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Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

People always ask me why I like such dark and often surreal movies. For me, these strange cinematic explorations into the darkest corners of the human mind act as a sort cathartic entertainment. But perhaps on a deeper level they hold an interest for me that allows me to feel a bit lucky compared to the characters and images struggling through crisis of reality, circumstance and identity.

Roaming through an old house, a gangster faces dangers of memories and lingering ghosts... Keyhole Guy Maddin, 2011 Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Roaming through an old house, a gangster faces dangers of memories and lingering ghosts…
Keyhole
Guy Maddin, 2011
Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Struggle. This is what I have been doing on a daily basis for the last several years. It is not so much that I need to learn the techniques to calming my subconscious, I know them. The challenge is putting them into action so that these exorcises actually become tools I can use. It seems like a simple thing to master, but the subconscious is an alternate world filled with illogical concerns and masterful ways to impede the conscious state from doing what it needs to do. Finding the pathway into the subconscious takes a great deal of work all with an eye toward not making it think that the conscious is out to defeat it. While the process seems to lend itself to the idea of Zen Yoga Meditation, it is a great deal more complex.

Studying more than mental illness or simple concepts of identity, Paddy Chayefsky's script was unfilmable, but Ken Russell speeded-up the dialogue. The sense of self, reality and identity are deconstructed to a whole new level. Altered States Ken Russell, 1980 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Studying more than mental illness or simple concepts of identity, Paddy Chayefsky’s script was unfilmable, but Ken Russell speeded-up the dialogue. The sense of self, reality and identity are deconstructed to a whole new level.
Altered States
Ken Russell, 1980
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

After three decades of a successful life, my subconscious coping skills began to fall apart. By the time I slammed into 42 years of age I was no longer successful. I was stumbling, falling and lost. Fast forward a couple of years and far too many doctors and tests later I found out with what I was dealing. I had known for some time that I was living with PTSD, but when two doctors and a therapist informed me I was actually living with a more extreme form of PTSD known as DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder.)

I was God-smacked. It would take me a full year before I could actually believe this diagnosis to be true. And it has taken a couple more to fully acknowledge and own it.  In the last year I’ve become far better at turning technique into tool, but I am far from attaining Master – Level Use.

Sneaking a peak beyond the other side of a keyhole, "Ulysses Pick" sees far more than he can process. Keyhole Guy Maddin, 2011 Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Sneaking a peak beyond the other side of a keyhole, “Ulysses Pick” sees far more than he can process.
Keyhole
Guy Maddin, 2011
Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

A life-long friend who I consider to be my sister is in The City for work. This is one of the dearest people in my world. There is no way I’m going to miss visiting and hanging with her. But challenges spring forward intent on preventing me from being out in public spaces. After the recent tragic terrorist attacks, my phobia of being in crowded spaces has morphed into full-blown clinical panic attacks. Suddenly driving downtown becomes as challenging for me as being told I must climb Mount Everest. But despite an unusual down pour and high winds, I was determined. I’m was also more than a little wary.

Groundbreaking and iconic, it is important to remember that this book and subsequent Sally Field TV Movie were "based" on a true story. Neither were "true."

Groundbreaking and iconic, it is important to remember that this book and subsequent Sally Field TV Movie were “based” on a true story. Neither were “true.”

There are a lot of exaggerations around what DID is. Pop Culture has presented an odd view point. Certainly we’ve come a long way since the 1970’s Sybil idea. A recent entertainment examination of the disorder, The United States of Tara, attempted to be more realistic. But even here DID was presented in a painfully extreme and comedic way. Very few people who have DID exhibit such behaviors as “switching” into an alternate personality complete with different voices and wardrobes. And for those few who deal with it at such a level, none could manage to function as a safe parent or a remotely dependable spouse. Even still, it presented the character in some realistic ways with the support of those most close to her.

I’ve never kept my PTSD a secret. I’ve written a good deal about it. Once I understood DID, I did not keep that a secret. I do not write a great deal about it because it is an on-going challenge I’ve yet to fully meet. But when it does come up I can see the discomfort in peoples’ faces.

For the record:  I do not have dueling identities. I do not have a secret wardrobe. I do not have a double life. I do not lie. I do not cheat. I am not a harm or threat for others or myself. In the past, when I did “switch” it was seldom if ever noticed by anyone. It quite simply is not that glamourous. In reality DID is tedious, defeating and a constant source of ever-growing self-defeating phobic tendencies that I’m constantly trying to beat.

No TV Show or book here. It is a condition with which one has to deal through therapy and anxiety-reducing exorcises. It is not particularly interesting. It is certainly not funny. There is nothing glamorous or theatrical about it.

Uh, oh. The Good Cop / Bad Cop: A toy w/ DID The Lego Movie Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014

Uh, oh. The Good Cop / Bad Cop: A toy w/ DID
The Lego Movie
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014

The truth is that most women dealing with DID will not realize that they even have a problem until into their late 20’s to mid 30’s. For men it is usually not until their late 30’s upward to their early 50’s before they fully notice that there is a problem. As strange as it sounds, the power of a mind that copes a person out of grim experiences so that she/he can survive is extremely skilled at getting that person through whatever challenges may or may not get in the way. The concept of an alternate personality is normally so nuanced that the individual and those near him/her will never notice. Nor will the individual. Time is lost, but the individual being protected in this manner by their subconscious will usually not notice. Or, as in my case, never really consciously note it.

While not altogether "untrue," United States of Tara is a very exaggerated and unbelievable study of DID. It has value, but the main goal was to entertain.

While not altogether “untrue,” United States of Tara is a very exaggerated and unbelievable study of DID. It has value, but the main goal was to entertain.

DID is tricky and many think that there are more than a few folks walking around out there who do not know they have it — and most likely never will. I wish I were one of those folks.  Surviving can come at a cost. A survivor is tough, but none of us are superheroes. Jessica Jones is an interesting and well crafted empowerment idea, but she is fantasy.

I’ve not fully switched or lost time in over 3 years now. My mastery of coping techniques as tools has improved dramatically. But I’m no Master of Myself. So this morning as the wind howled and the rain poured and I drove toward my destination filled with worry, I was on high alert. When an SUV failed to stop in time at an intersection, it skidded out onto California Street and briefly lost control. I was able to navigate my car out of its way without putting anyone else in danger.

Fictional Satire, Cultural Commentary, Mischief, Mayhem & Soap. Brad Pitt manifests as a fragment of identity bent on rebellion... Fight Club David Fincher, 1999 Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

Fictional Satire, Cultural Commentary, Mischief, Mayhem & Soap. Brad Pitt manifests as a fragment of identity bent on rebellion…
Fight Club
David Fincher, 1999
Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

Success! As the SUV got itself back on track and other drivers honked for no real reason, I pulled my car back into moving action. And then it happened. Familiar voices filled with fear and panic began whispering and speaking all at once. These voice seemed to be coming from the backseat.

I’m not crazy. Actually, I feel I am about as far from crazy as possible. Two years ago this sudden fury of voices from behind me would have freaked me out. But now, I know that there are no hidden passengers in my car. These, you see, are my alters.

I calmly pulled my car over to a safe parking spot. Put the gear into park. Took a deep breath and began utilizing calming techniques to use as tools. It probably took me about thirty minutes, but those voices began to move out of the backseat and into my mouth. I continued to tool away. In approximately ten minutes those voices moved out of my mouth and back into my brain. Then I spoke out loud in a normal tone to calm them (me) down. Within another ten minutes I was ok. I lit up a cig, turned the iPhone to some of my favorite music and just chilled. In all it took about 80 minutes before I was certain I was competent to drive. I turned around and came back home.

Completely spent, head hurting, legs aching — I knew I’d not be venturing back out today. Embarrassed I had to contact my friend/sister and let her know I would not be able to make it downtown. She knows of what I am dealing. She was supportive and kind. She is taking a cab here tonight and we’ll order take-out. But it feels as if I’ve let another person I love down. It sucks.

