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I first wrote about Johan Liedgren in November of last year. If you have not read that post, check it out here.

His most recent film continues to gain momentum and with recent shifts in the United States — it has gained even more importance.  I’m quite literally pasting an interview Kate Shifman conducted with Mr. Liedgren last year. I do so with Ms. Shifman’s permission. 

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

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

Johan Liedgren’s most recent feature film displays something very rare: a strong female protagonist who finds a very big voice in sexual controversy and moral complexity.

A witty, intense and unpredictable tale fusing rapid-fire chamber-drama with fearless acting and relentless cinematic appeal, “The Very Private Work of Sister K” starts with the story of a young nun accused of grave transgressions, who rises to battle the oldest of beliefs as the true nature of sexuality is put on trial. Award-winning director Johan Liedgren teams up with director of photography Zia Mohajerjasbi and actress Liza Curtiss as Sister K in “…a modern bar-fighting lovechild of Eyes Wide Shut and 12 Angry Men.”

I called Mr. Liedgren at his house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon in early December, curios about a male artist’s relationship to what Hollywood has been struggling with for such a long time: strong and complex female characters.

Kate Shifman: There is a scene where the female protagonist Sister K keeps telling the older male priests the sexual relationship she had was “…not just sex.”

Johan Liedgren: Sex is never just about sex.

KS: They say that it was simple. She says… it was complicated.

JL: She says it was complex. Human sexuality is complex. Not necessarily complicated. We all know how babies are made. Good sex is something very different.

KS: Complicated and complex – what is the difference?

JL: I feel like I am getting set-up to mansplain. (laughter)

KS: What’s the difference to you?

JL: One has many moving parts. The other can be simple but still mean many things on many levels. I should really look that up…

KS: It is rare to see truly strong female characters. Especially from a male director. Is this a feminist film?

Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

JL: I don’t know how much it matters that I am male. But yes, she is very strong. But for me it was never because she repeats some political line that fits an established feminist abstract narrative. Her strength is interesting because she finds her moral high ground in a very specific experience. And to make things more interesting, it’s fueled with religious context and a suitcase full of sexual taboos.

KS: But it’s different than “Spotlight” in many ways.

JL: The obvious ways, sure. And it’s more fun to watch. But even more so because it serves as allegory rather than dramatized documentary.

KS: What you describe could have happened.

JL: It did happen… I can’t find the details but I think a similar case 20 years ago in Denmark. A civil case of a nun who thought her patient needed sexual attention on a regular basis. And just as I was editing the Sister K, New York Times did an article on Anna Stubbenfelt – the therapist who fell in love with and slept with a much younger severely autistic boy. Fascinating. And complex.

“Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher. “

KS: Could this film have been done with a male nurse?

JL: Sure. But you would have to play against the cliche’s or you would be re-making Spotlight. And that’s not me. Too easy. It can’t be predictable.

KS: Could it be about something other than sex?

JL: Of course. But not for me, and not for this story. Sexuality has a absolutely singular place in our lives. It’s an everyday need and deeply mysterious at the same time. It’s giving and taking. It’s familiar and yet always new somehow. Unmatched complexity. That’s why sexuality will always resonate with divinity for me. Those hips don’t lie. (laugh) But hey, don’t forget what Sister K did to her patient.

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

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

KS: And still we root for Sister K.

JL: I agree, most people do. But you have to work for it, and you are constantly challenged in that position as the story twists and turns. And I think that is why the film turned out so well. It was not an easy project.

KS: Too controversial?

JL: Never!

KS: Are you actively staying away from politics?

JL: Sexual politics is often part of my projects. But traditional politics – yes, anything with dull and predictable categories… we are living in a world stuck in lazy narratives, selling something predictable to the already converted. Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher.

KS: More complexity.

JL: Exactly! The Hollywood machine requires simplicity and predictability. Known categories they can market too. Stories that everyone likes. It is up to independent films to dramatize more complex issues. To take real risks. Commercial and artistic. Even smaller independent film seem more concerned with making something that Hollywood likes than taking risks and breaking new ground.

