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

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

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

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

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

Liquid Sky Slava Tsukerman, 1982 Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

Liquid Sky
Slava Tsukerman, 1982
Cinematography | Yuri Neyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is decaying. Literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 1.31.2016

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 2015 Slant Magazine piece by MARC SPITZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When 19th Century writer, Jules Michelet, wrote La Sorcière (Satanism and Witchcraft) his goal was not limited to providing a history of Medieval European Witchcraft. In truth he was seeking to do something far more interesting — his intention was to reveal that history as a cultural rebellion against the oppressions of the Roman Catholic Church and Feudalism. Michelet was sympathetic to the plight of peasant women of this era. What culture and history named as Satanic or Witchcraft, he attempted to redefine from the other side of a largely unrecognized side of this phenomenon: Paganism.

An impoverished woman doesn't quite fit into her community is to be judged as an Evil Witch. Illustration by Martin van Maele from Jules Michelet La Sorcière, 1911 Edition.

An impoverished woman doesn’t quite fit into her community is to be judged as an Evil Witch.
Illustration by Martin van Maele
from Jules Michelet La Sorcière, 1911 Edition.

The idea, as presented by Michelet, was to look underneath such dark practices as Devil Worship and discover its true origins. In fact, he viewed this with an eye to where non-prescriptive spiritual beliefs might lead to something of beauty and goodness. Was the cultural magnifying glass obstructing the goodness to propagate the fear of the people? His sympathies were given to the oppressed and victimized. Paganism was not necessarily Evil from Michelet’s viewpoint. His book would assist in laying out a model for modern Pagan Wiccan Ideologies.

Were these men afraid of Witchcraft or simply afraid of a women refusing patriarchal control? "The Witch, No. 3" Joseph E. Baker, c. 1890

Were these men afraid of Witchcraft or simply afraid of a women refusing patriarchal control?
“The Witch, No. 3”
Joseph E. Baker, c. 1890

Michelet reconstructs and reimagines a situation in which a coven of desperate women push their unique forms of social protest into darkness by the use of decadent rituals performed under the power of the moon. Black Sabbaths performed by witches. It was not the strength found in nature that was the problem. The problem was when these spiritual and empowering rituals sought to do harm. He then devotes the remainder of the book to reconstructions / imaginings taken from the horrific European witch trials. Michelet’s writings were debunked as inaccurate and problematic long ago, but he is responsible for turning a sympathetic light toward oppressed women and scorn on irrational societal fears. If nothing else, La Sorcière speaks to a very different kind of revolutionary danger that goes far beyond the simple political. If a society chooses to push large groups into oppression and misery, there is simply no telling what those groups might form to rebel.

Entering the 1970's society felt that parents had control of their children. Cue a masterful film about a pretty little girl possessed by The Devil. Linda Blair The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Entering the 1970’s society felt that parents had control of their children. Cue a masterful film about a pretty little girl possessed by The Devil.
Linda Blair
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

As the world crashed out of the 1960’s and slammed into the resulting gains and damages of the 1970’s, Japan’s Mushi Production was looking to take on a bigger slice of the Animated Movie Pie. They instructed their animation team to create three adult-oriented projects referred to as The Animerama Trilogy. Mushi Productions and legendary animator, Osamu Tezuka, were looking to keep up with an ever evolving and reactionary era. The Animerama Trilogy would be Anime / Manga with a difference. These three films were to be full-on erotica and they would also adhere to psychedelic animation.

"All those lonely people..." Taking animation into the psychedlic. Yellow Submarine George Dunning, 1968 Art Direction | Heinz Edelmann

“All those lonely people…” Taking animation into the psychedlic.
Yellow Submarine
George Dunning, 1968
Art Direction | Heinz Edelmann

Perhaps it was worries about trying to push ahead of the coolness / originality created within the animated Beatles movie, Yellow Submarine, combined with rumors of hardcore content about to explode within mainstream cinematic entertainment. This was the era of Last Tango in Paris, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist. It was at this time that two truly pornographic films enjoyed mainstream success. Deep Throat and Beyond The Green Door were not limited to creepy porn cinemas. Whatever propelled Mushi Productions to push the cinematic envelope, this was The Sexual Revolution and Liberation moving in full-tilt-boogie mode. Mushi Productions was ready to make X-Rated pornographic animated films. The sexuality was to be both erotic and graphic, but equal attention needed to be applied in the areas of plot and artistic quality.

The original movie poster Belladonna of Sadness / Tragedy of Belladonna Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

The original movie poster
Belladonna of Sadness / Tragedy of Belladonna
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973

Belladonna of Sadness was actually the second of the trilogy. Tezuka assigned Eiichi Yamamoto to serve as Belladonna‘s director and visionary leader. He quickly convinced painter, Kuni Fukai, to helm the film’s art direction duties. Artistic freedom and quality were of upmost importance. Astro Boy was the money maker for Mushi Productions. This trilogy was to be creative. Concerns regarding commercial success were to be pushed off the table.

The oppressed victim transforms into a magically powerful Witch... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The oppressed victim transforms into a magically powerful Witch…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Yamamoto understood the importance of story and the importance of artistic quality. Fukai was not particularly interested in Anime or Manga, but he did want the freedom to pursue his artistic vision. He was also drawn to the idea that Tezuka was not particularly interested in movement. His goal was to focus on the detail of illustration. In other words, traditional ideas of animation were out the window. Fukai found the film’s development and production to be an enjoyable artistic experience. Based upon interviews, it is clear that Fukai captured the director’s ideas onto scrolling murals. The film’s cinematographer, Shigeru Yamasaki, then set the framing as his camera moved along the murals and other illustrations. Belladonna of Sadness took two years to create using less than ten additional animators. Masahiko Satoh was hired to provide the musical score. It is a jazzed-fused mash-up of experimental synthesizers with syrupy pop ballads. The musical score works incredibly well. Like the film itself, Satoh’s score has a large number of fans as well.

Defying conventional ideas of Anime and animation... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Defying conventional ideas of Anime and animation…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

By the time Belladonna of Sadness was ready for release, Mushi Productions was about to fall into bankruptcy. Their Japanese distributor, Nippon Herald Eiga, was at a loss when it came to marketing the movie. Even though the strange film was well received at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival, it received a limited release in Japan without any success. Having now seen this infamous movie, it seems all the more odd that it came and went with little to no interest.  It was never officially released outside of Japan. In the late 1970’s it was discovered that Belladonna had gained a minor female following.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

An attempt to re-cut the movie so that it might hold a more immediate appeal to female viewers only resulted in muting the film’s power. Much of the hardcore sexuality and sexual violence was trimmed away. It is easy to understand why the director decided to remove some of these elements as they have and continue to cause problematic issues, but those original choices still make sense to the overall reach of the film. However Yamamoto had the idea of incorporating a scan of Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix to serve as a potent closing image.

A poisonous flower? Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

A poisonous flower or a source of magical healing?
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The additional mix of Delacroix’s style makes sense given that the movie pulsates via a number of various stylistic influences. But the most logical piece of this idea is that the painting better conveys the film’s closing lines. Belladonna of Sadness has always enjoyed a strong reputation among fans of the Anime / Manga genres. Various and inferior versions of the movie floated around for years. The folks at Cinelicious Pics worked hard to secure the rights to restore and distribute an uncensored version of the movie to the world. All of the eroticism, depravity and sexual brutality has been returned. But the 1979 inclusion of Delacroix’s painting remains. Belladonna of Sadness is now available in 4K remaster.

How to describe this film without giving too much away? I’m not confident I can do that so I will keep my summary simplistic and utilize shots from the film to indicate the beauty, complexity and ultra-weird world it portrays. The over-all look of the film is tied to an idea of glam beauty that you might expect to see in illustrated adverts of the early to mid-1970’s. The film’s protagonist, Jeanne, is rendered as a slender and sublimely perfect nymphette. Her appearance is the one consistent element of the movie’s imagery. Jeanne‘s beauty does not match the world in which she has been born. She is simply too elegantly beautiful to belong here.

The identity finds no solace or safety in marriage... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The identity finds no solace or safety in marriage…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

She is a peasant girl who has just married a humble but handsome man. Only minutes into her marriage, Jeanne is raped by the land’s Feudal Lord — and his entire court including Church leadership. This might sound silly, but that animated / painted sequences of rape and sexual torture are truly horrific. Kuni Fukai and his team found ways to render this human cruelty that go well beyond the boundaries of living actors. The sequence is traumatic and may prove to be more than some are willing to watch. When the film was screened in San Francisco more than a few people opted to leave the cinema. If you thought the killing of Bambi‘s mom was harsh, that classically upsetting animated moment is rendered sweet in comparison.

Believe it or not, this film's animated depiction of rape is disorienting, visceral and horrifically disturbing. Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Believe it or not, this film’s animated depiction of rape is disorienting, visceral and horrifically disturbing.
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

The ability of this film to capture both the act of rape and the consequence of the attack is nothing short of brilliant. As horrible as these sequences are — they are essential. The rape of Jeanne is not presented as erotic, but it does force forward an uncomfortable issue. While Yamamoto is clearly not looking to excite the audience, that doesn’t mean that this depiction of rape is above reproach. An argument could be made that his film goes too far. Somewhere in the synapse of the depicted horror there registers a worrying sense of the sadistic.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Is the explicit manner in which these brutalities are depicted meaningful or exploitive? While I think a case could be made, ultimately I was moved by the way the film managed to present the sheer trauma and damage of rape. Even still it must be noted that these sequences are so repulsive and shocking — they push it all so far that the viewer’s mind and body are both required to react.

It is a manipulation. It is a tough watch. Maybe too tough to be considered as an “entertaining” experience — and, no matter, this movie’s intentions are to entertain.

Draw your own conclusion.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness is obviously surrealistic, but it is persistently grounded in realistic logic. Jeanne‘s life and marriage are ruined. As she attempts the impossibility of healing and restoring her identity she falls into a spiraling depression. Pushed past the edge of sanity, Jeanne appears to retreat into an attempt at calming through sexual self release. Or at least this is how I interpret it. Instead of finding peace, she discovers The Devil. Playful and ever-ready to flirt, The Devil never attempts to hide his identity. He repeatedly points out that Jeanne has summoned him.

Evil has not come to Jeanne without invitation. 

Jeanne makes a pact and gives her body and soul for as she phrases it, “something bad.” The something bad is actually empowerment and full claim of her sexual liberation.

Surrendering to Satan... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Surrendering to Satan…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Our protagonist is angry when she awakens from her surrealistic fuck-fest with Satan. She has anticipated that she would wake in Hell. She thought her hair would have turned into snakes. She expected to be a scary old hag. Instead she wakes refreshed, clean, energetic, healed and surrounded by flowers that seem to radiate energy.

"You had already died, anyway." Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

“You had already died, anyway.”
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

I want people to turn away in horror when I pass by in the street. I don’t want to forget anger and hatred!” Jeanne seethes to The Devil.

