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Within the first minute of Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film, Beloved, we are told that we are entering a cold and lonely house in 1865 Ohio. As Tak Fukimoto’s careful camera approaches this odd house we already know that The Civil War has only just ended and the legal abolishment of slavery is most likely only started to sink into the American culture. Barely two more minutes pass before we become aware that something paranormal is threatening this newly-freed African-American household.  Is it demonic? Is it a menacing ghost? It doesn’t take long before this dangerous force is openly discussed. The truly jolting aspect of these brief discussions is the passive manner in which the topics are engaged.

The film’s main character seems to be simultaneously depressed and almost relieved that her two young sons have just runaway. It is only a brief after thought that Sethe might have been able to hang on to her sons if she had made more of an “effort.” She ponders that maybe if she had moved her fatherless family to a different house or an entirely different place things might have worked out or be better. An old woman who we understand to be Sethe’s mother-in-law and grandmother to Sethe’s children, shakes her head and says “What’d be the point? Not a house in the country ain’t packed to the rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky our ghost is a baby. My husband spirit come back? Or yours? Don’t talk to me! You lucky. You got one child left, still pullin at your skirts. Be thankful.”

Within another few minutes the story travels several years in time. Baby Suggs, the wise mother-in-law, has died and Sethe’s daughter, Denver, has grown into a sad young woman. A weary but upbeat man shows up at the house. This is clearly an old friend. After the two friends catch-up we can see that there is a vaguely shared erotically loving connection here. Sethe leads her old friend, Paul D, into her dilapidated, creepy-looking old house. Barely into the house Paul D stops. Looking down the Sethe’s hallway he becomes terrorfied.

“Good God! What kind of evil you got in there?”

“It’s not evil..It’s just… It’s just sad. Come on. Just step through.”

Beloved Oprah Winfrey Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved
Oprah Winfrey
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey’s Sethe’s guidance is given to Danny Glover’s Paul D,  but it also also seems as if the audience is invited to enter into this home of profound loneliness, sadness, fear and hidden horrors.  Beloved is challenging, complex, graphically violent and viscerally disturbing film. Beloved is also almost as difficult to approach from a film criticism angle. Jonathan Demme’s movie, like it’s source novel is a masterful, shocking and cogently artistic work. It seems almost impossible that a white male filmmaker created this largely experimental neo-gothic and Feminist examination. It is a profound work, but the use of “horror” as metaphor sometimes creates results that seem almost oppositional to Toni Morrison’s brilliant and Pulitzer Price winning 1987 novel. It is hard to miss the allegory and metaphor contained within the pages of her book. The crucial ideas are not always so clear in the film adaptation.

As Alan A. Stone noted in his 1999 article in The Boston Review titled Oprah’s Nightmare, the esteemed and amazing media mogul “wanted Beloved to be an experience, not just entertainment. The film, like Toni Morrison’s novel, was meant to answer the question, what was it like to be a slave? In answering it, Morrison makes her readers feel, perhaps for the first time, the extraordinary psychological damage done by slavery. There is, says one of her characters, “a kind of madness that keeps one from going mad.”  

With the gift of close to 20 years hindsight, it is clear that Oprah Winfrey’s decade long desire to bring Morrision’s book to the screen is largely successful. Sometimes the movie’s success is achieved in spite of itself. No doubt, the idea of translating this book into a movie was more than a daunting task. This was a task that Winfrey was more than thrilled to pursue, but it was not just from her love of Toni Morrison and her book that drove her to get this epic film made — it was even more than passion. If you should ever read Oprah Winfrey’s book, Journey to Beloved, you will discover that Winfrey viewed the task as a personal requirement and unrelenting sense of duty. Toni Morrison’s novel is more than just an important literary masterpiece.

Epigraph: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”  Romans 9:25 Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade." Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

Epigraph:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
Romans 9:25
Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.”
Beloved
by Toni Morrison, 1987

Toni Morrison’s novel is a vital depiction of not only the abhorrent and almost unimaginable horror of slavery — it is a work that strives to remind readers that while slavery might have been abolished in 1865, it still looms as more than just a lingering injustice. The United States legalized slavery of the past remains as a looming shadow of an entire race of people. Going even deeper, Toni Morrison’s novel ties the history of slavery accurately to the dynamics that run through African-Americans lives. Dynamics and understandings of faith, family, fatherhood and motherhood continue to be challenged by the remaining shared pain of a past that is horrifyingly still clutching onto the present.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is also inspired by Margaret Garner, a Pre-Civil War era slave who opted to kill her two-year-old daughter to save her from suffering the fate of slavery. This act shocked not only our nation but the world.

From the Cincinnati Gazette.  June 29, 1856

From the Cincinnati Gazette.
June 29, 1856

A famous trial ensued in which Garner was tried for murder. For those of you who may not have studied too much regarding the atrocity of our country’s Slave Trade and Slavery — it is important to note that it was far more common for mother’s to kill their children than is usually discussed. It was a sad reality and often hidden from view in more ways than one. However,  Margaret Garner was on the run from Slavery and her owners when her family was pushed into a small home as US Marshals surrounded to take them back into custody when she killed her daughter. This practice of filicide was suddenly thrust into public-awareness.