KS: You don’t see much feminist film come out of Hollywood.

JL: That’s an understatement.

KS: Did you set out to make a feminist film.

JL: No. But I did set out to make a film about a woman who finds a deep female power outside the obvious, and she does so without being perfect. Clearly.

“All of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.”

Johan Liedgren

Johan Liedgren

KS: You are an accidental feminist.

JL: Love that! (laughter) – Johan Liedgren… accidental feminist. In some ways I think we can describe Sister K just the same.

KS: What would you like people to take away from the film?

JL: I would love to see someone stand up for real sexuality the way Sister K does. Bring the message home – when sex is talked about at that dinner party, as “simple”, there will be those women around the world who will push their plate to the side, empty their glass of wine, stand up and deliver the same speech Sister K did. And end it with a passionate “…Good sex, that’s where God goes to church!” Bam! Mic-drop…

KS: I can see that happening at a stale dinner somewhere.

JL: But also… I think the film – and certainly actress Liza Curtiss – does a brilliant job of having us drift deep into the complexity of what is going on long before we know we are in it. She uses all our pre-conceived notions of gender and sex to take us somewhere very different. She’s that good. You are laughing, but then suddenly realizing you are caught rooting for some very questionable behavior. Good story is a beautiful trickster – leading us to places we otherwise would not see. Film can and should do the same. I think all of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.

KS: Your film starts out with a funny, almost childlike story within the story – a rabbit who decides to stop eating his vegetables.

JL: Right. It’s a good example of how story can be a trickster – it’s not long before we fully embrace the rabbit as a brutal nocturnal carnivore.

KS: Accidental Carnivore?

JL: Nice. (laughter). But yes, Sister K in similar fashion seems harmless and benign in the beginning only to reveal incredible potency. No one sees her coming.

KS: Is she deceiving them all from the very beginning?

JL: Well, if she is, it’s not to save herself. It’s to make sure the story that survives is told right.

KS: Several times she talks about what happened to her as a story, a story to be told – told over and over again. The film eludes to the work of Eve, and the story of Eden.

JL: The value and currency of her actions is the story that will be told about her. And that is also how the rabbit story ends, with that story living on, retold over and over again, from generation to generation. I love story. The rabbit story even survives one of my films and appears in the next. Lives on… and if you end the interview now, the story of the film through this interview will live on – and it would provide for almost perfect symmetry. (laughter)

KS: What a director! (laughter). Thank you, Johan – a wonderful film and a surprising and incredibly potent female protagonist where we least expect it.

JL: It was all my pleasure.

The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Kate Shifman is a NYC freelance writer, consultant and photographer traveling the world, currently based in Portugal. Johan Liedgren is an award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant. His work with large brands, design, media and technology companies is extending narrative thinking and storytelling to products and disciplines far outside traditional application. Johan lives a relatively balanced life with his two sons in Seattle. More info  here

The Very Private Work of Sister K can be rented/purchased here

I highly recommend it.

Matty Stanfield, 1.29.2017

 

 

 

After a decade in a successful career in cinematography, Nicolas Roeg found his way into the director’s chair. This led to a string of unforgettable films that blended his unique camera perspectives with an even more experimental editing to form

"I'm not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity." David Bowie reflects in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“I’m not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity.” David Bowie reflects in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

much more than cinematic stories. Nicolas Roeg used cinematography, editing and obsessions to form film art that seeps into the senses that often lift the viewer into an experience that is more than unforgettable. Roeg’s cinematic voice reaches almost hypnotic levels. He creates atmosphere, tension, eroticism and human introspection that calls us to revisit his films.

"This one who's blind. She's the one that can see." Hilary Mason's character may be blind, but she is the only character who can actually 'see' in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“This one who’s blind. She’s the one that can see.” Hilary Mason’s character may be blind, but she is the only character who can actually ‘see’ in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

With each revisit, the viewer discovers new aspects, ideas and meanings. Roeg quickly established a strong connection with both Cinematographer, Anthony B. Richmond and Film Editor, Graeme CliffordIn early on. Eventually, he would also establish a new film editing connection with Tony Lawson. These “connections” ran deep. In Roeg’s hands, filmmaking is no longer reduced to “orchestrated collaboration” “craft” or “storytelling” — Roeg’s cinematic work takes these fundamental concepts related to movie making to the level of true Film Art.

Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russells' "terrifying obsession took them to the brink of death and beyond." Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Tony Lawson

Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russells’ “terrifying obsession took them to the brink of death and beyond.” Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Tony Lawson

It is more than a complex collaboration between the filmmaker and his/her cinematography and editor, in Nicolas Roeg’s work — it is clear that their is more than a shared aesthetic, the intermingling of all three aspects of filmmaking feel to be forming together in a genetic sort of alchemy. This is the magic of Pure Cinema.

The influence of Nicolas Roeg is undeniable. He has inspired far too many filmmakers to list. And, if one did comprise a list it would reflect a wide range of cinematic visionaries. Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle and François Ozon are just a few notably varied filmmakers who have listed Roeg as a strong influence.

It is often the most seemingly surprisingly magnified small detail that means so much. Candy Clark pours a drink. "You know Tommy, you're a freak. I don't mean that unkindly..." with questionable intent in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.  Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

It is often the most seemingly surprisingly magnified small detail that means so much. Candy Clark pours a drink. “You know Tommy, you’re a freak. I don’t mean that unkindly…” with questionable intent in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976.
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

It is also important to note that Nicolas Roeg has never taken the stance of “Film Artiste”  — Despite the complexities of what one discovers in his films, he has consistently dismissed the idea that he has ever pursued a film with one sole purpose. Instead, he will often shrug off aspects of his work as “accidental” or “luck” — And further to the point, Roeg claims to have never set out to rebel against fixed ideas of what cinema should be. He has always expressed how important his early work as a part of a camera unit or cinematographer were essential so the he could gain the essential knowledge of film craftsmanship. He once was quoted, “The rules are learnt in order to be broken, but if you don’t know them, then something is missing.”

"The churches belong to God, but he doesn't seem to care about them." Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“The churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them.” Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

The use of sound and image do not always match in Nicolas Roeg’s cinematic world. What we are “allowed” to see is not always what we think we “want” to see. Mirrors and all aspects of reflection begin to take on added significance as these films move forward. The use of mirrors serves as far more than presenting an interesting thought — they are the tools that these characters discover everything insights into existentialism, desire, fear, vanity, gender roles and identity. The reflection of mirrors and glass have a similar impact on the audience but with added psychological dimensions that are inaccessible to the characters.

"“I’ve used mirrors in a lot of movies. I think the mirror is an extraordinary thing, also the reflective, a reflection in water etc. Don’t you think it’s something strange that you rarely look at yourself in the mirror, except to do things like stand and ponder? " Nicolas Roeg on the use of mirrors in his films. Here, James Fox, is forced to not only re-evaluate his identity but his gender in Performance, Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell, 1970 Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

““I’ve used mirrors in a lot of movies. I think the mirror is an extraordinary thing, also the reflective, a reflection in water etc. Don’t you think it’s something strange that you rarely look at yourself in the mirror, except to do things like stand and ponder? ” Nicolas Roeg on the use of mirrors in his films. Here, James Fox, is forced to not only re-evaluate his identity but his gender in Performance, Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell, 1970
Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

Like many great artists, Nicolas Roeg is sometimes so ahead of the audience that a film may fail to connect. This was the case with the controversial study of sexual desire turned to obsessions that potentially lead to insanity or something far worse. Largely dismissed when it was released, it has since gained much more success with audiences as time has passed.

Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980 Cinematographer | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Tony Lawson

Bad Timing, Nicolas Roeg, 1980
Cinematographer | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Tony Lawson

Roeg’s interests in how men and women connect sexually often become a core element found in every film. In Bad Timing he allowed his and the characters’ obsessions to overflow with a level of intensity that often resulted in confused responses. Seven years earlier, in Don’t Look Now, he created an almost uncomfortably level of erotic intimacy between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland that so shocked audiences that it is still a matter of discussion when the film is screened. The reality of sexuality becomes heightened to the abnormal in Bad Timing, but sexuality is used in a casually realistic way in Don’t Look Now.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherlands' characters infamously make love and cause Movie Rumor that remains today in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherlands’ characters infamously make love and cause Movie Rumor that remains today in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Viewers in 1980 seemed to have had a difficult time finding “reality” in the sex of Bad Timing. But well over 30 years later, the infamous sex scene in Don’t Look Now “feels” so real that many insist on believing that Sutherland and Christy were actually engaging in penetrative sex. The magical use of sex in Don’t Look Now is that it slowly dawns on the audience that this graphic display of sexual connection is not used for titaliation, but to capture the all too human need to connect to his/her lover in times of grief. It is a reconnection that almost helps this marriage in crisis pull itself out of disaster. Well, almost.

Another aspect of Roeg’s approach to his films that is rather thrilling is the ever present use of Surrealism. But it is the almost casual way in which surrealism mixes in with blunt realism. A level of disorientation flows off the screen because while we think we know that some of what we are seeing is “surreal” — it could almost as easy be called “real”

The Man Who Fell To Earth is a great example of film which refuses to ground itself into any conventional genre: Is it satire? Or is it an oddly ‘realistic’ Sci-Fi? Maybe it is dark humored metaphorical study of humankind? Is it surrealism? Is it about owning our identity no matter how our society tries to suppress us?

The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg, 1976
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

What is real and what is often tangible but not easily labeled is often the most important aspect of our journey. Nicolas Roeg once noted, “I love that perhaps we don’t see the things that are there because we have no reliable yardstick to see things by, to compare them.”

Pass the warning... Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Pass the warning…
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Over the last several years I have had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with Don’t Look Now. As it made its way from the muddy VHS transfer to an improved but still lacking quality when it was released on DVD in both the US/UK to the beautifully restored version issued to blu-ray/DVD by the magic-makers at Criterion. I’ve needed to watch this film a number of times for various reasons. I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen it in the last three years. But every time I watch it, I notice something new. Never have I seen a film so disturbingly horrific turn itself into something of altogether different that can only be termed as “Human” beauty.

"One of your children has posed a curious question: if the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?" The answer to his daughter's question is far more complex than Donald Sutherland can fully grasp. He fights against his instincts in Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

“One of your children has posed a curious question: if the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?” The answer to his daughter’s question is far more complex than Donald Sutherland can fully grasp. He fights against his instincts in Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond
Film Editor | Graeme Clifford

Don’t Look Now takes us to a Venice steeped in decay, sadness and uncertain dangers. We are led through a series of seemingly endless loop of dark tunnels. We pass over aged bridges in a fog of mystery. Hope can become deadly. Grief can become a release. Like life, nothing is at it appears.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Nicolas Roeg speak, you will note a highly intelligent and genuine man. It is impossible to miss the fact that he is so filled with ideas that he tends talk in meandering and circular sentences. The newly released Criterion edition of Don’t Look Now features a discussion filmed in 2003 at London’s Ciné Lumière. It is an entertaining discussion and, in some ways, a revealing way in which Roeg not only communicates — but how he thinks.

And, this, to me, adds insight into the way he views film editing. There is not so much concern with editing a film in a linear or altogether logical way — because when we really think about it — Our minds are constantly racing through ideas, memories, feelings, emotions, worries and ever spinning topics as we navigate through ever part of our day.

Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 gets the Criterion treatment. Now available on DVD/Blu-Ray

Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
gets the Criterion treatment. Now available on DVD/Blu-Ray

Nicolas Roeg’s movies strive to capture worlds through the lens of the human mind’s perspective. Our mind never fully allows our eyes, ears and senses to fully focus on one thing. Instead, our minds take in everything at once and while we are largely successful at deciphering our experience of the world and the situations we experience. It is only long after something has happened that we have the opportunity to “process’ an event. This is perhaps the strongest element to be found in the way Nicolas Roeg often transcends the normally anticipated scope of a movie.

I recently discovered a website called The TalkHouse which features brilliantly insightful writing and articles related to art.

