environment and childhood have almost set him up. His expectations in life are muted. He is not a team player, but he has a confused need to somehow fit into the team if only for the purpose of momentary capture of belonging to something. Of the recent films to achieve a realism that feels more “true” than “fiction” — this might be the most powerful film.

In addition to being an important voice in modern film, Audley is an exceptional effective actor. I suspect his acting roles are how he funds his filmmaking work. But he will soon be seen in two important independent films: Jason Banker’s Felt and Alison Bagnall’s Funny Bunny. Audley has also positioned himself as vital member of the American Independent Film Artist World with his passionate approach to protecting the rights of individuality in Film Art with the creation of the user-friendly web site, NoBudge. He accepts submissions from indie-filmmakers and curates them on the site for free viewing and feedback. These are both feature-length and short films that might not hold the “commercial” accessibility required for film festivals and the increasingly powerful role of Aggregators to negotiate for independent films to be available for purchase/rental on digital media sites such as iTunes or AmazonPrime. But that certainly does not mean that they have a great deal to offer.

Check out NoBudge: http://nobudge.com

It was on Audley’s NoBudge site that I “discovered” Brandon Colvin. Colvin’s Sabbatical is a beautifully-rendered exploration of a man in crisis that adheres rigidly to Formalist Style. Colvin not only succeeds, he exceeds what one expects to find in a low budget film. Nothing about Sabbatical looks low budget. Sadly, Brandon Colvin’s masterful film is failing to secure distribution and an aggregator because Sabbatical does not “fit” or “conform” to the current ideas around what is commercial and what isn’t.

You can find out more about Sabbatical which also stars Robert Longstreet. An actor who so many of us admire. People are missing an amazing experience.

sabbatical-mossgarden.com

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture's frame in  Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.  Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture’s frame in
Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever is another crucial film within the context of modern American Film Art. Kentucker Audley’s turn as a misfit and wanna-be comedian is more than just awkward and anxiety-inducing — it is tragic. Eleonore Hendricks plays Irene who quickly becomes Edie’s obsession. His desperation for her love is not only misplaced, it is inappropriate. Even within the context of Irene’s world, Edie’s presence is too worrying. Dustin Guy Defa’s experimental film delivers a constant stream of frustrated uncomfortable confusion hinged with potential violence. Nothing about this ver low budget film “feels” like acting.

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists' existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.  Cinematography | 2011

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists’ existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.
Cinematography | 2011

Matt Boyd seems to be approaching documentary film with a style that is somewhere between the accepted notion of what documenting reality and The Maysles Brother’s type of Direct Cinema that leave the audience wondering when what we are seeing is real or possibly staged. His study of marginalized musician, Walter Bakes, and his family in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument is a challenging but rewarding examination of decay and self-absorbtion. It does not hedge from showing the warts and all of its subject but it never feels judgmental or exploitive. Matt Boyd is heading to an interesting career.

And as I come to the end of this rambling post, Rick Alverson must be mentioned. Along with Kentucker Audley, Alverson may be the most interesting Film Artist who is unrelenting in his pursuit of cinematic truth. Rick Alverson is far more concerned with style than Audley. This may end up being Alverson’s greatest challenge as filmmaker. His stylistic impulses sometimes appear to be at odds with the more immediate concerns just below the sensitive skin of his films. All the same, Alverson is building an amazing body of work. Best know for his 2012 film, The Comedy, which received a great deal of attention at the time of its release. It was praised and dismissed in equal measure. One of the dismissals came from my personal favorite Film Critic, A.O. Scott who caught me off guard when he was so frustrated by Alverson’s movie that he felt the need to attack those of us who saw the merit in it. According to A.O. Scott if I find any “critical distance” or “interesting perspective” in Alverson’s The Comedy — then I am the butt of Alverson’s joke. I do not know Rick Alverson and I have not ever read an interview with him. I only am aware of him by his work. Alverson was not joking with The Comedy. Alverson presents a level of white male entitlement and human cruelty without offering any evaluation or background. Thanks to an amazing cast of effective actors, all we really need to know is passively communicated in the sad eyes and pointless actions. We might not like the main character or any of his friends, but viewers would need to be equally emotionally-stunted, damaged and as casually cruel as these characters to not see the tragic darkness which Alverson masterfully examines.

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O'Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O’Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

In The Builder, Alverson’s first feature which was made in 2009 and very limited released 201o — he collaborates with Colm O’Leary to create a very realistic study of an immigrant who attempts to pursue construction of his American dream house. O’Leary has a strong presence, but is allowed very little to say. The film is a bleak depiction of a man fighting through a depression in pursuit of something that seems to be failed abstraction of something deeper he can’t obtain. While the film offers viewers too little information to fully encage, it carries a power that is hard to forget. It feels like a film from an alternate universe of 1970’s American Filmmaking. We don’t understand this builder, but he feels far too real and familiar to forget.

Colm O'Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.  New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

Colm O’Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.
New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

In Rick Alverson’s New Jerusalem we are given more insight into the two men we follow. New Jerusalem touches on everything from faith to immigration to PTSD but it only barely touches this topics and themes. Alverson’s motivation is to explore an uneasy connection that begins to form between two men. This uncomfortable look at male bonding provides challenging ideas regarding the needs of male bonding. Ultimately, the viewer is never clear on why these two characters put up with each other. Aversion is not interested in resolving the tension and conflict. His goal is bring the reality of it to the audience.

New Jerusalem  Rick Alverson, 2011

New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

The conclusion is left to us. The merging of “truth” and “fiction” will not always result in something simply entertaining and satisfying. Most often true art forces us to look at our own reflection and projections. Being able to fully understand the difference between real and fake is not always an asset. Most of human life is spent putting on one mask and quickly replacing it with another as we navigate our way through life. Not all of us want to escape from reality. Some of us want more from art than escape. I want to gain perspectives regarding the complexities and challenges of life. Like everyone, I want to know I’m not alone.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth.  As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth. As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens,
Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.” – Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale

After a decade in a successful career in cinematography, Nicolas Roeg found his way into the director’s chair. This led to a string of unforgettable films that blended his unique camera perspectives with an even more experimental editing to form

"I'm not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity." David Bowie reflects in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“I’m not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity.” David Bowie reflects in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

much more than cinematic stories. Nicolas Roeg used cinematography, editing and obsessions to form film art that seeps into the senses that often lift the viewer into an experience that is more than unforgettable. Roeg’s cinematic voice reaches almost hypnotic levels. He creates atmosphere, tension, eroticism and human introspection that calls us to revisit his films.

