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If you ever met him, you know that he was completely unforgettable. And he was someone everyone wanted to know.

Walt was a remarkable artist and an amazing person, There is no way he can be forgotten.

I’ve posted a few of his photographs below.

 

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Self Portrait Walt Cessna SF 09

Walt Cessna’s photography captured the erotic and the beauty. The work is immediate, sexy, honest, fearless and always human. Nothing was hidden, but some mystery always lingers. It sometimes feels that he is daring us to look closer.

If you are unfamiliar with his legacy, seek it out.

(and read his book!)

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FUKT 2 START WITH SHORT STORIES & BROKEN WERD by Walt Cessna, 2012

 

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Rica Shay photo-set by Walt Cessna NYC 12

 

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William Spangenberg photographed by Walt Cessna Bklyn 11

 

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Chad Ferro photographed by Walt Cessna NYC 10

 

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Shawn photographed by Walt Cessna NYC 10

 

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Self Portrait Photograph by Walt Cessna FL 12

 

Walt Cessna (1964 – 2017)

RIP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is decaying. Literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shall tell of another adventure that is all the more strange...” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

A film by Andrzej Zulawski Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A film by Andrzej Zulawski
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

This sentence was more or less lost in a late 1960’s translation of Kosmos. Sadly it would be that sentence that served not only as my introduction to a novel but to the Polish writer. Memory is a funny thing. While I forgotten most of the novel, it is that first sentence that stayed forever branded into my mind. I decided I needed to revisit  When I learned that Andrzej Zulawski was about to shoot a film adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s Kosmos, I decided to refresh my memory beyond a single sentence. I expected to be confused as I did remember it had been clunky regarding translation. I was excited to discover that the novel that had been warded the 1967 Prix Formentor Award for literature had been re-translated from Polish into English. Yale University Press published Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Gombrowicz since I had last thought of it.

Kosmos Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Kosmos
Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Witold Gombrowicz has always interested me. While he was a fiction writer he is equally known as a diarist. Where does his fiction merge into his reality and experience? How does the English reader know he/she is able to understand his prose’s complexity? German and French readers had better access to his work thanks to more accurate translations. My introduction to his work came with an understanding that he had to firmly defend his most popular work, Ferdydurke, from critics who felt it was satire. Satire had not been Gombrowicz’s purpose. His novels are known for exploring issues of identity and existentialism under the pressures of Nationalism and fast social change. But these explorations were made with a sense absurdity that tied closely to dark humor.

His characters are not fully developed. Their identities are fragmented by the repression, oppression and tyranny imposed by both culture and society. These characters roam about trying to formulate understanding of self/life under the strain and disturbing acts that forever alter the circumstances of being. And while there is a grim level of pessimism that leans against established institutional rule — Gombrowicz disagreed that his work was connected with nihilism, but the darkness is most definitely waiting.

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz's often mistranslated "Kosmos" is resurrected through another lens. Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz’s often mistranslated “Kosmos” is resurrected through another lens.
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Revolutions, wars, cataclysms — what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? …My literature must remain that which it is. Especially that something which does not fit into politics and does not want to serve it. I cultivate just one politics: my own. I am a separate state.” — Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Published 1988.

The improved translation helped me in understanding that much of my frustration was something Gombrowicz intended. The characters navigating within his Kosmos are never fully fleshed out. We know that our protagonist, Witold  has trouble waiting to crush him back in Warsaw. We also know that Fuks hates his boss. But we never know what the trouble is or why the boss is hated. In fact we are given limited information about every character. The novel’s extremes and paranoias begin to feed the reader’s imagination. Every action and decision seems to be a reaction to matters we can never fully understand. This vastly improved translation offers more insight into Gombrowicz’s complexity but it also grants permission to not second-guess the awkward phrasing.

The new English translation for Kosmos provides an entirely different read. In the novel two young men seek refuge from the pressures and hardships they experience in Warsaw. They escape the city to what they anticipate will be the nourishing warmth of the country, but they arrive with mutual respective existential crisis and life fatigue. They will soon face a series of random incidents that begin to shift Wiltold further into paranoia, existential crisis as he feels threatened. Gombrowicz brings humor into the equation. Paranoias, fears and angst begin to leap off the charts of rationality. The characters magnify the situations and incidents. They soon feels less coincidental and can be assumed to be intended threats. Witold is unable to consider these incidents as “random.” The unexpected chaos signals pending doom.  His ideas of existence and identity are as fragile as they are extreme.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'the pretty' with 'the good.'" Jonathan Genet Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘the pretty’ with ‘the good.'”
Jonathan Genet
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Isn’t it true? I thought, that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a halfhearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings.” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Boris Neleop interviewed Zulawski after Cosmos had received its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival receiving the Best Director honor. Neleop discussed the difficulty of finding accurate translations of Kosmos. The director agreed and pointed out that the film was based from the novel’s original Polish language.

Luckily, I’m Polish so I can read it. More luckily still, words like “bleurgh” in Gombrowicz mean nothing. What is it? Alban Berg, the composer? A cliff maybe? But in French it means the retching sound—bleurgh. Meaning you want to vomit. If you see a bad movie and someone asks you how it was, that’s what you say: bleurgh. So, it’s a happy coincidence.

Neleop attempted to engage the artist into a discussion regarding what he perceived to be a shared sort of spasmodic manner in both Gombrowicz’s novel and the great filmmaker’s work. Zulawski disagreed with the connection and seemed intent on avoiding the spasmodic with either work.

I don’t agree with you. I don’t think Gombrowicz is spasmodic: he’s quick, he’s rapid, he’s short and extremely rhythmic and… Do you know the word “caustic”? His writing is never hysterical. It’s caustic. It’s galloping but dry. I don’t think the actors are spasmodic at all. They are in their own delirium, but for them this delirium always has a profound logic. It’s not a bunch of mad men in an asylum. They are petit bourgeois. Witold wants to write a novel until he falls in love with this girl, who never has anything intelligent to say. His relationship with his young friend is really close, almost homosexual. So, it’s a complicated little cosmos.”

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014 Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014
Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

In answering a question regarding his decision to lift the novel out of its pre-war Polish context and moving it to 21st Century Portugal where a group of French people are living, Zulawski responded:

If Cosmos had been filmed according to the novel, it would’ve been a very depressing and ugly film. Why the hell should I see those terrible people? Sounds like a basically stupid question. It’s not. It’s like life. Why should I spend my life with ugly stupid petit bourgeois people? I won’t. I won’t spend my life in Hollywood either. I don’t like these people, I don’t like their stories. So it leaves you to stay alone for fifteen years. In my forest.”

Zulawski’s rejection of cinematic norms is nothing new, but after he made La fidélité he retreated. That film was released in 2000. He never retreated into a forest of seclusion, but it would be fifteen years before he made Cosmos. His return to cinema was not a safe one. Adapting a complex work like the Polish novel, Kosmos, was never going to be an easy cinematic proposition. And while his final film does articulate itself with some newly discovered levity, Cosmos has a great deal in common with some of his key works.

"Love me." Romy Schneider That Most Important Thing / L'important c'est d'aimer Andrzej Zulawski, 1975 Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

“Love me.”
Romy Schneider
That Most Important Thing / L’important c’est d’aimer
Andrzej Zulawski, 1975
Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

This film’s title is actually translated as The Most Important Thing is Love and Romy Schneider’s performance would have been enough to secure the film’s place in French film history. But there is far more continued within the frames than an iconic actor’s work. The film marked a new turn in filmmaking. Zulawski’s examination of the artist finding fulfillment in France’s mid-1970’s theatre scene leaves a mark. It is not so much the point of the movie that matters but they way in which that point flows off the screen. Visceral, angry, obsessive, compulsive and often frantic — L’important c’est d’aimer takes the concept of a tragic love story to poetic heights. The film’s fever-pitched passion and energy haunt the viewer long after the film ends. A contemplation regarding abysmal cinematic opportunities, the protagonist is often looking directly into the audience. While the film is realism it wants to push itself off the screen, into the theatre and run rampant. The characters Zulawski presents are not really all that odd, but the way in which they move, speak and propel is most assuredly eccentric.

"It doesn't hurt." Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance... Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“It doesn’t hurt.”
Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani gave Zulawski the performance of a lifetime in one of the most confounding films of all time. No one was prepared for 1981’s Possession. Adjani’s work on this film was so taxing that it triggered a very real emotional break. It only takes one viewing to underscore this as valid truth. Adjani was dancing on a high wire without a net. Zulawski was able to inspire her to start her performance with emotional hysteria set at Level 5 and then required her to turn it up to Level 21 before the experimental film comes to a crashing end. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Possession remains a testament to the talents of both the leading actor and its creator.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s 1981 film. At its most obvious level it is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to turmoils of the psycho-sexual. And, from another perspective, it is a metaphorical depiction of divorce. And it is a matrimonial breakup that takes on apocalyptic proportions. Possession is completely unique, surreal and metaphorical study of identity it extreme crisis. And it is fueled by an inhuman and intolerable repression of control. This control might be that of a stifling marriage or one propelled by government control. Or it could be a combination of both. It doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession — it works from any vantage point.

The passage of time has not dulled its sharp edges. The special effects and gore are still jaw-dropping. This is an Art Film that has become Cult and it continues to spark provocative reaction. It took decades for this very personal film to find its audience. There are several different versions of Possession floating around — all the result of censorship. Mondo Vision beautifully restored this film several years back. It is an essential film for any fans of Surrealism and Horror.