You have become beautiful, Jeanne. Like a young girl in love. Radiant. You are even more beautiful than God,” The Devil replies.

The One who owns her soul explains that a woman can be angry, scary and raging with hatred and remain beautiful. Why? Because she does not fully understand the power of her own self and beauty. The Devil teaches her that she can channel her beauty, charm, intellect and intelligence to do good or utilize those same powers to cause righteous evil. Nature will bend to Jeanne‘s will. Why? Because she is woman.

Meet Jeanne, The Witch. Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Meet Jeanne, The Witch.
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Yamamoto’s vision of The Devil is a penis of various sizes and compulsions. Evil is represented by the penis. It is comical, but it is also oddly effective in depicting Jeanne’s initiation into the sensual. The vagina is used to symbolize a wide range of ideas and aspects of life, but the key to Belladonna of Sadness‘ use of yonic symbology are related to joy, pleasure and life.

"Are you The Devil?" "Yes," replies the cock along with an opportunity for empowerment... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

“Are you The Devil?”
“Yes,” replies the cock along with an opportunity for empowerment…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Welcome to Eiichi Yamamoto’s take on Feminist Theory. As Jeanne allows herself to shed inhibitions — she evolves into a powerful sexual predator. She seduces and gains strength as the men begin to lose theirs. Jeanne has long left her former life, she is now surrounded by beauty. She finds creative and magical ways to return to her fellow peasants.

Jeanne magically creates food and wine. She brings sexual education to her fellow peasants. She turns the poisonous Belladonna flower into medicine that stops pain — most importantly notes is that her magic flower  takes away the pain of childbirth for the women of her village. And she pulls the peasants back to her Sexual LSD’d-like trip’d out home for orgy sabbaths. All of which are depicted in stunning ways and in a multiple manner of styles. Some of the film’s stylings are truly beautiful, others are crude, some are silly, some profane and all are aiming to shock.

Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamasaki

Eventually Jeanne must decide how she really wants to use her new found power.

Ultimately there is a reason Yamamoto named the protagonist “Jeanne.”

Jeanne d’Arc, anyone? Did I mention the story takes place in France? 

Do ya wanna hold me? Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Do ya wanna hold me?
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Regarding the film’s X-Rated ideologies — Belladonna of Sadness aims to sexually excite. This is eroticism. To be more specific, this is experimental eroticism.

Why is it experimental? For more reasons than I care to list, but this is an animated film. Depictions of the human body morph from realistic renderings to the profanely abstract. This is even more true when applied to genitalia.

Is Belladonna of Sadness actually erotic? I guess that depends on what winds your clock. Personally, I do not find illustrations all that sexy. But that is just me.

Eroticism morphs... Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Eroticism morphs…
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

I should also point out that I’ve no interest in animated film, Anime or Manga. The fact that I wanted to write about Belladonna of Sadness indicates a great deal regarding how I feel about it. I loved the experience of this movie.

I admire the artistic audacity, experimentation and the epic go-for-broke approach. And I take great pleasure in seeing something totally new and unique. I have never seen a movie like this one. It is unique. It is also a problematic film and it doesn’t always work. But when Belladonna of Sadness does work — it compulsively pulls us into its own astounding world.

Erotica Abstracta / Fascinating to watch Belladonna of Sadness Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973 Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Erotica Abstracta / Fascinating to watch
Belladonna of Sadness
Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973
Cinematography | Shigeru Yamazaki

Belladonna of Sadness has been gyrating for over 43 years. It isn’t going anywhere. For more info: http://www.cineliciouspics.com/belladonna-of-sadness/

Matty Stanfield, 8.25.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Films Released in 2015

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

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

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

TWO STEP Alex R. Johnson, 2014

TWO STEP
Alex R. Johnson, 2014

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

Next on my list is Love & Mercy.

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

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

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

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

MOMMY Xavier Dolan, 2014

MOMMY
Xavier Dolan, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It-Follows-Movie-Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“6 Years” is not an obvious film, but it may have been the way the film was marketed and filmed that confused potential viewers. At a time when it is literally almost amazing that any woman is able to command a film both as Director and Writer, it disappointed me that Fidell received such little support for her film. Brutally honest, 6 Years offers a great deal of insight into the messiness of the human condition. After six years of times spent in love, a couples’ mutually shared lives are on the cusp of major change. The question Fidell’s film poses is notWill they be able to make it work?” The question here isShould they even try to make it work?

As in “real life” — the answer is not simplistic or easy to face.

6 Years explores a relationship from a perspective that few filmmakers have been willing to take. This film isn’t aiming to provoke. It aims to be honest. Taissa Farmiga, in a role that comes close to equaling the skill of her older sister, plays a young woman with some very serious issues. As kind and loving as “Mel” is, she can be equally abusive. It doesn’t take long to realize that this beautiful and seemingly petit woman has very little control over her anger and frustration. Thanks to the filmmaker’s script, direction and her leading actors’ skills — this topic does not have to be discussed or overly analyzed. 6 Years presents the male of the relationship as the one who is actually the most vulnerable. “Dan” has no recourse. He has no way of protecting himself. He could, but to do so could harm the person he loves and could potentially crash his entire future. Ben Rosenfield’s performance is the magic of the film. He is able to portray “Dan” in a compelling mix of love, hurt, fear, anger and confusion. These are two actors to watch. A great deal of skill is presented by both from the film’s start to finish.

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

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

queen-of-earth-poster-07252015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filming with smart phones…
TANGERINE
Sean Baker, 2015

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

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

Felt Jason Banker, 2014

Felt
Jason Banker, 2014

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

rick-alversons-entertainment-and-the-end-of-the-american-west-body-image-1422113777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, 2015

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER
David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 11.27.2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Poster Designer Unknown to me.

The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Poster Designer Unknown to me.

Koreyoshi Kurahara established himself as an essential filmmaker from the end of the 1950’s to his final film, 1995’s Hiroshima. His early films are often categorized along with his French filmmaker contemporaries and La Nouvelle Vague — sometimes referred to as The Japanese New Wave.

Not only is this categorization overly-simplistic, it is not sensical. Post-WWII Japan youth culture experience was an entirely different situation than being a youth in France as the world entered the 1960’s. If one must apply his early films to a genre, The Seishun Eiga genre makes more sense. Japan entered the modern arena quickly and as Western influence started to merge with East, the youth of the time found themselves in a world that was paradoxical. Freedom and fun were changing in meaning and access while the culture remained rooted in a problematic elitist class structure that both attempted to oppress and repress. The atmosphere was ripe for rebellion.

High on Rebellion and howling at the sun! Eiji Gô and Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

High on Rebellion and howling at the sun!
Eiji Gô and Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Kurahara’s The Warped Ones opens with some truly ingeniously frantic camerawork. The viewer hears what sounds something like American Jazz and is then shown several key American Jazz artists. As if looking a vinyl record starting to spin on a turntable – the view begins to open up. The spinning increases, the music’s jazzy sway begins to verge into something similar to what we would now call Acid Jazz. As Toshiba Mayuzumi’s music slips into a sort of fevered pitch, Yoshio Mamiya’s cinematography spins faster. Within a matter of seconds the action on the screen starts with a failed con attempt by a young woman and young male friend who turns a Western tourist’s attention away so that the male friend can successfully pick the man’s pocket. As the two gleefully prepare to leave with their “earnings,” their grift is called out by a male journalist in a pressed suit.

Yuko Chishiro, Noriko Matsumoto and Tamio Kawachi.  The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Yuko Chishiro, Noriko Matsumoto and Tamio Kawachi.
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Our two leading protagonists, Akira and Yuki, have been caught. Kashiwagi and his fiancee, Rumiko, watch as the two are led off to jail. Before the audience even has a chance to catch it’s breath, Kurahara drops us into a mail prison where where we see Akira sweat, scream, scowl, fight, brawl, party and create chaos during his frenzied stay in jail. As the music stays in pace with the cinematography and action, credits are presented in a stylistic way. Everything we see in the jail is brutally primal — yet Akira seems to be somehow enjoying everything we see.

Once the credits finish, Tamio Kawachi’s Akira is being released. He appears to have made a new best pal, Eiji Gô’s Masaru. These two boys are from the same coin, but Masaru might be from a different side. A rebellious criminal, it is immediately clear that he is a bit more stable than Akira. As these two steal a car and race ahead it, Akira’s behavior is more than just bit disturbing. Kawachi’s performance is a true work of film acting art. Almost constantly in motion and distorting his face to match what we can only imagine what must be churning in his psychopathic mind. Akira’s movements, actions and manner of speech are less human and more animalistic. His brutality shines through even in brief acts of passive “kindness.” It is an unforgettable acting turn.

More animal than human... Tamio Kawachi  The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

More animal than human…
Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Masaru is not nearly so unhinged, but he is most certainly operating within a very skewed moral compass. It doesn’t take Akira long to find his partner in crime, Yuki. Yuko Chishiro’s performance as Yuki seems like it could be the prototype for The Hyper Japanese Girl that we now see so often represented in Japanese Film and Anime. Ever bouncing and seemingly positive in energy and almost manic-like gleeful high-pitched laughter, she is almost a walking stereotype. There are a few things that set her apart from this stereotypical idea: she is a scheming, rage-filled street prostitute grifter who would also appear to be more than a bit of a sociopath. Her bouncy energy and high-pitched laughter are a disguise to the sour intentions waiting to happen If Akira represents The Id, Yuki represents a feminized version of cruel menace.

The Id & His Pretty Partner... Tamio Kawachi and Yuko Chishiro The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The Id & His Pretty Partner…
Tamio Kawachi and Yuko Chishiro
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

When these three walking vessels of aggression bond in an elaborate plan of vengeance on the journalist who put two of them in jail, a sort of Satanic Trinity is formed. Charles Manson would have run in fear of these three.

Koreyoshi Kurahara’s classic tale of human cruelty and vengeance still packs a strange punch to the gut. This might be the main reason I cringe when I read or hear this movie referred to as part of The Japanese New Wave or that Wave that was going down in Japan. There is nothing of cinematic reference to be found in The Warped Ones. In fact, every single thing we see and hear on the screen feels not only new and fresh — 50 years on, this movie still feels disorientingly current. The Warped Ones is also startling because it manages to be vibrantly alive and simultaneously one of the most nihilistic movies I’ve ever seen. This being stated, Kurahara’s mean little movie represents a major shift in Japanese filmmaking.

Even Charles Manson would run for his life if this unholy trinity approached...

Even Charles Manson would run for his life if this unholy trinity approached… Eiji Gô, Yuko Chishiro, and Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Aside from being a deeply weird, this film operates from several different perspectives that alternate between the obvious and the ambiguous. On the one hand , Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones is a perverse cautionary tale of Western influence and youth run amok. Akira, Yuki and Masaru are not grooving to rebellious rock music. No, they seemed to be steeped in American Jazz. The young couple whom they view as their enemies are fairly innocuous but easily tempted toward sexual influence. Akira holds them and their classical music tastes in disdain. When he breaks one of their classical record albums it is clearly an act of anger against the sound of elitism as much as it is against their desired style of living.

Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

At the same time the film can be perceived to function as both societal and cultural commentary. These lost kids aren’t grooving to rock, but to the music of classic American Jazz. These hoodlums are most certainly rebelling against their world, but are attempting to act out against their established institutions. The police and the prison systems are little more than jokes. It is in jail that Akira seems to have a great deal of fun and meets a new friend. Once released from their shared cells, they have “learned” nothing and feel no need to “repent” for their “crimes“. They simply seem to have been given the opportunity to get a bit of a rest and are fully re-energized. Once they hit the streets they are literally high on rebellion. They know that what they do is wrong. They simply do not care.

Eiji Gô & Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Eiji Gô & Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Yuki has been released sooner and has returned to selling her sex without any seeming issue, problem or regret. She is equally eager to return to conning and grifting her clients as soon as she meets up with Akira and his new friend. She is also more than eager to tease Masaru with her sexuality. Faking anger and cloyingly demanding that he look away as she changes outfits, she clearly enjoys his noticing. She quickly falls into a relationship with Masaru. Akira has no interest in relationships or bonding. He is interested in sex and satisfying his sexual urges, but beyond an orgasm he has no interest.

Yuki seems to hold no erotic interest for Akira Yuko Chishiro & Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Yuki seems to hold no erotic interest for Akira Yuko Chishiro & Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

I generally dismiss the idea of this film as “cautionary.” I am not even certain if Kurahara was trying to teach his audience anything. This perversely entertaining movie is concerned with plot. Not any sort of lofty intention. The Warped Ones is, however, very much concerned with realism and artistry. Even on a limited budget and shooting on location, the filmmaker pushes his cinematographer, cast and post-production musical composer and Akira Suzuki (his superb Film Editor) to push toward only the highest level of creativity and skill. Even though the action and movements are fast, chaotic and frenzied — all is presented with style and off-kilter beauty. It would be unfair to deny this film’s sensuality.

Violently tossed down... The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Violently tossed down…
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

It is clear that Akira rapes Fumiko. She is violently kidnapped, thrown into what appears to be a dry beach sandbar with such strength that she loses consciousness. As Yuki and Masaru romp off to make out and have some fun at the beach, Akira is left alone with the innocent and beautiful young victim. While we know this is rape, the scene is filmed in a shockingly sensual manner. Both the rapist and his victims’ bodies are captured to accentuate their mutual youthful beauty. The horror of what has happened it only clear after the act is over.

Noriko Matsumoto & Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Noriko Matsumoto & Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

This is a unique and twisted tale of human cruelty in which the idea of vengeance is taken to a whole new level. The pursuit of this vengeance is truly psychopathic, psychosexual, disturbing, realistic and unapologetically perverse. But it is Yoshio Mamiya’s hyper and artistically disorienting cinematography that really seals the deal. The opening shot of this movie is jaw-dropping. The whole film is prone to make the jaw drop. It is all the more fascinating to note that this movie was shot in 1959.

Tamio Kawachi The Warped Ones Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960  Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Tamio Kawachi
The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

It has an oddly current feel. It is also important to note that this film features one of the more memorable cinematic endings. The ending almost presses into circular logic. The camera sprints up, spins and sends us into the human void. From beginning to unforgettable end, The Warped Ones is a twisted ride of a movie. Dark, angry and lusting for blood, this movie is a strange and brilliant cinematic experience.

Koreyoshi Kurahara was a varied filmmaker. He never stuck to one style or core idea. But in 1967 he adapted Yukio Mishima’s third novel. Mishima’s brilliance as a writer is well noted, but film versions of his work usually fall painfully short of capturing anything close to what his words created. However, Kurahara came very close with his re-working of Thirst for Love. Koreyoshi Kurahara adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel is a bit dated, but brilliantly conceived. Brilliantly edited, lit and featuring valid use of sound design, it is once again Yoshio Mamiya’s cinematography that takes a crucial role in making this film work.

Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The other major asset for the film is the performance given by the great Ruriko Asaoka. The success of Kurahara’s adaptation wisely depends on her acting skills. It is tragic how uninformed most of Western Culture is to the Eastern Film Art. Ruriko Asaoka, like her director, never seems to gain the recognition deserved outside of hardcore cinephiles. Aside from being ethereally beautiful, oozing eroticism with little effort, born with expressive eyes and gifted with an uniquely effective manner of acting — Asaoka was and remains an actor with charisma and true screen presence.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

She worked for Kurahara more than a couple of times, but it is in Thirst for Love that she is given full reign.

Unlike most who have attempted to adapt Mishima’s work, Kurahara does not aim to exploit the transgressive or exploit the often perverse sexuality. Instead he employs Mamiya’s camera skills to show us just enough for us to know what is going on. The editing and sound design also play strong roles in conveying tone.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

It is here that the film sometimes has a “dated” quality. However this “datedness” is a result of far too many late ’60’s/’70’s lesser filmmaker over-use of similar stylistic choices that have caused us to feel this way. In Thirst for Love these quick edits, zooms and flashbacks via still photography are all put to exquisite use. Filmed in a lush and sensuous monochrome gone black and white, the movie lulls us into visual beauty as the characters’ individual and shared transgressions / perversities are presented and/or explored. But once these aspects have been revealed Kurahara uses jolting fast scenes of color. The color used is blood red and it further saturates the tone off the screen and into our brains.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Another major key in this adaptation is that Kurahara manages to largely avoid any alterations of Mishima’s novel. Please correct me if I’m wrong as I am writing strictly from my memory — but the only major change made in this film adaptation is that our female protagonist’s backstory involving her deceased husband has been made for us to suspect that the widow’s relationship with her husband was far more tainted. I do believe that all we are told in the book is that she was widowed as a result of her husband fatal battle with Typhoid. In the film version, his treatment of Asaoka’s “Etsuko” was bad. So bad that Etsuko may or may not have done something about it. The rest of the film seems to come directly from the great novel.

Shaving "Father" Ruriko Asaoka & Nobuo Nakamura Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Shaving “Father”
Ruriko Asaoka & Nobuo Nakamura
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The plot revolves around a deeply dysfunctional wealthy family in which the elderly patriarch has not only taken his son’s widow, Etsuko, into his home — he has placed her in his bedroom. His daughter-in-law is now his mistress. The elderly man also provides home to another widowed sister-in-law and children as well as his lay-about buffoon of a son and his admittedly odd wife. This is a sick home. And all living within it fully accept the situation. Soon Etsuko develops a sexual attraction to the family’s gardner.

Younger and from a lower class strata Etsuko views her desire as inappropriate. This is of particular interest as she is clearly not bothered by her brother-in-law and sister-in-law constantly hinting that a three-way relationship would be more than welcome. Not to mention that it seems to be normal conversation that Etsuko should bear their father’s child and have the only living son raise the child as his own. But to desire sex with the hired help is inappropriate.

The Gardner & The Widow Tetsuo Ishidate & Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

The Gardner & The Widow
Tetsuo Ishidate & Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka’s performance is interestingly minimal. For the first half of the film, all emotion is limited to her expressive eyes. As we “non-see” the elderly man she calls “Father” bring her to orgasm, it only takes a shot of her eyes or face for us to know that she is both repulsed and becoming numb the further she drifts into her place within the family.

Her desire for the young man grows to obsession. Obsession pushes her toward full cruelty and insanity. Nothing is hidden from us, but all is conveyed via careful lighting, truly unique camera work and Asaoka’s brilliant performance. This is Mishima. None of this is going to take us to a good place. As he leads us to the story’s disturbing resolution, Kurahara establishes a strange world in which Etsuko roams.

Trying to leave a trace or a scar... Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Trying to leave a trace or a scar…
Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Sprawling but interesting claustrophobic, she walks about the home and grounds often in a state of drifting despair. She eroticizes and mentally imagines objects to self-destruct. When she does leave the home and it’s decaying grounds, she walks down a long road. A walk down this road is like being overshadowed by prison walls. The surroundings outside the grounds of the family home seem to almost be more threatening than the home itself. Isolated, sad and doomed — it is unclear if these massive walls are there to keep the family in or the rest of Japan out.

A serious talk outside the compound against that wall... Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

A serious talk outside the compound against that wall…
Ruriko Asaoka & Tetsuo Ishidate Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

By the time Etsuko finally fulfills her true desires her choices and actions are shocking. The filming of violence throughout the film is all the more dire due to the monochrome black and white lack of color. Had this film utilized color for scenes of violence (both passive and horrific) it would have looked cheap and exploitive.

Thirst for Love is an uncomfortably beautiful cinematic experience captured by mixing the vile, the visceral, the sensual and darkest corners of human desires merged with the despaired. Is it melodrama? Art Horror? Experimental? Art House? Cinematic Provocation? …Yes. It is. And it is fucking brilliant.

Ruriko Asaoka Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Both of these films have been decently restored by The Criterion Collection and have been issued via their Eclipse Collection Series. Another bone I’ve been picking with Criterion for some time. While I understand that Western Audience is more familiar with films like Pale Flower, Tokyo Drifter, Vengeance Is Mine and the infamous In the Realm of the Senses — that doesn’t mean that films like these two need be pushed out with only limited restorations and no extra focus.

Tetsuo Ishidate  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Tetsuo Ishidate
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Please do not misunderstand me, I adore all of the above mentioned films and the work Criterion has done for each. But if you’ve not seen these two Koreyoshi Kurahara films, you are missing two amazing cinematic experiences. And I do feel both The Warped Ones and Thirst for Love are superior to these other full-fledged members of The Criterion Collection.

Ruriko Asaoka  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

“Just let matters slide. How much better to accept each sweet drop of the honey that was Time, than to stoop to the vulgarity latent in every decision. However grave the matter at hand might be, if one neglected it for long enough, the act of neglect itself would begin to affect the situation…”  — Yukio Mishima, 1968

Ruriko Asaoka & Tetsuo Ishidate  Thirst for Love Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967 Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Ruriko Asaoka & Tetsuo Ishidate
Thirst for Love
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967
Cinematography | Yoshio Mamiya

Matty Stanfield, 11.12.15

 

 

 

 

“I was wondering if you could do me a favor and write a think piece on Polanski’s Repulsion? Perhaps you could post it on your blog. I’d really appreciate it.”

"The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!" REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965

“The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!”
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965

This request brought me back to my college daze. An English Major, during my sophomore year a professor challenged me to form my semester thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The challenge was not the thesis, but the actual assignment:

Create a thesis “with something new” to offer about the Scarlet Letter.

An odd and somewhat cruel way to make or break my grade. I wanted to bang my then-stoner-head into a wall. I took a real leap into my deconstruction of Hawthorne’s novel. And, I pulled out all the stops.