Identities merge, split, engage and threaten reality beyond recognition. Laura Harring / Naomi Watts Mulholland Drive David Lynch, 2001 Cinematography | Peter Deming

Identities merge, split, engage and threaten reality beyond recognition.
Laura Harring / Naomi Watts
Mulholland Drive
David Lynch, 2001
Cinematography | Peter Deming

Once I master these techniques into better tools, I will not be so exhausted. It might seem strange, but I was not freaked out. This is my current reality. I accept it, but I’m still deeply embarrassed by it. I am ashamed of not only the disorder but the fact that it has created so many phobias with which I have trouble fighting. Making plans to meet up with friends does not usually mean I’ll be able to carry them through. Just this past week there was an event at The Castro Theatre and I was unable to even contemplate attending. A few years back and you would had to fight me to prevent me from attending.

It just sucks.

I’ve not been able to go into a movie cinema since May of this year. A walk into a mall is a true challenge. Visits to the pharmacy, doctor or therapist are tough but I mange to do those. I can go to the grocery store and the local coffee shop without too much worry. However, I need to arrive to the store between 6:45 / 7:00 am to be sure I can do it without having to tool the process. I can do the coffee shop at about any time as long as I know I’m drinking the coffee outside while walking or back in my car. However, meeting up for dinner in a restaurant on a weekend night is almost an impossibility. My friends and family know that if we go out, I usually need to be outside to hang.

This is how my life “works” right now. It will be getting better. I push forward past the fear as best I can, but in the coming year I hope to be a better master of these coping techniques into full-on hardcore tools.  Will I be able to return to full-time and rewarding employment? I have no idea.

Submerged, floating and ready to explore himself inside out to through to the core of earthly identity. William Hurt Altered States Ken Russell, 1980 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Submerged, floating and ready to explore himself inside out to through to the core of earthly identity.
William Hurt
Altered States
Ken Russell, 1980
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

At the moment the bigger picture must be pushed aside until the daily challenges are met. Currently, my main focus is on gaining better access to coping techniques. Upcoming plans involve visiting in-laws in Canada, a  nephew on The Cape and a soon to be born nephew in NYC. All of which involve getting on crowded planes and being in crowded social situations. All of these upcoming visits are very important to me, but sometimes it is hard to view things as positive when I feel so threatened by the challenges involved.

"I like myself" Edward Norton Fight Club David Fincher, 1999 Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

“I like myself”
Edward Norton
Fight Club
David Fincher, 1999
Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

When I watch David Lynch’s Inland Empire or Mulholland Drive it is hard not to relate on some level to the plight of his heroines. An actress seemingly forever lost within her own identity and that of her roles. Which of her selves are real and which have been co-created for art? Which actress gets the part and which faces a tragic end? Or are they stuck in some cerebral horror logic that runs forever in circles? With each viewing of these two films I walk away with some new layer of meaning that confounds back to the meaning’s source. Mr. Lynch’s magical cinematic slight of hand.

Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, was a fascinating read into confused ideas around masculinity, friendship, love and life as we moved toward the 21st Century. All of the ideas and concepts literally fighting each other till the book’s end. David Fincher’s film adaptation took that novel of societal commentary and crafted a darkly comical and satirical view of an identity crisis that grows to fantastical and horrifying size.

Our Narrator attempts to calm and talk some since into his alter-hero who upends not only his world but possibly that of his culture. Brad Pitt / Edward Norton Fight Club David Fincher, 1999 Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

Our Narrator attempts to calm and talk some since into his alter-hero who upends not only his world but possibly that of his culture.
Brad Pitt / Edward Norton
Fight Club
David Fincher, 1999
Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

Like the novel, the film has bite. Unlike the novel, it pulsates into our mind as we watch a sort of white “Every Man” who can only accept himself by beating his damaged shell to a pulp of absolute submission and non-existence. Unrestrained, Absurdist by way of Surrealism gets a glam and bloody reboot in David Fincher’s 1999 Cult Film. This is a movie that amuses and amazes me every time I see it.

Another movie that has always fascinated me is Ken Russell’s final box office hit, Altered States. I suppose in reality it was more of a sleeper hit, but it was discussed and beloved by a Sci-Fi / Fantasy audiences that wanted a bit more for their money. Our Uncle Ken Russell had no idea what was in store for him when he accepted this American Film Studio “Job.” There is no question of Paddy Chayefsky’s talent, but his script’s goal was all but lost amidst some of the most laughable and intricate film dialogue ever put to page. Russell was intrigued by the philosophical ideas around identity and self-understanding via organic means, but how does one get to the meat of the film when bombarded by so much inexplicable intellectualized discussion? Ever innovative, Ken Russell instructed his profound Master Class Film Actors to speak their lines at top-notch speeds. William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid speak at a speed which almost seems to reach that of light itself. It works.

Dr. Jessup likes what he sees. At first, anyway. William Hurt Altered States Ken Russell, 1980 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Dr. Jessup likes what he sees. At first, anyway.
William Hurt
Altered States
Ken Russell, 1980
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

The script’s dialogue could not be changed, but it was delivered with fast and masterful precession. But the winning card for Altered States is the fact that no one can deliver images to challenge notions of the human senses better than Ken Russell. Altered States soars when Russell is allowed to plunge the camera into Dr. Jessup‘s mind’s eye. At times stunningly beautiful, always symbolic to the concepts of The Human Condition, consistently horrific and magically tilting toward something beyond understanding — Ken Russell understood this film far better than the artist who wrote it.

One of many modern human symbols stretches, morphed and careening within the human psyche. Altered States Ken Russell, 1980 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

One of many modern human symbols stretches, morphed and careening within the human psyche.
Altered States
Ken Russell, 1980
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Russell has no problem with the movie monster trope that Chayefsky ties to the Evolution Of Man, but he was far more interested in how that evolution has impacted not only our identities but our relationship to the present. Always at some sort of odds within itself, Altered States is entertaining and far more relevant than many care to admit. It is also is a very interesting bit of twisted cerebral fun. Ken Russell seems to be hiding just out of frame with his middle finger firmly up toward the overt intellectual spasms with which he had no choice but to work. Rebellious, but dead-on to the film’s core meaning.

Fears, symbology mix with neuro / intellectual impulses. Altered States Ken Russell, 1980 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Fears, symbology mix with neuro / intellectual impulses.
Altered States
Ken Russell, 1980
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a Surreal Neo-Noir nightmare. A perverse fantasy of dreams tossed from both the dizzying heights of movie stardom and the Lower than Low of the Hollywood outcast. In Hollywood, nothing is more horrifying than failure. There are two girls here. One of them is a Movie Star and the other a Failed Wanna-Be. But which girl is which?

There is a mysterious blue box and a blue key that promises to unlock its secrets. However one is not likely to resolve the film’s essential mystery of who is who.

I’ve never believed that was the point. The point is that when it comes to the pursuit of dreams, love and the resulting guilt — there is often no where left to go but to retreat into the circular horror of a fragmented identity.

The key to the box... Mulholland Drive David Lynch, 2001 Cinematography | Peter Deming

The key to the box…
Mulholland Drive
David Lynch, 2001
Cinematography | Peter Deming

This may be your film, but two things are most certainly true: This is the girl and This is not the girl.

Which girl is real? When you go this far for meaningless dreams and love as bitter as it is sweet, it really doesn’t matter.

Then we have Guy Maddin’s under appreciated brilliant experimental film, Keyhole. In an attempt to escape arrest, a gangster holds up in an old home with a mysterious hostage. Surrounded by police and with an unwilling hostage, the gangster, Ulysses Pick, soon finds himself wandering through the decaying house’s many corridors, rooms and memories. Is it ghosts who threaten his sanity? Not likely.

Looking for understanding... Jason Patric Keyhole Guy Maddin, 2011 Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

Looking for understanding…
Jason Patric
Keyhole
Guy Maddin, 2011
Cinematography | Benjamin Kasulke

The biggest threat in this decaying old house is our protagonists’ own identity. First as voyeur, then curious and finally desperate — Ulysses begins to interact with a troubled childhood, past crimes, buried love, guild and ultimately facing the truth of his mother. Splintered, confused, sad and spent — Maddin’s Ulysses is trapped within the fragmented and often disjointed aspects of himself.