"Are you lost?" Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love. L'amour braque / Mad Love Andrzej Zulawski, 1985 Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

“Are you lost?”
Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love.
L’amour braque / Mad Love
Andrzej Zulawski, 1985
Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

Andrzej Zulawski’s adapts Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a neon-drenched fever dream. 1985’s L’amour brace’s characters, sets, cinematography, editing and acting indicate that we might have landed in some alternate world. The film moves as if it was pulsating forward via an amphetamine, cocaine and whiskey fueled injection of psychotic convulsions. Zulawski’s experimental film is a twisted Neon and most certainly avant-garde. The film is violent, but the violence never feels “real” and the graphic sexuality is presented in paradoxically restrained ways. The only time the film seems to be able to slow down is when Sophie Marceau and The Idiot consummate to a point of erotic “enjoyment” — And, even then, it almost feels like the camera is so jacked-up it can barely wait to continue it’s frenzied trajectory.

Easily one of the most stylistically influential films to ever come out of French cinema — Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan among them. And it had an impact on music videos of the day. This world of thieves, addicts, artists, whores, drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, anarchists, perverts and lovers is chaotic but somehow organized. Mutually-conflicted screeching rants, dances and terrorism form into a sort of dancing race against time. Zulawski seems to be inspecting everything from political activism, perversion, addiction, insanity, rage, the theatre, criminal motivation, rebellion, sex and love — but through a camera that is dependent on hallucinogenics for vision. Like PossessionL’amour braque is completely unique unto itself. It is safe to state that no other filmmaker will manage to make a movie remotely like these two.

"That's why there are common saints. God's morons with a soul but empty brains." Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity... Szamanka / She-Shaman Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

“That’s why there are common saints. God’s morons with a soul but empty brains.”
Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity…
Szamanka / She-Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland for 1996’s SzamankaShe-Shaman. Filmed in the newly freed Poland, the director brought the level of intense sexual obsession beyond expectation. It earned the nickname The Last Tango in Warsaw. While it is true that this film pushes further with graphic sexuality, it is seldom actually erotic. Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry push themselves to the extremes that are defined within the script. This might very well be the most challenging of Zulawski’s work. The cinematic provocation is not within the frantic obsessive actions and sheer frenzy, but lies far deeper within the film’s political and philosophical context. The two protagonists pursue their sexual and existential needs toward a deeply nihilistic end. Szmanka aches toward a brilliance that is almost impossible to endure.  Inexperienced actress, Iwona Petry, is near brilliant in her role, but she opted to end her acting career after Szamanka‘s release. Another interesting example of an artist agreeing to join the director on his journey but emotionally exhausted to the point of breaking once arriving at the destination.

Capturing "reality" in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame. Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory La fidélité / Fidelity Andrzej Zulawski, 2000 Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Capturing “reality” in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame.
Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory
La fidélité / Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Zulawski’s La fidelity / Fidelity was released in 2000. The film’s plot is more conventional, but once again his characters burn with almost convulsive urgency. This film forges a path that left many viewers cold. Its highlight is Zulawski”s great love and former muse, Sophie Marceau. She is brilliant in the role and her director understands how to capture not only her beauty but her energy. Years later I remember thinking that it seemed a pale sort of entry to serve as this filmmaker’s final work. Luckily it wasn’t.

Available from Mondo Vision La femme publique Andrzej Zulawski, 1984 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Available from Mondo Vision
La femme publique
Andrzej Zulawski, 1984
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

My admiration for Andrzej Zulawski runs deep and it is based within the realm of the personal. He was a brilliant artist who refused to be repressed, suppressed or held to any strict rule when it came to his art. And despite what some have attempted to insinuate, Zulawski was an admirable and kind person. His heart and passion shine through all of his films. Zulawski was always reaching into, under, over and well above the human need for love and understanding.

Even within the bleakness of Possession and Szamanka beats the heart of a very human filmmaker. I’ve decided not to touch on Diabel, La femme publique or On the Silver Globe  — these three films are unique masterworks that I am unable to address in a short blog. I will note that these three films are not really the best starting points for a Andrzej Zulawski neophyte, but then again — maybe they exceptional places in which to take that first plunge.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Boris Neleop’s attempt to engage Zulawski in a conversation about “spasmodic” characters is valid. Nearly all of Zulawski’s characters are extreme. While everything around them might be pushing inward to restrict / oppress — his characters refused to stay within the bounds of circumstances had designed. The need for knowledge, satisfaction, love and understanding leave them no choice other than to be extreme.

This auteur was always a bit sensitive when pressed to discuss the hyper energy or over-the-top passion found in his films. A word like “spasmodic” would make Mr. Zulawski recoil. He shut this sort of commentary so far out of his mind that consideration was no loner possible.

Mr.Neleop is correct: Witold Gombrowicz’s characters are a bit, well, spasmodic. And I suspect that it was their very nature that attracted the great director.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Zulawski had grown up with Gombrowicz’s literary work. My initial knee-jerk reaction toward Zulawski adapting Gombrowicz was that these two thinkers formulated thought in direct opposition to the other. I do not think Gombrowicz liked people. He thought and wrote about the existential, but these pursuits seemed formed from an essential repulsion toward humanity. This is interesting because his fiction is more than a little autobiographical. The way in which Gombrowicz creates the characters of his Kosmos is not kind. Zulawski’s entire film career was focused on the darker aspects of human nature — yet he loved people. He was a fighter and a rebel, but he was never anti-social. And he most certainly was not a pessimist. And, unlike Gombrowicz, he was not vain or concerned when it came to criticism or reward.

decorating lips. Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

She paints her lips as if with blood because she really wants to be an actress…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

I’m scared of the forests. In the midway of this mortal life I found myself in a gloomy world, astray. Gone from the path and even to tell, that forest, how robust its growth, which to remember only, my dismay. Renews in bitterness not far from death. All else will I relate discovered there.

Witold is frantically walking through the edge of a forest. Jonathan Genet has the look of someone from another era, but we already know that Zulawski’s Witold is a 21st century character. At first glance he could be a European fashion model, but his behavior is based within panic. He seems to be consistently on the verge of a mental break. When we meet Zulawski’s Fuchs, played by Johan Liberia, we discover they have traveled in a nice car. Fuchs’ name has been altered in spelling but he is still trying to escape the tyranny of two horrible bosses. In this new universe we know that his employers are high-end fashion designers.

While Wiltold is fragile and paranoid, Fuchs is robust and seemingly up for just about anything. Both behave in ways that lean toward the aberrant. Wiltold wants only to study, but he detests what he studies. Fuchs is primally focused on off screen violent sexual conquests. He reassures his friend that he plays safe, but bleeding wounds, bruises and other bodily issues are scars to his masochistic tendencies. And while it is never fully stated, these two friends would appear to share a bond that goes further than brotherly love. There are hints of a mutual sexual attraction and romantic fondness.

Something sinister is going on! Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Something sinister is going on!
Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Here, in Zulawski’s Cosmos, the two friends have run from France to Portugal. Fuchs is more lighthearted but still aches. Witold’s neurotic need to examine every move / object under his philosopher’s magnifying glass fractures his grasp of reality. The first thing Wiltold experiences after he secures his navigational balance is an encounter with a forest. It is one of the aspects of the world he hates most. As he rushes through the wilds of this forest he encounters the first of many grotesque encounters — a dead sparrow dangling from a string laced noose.

Soon he will discover ghost-like stains upon his rented room’s ceiling. These stains seem to be point toward something.

Fuchs also notices but is more curious than repulsed. The shape of a rake appears in the stain — and soon they discover an actual rake that directs their gaze upward to two small planks of wood hanging from a tree. The planks are tied together and hang by the same string from which the sparrow hangs. They hear talk of a chicken that was spotted hanging not too far away, but they never see it. And thus Wiltold and Fuchs begin to play a paranoid sort of game to attach meaning to these seemingly random signs. The game leads to an axe, a hammer, murder, death and metaphysical omens.

Madame is just overexcited... Sabine Azema Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Madame is just overexcited…
Sabine Azema
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A murdered cat hangs in the courtyard of the Bed and Breakfast. An eccentric married couple have been renting two of their rooms to keep up with mounting expenses. The wife, called Roly-Poly in the Polish novel, is played with goofy  nervous energy by the ever stylish Sabine Azema. We never hear her referred to with the novel’s cruel nickname. Here she is known as Madame Woytis. We soon notice that the female head of the house has a tendency to abruptly shut off in mid speak / movement. Frozen like a photograph. Her beautiful daughter explains, “Oh, it happens to her when ever she gets overexcited.

The daughter is Lena who is married to a seemingly successful business man. He seems to be in constant meetings with a mysterious Russian client. Wiltold is immediately vexed by Lena. But it is her niece, Catherette, with whom he is smitten. Catherette has taken the position of housekeeper. She is devoted but worries her aunt, Madame Woytis, because she refuses to have her mutilated lip cosmetically re-defined. We are told she was in a bus crash. But her mutilation looks more biological in origin. Her lip holds an entrancing mix of disgust and erotic curiosity for both Wiltold and Fuchs.  The male head of the home is Lena‘s stepfather, Leon, played with unhinged lunacy by Jean-Francois Balmer.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'The Pretty' with 'The Good.'" Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘The Pretty’ with ‘The Good.'”
Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Interactions with the family are beyond eccentric. This is a house of organized lunacy and chaos. When Wiltold meets Lena they shake hands maniacally and for an extended time. Soon they are “secretly” copying each other’s animated hand movements. But their odd flirtation is painfully over-the-top. Yet everyone around them is too preoccupied with their own strange non-senscial conversations that only Fuchs notices. The antics of this family appear and sound like something one would see in a  slapstick comedy. There is only one catch: none of it is funny. It is simply strange.  