"This one who's blind. She's the one that can see." Hilary Mason's character may be blind, but she is the only character who can actually 'see' in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“This one who’s blind. She’s the one that can see.” Hilary Mason’s character may be blind, but she is the only character who can actually ‘see’ in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

With each revisit, the viewer discovers new aspects, ideas and meanings. Roeg quickly established a strong connection with both Cinematographer, Anthony B. Richmond and Film Editor, Graeme CliffordIn early on. Eventually, he would also establish a new film editing connection with Tony Lawson. These “connections” ran deep. In Roeg’s hands, filmmaking is no longer reduced to “orchestrated collaboration” “craft” or “storytelling” — Roeg’s cinematic work takes these fundamental concepts related to movie making to the level of true Film Art.

Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russells' "terrifying obsession took them to the brink of death and beyond." Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Tony Lawson

Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russells’ “terrifying obsession took them to the brink of death and beyond.” Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Tony Lawson

It is more than a complex collaboration between the filmmaker and his/her cinematography and editor, in Nicolas Roeg’s work — it is clear that their is more than a shared aesthetic, the intermingling of all three aspects of filmmaking feel to be forming together in a genetic sort of alchemy. This is the magic of Pure Cinema.

The influence of Nicolas Roeg is undeniable. He has inspired far too many filmmakers to list. And, if one did comprise a list it would reflect a wide range of cinematic visionaries. Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle and François Ozon are just a few notably varied filmmakers who have listed Roeg as a strong influence.

It is often the most seemingly surprisingly magnified small detail that means so much. Candy Clark pours a drink. "You know Tommy, you're a freak. I don't mean that unkindly..." with questionable intent in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

It is often the most seemingly surprisingly magnified small detail that means so much. Candy Clark pours a drink. “You know Tommy, you’re a freak. I don’t mean that unkindly…” with questionable intent in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

It is also important to note that Nicolas Roeg has never taken the stance of “Film Artiste”  — Despite the complexities of what one discovers in his films, he has consistently dismissed the idea that he has ever pursued a film with one sole purpose. Instead, he will often shrug off aspects of his work as “accidental” or “luck” — And further to the point, Roeg claims to have never set out to rebel against fixed ideas of what cinema should be. He has always expressed how important his early work as a part of a camera unit or cinematographer were essential so the he could gain the essential knowledge of film craftsmanship. He once was quoted, “The rules are learnt in order to be broken, but if you don’t know them, then something is missing.”

"The churches belong to God, but he doesn't seem to care about them." Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“The churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them.” Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

The use of sound and image do not always match in Nicolas Roeg’s cinematic world. What we are “allowed” to see is not always what we think we “want” to see. Mirrors and all aspects of reflection begin to take on added significance as these films move forward. The use of mirrors serves as far more than presenting an interesting thought — they are the tools that these characters discover everything insights into existentialism, desire, fear, vanity, gender roles and identity. The reflection of mirrors and glass have a similar impact on the audience but with added psychological dimensions that are inaccessible to the characters.

"“I’ve used mirrors in a lot of movies. I think the mirror is an extraordinary thing, also the reflective, a reflection in water etc. Don’t you think it’s something strange that you rarely look at yourself in the mirror, except to do things like stand and ponder? " Nicolas Roeg on the use of mirrors in his films. Here, James Fox, is forced to not only re-evaluate his identity but his gender in Performance, Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell, 1970 Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

““I’ve used mirrors in a lot of movies. I think the mirror is an extraordinary thing, also the reflective, a reflection in water etc. Don’t you think it’s something strange that you rarely look at yourself in the mirror, except to do things like stand and ponder? ” Nicolas Roeg on the use of mirrors in his films. Here, James Fox, is forced to not only re-evaluate his identity but his gender in Performance, Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell, 1970
Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

Like many great artists, Nicolas Roeg is sometimes so ahead of the audience that a film may fail to connect. This was the case with the controversial study of sexual desire turned to obsessions that potentially lead to insanity or something far worse. Largely dismissed when it was released, it has since gained much more success with audiences as time has passed.

Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980 Cinematographer | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Tony Lawson

Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980
Cinematographer | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Tony Lawson

Roeg’s interests in how men and women connect sexually often become a core element found in every film. In Bad Timing he allowed his and the characters’ obsessions to overflow with a level of intensity that often resulted in confused responses. Seven years earlier, in Don’t Look Now, he created an almost uncomfortably level of erotic intimacy between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland that so shocked audiences that it is still a matter of discussion when the film is screened. The reality of sexuality becomes heightened to the abnormal in Bad Timing, but sexuality is used in a casually realistic way in Don’t Look Now.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherlands' characters infamously make love and cause Movie Rumor that remains today in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherlands’ characters infamously make love and cause Movie Rumor that remains today in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Viewers in 1980 seemed to have had a difficult time finding “reality” in the sex of Bad Timing. But well over 30 years later, the infamous sex scene in Don’t Look Now “feels” so real that many insist on believing that Sutherland and Christy were actually engaging in penetrative sex. The magical use of sex in Don’t Look Now is that it slowly dawns on the audience that this graphic display of sexual connection is not used for titaliation, but to capture the all too human need to connect to his/her lover in times of grief. It is a reconnection that almost helps this marriage in crisis pull itself out of disaster. Well, almost.

Another aspect of Roeg’s approach to his films that is rather thrilling is the ever present use of Surrealism. But it is the almost casual way in which surrealism mixes in with blunt realism. A level of disorientation flows off the screen because while we think we know that some of what we are seeing is “surreal” — it could almost as easy be called “real”

The Man Who Fell To Earth is a great example of film which refuses to ground itself into any conventional genre: Is it satire? Or is it an oddly ‘realistic’ Sci-Fi? Maybe it is dark humored metaphorical study of humankind? Is it surrealism? Is it about owning our identity no matter how our society tries to suppress us?