A ghost isn't nothing, but it also isn't everything... Keyhole Guy Maddin, 2011

A ghost isn’t nothing, but it also isn’t everything…
Keyhole
Guy Maddin, 2011

Like a perverse fable, he must stand in judgement. A judgement not to be delivered by ghosts or memories. A judgement issued from deep within the unknown self.

So while I do like to get lost in this dark, experimental, intelligent and surreal worlds that explore complex ideas around “identity” — I also gain break from the reality of actually sorting through my personal issues to regain the ability to function. There are a vast number of strange films dealing with identity. From the heights of Art House Cinema with Repulsion, Belle de Jour, 3 Women and Persona to the obscurity of films like Simon Killer, Bellflower, Hesher, Bullhead, Reality, Institute Benjamenta, Brazil or Performance. 

The subject is himself, but the exploration takes him far deeper. Altered States Ken Russell, 1980

The subject is himself, but the exploration takes him far deeper.
Altered States
Ken Russell, 1980

The question and exploration of identity and its meanings are limitless and often limiting.

Matty Stanfield, 12.13.2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When David Lynch and Mark Frost initially pitched the concept that would become the TV series, Twin Peaks, the idea was really about creating a satire on American small town culture. The show’s mystery of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was intended to take a backseat to the show’s plot once the quirky characters identities and respective double lives gained the audiences’ interest. Starting off with a two hour special pilot that truly brought a whole new level of quality and subversion to the firmly entrenched ideology of small town American life. It was during the run of Twin Peak‘s first season that the idea of “Lynchian” would truly take form. This series was less a satire of soap opera and television mysteries as it was a subversive and highly experimental experience.

"In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent." Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992

“In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

To the eyes of 21st Century eyes, this series might seem tame. But in 1990, this was shocking and pushed the boundaries of what was being shown on television. It was also far more “cinematic” than standard television. The pilot was a slam-dunk hit. The ratings took a significant drop after the two hour pilot.  The ratings for the rest of season one were not consistent, but never truly low.

This show was being, watched, discussed, analyzed and studied. Twin Peaks gained an almost instant cult following. Contrary to Lynch and Frosts’ idea, the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death never moved to the background. Despite already being dead and presented only in the now iconic photograph and limited POV screen captures, Laura Palmer was the driving force of the show. There a number of logical reasons that the idea of each character’s dual personas never became the vital interest(s) of the viewers. For those of us old enough to remember when this ground-breaking television show premiered, there was something alluring about that image of the seemingly perfect All-American Prom Queen captured in a High School year book photograph. There something intriguing about the beautiful yet somehow ethereally strange look of Sheryl Lee’s photograph as Laura Palmer. Like every other character roaming the streets and dirt roads of Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer had a double life. And both sides of Laura’s identity seemed to serve as a trigger for every other character on the show. The fact that we slowly gained information that she may not have been the sweet Girl-Next-Door or the earnest Meal-On-Wheels volunteer was far more curious than any of the living characters on the show.

The public wanted to know more about her and most of all wanted to know who killed her.

This, of course, would be the show’s undoing. Lynch and Frost had never really solved this mystery. Resolution of Laura Palmer’s killer was filmed in several different ways. It quickly became a an odd Pop-Culture Moment. A moment in which much of the audience was watching closely to see where all of the many clues being offered between, above, under and around all of the disturbing, comical, supernatural and off-kilter perspectives were pointing.

The final episode of season one had a huge rating. I can remember sitting in a room full of fellow college students to see who “iced” Laura. But Lynch and Frost did not reveal the killer. Simply more intense clues. It would not be until season two that Laura’s killer was finally revealed to be her father.  The mystery’s ultimate resolution made perfect sense for David Lynch’s continuing artistic examination beneath the tainted soil upon which Middle America stood, but was also somehow unsatisfying. It also made all the hints toward the paranormal suspect.

The Good Witch descends to offer some advice for Sailor... Sheryl Lee Wild At Heart David Lynch, 1990 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

The Good Witch descends to offer some advice for Sailor…
Sheryl Lee
Wild At Heart
David Lynch, 1990
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

Lynch remained involved with the TV series, but in many ways he might as well have left.

Twin Peaks was really a stunningly brilliant artistic experiment, but David Lynch’s true interest was/is grounded in cinema. While it may not be his finest hour as a filmmaker, 1990’s Wild At Heart, remains my personal favorite David Lynch film. A road movie from Hell, the adventures of Sailor & Lula almost felt like Lynch had been given free reign to create this gleefully surreal and perverse exploration. And wait. Isn’t that Laura Palmer giving Sailor advice?  Advise which led his character to deliver a perversely politically-incorrect apology to those thugs?!?!  When we saw Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) come down from the heaven’s to help Sailor get back on track, it seemed like possibly another clue.

As die-hard Twin Peaks fans were now sorting through Jennifer Lynch’s clever The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer to sort out the show’s red herrings from true relations, the iconic television series took a quick downward spiral.  Twin Peaks‘ first season directors were hand-picked by both Lynch and Frost. But the with the doomed second season the show’s director choices were disjointed and ill-fitting to the original concept. Everyone from Uli Edel to Diane Keaton took the director’s chair. It was canceled and ended in June of 1991. I had just graduated from University and relocated across the country as the second series started. I had no TV, but my interest in the show had faded to disappointment.

Wild At Heart was an Art House film. It was far from a box office blockbuster, but it added value to the director’s reputation. It was also the hit of that years Cannes Film Festival. And even though the industry may have viewed Twin Peaks as a sort of Cult TV Oddity that had ultimately failed, Lynch was in a fairly good position professionally.

Where would he go next?

What new strange world would he create for the cinema?

As it turns out Twin Peaks was still strong on his mind. Many of the ideas he had originally had for Twin Peaks had to be pushed aside to sort of conform to the standards and regulations of Network Television. He had the funding both from America and France to do what he wanted. And he could do it the way he wanted. David Lynch decided to return to the world of Twin Peaks, but this “re-visit” would be a prequel.

How does a cinematic genius top a TV Series that changed the face of network television? He breaks it... David Lynch as FBI Agent Gordon Cole Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

How does a cinematic genius top a TV Series that changed the face of network television? He breaks it…
David Lynch as FBI Agent Gordon Cole
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

This would be the opportunity for the show’s legion of fans to actually meet that beautiful High School Prom Queen gone wrong. It would also offer David Lynch the opportunity to actually work with the actress who had set so many hearts and minds a-flutter. Sheryl Lee was more than a simple, engagingly beautiful face — She possessed charisma and an interesting on-screen energy. She was and is an extremely talented actor. Lynch was to make a motion picture focused on the final week in the life of Twin Peak‘s most alluring citizen, Laura Palmer. To the film’s backers, this seemed the perfect idea. To the legion of Twin Peaks fans news of the film set hearts aflame.

What no one seemed to think about was that this was not going to be a normal sort of prequel. And for those of us who thought Wild At Heart presented David Lynch at his most unfiltered and unrestrained, we were about to discover we were wrong.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was not so concerned with much from the original series and this film presented David Lynch’s cinematic vision completely unbridled.  He had no plans of returning the audience to the same beautiful but provocatively seedy small town. Without censor, without a Major Television Network breathing down his neck, Mr. Lynch took us back to the same town. But now we saw it from a completely different vantage point.

"If I had a nickel for every cigarette your mom smoked, I'd be dead." Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

“If I had a nickel for every cigarette your mom smoked, I’d be dead.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Now working my way up the corporate ladder in Boston, I stood in line with two new friends to catch a 1992 midnight premier screening of the film. We had all heard it had been met with jeers and booing at The Cannes Film Festival, but it just didn’t seem possible that the movie could be bad. Fire Walk With Me may not have been the movie the television show’s cult following wanted to see, but it was one hell of a cinematic ride. A sort of hot-dripping Freudian fever dream. Or perhaps more accurately, seeing this experimental film on a big screen was like being dropped into an Edvard Munch painting gone very wrong.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me didn’t just take the iconic TV Series to a new level, it jolted that quirky universe into a whole new cinematic galaxy.