At the trial, Lucy Stone, an important American Abolitionist and Suffragist, took the stand to defend Garner. Not one to play into societal or cultural restraints of her time — Lucy Stone’s defense of Garner was based on a then very real but “unspoken” sexual “use” or more accurately “abuse” of white male slave owners toward their female slaves.

Unfathomable human cruelty -- except it not only happened. It was accepted.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Unfathomable human cruelty — except it not only happened. It was accepted.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

 

Something that had been a painful day-to-day existence for Margaret Garner. The concept of The Maternal has been perversely changed within the minds of many female slaves. Most tragically, it is not hard to understand how and why this happened.

Lucy Stone pulled no punch when she reminded everyone present (must of whom were demanding Garner’s execution) that the faces of Garner’s children shared as much in common with Garner’s white owner as they did with their mother. Stone then publicly and famously stated:

“The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?”

Oprah Winfrey  on set of Beloved Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey
on set of Beloved
Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey and her fellow filmmakers may have stumbled a bit in capturing Toni Morrison’s novel, but it is far too incremental to use as a valid criticism. If Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ movie made even one person seek out Morrision’s novel it would give the film merit. As it turned out the movie would inspire a whole new generation to read Toni Morrison’s unforgettable and rightfully unforgiving book. And while one could debate the differences between the film and the novel — it would be a mute discussion. Beloved, the movie, works incredibly well. Even still, it is interesting that Winfrey sought out a white filmmaker who had ever really even made one “serious” film. And that film, Silence of the Lambs, is both horrific and often satirical in approach. It even more surprising that she sought out screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese. A very competent white film writer, his work is often “hit or miss” — on the one hand he had written the screenplays for both The Fisher King (for which he received The Academy Award) and the highly underrated dark comedy, The Ref, but he had also written the screenplays for such duds as Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes and Barbra Streisand’s off-kilter, The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Beloved's wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog's eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.  Oprah Winfrey  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved’s wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog’s eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It is difficult to understand her confidence LaGravenese could handle capturing the heart of this book. I don’t intent to dismiss LaGravense’s talent. It’s just that this movie operates within an entirely different “universe” compared to what one anticipates in his film scripts.  Though, Winfrey and Demme would later enlist both Adam Brooks and Akosua Busia to assist LaGravenese in screenwriting duties. Once again, Brooks is a white male who had only written one “successful” screenplay at the time, Meg Ryan’s ill-advised romantic comedy, French Kiss. As for Busia, she had become friendly with Winfrey during the production of The Color Purple in which she was a supporting actor. She had never written for the screen at the time. However, Winfrey was confident that would be a valuable member of the writing team.  As odd as these choices seem, they appear to have been good ideas.

A topic, concept and idea of great import and interest to Toni Morrison’s Beloved is “re-memoring” or “rememory.” This is a simple idea, but it was a new one to many if not all readers of Morrison’s brilliant 1987 novel. The idea is that our leading character, Sethe, is often found remembering memories. It is an idea not too far removed from PTSD survivors and the way in which the psyche often twists “reality” when trying to recall or revisit a past traumatic event. Beloved’s Sethe mental revisit to her past takes on this aspect of rememory in which memories serves as sort of triggers off-skewed or altered-perceptions of places, experiences, people and feelings that when described take on a level of unexpected power or — even more alarmingly, are recalled in almost distant or passive way.

Billie Holiday sang of "Strange Fruit" and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film's characters but our current reality. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Billie Holiday sang of “Strange Fruit” and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film’s characters but our current reality.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Rememoring is not accurate but it is a sad reality of surviving a life filled with unfathomable horrors. In the novel, it is clear that Sethe’s re-memoring is both a literal situation for the plot but also an allegorical emphasis for The African American Experience. It is also accurate in applying it to The White American Experience. However it must be stressed, that the full context of rememory related to past and current African-American Experience is not accessible in the same way and is limited in full understanding to Non-African Americans.

Maternal love comes with a cost... Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Maternal love comes with a cost…
Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

How could it be?

No White person can possibly know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Person of Color much less understand the way the past refuses to stop impacting the lives of African American people. Even within the hearts of the most caring and politically-active White people, there are limitations of access.

The cruelty, unfairness and horrific ramification of Slavery and its lasting imprint on identities have been shaped by not only a horrifying history and current state of racial relations and self-awareness, but as Morrison asserts there remains a  devastating sort of Shared Cultural Rememory for African Americans.  A re-memory that haunts identities, understanding, self-value, societal value and the on-going cruelties that pollute the reality of being American. The concept does not just end there — it operates within the reality of the individual.

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than "reality" -- she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.  Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than “reality” — she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The impact of “rememory” from Toni Morrison’s novel illustrates how this “memory” is not so much a remembrance but a re-occuring reality. Just as it looms over an entire race of human beings, rememory is still happening to Sethe:

“what I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head … even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of whatI did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Winfrey sought a highly originally talented and somewhat eccentric filmmaker as Jonathan Demme to helm her film is because she knew he would bring an insight that would be limited in understanding the immediate importance of Morrison’s novel, but oddly effective in bridging a stronger link to culture because of that limitation. There is something to be said of the way the movie begins.