The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

What is real and what is often tangible but not easily labeled is often the most important aspect of our journey. Nicolas Roeg once noted, “I love that perhaps we don’t see the things that are there because we have no reliable yardstick to see things by, to compare them.”

Pass the warning... Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Pass the warning…
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Over the last several years I have had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with Don’t Look Now. As it made its way from the muddy VHS transfer to an improved but still lacking quality when it was released on DVD in both the US/UK to the beautifully restored version issued to blu-ray/DVD by the magic-makers at Criterion. I’ve needed to watch this film a number of times for various reasons. I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen it in the last three years. But every time I watch it, I notice something new. Never have I seen a film so disturbingly horrific turn itself into something of altogether different that can only be termed as “Human” beauty.

"One of your children has posed a curious question: if the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?" The answer to his daughter's question is far more complex than Donald Sutherland can fully grasp. He fights against his instincts in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“One of your children has posed a curious question: if the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?” The answer to his daughter’s question is far more complex than Donald Sutherland can fully grasp. He fights against his instincts in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Don’t Look Now takes us to a Venice steeped in decay, sadness and uncertain dangers. We are led through a series of seemingly endless loop of dark tunnels. We pass over aged bridges in a fog of mystery. Hope can become deadly. Grief can become a release. Like life, nothing is at it appears.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Nicolas Roeg speak, you will note a highly intelligent and genuine man. It is impossible to miss the fact that he is so filled with ideas that he tends talk in meandering and circular sentences. The newly released Criterion edition of Don’t Look Now features a discussion filmed in 2003 at London’s Ciné Lumière. It is an entertaining discussion and, in some ways, a revealing way in which Roeg not only communicates — but how he thinks.

And, this, to me, adds insight into the way he views film editing. There is not so much concern with editing a film in a linear or altogether logical way — because when we really think about it — Our minds are constantly racing through ideas, memories, feelings, emotions, worries and ever spinning topics as we navigate through ever part of our day.

Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 gets the Criterion treatment. Now available on DVD/Blu-Ray

Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
gets the Criterion treatment. Now available on DVD/Blu-Ray

Nicolas Roeg’s movies strive to capture worlds through the lens of the human mind’s perspective. Our mind never fully allows our eyes, ears and senses to fully focus on one thing. Instead, our minds take in everything at once and while we are largely successful at deciphering our experience of the world and the situations we experience. It is only long after something has happened that we have the opportunity to “process’ an event. This is perhaps the strongest element to be found in the way Nicolas Roeg often transcends the normally anticipated scope of a movie.

I recently discovered a website called The TalkHouse which features brilliantly insightful writing and articles related to art.

Exceptional and Valuable insights regarding art can be found at TalkHouse.

Exceptional and Valuable insights regarding art can be found at TalkHouse.

http://thetalkhouse.com

Lance Edmands is a film artist himself and one of the contributors to the site. He has written a great piece in which he deconstructs Don’t Look Now‘s opening sequence. If you’ve not visited The TalkHouse or read anything by Lance Edmands, I encourage you to follow this link. He offers a far more in-depth discussion of Roeg’s experimental work.

http://thetalkhouse.com/film/talks/lance-edmands-bluebird-talks-nicolas-roegs-dont-look-now/

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I love imdb.com and RottenTomatoes as much as anyone. The Internet Movie Database is great source of information relating to cinema.

Want to know the year a movie came out?  The name of a movie's director or cinematographer? imdb.com is a great place to go.

Want to know the year a movie came out? The name of a movie’s director or cinematographer? imdb.com is a great place to go.

I’ve also grown to enjoy Rotten Tomatoes because it offers me an easy and slightly more respected platform to rate and review movies I have seen. Sure I am registered on imdb, but that monster of a database has become littered with cruel rants by individuals more interested in spewing cultural rage and ignorance than about the movies themselves.

RottenTomatoes is a bit more “constructive” in the way it is set up.

Want to find quick and easy links to professional Film Critics as well as showtimes or info, RT is great.

Want to find quick and easy links to professional Film Critics as well as showtimes or info, RT is great.

The gleefully cultural rage is limited to that individual’s space on the site. However, I’ve never been able to really understand the way in which RT comes up with a rating. At first I thought the overall rating was dependent upon the professional Film Critics employed to review movies. Not so sure that is true. Eventually the “audience ratings” have some sort of impact. And, if one actually reads the professional Film Criticism and compares it to the rating RT assigns to that individual’s reviews are not always correctly interpreted. For instance, I recently followed the “selected portion” of A.O. Scott’s review on RT to the unabridged and full review. RT had assigned a high rating for Scott, but reading the entire review Scott seemed to have many reservations about the movie with a few admittedly positive comments. If one had to assign a rating to his opinion related to the film — it would be closer to “5” than the “9” that RT assigned.

I enjoy Film Criticism and have a true interest in Film Theory of all types. During one of the many times I opted to skip class in middle school I ended up skipping alone and without the benefit of weed. I ended up crouched in the library where I stumbled upon a copy of Pauline Kael’s I Lost It At the Movies.

Pauline Kael's book is seminal reading. It is not, however cinematic gospel.

Pauline Kael’s book is seminal reading. It is not, however cinematic gospel.

Even though it had been published in the the 1960’s I discovered what a film critic can do. I found her insight into Film Art as fascinating as well as frustrating. I valued her opinions and ideas relating for the movies. By the time I was approaching university life my feelings about Kael began to shift. Reading her film reviews from the beginning to the end of her professional life reveals a great deal. Pauline Kael was brilliantly talented. She had earned the respected her opinions carried. One of the reasons she helped elevate Film Criticism to the masses was due to her often dark humor. Though one could never accuse of her of making “judgement” or forming opinions based on purely superficial mean bias — that fell to critics like Vincent Canby and Rex Reed. Canby was often more “bitchy” than “insightful” but Reed as always approached his role as Film Critic as jealous and bitter old queen. …Even when he was young.