The opening moments of the film feature a television screen on scramble. A vision we no longer see in the 21st Century. The opening scene of this television’s screening scrambled mess indicates that we are on a dead channel or that the National Anthem has already played and the channel has closed for the viewing day.  But then, just as Angelo Badalamenti’s potent score finally seems to reach a clear volume and credits have screened — this television is literally destroyed. A sharp and horrifying woman’s scream and the TV is obliterated.

David Lynch has just destroyed the restrictions and limitations of not only his TV series, he has broken out of the very concept of television itself.

As the film starts we realize that the murder of Teresa Banks has just taken place. Her body wrapped exactly like that of Laura Palmer floats on the water. The film’s first iconic image or scene is one that is never explained, but it carries an odd and comical impact. We first see Special Agent Chester Desmond arresting two grown women at the side of a school bus filled with screaming and crying children. The bus seems to be parked in an open field. Nothing about this scene is treated by the adult characters as odd or strange. Yet it is an unforgettable little scene that sets the film’s space.

Unexplained situation: An FBI drug bust and a school bus full of terrified children... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Unexplained situation: An FBI drug bust and a school bus full of terrified children…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

While nothing was as it appeared on Twin Peaks the TV show — in the movie’s Twin Peaks the same holds true with a major difference: Nothing even appears “right” or “normal.”

There is a constant auditory and visual discord at work. Surrealism and Absurdism is closely tied to whatever “reality” we may be shown. In the television series, actors played their characters with an edge of hamminess and often camp. In the Twin Peaks film, the actors are performing as if stuck in some vacuum that is constantly threatening to suck them up into oblivion. The acting here is not so much about “camp” as much as it is about keeping in step with the energy of David Lynch’s subversive, perverse and often hysterical vision.

David Lynch re-creates his own character from the TV series. The hearing-impaired Agent Gordon Cole summons Chris Isaak’s Special Agent Desmond to meet him. In typical Twin Peaks‘ logic, this meeting is simple and yet complicated.

"Her name is 'Lil'" Kimberly Ann Cole Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

“Her name is ‘Lil'”
Kimberly Ann Cole
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Gordon Cole leads Agent Desmond over to meet an odd woman who seems to be hiding inside a small airplane hanger. As she emerges, Gordon explains that this is his “mother’s sister’s girl, Lil“. Lil proceeds to make a sour face.

What’s a sour face? Well, that is a face that has a sour look on it.

Lil keeps one hand in a pocket of her ill-fitting dress. Opens and clenches her other hand into a fist and stomps in place. Later Special Agent Chester Desmond explains to the confused Forensic Pathologists what this meeting of Lil actually meant:

Sour Face = problems with local authority awaits

Both Eyes Blinking = trouble with the higher-ups

One Hand in Pocket = something is being hidden from the FBI

Fist = there is a whole lotta beligerence

Walking In Place = there’s going to be a lot of legwork

Dress Tailored To Fit = this is code for drugs

Blue Rose Pinned To Lil’s Dress = “I can’t tell you about that…Meaning that the agent is not comfortable revealing this meaning to Kiefer Sutherland’s befuddled pathologist.

"Her name is 'Lil'" Kimberly Ann Cole Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

What was missing in Agent Cole’s introduction for Lil? …No uncle is mentioned.
Kimberly Ann Cole
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Already well over ten minutes into the film and David Lynch has yet to bring us back to Twin Peaks. It is not far away, but as we watch the Special Agent and Forensic Pathologist navigate the odd waters of their location it feels more like the familiar world we knew in the television series. After a particularly grueling autopsy of Ms. Banks, the intrepid men go to a local all-night cafe. The same cafe that had employed Teresa Banks. A comical question and answer with Teresa’s former co-worker reveals that Teresa was involved in drugs.

"Who's the towhead?" Sandra Kinder as "Irene" That is her name and it is night. Don't go any further with it. There's nothing good about it." Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

“Who’s the towhead?”
Sandra Kinder as “Irene” That is her name and it is night. Don’t go any further with it. There’s nothing good about it.”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Then we follow them to the Big Trout Trailer Park where we are led by a hilarious Harry Dean Stanton as the park’s manager to Teresa Banks’ home trailer. It is here that Surrealism and an ever-menacing level of horror creeps onto the screen.

Loose ends from the series continue to pop up. The hanging electric lines seem to emit a sort of horrific transmission or energy. This is new.

Poor Special Agent Chester Desmond vanishes into an unexplained sort of paranormal vortex.  As Kyle MacLachlan enters the film as Special Agent Dale Cooper we finally are treated to feeling like we may be back in the familiar territory.

Special Agent Chester Desmond's abandoned car. "Let's Rock" Kyle MacLachlan and Harry Dean Stanton Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Special Agent Chester Desmond’s abandoned car.
“Let’s Rock”
Kyle MacLachlan and Harry Dean Stanton
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Special Agent Dale Cooper also pays a visit to The Big Trout Trailer Park, but his reasoning doesn’t seem to match-up.

It is not too long after he and Harry Dean Stanton look at Agent Desmond’s forgotten car and study a lip-stick written message on the windshield that we will soon hear Badalamenti’s familiar theme song and see the famous opening to the TV series.

Pulses raced as the film came to this point. At long last we would finally actually meet Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer. Since the TV series began she had been seen only as photographs or brief glimpses. Or most annoyingly, as a doppelganger brunette cousin.

But now we will see, hear and get to know Laura Palmer.

And now, Ladies & Gentlemen, meet your all-American Prom Queen: Laura Palmer. Beautiful, dazed, confused and abused. Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

And now, Ladies & Gentlemen, meet your all-American Prom Queen: Laura Palmer. Beautiful, dazed, confused and abused.
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The actual return to Twin Peaks and meeting Laura Palmer was not what anyone quite expected.

Just like the high school Prom Queen photograph, that charismatic look does transform into an even stranger mix of beauty and somehow perverse energy all channeled brilliantly by Sheryl Lee.

Within what we now call Lynchian Cinema, his female actors are essential keys. Both Laura Dern and Naomi Watts are pitch-perfect actors for David Lynch. Both are deeply skilled actors, have on-screen presence / charisma and have the ability to at once convey an All-American kind of blond beauty and ambition. They also are fairly fearless performers who are unafraid to tap into the darker and obscure aspects of humanity without crossing the line into “camp.” Isabella Rossellini was also a key actor for David Lynch. She may not be the greatest in level of skill, but she carries a bizarre mix of beauty, innocence and with a strange lean toward the perverse. Rossellini fit into Lynchian Cinema with ease. Sadly, due to complication of a romantic relationship we were only able to enjoy her within this world twice.

However, Grace Zabriskie is without question the ultimate David Lynch actor. In Fire Walk With Me, we see Mrs. Palmer before one of life’s truest devastating losses has caused her to become unhinged in her despair, sorrow, guild and grief. Here Zabriskie is given a surprisingly small but difficult challenge: establishing Mrs. Palmer as a damaged person. Of course, this fine actor was more than up for the challenge.

Mom knows something is very wrong, but she is Dad's victim too. Grace Zabriskie is Mrs. Palmer Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Mom knows something is very wrong, but she is Dad’s victim too.
Grace Zabriskie is Mrs. Palmer
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Already a solidly employed and respected actress, when David Lynch first cast her, she found the perfect film artist to assist her in channeling her unforgettable energy and presence. A highly skilled actor, Zabriskie is able to easily convey human emotion realistically — but most importantly, she can access them in the most inappropriate, perverse and hysterical of ways.

She walks the tight rope with ease: Camp and B-Movie Exploitation Horror await her slip and fall, but she never loses her balance. She straddles the lines between Realism, Surrealism and Absurdism without any sputtering or error. Like the other three actors, she is beautiful. Also like the other three, her beauty is somewhat convulsive. Unafraid of aging, this actress can summon a great degree of sexual allure in the strangest and most menacing of ways. Another shared gift all four of these actresses: they are likable. It is almost impossible not to root for Ms. Zabriskie even in the darkest and evil of roles.