Exceptional and Valuable insights regarding art can be found at TalkHouse.

Exceptional and Valuable insights regarding art can be found at TalkHouse.

http://thetalkhouse.com

Lance Edmands is a film artist himself and one of the contributors to the site. He has written a great piece in which he deconstructs Don’t Look Now‘s opening sequence. If you’ve not visited The TalkHouse or read anything by Lance Edmands, I encourage you to follow this link. He offers a far more in-depth discussion of Roeg’s experimental work.

http://thetalkhouse.com/film/talks/lance-edmands-bluebird-talks-nicolas-roegs-dont-look-now/

The first time I noticed Josephine Decker was when she appeared as an actor in Joe Swanberg’s 2011 film, Uncle Kent.  It is a great film and it gained a great deal as soon as Decker walked into Swanberg’s frame. Realistic, casually beautiful and charismatic — Josephine Decker made an impression.

Artist, Josephine Decker. Image from project for The School of Making and Thinking with Adriana Disman

Artist, Josephine Decker. Image from project for The School of Making and Thinking with Adriana Disman

It didn’t take me long to discover her first documentary feature, 2008’s Bi the Way (co-directed with Brittany Blockman) and her solo documentary, 2010’s Squeezebox.  She went on to act in two more Swanberg projects in 2011. Not to mention that she also created a video for Charlie Hewson’s song, Where Are You Going, Elena? which incorporated animation by Matt Monson. But it was in her 2012’s Me the Terrible short, that seems to have actually begin to find her unique cinematic voice.

Me the Terrible by Josephine Decker, 2012. A determined little girl pirate sets out to conquer NYC!

Me the Terrible by Josephine Decker, 2012. A determined little girl pirate sets out to conquer NYC!

When I first saw Josephine Decker’s first feature length film, 2013’s Butter on the Latch, it wasn’t just revelatory — it was a metaphorically saturating adventure from which presented me with a challenge to reorient myself to step out of the theater and back into the remainder of the day. Emerging out of a sort of dazed state and gradually regaining my grounding, this potent film gave me more than a fair share of food for thought. It haunted me. It would take another viewing — this time on a big screen television — before I could allow myself to grasp what Butter on the Latch was actually about. That statement is not intended to be taken as a negative, but a very positive statement regarding a layered and challenging example of Film Art at it’s most experimental. Over a year later I had the opportunity to see her next film and my initial opinion of this filmmaker’s work felt validated.

Josephine Decker’s two films are more of a “cinematic experience” than simply getting lost in a movie’s narrative or style. Once these two films start, you have no choice but to enter Decker’s worlds. I find both films to be equally hypnotic in their ability to pull me in.

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch offers a unique perspective regarding the ways society, culture, folklore, music, dance, singing, desire and creativity impact not only a friendship but the formation of identity. It would be far too easy to call the film an adventure into the psyche of friendship or an emotional break. I also find comparisons of her work to that of David Lynch almost offensive. Thanks to what appears to be an artistically shared aesthetic with her cinematographer, Ashley Connor, Decker skillfully creates a world that sometimes looks and seems “real” — but is ultimately shifted into a disarmingly “unreal” space.

Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker: 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker: 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

For me, the plot of Butter on the Latch is secondary to the way Decker constructs the world in which it evolves. For a film that runs under 80 minutes in length, the movie itself feels far shorter.  That is a rare occurrence. In the last decade or so we have seen average film lengths span far longer than necessary. Challenging and artistic cinematic work normally requires patience from the audience. Josephine Decker’s film is never rushed or slow in pace. Intensity and intimacy are so cleverly fueled throughout the movie that she is often able to slow the pace without the audience noticing. Within only a few minutes, Butter on the Latch drops us into what is clearly NYC. Or, more probably Brooklyn. It is within those first few moments that a cleverly edited one-sided cell phone call conversation morphs this artistically thriving and socially active city into a sexually menacing and dangerously intense space. Then, without warning, we find ourselves on the road in what is clearly The Bay Area of Northern California.