The great and truly iconic American Film Critic, Pauline Kael. (photographer unknown to me)

The great and truly iconic American Film Critic, Pauline Kael. (photographer unknown to me)

Kael, however retained her dignity. But it is impossible to view her criticism as consistently valid. As her career and reputation advanced, she often used her status in cruel ways. I once got the feeling that if Robert Altman or Hal Ashby were to have the misfortune of stepping on one of her feet as they made their way to their respective seats — Ms. Kael would most likely hate their latest movie. Hate them not because the movies would be bad, but because they stepped on her foot. She also seemed to take an almost demented pleasure in building a filmmaker or actor up and then gradually deconstruct her opinions to push them down. As example, she championed Meryl Streep upon her arrival to mainstream cinema. However, as soon as Streep took off in some truly amazing performances — Kael nearly always dismissed Streep’s talent. Keep in mind that this was before Meryl Streep started to fall into mannerism. One Kael’s most harsh assessments of Streep’s skill and “place” as a movie star was related to Karel Reisz’s interesting adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981. Given the daunting task Reisz and Harold Pinter faced in transferring John Fowles’ experimental post-modern novel to the screen,  the film remains powerful due to it’s lush style but most importantly to Meryl Streep’s layered performance. While the movie has flaws, Freddie Francis’ cinematography and Streep’s skill raises high above most films released that year. Kael’s verbal attack of Streep’s work and validity as a “movie star” seemed not only inappropriately off-target, Kael was just wrong.  However, one of the reasons Kael’s words remain vital is the interesting mix of true passion and her almost perverse but clever provocation. Her often brilliant insights and her sometimes painfully incorrect evaluations. She loved to provoke her readers into interest as much as to offer her guidance to the film work she valued. That passion, provocation and intellectually fused writing still has bite.

It was probably around this time that Rogers & Ebert popped up “my” cultural map.

Film Criticism arrives to the mainstream via Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. ...At The Movies.

Film Criticism arrives to the mainstream via Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. …At The Movies.

Living in a Southeast Texas town, I didn’t always have access to the movies that seemed to be calling me to view them. I began driving 80 minutes to Houston so I could see the films that were getting praise and “thumbs up” These two all too human Film Critics provided often opposing view points that was not only entertaining to watch but often gave two distinctly different opinions. They both helped to guide people like me to seek out movies I would have missed otherwise. It was actually Roger Ebert’s clear discomfort regarding David Lynch’s neo-noir masterpiece, Blue Velvet, that propelled me to see it. Though I loved every moment (and still do) — I could understand his perspective. Had I not seen Ebert become so disturbed, I doubt I would have managed to see this film projected onto a screen — which oddly enough did play in my hometown. …for 2 days. Angry Baptists and Pentecostals made the cinema end the run.

Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, 1986. Cinematography: Frederick Elmes

Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986. Cinematography: Frederick Elmes

For the record, In the beginning I tended to lean more toward Siskel, but gradually I often found myself somewhere in the middle of the two. And, by the time I was out of college, Texas and fully independent in a more liberal and vital part of the US I began to find the whole “thumbs up / thumps down” approach to Film Criticism not only at odds with my perspective about what made movies so interesting to me. I also became painfully aware of my friends who would decide what they saw based solely on the opinions of the thumbs of these two men.

Two Thumbs Up! Really? Or are the being satirical? I did raise a finger, but it was not my thumb.

Two Thumbs Up! Really? Or are the being satirical? I did raise a finger, but it was not my thumb.

As my world view began to open I started to question the role of Film Criticism. I began to feel more confident in following filmmakers who were not being fully “accepted” by the majority of professional film critics. Although my degree is in English Literature and I ended up selling my soul for over 17 years to the evil world of Corporate America — my true passion always belonged to the cinema and to the artists who were brave enough to struggle through the ever-surmounting challenges facing Independent Filmmakers and forge ahead with their distinct vision of cinema. So many film artists of my generation have either sold-out or settled into obscurity funded by the money they made in from the late ’80’s to the mid ’90’s.

But a few of them are still active and pursuing their evolving ideas. As an example, Todd Solondz is my senior by about 12 years, but I still claim him to my generation. He continues to find funding for his art. And, that art is just as vital, challenging and unique as it was when Welcome to the Dollhouse exploded on to screens. In fact, his most recent film was one of the more under-appreciated movies of 2011.

Todd Solondz's Dark Horse Cinematography: Andrij Parekh

Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh

In Dark Horse, Solondz finally plunges full force into Cinematic Surrealism as a way of reflecting his normal pessimistic cultural and societal commentary rather than to just be weird. (An often mistake of artists in fully understanding “Surrealism” and the power it allows) …In Dark Horse, we follow Jordan Gelber as “Abe” through a series of humiliating, awkward and often defeating situations presented in a “reality” that may or may not always be real. And, for the first time in his career, Solondz made a film that was uniquely touching, funny and almost hopeful. But he did this without sacrificing his core vision of the way we as both a society and a culture marginalize people. It was a feat. It was also a challenging work of cinematic art that caught many off-guard. While it is safe to say that it received a fair amount of praise from critics, the ultimate evaluation by most “critics” was so tied to his previous work which was deemed “more effective” or, oddly enough, “more accessible” — That is not the goal of this artist. While the film may not suit the tastes of many, there is very little “wrong” with this tightly edited experimental film.

Dark Horse currently carries a “70%” with Film Critics and a “40%” Audience Score on RT. This translates to a masterful film being considered “Fresh” by RT but also indicating there are “strong reservations” for being a film worth your time. Despite securing a limited theatrical release, full DVD/Blu-ray release and streaming on Netflix — it continues to connect with its audience. I suspect a large reason for many missing it is because they are actually following what has been correctly coined Consensus Film Evaluation.

I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who have to “jump on to” RT to see how a film is rated before they will either spend the money to see it or even view it as it streams on their Netflix account. In many ways, this type of film evaluation is undermining Film Art and even the more mainstream interests of Hollywood Studio releases.

Another filmmaker who found success in the 1990’s and someone who is only a year older than me is David Mackenzie. In 2012 he made and found a solid distribution deal for Perfect Sense.

Ewan McGregor and Eva Green in David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens

Ewan McGregor and Eva Green in David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens

This film is a beautifully crafted emotional love story set in the beginning of an apocalyptic contagion. In Mackenzie’s apocalypse he remains unquestionably true to his bleak vision of reality. Ewan McGregor and Eva Green encounter no zombies, horror movie cliches or satire. What they do discover is true intimacy and love during an overwhelming situation. Certainly dark, this artfully styled and well-acted film makes a very profound statement about the human need and comfort that can only be found through connecting to another. The film takes a firm stance in the way it explores human relationships. Not a perfect film, but a film full of merit.