While those four actors have experienced amazing success working for David Lynch, the same luck did not hold true for Sheryl Lee. It is perhaps the greatest fail of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that Sheryl Lee’s career was that it almost completely de-railed it.

It is impossible to watch this film and not note the incredible Movie Star Presence she exudes. Sheryl Lee also presents a chillingly accurate performance. This is an actor with a great deal of skill. And, like Zabriskie, she is able to easily walk that line between Realism and The Surreal. Like all of the above mentioned actresses, she is very likable on screen. And, in reality, there is probably only one of the four who could rival her beauty and that would be Rossellini.

However Sheryl Lee possesses an easy access to eroticism that is not quite as easy for the other actors mentioned. Sheryl Lee was and remains a hot-looking actress. Never extreme, convulsive or too thin — her shape is always right on form with erotic ideal. And even when she flaunts it and teases, there is something fragile at play that makes the viewer want to protect her.

High school journal keeping has never been this erotic or perverse... Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

High school journal keeping has never been this erotic or perverse…
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Another key trait for a David Lynch actress, Sheryl Lee has no fear. In Fire Walk With Me she goes for broke in some of the most uncomfortable scenes. Most if not all of her scenes in this film act almost as individual Cinematic Abstract Art Pieces. She is given some of the oddest and most difficult lines of any Lynchian character. In an early scene we see an in-between classes sexual encounter between Laura and her love-sick suitor, James. James attempts to make her understand how much he loves her and that he can protect her from anything. The lines in this scene are intentionally comical, but at the same time carry an skewed sense of tragic truth within this warped film:

Laura refuses James’ love.

I’m gone. Long gone. Like a turkey in the corn.”
You’re not a turkey. A turkey is one of the dumbest birds on earth.
Gobble-gobble. Gobble-gobble.”

Even though you will find yourself chuckling or laughing, Sheryl Lee manages to evoke a damaged sort of “gobble” that haunts.

While the actor playing James handles the scene like a bad soap opera, Lee takes the wording and invests them with meaning. Yet, she never allows her skill to get in Lynch’s way. Sheryl Lee “gets it” and she takes that understanding and runs with it throughout Lynch’s experimental exploration of human cruelty, horror and abuse via means of the human psyche.

Having just had the rare opportunity to rematch the film via a pristine and new 4K transfer that will hopefully find it’s way to US distribution. It is miles ahead of the Region-Free German Blu-Ray and certainly far better than the treatment it received by Paramount in last year’s Twin Peaks box set. Criterion, are you there?

Prom Queen, a diary, some booze, a bit of coke and a lot of eroticism. Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Prom Queen, a diary, some booze, a bit of coke and a lot of eroticism.
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Sheryl Lee should have become a major player in the world of filmmaking. Yet the film’s failure and her achingly-inter-connected performance was misjudged. Sheryl Lee’s work in this film is an exact match to Lynchian negative energy and dire need of redemption. Like the film itself, Sheryl Lee never falters as both she and the film go exactly where David Lynch wanted it to go.

Grace Zabriskie has stated that she felt that Lee gave so much to David Lynch and the character while filming the movie that it took her several years to find her way back to herself. This might seem like an “over-the-top” statement, but when discussing the art of Method Acting and The Method Actor, it is painfully accurate. As hard as Sheryl Lee worked to give Lynch what he needed, he would push her even harder. The film obviously left the young actor exhausted, but the film’s critical and commercial failure were most likely like receiving a universal gut punch.

The Log Lady offers a bit of comfort and a warning that serves as key to the strange world in which we roam... Sheryl Lee & Catherine E. Coulson Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The Log Lady offers a bit of comfort and a warning that serves as key to the strange world in which we roam…
Sheryl Lee & Catherine E. Coulson
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

When the midnight screening I attended in 1992 reached the closing credits, I felt as if I had been on some strange metaphysical trip of a cinematic ride. I had been entertained, horrified, engaged and left in awe. However, my two friends and what felt like the entire sold-out audience had hated it.

People in the cinema literally Boo’d at the screen. A couple of folks even threw their popcorn containers at the screen. I was confused. As I stumbled back into the reality of a hot New England evening, I was equally disoriented and excited.

The Boston bars had closed, so the three of us retreated to a now long-gone sort of coffee-house that served the homeless, the collegiate and hipsters in equal fashion. It was a favorite hang-out. We had some cookies and coffee and discussed the movie.

Is Laura Palmer living in a very bad dream? Here she walks into a room that is more than a little too familiar. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Is Laura Palmer living in a very bad dream? Here she walks into a room that is more than a little too familiar.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

All three of us holding degrees in English, we all shared a love for deconstructing art. Each of us had a different read on what we had seen:

One of my friend’s felt it was an “Anti-Movie” through which David Lynch was laughing and giving the finger to his audience.

My other friend felt it was a sort of cinematic mistake. She pointed out that the use of Surrealism and Absurdism was pointless if neither had meaning. Unlike my first friend, she saw some merit to the movie. But I can remember her drawing her long orange finger nail between herself and me stating that the film’s flaws out-weighed the few points Lynch had made correctly.

I disagreed with both opinion. I felt they were being too superficial and lazy.

I sipped my coffee and told them that I felt the film was a spectacular experiment in exploring the psyche of a pedophile incest rapist and most alarmingly the psyche of his victim. I explained that the entire theme of the film had been quite poetically summed up by Catherine E. Coulson’s Log Lady. This film had pulled us into a confusing vortex of insane human cruelty,  confusion caused by child abuse, the impact resulting in a family / friends all living in a faked level of love, conformity and insincere sincerity. The despair, the pain, the guilt and the sorrow of both the victim and the victimizer are identities constantly walking with a fire that threatens to consume them at any moment.

My two friends sat with this for a few minutes. One started to laugh. The other’s head seemed tilted all the way on our respective walks to Muni, dorm and home.

A dream captured in a frame... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

A dream captured in a frame…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

If you’re wondering why I recall so well what we discussed and how we discussed it — it is because I have been a chronicle journal keeper since I was 18. Upon arriving back to my tiny basement apartment at 4am, I opted to write the experience down instead of sleeping. As I had to be at work for 7am it seemed a more rational use of my time. It staggers my mind to think that I could function at work without any sleep. Ah, youth.

But I digress.

Many view the movie as a complicated mess of a prequel with no other aim than to inform the Twin Peaks fans of Laura Palmer’s last week of life. This seems far too simplistic. David Lynch is far too intelligent a filmmaker to have discarded almost all of the television series atmosphere and style had this been his intent. If this were all he wanted to do the film would have been shorter and no TV set would have required breaking.

Others view it as an admirable cinematic error. One can’t really argue with this view-point. This film is so untethered, it is impossible to anticipate that everyone will like or even passively accept it. But I still stand by my opinion formed in 1992.

The angels never really went away. Laura's salvation descends... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The angels never really went away. Laura’s salvation descends…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Essentially this film is examining the ways in which “we” absorb the horrors of our lives into our psyches so that we can simply continue moving forward. Full acceptance of truth is far easier said than done. Anyone who has fallen victim to someone we should have been able to trust — or, more simply put, anyone who has been sexually abused by a family member or a trusted family friend will understand that “owning” the reality of pain/sorrow caused by sexual violation/abuse is actually more difficult than the violation itself. And PTSD is not just limited to survivors of war. PTSD can kick your ass. And it kicks it in really strange and often metaphorical ways that can cause a person to mask their own personal truth as well as take on the guilt that they have no business absorbing. The victim has done nothing wrong, but under the reality of life’s light — it can feel quite the opposite for the victim who survives.

Most of the time that monster in the closet or under the bed is just normal childhood fears, but other times there really has been a monster there.

When The Log Lady runs into Laura Palmer about to enter the Twin Peaks Townie Bar, she gently touches Laura’s face and offers a parable that applies to the entire film:

When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.

