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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whenever you tell me stories you want something from me.

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

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

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

Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013

Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He filled a nature!”

He woke up.

With an apple shoved down his throat!

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

It was just sex!

It was just an apple!

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

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

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

 

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 11.9.2016

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Dern as a woman in deep trouble... INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Laura Dern as a woman in deep trouble…
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

There is an early key scene in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. It is between one of several characters played by Laura Dern and another played by the great Grace Zabriskie. A neighbor has dropped in to introduce herself to her movie star neighbor. A bit uncomfortable, but friendly — Nikki invites the woman in for a cup of coffee. After the neighbor sips a bit, she begins to enquire about Nikki’s next movie role. A role that the neighbor feels Nikki has most certainly secured Though it is clear that Nikki is unaware she has been cast.

It only takes a few minutes before Ms. Zabriskie gets to the actual reason for her unannounced visit:

“Is there a murder in your film?”
“Uh, no. It’s not part of the story.”
“No, I think you are wrong about that.”
“No.”
Brutal fucking murder!
“I don’t like this kind of talk; the things you’ve been saying. I think you should go now.”
“Yes. Me, I… I can’t seem to remember if it’s today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I’d think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet, there is the magic. If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.”

Her finger points across the room. Laura Dern’s Nikki’s eyes turn following the direction of her neighbor’s finger.  And with a turning pan of the cheap digital camera we and Nikki are transported to a different time. Maybe even a different side of reality. Maybe…

Grace Zabriskie points toward the unknown brutality... INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Grace Zabriskie points toward the unknown brutality…
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Way back in 2006 after experiencing David Lynch’s Inland Empire for the first time I wrote this:

Well, kids — I saw the new David Lynch movie today. Yes, INLAND EMPIRE is almost a full 3 hours of Lynchian assault.

Did I like it? Yes, I think I did. Actually, I may love it. I think I am still processing the experience. Trust me. This is a cinematic experience.

While I did find it a bit long, I was never bored.  My eyes, ears and mind were stuck to the screen the entire duration. There were more than a few people in the audience who had seen it twice already. I have to agree with those audience members — this is a film which seems to require multiple viewings. 

I am still trying to figure it all out in my head. What did all those symbols mean? Most importantly, what does it symbolize to have Nastassja Kinski sit on a sofa while Suicide Girl types dance and lip sync to the late/great Nina Simone? I guess she and them could symbolize a lot of things.  And, why the Beck song?

Word to the wise: if you do see it — stay thru the final credits.

I love that the cinema in which I saw the movie was playing selections from the new Tom Waits compilation CD, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. This turned out to be quite right for setting the tiny San Francisco cinema’s atmosphere.

Hypnotic, oddly gorgeous, without linear thought/plot and featuring a brilliant performance from Laura Dern — INLAND EMPIRE is horrific, beautiful, confusing, perverse, sad, funny, lost and ultimately a brilliant cinematic slight of hand.  If you like David Lynch you will not want to miss it. I plan on seeing it again with a couple of my pals.

 

"Come on, baby Jump up Jump back Well, now, I think you've got the knack Wow, wow!" Laura Dern & Friends(?) INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“Come on, baby
Jump up
Jump back
Well, now, I think you’ve got the knack
Wow, wow!”
Laura Dern & Friends(?)
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Three years later, I wrote this:

David Lynch at his very best. This is the first film he has made which rivals the brilliance of Blue Velvet. Tho quite long, the movie is NOT dull.

Blessed with an incredible acting turn by Laura Dern who seems to be wandering through the consciousness of an actor in way over her head and possibly sharing that space with a demented film maker, INLAND EMPIRE is almost impossible to describe.

This experimental film shows how much a filmmaker can do with equipment available to all of us. It also serves as a reminder that just because we have access to the equipment — no one without such untethered genius can use it as well.

Sound and image have seldom merged better.

INLAND EMPIRE is a puzzle of a film that will be pulling in viewers for decades to come. Without question, this is an important film.

"Ye-ye-ye-yeah Move around the floor in a Loco-motion!" INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“Ye-ye-ye-yeah
Move around the floor in a Loco-motion!”
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Not too long ago on Letterboxd I wrote:

One of my all-time favorite films is also one of the most experimental I’ve ever seen. This is a brilliant motion picture experience captured with cheap video cameras.