It offered a unique take on the universal phobic fears of contagious disease but also provides a sensually rendered love story. I saw the film before it started screening at festivals and was released. I expected it to find a strong degree of praise. Instead, it currently holds a clearly “Unfresh” RT rating of 52% with an Audience Score of 59%. Despite praise from the likes of Lisa Schwarzbaum and Stephen Holden, it seemed that most professional Film Critics either choose to ignore it. Either way it failed big time to connect to the audience I know it has. I gave up trying to convince several pals to see it because it has such a low rating on RT.

Even the mainstream and unchallenging movies are suffering from Consensus Film Evaluation. For example — and, this one will probably make more than a few people reading this roll their eyes — but stick with me. Anne Fletcher’s big budget movie staring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand was killed by two aspects of the current state of cinema: Bad Marketing and Consensus Film Evaluation. The Guilt Trip is by no means a work of what I would call “Film Art” but it is most certainly not the movie promised in this poster.

Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in Anne Fletcher's The Guilt Trip Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton

Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in Anne Fletcher’s The Guilt Trip
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton

This would appear to be a very “digitally enhanced” Streisand and a very unsurprisingly stoner-like Seth Rogen in another lame “Focker” like bland “watch this iconic movie star be ‘outrageous’ with a toilet and ‘uber-cool’ Seth Rogen! — in other words, the last movie anyone wants to see. The marketing and the promotion of this movie were so bad that I honestly do not think the majority of critics bothered to actually see it. A reading of several respected critics’ reviews point to minor plot points that were only featured in the awful previews. In reality, this is a surprisingly realistic depiction of a mother entering the last quarter of her life and a son at a crucial turning point of his life trying to connect on a road trip. Streisand looks her age. Rogen never is required to do any stoner routines. In fact, the movie is almost more concerned with the challenging mother-son dynamics. That concern is presented in a fairly naturalistic way by two undeniably charismatic movie stars. Nothing earth shattering, but surprisingly insightful.

The Guilt Trip carries an equal “39%” rating. If only Paramount had marketed the film correctly, this movie would have succeeded and would have had a more fair chance in the worrying wold of Consensus Evaluation.  Instead, it failed to be the sort of movie that Rogen or Streisand fans want. But, the audience that would have enjoyed this small movie just ignored it altogether because none of this audience care for what either of these iconic actors usually do.

And that brings us to the latest excellent opportunity to “re-think” Consensus Film Evaluation: George Miller’s personally return to the character and story he started in the 1970’s with Mel Gibson. Now some 30 years later he has Tom Hardy playing what has been called “a more realized” vision in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller Cinematography: John Seale

Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller
Cinematography: John Seale

George Miller’s new movie has stirred up a great deal of “acclaim” and “discussion”  There can be no denying that Miller has found a stronger actor in Tom Hardy. And there can be no denying that this is a very different Mad Max than we have known. With very few actual opportunities, he does manage to bring a new meaning to “Mad” Max. This Max is not just angry and seeking vengeance. This Max is damaged and clearly dealing with a sort of PTSD that makes him oddly passive until pushed to the brink of death before he burst into a true fury. Most importantly, Miller’s film creates true adrenaline-fueled intensity in an almost unrelenting assault of the senses via clever interlacing of digital enhancements to real ‘analog’ stunts. Depending upon an individual’s point of reference this is either an intensely fun rollercoaster ride of a movie or an impressively imaginative but gory experience of action and noise.

Tom Hardy's skills are once again masked in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy’s skills are once again masked in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

While I was impressed with the over-the-top stunts and the clever use of real stunts and digital work, ultimately I found the film way too long and short on plot to be interested. As hard as it is to believe, I was truly dazzled visually,  but a mild headache and boredom set in at about the 40 minute mark. Essentially this is a movie about frantic car chase/battle going from point A to point B and then repeating almost the same trek back to Point A — only Miller somehow finds ways to escalate the brutal onslaught of violence and noise.

As I stumbled out of the cineplex I was at once impressed with many aspects of what Miller did, but honestly was more heavily disappointed at the way this creativity was used. Miller’s vision is alive with ideas, but much of them feel like they were lifted from a Death Metal teenage fever dream. And why did he opt to apply a mask over Tom Hardy’s powerfully expressive face for much of the movie? Aside from feeling like something stolen from Christopher Nolan’s interesting but overly-ambitious final chapter in the Batman franchise — it also only serves to mask the only “human” element in the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road currently rates really “Fresh” with an unreasonably high rating of “98%” from critics and “90%” from the Audience. This makes it one of the highest rated films on RT. Later, I sat down and actually read the full reviews from these critics. In reality, only a couple of critics truly loved this movie. The majority found Miller’s ability to create such a frantic level of tension to be the most important aspect. When I looked back at how RT had assessed the critics reviews, I think they applied a higher rating than the critic seemed to be giving.

And then it hit me. I had gone to see this movie because it was rated so high on RT. Shit. I just fell right into the lameness of Consensus Film Evaluation which could end up crushing the already very restricted word of Film Art for artist who actually have something to say.

Apparently the Apocalypse will be accompanied by a very loud metal band. George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road

Apparently the Apocalypse will be accompanied by a very loud metal band. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

Oh, and just to add some perspective to the value of Consensus Film Evaluation, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather currently holds a rating that is exactly “1%” higher than Mad Max: Fury Road. It doesn’t take Film Theory major to see the problem here.

Marlon Brando as The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 Cinematography: Gordon Willis ...just barley "fresher" than Mad Max: Fury Road

Marlon Brando as The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 Cinematography: Gordon Willis …just barley “fresher” than Mad Max: Fury Road

Ken Russell  1927 - 2011 Photograph | 1988 ©Vestron Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

Ken Russell
1927 – 2011
Photograph | 1988 ©Vestron Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

When I think of British film director, Ken Russell, a number of words immediately come into my mind. The words or phrases I associate with Ken Russell are as follows:

Brilliant, British, Pushing The Envelope, Anti-Repression, Classical Music, Eccentric Artists, Obsessive, Auteur, Bombastic, Surreal, Genius, Avant Garde, Anger, Anti-Religion, Dark Eroticism, Carnal , Crass, Experimental Artist, Cultural Critic, Sardonic, Brutal, Human Lust, Lavish, Cinematography, Creative, Imaginative, Drug Culture, Transgressive Artist, Controversial, Intellectual, Form, Style, Orchestrated Chaos, Excessive, Angry, Provocative, Shock-Master, Sexually-charged, Kicking Against The Pricks, Unhinged Cinematic Master and An Original – in every sense of the word.