Is "Bob" Dad's creation or one of his daughter? Worse yet, is Bob a demon? The American Family gets a horrifying surreal deconstruction. Ray Wise as Mr. Palmer Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Is “Bob” Dad’s creation or one of his daughter? Worse yet, is Bob a demon? The American Family gets a horrifying surreal deconstruction.
Ray Wise as Mr. Palmer
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

There is an-ongoing “discussion” of pain and sorrow, fire and angels throughout the film. It begins when Laura and her best friend contemplate life. Laying in the living room, Donna shares a dream-thought and then an odd question:

Do you think that if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?

Laura suddenly seems to be miles away from Donna as she stares off into some doomed distance, yet she has heard her friend and answers, “Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever. And the angel’s wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.

The Angel feeds and watches over the children.  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992

The Angel feeds and watches over the children.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

Later, Laura will see an angel represented in a childhood framed image in her bedroom vanish before her eyes. The three children in the painting are no longer fed or protected by the watchful angel.

The Angel has gone away  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992

The Angel has gone away
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

And of course there is that strange room that appears in Laura’s dreams and is presented to her by an old woman in a framed photograph. And The Other Place where The Man gives information with backward masked commentary. These visions are shared. The Lynchian concept of creamed corn comes into play. Referred to as “garmonbozia.”

The meaning of this term has been much analyzed by the legions of Twin Peaks fans as well as Lynch Heads. Creamed corn is mentioned in relation to Laura’s role as Meals-On-Wheels volunteer, Mr. Palmer is accused of stealing a can of it and it appears in visions. Garmonbozia is a demented symbol of pain and sorrow. A pain and sorrow both inflicted and inflicting. The normal thought is that there are two things that all inhabitants of Twin Peaks share:

  1. A darker / hidden aspect of their individual identities
  2. They each feed and give off pain and sorrow

Fire Walk With Me consumes itself with symbology and metaphors of fire, angels, masks, identity, a seemingly extra-dimensional red-curtained room, an owl ring, a one-armed man and most importantly the character of BoB.

The danger of the owl ring may be the only way out... Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

The danger of the owl ring may be the only way out…
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Bob is Laura’s monster hiding just outside her bedroom. As she confesses to her Meals-On-Wheels home-bound client, Bob has been having her since she was twelve. As the film progresses Laura becomes aware that Bob might be “real” but he might not be who or what he appears to be. In Laura’s self-deception, Bob is tearing out pages from her diary to exert his power. He knows everything about her — Bob knows all. Most repulsive for Laura is that as afraid as she is of Bob and the rapes, she has reached a point where the attacks are expected and she now seems to be finding some sort of sadistic sexual pleasure from these unwanted attacks. In a particularly disturbing scene as Bob takes her body, she begins to reach orgasm.

She moans, “Who are you? Who are you?!?!”  Just as she slips into orgasm Bob turns into her father.

Her father’s behavior has become highly suspect for Laura and her her mother. Mr. Palmer seems to be forcing Laura into uncomfortable confrontations.

In one of the films more Extreme/Absurdist moments, Laura and her father are in his car. Suddenly the One-Armed Man is tailing them. Mr. Palmer begins to panic. The One-Armed Man is furiously attempting to communicate with Laura. Her father keeps the car racing even at a dead stop to drown out the man’s voice. A dog’s barking becomes as loud as the car, the One-Armed Man and the frenzied musical score. The impact of this scene is equally disturbing, annoying and almost funny.

During the strangely hysterical and frenzied scene, Laura thinks she smells fire.

Screaming above it all with increasing panic, “Dad! Something’s burning! Are we on fire??!?!?

In a world of horror, it is easier to face Bob than Dad. This is the All-American Girl Next Door's only way out. Bob Silva & Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

In a world of horror, it is easier to face Bob than Dad. This is the All-American Girl Next Door’s only way out.
Bob Silva & Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Just before Mr. Palmer is able to shake the One Armed Man, he is able to reach Laura’s ear with information she does not want to have:

Holding out his one arm and a finger wearing the familiar owl ring, “It’s him! It’s your father!”

When we see Mr. Palmer drug his wife in their bedroom, Laura is jumping off James’ motorcycle off to her fate deep in the woods. We have reached the final night of Laura Palmer’s life.

Beaten, tied and dragged into an empty train freight car — Laura at first thinks she is facing Bob, the man who has abused her since she was twelve. But she quickly sees through her psyche’s self-deception: This is not Bob screaming at her. This is her father.

Brutally raped and threatened, is that Angel pointing toward an owl ring? Sheryl Lee Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Brutally raped and threatened, is that Angel pointing toward an owl ring?
Sheryl Lee
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

And there lies the owl ring.

Most importantly, for the first time since the film has begun to unspool — Laura receives a sign of hope: An angel seems to be descending into the train car.

In what appears to be an act of ultimate rebellion, Laura scrambles for the owl ring. As her father pleads with her not to make him do “it,” Laura slips the ring onto her finger. It is as if this ring allows both the victim and the victimizer to gain full awareness. As the angel hoovers somewhere above them, Mr. Palmer kills his daughter.

Metaphorically, she has won. She has escaped and left him with his guilt, pain and sorrow. The creamed corn is now his and his alone. He must live with what he has done. As he wraps Laura’s body in plastic to set her into the lake, we see his face from Laura’s body’s POV and it switches back and forth between Bob and himself.

Mr. Palmer must accept what is to come. The dream or vision becomes a sort of reality as his entry to The Other Places emerges in the woods.

A pedophile, rapist and murderer: Dad prepares to have his torment, pain, sorrow and human cruelty. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

A pedophile, rapist and murderer: Dad prepares to have his torment, pain, sorrow and human cruelty.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

He steps through an opening in the red curtains and enters that extra-deminsional room. The Man From The Other Place and the One-Armed Man are waiting for him. Soon Bob is standing next to Mr. Plamer. As Mr. Palmer begins to levitate, Bob is instructed to take away Mr. Palmer’s Garmonbozia.

Like some internal cancer, Bob removes the blood soaked pain and sorrow from Mr. Plamer’s gut and tosses it on the floor.

Faced with The One Armed Man and The Man From Another Place, is Dad releasing his own pain and sorrow? Or is Bob about to take care of that for him? Subconscious metaphor... Frank Silva & Ray Wise Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Faced with The One Armed Man and The Man From Another Place, is Dad releasing his own pain and sorrow? Or is Bob about to take care of that for him? Subconscious metaphor…
Frank Silva & Ray Wise
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Of course the meaning of this scene has always been debated among Twin Peaks followers.

Is this an imaginary way for Mr. Palmer to once again to slip into his self-deception?

Is this a sort of heaven in which Mr. Palmer is freed of demonic power, Bob?

Or is this something loaded with a more universal way of dealing with guilt and the unforgivable?

In a strange and hyper-intensive scene early in the film we have seen David Bowie appear at Gordon’s FBI office. He is a long missing special agent and has come to give David Lynch’s Gordon a message. A series of jump cuts and audio editing led us to The Man From Another Place, the One-Armed Man, Bob and The Chalfonts. (you will need to see the film to know these two characters) — This is of particular note as it hints to where we might be going in the upcoming Showtime Twin Peaks re-boot.

Together in a dream or some alternate universe. Laura Palmer has a worrying connection to Special Agent Cooper. "I'll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile..." Sheryl Lee & Kyle MacLachlan Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Together in a dream or some alternate universe. Laura Palmer has a worrying connection to Special Agent Cooper.
“I’ll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile…”
Sheryl Lee & Kyle MacLachlan
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Going back to 1991’s final episode of Twin Peaks, Special Agent Cooper finds himself in the extra-deminsional red-curtained room with a lovely and calm Laura. She informs him that she will see him again in 25 years.

While David Bowie’s long-missing special agent attempts to give a message to his near-deaf boss in Fire Walk With Me — we only catch bits and pieces of what he says. But we do see him point to Special Agent Cooper and bellow to Gordon,

Who do you think this is here?!?!?