On her way up to the flat she shares with her sister, Carol bites her nails. I was doing something similar as I tried to find something "new" in "The Scarlet Letter" Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

On her way up to the flat she shares with her sister, Carol bites her nails. I was doing something similar as I tried to find something “new” in “The Scarlet Letter”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

My thesis argued that the book was an account of actual demonic possession. As I made my presentation to a class full of actual adults, I was met with snickering and eye-rolling. However, I had strange supporting information for every question designed to make me look the idiot. In the end, the professor gave me a “B.”

Not a horrible grade, but this was an advanced course in which I was the only student not yet working on their Masters. It was the lowest grade I ever received in a literature course. A year later I asked this professor why he gave me such a task. His answer? The conversation went something like this:

I wanted to take you down a peg or two. I didn’t feel a Sophomore should have been in that class.

So you wanted to humiliate me by having me read a book normally studied in Freshman year?

Yes and I wanted to give you an impossible assignment. I had no intention of failing you. My plan was to give you a “C” no matter what you presented.”

You gave me a ‘B.‘”

Yes. Your thesis was absurd, but you supported it well. I almost gave you an ‘A-‘ but your ridiculous rebellion against grammar would not allow me that opportunity.”

The following semester I discussed this with another professor who would become my university mentor and friend until her death in the mid-1990’s. She indicated that my experience was actually a surprising compliment from that professor.

So when an individual of some note asked me to write a piece about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, I had to laugh. What can one possibly write about that infamous film that hasn’t been written about six million times before? I thought about it and politely declined. But as it turns out there is a strangely valid reason for this person’s request.

And so I now ask for your indulgence as I attempt to take another exploration into Repulsion.

Catching her reflection in a vase, Carol seems transfixed by the contour's warped perspective. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catching her reflection in a vase, Carol seems transfixed by the contour’s warped perspective.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It speaks volumes that 50 years after it first screened, Repulsion continues to not only entertain, but unnerve audiences. Roman Polanski’s first English-speaking film is at simultaneously experimental and resoundingly accessible. It also happens to be one of the most intimately disturbing films ever made. The intimacy of this film emanates not only from the style in which it is crafted but also from a universally shared fear of losing grasp with our own perception of reality. The film gradually pulls us into the protagonist’s hysteria leaving the viewer disoriented and distressed. I do not care for the term “hysteria” but I think it is perfectly suited here. By the time Polanski’s grim little movie comes to its ambiguous ending and circular cinematic “logic,” it is impossible to not relate to Catherine Deneuve’s character.

This resonation is the film’s most horrific element: deep down we all worry that sanity is just a few pegs away from leaving us alone, isolated and afraid beyond recognition.

Roman Polanski has always refused to answer direct questions about what we are seeing or how we are to interpret what is shown. While this is a smart move for any filmmaker, I suspect Polanski’s refusal is actually deeply valid. Certainly the movie is about a young woman going insane, but questions about “reality” vs. “hallucination” or simply “Surrealism” continue to form Repulsion‘s Film Theory discussion. However, the idea that Polanski himself was not entirely sure of what he was striving to present fails to hold water. Roman Polanski is far too intelligent a filmmaker and Repulsion is far too acutely acted, set-up and edited to have come from an unsure footing.

Moving closer is the vase's distortion somehow more aligned with Carol's perceptions? Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Moving closer is the vase’s distortion somehow more aligned with Carol’s perceptions?
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

I’ve read so many essays on this film. I would not know how to reference all of the different theories. These range from “Feminist Statement” to “It all really happens!” to “Childhood Rape Survivor / PTSD” all the way down to Cinematic Metaphor on a wide range of topics. One of the many metaphors tied to the film is the Counter-Cultural Impact of the 1960’s. Another ties the film to Sexual Revolutionary Reaction. Going even further beneath the surface of the film’s simple complexity have been theories about the actual meaning of the protagonist’s name. I must admit that even the most far-out theories interest me. The way we deconstruct artwork is always interesting and revealing.

Perhaps the most valid of the many theories is grounded in three Polanski films that are often referred to as The Apartment Horror Trilogy. One would have a hard time arguing against the connections between Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. All three of these films play with senses of perception, claustrophobic induced fears, paranoia and insanity. Then of course there is the knee-jerk tendency to connect Polanski’s profoundly horrific childhood, the devastating tragedy he endured in the late 1960’s and his personal sexual transgressions of the 1970’s which led him into exile. Certainly an artist’s life experience will color his/her work, but unless the artist is willing to discuss the connection — it really feels inappropriate to read the personal into the work. And yet can we just dismiss the facts that two of the characters are immigrants, deal with sexual confusion, are put in the position of outsiders and all fall prey to paranoia.

But my personal concept of this strangely timeless film is tied to perception. A deeply warped and disassociated perception that has been manifesting within the mind that when faced dead-on with confrontation, loneliness and isolation triggers a spasm into the darkest corners of insanity. The most telling signals Polanski delivers, with a great deal of assistance from Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, are the ways in which he starts and ends the film. The first thing we see on the screen is Carol’s eye in extreme close-up. As the camera pulls back we realize that we are seeing Deneuve’s “Carol” staring out into space. She is clearly not looking at anything, yet there is something “off” about her expression. It hints that she might be looking at something which is not visible to us. In reality, she has sort of spaced-out during application of a manicure in the beauty salon that employees her.

The opening shot... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The opening shot…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Her client, her co-worker and her boss all seem to think she is caught in the dewy haze of love. The pretty manicurist is daydreaming of her Prince Charming. If only they knew. Carol is an immigrant and she lives with her sister, Helene, in a fairly spacious and charming apartment. It is important to note that Carol’s apartment is simple and it appears spacious. However, after we enter the apartment with Carol it is clear that it is not all that large. Upon entering this home which will soon morph into a sort of self-imposed prison of horrors, we note that the entry way is short. The living room is off to the immediate left, the kitchen off to the immediate right. The hallway leads to the modern bathroom. The bedrooms appear at first to be opposite each other at the end of the hall.

Carol's "safe place" quickly transforms into a living, breathing, shape-shifting space of horrors. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol’s “safe place” quickly transforms into a living, breathing, shape-shifting space of horrors.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It is also interesting to note that the apartment is appointed with furniture that would have most likely been accumulated from various sources. Only Carol’s elder sister seems to have taken the time to actually fashion a look for her bedroom. Both young women still have remnants of childhood in their respective rooms. However, there is an important difference between Carol and Helenes’ rooms: Helen has a couple of stuffed animals, but a sexy feminine atmosphere. Carol’s room is oddly void of personality. Yet there a few things of note: a child’s night lamp and a sense of untidiness. The living room has a cluttered collection of items which we can safely assume have all been placed by Helene. LifeMarie-Claire and gossip magazines lay near a simple turntable/radio with some 45’s and a couple of record albums. Judging by the way we will later see Carol rummage through the items in the living room — none of these things are hers and none seem to interest her. Except for one item.

It is Polanski’s repeated return to this item that it is clear that is great meaning here. An old childhood family photograph which we will later learn was taken in Brussels. This photograph seems draw Carol’s attention. She clearly wants to look it, but it seems to hold a threat within the borders of the frame.

A childhood family portrait taken in Brussels... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A childhood family portrait taken in Brussels…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Early in the film Helene points out that Carol needs to be more social. She needs to get out more and meet people. As Helene begins to prepare a meal with a freshly skinned rabbit as the core component, Carol seems to only be interested in two things: Helene’s boyfriend who has begun to leave his personal items in Carol’s bathroom glass and a crack springing out from what appears to be some sort of kitchen ventilation screen. Helene has little patience for Carol’s dislike of her boyfriend. An impatience which we later will understand comes from the fact that Helene is dating a married man.

When Carol studies the crack in the kitchen wall she mutters, “I must get this crack mended.” Helene only briefly appears to be concerned by the comment. It is only with hindsight that the viewer wonders if that initial crack was ever there in the first place.  Helene’s boyfriend is loud, jovial and more than a bit of a flirt. He clearly disgusts Carol. When he dismisses the idea of eating a rabbit dinner, he promises to take Helene out on the town for a grand meal. Helene quickly places the skinned and seasoned rabbit in the tiny kitchen refrigerator. Carol is clearly upset that Helene is leaving her alone in the apartment but refuses to admit it. As Helene and her man step into the elevator to leave for some fun he points out that “something” is wrong with Carol and she should see someone. It is the first time we see Helene become upset. Perhaps a little too upset. She seems furious that he would insinuate that anything is wrong with her little sister.

Auto-pilot at the salon... Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Auto-pilot at the salon…
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

We have already witnessed Carol’s strange manner of falling into her thoughts. She has drifted away while applying nail polish causing the client to ask if she is asleep. Despite this sort of behavior she is able to communicate well with her boss explaining that the salon is out of a particular shade of polish, she is polite and she never appears hostile. If anything, she appears shy but friendly. When we follow her on her lunch break it is clear she is on a sort of auto-pilot as she walks. The only things that cause her to snap out of her “daydreaming” are the sexual catcalls that greet her as she passes a street construction crew.

A quiet walk seems to be an open invitation to sexual advances... Catherine Deneuve faces the catcalls. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A quiet walk seems to be an open invitation to sexual advances…
Catherine Deneuve faces the catcalls.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The initial shot shows Carol’s back and working class construction men. But after the catcalling begins, Carol can’t help but glance. Suddenly the camera perspective on the loudest of the crew presents a somewhat distorted shot of the man. The camera’s perspective makes him appear slightly distorted and evil. Of course, anyone would feel uncomfortable in this situation. This male public assertion of sexuality and sexual intent displaces the identity of women. They become nothing more than an object for sex. It is threatening. However, there is something about that camera angle and the way in which Carol reacts that seems to be not quite right.

Cracks in the walls and the pavement. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Cracks in the walls and the pavement.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The other thing that snaps Carol out of “daydreaming” or zombie-like walking are a couple of cracks in the pavement. These cracks upon the cement ground which Carol treads cause her to halt and study them. It is as if the cracks in the pavement have pulled Carol into another type of “daydream.” So intense is her interest in these cracks, she calmly takes a seat on a public bench and stares at them. This is far more than “daydreaming.” This is at the very least OCD behavior only without any level of energy. Once again with hindsight, one can’t help but wonder what Carol is actually seeing as she stares at the cracks.

What does Carol see in the cracks? Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

What does Carol see in the cracks?
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Perception and Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography is key to understanding Repulsion. Returning to the film’s opening shot, if one thinks about the way in which Polanski chose to displays the film’s credits — it is clear that was far more than a “creepy” method to indicate a genre. Initially the title and words appear to be coming out from behind the iris of the eyeball, but very quickly any logic to the way the words appear on the screen are not limited to the eye itself. The letters and names float about without any level of logical editing. The credits present themselves in a visually discordant manner. And as the words scroll about the screen, the eyeball and eye socket seem to be twitching, blinking and gaze out and around but not at all in coordination with the words. Actually, if a person only sees this film once there is a feeling that Polanski’s budget has caused the credits to be done in a ramshackle messy manner that might have been intended to be a harmoniously clever horror-genre opener that has failed and simply looks like a poor but ambitious choice. After viewing the film even only once, it clear that these credits and the way in which Deneuve’s eye is reacting is all intentional. There is no connection between the eye and the credits that roll about it.