Interpretation is certainly open-ended. Even still, I’ve always viewed this as an actor who has lost her identity in a role.

But even more unsettling is the proposition that manipulation of “identity” could potential lead one into some horrific alternate realities. Are they real or are they each operating in some sort of parallel universe?

Best to just pretend you’re seated in dark cinema.

Turn out the lights. Turn up the volume. Just watch and listen.  Allow Inland Empire to wash over you. As it does, you are probably going to discover some vague connection that is as surreal as the film itself.

If you are not someone who does not appreciates David Lynch, experimental art or if you’re afraid of the dark — do not even attempt to watch it.

Laura Dern On the run and lost... INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Laura Dern
On the run and lost…
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

 

Having recently watched Inland Empire the other night on a pristine German-imported blu-ray, the film remains fresh, disturbing and enigmatic as ever.

The film floods over me like some sort of brilliant wave of sound, paint and amplified humanity. I find it difficult to articulate what grabs me. But it grabs me every time I see it.

As someone who has dealt with panic attacks and disorientation, there is a spastic sort of resonation. However, this would be me, a member of the audience, projecting myself onto David Lynch’s carefully crafted and often grubby Epic of Surreal Cinematic Masterpiece.

Yes, that is what I wrote. I used the “masterpiece” word. For me, Inland Empire is a cinematic masterpiece.

I refuse to be swayed.

It is filled with odd sort of “clues” that seem to dangle and blow like thin strings refusing to tie together.

The logic is circular and filled with menace.

There is more symbology going on than one can ever hope to rattle even with the sturdiest of sticks.

A meta-film to beat all meta. A cinematic experiment without a clearly stated thesis beyond the posters tagline: “A Woman In Trouble.”

"What the fuck happened here?" I say: "He come to a reapin' what he had been sowin', that's what." They say: "Fucker been sowing some kind of heavy shit..." Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“What the fuck happened here?” I say: “He come to a reapin’ what he had been sowin’, that’s what.” They say: “Fucker been sowing some kind of heavy shit…”
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

As the woman (or women) in trouble, Laura Dern was given an amazing task as an actor. A task that she not only managed to achieve — Laura Dern rose above any sort of expectation. The lines between acting and reality are simultaneously drawn, twisted, subverted and blurred beyond recognition. Dern seems to literally become entwined with digital signals that form the movie itself. By stating this, I mean to write that this actress is not simply the focus of most of the film’s images —  Laura Dern’s performance and presence folds into digital images that David Lynch’s cameras capture.

This performance even amps itself beyond Dennis Hopper’s brilliant turn in Blue Velvet. The only reason it has never been given similar credit is because of the often exasperating “lengths” to which Inland Empire stretches, bends, loops and merges to form and invert itself.

For various reasons, I’ve found myself spending time with this particular movie.

I have to confess I was relieved when viewings were no longer required. But with the arrival of this blu-ray, I jumped back into the surreal madness of Lynchian Vision. I did so without request or hesitation.

"So, you have a new role to play, I hear?" Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“So, you have a new role to play, I hear?”
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

In the end, for me Inland Empire is a complex exploration of human identity. The identity of an artist who finds her non-professional actor’s life begins to morph, twitch, mingle and merge with those of her roles. So vested in her performance, the complexity of a new film’s character splinters into creation of multiple versions and films. The ultimate artistic nightmare.

Forever chasing her selves through horrific and dismal set-ups. Just as she might be about to latch on to the core of herself she is sent running after another lost figment. A rambling psychological, visceral, emotional and dangerous trap. Her identity becomes so fragmented and polarized that the audience shares in her existential conundrum.

"This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it's tomorrow." Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it’s tomorrow.”
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

I could not help but feel slightly alarmed when a person on Twitter, known as The Movie Shrink,  sent me a link to a new viewpoint regarding a movie. The movie happened to be Inland Empire. @Plisskenboon’s translation of David Lynch’s strange epic is precise and self-assured.

I can’t state that I’m in full agreement, but it is an impressive deconstruction and evaluation of this Lynchian World that forever runs about within the confines of The Inland Empire. Um, yeah, it is a real place.