This message almost insinuates that Agent Cooper is some sort of Evil Being. Toward the end of the original series we know that Agent Cooper had begun to see Bob’s reflection when he looked into mirrors. Hmmm…

It will be more than a little interesting to see what David Lynch and Mark Frost come up with for their limited Twin Peaks run on Showtime.

Written in blood. Never before in television history has the grammar and meaning of a phrase been so analyzed and debated.  Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch, 1992 Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Written in blood. Never before in television history has the grammar and meaning of a phrase been so analyzed and debated.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992
Cinematography | Ronald Victor Garcia

Whatever we do learn in this mini-series will have little to do with what David Lynch explored in Fire Walk With Me. This strange and much maligned Cult Film will most likely remain where it has always been. Sort of endlessly playing into subconscious in circular logic.

Take your creamed corn for what it is or what it isn’t. Fire Walk With Me is a message that lays on a mound of bloody soil. It might be confusing or even cryptic in meaning, but David Lynch wrote it in blood.

Matty Stanfield, 10.9.2015

 

 

 

 

 

Like being strapped into an amusement park ride, sitting in the darkness as a horror movie begins there is a mixture of giddy fun and an often embarrassing dread of what we are submitting ourselves to — will it be a fun rush of the senses or a stomach churning sort of emotional litmus test?

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?
Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Does the rollercoaster that tilts and sends on a loop turing us upside down at a high speed offer more fun than one limited to fast turns with slow accents followed by forced down hill trajectory offer more satisfaction?

The answer is subjective. There is no right or wrong.

But what is it about some horror films that not only frighten us, but linger long after the house lights come back up? Most horror films offer a quick intensity that leaves us fairly quickly. Sometimes, however, a horror film comes along that offers something a bit more jolting. The kind of jolt that leaves us entertained, afraid, shocked and unsettled. This is the sort of jolt that comes back to haunt us as we try to fall asleep or walk down a dark corridor.

"I don't like them there." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“I don’t like them there.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In 1965 Roman Polanski delivered a new sort of horror film. Repulsion shocked audiences upon initial release. It still upsets many. Why? Catherine Deneuve plays Carol. A beautiful but seemingly perpetual daydreamer who discovers that she is to be left all alone in the large apartment she shares with her older sister. What happens to Carol and those who venture into this apartment while the sister is out on a brief holiday is more than unexpected, it is lethal. Carol is not a daydreamer, she is clearly suffering with some sort of emotional problem. Is this an issue related to some form of sexual trauma? Is this mental illness? Is this some form of depressive exhaustion? What is wrong with Carol? 

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Repulsion wastes no time in establishing something clearly: the camera’s perspective is simply off. We are following Carol through her mundane life as a beautician, then walking through the streets of London and finally at the apartment she shares with her sister. Roman Polanski and Cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, carefully set each shot from strange angles. As the film progresses, the camera’s perceptions become more odd. We are seeing reality through Carol’s perception of it. As Deneuve’s character slips into reality filled with threat and menace, we are not entirely sure if what we are seeing can be trusted.

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Surely those are not arms slipping out of the walls to grab and molest Carol. Right? Or have we just entered some twisted sort of paranormal horror? Before long the audience comes to understand that we are witnessing a psychotic break. A break that slips so far into the darkest corner of human psyche that no one is safe. Repulsion stays with the viewer.

But the threat filled menace of human perception would take on a far more ambiguous stance in Polanski’s 1968 horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.

"Pray for Rosemary's Baby." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At first glance or after an audiences’ first viewing, this would appear to be a full-on exorcise in Satanic horror at it’s most dire. An innocent woman has been set up to procreate with The Devil and deliver The Anti-Christ. As Rosemary’s life in her new home begins she is faced with a creepy basement laundry room, the death of a new friend and an uncomfortable forced friendship with nosey and eccentric neighbors.

Polanski and Cinematographer, William A. Fraker, begin to establish an interesting camera perspective almost as soon as Rosemary and her husband move into their new apartment. The use of cinematography is not immediately noticeable, but it is there from the beginning.

A gift or a curse?  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A gift or a curse?
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Halls and doorways take on a suspicious and curious perspective. As Rosemary’s paranoia and fears begin to mount, the audience becomes pulled into a literal sort of maze of unanswered perspective. The first of Fraker’s shots that really grabs our attention is the use of Rosemary’s front door peephole. Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet is truly iconic movie character. At first comical, then slightly annoying — and slowly she shifts to something altogether horrifying. When Rosemary looks out her peephole, we gain a distorted perception of Minnie that is warped and unsettling. She no longer looks like the kooky old bat next door. She looks suspicious and vaguely reminiscent of a clown. Not the kind of clown at whom you might laugh, the sort that would make you pull your child back and avoid at all costs.

large_rosemarys_baby_cesar-zamora-5

Rosemary and the audience get a whole new perspective on the eccentric woman next door. Ruth Gordon Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A building suicide, nosy people and a dear friend’s creepy stories related to the old building which contains her new apartment — Rosemary is understandably more than a little shaken. But after the wacky Minnie creates two cups of chocolate “mouse” for Rosemary and her husband, she finds the taste feature an unpleasant aftertaste. Her husband almost becomes angry that she doesn’t want to eat it. She only eats a bit. Soon she is feeling drugged. Once again slightly tilting the perspective, Rosemary passes out.

Blame it on Minnie's "chocolate mouse" or is it a symptom of something else? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Blame it on Minnie’s “chocolate mouse” or is it a symptom of something else?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

We are then brought into Rosemary’s dreams. We have already been here briefly before when she dreams of a childhood incident with a Catholic Nun yet hears the annoying banter of her odd neighbors, Minnie and Roman. Their voices take the place of the Nun’s. But this time Rosemary’s dream is far more articulated and disturbing. She dreams of a sort of sexual ritual wherein all of the old neighbors of her building are standing around her bed.

"Perhaps you'd better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Perhaps you’d better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They are nude. Suddenly a demonic animal is running it’s claws across her body. Rosemary is in dream state. She observes and follows instructions without objection. But suddenly, she is alarmed and seems to have awoken.

“This is no dream! This is really happening!”

But then she does wakes up and it is the next morning. She is nude and she has long scratches across her back. She quickly realizes that her husband has ravished her in what is an inappropriate sexual encounter. Filmed in 1967, while her character feels her husband has raped her, she pushes this feeling down. But we can tell Rosemary almost hopes it was all just a bad dream rather than face the fact that her husband had her while she was passed out ill. Alas, this is not an option for Rosemary. Her husband has violated her. Trauma much?

A sluggish Rosemary says, "I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman." And her husband responds, "Thanks a lot."  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A sluggish Rosemary says, “I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman.”
And her husband responds, “Thanks a lot.”
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

William A. Fraker’s masterful camerawork continues to pull us back. Perceptions are never quite right again. in one of the cinema’s best shot scenes, Ruth Gordon’s Minnie rushes to Rosemary’s bedroom to phone Manhattan’s top Obstetricians. From a filmmaking perspective, this entire scene is one elegant and fascinating manipulation of the medium. Faker’s camera only allows us to see a bit of Minnie as she makes this call. I dare a viewer of this film on a big screen to successfully fight the urge to tilt his/her head to see what is going on in Rosemary’s bedroom.

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what's really going on as she speaks into the phone... Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what’s really going on as she speaks into the phone…
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Masterful and perplexing: we are now officially and fully immersed in Rosemary’s paranoia.

The truly magical aspect that has helped Rosemary’s Baby to not only remain valid but alarmingly disturbing is the fact that perception of reality is so skewed that we are never fully certain that Rosemary’s paranoia is valid. Upon the first viewing of Polanski’s film, one is likely to walk away with a bit of a chuckle that Rosemary was quite right: She has given birth to The Anti-Christ. All we saw was true.

All of them were witches united to trick Rosemary into being fucked by Satan. 

The true reality solved by Scrabble? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

The true reality solved by Scrabble?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

If one watches Rosemary’s Baby again, and watches it a bit closer — something odd emerges.