Throughout the film’s first act, we see Carol’s limited interactions in only a few spaces. Actually, the spaces in which we see Carol interact are essentially limited to three places: The beauty salon, the streets on which she walks and her shared apartment. Polanski and Taylor are careful to pace the presentation of Carol’s perceptions of these spaces and interactions slow enough so that our awareness is initially limited. We visit the salon and the streets about three times. Each time a bit more is revealed. The reveals are not so much about the spaces or interactions as they are about the way in which Carol is perceiving them.

"Are you alright?" Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“Are you alright?”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The busy beauty salon appears small and a bit cramped. The client, the beautician and Carol barely seem to fit into the room where facials, massages and manicures are performed. But when Carol loses her focus, drifts off and cuts the finger of her client — her tray falls to the ground. Suddenly it appears there is far more space in the room than we initially thought. As Carol stares at a spinning nail polish bottle we become disoriented by Gilbert Taylor’s camera. There is an odd expansion of space and shadow. Carol seems almost animalistic as she watches the spinning bottle. A tiny bottle which due to the placement of camera and use of lens looks bigger than it is.

When her boss inquires about what is wrong, we realize that she has missed three full days of work without having ever called the salon. When pushed for an explanation, Carol clumsily mutters that an “Aunt arrived for a visit unexpectedly.” The salon boss automatically assumes that Carol is telling her that she was ill due to menstruation, it is apparent that this was not the meaning Carol was attempting to imply. As a co-worker helps her into her street clothes she encages Carol in a conversation. She suggests that Carol take in a movie. She manages to bring Carol out of her “shell” and gets her to giggle as the girl describes a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie she has just seen. Carol seems connected, but her laughter becomes to feel like a nervous reaction. As the girl goes to hand Carol her purse, she notices it is open. She looks inside and discovers the head of the rabbit waiting amongst a compact and lipstick.

Walking without focus and ever-increasing ticks. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Walking without focus and ever-increasing ticks.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In the beginning of the film we meet a potential suitor for Carol. Played by John Fraser, this would-be suitor seems harmless enough. This is not to say that he isn’t persistent. He follows Carol on her lunch break. Sits himself down at her table and pushes to get a date. Carol is polite, but clearly not interested. Or is she? She never clearly brushes Colin off. As he follows her back to the salon he presses for a date. She seems shy, but not entirely dismissive. She smiles. The second time she encounters the ever-pushy Colin, she is clearly forcing a smile. Despite his humor and flirtation, she never gives a clear signal. However, most men would let it go. She clearly is not going to fully agree to a date, but Colin presses on.

The viewer’s first time in the sisters’ apartment, we discover that Carol can hear her sister having sex. As Helene reaches orgasm, Carol looks forward toward her sister’s room and covers her ears with her pillow. We know she dislikes Helene’s married boyfriend, but it is never clear why. However, she does not hesitate to toss out his things. When Helene asks Carol why she has thrown out his things, Carol gives a strong declaration that she simply does not like him. However she states this in a passive tone. We have already noticed that his straight razor has caught her eye and thoughts. The second time she notices it she picks it up and studies it. Her face and eyes dulled, she is physically mute of thought.

Studying a straight razor. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Studying a straight razor.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

When Helene and her boyfriend leave for a trip to Italy, Carol seems more than a little panicked. How long will they be gone? 10 or 15 days. Maybe. Carol’s need for more rigidly defined dates is not just for reassurance, it is as if despair and fear demand it. Helene refuses to cater to the silly insecurities of her grown sister. But as the two leave, Carol is clearly concerned. As much as she despises Helene’s boyfriend, she’d rather put up with him than be without her sister.

She is physically repulsed by Helene’s boyfriend. Even the scent of an undershirt makes her vomit. Yet when she pulls out the plate of uncooked rabbit, she stares at it in the same way she has stared at the cracks and the straight razor. There is no clear indication of what she might be thinking, but she is not repulsed. The scent of an undershirt makes her ill, but as the rabbit begins to rot in the living room it causes her no concern. The phone rings and we discover she has the straight razor which she sits on the rabbit’s plate. As we will soon learn, she uses that razor to cut off the rabbits head. A head which she stores in her purse.

Sister's uncooked rabbit does not seem to bother Carol, but something about the bunny's head is of particular interest. The first use of the straight razor. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Sister’s uncooked rabbit does not seem to bother Carol, but something about the bunny’s head is of particular interest. The first use of the straight razor.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Looking back earlier in the film after her sister leaves for Italy, Carol walks about the apartment. She looks at the family photograph. She glances through her sister’s record collection. She walks into her sister’s bedroom. She looks around. She approaches her sister’s wardrobe. She opens the door and examines one of Helene’s sexy dresses. Carol seems to study the dress. As she moves the wardrobe’s mirrored door, we catch a quick glimpse of a man’s reflection behind her. It is a jarring moment. Without any sort of musical cue, it is a scene that never fails to make me jump.

It is shortly after this that the audience is put in the position of not knowing if the steps Carol seems to hear in her apartment are actually in her apartment or in one above or below. No, they must be in her apartment. We notice that her wardrobe is blocking a thus far unknown door. A light goes on behind that door. It may not always become obvious to the viewer upon the first viewing of the film, but this door is suspect. Where does it lead? Carol’s bedroom is opposite from Helene’s. Isn’t it? Wait, are the two bedroom now next to each other? Later those steps behind that door will force the door open — pushing Carol’s wardrobe out of the way. The man who emerges rapes Carol.

Sometimes the hall's walls turn into a flesh-like surface. Other times aggressive male arms emerge to ravage and rape Carol. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Sometimes the hall’s walls turn into a flesh-like surface. Other times aggressive male arms emerge to ravage and rape Carol.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There is no question that these are rapes. But there no confusing the fact that Carol has imagined them. There is a bit of confusion regarding her reactions to these sexual violations. She seems at once horrified and aroused. We know these rapes are rape fantasies. We know this because we have seen Carol rush from her sister’s bedroom into the hall. She touches the hall wall and it appears to be a soft porous surface in which her hands leave an impression. Wait. Is the hall suddenly a wall of flesh? Soon arms will emerge from the wall body and seemingly sexual violate Carol. Once again, her reaction is a mix of shock, horror and possibly sexual pleasure. Later she will walk down the hallway which fills with outreaching, grabbing male arms.

A walk down the hall becomes a sexual threat that offers no escape. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A walk down the hall becomes a sexual threat that offers no escape.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

During one particularly brutal rape, the screen fades to black. When we return we find Carol laying nude on the floor of the hall. She does not look traumatized. It is actually the only time in the film that Carol looks relaxed. A jarring phone ring will snap her back into a state of frenzied paranoia and fear. The cracks are getting worse. They are no longer limited to just the two in the kitchen. At one point Carol cautiously approaches the childhood family photograph. As we see discomfort and fear grip her eyes and body, the wall behind the photograph cracks apart threatening to crumble to pieces. Carol flips on a light only to see the entire wall crack apart.

She had planned on getting the crack in the kitchen mended, but new cracks are emerging everywhere. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

She had planned on getting the crack in the kitchen mended, but new cracks are emerging everywhere.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As Carol descends into insanity her perspective has taken over every aspect of the apartment’s space. After her desperate suitor has attempted to call her over and over again, he has a few drinks and works up the nerve to show up at her front door. The once pushy, but somehow nice guy suddenly takes on a threatening aspect. Carol looks through her front door peep hole and so does Gilbert Taylor’s camera. Distorted and furious, Colin demands that Carol open the door or he will bust it down.

Turns out this is not an idle threat. He lunges at the door. Carol backs away from the door. She reaches for a heavy metal candle stick. Her once kindly suitor breaks through the front door’s lock and busts into Carol’s warped space. Even though he tries to apologize for his behavior and expresses his love and desire for Carol, it is too late. He is a threat. He is danger. The small entry way no longer appears small. It seems very dark and long. The camera’s perspective reveals a nosy elderly neighbor looking in as Colin tries to defend his actions.

Does this potential suitor really have good intentions? If so, why did he break the door's lock to secure access to Carol's apartment? A nosy neighbor watches from the hall. John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Does this potential suitor really have good intentions? If so, why did he break the door’s lock to secure access to Carol’s apartment? A nosy neighbor watches from the hall.
John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol refuses to make eye contact. When Colin notices the old neighbor spying on them, he walks down the once short entry way, the elderly woman rushes into her apartment. As he attempts to close the door, Carol’s fear turns to rage.

He just wants to be "with her." Metal candlestick at the ready... John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

He just wants to be “with her.” Metal candlestick at the ready…
John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol is no longer passive. She brutally attacks her suitor. Putting all her force into it, Carol bludgeons Colin to death. Blood splatters all over the door. Carol does not seem to be concerned that she has just murdered someone, but she is very upset by the sight of blood coming out of his ear and staining the door. She drags Colin down the ever-expanding hallway and manages to get his body into the tub of water that she had drawn earlier and had allowed to overflow. Suddenly full of manic energy, Carol uses the candlestick to hammer a shelf she pulls from the kitchen to act as a barricade for the apartment entryway.

It isn’t long before the landlord shows up. Carol gives us a peep hole view of Patrick Wymark. Like Colin, the landlord must bust his way into the apartment. At first angry at the state of the apartment, he quickly changes his tune as he looks at Carol in her almost sheer night gown. Soon rage gives way to lechery.

Peephole perspective: the unwanted visit from the landlord. Patrick Wymark REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Peephole perspective: the unwanted visit from the landlord.
Patrick Wymark
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As he brutishly attempts to mount Carol, she pulls out the straight razor and viciously begins slashing him. Filmed in black and white with Catherine Deneuve’s maniacal slashing, blood spurts everywhere. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that Carol has hit some vital veins.

"You would not even have to worry about the rent..." Patrick Wymark propositions Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“You would not even have to worry about the rent…”
Patrick Wymark propositions Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

She has committed her second murder. Once again, she seems more concerned with the mess than the murder. She pushes the sofa over on top of the dead landlord to hid him and his mess from her view.

Insanity has almost completely taken over. As we see Carol sitting in the once small and modern bathroom, we notice that the tub is no longer directly next to the bathroom door. The tiled walls are gone. The bathroom looks old, wet and moldy. It also appears to go deeper than possible. This is not the bathroom we have seen before. Welcome to Carol’s perspective.

Over the course of the film nearly every aspect of Carol’s apartment has been shifted, re-shaped, extended, shortened, architecturally re-arranged and bent to fit within Carol’s skewed perception. It isn’t until Helene and her boyfriend return from their holiday that the apartment’s spacial and visual aspects are fully formed back into the spaces to which we were first introduced. In other words, as Helen enters the wrecked blood stained apartment that “reality” returns to our perspective.