(You would be surprised how many people do not realize this.)

Splintered, fragmented and distorted... Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Splintered, fragmented and distorted…
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Check it out. …if you dare:

http://plisskensmovies.blogspot.co.nz/2015/03/inland-empire.html

A person, a woman, an actor, her character(s) and shared identities are forever trapped... Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

A person, a woman, an actor, her character(s) and shared identities are forever trapped…
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it’s tomorrow.”

Matty Stanfield, 11.20.15

 

 

““Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
― Ernst F. Schumacher

If ever a filmmaker has attempted to avoid moving his films in a conventional and contrived manner, it would be Benoît Jacquot. This is a film director who aims for realism without offering much in the area of character motivation or any level of explanation regarding the choices, actions and behavior of the character(s.) This mode of pursuit is not unique, but when it comes to several of Jacquot’s films it is an essential choice. This is a choice that many embrace but often more try to reject. And yet, Jacquot’s often quirkily passionate films have a way of lingering on in our memory. They should not be easily dismissed.

Pas de scandale / Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquet, 1999

Pas de scandale / Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquet, 1999

I had just hit my 30’s when I first volunteered for both The Boston Film Festival and the then fairly newly established Boston French Film Festival. I knew a great deal about movies and was not dazed by the idea of “celebrity.” Not one to be intimidated or one to be intimidating in my communications, over a couple of years I began to be offered more interesting opportunities. Sadly, my professional life prevented me from becoming too involved. Even still these were eye-opening experiences.

Appropriately titled... À ma soeur! Catherine Breillat, 2001

Appropriately titled…
À ma soeur!
Catherine Breillat, 2001

One film that had come to the attention of both festivals was Benoît Jacquot’s Pas de scandal (or No Scandal.) Jacquot was most assuredly established within the world of International Cinema. His 1995 film, A Single Girl, which attempted to adhere to the style set forth by Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, had been embraced. Any discussion of A Single Girl without reference to the La Nouvelle Vague would be a crucial mistake. Another crucial aspect of Jacquot’s A Single Girl that must be mentioned is it’s complex simplicity. Virginie Ledoyen’s “Valerie” is not dealing with her immortality as Varda’s “Cleo.”

This is not to say that Valerie doesn’t have a great deal on her mind. Just starting a new and often humiliating job at a swank hotel, she is pregnant and increasingly stubborn in not wanting marriage or support from the child’s father. This independent choice is not so much a statement of Valerie’s individuality as much as it is tied to a young woman’s often irrational and immature reaction(s) to the situations into which she finds herself. She is rebellious. She is determined. She is manipulative. She can be cruel. She can be kind. She is intelligent. Most of all, she is unpredictable.

La fille seule / A Single Girl Benoît Jacquot, 1995

La fille seule / A Single Girl
Benoît Jacquot, 1995

As Jacquot follows Valerie throughout her first day of new employment, it is filmed in “real” time. Whatever we learn about his central character is largely limited to the way she pursues her day. And the way she pursues it does not always make logical sense. But how many of our own actions are consistently logical? This film arrived at just the right time to catch audiences attentions. The film was highly valued despite a number of production goofs. One of the main issues with A Single Girl is the low-budget style of filming on the busy streets of Paris. In more than a few scenes we see Parisians and tourists staring at the camera and small film crew. It didn’t matter, the lead actor’s presence, beauty and skill merged with Benoit Jacquot’s story and camera were a perfect match. And it wasn’t the bearing of mortality that made the film interesting. It was the often mundane interactions which Valerie often imposes an odd will and assertion that made the awkward all the more strange.

La fille seule was correctly translated to A Single Girl. It was quickly learned that the title for this film’s North American release was to be retitled Keep It Quiet. Yet another odd choice within the realm of foreign film translation to English title choices. My votes for the two most achingly bad translation titles remains Chabrol’s brilliant Merci pour le chocolat which became Night Cap and Breillat’s À ma soeur! which was changed to Fat Girl.