Unlike Gombrowicz, Zulawski has no interest in making us laugh. He aims to throw his audience off balance. As frantic action and illogical dialogues ape the gestures/sounds of Keystone Cops — the film quickly forms into absurd surrealism. And yet, the film’s cinematography and musical score tease that we are watching some fucked-up romantic mystery. And these are romances and mysteries that seem unsolvable.

As omens of sinister consequence begin to mount the two visitors only become more confused. Wiltold takes a worrying turn when he starts to adapt to sinister cruelty. Ants roam through their food, slugs slither in butter, creepy beetles crawl out of Madame Woytis‘ soup, animals are killed, midnight axe chopping, mutilated lips, fever dreams and a priest who lets loose a swarm of flies when he drops his pants — all of which formulate a sense of doom. Witold is certain that this pending doom threatens to push him into The Void.

When tragedy does strike it fails to register as anything of consequence to the family. Leon takes to the wilderness singing out into what he points out is The Void.

"Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?" Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?”
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

At the film’s mid-point Wiltold has abandoned his studies. Instead he obsesses over Lena and her family. He becomes a willing participant in the sinister happenings that bother him. He turns to philosophical rhetoric for comfort, but begins to chart ideas into some vague sort of story. When we finally see a bit of his writing it is presented on his laptop screen. It is in French and not translated for non-French speakers, but it translates as:

The weight of here and now has become, like the beurk, decisive.

This is in reference to the nausea that begins to overpower Wiltold. Of course we think that Wiltold is writing a story, but there are more than a few hints that he is as motivated by cinema as philosophy. Zulawski has Wiltold and Fuchs poke fun at his own films. At one point it is mentioned that all of these strange happenings might make a good book, but Wiltold disagrees and figures it wold serve better as a movie. Zulawski’s cinematic puzzle ultimately tosses us into meta-film, but this is not an easy-out. It is the only resolution available for Witold, Fuchs, Lena and all involved.

Zulawski takes a poke at Gombrowicz. Of course he has been poking all along. When Fuchs offers a suggestion to the mysteries that have taken place, Witold pulls a bit of met-fiction by explaining his name:

“There’s a reason I have Gombrowicz’s first name. He never knew how to finish his novels nor their meaning.”

 

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski's Universe... Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski’s Universe…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Andrzej Zulawski has said that Cosmos was not only his weirdest film — it was one of the strangest films he had ever seen. I do not agree, but his Cosmos does indeed present an alternative universe. And it forms and is presented in a bizarre range of ways and manner. There is an offer of love, but this universe refuses understanding. Zulawski’s Cosmos is simply idiosyncratic and would far prefer to leave its inhabitants with their own conclusions. But they should never give up or jump off into The Void. This universe is simply too magically odd to skip.

Find Boris Neleop’s interview with Andrzej Zulawski —  here

Mondo Vision’s restored Andrzej Zulawski’s films http://www.mondo-vision.com

Matty Stanfield, 11.22.2016

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

One too many epiphanies had driven my resistance down. Feeling down had taken a sharp turn toward depression. I had pulled a blanket from the closet, turned out the lights, closed the blinds, took to sofa and prepared to lose myself into a movie. But had it really come to this? Yes, it had.

"I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know..." Nicole Kidman The Hours Stephen Daldry, 2002 Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

“I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know…”
Nicole Kidman
The Hours
Stephen Daldry, 2002
Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

It was already unfolding before my eyes. Nicole Kidman, two pockets filled with stones and a prosthetic nose were floating toward death. Ed Harris and Julianne Moore fell and swooned into their respective doom. Meryl Streep would soon be compressing into a tidy mess in her kitchen as Jeff Daniels stood by in a stupor of blonde confusion. And here I was watching the grim human sadness that is The Hours. To make it all the worse, I was suffering the added indignity of watching it all via an outmoded DVD. The 2003 DVD can’t seem to keep up with the 2015 huge flatscreen TV. Every image is a bit washed out and hazy.

"always the years between us, always the years. Always the love. Always the hours..." Nicole Kidman readies to descend. The Hours Stephen Daldry, 2002 Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

“always the years between us, always the years. Always the love. Always the hours…”
Nicole Kidman readies to descend.
The Hours
Stephen Daldry, 2002
Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

I sat up and decided to take matters into my own hands. I held the Universal Remote with a firm and fully articulated grasp. I pressed “Eject” with a sturdy resolve. Our sad copy of the depressive Stephen Daldry was quickly returned to its cracked jewel box. I’ve never been a half-measure sort of person. I seem to either go all the way or no distance at all. But I would not define myself as “extreme.” That isn’t too say I am not capable of excess. I am. It was at this point I opted for a movie that might lead my attentions in an altogether different direction.

As I slipped our Pillow Talk blu ray into the player I suspected I might be making a mistake. No one can accuse Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grandfather of understatement when it comes to his 1959 pop cultural cinematic landmark. On the one hand this film could be discussed as a gender identity politic comedic study — and on more than a couple of levels. With hindsight, the idea of Rock Hudson as a ruthless ladies man is beyond irony — Pillow Talk becomes more than a little meta when applied to ideas of sexuality.

"It's what goes on when the lights go off!" Pillow Talk Michael Gordon, 1959

“It’s what goes on when the lights go off!”
Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon, 1959

But on my other hand this move movie is just a silly romp that was most likely dated even when it arrived on CinemaScope Screens across the world. This box office hit scored more than a couple of Oscar nominations and a win! Yes, Pillow Talk was awarded an Academy Award for best original screenplay. It also gave Doris Day and Thelma Ritter Oscar nods for their respective performances.

It would be unfair to claim that this movie isn’t clever and equally amusing. It is. However it is not particularly witty. The plot is about as flimsy as it gets, but it is the performances, editing and sheer goofiness that makes this iconic movie so much fun. Thelma Ritter is the movie’s most valuable player. As she snarks and complains her way through the various hyper-color sets — Thelma not only advances the thin plot she continually comments on it. Her hang-over ridden character’s head is hurting not only from booze but from the woozy level of sexual repression going on all around her. Tony Randall is, well, Tony Randall. It works here.

"...this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some men who don't end every sentence with a proposition." Doris Day and Rock Hudson Pillow Talk Michael Gordon, 1959 Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

“…this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some men who don’t end every sentence with a proposition.”
Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon, 1959
Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

But the film really belongs to Doris, Rock and the creative split screen utilization. The telephone politics and party line of the late 1950’s might not be known to us, but we catch on pretty quick. Rock Hudson hams it up and seems to be poking the screen at his real life gay buddies. It is impossible not to chuckle, but it is Doris who really amps it all up. Ms. Day’s capacity for facial mugging seems to know no bounds. Her petite figure, bright blue eyes and deep red lips constrict and pulsate to unbelievable extremities. She is never wonky or goofy, but she totally camps her reactions and timing as if she were a tightly wound fashion doll ready to explode. A performance like this would be the thing of “Anti-Comedy” — but framed within the multiple frames of Pillow Talk she manages to trick out her performance that seemed to rival any other performance given in 1959.

Poor Jan is about to take facial mugging to a whole new level... Doris Day and Rock Hudson Pillow Talk Michael Gordon, 1959 Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

Poor Jan is about to take facial mugging to a whole new level…
Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon, 1959
Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

But all the double entendres, facial mugging and idiosyncratic editing began to take their toll on my troubled soul quicker than I expected. Once again I pressed the eject button. I decided to direct my mind toward  Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Diablo Cody’s acidic Young Adult. This movie almost fools me every time. How? I really should know better. I’ve seen it more than a couple of times. The thing is that it always makes me laugh. I guess I remember those comical moments over the reality that interlaces each one.

"Sometimes in order to heal a few people have to get hurt." YOUNG ADULT Jason Reitman, 2011

“Sometimes in order to heal a few people have to get hurt.”
YOUNG ADULT
Jason Reitman, 2011

I had skipped seeing this film when it was released. I was worried that it would smack of the same ick-twee that ruined both Juno and United States of Tara. Stop. Don’t complain or correct me. I know that the number of folks who love that movie and show well out number those of us who didn’t. But any sense of reality was tossed out the window to earn laughs. Young Adult is actually one of my favorite films of 2011. I was sorry I had not supported it at the cinema. As the story of Mavis‘ journey back to her hometown and that this entails began I worried that this disc might have been a poor choice for my day.

It is never clear if Charlize Theron’s Mavis suffers with Borderline Personality Disorder or if she is simply a truly cruel and self-involved functioning addict. It is to the film’s makers credit that it is never articulated. Theron’s movie role choices are often questionable from an artistic standpoint, but when she does manage to find her way into a good role, she plays it with gritty conviction. This is most definitely the case with Mavis. In more than a few ways, the actor actually goes beyond the power she conveyed in 2003’s Monster. The role of Mavis may not offer her the same obvious challenges, but it does lay out a gambit of challenges that most actors would fail. Theron is truly brilliant in this role.