As our realistic perspective returns we discover that Carol has slipped far beneath insanity. Her eyes appear to be frozen open. She almost appears to be dead. But in the most horrifying way, our protagonist has slipped into something far worse than death. She is found under her bed in a catatonic state. While we are given no clear indicators, it feels as if this will be the state she will remain. Can there be anything more terrifying than be shut off from reality and stuck in the darkest and murky waters of a ill mind.

There are more than a few things wrong with this "picture." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There are more than a few things wrong with this “picture.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As brilliant as Roman Polanski’s film and his use of Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography and Seamus Flannery’s art direction, there is another essential element to Repulsion that often is dismissed as “accidental” or “luck.” Catherine Deneuve gives a superb performance as Carol. At the time she was cast in Polanski’s film she was thought to be incredibly beautiful and might possibly have a strong career ahead of her in fashion modeling or light entertainment. Her appearance in the sensational French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The film and she had garnished a great deal of well deserved attention, but once again — she was hardly more than a beautiful face. Jacques Demy had not required a great deal from her in the female leading role. Her own singing voice was not used. Essentially all she needed to do was look happy, mad and sad while lip synching to another’s voice. (Actually, she and all the actors were dubbed and they were required to sing along with the recordings.)

But her work in Repulsion is not just happy accident. Her presence and being fill the screen and linger in the mind. Her mannerisms, twitches, horror and cautious use of words is never doubted. It should be noted that Polanski and the two others who assisted him in adapting the screenplay knew very little about mental illness.

Catherine Deneuve proves her on-screen value as Carol REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve proves her on-screen value as Carol
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Deneuve’s stares and facial expressions are never over or under done. Somehow she captured the presence of a fractured mind. And she did so brilliantly. Barely a year would pass before Luis Buñuel pursued her to play the lead in the still controversial and highly regarded experimentation into the Surreal, Bell de jour. His decision to cast her laid not just in her angelic beauty, but in what he saw in Polanski’s film. This might be the other overly examined film from the 1960’s.

I cringe when I hear film scholars or critics dismiss her 1965 portrayal as a lucky use of “icy beauty.” …This is a memorable and valid on-screen performance. In fact there is very little of the “real” Catherine Deneuve present. If one is to fault any aspect of her performance it lies in the hands of the film’s stylist. The only thing about Repulsion that fails is Deneuve’s always flawless hair. Her face covered in sweat and smeared-on lipstick with eyes reflecting sheer terror, her hair is still brilliantly coiffed. Hair aside, I find it hard to believe that any other could have played this role better. And, of course, Deneuve has gone on to build one of the most enduring and important film careers in cinematic history. A year ago Pierre Salvadori managed to convince her to take the female lead in his little seen cinematic gem, In the Courtyard.

Oh no. Not another crack!?!? Catherine Deneuve at 72 plays Mathilde In the Courtyard Pierre Salvadori, 2014 Cinematography | Gilles Henry

Oh no. Not another crack!?!?
Catherine Deneuve at 72 plays Mathilde
In the Courtyard
Pierre Salvadori, 2014
Cinematography | Gilles Henry

This was the first time I’ve ever seen a filmmaker sneak in a nod to her Repulsion performance. In the 2014 French independent film she plays a retired elderly woman who is slipping into a state of depression. Her character becomes obsessed with a crack in her living room.

Returning back to the theory of Repulsion being an examination of insanity’s perspective, as Helene stands back in shock and her boyfriend lifts the now catatonic and mentally absent sister to carry her toward the ambulance and police who are on their way — Polanski has Gilbert Taylor expertly flow through and over the apartment’s wrecked state. As always, Taylor’s camera work is steady and intently focused to slowly capture the film’s closing image. As we move closer to Carol’s childhood picture, Polanski finally allows us to actually see Carol as a child. The whole family is encaged and posing happily. Save Carol. The little girl stands rigid and staring off at something. Many cinephiles like to say that we are meant to think that she is staring at the man (father? uncle?) to her left. The idea being that the child is looking at her victimizer.

This does not hold up. As the camera moves in it is clear that she is not looking at anyone in this photograph. And based on the film’s shared perspective, her gaze has never been focused on anything within the realm of perceived reality. Polanski drives this point even more precisely as the image has been edited slowly to black out the rest of the photo. We can only see a little girl with a disturbing look on her face. The camera never stops it’s slow zoom. Taylor’s camera is aiming directly into young Carol’s right eye. The same eye from which the film’s title slipped out at the beginning of the film. The zoom continues until little Carol’s eye becomes nothing but speaks blurred into darkness.

Repulsion attempts to pull us to a restricted place that has been growing since childhood: the warped psyche of insanity.

And we come back to the childhood photograph of Carol. Polanski chooses to slowly zoom into Carol's eye until it becomes a blur of particles. An isolated stare into horror. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

And we come back to the childhood photograph of Carol. Polanski chooses to slowly zoom into Carol’s eye until it becomes a blur of particles. An isolated stare into horror.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Matty Stanfield, 10.22.2015

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

 

 

 

 

 

As Dennis Hopper’s gritty and nihilistic film, Out of the Blue, we see and hear two things:

Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980

Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980

the first is an 18-wheeler speeding along a stretch of road. In it sit a Halloween-costumed little girl and her beer-drinking dad. The drunk father teases his eleven year old clown of a daughter. She gleefully revels in his attention. Not too far ahead is a school bus full of elementary school age children. These are the trucker’s classmates. Their bus has stalled in the middle of an intersection.

A child and her addicted father on a Halloween joy ride to school quickly switches to a tragic crash into a school bus... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A child and her addicted father on a Halloween joy ride to school quickly switches to a tragic crash into a school bus…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

The little clown too lost in the bliss of her father’s attention and her father too drunk to allow for appropriate reflexes, the 18 wheeler crashes directly into the school bus. Suddenly this shocking action is ended as that same little girl some four years later bolts up in her bed. She has been dreaming. Linda Manz plays “Cebe” and we at once see the magic that this young actor was able to bring to the screen. She has no dialogue. She doesn’t need any. Her face shows it all. Confused, frightened and bemused. Cebe (clearly named after the Trucker mode of communication, the CB radio) appears to be uncertain if she has fully woken from the nightmare. But it only takes a few seconds for the audience to notice two visible scars on her face. This scene and whatever hope that what we have just witnessed by simply be a nightmare is killed with an instant cut to the cab of that 18 wheeler. Sitting in a ramble overgrowth of weeds, the cab is basically demolished. It is the dead of night, Cebe sits in the driver seat wearing her father’s Post-Hippie leather cap. She is talking into the CB radio transmitting a rant that we soon will realize fuels her ability to analyze and move forward in her life:

“Subvert normality. Punk is not sexual, it’s just aggression. Destroy. Kill All Hippies. I’m not talking at you, I’m talking to you. Anarchy. Disco sucks. I don’t wanna hear about you, I wanna hear from you. This is Gorgeous. Does anybody outthere read me? Disco sucks, kill all hippies. Pretty vacant, eh? Subvert normality. Signing off. This is Gorgeous. Signing off.” 

The listening truck drivers do not understand. Cebe doesn’t care. She simply needs to be heard.

Linda Manz as Cebe Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Linda Manz as Cebe
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Originally intended to be a Canadian film about a child psychologist who saves and offers redemption for a fifteen year old girl who has murdered her own father. If what one is to believe what has been reported, stated and written, this entire film was intended to be a star vehicle for Raymond Burr. The producers had been lucky to cast American actor, Linda Manz, as the teenager in trouble. The film’s original director was in over his head and working with a script that seemed more aimed at some sort of “white-wash” of cultural tragedy more appropriate for ABC’s After School Special than cinemas. Dennis Hopper had taken the job to play the murdered father. After the original director walked-off, the iconic actor was asked to make his first directorial turn since his infamous The Last Movie failure.

Dennis Hopper immediately set out to re-write the perversely tidy teenage murderer saved script into something attached to humanity and reality. Raymond Burr was a tax credit for the film’s producers. Hopper manipulated Burr into thinking that he was still the lead actor. He apparently filmed a great deal more than the two brief scenes in which we see him in Hopper’s film. The Child Psychologist is reduced to a half-heartedly sincere bureaucrat. Hopper switched the perspective from a Canadian Social Worker to that of the tormented teenage girl. He also rejected the general premise of “Cebe.” She was no longer just a one-dimensional child victim turned murderer. Hopper’s Cebe was a damaged teenage girl trying to make sense out of her situation, her life and her own identity. Hopper, a former Hippie and addict, quickly decided to have Cebe obsessed with two cultural touchstones: Elvis and the PUNK Movement.

Only her father's old leather cap and a safety pin for her check remains to complete her warrior armor... Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Only her father’s old leather cap and a safety pin for her check remains to complete her warrior armor…
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Suddenly, Linda Manz was given more to do than simply supply screen presence and predictable emotions cued by violins. She was given the lead role of an abused child hellbent on rebellion and pushed to the emotional edge of sanity.

Cebe seeks more than to subvert normalcy, she seeks to subvert life itself because it is the only way she can figure a way to motivate through the pain, grief, humiliation and confusion of her life. Born to two rebels, Linda Manz’s Cebe is essentially the manifestation of free love, hippie ideology, mind-expanding drug use and confusion. Her mother appears to be a kind, but painfully emotionally-stunted ex-Flower Child. Here, Mom is only physically grown up. She married her true love, a tough Hippie Biker type who quickly grasped onto the life of a heavy hitting trucker.

Despite it all, a child needs to love her parents. Linda Manz & Dennis Hopper Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Despite it all, a child needs to love her parents.
Linda Manz & Dennis Hopper
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Cebe’s mother has forever give her heart to her husband, but she gladly hands over her body for some stability and a fix. We slowly figure out that Sharon Farrell’s Kathy is a closet heroin addict. She loves her daughter the best she knows how. Kathy doesn’t view her daughter’s rebellious nature as odd or worrying. Within Kathy’s limited understanding, Cebe is her father’s daughter. A natural born rebel. While Kathy has already hooked up with Dad’s best friend and former local nemesis, she is still married to Dad.

Kathy can’t wait for Daddy to get out of prison so that they can be a Happy Family again.

Burning what little ideal she covets of her parents, a child on the verge... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Burning what little ideal she covets of her parents, a child on the verge…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

This was never a happy family. Cebe seems to be the only one fully aware of this.

She, too, is excited about her father’s release from prison and return to home. However, Linda Manz’s skill as a naturalistic actor allows her to show us that she is not so certain things will be getting better. She hopes that they will, but Manz’s forever perplexing ability to convey mixtures of emotions that often run against the very grain of her character’s dialogue and actions, we know she really expects that things for her are about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Her bedroom offers a great deal about the complexity of our lead character. Innocent childhood toys and 1970’s era children’s art remain in tact, but are almost buried beneath the impact of shrines to Elvis. Cebe has crafted old Elvis album art and magazine photographs into collages better suited to religious iconography. A huge amplifier, drum kit and an electric guitar take the front and center of her room.