An inappropriate title for North American distribution... Fat Girl Catherine Breillat, 2001

An inappropriate title for North American distribution…
Fat Girl
Catherine Breillat, 2001

A problematic choice to say the least, To My Sister! would have been a far more appropriate title. At the time, it almost felt like the North American distributors seemed to think that Breillat’s disturbing film was not provocative enough!?! The American title leaves an unintended extra sour taste in the mouth. Yet nothing could eclipse the brilliance of this angry and potent 2001 film. À ma soeur! or Fat Girl, an essential chapter in The New French Extreme shocks with a purpose. No title can change that. Sadly, the North American title of Night Cap assigned to Chabrol’s profoundly Hitchcockian bit of dark humor and suspense did confuse many a potential ticket buyer back in the day of its initial release. Merci pour le chocolat appeared to be a quiet and intellectual drama. It was a very poor marketing choice for one of the cinematic master’s finest later works.

However, Keep it Quiet was a surprisingly solid title translation choice for Jacquot’s strange little film. If ever a film appears to excude French culture, it is 1999’s Pas de scandal. The film is simple, yet deeply complex. It concerns a family of wealth. There is a bold honesty constantly at play, but continually muted. The characters carry intellectual, mildly quirky and stylistic personas thanks to their physicality, actions and nuanced glances. Keep It Quiet has an interesting air of sophistication, elegance, intelligence and emotional distance.

Please, whatever you do, do not cause a scene in public. Isabelle Huppert and Fabrice Luchini do not need much in the way of dialogue to express the complex and illogical of their choices and actions. Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Please, whatever you do, do not cause a scene in public.
Isabelle Huppert and Fabrice Luchini do not need much in the way of dialogue to express the complex and illogical of their choices and actions.
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

What makes Keep It Quiet unique is that while it is all of these things, it is not verbally articulate. One of the film’s core concepts is that none of the three main characters seem to know how to communicate or even remotely articulate their respective feelings and thoughts. The result is a surprisingly charming and sad family study in which the characters act like human bumper-cars. The characters are constantly bumping into each other, but are careful to never crash. No car is completely thrown off the road. However, it is plain to see that all of them would most likely prefer that to staying the course that their respective personal choices, compulsions and obsessions have sent them speeding down an uncertain road.

Released in France and Europe as Pas de scandale (obvious meaning being No Scandal) the film fared well commercially and even better from a film criticism standpoint. But even though the film is blessed with the appearance of rightfully respected International Film Star, Isabelle Huppert, it was barely released in North America. A quick debut at The Toronto Film Festival and a very limited screening in a few major American cities, the film went unnoticed. Part of the challenge faced with marketing this highly innovative film was the fact that it avoided exploration of the transgressive. There is no real violence to speak of, a very brief scene of nudity and sexuality and none of the extremities that French Film was becoming known for a the time. And while the American title makes sense, it is hardly an attention grab.

Fabrice Luchini Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Fabrice Luchini
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Fabrice Luchini plays one of two brothers from a French family of considerable wealth and power. The eldest and more business savvy of the two, he has taken over the family business. He has been responsible in building the business into what appears to be an International Empire. Interestingly, we never learn much about the family business beyond it is powerful and creates a great deal of money. While the business has flourished under the elder brother’s leadership, he made some morally and illegal decisions that have caused him to be convicted and serve a time in prison. It is never actually stated what criminal action Gregoire Jeancourt has committed, we determine it was significant enough to cause an national scandal. One could even argue that it is unclear if Luchini’s character actually committed the crime or simply took the fall for the family.

The film begins with his first day freed from prison. Fabric Luchini sits passively with a cup of tea in a cafe. His face has a child-like level of curiosity with hints of sadness. When Isabelle Huppert enters the cafe, we see Luchini’s face light up with hope. Huppert is clearly moved, but it is unclear as to which emotional direction she is moving. Both are uncomfortable. Huppert’s Agnes presents a pleasant but fully removed presence. Yet when she starts to speak Agnes reveals there is a great deal just beneath her distant surface. It is only through an awkward bit of conversing that we realize this is Gregoire’s wife. This is the first time they have seen each other since his imprisonment and declaration of corporate guilt. Agnes’ attitude toward her husband quickly becomes a basic assumption projected onto Gregoire: he seems disoriented, confused and perhaps even a bit insane.