Icepick Rage Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Icepick Rage
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Beloved begins as if the film director and the writers have assumed too much. Despite the success of Morrison’s novel, many of the people who first attended screening of this movie were unaware of it. Winfrey knew this. Demme’s assumption that his audience would be familiar with the novel immediately tosses the audience into a world of shock and cruelty that worked in the film’s favor.

I had read the book, but I remember my jaw dropping.

Kimberly Elise's "Denver"  faces her mother's past as directly as her mother.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Kimberly Elise’s “Denver” faces her mother’s past as directly as her mother.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Wait! Is that Oprah Winfrey? What is she doing to that poor dog? Holy shit! Is Oprah pushing and hammering the dog’s eyeballs back into the dog’s eye sockets?!?! Did I just see that?  Hold up. Did that mirror just crack. Why are those two little boys so horrified? Why are they running away?  How can they leave their sad little sister all alone on the creepy stairs? What was whipping that poor dog around? Why isn’t Oprah upset? She walks by her daughter and folds clothes while this elderly woman lectures her that she should consider herself lucky.

This cinematic disorientation is so phantasmagorical, we’ve hardly caught our breath by the time Danny Glover’s Paul D shows up. As his character realizes that there is some sort of supernatural entity wrecking havoc in the house he is bathed in a light of red. Oprah’s character calms him down and he accepts what she says as truth. There is no hint of doubt. Paul D gets the situation and understands Sethe. The movie takes another unexpected turn in the eroticism shared between Sethe and Paul D.

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It isn’t that the sight of Paul D nude and freshly bathed in Sethe’s kitchen is shocking. It is actually beautifully shot and quite erotic. As Sethe begins to open up and allows her walls to go down to allow Paul D’s comfort, we first see the deep scars on Sethe’s back. Paul D is not shocked or turned off. He caresses Sethe and accepts her beauty sensually. Her scars are a part of who she is, just as his weariness is a part of himself.

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D's comforts Beloved Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D’s comforts
Beloved
Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

The eroticism and love are beautiful. What jolted audiences in 1998 will most likely still jolt a new generation today.

There is something quite effective to see all of this happen and realize that we are seeing Oprah Winfrey realistically playing the part. Oprah is more than a “star” or “icon” — she symbolizes all that we hold dear. Raising herself out of the ashes of a an abusive childhood to the role of news anchor, to Chat TV Show host to actor to International fame. A fame she is not squandered on petty vanity — Oprah has always used her struggles, her intelligence, her charm and her power to help rather than self-promote. She changed the way we look at life, literature, art and always puts her money to fund assistance and effective change. Oprah Winfrey has saturated our world with good intention and hope.

She has played a crucial role in the shaping our culture for the better at very end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries in ways more profound than any politicians, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates or the Mark Zuckerbergs. A very winnable argument could be made that Oprah Winfrey is the most culturally significant person of our time. This presents a greater impact to Beloved than can be articulated.

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

It is revelatory to see “Our Oprah” in this role. It isn’t really so much shocking as it is a jolt and a reminder that there is a reason she has invested her money, her time, her energy and her skills into what appears to be such an experimental movie.

And of course, this presents the most unsettling aspect of the film adaptation. Is this a high art horror movie? It sure feels like one. But as soon as the audience settles into the idea that we are watching a sort of metaphorical horror film, Demme pulls us into rememory — suddenly we see the hope offered by faith and church revivals. We begin to feel Sethe and Denver soften with the presence of Paul D. Serving as husband, father, lover and protector — Paul D brings some hope, love and peace to this house of horror and sadness.

But don’t dare relax. All of that foreshadowing is about to take form from the depths of an old river.

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.  Thandie Newton as Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.
Thandie Newton as
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Is this is a manifestation of guilt? Of fear? Or is the reincarnation of the little girl that Sethe opted to murder rather than to allow her to grow into the pain of life as a slave? The origin of  Sethe’s Beloved is not so important. At least not immediately. Thandie Newton’s Beloved is a stunningly beautiful personification of a half-formed being. Drooling, reaching and seeming in pain — this erie beauty is almost incapable of calming. She clings to her mother, Sethe as if she will vanish without her mother’s comfort. She is equally odd in her relation to her sister, Denver.

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

And Beloved begins to form an inappropriate erotic desire for her mother’s lover. Beloved is at once hope, love, threat, danger and pain formed into beguiling sexually-charged beauty.  Thandie Newton’s performance is as brilliant as it is problematic.

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The character of Beloved is an odd challenge to form into a character from every perspective. But perhaps the most challenging for the actor who must play this “idea” or “projection” of a human rememoried. All the more unsettling is that Newton’s style of acting deeply contrasts with the other three main actors. Winfrey, Glover and young Kimberly Elise all play their roles deeply grounded in natural realism. Their reactions may seem “off” but they feel like all-too-real people. Thandie Newtons’ performance is experimental — at turns animalistic, mentally-challenged, child-like, demonic and dangerous. It is as if she is from a whole other world or movie. As desperately as Sethe and Denver want Beloved to fit into their world, it is a losing battle and a desire that can never be fulfilled.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

As the film soars through at just short of 3 hours that feel more like 90 minutes — the audience is pulled through a world of repugnant cruelty, torture and hyper-realistic violence. By the time 30 townswomen show up on the step of Stehe’s front door we are not even surprised to discover that they have arrived to perform an exorcism of the house, Sethe and Beloved. These women have joined as one to save this family from being completely consumed by a heritage of savagery, pain, sadness and trauma.