Sarah Small walking into the familiar but losing the trail into the unknown aspects of nature and human connection. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small walking into the familiar but losing the trail into the unknown aspects of nature and human connection. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Although it is never clearly stated, it is clear from Decker’s use of POV that we are joining our protagonist into a beautiful space of a folk culture inspired festival and workshops. And while it is clear our two main characters are reuniting within the context of a communal event. This is a gathering to celebrate Balkan culture and folklore in what I suspect is the Mendocino Folklore Camp. Any known perceptions of this community are quickly challenged. Decker’s use of folklore, storytelling, ancient music and dance fuel the film forward into a world of dread and ever present threat that is hiding just a bit further into the woods of this mystical world.

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence following the calls of music and lore in Butter on the Latch. Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

When Sarah asks her friend, “Why aren’t you giving me any specifics?” — Isolde seems to either side-step or dismiss this question in a manner that simultaneously feels realistic and passively annoyed. There is a consistently odd mix of concern and indifference that puts not only Sarah, but us in the uncomfortable position of having to cautiously trust Isolde. As Sarah and Isolde attempt to re-connect Isolde shares a recent massage experience that is filled with erotic pleasure but veers so far into male domination / manipulation of Isolde’s body that her reason for sharing her experience almost seems that she is trying to eroticize a sexual violation. All the more alarming, she gives Sarah the name of the “masseur” and urges Sarah to seek the same experience.

"Oh, you know that place..." Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

“Oh, you know that place…”
Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

This brief interaction of two young women chatting feels “realistic” but loaded with subversive intent.  These two women appear to be fully empowered and sexually confident, but it is here that Decker’s film  twists conventional ideas around “girl’s talk” to pull us into an ever-growing threat of predatory dangers.

"What is that drink called again?" Isolde Chae-Lawrence drinks it all down in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“What is that drink called again?” Isolde Chae-Lawrence drinks it all down in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Decker’s masterful manipulation of surroundings of nature, music, dance, and Connor’s stunning cinematography in the editing process creates a tone that refuses to become official “Surreal” but is powerfully disorienting.  Josephine Decker creates a very specific world in order to pull us into a reworking of Balkan folklore. The actual shifting point comes quite early as both friends enter an almost hallucinatory state of drunken confusion. While it appears to a be shared journey into an ancient culture and self-awareness is largely Sarah’s lonely trek into unknown realms of nature and female humanity.

"I don't know where we're going." Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“I don’t know where we’re going.” Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

The deeper Sarah steps into understanding and mastering the Balkan manner of chanting and music to express the culture’s ancient folklore as a tool of connection to the past to form a shared experience in the present — the more feelings of desire, loneliness and isolation seem to mount. What is initially so beautiful is deconstructing into something laced with intensely with madness.

The menace of dark magik and madness are hiding the woods of Mendocino. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashely Connor

The menace of dark magik and madness are hiding the woods of Mendocino. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashely Connor

Sarah reads an example of Balkan Folklore about a young maiden who is stolen away by a dragon. To escape the dragon, the beautiful maiden concocts a magical potion which will force the powerful dragon into a deep sleep so that she can escape. It is read in a relaxed way with Sarah pointing to the charm of ancient stories. Isolde seems to be slipping into a deep slumber herself and mutters this will be her bedtime story. Later, a good-looking and gentle musician is spotted by Isolde. Sarah takes notice and is immediately attracted to him. Isolde dismisses the man’s appearance and conduct. Isolde appears to be upset, but fails to communicate it. Instead they both drink excessively. The two friends lose their way back to their cabin. Isolde seems to become more than frustrated with Sarah. Blaming her for getting them lost, she storms away into the darkness. Is Isolde angry because she is interested in a man? Or, is she angry because she blames Sarah for getting them lost? Is it jealousy? Is it frustration? Or, is Sarah just confused?  It is a point that is never really fully understood. But Sarah wakes the next morning in a panic. She seems to scramble to flee the cabin. It almost feels as if she is running away from something. After calming down, Sarah begins to proactively pursue the man, the tension mounts over the relationship between the two women. Or, does it?

Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker , 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker , 2013
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson flirt in Josephine Decker's Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson flirt in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor.

Butter on the Latch Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Butter on the Latch
Josephine Decker, 2013
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

As tensions mount and Sarah’s advances toward the musician are reciprocated, Sarah’s perceptions start to become less trustworthy. There is a vague sense that she feels she is being pursued by something in the woods. Is it a dragon? Is it Isolde? Is it madness waiting out there? Has Sarah lost the ability to perceive the difference between reality and fantasy? Is she dealing with some sort of disorder? Fantasy Prone Personality, perhaps? Or is her paranoia real? Or is she simply worn out and lost in the mystical beauty of music and folklore?

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson at the lake. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Sarah Small and Charlie Hewson at the lake. Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013 Cinematography: Ashley Connor

When Sarah and the musician disrobe, the truly beautiful eroticism they start to share becomes foggy and takes a disturbing turn.  Sarah senses the presence of the threatening menace hiding just beyond her view in the trees. The film arrives to a disturbing conclusion that is vague. It is also a conclusion which is surprisingly satisfyingly. This is cinematic magic.

"What is that? Did you hear that?" Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“What is that? Did you hear that?” Sarah Small in Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker, 2013. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 Butter on the Latch is distinctively unique from every perspective. Most importantly, it is a fascinating experience that should not be missed. As good as it is, Josephine Decker’s evolution as a filmmaker progresses to a whole other level with her second feature length film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

It is almost impossible to imagine the the budget for her second film was just over $18,000.00. There is nothing about Mild and Lovely that looks “micro-budget” — it has the polish and glow of major studio production. Any comparisons to major studio films ends there. Though Josephine Decker has stated that Steinbeck’s East of Eden influenced several elements of the movie, other critics have compared it to Flannery O’Connor and Terrence Malick. And of course, the sad state of Film Criticism / Film Theory that automatically point to David Lynch at the slightest hint of “something weird” or “stylistically perverse” — an over-used comparison. It is usually an incorrect comparison. I think it is particularly incorrect to compare this film to David Lynch. To be honest, I can only grasp a little bit in Mild and Lovely that might have been inspired by Steinbeck. If you were to pin me in a corner and demand a comparison, the only comparisons that might be valid would be Louis Malle’s Black Moon — a sluggish but lushly experiment in Surrealism as a statement of political unrest. Or maybe some elements employed by Roman Polanski in his adaptation of Roland Topor’s The Tenant. But this constant need to compare one artist to another is usually pointless. It is especially pointless in the case of Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Sophie Traub is Sarah in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sophie Traub is Sarah in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

One should not forget to remember that this film was made by a female artist and is largely concerned with a female character who serves as a sort of narrator throughout the movie. Josephine Decker continues her exploration of ideas nature and the role it plays in the ways humanity connects to form identity, family, lovers, community and often form into subcultures that oppose the way culture/society tries to pre-determine.  Once again, Josephine Decker displays an extraordinary way of taking the familiar and bends it all into something we have never seen before. Decker employees Ashley Connor’s beautifully lush off-kilter camera work along with unexpected POV’s, editing, sound and the fascinating charisma of her actors to form a more conventionally structured narrative than she presented in Butter on the Latch.

Decker has secured a group of more professionally skilled actors. While Sophie Traub is the least known actor involved, her performance is an exceptional display of technique. This actor knows what she is doing and brings Decker’s dialogue to life. Many of Sarah’s lines and actions could easily lead an actor toward cliche and even “camp” — Traub is so invested in her role that the deep-rooted sadness and damage find their way into every movement and glance. It is a nuanced portrait of an intelligent but stunted woman. Joe Swanberg, a visionary Independent Filmmaker and a capable actor succeeds in capturing a seemingly beaten-down and depressed man. He seems to want to hide not only the truth of his life, but his sexual impulses. Swanberg’s Akin is brooding a mixture of desire and violence that serves as an uncomfortable threat to both of the other characters.