Sighing and lost between the struts and flirts.. Vincent Lindon Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Sighing and lost between the struts and flirts..
Vincent Lindon
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

The younger brother is played by Vincent Lindon who for a never explained reason(s) was pushed out of the family business altogether excepting a share of the profits. In the meantime, Louis Jeancourt has firmly established himself as nationally admired TV Chat Show host which aims to be intellectually challenging vs. the normal exploitive aim of most popular chat shows. He has lived his live as a playboy. Ever flirting and seemingly ever uncomfortable with any level of romantic commitment. Even more odd than his sister-in-law, he appears to be more than a little uncomfortable with his elder sibling’s release from prison. Less concerned with “seeing” his brother or offering a greeting, Louis is only concerned with how the public will perceive Gregoire and their family name. Like almost every character in Gregoire’s pre-prison life, his brother thinks that there is something emotionally disturbed about his older brother.

Gregoire’s beautiful wife treats him with an icy demeanor and is more concerned with getting to her beauty salon than catching up with her husband. She is even more clear that she holds no sexual interest, when she surrenders to his sexual needs she seems shocked that his focus is more on giving pleasure than taking. No words of this brief, intimate but non-explicit scene are offered, but it seems clear that Agnes is more shocked than aroused by the experience. The husband and wife seem to constantly be in situations in which each wants to state something of emotional importance. Neither are able to do this. Never clearly stated, it would seem that Agnes remains out of duty but her husband yearns to express his love and need for her. In one of the film’s more oddly powerful moments, he tries to make his wife listen to his planned comments for an upcoming national interview. Agnes puts out that she is far too busy to sit and listen to his speech. But when it emerges that the real reason he is wants her attention is not to actually review planned statements but to offer her his personal declaration of love.  When we see a bit of his interview he sits in awkward but oddly comfortable silence. Immune to the questions regarding his guilt and corporate gaul, he simply looks out as if focused on something off in the distance.

The wife and the would-be-mistress remain kind and gentle, but an undercurrent of resentment is just hanging like a vague threat above both of them. Isabelle Huppert and Vahina Giocante Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

The wife and the would-be-mistress remain kind and gentle, but an undercurrent of resentment is just hanging like a vague threat above both of them.
Isabelle Huppert and Vahina Giocante
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Benoit Jacquot fully employs the use of Olivier Lebé’s lush musical score. The film’s score if of import because during the first half of the film is seems in opposition to the images warmly captured by Romain Winding’s cinematography. Most of all the ambitious and gushing score seems far too musically emotive for the film’s characters and story. As the film develops toward it’s ending point this mismatched music begins to not only work, but has a schism-like impact that fits in nicely with what becomes both a passionate and cleverly intellectual film.

Gregoire may very well be having a sort of emotional break, but it is more likely that time away from his life has given him pause to reappraise his priorities. As he attempts to find a way to fit back into his life, he once again must reappraise his connections to family and his firm. There is nothing at all simple about this movie. Vincent Lindon’s Louis is deeply wounded, limited and afraid of life. He seems to hide behind his public persona to shield himself from having to significantly connect to anyone. Agnes is not the icy and distant woman she seems trying to be. Instead we begin to see that she is a loving and caring mother. We also see that while her love for her husband may be forever tarnished, there is love there. As we see she and her younger brother-in-law interact there is an increasingly uneasy feeling that their relationship has at some point taken a turn for the inappropriate. None of this is ever clearly discussed or validated, but there is a sense that Agnes’ concern for Louis goes far deeper than that of a sister-in-law. In another of the film’s most powerful moments, she and Louis meet for a cup of coffee. As Louis works up the courage to reveal a surprising truth, her intellectual reaction is both filled with humor and logic. Her physical reaction and his to her reveals something far deeper. Is her brother-in-law the actual father of one of she and Gregoires’ children? Or, is there some deeply real romantic desire between them that must remain unexplored?