While the Elvis art seems old and fading, newer posters, pictures and magazine cut-outs weigh down the walls. These are all related to PUNK rock. The Subhumans, Sex Pistols, Teenage Head & Public Enemy are among the iconic bands name-checked on Cebe’s walls. Linda Manz’s Cebe was something altogether new to cinema.

OUT OF THE BLUE, Linda Manz, Sharon Farrell, 1980

OUT OF THE BLUE, Linda Manz, Sharon Farrell, 1980

This is the child of an addicted murderous father and an Up With People hippie gone to seed. Born into a life of instability, threat and fear — Cebe is constantly seeking new totems and sounds to bolster herself. She must reinforce her strength and appearance of knowledge and power to stay ahead of the game.

She clearly does not possess a clear understanding of either Elvis or PUNK rock. But she painfully understands the messages conveyed.

She may not understand the joke that Elvis had become by the time she was old enough to know his music. She also may not understand the corporate ownership of “Johnny Rotten” / “Sid Vicious” or the tragedy of their lives, but she gets the over-all jest of what they and their music stood/stand for.

She can’t articulate what “pretty vacant” actually means, but she somehow understands it applies to her life and the lack of hope it provides.

Rebellion is all she has.

A startling glimpse into the psyche of a 15 year old girl born of free love, addiction and rebellion. She hides it, but the numbing reality of her life is constantly revealed by the all-too-realistic nuance of Linda Manz's performance. Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A startling glimpse into the psyche of a 15 year old girl born of free love, addiction and rebellion. She hides it, but the numbing reality of her life is constantly revealed by the all-too-realistic nuance of Linda Manz’s performance.
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Upon her father’s return things around Cebe seem to take on darker aspects.

Her mother’s drug use is now done in the living room. Even though Dad is home, Mom is all the more open about pursuing her sexual needs.

Dad has taken his drinking to a new level.

Classmates and some parents view her father’s return as an injustice to the children who were killed by the drunken crash four years earlier.

Worse yet, mother loses her worries in H while Dad and his pal take matters into their own hands and murder the father of one of the children killed in the tragic accident.  The angry father feels the need for vengeance. Even a hint of his anger is enough to stir Dad to go into full attack mode.

Cebe runs away. She sleeps on the streets and ends up in a sexualized world of predators. Smart enough to run from this world, she still returns home.

Sleeping on the streets seems a safer alternative to home. This is no late 70's After School Special. This is dire and real. Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Sleeping on the streets seems a safer alternative to home. This is no late 70’s After School Special. This is dire and real.
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

When she gets back, she has hardly been missed.

The final straw arrives when a drunken argument between Mom, Dad and dad’s best friend, played by Don Gordon, lead to a non-sensical idea that Cebe has become too butch (or “a dyke“) to use Mom’s words. In drunken/stoned stupor it is decided that Don must have sex with Cebe to set her “straight.” Hearing it all from her room, Cebe begins to transform into a sort of asexual PUNK God.

Fighting off her father as if where a lion, her bedroom chair legs aimed at him like spears — the father retreats. After slapping the stoned out mom a bit, mom returns to Cebe’s side to help her into her nightgown.

So angry. So alone. So desperate. Cebe’s rebellion takes a very dark turn.

She opts to patricide and suicide as her ultimate “PUNK” revenge. Just as you would expect from Dennis Hopper, the nihilistic ending feels almost surreal. But it isn’t. This is a reality born of rage. No child psychologist can apply some words and therapy to take away the crime of her murders. If Cebe knows two things it is that she wants to kill her parents. It is hard not to relate to her conclusion. It is her suicide that is the tragedy.

Hopper’s film offers a grim view of a societal issue.

Embracing the ideology of PUNK rebellion and the reality of her life, Cebe teases her drunk, brutish and leering father's sexual advances. Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Embracing the ideology of PUNK rebellion and the reality of her life, Cebe teases her drunk, brutish and leering father’s sexual advances.
Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

By the time the film was ready for release, several minutes involving the disturbing scene in which the daughter sexually taunts her father prior to brutally killing him had to be edited to secure an “R Rating.” Originally conceived as a Canadian film, the Canadian Film Board quickly demanded funds returned and denied Canadian approval. The film was not released to Japan until the 1990’s over concerns related to rebellion, patricide and suicide. In the US the film barely managed a limited release. While it was largely supported by film critics — even Jack Nicholson stepped out of the celebrity bubble to promote the film which he felt had something very important to say.

The film quickly became a source of infamy.

Bebe applies her make-up to bolster strength. Linda Manz Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Bebe applies her make-up to bolster strength.
Linda Manz
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Interestingly, it began to develop a misleading reputation as a PUNK Rock Movie. It is not.

Costumed for fun a school bus full of children are trapped Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

Costumed for fun a school bus full of children are trapped
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

When AnchorBay was able to release the theatrical cut on DVD in 1999, the sales started off high. Driven by the rumors surrounding the film as PUNK Statement. Those sales quickly dwindled. Out of the Blue is not a fun movie. It is grim, gritty, realistic and offers the audience no easy way out. While the film does suffer from budget restraints. The crash into the school bus is not as potent when the film returns to the incident the second time and “goofs” can be seen. But mostly, this angry film remains a valid glimpse into human darkness.

A disturbingly logical but incorrect application of Elvis and PUNK mythology into identity. Linda Manz transforms... Out of the Blue Dennis Hopper, 1980 Cinematography | Marc Champion

A disturbingly logical but incorrect application of Elvis and PUNK mythology into identity.
Linda Manz transforms…
Out of the Blue
Dennis Hopper, 1980
Cinematography | Marc Champion

Although I am unsure if he has ever publicly discussed this film, it clearly had impact on Harmony Korine. Any Knowledgeable film-buff will see this film’s influences on Korine’s work.

It also captures teenage rebellion with a cause.  

Technically, AnchorBay no longer has this film in print, but copies can still be found on Amazon. Sadly, many other versions of this film are out there on DVD. Be warned: most are of very poor quality. Most look as if second-hand dubbed from old VHS tapes.  And most of the non-AnchorBay prints are heavily censored. It remains to be seen if this film will ever find it’s way to restoration.

1969’s Coming Apart offers an equally realistic and dark journey to the heart of human self-destruction, but with a different sort of reason in mind.  Milton Moses Ginsberg’s much discussed film is one of style, human pain and classic NYC Method Acting. Often compared to  Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. In truth Ginsberg’s film has very little to do with McBride’s groundbreaking film beyond the use of “documentary” style and mirror metaphor. The idea of exploring identity and/or sexual identity is not really traceable to one work of art. What makes Ginsberg’s experimental 1969 film so important is that it captures more than just a time capsule moment within the 1960’s Counterculture Movement as it brings focus to the resulting identity problems that movement helped to acerbate. It also serves as a great example of the power to be found within filmmaking.

Setting up a hidden movie camera in a mirrored box designed to look like an object of art. Welcome to the world of "Joe Glassman" Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Setting up a hidden movie camera in a mirrored box designed to look like an object of art. Welcome to the world of “Joe Glassman”
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Having just survived a devastating end to a relationship which led him to securing an apartment in the same building as the woman who had rejected him, Milton Moses Ginsberg essentially found himself in an existential downward spiral. This experience drove him to create the script for Coming Apart. An almost shockingly detailed script, he also sought to utilize some of the most respected young actors trained directly under the mythic teachings of Lee Strasberg. Very few of the actors seen in this film were not members of the original Actor’s Studio. It’s three leading actors were among Strasberg’s most prized pupils. They were also known as his most fearless actors who fully embraced every philosophy of Strasberg’s ideology. Rip Torn, Viveca Lindfors and Sally Kirkland may not have been the most famous, but they commanded a great deal of respect within the realm of NYC Actors and Method Acting. The easiest way to sum up Strasberg’s Method Acting was to understand and pursue acting as truth. Truth without filter. Truth without censor. Truth pursued at all costs and concentration. Essentially, Method Acting seeks to pursue the truth of the human soul to it’s deepest and often darkest depths. This was and remained the essential elements of all three actors.

Checking his hidden camera's perspective... Rip Torn Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Checking his hidden camera’s perspective…
Rip Torn
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Milton Moses Ginsberg once stated that the Coming Apart script served as a “vehicle for actors to reach into their souls and I found two actors who could reach deeper and better than any others at that time.” He was referring to both Rip Torn and Sally Kirkland. But the entire film is filled with Method Actors. This is particularly interesting to note as most who have seen Coming Apart walk away from the experience thinking that they have seen improvisation and even partial biographical film. This is not at all true. Almost everything in the film is scripted. While Ginsberg was not afraid of improvisation, he expected that each actor honor his script. They did. Each was fully invested in the three week project.

It is interesting to note that every single film snag, break, audio interference, audio loss and distortion is clearly listed and often even drawn into the script. When we are unable to hear or see something it is because Joe can’t deal with hearing or seeing it himself. The only post-production decision to deviate from the script was Rip Torn’s long rant into the camera. It was originally to be an articulated four minute rant during which Torn’s Joe experiences an emotional break. Ginsberg felt at looking at Rip Torn’s face was far more insightful than his own words. So he added unplanned chops and drops of sound during this one scene.

The idea of the film stems from the writer/director’s own self-destructive act of almost stalking a former lover, the premise is quite simple. A burned-out and emotionally ravaged psychiatrist rents an apartment in the same building as that of a woman with whom he had what he feels was a meaningful affair. However, this does not stop the doctor from pursuing an experiment in which he hides a movie camera within a mirrored box. Intended to look like a piece of modern art, he places this hidden camera so that it captures the goings on in the living room from one perspective. Trained on a sofa, “Joe” has placed the sofa in front of a huge mirror. In this way, the camera picks up all activity from two perspectives.

"What's this?" "Kinetic art object." "What?" "Modern sculptory." Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“What’s this?”
“Kinetic art object.”
“What?”
“Modern sculptory.”
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

While he has set up the apartment as a sort of trap which will require his former lover to interact with him, he is also intent on filming his interactions with women. What at first seems like an extended and sick “bachelor’s weekend” soon devolves into an examination of sexuality and identity at it’s core root. Almost immediately the audience is placed in the role of Voyeur. It is an uncomfortable place to be. There is very little erotic about the goings-on, but it is quite sexual. It is also intense, provocative and disturbing.

When Joe’s former love confronts him for having crossed a line by moving into her building, Joe’s idea backfires. Viveca Lindfors’ Monica is not interested in Joe. If anything she pities him. But is Joe even worth pitying?