Ewww. A baby. Charlize Theron YOUNG ADULT Jason Reitman, 2011 Cinematography | Eric Steelberg

Ewww. A baby.
Charlize Theron
YOUNG ADULT
Jason Reitman, 2011
Cinematography | Eric Steelberg

Mavis‘ story offers only a bit of insight into why she is so self-involved and raging. This is a woman headed toward 40 with the emotional intelligence of spoiled High School Princess. Each scenario in which we experience Mavis pushes up the level of uncomfortably so that we do laugh, but those laughs come at the expense of the characters on the screen. Cody, Reitman and Theron never back down. Just when we think there might be some hope for the protagonist the film zooms in on Mavis‘ deeply rooted delusions. This hard-edged study of human failing was not going to be as depressing as The Hours, but in some ways it was going to be equally soul-daring.

Eject.

So I pushed in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman. This twisted Danish film turned out to the perfect accompaniment for my blues. As strange as it is fascinating, Borgman presents the idea of home invasion as a folklore parable. van Warmerdam’s film plays out with stark efficiency. This is a tight and symmetrical example of cinematic storytelling that somehow manages to establish a constant threat of menace. The reason that this ever lurking danger is surprising because the film unfolds with a misplaced levels of orthodoxy.

"Please, come in." Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013

“Please, come in.”
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013

As I recall this movie came out of nowhere for me. I literally stumbled into the screening by default. I loved it then and I still love it now. Jan Bijvoet plays the title character. We meet Borgman as he is awakened from a slumber that might be closer to hibernation than rest. Like a demon, his determined vagrant emerges from a tunnel of various underground living graves. Nonplused and regimented, Borgman quickly wakens his sleeping pals and quickly escapes from the hunters who seem to seek to slay he and his kind.

I wonder if I could have a bath here. I’m a bit dirty,” he explains to a stern housewife. His polite directness seems to contradict his wild man appearance. He has walked up to the first suburban home that meets his satisfaction. It is an upper class home and well appointed. Luckily for her, the housewife smartly slams the door in his face. Without any sign of surprise Borgman strolls along until he finds a cold but wealthy looking bit of minimalist architecture that houses the poor family that accepts him in for a bath. He does not gain entry easily. A fight between the husband / father of the house takes place, but this only seems to ignite a greater need for access to their bathtub and home.

It is almost impossible to feel any empathy or understanding of the wealthy family as Borgman and his tribe begin to do what they will... Borgman  Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

It is almost impossible to feel any empathy or understanding of the wealthy family as Borgman and his tribe begin to do what they will…
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Borgman appears to be in charge of four others. It doesn’t take long to realize that this morose band of home invaders are most likely not human. They seem to illicit some form of powers over others and they might even have the gift of shape shifters. The children and their nanny seem to find Borman and his friends to be enticing beyond explanation. They easily accept he and his actions and demands with not even the slightest hesitation. The children and their nanny are not fully developed characters, but each seems to feel real. As Borgman‘s crew infiltrates their shared lives, their darkest aspects begin to shine through. The father and master of the house is also easily swindled into accepting / following anything that Borgman asserts or suggests. But it is Borgman‘s connection with the wife and mother that seems to hold the strongest grip. It is through this connection that much of the film’s menace emanates.

Is he planning to seduce or simply invade her dreams as well as her home? Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Is he planning to seduce or simply invade her dreams as well as her home?
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

By the time things take turns toward murder, seduction, suspicious implant surgery and other surprising bits of magic — the audience is not so much shocked as worried. It is an interesting and intoxicating mix of worry and curiosity. This unforgettable and grim little movie is spellbinding. It is difficult to even fully articulate why we feel worry or dread. Only the character of the wife is developed and she is not someone we trust or like. Clearly under Borgman’s influence she does manage a few moments of lucidity. When she expresses her fear and confusion it is unclear if she really and truly cares. She seems to know what is going down long before anyone on the screen or in the audience — she seems even more complicit than her children and nanny.

Momentarily forced into the role of The Hunted, Borgman quickly gathers his wits and sets out on a hunt of his own.  Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Momentarily forced into the role of The Hunted, Borgman quickly gathers his wits and sets out on a hunt of his own.
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Borgman‘s use of violence and horror is surprisingly demure. This is no typical horror film. In fact it is actually far less horror as it is a modern twist on the concept of folktales. The film smartly offers brief scenes that offer up allegory or parable but never to the point of the obvious. Although clearly a harbinger of doom, Borgman always artistically extracts his jollies with surgical precision. It is an unsettling and amusing view that provides insights with repeated viewings. This is a film that deserved far more attention than it received.

Even evil spirits need a bit of applause... Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Even evil spirits need a bit of applause…
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

As the credits began to roll I realized that it taken me a while to find the correct film for my mood. Turns out that a depressing movie was a bad fit. A broad comedy even worse. A dark comedic character study certainly wasn’t the right fit. No, I found some solace from my blue day from a Danish film that pushes the boundaries of horror into something mythical, mysterious and subversive.

Matty Stanfield, 7.5.2016

When the infamous Vincent Canby reviewed Fellini’s Casanova he spent some time praising what he saw. It almost feels as though he wanted to like flawed movie, but as he reached his closing summation he issued a frustrated dismissal:

The production is gigantic, but the ideas and feelings are small. One longs to go home and listen to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1977

"And Now...after four years of preparation and production..." Fellin's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976

“And Now…after four years of preparation and production…”
Fellin’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976

Mr. Canby was not alone. Even Woody Allen seemed to take a stab at the film. As Alvy and Annie Hall wait in a cinema ticket holders line, they are forced to listen to a pretentious fellow film-goer rant about the Federico Fellini’s latest self-Indulgence. The latest work was Fellini’s Casanova. I suppose one could argue that Mr. Allen disagreed as he magically pulls Marshall McLuhan into frame. Alvy has the enjoyment of seeing the esteemed media philosopher bring the pompous jerk down to size.  Alvy‘s contempt for this cinephile has more to do with forcing his opinions on everyone around him. No defense is made for Fellini’s Casanova. It is doubtful that the narrator and that film’s title character would find much in Fellini’s adaptation of Giacomo Casanova’s Storia della mia vita or The Story of My Life. The doomed movie simply serves as a jumping point for a great comic bit.

"What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!" Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with horse manure in it!”
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Vincent Canby’s review of the then long delayed Italian production was a fair and astute critique. If you are familiar with Canby’s style of criticism — he gives the movie a thumbs down, but also manages to praise more than a little of what he saw unspool on the screen. This is not something he was prone to do.

I’m not an expert on Federico Fellini, but I have had reason to watch this film quite a bit in the last two years. In that time I have also researched a good deal regarding the troubled production of Le Casanova de Fellini. As the genius mind often does, the great filmmaker had become obsessed with translating Casanova’s memoirs. His obsession had nothing to do with Casanova. He was fascinated by a man whom he considered to be an evil character.

As Fellini’s film well charts, Casanova did not love. The existence of his being relied upon sexual encounters with no connection to the objects of his interests. Interests would be the best way to term it. Fellini’s Casanova does not even really lust. It was only after shooting began that Fellini began to feel a level of empathy towards his title character. It would be this change of heart regarding his Casanova that would end up framing the entire film.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

The production began with a fundamental problem. His key financier, Alberto Grimaldi, had some very strong opinions about who would play Casanova. These two iconic figures of European Cinema entered into a battle of the wills. Grimaldi insisted that Fellini cast one of several major movie stars of the era: Brando, Redford, Newman or Pacino. Eventually Grimaldi gave in a bit and suggested Michael Caine. It is interesting that the producer even attempted to reign-in the auteur.

Fellini could never be reigned in. He got his way. He cast Donald Sutherland in the role. It was a bit of an odd choice, but it makes sense. Mr. Sutherland was a solid movie star, but not at the titan level of Grimaldi’s suggestion. He knew that Sutherland was a true actor and he also knew that he would not need to wrestle with the typical American Movie Star Ego. Fellini also saw a sadness in the deeply skilled actor. Sutherland’s casual approach also seemed to offer a sort of open canvas upon which he could paint. Or to be more precise — Sutherland was a tall thin form he intended to sculpt.

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini put his star through the paces, but Sutherland was stellar and did all and more than was needed. Fellini had hired him to play an unlikable and hopelessly alienated man. Before and when the shooting began Federico Fellini held the character in contempt. He had Sutherland’s head half shaven, applied a prosthetic nose, chin and other odd distortions served totally re-shape Sutherland. The actor looks the same from every angle. His face and being have been largely restricted. Often the only English speaker in front of the camera, he was not always able to communicate effectively. His eyes are really all he had to utilize on his own. At times it feels as if Sutherland is little more than a puppet with Fellini orchestrating his every move. Surprisingly this restrictive appearance serves Fellini’s purpose effectively, but not well enough to distinguish Sutherland as an essential player within the film.