Is there more here than meets the eyes? Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Lindon Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Is there more here than meets the eyes?
Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Lindon
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

And as Gregoire’s patience with his family’s dismissal of him as disoriented or a bit insane wears thin, we see him reach out to a young woman who seems less interested than intrigued by his advances. At an uncomfortable and awkward family dinner we realize that Gregoire is far more aware of himself than others are giving him credit. He seems to prefer the company of strangers because he might find more honesty and less animosity. Jacquot’s film takes an unexpected final act twist when the wife finally steps forward with a single sentence that propels the audience to a new understanding of not only the family and the scandal: it provides us with a satisfying conclusion that explains more than it attempts to answer our questions. These actors have not just been playing characters in a story — they have slipped into the personas of the human condition. Suddenly the idea of a plot seems less important than the idea of having watched intelligent and well-intended people wandering confused through a challenging situation. Keep It Quiet is a bluntly realistic film that often pushes against ideas of logic and story-telling. Sometimes the human condition makes little sense from outside perception or even personal introspection. Nothing here is black or white. Nothing is simple, but all the complexities are presented with simple precision. Every shot of this film seems carefully planned. Benoit Jacquot has simply presented the complex.

"Go after him." Vincent Lindon and Isabelle Huppert Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

“Go after him.”
Vincent Lindon and Isabelle Huppert
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Jacquot seems to be studying the unstated and the unseen. The film is at once limited within it’s own odd universe, yet is a constant reminder that these characters are not as odd as they appear. Does a spouse who has faced public ridicule and inspection due to the other spouse’s criminal activity automatically rush forward to embrace said life partner as soon as he is released from jail? Or does the experiences of dealing with a public scandal fill her with a sort of dread and discomfort at welcoming her husband home? Does the newly freed husband become angry or does this reaction cause further escalation of disorientation? Does his celebrity chat host little brother rush with open arms to his older brother who has just served a year in prison? Or like his sister-in-law, is he apprehensive and perhaps even angry for PR nightmares that the brother’s actions have caused?

Taking Existentialism to a whole other kind of level... Fabrice Luchini Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Taking Existentialism to a whole other kind of level…
Fabrice Luchini
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

More to the point: Are all three people suddenly dropped into a disturbing situation with which none of them know how to deal?  For a film with very little dialogue that deals directly with the core concerns of it’s characters, Keep It Quiet is startling revealing and confoundingly curious. And in a rare moment of clarity, the North American title translation is actually better than the French film’s original title. This is not a film about scandal or the need to hide or defend it. This is a film about human beings who are unable to open up to each other. And in some cases, even unable to open up to themselves.

After making Keep It Quiet, Benoit Jacquot seemed to turn his attention to costume or period pieces. Most notably the exquisite 2012’s Farewell My Queen, which focused on the final days prior to the French Revolution through the eyes and experiences of one of Marie Antoinette assigned court readers. This film was extremely well-crafted and garnished a great deal of praise. But in 2009, he had returned to the complicated waters of human identity with his adaptation of Pascal Quignard’s novel, Villa Amalia. A fascinating and often stunning film, this movie was primarily focused on capturing another carefully textured performance from Isabelle Huppert. Despite the costumes, eras or the cinematic intentions, all of Jacquot’s films are closely tied to the unpredictability of human nature and the often absence of logic. In September of 2014, his 3 Hearts premiered in North America at the Toronto Film Festival.

3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014

3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014

In the past decade universally-shared languages has evolved to the point where foreign distribution to North America no longer seems to require odd “translations” for titles and improved subtitles. So much so that it made me chuckle when US distributors felt it necessary to release Jacquot’s 3 coeurs to 3 Hearts, but the title translation failed to aid the film in securing a decent US release. Despite screenings at one other US film festival, this film was largely limited to only a few larger US cities.

It is not surprising that this strange little film received mixed reviews and reactions. Despite the fact that there is a most certain connection to Leo McCarey’s 1950’s classic, An Affair to Remember, it seems many were unable to accept the idea of bizarre coincidences or odd logic to a romantic story. However, my initial response to a screening of this film last year left me somewhat conflicted. So confused was my response to 3 Hearts that it has taken me this long to comment on the strange film. It took another four viewings before I was able to clearly sort through my own issues with the film. One thing remained solidly in my mind from the first screening, this is a Benoit Jacquot movie. In fact, this might be Jacquot at his most unfettered. One should expect cinematic aspects that are both deeply complex and opposingly simple. The filmmaker is creating more than just a love story, he is playing with cinematic sensibilities without turning away from the illogic of the human condition.