"Did I do this to you, Joe?" Viveca Lindfors & Rip Torn Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“Did I do this to you, Joe?”
Viveca Lindfors & Rip Torn
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Joe’s first visitors are there strictly for sex. The first encounter comes the closest to being erotic. The second encounter with Elaine played by Lois Markle in one of the film’s few comical moments, presents Joe with a type of sexuality he has perhaps only studied or discussed with patients. When presented with a true sadist, Joe isn’t sure about what he should do. In both comical and realistic ways, Markle’s characters tries to turn Joe on by exposing the permanent scars caused by cigarettes. It would seem that Elaine enjoys being a human ashtray.

This does nothing for Joe. She quickly suggests putting on provocative clothing. She even quickly runs back to her home to return in full-on BSDM gear designed to entice. Joe seems more curious than turned on. As she shows off her spike heel shoes, Joe asks her if it is hard to walk in them? She advises that these shoes are not for walking. Just when it seems she is about to give up all hope of getting laid, Joe decides to feign interest. As he pursues her on the floor, we see her legs up in the hair and she returns to her cooing and moaning while yelling, “You’re raping me! You’re raping me!” We see Joe hesitate and Elaine reach up and pull him back to her. She then returns to pretending that Joe is raping her. This is the only “light” moment to be found in Coming Apart.

Are you sure you don't want to put a cigarette out on me? Rip Torn & Lois Markle Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Are you sure you don’t want to put a cigarette out on me?
Rip Torn & Lois Markle
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The entire film runs like a document of what we would now call “found footage.” The scenes cut off. The film appears to run out or break. The audio goes off and on. The light has impact on the quality of the film and the way in which we can see. This approach has an interesting sort of effect for the viewer. Even when we don’t want to see everything, we often strain to keep up with what is going on in front of us. It is inappropriate. It is far too private. Welcome to being the target of the film. We are somewhat seduced into an act of voyeurism. The problem is that the eroticism of this film is short-lived. The erotic quickly becomes heart breakingly neurotic. Coming Apart is just that. We end up watching two people falling apart — or as their connection is grounded in the sexual, they are both cuming apart.

When we first see Sally Kirkland’s Joann, she sits on the sofa slacked and bored. Far too young for Joe and not the sort of woman we have been seeing. She is beautiful, but clearly not sitting there waiting for sex. However, Joann comes to animated life when we see Joe actually take an interest in her. In what is extremely naturalist and real dialogue we discover that Joe and Joann have run into each other just outside the building. She is also a former therapy patient who had quit therapy. She claims to have no interest in therapy, but Joe insists that it would be inappropriate for him to see her. He explains that he has cut back on therapy sessions and has taken this apartment to work on a paper for which he has been given a grant to write.

A drunken/stoned gathering quickly devolves into an uncomfortable challenge of group sex and sexual identity... Sally Kirkland is disengaged as "Sarabelle" The Clown hits on Joe... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

A drunken/stoned gathering quickly devolves into an uncomfortable challenge of group sex and sexual identity…
Sally Kirkland is disengaged as “Sarabelle” The Clown hits on Joe…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

This only seems to serve to excite Joann. Sally Kirkland’s character seems to be literally morph into a sexual being. She begins to shamelessly flirt with Joe. She mentions that she is involved with a man who likes to experiment. He likes to watch her get it on with other men. As she is clearly exciting Joe, she begins to tell him about an orgy she recently attended.

When he asks her more about orgies she responds, “It’s wilder than you can imagine.” And, it is here that we start to understand that Joann is every bit as broken as Joe. As she continues to try and excite him, she stumbles onto her own issues and woes. They slip out more clearly defined than a tale of her orgasm. “Why am I telling you all this for? You’re not my doctor!” Yet, she can’t help but keep speaking. Her rambling becomes less erotic than tragic and filled with self-loathing. Her energy drained, Sally Kirkland’s Joann is heart-broken and filled with a confused anger. Her body has started to fold in on itself but she continues to attempt some idea of body flirtation.

She tells him that her lover likes to call her “Whore.” It is apparent that Joann herself is confused why she has shared with Joe. It is a source of pain for her.

An awkward lapse of silence follows. Without any sort of reasoning, Joe offers “I’m lonely, too.”

This of course is as if he has given invitation. Joann has now placed herself across the room, hand close to Joe’s crotch — soon her head rests there as well. After allowing her to sublimate her entire body poised to give him oral pleasure, Joe cruelly dismisses her, “You’ve got to go to work and I’ve got to go home to my wife.”

"Let's make the most of a bad thing, shall we?" Rip Torn & Sally Kirkland  Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

“Let’s make the most of a bad thing, shall we?”
Rip Torn & Sally Kirkland
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

But Joe may have met his match. Joann quickly turns the tables on him by pointing out that she’s relieved he has a wife. A slight pause as she glances toward his crotch, “I thought you were a fag.”  This comment seems to have a far greater impact than we expect. Before long Joann is back an affair begins. Or at least, a sexual relationship begins. We see her consistently working hard to bring him sexual pleasure, but Joe seems to have lost the ability to achieve a hard-on. Drunk and nude, both Joann and Joe seem miserable. The camera unknown to Joann, Joe appear to start mugging at his camera — at us. It quickly becomes clear he is trying not to cry.

Later Joann returns, after a bit of an argument they end up attempting to have sex. She ends up masturbating against Joe’s leg. Sexuality between Joann and Joe seems to illicit impotence for Joe and rage for Joann. Just before his camera’s film runs out, he commands that Joann face away from him on all floors. The implication being that he can’t look at her to fuck her. Yet, Joann agrees. Four on the floor, Joanne waits. As Joe stands and removes his underwear, the film runs out.

A bit further into the film Joann returns with a whole group of people. All of whom seem to be in various degrees of intoxication. Group sex takes place, but it seems to present Joe and Joann with frustration. Joann seems angry. Joe seems afraid. When he mistakes a transgender female for a biological woman — this is 1969, but this person looks far more female than male. Later Joe is presented with a nude gay man who clearly wants to pleasure Joe. This is a returning theme in the film. Joe’s heterosexuality is consistently under scrutiny. It is never clear how much Joe’s developing sexual issue is related to the fact that perhaps he is sexually conflicted or merely depressed.

Sally Kirkland looks into the abyss... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Sally Kirkland looks into the abyss…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The downward spiral for Joe and Joann continues. Joe is clearly experiencing a nervous breakdown. Joann has been kicked out of her home — she claims this is because she has become Joe’s sex toy. Yet he refuses her a place to sleep. Telling her she stinks. We know that they have just had another unsuccessful attempt at sex. Beyond abusive, we have entered the realm of human cruelty.

At one point, Sally Kirkland’s Joann tells Joe: “You’re not as strong as I thought. You’re frightened. You’re weak-willed. There’s no mystery about you. None!”

She aims this as a threat, but she doesn’t give up. She continues to pursue Joe despite repeated failures, insults and even physical threat. It is illogical, but feels believable real.

It is crucial to note that there is nothing amateur or limited within Coming Apart. Each and every performance is so authentic in emotion, sexual need, desperation and rage that the viewer feels uncomfortable watching the interactions especially given that Ginsberg films it all from a secret camera perspective. Filled with mirror reflections that capture information from all perspectives with limitation of being stuck in the position of a perverse voyeur. A limited budget does not matter. Nothing is boring. The opposite. However, very little if any of it is “enjoyable.”

Half nude, loaded gun and on the attack: Sally Kirkland's break results in unhinged destructive blood-lust Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Half nude, loaded gun and on the attack: Sally Kirkland’s break results in unhinged destructive blood-lust
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Everything we see feels real. In fact, at the time the film was released many labeled it as pornographic. It carried an “X-Rating” and is still rated “NC-17” despite being tame in comparison to many films other than the entire movie just feels so real. And an even larger number of people refused to believe it was fictional. Even some of Rip Torn’s friends were convinced he had left his wife, Geraldine Page, for several weeks. Hired Ginsberg to take credit for shooting a film which was simply a drunken Torn having his way with women. This was something that was a source of both comedy and annoyance for both Rip and his wife. As for Sally Kirkland, she soon found herself being questioned about the idea of “Art vs. Pornography.”

Raging and murderous, Sally Kirkland tosses a piece of art directly at us, or, uh, Joe's hidden camera... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Raging and murderous, Sally Kirkland tosses a piece of art directly at us, or, uh, Joe’s hidden camera…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Perception is attacked... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Perception is attacked…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

The film was made at the darkest moment of the counterculture revolution. 1968 was indeed a tipping point for the United States.

Erotica was very much a part of the Counter-Culture Revolution in the New York City art world!” Kirkland explained during a Q&A of the film in the late 1990’s.

Coming Apart for many of the actors was a natural extension of the revolution that they were so deeply vested. The was a revolution against war, oppression, inequality and perhaps most importantly — the Counter Culture was acting out against the regimented cultural and societal perceptions of what normalcy was supposed to be.

Like Dennis Hopper’s gritty little strange 1980 movie, 1969’s Coming Apart was also a subverting normality. It is of particular interest that this was all captured in what most would consider the final year of the 1960’s.

Reality shatters Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Reality shatters
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Despair, contempt, loneliness, heart break and rage destroy realistic perception once and for all... Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Despair, contempt, loneliness, heart break and rage destroy realistic perception once and for all…
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

 

In the late 1990’s Sally Kirkland bluntly asserted to the audience for whom Coming Apart had just been screened, “People are still dealing with this revolution!

 

Nothing left to see or say. Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Nothing left to see or say.
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

 

While more than a few of her fellow artists would consider Sally Kirkland an eccentric, none would ever argue her intelligence. An esteemed, highly intelligent and articulate individual, Sally Kirkland really hit the nail on the heard. 46 years on and Ginsberg’s Coming Apart is still shocking and confusing viewers. In many ways, this film’s examination of sexuality, loneliness, desperation and human rage goes beyond authenticity. It pursues and touches the rawest of human nerves. For many, it might be easier to watch the extreme torture porn of Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film.

The film continues to polarize audiences. However most cinephiles, critics and actors now see this film as a masterpiece.

Kino had issued a great DVD of the film in 2000. I get contradictory reports about whether or not Kino still has the rights to continue to print their DVD of the film. However, while it has sold well a second reprint was never required. Or, it was never done. It can still be found on Amazon. There are no plans in place to give this historic and highly personal film a restoration it deserves. It would be a good time to more forward as all three of the key players for this film are in their 70’s and early 80’s. One of the challenges seems to be regarding the use of Jefferson Airplane music.

One thing is for sure — neither of this films should be forgotten.

Actually, I don’t think either will. Both Out of the Blue and Coming Apart carry a certain cred that is undeniable. They also both retain a level of curiosity. Neither fit into mainstream cinematic ideas. Both push the envelope without sacrificing artistic merit. These two films have respective followings.

Naked despair, rage and sexuality come to limited cinemas in 1969. Coming Apart Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969 Cinematography | Jack Yager

Naked despair, rage and sexuality come to limited cinemas in 1969.
Coming Apart
Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969
Cinematography | Jack Yager

Matty Stanfield, 10.4.2015

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