The film was shot under extremely tight supervision and behind the closed gates of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Nothing about this film looks real. Quite the opposite, the entire movie feels like a gorgeous formation of a nightmare. Cold, barren and yet full of things to look at — Fellini’s Casanova is even more obscure than the far superior Fellini Satyricon. This is Surrealism to the infinite. As one expects, every actor on the screen is interesting to study. As is often the case with later Fellini, the grotesque is magnified. The movie is as much perversely disturbing as it is often stunningly beautiful. Anyone who doubts that Fellini was not calling and insisting on every single choice can be satisfied to discover that he had an articulated explanation for every aspect of the movie.

 

Only the actors are real... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Only the actors are real…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

If one wonders why the production design suddenly replaces actual water with black garbage bags, Fellini had demanded this odd choice to his esteemed Production Designer/Art Director/Costume Designer, Danilo Donati. The director chose to replace water with plastic garbage bags to serve as a metaphor for Casanova’s fraudulent identity and fruitless self-journey. Fellini knew exactly what he wanted and refused any level of compromise. As he was walking his actors through a key scene involving nuns, Fellini discovered a feeling of empathy for Casanova.

He quickly came up with two incredibly complex studio set ideas which changed the point of the film and would serve as cinematic bookends within which to hold the film. And these were not simple last minute decisions. They were complex and expensive. Donate and the artists at Cinecittà Studios had to continually succeed against tight deadlines. It speaks volumes for Federico Fellini that his cast, crew and the studio artisans did next to no complaining. The filmmaker was beloved and respected. Only the best work was put forward for their director. And it shows in the finished film.

 

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

The opening scene of Fellini’s Casanova is remarkable. An ornate and rowdy crowd assembles on the city’s banks waiting for something to emerge from the water. Impossibly complex rigs and tethers begin to pull and strain — a huge statue of Venus begins to emerge. The swelling crowed slips into jubilation as the Goddess of Love begins to peer out over the very real water. It is as if she is rising from the water as a blessing of desire, lust and love. Sadly the ropes and levers quickly buckle. The rigs and ropes snap under the strain. The giant statue promising erotic love and happiness slips forever lost to the bottom of the ocean. It is as if all hope for satisfaction and happiness has sunk. Nino Rota’s brilliant musical score adds to the potency of the visual. This is how Fellini’s Casanova begins.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

It is far more than grim metaphor. The failed attempt to raise Venus out of the water is never corrected. The film ends with a striking return to the film’s early warning sign. As Casanova attempts to find some form of connection and solace, he will realize that he is standing alone on a vast area of frozen water. The peering eyes of Venus are looking up at both him. Venus’ cold eyes are forever frozen beneath the lonely womanizer’s feet. It all sounds amazing, but one needs to be aware that this is a two hour and thirty-five minute epic of calculated iciness.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

A pal recently suggested that Fellini’s Casanova must be a bit like Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. But this is not a good comparison. True, Ken Russell’s highly experimental and comic-book take on everything from Franz Liszt to Richard Wagner to anti-semitism to WWII may be overtly eager, but there is sense to Russell’s unhinged film. If a person knows their history, Lisztomania is filled with an intentional goofy sort of logic that ties to the truth of the people and situations it satirizes.  Ken Russell was also smart enough to keep his film under the two hour mark by twenty minutes. He keeps the pace up with the surreal actions taking place on the screen.

 

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness... Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness…
Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Beyond the fact that both films were greeted negatively by critics and audiences, there is really very little that actually connects the two films. Lisztomania is a Surrealist’s absurd study of music composers connected to the rise of Facism presented through a Looney Tunes like lens. This interpretation is really not that far off base.  

Fellini’s Casanova has no interest in history. This epic film is steadfast in its indifference to logic, time or space. The lover, his reality, his Italy and even the horrific Inquisition are not based in any realm of reality. When those support beams and ropes break and Venus sinks to the bottom of the water — so do the film’s strings to logic. Additionally, the movie is not particularly well paced. Fellini’s Casanova takes its time. However the sets, the costumes, the odd assortment of actors, Rotunno’s cinematography and Rota’s haunting score aid in the propelling motion of the gloomy plot.

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

As laborious as it sometimes is, Fellini’s Casanova is visually unforgettable. I cringe as I write the following words, but as Woody Allen’s pompous ticket holder annoyingly laments,  Fellini’s Casanova is painfully self-indulgent. This fact does not mean that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this excessive film. A couple of DVD and BluRay distributors have managed to secure limited releasing rights to this film. One even claimed to have fully restored the film to its initial flawed beauty. Those claims have yet to demonstrate any truth. However a restoration should be coming in the not too far future. When it does eventually arrive, I do think  this 40+ year old film warrants owning for home viewing.

I know I’ve just criticized it fairly harshly but… Well… Um, yeah. I really do suggest purchasing a copy when it does become available. Fellini’s Casanova is a brilliant mistake!

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

This experimental epic failed in the 1970’s and it fails now, but not without a great deal of interest. Fellini’s Casanova is a visually stunning mess. Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is even better than usual. Danilo Donati and the work of Cinecitta Studios is truly other-worldly. Incidentally, Fellini’s film flopped — but Donati won an Academy Award for the innovative costume design. Nino Rota’s score is beautiful, effective and iconic. Chances are you have heard the melody even if you’ve never seen the movie. Odd, grotesque, surreal and lovely —  it is virtually impossible to look away from the screen. Even with a running time over two hours, Fellini’s Casanova is not a dull experience. It just isn’t much fun. This is a true flaw.

Fellini approaches his subject with a strong degree of hubris and judgement. Despite the perversities on display, this film is highly moralistic. The dialogue is often smartly witty, but never comical. This is another critical error. Fellini has checked his sense of humor outside the studio. There is no fun to be found within the gorgeous frames of his Casanova. As if in opposition to the dire tone is the clunky manner in which the film has been dubbed. It’s not that the voices fail to match the mouths as much as it is the intelligence runs against the film’s grain. The actors often appear to be lost within their director’s Mise-en-scène.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

Donald Sutherland lumbers his way through the film. He is essentially nothing more than a sad puppet at the mercy of his filmmaker’s whim. In a strange way, Sutherland’s performance works. Though watching the film now it is hard to wonder if it wasn’t just dumb luck. Vacant, sleepy and possibly bored — his confusion plays directly into the director’s ill-advised endeavor.

It is truly vexing how Fellini has opted out of offering any rays of humor or sexiness in his translation of the infamous Seducer and supposed Lover of women. This film is not the erotic adventure you might anticipate. It is actually un-erotic. Casanova‘s libido and desire have long been lost. Fellini’s film is not just a study of an aging womanizer — it is focused on the tragic existential journey of man who has failed to connect any meaning to sexuality. In fact Fellini’s Casanova does not appear to have ever connected to anyone or anything. This is a lover who’s identity and meaning have gone limp. …both figuratively and literally.

 

Seducing a robotic woman... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Seducing a robotic woman…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Clearly Fellini is pointing a finger at the growing sexual revolution. It is a point not off-mark, but it is consistently made in a haze of staggering showmanship that is often so bad it works its way ’round to being somehow valid.

A man who never speaks ill of women does not love them. For to understand them and to love them one must suffer at their hands. Then and only then can you find happiness at the lips of your beloved.” — Fellini’s Casanova

This character does not dislike women. He is simply indifferent to them. It doesn’t take long to realize his two-way street dilemma. The women do not care about Casanova either. They are only interested in his ability to sex. And sex he can. At least this is true in his youth. But the sex is presented in a dry and often disgusting manner.

Win! He has fucked! Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Win! He has fucked!
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I think some first time viewers make the mistake of associating this movie with the nunsploitation of the 1970’s. Do not expect that. Sure, the nuns get on the action, but Fellini has no interest in providing even a glimmer of titillation. Yes, it is visually interesting — but there is nothing remotely “naughty” here. It is intended to trouble, worry and depress. Like the bubbling sexual revolution going on just outside the film studio’s gate, Fellini’s Casanova is fucking to prove something.

Sex as sport. Sex as a game. Sex as a dare. Sex as a way to avoid. Sex as a weapon. Sex to hide the pain. Our lover fucks till he can fuck no more. The sexuality expressed in the movie feels like a harbinger of doom. With hindsight this is an interesting perspective. When Casanova finds himself in a sexual tryst with a robotic woman it is visually fascinating, but intellectually heavy-handed.

 

A gift of something to love for the title character... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A gift of something to love for the title character…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I find it interesting that the inclusion of this robotic doll of a woman was something Fellini dreamed up just after he began shooting. On the one hand this is a brilliant bit of story telling. Casanova is unable to connect to a living woman. Here Fellini offers him a fuck doll to end all fuck dolls, but there is a major problem. Casanova can pour his sexuality on her without any fear of rejection, failure or need to care. It is a poor choice that Fellini refuses to let up on the dreary tone. Casanova‘s tragic plight with the robotic woman could have been more clever if we were allowed to chuckle. But we are offered no relief from the gloom. Casanova‘s ice cold fuck doll feels like it might be the one thing that Casanova can love. The problem is obvious — a robotic fuck doll is unable to reciprocate love.

Doomed and slipping into the shadows... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Doomed and slipping into the shadows…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

And here we see the simultaneously effective but disappointing cinematic bookend ending. Casanova is left spinning with his love object atop a frozen bay. Peering up at him is the drowned concrete Venus. She is simultaneously a representative for his empty life as well as a goddess who judges him.

It is impossible to deny the artistry. And while the film is too long, it really is not boring. Fellini supplies plenty of eye and ear candy. The movie also has more than its share of WTF Moments. These moments are as not off-putting as they are simply interesting. A film like this could never be made today.