A family of beautiful but strikingly different women lay at the center of this tightly-structured universe... Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Gainsbourg 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

A family of beautiful but strikingly different women lay at the center of this tightly-structured universe…
Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Gainsbourg
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

“3 Hearts” is an overtly romantic tale lensed as if it were aiming to be a psychological thriller. Bruno Coulais’ ominous musical score is an over-powering ode to Hans Zimmer’s effective score for “Inception.” Coulais’ musical score acts as a prominent character in this film. As the various production companies logos take form on the screen and the credits begin on black title cards, the almost apocalyptic warning of music starts to churn. The viewers are immediately placed off-balance with what is shown through Julien Hirsch’s cinematography.

The plot is challenging when compared to the mundane realities of life. Or is it? Many critics have complained that the “set-up” is unbelievable from the two beautiful female characters being almost obsessive in their shared love of one rather plain looking middle-aged man. This man works as a  Tax Accountant played by Benoit Poelvoorde. Poelvoorde is best known to US audiences for his unforgettable turn as Ben in the low-budget Cult Film, Man Bites Dog. Certainly far from conventionally handsome, Poelvoorde has never been a gym-perfected, surgically enhanced leading man. He looks his age. Carries a bit of paunch yet manages to retain a bit of his gangley-charm. In 3 Hearts, he moves about in an almost constant state of worry.  Perpetually stressed, Poelvoorde’s Marc is a bit of sweaty mess. Yet even as he fights through his panic attacks or possibly more serious heart condition, he puts forth a considerable amount of masculine charm.

Two incredibly close-knit sisters find their relationship unravel... Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Two incredibly close-knit sisters find their relationship unravel…
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Several highly respected critics questioned why characters played by the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg or Chiara Mastroianni would fall so hard for Poelvoorde’s nervous, goofy face and often comical physicality. This criticism in of itself is problematic. First and foremost, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sexual allure and beauty are already on the wilder side of populist ideas regarding female beauty. Without question she is someone the camera loves, it is impossible to not note that she carries a good deal of androgyny. She is closer to a middle-aged Patti Smith than normal notions of cinematic beauty. This is not a bad thing. Actually, it has assisted Ms. Gainsbourg ascend to a level of cinematic success that many would have thought impossible. Typically drawn to transgressive characters, Gainsbourg has never been shy about playing out the darker corners of sexual or erotic psychology. In addition to being a highly skilled actor, she has no fear when it comes to what and how she plays a role. But like Benoit Poelvoorde, she barely fits into the idea of conventional beauty. More “hot” and “erotically-charged” than beautiful, Gainsbourg has a strong level of power on screen tinged with a little girl’s voice.

Is anyone in there? Charlotte Gainsbourg 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Is anyone in there?
Charlotte Gainsbourg
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Chiara Mastroianni may be the real-life daughter of Catherine Deneuve and the late Marcello Mastroianni, but she has actually inherited very little of the angelic beauty of her mother or the carnal eroticism of her father. That being stated, anyone can see she is their daughter. Unlike her parents, Chiara Mastroianni has never give the impression that she was too worried about “beauty.” This is a serious actor who is not only highly skilled at what she does, she is intelligent in the way she approaches her roles. Like Gainsbourg, she is clearly comfortable with nudity and sexuality. However, I’ve never seen Ms. Mastroianni aim for provocation or even eroticism. This is an actress who plays it legit. Like her parents, she is blessed with a great deal of on-screen presence. As she has moved into her early 40’s, she brings forth a confidence that fully embraces her facial lines and moles. Certainly a beauty, she does not fit easily into the current mode of cinematic conventional beauty.

Realistic Cinematic Beauty  Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Realistic Cinematic Beauty
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

This of course if also why these two women stand out in the world of International Film: They do not conform to the hopelessly pathetic ideas of populist beauty. By refusing to even attempt to conform,  they define the rules of their careers. Their beauty is of more natural origin, but both bring an oddly grounded level of attractiveness to the table. From this perspective, it is reasonable to state that all 3 characters (our 3 Hearts) are a cinematic idea of normal/real looking actors. Even if we should accept the assertion that these two women would never turn their head in Benoit Poelvoorde, there is something important to note:

We human beings are a complicated bunch. We make illogical choices all of the time.