Beloved ultimately brought Sethe and her family true Hell whether it was intended or secretly desired. She does not exist independently. She has been summoned as much from Evil as from Good. She seems to offer forgiveness for Sethe but at a price that is far too high to pay. A truly insane Sethe is rescued by the community of African-American former female slaves. They pray and aim their crosses and Beloved who appears to be swollen with child is supernaturally sent back to the place from which she came. The exorcism appears to have worked. But there is faint feeling that this relief is only temporary.

As Paul D tries to comfort Sethe, she tells him that Beloved was her “best thing.” It is to the filmmaker and Danny Glovers’ shared skills that there isn’t the slightest feeling of the contrite or easy-solution when he tells Sethe that she is wrong. “Sethe, you are your best thing.

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Even if it will be a temporary moment of calm, one can’t but hope that Sethe and Paul D will be able to move on with their lives and share in the joys that Denver is able to discover on her own. But as much as the film seems to strain to create it’s own world, it is firmly tied to Toni Morrison’s extraordinary novel. Sethe and Paul D are not those of some freed slaves who can repress and dissociate from their past. They have tried but they can’t. Their true identities, suffered horrors and shared rememories have already forced a sort of reintegration of their selves. These are not fragmented people. It is not as dismal as it sounds, there is a freedom to be found in the truth. The problem is that the indignities of Slavery’s past do not seem to resolve. This is a wounded country whose scars run deep. It will take a hell of lot more than thirty Bible-thumping strong women to cast out the demons infested in our culture.

Where can we find hope?

I certainly do not hold any clue of an answer, but the one thing I take away from Oprah Winfrey’s dedication and sense of duty:

We cannot deny the truth. We must take ownership of the past. We must destroy the Confederate Flag ideology that would attempt to disguise racism as “history” or worse yet a false and evil “pride” in the wrong side of history.

The lingering rememory of Slavery's rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.  Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

The lingering rememory of Slavery’s rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

In the end, Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ film failed to fully secure “buy-in” and approval from Film Critics of the time. Audiences attended in mass when it was first released, but those audiences soon re-treated. Many mistake this film for a Disney Project, but in truth Touchstone Pictures put in little of the film’s budget. Most to the money they invested was in the form of distribution and promotion. The film’s budget is not clear. Estimates range from $50,000,000 to $80,ooo,ooo. The production was shared between Jonathan Demme’s production company, Clinica Estetico, and Winfrey’s Harpo Films. The rumor is that Winfrey put in $50,000,00 of her own money into the movie. The film ended up only earning just under $30,000,000 at the box office. It was issued to DVD but is no longer in-print. But Amazon.com still has plenty of copies remaining and the film is available for on-line purchase or rental. It is most definitely worth your time to experience it.

While Beloved failed to achieve the success it intended. It stands alone as a brave, powerful, unforgettable and truly profound film. An achievement born out of a personal sense of duty. While things may have gotten bumpy or even confused in translation — there is no denying its message. Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme created an amazing film against all odds.

Nothing can diminish that.

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997 Photograph | Ken Regan

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997
Photograph | Ken Regan

 

Jonathan Demme agrees with many of the film’s supporters that it’s ultimate box office failure can be blamed on Disney who wanted a quicker box office pay-off and pulled the movie just as “word of mouth” was started to be heard so that they could the ridiculous Adam Sandler film, Water Boy into the cinemas that were then occupied by the R-rated Beloved.

Jonathan Demme Vanity Fair, France, 2014 Photograph | FABRICE DALL'ANESE

Jonathan Demme
Vanity Fair, France, 2014
Photograph | FABRICE DALL’ANESE

In 2013, Winfrey was asked about the “failure” of Beloved. She is quoted as having said:

“To this day I ask myself, was it a mistake? Was it a mistake to not try and make  a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the Beloved book.”

Oprah Winfrey Hollywood, 2015 Photograph | Mark Seliger

Oprah Winfrey
Hollywood, 2015
Photograph | Mark Seliger

I refuse to accept that Beloved was a failure. If anything, we failed it.

 

FELT Jason Banker, 2015

FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

I was well acquainted with Jason Banker’s fist film, Toad Road. I love his first film. If you have not seen it, seek it out. Toad Road is streaming via Netflix and AmazonPrime. So I was excited when I had a rare opportunity to see his second and latest movie, Felt, last year. At that time Felt had only had two official screenings. I had no idea regarding the subject of the film when I first saw it.  Felt was so such a jolt of the senses my jaw had fallen leaving my mouth open in a mixed state of awe, confusion and shock. I knew I liked Banker’s new film, but it filled my head with so many ideas, challenged my personal ideas of cinematic reality and was deeply unsettled. I was unable to form a clear opinion to write anything that would matter. This didn’t thrill the individuals who had asked me to write a summary and review. As promotion for the film began I avoided reading any reviews or much in the way of commentary. Aside from a couple of interviews with Jason Banker, I only watched the two trailers.