And while I really do disagree with the comparison to Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, it is easy to make the connection. Each film allowed both master filmmakers to pursue their respective visions without interference or restraint. But it must be noted that Russell’s vision and purpose is never placed above the viewers watching out there in the dark cinema. Fellini opted to simply dive into his obsession. A more fitting comparison might be to Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-fated and self-financed indulgence into the movie musical, One From the Heart.

Another director's obsession resulting in a cinematic error. One From the Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1981 Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

Another director’s obsession resulting in a cinematic error.
One From the Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1981
Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

But this is not really fair. One From the Heart is neon beautiful and features some amazing musical work from Tom Waits, but it requires true grit to sit through it. In the case of this 1981 Epic Flop, the director’s passion is dull. There is something maddeningly fascinating about Fellini’s Casanova. If you see it once, you will want to see it again. If you make it through One From the Heart you will want to demand a cookie for your effort.

It should be noted that Fellini’s infamous cinematic misstep continued to be challenged with production woes. This was in part due to Fellini’s last minute major changes of fancy but other issues came up. Much of the film was stolen and subsequently lost forever. The notorious theft was actually aimed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. A great deal of shot footage was forever lost. This included an entire sequence involving actress Barbara Steele. She was unable to return to Italy for reshoots. Sutherland and the other actors made themselves available. Fellini’s Casanova was delayed almost two years.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

When it became clear that the film was a fail Federico Fellini was crushed. It is important to note that he had considered this his finest work up to that point in his career. It is not difficult to understand how soul-draining a film’s flop can be for its maker, but there is an added measure when it happens to someone of Fellini’s abilities and stature. Fellini’s Casanova was an epic fail. But an epic fail from a cinematic master like Federico Fellini is still a masterful design. Being dull or uninteresting was simply not possible for this cinematic genius. This is a film that merits watching. And if you happen to love experimental film — you will most likely love this oddly flawed cinematic gem.

 

La Casanova de Fellini Federico Fellini, 1976

La Casanova de Fellini
Federico Fellini, 1976

Fingers crossed that we see it arrive to DVD/BluRay in a truly restored/remastered version soon!

Matty Stanfield, 6.16.2016

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

You see? There! It just happened again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a Regan and Thatcher world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrow Video Presents Crimes of Passion

Crimes of Passion Arrow Video Art Design by Twins of Evil

Crimes of Passion
Arrow Video
Art Design by Twins of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

matty stanfield, 4.15.2016

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A simultaneous blending of cinematic auteur theory and active collaboration

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

Continuous exploration of identity

A unique shape of narrative structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zone Joe Swanberg, 2011

The Zone
Joe Swanberg, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Box Set is available from Factory 25

Swanberg Full Moon Trilogy

Or you can rent or purchase all three from Vimeo

Swanberg at Vimeo

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

@ Fandor

Matty Stanfield, 4.7.16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is he hiding himself from her or her from himself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See it if you can…

Matty Stanfield, 3.22.2016

 

Are you scared or bored? The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016

Are you scared or bored?
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016

Ever since Robert Eggers’s The Witch screened at the 2015 Sundance word of mouth praises for the film have pushed expectations through the roof. A24 opted to wait over a year before releasing the movie to cinemas. This decision was no doubt to build up audience anticipation. Their plan seems to have worked, but was marketing The Witch as a horror movie might not have been the best strategy.

While a great many have been left spellbound (pun intended) — it would seem an almost equal number of people have left the movie disappointed. Some have even felt bored by the movie. I among those who consider this film as a cinematic gem and a great example of the Art Horror genre. In my opinion Robert Eggers is a much needed breath of creative air to the current world of cinematic art. So I scratch my head when I hear/read cinephiles bash The Witch. Why don’t they all love it? Why is The Witch failing to capture all imaginations? How can someone see this low-budget film and not be impressed?

Well, easily.

Has Mia Farrow been impregnated with the child of Satan or date raped by her husband? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Has Mia Farrow been impregnated with the child of Satan or date raped by her husband?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

What constitutes a great horror movie? A film that scares us on some level seems an essential requirement, but is there a way to make the definition of that word fit us all as a group? Of course not. We are all scared and disturbed by different things and styles. There are two horror films which can both be easily defended as cinematic masterworks: Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Both of these films terrified audiences upon their initial releases.

What would happen if Roman Polanski were 35 years old in 2015 and Rosemary’s Baby had debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival? Would it frighten audiences and be eagerly snapped up by A24? Let’s pretend it would. So it is February 2016 and you sit yourself down at a cineplex and watch it.

"All of them witches" Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“All of them witches”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Are you pleased with Rosemary’s Baby as a horror film or did it make you chuckle and feel resentful because the “pay-off” failed to make you jump or dumbfound you in awe?

Sure you might admire William A. Fraker’s cinematography, the eccentric performances and the ambiguity of what is actually happening on the screen — but would this movie disappoint as a horror film?

I have a knee-jerk reaction to this “what if” scenario. I want to dig my feet into the sand and answer, “Yes! It is provocative, entertaining, creepy, amusing and most certainly haunts my mind long after I see it!

However my knee-jerk might be a bit off.

"Your mother sucks cocks in Hell." Linda Blair The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Your mother sucks cocks in Hell.”
Linda Blair
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Ideas of what constitutes a horror film have dramatically changed since 1968. This is no longer the 20th Century. We have become jaded to violence and horrific events depicted in film. Movies are no longer presented as “Events” and most audiences demand more than looming threat and ambiguities from horror films. A solid example of this is to revisit William Friedkin’s  The Exorcist. Upon this film’s release in late 1973/early 1974, it literally caused an international sensation. Reports of heart attacks, fainting and full-on panic attacks in cinemas filled the news. Lines to ticket counters wrapped blocks and an endless slew of cinematic rip-offs soon littered cinemas for years to come. Even back in the early 1970’s there were people who found the grim horror film funny, but it would seem to have been a small minority of the film’s audience.

"The power of Christ compels you!" The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“The power of Christ compels you!”
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

In 2000 a new remastered and cut of the film was released into cinemas. This was The Exorcist: Version You’ve Never Seen. I was in the cinema to watch the movie with a sold-out audience. Parents with babies, sullen teens and eager fans of the 1970’s flick filled the theatre. Endless chattering throughout the on-screen commercials and previews led me to expect that I’d be watching the movie with children running around, teens giggling and older folks calling for silence. Instead something odd happened. The entire audience sat in silence once the jarring music of Krzysztof Penderecki met the film’s title card. I saw this film with 3 friends from my office. I didn’t care for the new ending, but was satisfied that The Exorcist had stood the test of time. Only minutes later as we exited the building I began to hear people talk about how comical the movie was. Yet why had there been no laughs during the screening? The 2000 release still brought in a significant amount of money for Warner Bros.

For those who would dismiss both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist as dark or even unintended comedy, it is important to access both films within the appropriate and respective contexts. By the time Rosemary’s Baby was released the Hippie Movement had taken a dark turn toward addiction, homelessness and the horrific introduction to The Manson Family truly crushed ideas of peace and harmony for many. Theories regarding the corruption of government was starting to brew over the top of the cultural pot. The important growth of the Women’s Movement had started to challenge the cultural status quo. Roman Polanski’s film worked on both the straight-on horror of the story presented, but it also offered plenty of ambiguous subjectivity to allow viewers to see the film as hallucination or even as a metaphor. When The Exorcist was released filmmakers had already begun to push the cinematic envelope far beyond what was accustomed. However, no one had really pushed it as far as William Friedkin’s film.

The guilt that will not die. A demon takes the form of a deceased mother... The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

The guilt that will not die. A demon takes the form of a deceased mother…
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Marketed as a horror film, The Exorcist presented horror in a whole new way. The Exorcist takes itself very seriously and the actors perform as if cast in a highly important work of dramatic cinema. This was horror movie gone the way of The Actors Studio with elevated production values. The Exorcist was missing most of the normal cinematic clues that it was a horror film. It also depicts the sadistic and perverse possession of an innocent little girl. In 1973 / 1974 no one had ever seen a child in such peril or scenes this shocking. This was a film of firsts.

And of course there is a whole other level of understanding at play in this iconic film — a reflection of its time. The government was letting us down from the Watergate Hotel to a meaningless war that continued to ravage despite overwhelming protest. The post Hippie Movement had evolved into the Sexual Revolution and Drug Culture was causing some serious cultural rifts. Parents no longer felt any control over their children. The Exorcist was a particularly incisive cut into the once communal ideas of cultural aspects once considered sacred. It expertly captured the Western World’s deepest fears into a manifestation of demonic possession of innocence that could no longer be protected.

No matter how you want to look at it, this was a whole different kind of world 48 / 43 years ago.

"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths..." Title Card The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Tobe Hooper, 1974

“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths…”
Title Card
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper, 1974

Horror films took a swift and dark turn that blended the fantastical with reality. What many might funny now, were visualizations of all too real horror for many in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. Kobe Hooper’s drive-in movie was far more realistically articulated than anything that had arrived there with the possible exception of his earlier The Last House on the Left. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was really not all that graphic, but it sent audiences into a horror of a different order. These two films manifested horrors of parents as well as their children.