Ken Russell's GOTHIC, 1986

Ken Russell’s GOTHIC, 1986

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Ken Russell’s artistic career is the fact that all of these aspects of the artist seldom blended to create that special alchemy that can form a masterful film. It seems as if these aspects that formed The Great Ken Russell also hindered him from being remembered as the Cinematic Genius he was. With the possible exception of only a few films, one has only to watch one of his films to see his genius at work. And with the exception of only a few, one only has to view one of his films to see how he most often undermined his own work.

There can be no question of the magic and inspired work found in such films as WOMEN IN LOVE, THE DEVILS and TOMMY. All three of these films capture almost every word or phrase that came to my mind, but all three of these film work beautifully on almost all levels.

WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Women In Love will always remain Ken Russell’s most accessible and commercial film.

The cast of WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

The cast of WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

A brilliant adaptation of the infamous novel by Larry Kramer, Ken Russell conjured a stunning cinematic experience.

The erotic eating of a fig. Alan Bates as Rupert in WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

The erotic eating of a fig. Alan Bates as Rupert in WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates were never better or more sensually attractive as they are in this movie. And the mix of Billy Williams’ cinematography, the music of Georges Delerue, the fine performances, sensual eroticism and Ken Russell’s obsessive care form a brilliant cinematic experience which fully captures D.H. Lawrence.

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, WOMEN IN LOVE

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, WOMEN IN LOVE

Eleanor Bron, WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Eleanor Bron, WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates' infamous nude wrestle.

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ infamous nude wrestle.

women_in_love_1_2

However, THE DEVILS may be a bit too brutal, angry, avant-garde and shocking to suit the tastes of many.

Vanessa Redgrave, THE DEVILS, 1971

Vanessa Redgrave, THE DEVILS, 1971

THE DEVILS retains a major place in Film History and Film Theory. It also features the very early genius of Derek Jarman who served as Set Designer and contains one of Vanessa Redgrave’s finest performances. It is also impossible to see this film as Ken Russell intended. Though, there is a bootleg DVD out there that comes close. This film caused such controversy in it’s depiction of an actual historic event that it remains condemned by The Vatican. The infamous Rape of Christ sequence earned the film an X rating and outraged many. However, this motion picture remains a powerful – albeit convulsive, view of Vatican hypocrisy and the culture dangers of State and Church merging. THE DEVILS is a raging, bold, theatrical, surreal, repulsive, operatic and intentionally blasphemous indictment against not only The Catholic Church but organized religion.

Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne love for Christ goes far beyond the appropriate scope. THE DEVILS, 1971

Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne love for Christ goes far beyond the appropriate scope. THE DEVILS, 1971

And, then Russell’s most commercially successful motion picture, TOMMY.

Your senses will never be the same. Ken Russell's TOMMY, 1975

Your senses will never be the same. Ken Russell’s TOMMY, 1975

Though this film is very much a sort of 1970’s Glam Rock Time Capsule moment — it is a brilliant cinematic rock opera. Far ahead of the cinematic curve, it is hard to imagine the concept of the pop music video or the existence of MTV without Ken Russell’s TOMMY. The film was the perfect storm for a mid-1970’s hit.

Tina Turner as The Acid Queen about to rip his soul apart. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner as The Acid Queen about to rip his soul apart. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner is The Acid Queen about to apply the first of many injections. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner is The Acid Queen about to apply the first of many injections. TOMMY, 1975

Acast filled with the coolest and most talented pool of rock musicians along with the Sex Kitten purr/roar of Ann-Margret.

Ann-Margret is The Mother. TOMMY, 1975

Ann-Margret is The Mother.
TOMMY, 1975

In addition, TOMMY captures a great deal of the time in which it was filmed: cult religion, rebellion, sexual freedom, a growing understanding of the impact of trauma on children, the power of drugs for insight, the sexual revolution and the general unrest and anger seething in Wester Culture as the 1970’s moved to the mid-point.

Elton John is The Pinball Wizard. TOMMY, 1975

Elton John is The Pinball Wizard.
TOMMY, 1975

That blind, deaf, dumb boy sure plays a mean pinball. Elton John, TOMMY, 1975

That blind, deaf, dumb boy sure plays a mean pinball. Elton John, TOMMY, 1975

The story of The Who’s Tommy is given a whole new perspective from the 1960’s concept album. Ken Russell’s love of opera and all of eccentricities of his imagination were the perfect match for a rock opera. And, Ann-Margret was the perfect leading lady for him. Ann-Margret has always been a talented beauty, tommy6

but has also also always come on a little oddly strong and theatrical. Her tempo and seething eroticism matched every turn of Russell’s camera. Her delivery resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a leading role. A nomination that shocked as many as it pleased. In my opinion, TOMMY was Ken Russell’s finest hour as a filmmaker. It adheres to his aesthetic / style and offers him a chance to be commercial to the mass public. TOMMY was the perfect “trip” for the mid-1970’s.

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And, while it is now a bit dated, there is no way one can watch it without feeling the power of the film itself and note the ways in which it has been copied over the years.  And, it is also impossible not to note that Ken Russell was inspired and enchanted by the physical / erotic presence and glam rock star look of Roger Daltrey.