It would be June of 2015  before Felt would reach San Francisco’s Roxy Cinema. I do not enjoy The Roxy. I’m sorry. I just don’t like seeing movies there.

The Roxy Movie Theatre is a historical building. It is actually the second oldest continuously operating movie theater in the country. The Roxy is an odd experience within and of itself. No matter how hard the owners and the city have tried, years of decay have created an odd atmosphere. There are two screens. One of the screens is sort of disconnected from the other. It almost feels like an after thought from the late 1970’s or the early 1980’s. I’ve never had an enjoyable viewing experience there. I think this is because of all our cinemas, The Roxy tends to attract all groups of The San Francisco Cinematic Audience under one roof.   The San Francisco Cinematic Audience can be a strange mix and one is most likely to encounter it at The Roxy. Situated in the prime real estate of The Mission it is a natural magnet. I break down the SF Cinematic Audience into 3 stereo types:  Hardcore Film Art Cinephiles, SF Hipsters and Fringe Art Eccentrics. Reactions and interactions tend to be “extreme” or “muted dissonance” —  you never quite know what to expect. The one thing you can expect if you see a intense, controversial or polarizing work of art at The Roxy you can anticipate debates and even arguments as you make your way back to Mission Street.

As an example, I attended a screening of Christophe Honoré controversial 2004 film, Ma Mere, at The Roxy.

Ma Mere Isabelle Huppert Christophe Honoré, 2005

Ma Mere
Isabelle Huppert
Christophe Honoré, 2005

It was not even a new film. I has seen several years earlier at another old cinema which is now long gone and forgotten. Ma Mere is a challenging and polarizing movie on its own without the added projection of our SF Audience baggage. The theatre was not full. The audience seemed to have an equal number of men to women. All of my Roxy stereotypes were present. Cinephiles, Hipsters and Eccentrics were sharing the space.  The entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled. I was ready to leave, but I didn’t want to be lectured. So I sat. No one stood up or shuffled in their seats. It was total silence. And then it happened. A long and exaggerated “hiss” was aimed at the screen. Then two more “hissers” joined in.

This is the dreaded San Francisco Hiss. A prime example of our city’s strange sense of entitlement that often “requires” the SF individual to feel the need to hiss at movies, performers or artists if their viewpoints do not align with his/her own. It is as annoying as it is funny. But make no mistake, The San Francisco Hiss is quite serious in intend. It carries more impact here than a “Boo” or a tossed cup. The tricky thing about The San Francisco Hiss is that it tends to set off a chain reaction of one sort or another. I often feel like my fellow citizens feel that his/her own individual opinion is far more important than any other. All one needs to do is ride a MUNI bus from the beach to Union Square to see these clashing “entitlements” go to battle. This often evolves into full-on-rage fueled rants. Inevitably someone is asked to exit the bus. The bus driver must firmly stand his/her ground. The bus stops. It will not move until the one or two individuals who have gone too far step out. Traffic jam ensues. Everyone is late.

Welcome to The New French Extreme Ma Mere Louis Garrel and Isabell Huppert Christophe Honoré, 2004

Welcome to The New French Extreme
Ma Mere
Louis Garrel and Isabell Huppert
Christophe Honoré, 2004

As one would expect this “hiss” aimed at Ma Mere created anger toward the hissers. By the time the lights came up a highly encaged debate was in full tilt boogie. The hissers were  white male hipsters. Of the five annoyed hiss protestors were two females of the Cinephile type, one male of the Team Eccentric and the other was a woman of the Hipster variety. It was the only screening of the day. I sat and listened in. And I took notes.

“You’ve no right to ruin the experience for the rest of us!’

“Dude! It was the credits!”

“This is an important film! You are both too ignorant to understand it!”

“Oh I think we know pornography when we see it!”

“Fuck you!”

“No Fuck you!”

At this point it was best to quietly walk past them as the poor Manager (of Team Cinephile) was about to attempt to guide the argument out to The Mission. I’m sure everyone made it out fine. It is just the way it tends to be when you go to The Roxy. Especially if it is the last evening screening.

If Ma Mere is polarizing, I’m not sure where this would leave Felt. Jason Banker’s film is beyond “polarizing” — it is an intentional and intense provocation. I decided I would never get to see Felt on a big screen.

I made the right decision. A pal emailed me of his experience at The Roxy after watching Felt. The film profoundly disturbed him. The mixture of hissing and shhh’ing made him leave before the credits were done. As he walked back out to the reality of Mission Street, he noticed three women gathered together discussing the movie. I asked him of which “group” they were members. He was not sure, but he guessed they were fellow Art House Cinephiles. Because of the nature of the film he had just seen he was hesitant to approach these three women who were all hugging themselves. He guessed that all three women were probably somewhere between the ages of 24 and 28. He was most definitely sure that all three of these women were intelligent, cool and “casually” beautiful. My friend put his hands deep into his hoodie’s pockets and asked, “So, how do you all feel about ‘Felt‘?”

Amy Everson  FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Luckily none were offended. He told them about a friend of his having already seen Felt (that would be me) and that I had yet to be able to articulate an opinion. All three women agreed. Felt had left them with a great many mixed emotions. As he prepared to walk away one of the women volunteered, “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 nodded in agreement, but none could articulate why. He agreed and mentioned that he got a sense of that feeling in the movie, but he couldn’t find the words. No wanting to seem “lame” he said he thought the movie offered a lot of ideas but didn’t clearly answer why women feel so threatened by men. Mistake.