"...consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer." John Malkovich looks into a portal that leads to his own mind. Being John Malkovich Spike Jonze, 1999 Cinematography | Lance Acord

“…Consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer.”
John Malkovich looks into a portal that leads to his own mind.
Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze, 1999
Cinematography | Lance Acord

The next film that comes to my mind will most likely lend a glimpse into what scares me. I saw Being John Malkovich on the afternoon it opened in Boston. I had heard nothing of it. I walked into that cinema free of any anticipation of what I was about to see. I wanted to see it because I quite like both John Cusack and Catherine Keener. While there was some very comical moments, this movie creeped me out. That night I met some friends at a bar and told them that Being John Malkovich was exceptional but quite disturbing. I think I actually called it a comical horror movie.

Dissatisfied, misunderstood and lonely. John Cusack contemplates falling into the consciousness of another... Being John Malkovich Spike Jonze, 1999 Cinematography | Lance Acord

Dissatisfied, misunderstood and lonely. John Cusack contemplates falling into the consciousness of another…
Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze, 1999
Cinematography | Lance Acord

I would later get questions from my pals who found the movie awesome, but not at all disturbing or horrifying. But for me the idea of someone finding a way into my mind or even worse, me being stuck in the brain of another is an absolutely horrifying concept. Talk about an identity crisis from Hell. Being John Malkovich still freaks me out a bit. I usually have at least one nightmare after having seen it.

Perhaps the most polarizing horror film of my time is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Unlike with Spike Jonze’s movie, I was well aware of TBWP. We all were. And I saw it during its first weekend run. This film had created a whole new way to market a movie.

Heather Donahue turns the camera on herself as she panics and fears she is facing her end. The Blair Witch Project Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

Heather Donahue turns the camera on herself as she panics and fears she is facing her end.
The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

The cinema was sold out. A good number of the audience was frustrated by what they saw. For me it was a positive horror experience. I had not ever seen a film quite like it. As Heather Donahue slipped into hysteria, I felt her panic. I’m not a person who enjoys camping. The very idea is scary to me. So this film already offered something that I find creepy — nature after dark. I quite admired the lo-fi ingenuity of both Daniel Myrick Eduardo Sanchez. The online marketing blitz was fascinating. Please note that the Internet was still kind of new. The fake documentary that screened on television sporadically at the time was equally odd. It seemed to be a real documentary. The film really felt like found footage. All three characters seemed like people you might know. Their shared and respective fits of rage and panic felt like the real thing.

The movie made a ton of money and spawned an endless stream of found footage horror films continuing to this day. The difference is that other filmmakers would learn to avoid aspects of The Blair Witch Project that deeply annoyed audiences. If ever a horror movie arrived carrying strong word-of-mouth it was The Blair Witch Project.

To say that it fully satisfied audience expectations would not be correct. Many found the jittery camera movements nauseating. Others found the whole film to be tease for over an hour resulting in deliverance of a limp pay-off. But I was among those who was impressed by the movie. I was not so impressed from a technical standpoint, but the style matched the plot. I liked it, but I could understand the reservations of others.

A very clever use of TV and Internet marketing The Blair Witch Project Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

A very clever use of TV and Internet marketing
The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick / Eduardo Sanchez, 1999

After wowing audiences at The Cannes Film Festival in 2014, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was released to limited cinemas and shortly after to VOD in 2015. The surreal and odd film received a great deal of red-hot press and strong word-of-mouth prior and just after it came out in the US. A meticulously crafted low-budget film that looks a great deal better than most low budget films, It Follows is far more than your average horror film. As praise mounted the movie became a painful example of falling victim to heightened expectations from horror movie fans. Even worse, Mitchell’s clever and disturbing little movie had sparked debate among Film Critics and cinephiles regarding its worth as Film Art.

How in the world do we define terms like “Horror Movie” and “Film Art” in a way to determine which films fit within each? More importantly, who has the right to set the terms?

I might detest movies like I, Frankenstein or Pixels, but to some these films are fantastic and should be considered “Film Art.” What gives me the right to argue their points down? No one or organization issues this right. Even if such a person or institution existed I would proudly rebel against it.

The subjectivity of art is what makes it great. And the freedom to voice opinions and evaluations is what makes being a cinephile fun, but lately differing opinions have really taken an ugly turn.

Is this where sex can lead? It Follows David Robert Mitchell, 2015 Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Is this where sex can lead?
It Follows
David Robert Mitchell, 2015
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Our 24/7 connection in the 21st Century has created a platform on to which international magazines, paid Film Critics and every member of the Audience can have an equal voice. This provides an awesome potential for the individual. From blogs like this to the exceptional podcasts, people now have the power.

The downside to this is that more than a few have opted to use that platform to be cruel and mean-spirited.

Such is the sad way of human nature. But every once in a while great films get unfairly gut-punched by the meanest and loudest voices. The result is that many individuals who might have been open to evaluating a movie that has gotten some negative feedback are led to believe that doing so would be jump on the wrong bandwagon. In other words, people are afraid of being bullied or appear ignorant to take a chance on a particular film.  The loudest and often most cruel voices manage to force a hand in keeping others from making up their own minds.

It Follows is not for all members of the collective audience. Very few, if any, movies will entertain everyone, but the quality of a film should not be made to serve as a barometer by which individuals are judged and causally dismissed as if each were a movie themselves. A person should be comfortable in being able to state she/he enjoyed a movie without fear of being flamed by others on the platform.

David Robert Mitchell’s surreal film explores everything from fears associated with sex to sexually transmitted diseases and all the way around to ideas about potential dangers of friendship and meditations on death. It is also an outstanding example of how much can be done with a very limited budget. It Follows is a great looking film.

"Okay, like I told you, all you can do is pass it on to someone else." It Follows David Robert Mitchell, 2015 Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

“Okay, like I told you, all you can do is pass it on to someone else.”
It Follows
David Robert Mitchell, 2015
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

When I first saw It Follows I was blown away. I was invited to an advance screening. I had only read a couple of things about it at the time. I came out of the viewing experience disoriented and loved the film. I thought of it as Surrealism. I did not immediately identify the movie within the Horror Film genre. To be honest, my biggest concern was trying to determine if the movie had taken place in the not so distant past or present day.

The negative backlash against It Follows caused a number of folks to avoid the movie. I’ve noted a strong number who have seen it via DVD or streaming and loved it and wished they could have seen it on a big screen or sooner. Sadly I’ve also come across a rather large number of folks who loved it but avoid ever stating or sharing this fact for fear of being flamed by fellow bloggers, twitters and other Internet Communities. This really bums me out. It is all too easy to think these people are weak and need to assert themselves. For many the Internet which had once welcomed them has de-evolved to a High School-like experience in which they feel the need to conform.

"This may hurt a little." Perspectives go askew in more way than several. Seconds John Frankenheimer, 1966 Cinematography | James Wong Howe

“This may hurt a little.”
Perspectives go askew in more way than several.
Seconds
John Frankenheimer, 1966
Cinematography | James Wong Howe

The film genre of horror has always been a wide genre. It includes the silly and inane as well as well as the highly artistic and innovative. It can also bleed more easily into other genres than others. A good example of this is John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. This movie is usually considered a “thriller” or “drama” but it has also been read as “science fiction.”

I’ve always considered Seconds to be a horror film of the highest order, to which I assign the label “Art Horror.” Frankenheimer’s vision depicts what is perhaps one of humanity’s greatest fears: aging and mortality. Look just a bit deeper and you will notice the capture of committed relationship horror. Aging and life’s ultimate natural end is not for sissies. Nor is a relationship such as marriage. As we see in Seconds, love may spark passion but down the line that passion often slips away. If there is no love between life partners, facing the natural perils of life can be hard if not impossible. Seconds has enjoyed a re-evaluation thanks to the folks at The Criterion Collection. Label or genre it as you like, but this is a disturbing movie from all aspects. This is a generally accepted film. Sadly we are not so open to respect for a newer movie like It Follows.

Patrick Wilson about to get a fright... Insidious James Wan, 2010 Cinematography| Brewer / Lenenti

Patrick Wilson about to get a fright…
Insidious
James Wan, 2010
Cinematography|
Brewer / Lenenti

In 2007 yet another found footage movie found its way to cinemas. Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity made a good deal of money for very little financial investment. I paid to see it. It was most certainly a horror film, but it failed to interest me and it certainly failed to scare me. It has spawned a franchise that continues to make money from one idea. James Wan’s Insidious also enjoyed success and has spawned at least one sequel. I saw it as well. Once again, Insidious is most certainly a horror movie. It attempted to offer a bit more thought and ideas than Paranormal Activity and featured some decent acting. The idea of a child in a coma and his parents trying to bring him back does provide some interest, but this film was focused on making the audience jump.

No new ground here. Nothing wrong with that if it floats your boat. Movies like this do not even get my boat a foot from its pier.

Robert Egger’s The Witch is currently generating an oppositional mix of awed praise to condemnation. The core of this largely online battle seems to be annoyance that The Witch has been sold to audiences as a horror film. A great number of the audience are frustrated if not straight up angry that The Witch failed to be scary by their definitions. This is a debate that has left me more than a little confused. Had we all seen the same movie? I did think that many might be disappointed to not find themselves jumping in their seats or clinging to arm rests, but the whole Anti The Witch attitude against the film has caught me by surprise.