Roger Daltrey is Tommy and a new muse for Ken Russell. Iconic and Erotic. TOMMY, 1975

Roger Daltrey is Tommy and a new muse for Ken Russell. Iconic and Erotic. TOMMY, 1975

One can’t help but suspect that it was his interest in Daltrey’s charisma and pop star status that moved him to make one of the most curious, strange and truly bizarre major Hollywood productions to ever find itself not only “green-lighted” but released to a world of mainstream movie screens…

Uh, oh. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt. Ken Russell's LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Uh, oh. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt. Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA, 1975

There was already a very positive buzz surrounding Russell’s production of TOMMY.  In the US, Columbia Pictures was already certain it had a massive hit coming their way. For the first time in his career, Ken Russell was truly being evaluated as a major player in the film business. Before he even finished filming TOMMY he knew he wanted to return to one of his favorite subject matters – the challenges and obsessions of the great classical composers. It has also been rumored that his perception of creating film had greatly been altered by his experience of working with The Who and interacting with the superstardom surrounding the band and the other rock musicians he had been able to cast in the movie. It is not surprising that he came up with the idea of what would become LISZTOMANIA. However, what is surprising is that Warner Bros. was so eager to get the movie made. What would have made the Big Warner Bros. “Suits” think that Russell’s script could ever be anything but a confusing mess is a cultural-head-scratcher. This is especially true when one thinks about the woes that their previous funding of Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS had caused them. True, that film was highly praised by some — but it is also true that it spurred equal amounts of anger. Audiences either loved THE DEVILS or hated it. One can argue that a work that can cause such extreme reactions is most likely a very valid work of art. But, this does not usually spell “blockbuster” — and, as with THE DEVILS, it resulted in being banned all over the world. But whether it was some sort of frenzy over the fact that TOMMY was destined to be a huge hit, or the drug-out culture pervading Hollywood at the time or just the simple idea that “the kids” will pay good money to see anything with the lead singer of The Who, rock music and the “weirdness” of TOMMY — Ken Russell’s next infamous feature was approved and set quickly into production. It is perhaps the biggest budgeted example of Experimental or Surrealism ever made by a major Hollywood studio.

Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt and he is enjoying one of his groupies.  LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt and he is enjoying one of his groupies.
LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Ken Russell’s concept for the movie is not a bad one. Combined with his love of classical musical history, the creation of art, the cultural rebel and his new found interest in 1970’s Glam Rock Pop Culture — the basic idea of LISZTOMANIA is a seemingly valid and interesting cinematic idea. Anyone familiar with classical music history knows that Franz Liszt enjoyed a whole new sort of popularity during his lifetime. In the classical music “scene” of last quarter of  18th Century Europe, classical composers / musicians normally performed before a hushed audience who were there to take in the pleasure, power and essence of the music and “to be seen” — but Franz Liszt was inspiring something totally new in the world of performing arts. He didn’t just appeal to the wealthy. He appealed to almost everyone — particularly women. Reports of young women following him just to steal a tossed cigar or to catch a glimpse of their favorite composer.

Roger Daltrey in the prime of his Erotic Superstardom as Franz Liszt. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Roger Daltrey in the prime of his Erotic Superstardom as Franz Liszt. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And, many reports on record state that patrons often had a hard time concentrating on Liszt’s music due to the noise of the young women who would scream and push forward to the stage. Though, the word did not yet exist — Franz Liszt had a loyal fan following. And these fanatic “fans” would swoon and be totally swept away by his playing as much as his mere presence.

Heinrich Heine first coined the term, “Lisztomania” in 1844. Heine saw the reaction of Liszt’s following as becoming hysterical and falling into a “Liszt Fever” — audiences literally going crazy as he took to the stage. Swooning, dazed and applauding throughout his performances. Franz Liszt had “groupies” and apparently enjoyed the pleasure of their company.

LISZTOMANIA, 1975

LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Though, modern scholars would most likely warn that this was nothing like Western culture experienced in the early 1960’s with The Beatles. But, a valid argument can still be made that Franz Liszt may have been the first “Pop Star” — with one of compositions we now refer to as “Chop Sticks” being a signature piece he would perform to the delight of the young women.

Princess Carolyn rests on a somewhat oddly yonic bed while enjoying a joint as Franz serenades her with his magical music…  LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Princess Carolyn rests on a somewhat oddly yonic bed while enjoying a joint as Franz serenades her with his magical music…
LISZTOMANIA, 1975

No doubt, Ken Russell saw the correlation between what is known about Franz Liszt and the 1970’s rock star. A rock star like Roger Daltrey. And, Ken Russell appears to take great joy in the meshing of costume with 1970’s Glam Rock fashion.

Franz Liszt about to leave the wife behind as he heads on to another lengthy tour. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Franz Liszt about to leave the wife behind as he heads on to another lengthy tour. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

LISZTOMANIA movie promotion, UK. 1975

LISZTOMANIA movie promotion, UK. 1975

Unfortunately, Ken Russell didn’t stop with the Rock Superstar metaphor / allegory. After the creative energy and sheer delight of creating outrageous set pieces for TOMMY, he wanted to push his idea even further. Suddenly, the story of Franz Liszt was an opportunity to illustrate the hipocracy of The Vatican and the vile politics of The Pope.  Here, Ken Russell had the “inspired” idea to cast Ringo Starr as The Pope. Religious icons were replaced with Pop Culture Icons such as modern rock and movie stars.

Ringo Starr is The Pope. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Ringo Starr is The Pope. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And to examine the evil of humanity that would spawn Fascism and The Third Reich.  Oddly, there is a valid connection here to the story of Franz Liszt. His daughter, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner – both were vehement anti-Semites and were part of an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of The Third Reich. An idea that would corrupt German culture and plant a seed that would grow into The Nazi. All of this historical information fueled Russell’s imagination and pulsated into a comic book re-telling of the horror of The Holocaust — featuring Richard Wagner as the Ultimate Evil Villain vs. Franz Liszt as The Ultimate Super Hero to fight and beat down the Oppressive Nazi “Superman”.

The Creation of Wagner's Evil Nazi. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The Creation of Wagner’s Evil Nazi. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

On top of all of these strained conceptual ideas, Ken Russell wanted to create a world of cinematic pop culture. A Surrealist take on both history and the creation of art. And, of course, where their is a pop star there will be sex. Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA Is obsessed with sex and the erotic. It is also obsessed with cartoonish takes on phallus symbology. One can hardly keep up with the number of penis substitutes in the set and costume designs.

Are those columns or is she just happy to see Franz. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Are those columns or is she just happy to see Franz. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The movie is also quite intent on pursuing yonic symbols. From simple heart shapes to a literal giant vagina that sucks Franz Liszt in to a swooping ride.