He wished them a good evening and started walking away and the more assertive of the women called out to him, “Actually, it was in that movie.” The reason is actually very clear in Jason Banker’s movie.

Amy Everson  FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Felt became available for purchase as VOD via iTunes this week. I bought a copy and watched it again.

I hit the Internet and read opinion from Film Critics, fellow bloggers, Letterbox and the fun world of IMDB user postings. Film critics are divided when it comes to Felt. What I find interesting about The Film Critic Response is the information one discovers by reading between their lines. The majority of the reviews seem to be afraid to either fully dismiss or fully praise Felt.

Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review stuck me as being particularly off-mark. Due to The Times recent policy change related to which films are reviewed, it says a lot that they opted to even review Felt. Their current logic in what films they will review and which films they will not review is more than a little confused, but I am impressed that Felt was considered.

Amy Everson Super Hero? FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
Super Hero?
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Kenigsberg summed up Felt, “Reading about the filmmakers’ intentions is more rewarding than watching the results.”  Meaning that The New York Timesfelt” that Felt‘s cinematic intention had to be praised, but this critic seemed to need to find something about Jason Banker’s movie that would allow him not to praise the over-all result. I write this because Kenigsberg’s deconstruction of Felt feels almost painfully weak. He assigns a generally unfavorable review by taking aim at Banker’s “ambiguities.” Mr. Kenigsberg  even goes so far as to challenge the title of the film. He expressed confusion about whether he should view the title as a noun or a verb. The title is no riddle. There is nothing “ambiguous” about it. A sixth grade child would be able to understand that the title of this movie is intentionally both a noun and a verb. Felt is filled with ambiguities. The title is not one of them. Felt‘s ambiguities are intentional. Even if an individual dislikes the film, he/she will note the the “ambiguities” are a major reason that the film holds interest. The “unstated” within Banker’s Felt is what makes it a true cinematic experience.

As I read Ben Kenigsberg’s review two points emerged:

1. It is not the ambiguity that bothers him, his real issue is the uncomfortable cultural statement Felt asserts.

2. He doesn’t care for Amy Everson’s artwork. He actually seems to hate it. It disturbs him.

Everything about Jason Banker’s Felt is intended to unsettle, uncomforted, disturb and it requires both women and men to think about the ways in which we play into a system not of our own design. What the film presents is not a new problem. It is both a cultural and societal issue that has become so deeply entrenched that a jolt is needed to wake people up. I’m not trying to state that a movie is going to change anything, but this film just might be a catalyst for many to reconsider how they interact with the opposite sex.

Please note: I’ve nothing against Ben Kenigssberg. I think he is a sound, educated and professional Film Critic. His intelligence shines, but if he dislikes Felt he has failed to actually defend his position. I wanted to highlight his review because he is a member of a team of film critics who I admire. Unfortunately, he is one of many who have chosen to take the “safest” route to disregard this film. Most of these “safe-routed” dismissals fail to point out any credible reason to dislike the film. In fact the majority of bad reviews are not hinged on any real merit.

Only a handful of the bad reviews took a firm ground.

A Borrowed Gender Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

A Borrowed Gender
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle is reasonable in her dismissal of Felt. While she has no problem admitting to the film’s intended provocation and import of ideas, she found the movie to be stylized in a manner too obvious for her taste. There were also a couple of Film Critics who saw the potential of a great film, but disliked Jason Banker’s choice of improvisational dialogue. I don’t agree with either viewpoints, but I can understand these opinions. This is logical film criticism. It is also the sort of criticism that often met John Cassavetes. None of his films were actually “improvised” but they all felt like it. And Cassavetes never “rushed” the pace of a movie. Many critics disliked a great deal of his work. But those who were brave enough to embrace it bear out the winners in Film Theory. You would be hard pressed to find a Film Critic who would trash a Cassavetes film now. Robert Altman also received a number of negative reviews in his day for many of the same reasons.

Film Critic, Jenni Miller of A/V Club gave Felt a positive review. Her summation is that Jason Banker’s movie might be a little too close to the bone to enjoy, but this is outweighed by the significance of what is being conveyed. Miller doesn’t need to “enjoy” a movie to see its value. When she writes that Felt “sneaks up on you and lingers…”

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

she is able to state the power of the film. In the end she assigns a “B” rating, but it seems given with a firm warning that this was no fun for her — and it may be equally un-fun for you.

Of the few truly positive reviews Felt received, The Village Voice‘s Diana Clarke actually formulates her words in the way I so wish I could formulate my own.

Her review can be found here: http://www.villagevoice.com/film/in-daring-indie-felt-a-young-woman-seizes-rich-dudes-masculinity-7290019

Andrew O’Hehir of Salan.com is one of the few critics who liked the film. He clearly put some thought into what he wrote. Of course, this is his job. He also makes a potent reference to recent mainstream movies that almost seem to celebrate Rape Culture. Like Ted 2. I was particularly impressed when I saw that Rotten Tomatoes chose this O’Hehir quote: “Some viewers will no doubt find “Felt” maddening because it never answers seemingly crucial plot questions that a normal movie or TV show would feel compelled to clear up. That ambiguity is precisely the source of its power, and its cinematic quality.”