Joe Swanberg in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker,2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Joe Swanberg in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker,2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

But viewer beware: there is nothing “conventional” about this film. But the most potent actor here is Robert Longstreet. Longstreet carries a great deal of “cred” within the Independent Filmmaking scene. His talent, abilities and charisma can’t be beat. As Jeremiah he presents an unsettling and often horrific performance. We are never fully allowed access the secret that bonds him so closely to Sarah, but thanks to Longstreet’s mix of amiable redneck and a consistently cruel tension — we know that the secret must be horrific. And, it is most likely still alive under the barn. Decker is joined by both David Barker and Steven Schardt as co-editors and the film’s pace and perspectives are even more effective here than in Butter on the Latch.

"My lover knows how to love me. But things kept getting in the way." Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

“My lover knows how to love me. But things kept getting in the way.” Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a fresh and constantly innovative take on the Modernist idea of American Gothic. Firmly rooted in Art Horror genre, there is a great deal more here than meets the eye or the expectations related to both of these styles. The film is structured by ever changing visual perspectives — often we see this world reflected from the perspective of animals on the farm. The world of this American farm is lensed from perspectives of  a goat, other times a dog or hog take over to provide our restricted view into the intimacies of the humans who are working and living within the confines of this world.

Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014. Cinematography | Ashley Connor

The other narrative device Decker provides is Sarah’s voice reading her poetry. Sarah’s writing is fixated on her ideal lover. Cryptic and romantic, her free form poem carries us throughout the story. And once again, a familiar type of construction that becomes more insightful as we move forward. Sarah offers clues into not only her desires, but into her fractured view of her world. In many ways, she is still a child. But her sexual desires for Akin is almost boiling over. It is due to her stunted emotional development that she is often unaware of the way she presents herself to Akin. Like a child, she often appears to not understand when she exposes something sexual because one suspects no one has ever been there to guide her.

Dreams of Akin in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Photography | Ashley Connor

Dreams of Akin in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Photography | Ashley Connor

Prepping the lettuce. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Prepping the lettuce. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, Sarah attempts to seduce Akin. Her mode of seduction is almost as unsettling as where it leads. Covered in mud and sweat, she pursues the opportunity to catch a frog after Akin admits to having a deep dislike of reptiles.

"Bad Froggie!" Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Owen

“Bad Froggie!” Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Owen

 

She plays with the frog in a childlike-sexual manner and without any warning she gleefully resorts to animal cruelty in hopes of attracting Akin. Just as unexpected, Akin does respond. But this is not lust or desire, this is rape. Akin assaults Sarah with cruel force. But the response of  his sexual violence appears to disappoint Akin as much as it unsettles the audience.

Perverse Seduction.  Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Perverse Seduction.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Brutal Response.  Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Brutal Response.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Sarah’s perception of sex is either learned from the animalistic nature she has seen on Jeremiah’s farm or is alarming masochistic based on whatever secret has bound her to Jeremiah. While Sarah freely calls Jeremiah “Daddy” — it doesn’t take him long to inform Akin that he is not her father. Their are moments of what appears to be love between Jeremiah and Sarah, but never without an underlying tone of danger and doom.

Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Robert Longstreet and Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Just as soon as you suspect you might have determined the ingredients of Josephine Deckers oddly beautiful but phantasmagorical brewing stew of human tragedy, she creatively throws us off-course. The truth of what may or may not be waiting beneath the barn remains unknown.

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

This is film so comfortably committed to itself, it offers no easy “out” or clear conclusion. Its power will haunt you long after you experience it.

Joe Swanberg in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Joe Swanberg in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

 

The buttons have been pushed and the envelope has fallen off the desk, but it is impossible to look away or dismiss Thou Wast Wild and Lovely. Josephine Decker has crafted a world that pulls you in and holds you tight until the credits roll. The one thing that you can be sure of — there is no room for a “neutral” response to this film art. One will either love or hate it. I loved it.

Filmmaker Josephine Decker exploring the senses. Photograph | Adriana Disman from The School of Making and Thinking.

Filmmaker Josephine Decker exploring the senses. Photograph | Adriana Disman from The School of Making and Thinking.

I can’t wait to see what world she creates next.