Franz about to be sucked into the tunnel of wet love. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Franz about to be sucked into the tunnel of wet love. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And, one of the strangest musical numbers involving the invoking of “Liszt True Muse” — his penis. …And, then chopping it off to free him of his ties to the carnal.

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Uh, oh. Franz is getting turned on… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Uh, oh. Franz is getting turned on… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The historical figures / groupies are seeing Franz's "genius" grow...

The historical figures / groupies are seeing Franz’s “genius” grow…

Taking a ride on the "genius" of Liszt… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Taking a ride on the “genius” of Liszt… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The musical boner...

The musical boner…

Oh no! Time to chop it off!

Oh no! Time to chop it off!

In the end, once we come to the conclusion of Ken Russell’s film, Franz Liszt must die. And, only in death can he truly beat The Evil Wagner Monster. Surrounded by his lovers, muses and even Cosima — he leads his ladies in a rock ballad and then they all zoom off in a rocket back to earth to defeat Wagner’s Nazi Demon and rid the world of Evil.

In Heaven, Franz leads his lovers in a rock ballad...

In Heaven, Franz leads his lovers in a rock ballad…

Before heading in a rather phallic "Organ" "Rocket" to kill the Evil Wagner Nazi! LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Before heading in a rather phallic “Organ” “Rocket” to kill the Evil Wagner Nazi! LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The camp factor is notched up to “13” by the time Ken Russell’s film comes to a close.

One of the few truly inspired ideas of Russell’s in this movie is the musical score. Rick Wakeman brings his electronica conceptual musicianship to the film and “reconstructs” Liszt compositions into the form of mid-1970’s rock. While not always creating radio-friendly tunes — the idea is inspired and well worth a listen. However, no amount of promotion could push this soundtrack into a hit recording. The soundtrack, along with the movie, has developed a hardcore fan base.

The Rick Wakeman / Roger Daltrey soundtrack album.

The Rick Wakeman / Roger Daltrey soundtrack album.

The soundtrack itself has an interesting back story. Worried that the music Wakeman and Daltrey had created would never sell, Warners sold the rights to A&M Records who quickly pushed Wakeman to tone down the music actually used in the film in hopes of making it more “commercial” — the result is an uncomfortable mix of classical music and middle of the road rock.

Close to thirty years later, Rick Wakeman, issued a more proper soundtrack of the film via digital version.

Rick Wakeman: The Real LISZTOMANIA soundtrack recording, 2003

Rick Wakeman: The Real LISZTOMANIA soundtrack recording, 2003

This version preserves the more intense and insane concept of the musical score.

Erotic Exotic Fantastic - It out Tommy's Tommy.  LISZTOMANIA promotion, Restricted, 1975

Erotic Exotic Fantastic – It out Tommy’s Tommy.
LISZTOMANIA promotion, Restricted, 1975

The really odd thing about this horrible film is that it is actually so bad it is entertaining. A jaw-dropping cinematic experience if ever there was one, Ken Russell’s totally unhinged and unhindered vision results in a true cinematic curiosity that can only be considered a massive cinematic error. However, the off-kilter balance of Yuk-Yuk Vaudville jokes, music, Avant-Garde sets and waked-out visuals are truly mind-boggeling. It is hard to not enjoy this film and it does enjoy a strong cult following. A couple of years ago a pristine DVD was issued in the UK featuring a commentary from Mr. Russell himself recorded about a year before his death. Sadly, while his sense of humor is strong — his memory seems to have faded and he offers very little insight into what was going on in his head when he crafted this film. Sadly, the DVD was only released in the UK. However, Warner Brothers Archive had made a remastered and letter-boxed DVD version available on its website. They print it by order — as they do with several Ken Russell titles. Tragically, Warners still refuses to officially re-issue any version of THE DEVILS. That film was released to VHS briefly in a severely censored version in the early 1980’s.

I can’t help but feel a great deal of love for this misguided movie. I am filled with wonder and inspired by the simple fact that a mainstream Hollywood studio not only financed this movie but pushed it forward with a great deal of fanfare. If you get a chance, you might just find yourself enjoying the absolute insanity of Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA.

As a side note, while he did promote it at the time of its release, Roger Daltrey has refused to ever publicly discuss LISZTOMANIA since a week after it’s initial release. I find that odd, but then again — not as odd as the movie itself.

It's a wrap! And, Roger Daltrey is proudly carrying off a prop which was missing until a fan of Ken Russell met the director and confessed that he had the giant cock in his backyard. He would not tell Mr. Russell how he came to have it.

It’s a wrap! And, Roger Daltrey is proudly carrying off a prop which was missing until a fan of Ken Russell met the director and confessed that he had the giant cock in his backyard. He would not tell Mr. Russell how he came to have it.

And, who knew Franz Liszt spoke with a Cockney accent?!?!!?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amarcord by Federico Fellini, 1973

Amarcord is a neologism Fellini contrived from, which comes closest to the Emiliano-Romagnolo dialect phrase mi ricordo (I remember). Fellini, a great liar, denied this origin, claiming instead that it was a mysterious, cabalistic word, linked to invention rather than memory. 

Amarcord by Federico Fellini, 1973

Amarcord embodies this equivocation between memory and invention, between a world represented (remembered) and a world created (imagined). 

Amarcord, Fellini, 1973

Amarcord is not memory — or if it is, it is a false memory – not fragments of what once was but fragments of what is imagined to have been…”

Sam Rohdie, from his essay on Fellini’s AMARCORD –

Federico Of The Spirits, 2011

Amarcord, the boat of dreams. Federico Fellini, 1973

Amarcord

Federico Fellini, 1973

Cinematography: Guiseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s AMARCORD, 1973

AMARCORD, 1973

Lust Re-Rememberd by Fellini in AMARCORD, 1973

“You begin to shoot an action, and suddenly you are taken with the shimmering of light on a crystal of glass”

Federico Fellini, 1972

“…Such processes, essentially irrational, unconscious, almost impossible to plan (the vagaries of light, a sudden glimmer of recognition), were for Fellini (impressed by Jungian psychology and  its notion of archetypes) signs of creativity and artistry. They were the I, the Me, of Fellini…”

Sam Rhodie, Federico Of The Spirits, 2011

Federico Fellini’s 1973 cinematic master piece is now available completely restored to its original glory on Blu-Ray and DVD by Criterion.