Ben Kenigssberg, can you hear Andrew O’Hehir? This is Film Theory 101. Ouch. Maybe I am picking on Ben. I’m sorry.

If any of the Film Critics I know happen to read this, please start assigning a rating to your reviews. It sucks, but this is now a full world of Film by Consensus. Rotten Tomatoes is assigning their own rating to many of your reviews. And they are not accurate most of the time. Take head of The New York Times and A/V Club. Do not let RT decide the rating of your review.

Playing with fire... Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Playing with fire…
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

The most disturbing thing I noticed regarding The Public Reaction was the number of women who were angered by not only Banker’s film but by the idea of Feminism itself. There are a lot of women out there who view Amy Everson as the enemy. This caught me off guard. It doesn’t surprise me that a number of “dudes” out there hate the movie. It would also not surprise me if a good number of women disliked it. Art is subjective. And Film Art this provocative is not always going to win everyone’s heart. But I am shocked at the level of female anger toward Feminism. I don’t get it. But then, I am puzzled by hate in general. It is so very extreme. The level of hate “out there” is staggering, but the level of misogyny and self-loathing is even more horrifying.

Jason Banker, the filmmaker who made the most out of a tragic and senseless tragedy into a surrealistic experimental horror film we know to be Toad Road, has now matured into a far more self-assured Film Artist. A potent Cinematographer as well, Banker brings a great deal of talent to the table. Felt came about thanks to accidental meeting between Amy Everson and Banker. During a visit to San Francisco, Everson caught Banker’s attention because of her playful yet aggressive demeanor — and the fact that she was running around the city in one of her provocative costumes.  As I understand it, Everson showed her artwork to Banker. The work he first saw was all contained in her bedroom. A hybrid of “Sesame Street” kitsch intertwined with sex toys, phallic symbols, dildos, vaginas, assholes and soft doll-like re-enactments of menace. All or much of the work utilizing felt as a key media. Amy Everson is brilliantly talented, fearless and a provocateur. Even the seemingly most innocent creation achieves a vaguely erotic danger.

Art by Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Art by Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Her work is often tinged with a twisted sort of humor and some of it is just deeply disturbing.

Although, I share my life with a San Francisco artist and know a good many, I’ve only heard/read her name a couple of times. There is a whole other aspect to her work which incorporates Performance Art with her costume creations. Jason Banker was equally impressed as he was disturbed. It was from this jumping point that the two artists began to collaborate toward what would become Felt.

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

If you are interested in Amy Everson’s art, a link to her website is below. She is a completely unique and important voice. Check it out, but please don’t “flame” her. It takes a whole lot of guts to lay your soul out for all to see. As I look at her work, it seems to me she is sharing some very intensely intimate glimpses into her being. I’m sure the recent release of Felt has been more than a bit challenging. Though, I hope it has been rewarding.

http://www.amyeverson.com

And now, my opinion/review for Felt:

Jason Banker’s film begins with a painfully thin young adult woman who appears to have fallen into a deep depression. We first hear her voice in the form of narration. Her voice sounds a bit like “a little girl” yet what her voice delivers is a firm thud of certainty  “My life is a fucking nightmare.BAM! It is this line that propels us forward into not only into the film, but her mind.

Amy Everson is more than the film’s lead actor. She also shares “co-writing” credit with Jason Banker.  And she is doing more than playing a character, the film’s core ideas are based not only on her artwork, but certain aspects of her  personality. Amy Everson is playing a “fictionalized” version of herself. While it is sometimes clear she is not a trained actor, she carries a great deal of charisma. You want to watch and understand this character. You want to try and like her.

"My life is a fucking nightmare." Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

“My life is a fucking nightmare.”
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Felt‘s Amy has survived some form of sexual abuse. The actual abuse is never stated or confirmed, but it seems obvious. Her friends want to help her, but are growing weary of her artistic and creative coping skills. Not only have these coping skills become isolating, they seem to have opened some dark portal into which she falling. These pieces of art and the costumes she creates are disturbing, provocative and somehow menacing and they are fusing into her identity. She has become dazed, lonely and nihilistically numb. Amy’s costumes allowed her to access inner-strength. Their designed to not only give her a sense of worth and purpose, it feels as if they were initially conceived to act as healing tools with which she might be able to push away her fears of men.

Amy” has found a way to funnel her anger and fears through her art. But now, these subversively-twisted anatomically-“correct” costumes offer no comfort. By the time we enter her story what were once empowering tools for healing have turned against her as well as against others. She has taken on an inappropriate role of “protector” for her friends from the men in their lives. Her artistic expression of comfort are turning into a weapon. Her isolation within these “armors” made of felt and other materials is starting to fuel a fantastical idea which is taking over her reality. She has taken to wearing her costumes beneath her street clothing. She wanders off into private corners of nature within the Bay Area and Redwood forests where she can strip down and assert her power with a wooden sword. While on a walk with a girlfriend, the friend tries to encage Amy in a conversation about her friends’ concerns.