Benoit Poelvoorde  3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Benoit Poelvoorde
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

And we often fall for people that may not be the “obvious” choice. In reality, we are drawn to love by far more than just looks. Peolvoorde’s “Marc” is likable, charming as well as being more than a little lost and complicated. These characteristics are pure cat-nip coming from any sex that can often become an object of desire or obsession to another.

The story is of an unhealthy man who is either dealing with heart problems or severe anxiety. He misses his train back to Paris and accidentally meets Gainsbourg’s  “Sylvie” with whom he shares an almost instant attraction. Played with her typical grace and androgynously erotic charisma, the two spend the entire night talking. Somehow they fail to exchange the basic information of names, phone number and other essentials. But they make a date for later in the week. As they have no info about each other, circumstances prevent the date from being kept. Sylvie assumes she has been stood up and follows her life-partner for whom she seems to have little to no real love to live in the US.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and  Benoît Poelvoorde 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Benoît Poelvoorde
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Soon Marc crosses paths with the plainer but more grounded, Mastroianni’s “Sophie.” This is a softer and more needy woman. Marc falls for her immediately and she quickly returns the attraction. Marc’s heart issues and panic attacks subside. It is only as they near their wedding date that Marc realizes that Sophie is Sylvie’s sister. Another plot point that seems to defy logic. There is some merit to this claim, but as the film reaches its conclusion — this plot device actually makes sense. Jacquot has stated that he employs a cinematic idea first outlined by Alfred Hitchcock in which love and scenes of love are filmed and approached like scenes of suspense. Enter the use of Bruno Coulais’ intense musical score. The film is exceptionally paced. As the romance, sexual obsessions and desperate heart-aches churn, the film’s music never lets up. A constant gush of swelling worry indicating that serious danger looms over all three characters.

Catherine Deneuve plays the sisters’ mother. She is not given much to do, but what she is given she does brilliantly. Deneuve, much like Isabelle Huppert, can say more with a glance than most actors can do with an entire page of dialogue. This is a skilled gift Deneuve has gained over almost five decades in front of the camera. Always blessed with movie star charisma and presence, over the last three decades she has become one of the most respected film actors in history. In 3 Hearts, the character of the mother serves as a sort of calming logic as well as the sole character who seems to gain insight into the dangers as they begin to unfold and upend her daughters’ happiness. When the ramifications of these dangers are revealed, it is at once dire and expected.

Is domestic bliss enough? Benoît Poelvoorde and  Chiara Mastroianni 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Is domestic bliss enough?
Benoît Poelvoorde and Chiara Mastroianni
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

I’ve spent some time with this film because I have felt torn regarding my opinion. I’ve reached the conclusion that my “need” to watch it more than a couple of times indicates that something within the film’s universe fascinates me. And while there is a great deal of reality at play, this film creates a very tightly constructed universe unique to itself. As both Sylvie and Sophie offer to their Marc, they are living in small country France. These comments seem to carry more meaning than simply the provincial. This is a different sort of world within which these owners of three hearts are operating. As Marc slips in his chair and his head drops in a mix of despair and pain, the musical thunder delivers us to a perplexing and somewhat confusing scene. A scene that calls the cinematic perspective into question. Like the three characters, we are left disoriented and oddly enchanted.

3 Hearts and Keep It Quiet may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Like all of this director’s films, these two fall into many of the almost hopelessly stereotypical French Cinematic Style. But I do find it difficult to believe that an Art House Film Lover will find it easy to fully dismiss or forget either of these films. There is something to be said about Benoit Jacquot’s presentation of simple choices, illogic and accidents propelling characters into a dire fates that packs more than a few punches.

Even a historical fictionalization costume dram offers a realistic depiction of humanity... Diane Kruger as a real and very complicated Marie Antoinette Farewell, My Queen Benoît Jacquot, 2012 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Even a historical fictionalization costume dram offers a realistic depiction of humanity…
Diane Kruger as a real and very complicated Marie Antoinette
Farewell, My Queen
Benoît Jacquot, 2012
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Cinematic and odd. And ultimately Jacquot gives us an ambiguous twists. Is true happiness only a thing of dreams, chance or fate? Benoit Jacquot never fails to offer amazing insights and surprisingly strong performances.

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

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

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

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

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

And this brings me to Film Art.

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

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

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

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

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

Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Persona
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Stanfield, 9.20.2015

An Adam Sandler

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