Peek-a-boo! Anya Taylor-Joy The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Peek-a-boo!
Anya Taylor-Joy
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

True enough A24 should have gotten The Witch out sooner. Almost a year worth of praise has most definitely put the movie in the uncomfortable position of living up to hype.

If you’ve not yet seen The Witch, there will be some spoilers to follow. Simply stop reading. If you are not sure you will see it then reading should not offer a problem.

Robert Eggers’ film has been carefully researched. Almost all of the film’s dialogue has been lifted from 17th Century records which transcribe reported events of suspected or assigned evil witchery. The movie is also closely aligned with this sort of folklore and fear of that time. The Witch captures the feeling / ambiance that matches my idea of what life must have looked and been like within the unsettled 17th Century America to which the Puritans and other settlers ventured. I could almost smell this world flowing out from the movie screen. Eggers may have only had a budget of $1.5 million, but this movie looks like it cost a great deal more. Carefully framed by Jarin Blaschke’s camera, The Witch manages to be both lush and rustically threatening all at once. The film works on two levels from beginning to end.***

 

 

Welcome to a New England folktale... The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Welcome to a New England folktale…
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

On the one hand the film can be viewed as a horror film based on ancient folklore regarding Satan and Satanic Ritual lensed as reality. The idea that what one perceives as little more than silly fairy tale is given life as something deeply menacing, horrible and real. The Witch is also smart enough to function on a less literal levels. What we see unfold could be a manifestations resulting from misunderstood happenings to the unimaginable struggles for survival in an unknown place. And within the metaphorical read of the movie, the confusions and frustrations of two children on the verge of adulthood struggle with both the urge to rebel against and fear the changes/longings they experience under the repression of a puritanical daily life.

A pious family is banished from their Puritan Settlement for being a too hardcore with Christian beliefs. This in of itself is more than a little telling. It seems that their fellow settlers who left England in pursuit of an even more repressed life now feel that this particular family has taken worship of Christ to an unacceptable level. The father’s fevered preachings of faith are so intolerant that his words seem to border on perversity. The father stands proud and happily accepts his family’s fate of banishment. We follow the family on their devout journey for a new home. When Father decides he has found the perfect clearing of land for their own settlement, all fall to their knees and pray for thanks and blessing. It is not clear how long it takes the family to construct a bone-bare basic home, a small barn, a fence and the beginnings of a small crop — but they have managed to do it. But problems are not far behind end everything begins to crumble around them in horrifying ways.

Ralph Ineson as the father leads his family in prayer before they begin to eat a very sparse dinner. The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Ralph Ineson as the father leads his family in prayer before they begin to eat a very sparse dinner.
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

The mysterious loss of a child, a failing crop, lack of food and an approaching winter sends this family into a deep crisis.

Could this crisis be a test from God or the work of Satan? The first indication that something far sinister is gripping the family presents itself very early in the film. Eldest child and daughter, “Thomasin” played with searing naturalism by Anya Taylor-Joy is to keep an eye on her youngest sibling. A cute baby lies in front of Thomasin. She begins to play a game of “peek-a-boo” with the baby. After a couple of rounds she covers her eyes but when she removes her hands, the baby has simply vanished. We see that the baby has been magically stolen by a naked crone of a witch. It becomes apparent that this elder witch has butchered the baby, devoured the meat and spread the babe’s blood all over her body. Is Eggers camera meant to be taken literally or is this the POV of a young woman’s darkest fear? We really do not know.

What we do know is that the family has no choice but to assume the very logical worst. The baby must have been snapped up by a wolf. Thomasin never seems to make a big point of the fact that there could be no way a wolf could have taken the baby so quickly and without a sound. And if she feels guilt it would appear to be suppressed for fear of her parents wrath. The mother slips into depression and clearly holds her eldest child responsible. It should be noted that the style in which Eggers shoots the old witch is different to what we have seen displayed in the movie.

A witch's lair, perhaps? The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

A witch’s lair, perhaps?
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

We soon discover that the eldest son has feelings for his beautiful sister that are not appropriate. He is aware of this, but does his best to hide it. While it is never fully articulated, there is a sense that Thomasin is aware of her brother’s interest. She does not encourage it, but there is a vague sense that she enjoys the attention. She passively finds ways to disguise her touches on her brother as innocent when their might be a shared desire at play in these touches. There are a pair of twins who are now the youngest of the clan. At first it would seem these two playful children are simply a bit spoiled, but their behavior is revealed to be far more sinister. They have taken to playing with the family’s black goat to which they have assigned the name Black Phillip. They claim to speak with him and that he has told them things. Most of which are more than a little worrying. The family’s misfortunes only continue. Eavesdropping, keeping secrets, lying, anger, hunger, depression and accusations soon engulf this family. Along the way we see horrific incidents that may or may not be actually happening. A goat appears to provide blood instead of milk. A seemingly ready to consume chicken’s egg is dropped to reveal a fully formed chick dead and bloody. An innocent rabbit appears to the father and his son but seems to serve as some sort of hiding beast of omen. Black Phillip does some very odd movements for the twins. The eldest boy stumbles upon what appears to be a witch’s lair. A beautiful woman emerges with an apple and gives the child an adult kiss. This woman soon appears to turn into an old crone. Thomasin takes to staring into the woods that border the newly created home land.

An odd plaything for an odd pair of twins... Meet Black Phillip. The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

An odd plaything for an odd pair of twins… Meet Black Phillip.
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

The father, expertly played by Ralph Ineson, has the look of a somehow perverse version of a stereotypical idea of Jesus. He seems to be the most conflicted by the events that are pushing the family beyond the edge of reason. Before long their eldest son falls prey to what appears to be witchcraft or black magic and dies. The mother slips further into hysteria. Ineson’s William is torn by accusations from the twins that Thomasin has been consorting with The Devil. Most especially due to the fact that they claim it is Black Phillip who has informed them of this as well as Thomasin herself.

But continuing events which he is unable to explain push him to put all three children into the small barn. He barricades it so they can’t leave, but the twins’ Black Phillip is sealed in with them. Disturbing visions come to the mother in her fevered night’s sleep. William emerges in the morning to discover that the barn has been essentially destroyed, the twins dead and Thomasin lies on the ground covered in the twins’ blood. Tragedy strikes yet again leaving Thomasin alone among the carnage. Exhausted and traumatized she makes her way into the hovel of a home, sits at the table and allows her head to fall.

Locked up in the barn with Black Phillip or The Devil? The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Locked up in the barn with Black Phillip or The Devil?
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Is Thomasin sleeping? It is not entirely clear but it would seem she is awoken by a male presence. Could it be the vile Black Phillip? It is. But then perhaps it isn’t.

Thomasin does not seem particularly surprised. Why should she? She has witnessed what can she can only attribute to Satan’s darkest magik destroy her family. She demands or rather “conjuresBlack Phillip to speak with her. We do not see the goat speak but we hear a deep male voice respond. A conversation ensues in which he asks the young girl what she might want from life. The voice assures her she will live life “deliciously” if she will simply sign a book that has magically been sat before her. Thomasin hesitates, but is instructed to remove her shift and that he will guide her hand to sign her name in the book.

The last images we see are of a nude Thomasin walking toward a gathering of nude witches in the midst of a Satanic ritual. As the chanting reaches a pitch, the witches began to levitate and fly upward. A calming look comes over Thomasin’s face and she begins to levitate toward the sky.

And here is a bit of cinematic magic — in another director’s hands this moment in the film might have come across in another way. But under Robert Eggers steady direction, this young woman’s take to flight is not a moment of female freedom or rebirth. This is the film’s most chilling moment. We see a young woman ascend naked toward her destiny in celebration of her evilness. She embraces all that is evil and leaves all kindness behind. It is a nightmare awakening and is horrifying.

Ralph Ineson The Witch Robert Eggers, 2016 Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

Ralph Ineson
The Witch
Robert Eggers, 2016
Cinematography | Jarin Blaschke

The Witch weaves a spell that takes on a slow burn within the mind. I was never afraid as I watched the movie unfold, but I was disturbed as much as I was fascinated. Hours after I saw The Witch, it began to haunt my thoughts. This is a movie that stays with you.

A24 has employed two tag lines to promote The Witch:

Evil takes many forms and A New-England Folktale  — both makes sense for the film. Each expresses the two ways in which the film can be viewed.

Neither tag line makes any promises that the movie is unable to keep. The Witch may not make you jump in your seat or cling to your arm rests, but you very well might squirm. And it is highly likely that you will ponder what you have seen long after you have left the cinema.

A work of Art Horror that deserves praise. I think The Witch comes close to being a brilliant exercise in Art Horror. Make fun of me, flame me and dismiss me if you wish.

"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" The Witch Rober Eggers, 2016 Cinematography |

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
The Witch
Rober Eggers, 2016
Cinematography |

***There is a third “read” to be found while watching and evaluating The Witch. While this reading is more than a bit dark, there is correlation to be made between a metaphorical rejection of patriarchal ideas regarding the identity of women. A story which leads a young woman out of repression, oppression and up to the sky in a celebration of her own identity, sexuality and power. The thing is that most feminist thinkers are likely to take exception to using such actions as vivisection murder of male baby and ultimate violent destruction of a family unit. However, we are dealing in metaphors here.

 

Matty Stanfield, 2.25.2016