"You have to be very delicate..." Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

“You have to be very delicate…”
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

But Amy has already put on her mask and just as quickly has unzipped her pants to brandish her swollen plastic penis. Her friend tries to reason with Amy to no avail. All her friend can do is force her keep her clothes before she can make a break and run away. Before she rushes off Amy shares an alarmingly sincere desire for the two of them to become “Super Heroes” committed on seeking vengeance against all the predators society calls men.

Jason Banker is very careful to limit the information we receive and how we receive it. At times Felt may not be “linear.” Other times it could be argued that what we see may only be within the confines of Amy’s damaged psyche.  This is not a flaw. This is a smart move on Banker’s part. It allows the audience to form individual conclusions and to assess the situations as they unfold. We see Amy in several scenes with single men of her own age. In one scene she is alone with an ill-advised OKCupid Match-Up from Hell. Other scenes she shares these experiences with her girlfriends. These scenes of interaction with ‘normal’ men feel so real it almost hurts to watch. Each interaction reveals aspects of male behavior about, toward and with women that we might not always pick up were it not for Banker’s camera. The truth is these scenes feel “real” and it is alarming to note the way the men attempt to manipulate, control and harass the women. What might feel “normal” is now unsettling. The men Amy meets are dismissive, aggressive, inappropriate and passively menacing. If there is even an initial “friendliness,” it quickly feels false.

Is this hope? Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Is this hope?
Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

In another scene she meets her best friend’s new boyfriend. Amy is nervous and is unable to adequately hid her insecurity. Her friend’s boyfriend immediately chooses to make fun of her and insinuates that she is nothing more than a spoiled entitled bitch. A few minutes later the boyfriend is pissed as Amy’s girlfriend chides him for being mean to her best friend. His response is in the form of humor. He disagrees. He wants to know why his girlfriend is friends with such a “freak” and he teasingly wraps his hand around her neck warning her to not to hang out crazy “bitches.” Amy immediately attempts to attack him for threatening her friend. This new boyfriend chooses to meet her aggression with an even stronger level of anger and threat. To him, Amy is a “crazy bitch” and he informs her that just because she is a “girl” will not prevent him from taking her down.

Later, her girlfriends sit down with her. One attempts to “lay hands” on her with a prayer for healing. Once again they try to reason her to understand that these men are “not all that bad” — they just want sex. But the hope is that they might want more down the road. Their intervention backfires on them as Amy stays calm and points out the obvious. Her girlfriends seem to be “aware” of the cruel, debasing and threatening attitude. It appears it is easier to just “accept” this cultural misogyny. Amy’s more well-adjusted and functioning friends have and are assimilating into “Rape Culture.”

Kentucker Audley plays “Kenny.” Kenny’s arrival into Amy’s life comes with tenderness, understanding and concern. He comforts her. He cares about her. He is able to show that he is impressed with her art while also expressing sadness for whatever pain life has given her. Kenny never does this in a patronizing way. He truly appreciates her artistry and her.  When she speaks to him he actually listens. Eventually, Amy is not threatened by Kenny. She seems to be healing as she discovers that she can be herself with him and he offers no judgement. He offers no threat. Kenny seems to offer only love.

Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson and Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

It is never clear if Amy and Kenny have consummated their relationship. Just as it seems we might be given this information regarding their romance, we discover that Kenny is not what he seems. It is unclear, but he has not been deceptive with Amy. When he attempts to open up and discuss this deception, it is too late.  Amy’s discovery of Kenny’s “deception” alters not only her perception of him. It seems to send her off-the-rails of sanity. And everything Amy shifts. Every little gesture seems to convey something different than before. We see everything about her change.

As she leads the audience into an act of horrific violence, it is not a surprise. Everything seems to be pointing to something horrible, but witnessing it is profoundly unsettling.

Playing 'Dress Up' Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Playing ‘Dress Up’
Amy Everson / Kentucker Audley
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

Jason Banker’s film leaves the audience in a state of shock that is not scary. It is far more serious. We are left adrift in Amy’s madness. The “victim” has become an even worse “victimizer.” It brings us back to a scene in which she explains to Kenny that most forms of rape “are perpetuated by people you know and trust.”

There is no way Kenny would have interpreted Amy’s comment as a warning. It might not have even been clear to her.  Amy’s decision is not rational. It is insane.

Provocative, disturbing, challenging, oddly beautiful and repulsively ugly, Felt is one of the clearest articulations of our culture’s continuing escalation of violence against women. “Rape Culture” is not some “hip” catch-phrase. It is a sad reality in which many of us play without even realizing. Jason Banker has crafted a firm depiction of cultural misogyny that never seems to wain. He has done so within the framework of Art Horror. The artistic mastery of this film can’t be denied.

Into the woods... Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Into the woods…
Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

The implications of Felt‘s result leave us with one question:

How does a sexual assault victim heal in a world that almost seems to support the assault?

Amy Everson FELT Jason Banker, 2015

Amy Everson
FELT
Jason Banker, 2015

And for those who thought Jason Banker’s feature film directorial debut, Toad Road, was an accident or a “one hit” cinematic wonder, Felt blows any doubt of possessing an important cinematic filmmaker out the window.  This Film Artist is not limited in his scope of obtaining  understanding from more than one perspective. This is a filmmaker to watch.

matty stanfield, 7.22.2015