This creeping idea is one of the reasons this film is a true cinematic masterpiece that refuses to go away from our subconscious. At no point in this horror film is the validity of Rosemary’s paranoia and fear fully confirmed. As the movie pulls us into the final act of the story, the question of whether or not what we are seeing is “correct” or “real” is brought into question. This could all be a fever dream of exhausted and terrified human psyche. Rosemary’s world has been rocked enough to understand how her perceptions of reality might be pushed into subversion.

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Her husband has essentially raped her while sick, this results in a pregnancy. Hormones surging and her choices and opinions constantly challenged — she soon finds herself in a great deal of pain. Everything in Rosemary’s reality has derailed. Death and darkness seem to envelope her. Her husband is distracted by new career opportunities and possibly some guilt. Whatever the cause he is distant.

Rosemary feels trapped. She must escape. She runs away to her original first choice Obstetrician. A very pregnant woman carrying a heavy suitcase on a record-setting hot Manhattan day arrives to this younger and far more modern doctor’s office. She insists he “save” her and her baby. She spouts a rant about Satanic witches and elaborate plans to harm both her and her baby. She pulls out an old book on the supernatural. The doctor calms her down. She finally relaxes and her official Minnie-hired Obstetrician arrives with her frustrated husband to take her home.

But, she did seem to slip into a dream prior to the “betrayal” of the young doctor.

As we enter the final act of the movie, how reliable is Rosemary’s perception? Every single thing is from her perspective?

Is Rosemary’s reality real? Is this a perspective we can believe and trust? 

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts... Mia Farrow in that doorway Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts…
Mia Farrow in that doorway
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

There is no clear answer to be found in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. We will never know for sure if she has delivered The Anti-Christ “To 1966! The year One.

This level of unresolved tension doesn’t even need to fully register for the viewer to pick-up on it at some level. The truth of what we see is questionable. Rosemary’s perception (as well as our own) has been altered and put into a state of limited and distorted vision.

What is scarier? The reveal that human fear and paranoia is fully validated or the understanding that we are simply unsure. The fear and paranoia remain unresolved.

Reality or Delusion? Mia Farrow looking into Hell Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Reality or Delusion?
Mia Farrow looking into Hell
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

For years I used to debate this opinion with friends. Everyone seemed split down the middle. Some felt I, myself, was reading too much into the movie. Others agreed.

Finally I was validated when Roman Polanski himself stated that his goal was to present a depiction of human perception skewed to leave the audience wondering if Rosemary was seeing the “truth” or imagining some grand conspiracy.

Warning: TO AVOID ANY SPOILERS RE: TO THE FILM, LYLE, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

Which brings me to Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 but newly-released film, Lyle. As much a tribute to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it is a low-fi re-working of the same sort of diabolical idea, Thorndike and her Cinematographer, Grant Greenberg, have created an intense psychological horror film. Or so we might think…

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Greenberg’s camerawork is simple, yet carefully articulated. Like William A. Franker, he has paid close attention to perception. Doorways, large open-spaces, halls and angles are all designed to make us look closely. Visual information is provided in a suspect manner. More than a few times in this tightly-edited film, we want to see beyond the boundaries established by Greenberg.

Also of great credit to both he and the film’s director/writer, Stewart Thorndike, Lyle features the best use of a Skype-like call I have ever seen. Limiting the audience view to the shared computers’ perceptions is a brilliant device.

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day... LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day…
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

As any sensible film-buff would expect, Gaby Hoffmann is brilliant in the film’s leading role. As the mother, Leah, Hoffmann delivers a perfectly nuanced and powerful turn toward hope, grief, fear, paranoia, panic, sheer horror, desperation and ultimately rage. Unlike Mia Farrow’s passive Rosemary, there is nothing oppressed about Gabby Hoffman’s Leah. A devoted wife and mother, she fully embraces her role in the family. She also places correct value to her identity and worth.

Yet she senses something “removed” or “distant” regarding her wife. Played by Ingrid Jungermann, June is appears to be the family provider. One gets the feeling that June is either ambivalent about parenting or is deeply upset that the newly pregnant Leah is carrying a girl child. June was clearly hoping for a little boy, but her frustration is both uncomfortable and suspicious.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Moving into a swank new Brooklyn apartment, Leah loves their new home. She does not love the new landlord. Rebecca Street is the only other actor in this film who can rival Hoffmann’s skills. Street is cast in a role that is somewhat similar to Ruth Gordon’s Minnie. Excepting that Street’s Karen is quite a bit younger. Younger, but not young. Leah is immediately concerned to discover that her landlady who she suspects is entering her 60’s claims to be trying to get pregnant. In fact, before long Leah (and the audience) catch limited glimpses of Karen pregnant and then not but expressing milk through her top.

Like Rosemary, Leah is constantly having to re-evaluate her perception of reality. After suffering the loss of her firstborn child, she is aware that the loss of Lyle has caused an understandably confused and disoriented emotional chain of reactions. As the circumstances around Lyle’s accidental death grow more suspicious to her and as she discovers increasingly worrying information about her home and the people who live in and near it — Leah becomes more than a little paranoid. To Stewart Thorndike’s credit, this film packs a great deal of suspense and tension.

"Help me!" Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

“Help me!”
Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Running just a little over an hour in length, Lyle does not let the audience down. The film is encaging, disturbing, creepy and solidly entertaining. The only issue I noted with this sinister little movie is the director’s decision to fully resolve the paranoia and fears of the lead character. At the moment we discover the validity of the mother’s fears and the fact that she has not been paranoid, the horror of Lyle becomes mutedly blunt. All answers are resolved and Leah is left to do what she must in an attempt to save her child. While Lyle is a potent little film, it loses his grip by giving us too much.

To what point has Grant Greenberg’s cinematography served? Do we feel relieved or all the more dire that Leah’s darkest fears turn out to be true? Lyle leaves the audience with an uncertain future for Leah, but there is no articulated logic to the dark pact with Evil for career success. It isn’t clear.

The aspects of the paranoia that are not fully revealed or explained leave a sort of emotional hole where a cinematic “pay-off” should have been. The intention is unclear, but not the human perspective. In what felt like the shaping of horror reveals itself to be more aligned with a taught thriller minus logic.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Unlike Polanski and Frakers’ manipulation of paranoia and character perspective, Lyle has teased the audience. And the emotional result is one of frustration. Lyle is not likely to scare the audience. Instead it plunges us further into darkness without any room for ambiguity. Stewart Thorndike is a flimmaker with a a strong future ahead of her. She has a great deal of skill in telling her story. But the question for me remains, is it more effective to bring a story of paranoia and human fear to fully articulated explanation or better to limit the audiences’ ability to fully know? From my perspective, Lyle gives an unsatisfying ending.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is an example of a horror film that leaves the audience unsure. Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step fits more toward Thorndike’s Lyle. However, Alex R. Johnson’s film is not intended as a horror film as much as a modulated thriller that escalates far beyond audience anticipation. Within that mode of operation, a fully resolved ending makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of current cinema that illustrates the idea of ambiguity is Alex Ross Perry’s polarizing examination of identity and insanity, Queen of Earth.

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism... Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry, 2015 Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism…
Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss
Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry, 2015
Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

While this film may not be a straight-up horror film, it does depict the most horrific aspect of being human: Insanity. The idea of not knowing when what is perceived is “reality” or “delusion” is oddly effective. Much like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston will be forever stuck in a sort of nightmarish mire of rage, distrust and warped perspective.

We do not have all the pieces of their puzzles.

It fascinates.

It pulls us further into the ideas of the films.

Most of all, these stories of human frailty, fear and possibly insanity stick with us. The ambivalence sears into our shared subconscious. 

Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Life is a mystery and is forever full of “WTF” moments. It is in those moments where we are least sure and are forced to go into “full alert” that the uncertainty of our realities become the most worrying.

In a strange way, Roman Polanski’s Art Horror remind us of life.

At the ready to attack, but still unsure... Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At the ready to attack, but still unsure…
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They jolt us into the present of our mind. And we are forever a bit unsure.

Matty Stanfield, 10.1.15