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Laura Dern as a woman in deep trouble... INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Laura Dern as a woman in deep trouble…
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

There is an early key scene in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. It is between one of several characters played by Laura Dern and another played by the great Grace Zabriskie. A neighbor has dropped in to introduce herself to her movie star neighbor. A bit uncomfortable, but friendly — Nikki invites the woman in for a cup of coffee. After the neighbor sips a bit, she begins to enquire about Nikki’s next movie role. A role that the neighbor feels Nikki has most certainly secured Though it is clear that Nikki is unaware she has been cast.

It only takes a few minutes before Ms. Zabriskie gets to the actual reason for her unannounced visit:

“Is there a murder in your film?”
“Uh, no. It’s not part of the story.”
“No, I think you are wrong about that.”
“No.”
Brutal fucking murder!
“I don’t like this kind of talk; the things you’ve been saying. I think you should go now.”
“Yes. Me, I… I can’t seem to remember if it’s today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I’d think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet, there is the magic. If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.”

Her finger points across the room. Laura Dern’s Nikki’s eyes turn following the direction of her neighbor’s finger.  And with a turning pan of the cheap digital camera we and Nikki are transported to a different time. Maybe even a different side of reality. Maybe…

Grace Zabriskie points toward the unknown brutality... INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Grace Zabriskie points toward the unknown brutality…
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Way back in 2006 after experiencing David Lynch’s Inland Empire for the first time I wrote this:

Well, kids — I saw the new David Lynch movie today. Yes, INLAND EMPIRE is almost a full 3 hours of Lynchian assault.

Did I like it? Yes, I think I did. Actually, I may love it. I think I am still processing the experience. Trust me. This is a cinematic experience.

While I did find it a bit long, I was never bored.  My eyes, ears and mind were stuck to the screen the entire duration. There were more than a few people in the audience who had seen it twice already. I have to agree with those audience members — this is a film which seems to require multiple viewings. 

I am still trying to figure it all out in my head. What did all those symbols mean? Most importantly, what does it symbolize to have Nastassja Kinski sit on a sofa while Suicide Girl types dance and lip sync to the late/great Nina Simone? I guess she and them could symbolize a lot of things.  And, why the Beck song?

Word to the wise: if you do see it — stay thru the final credits.

I love that the cinema in which I saw the movie was playing selections from the new Tom Waits compilation CD, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. This turned out to be quite right for setting the tiny San Francisco cinema’s atmosphere.

Hypnotic, oddly gorgeous, without linear thought/plot and featuring a brilliant performance from Laura Dern — INLAND EMPIRE is horrific, beautiful, confusing, perverse, sad, funny, lost and ultimately a brilliant cinematic slight of hand.  If you like David Lynch you will not want to miss it. I plan on seeing it again with a couple of my pals.

 

"Come on, baby Jump up Jump back Well, now, I think you've got the knack Wow, wow!" Laura Dern & Friends(?) INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“Come on, baby
Jump up
Jump back
Well, now, I think you’ve got the knack
Wow, wow!”
Laura Dern & Friends(?)
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Three years later, I wrote this:

David Lynch at his very best. This is the first film he has made which rivals the brilliance of Blue Velvet. Tho quite long, the movie is NOT dull.

Blessed with an incredible acting turn by Laura Dern who seems to be wandering through the consciousness of an actor in way over her head and possibly sharing that space with a demented film maker, INLAND EMPIRE is almost impossible to describe.

This experimental film shows how much a filmmaker can do with equipment available to all of us. It also serves as a reminder that just because we have access to the equipment — no one without such untethered genius can use it as well.

Sound and image have seldom merged better.

INLAND EMPIRE is a puzzle of a film that will be pulling in viewers for decades to come. Without question, this is an important film.

"Ye-ye-ye-yeah Move around the floor in a Loco-motion!" INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“Ye-ye-ye-yeah
Move around the floor in a Loco-motion!”
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Not too long ago on Letterboxd I wrote:

One of my all-time favorite films is also one of the most experimental I’ve ever seen. This is a brilliant motion picture experience captured with cheap video cameras.

Interpretation is certainly open-ended. Even still, I’ve always viewed this as an actor who has lost her identity in a role.

But even more unsettling is the proposition that manipulation of “identity” could potential lead one into some horrific alternate realities. Are they real or are they each operating in some sort of parallel universe?

Best to just pretend you’re seated in dark cinema.

Turn out the lights. Turn up the volume. Just watch and listen.  Allow Inland Empire to wash over you. As it does, you are probably going to discover some vague connection that is as surreal as the film itself.

If you are not someone who does not appreciates David Lynch, experimental art or if you’re afraid of the dark — do not even attempt to watch it.

Laura Dern On the run and lost... INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Laura Dern
On the run and lost…
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

 

Having recently watched Inland Empire the other night on a pristine German-imported blu-ray, the film remains fresh, disturbing and enigmatic as ever.

The film floods over me like some sort of brilliant wave of sound, paint and amplified humanity. I find it difficult to articulate what grabs me. But it grabs me every time I see it.

As someone who has dealt with panic attacks and disorientation, there is a spastic sort of resonation. However, this would be me, a member of the audience, projecting myself onto David Lynch’s carefully crafted and often grubby Epic of Surreal Cinematic Masterpiece.

Yes, that is what I wrote. I used the “masterpiece” word. For me, Inland Empire is a cinematic masterpiece.

I refuse to be swayed.

It is filled with odd sort of “clues” that seem to dangle and blow like thin strings refusing to tie together.

The logic is circular and filled with menace.

There is more symbology going on than one can ever hope to rattle even with the sturdiest of sticks.

A meta-film to beat all meta. A cinematic experiment without a clearly stated thesis beyond the posters tagline: “A Woman In Trouble.”

"What the fuck happened here?" I say: "He come to a reapin' what he had been sowin', that's what." They say: "Fucker been sowing some kind of heavy shit..." Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“What the fuck happened here?” I say: “He come to a reapin’ what he had been sowin’, that’s what.” They say: “Fucker been sowing some kind of heavy shit…”
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

As the woman (or women) in trouble, Laura Dern was given an amazing task as an actor. A task that she not only managed to achieve — Laura Dern rose above any sort of expectation. The lines between acting and reality are simultaneously drawn, twisted, subverted and blurred beyond recognition. Dern seems to literally become entwined with digital signals that form the movie itself. By stating this, I mean to write that this actress is not simply the focus of most of the film’s images —  Laura Dern’s performance and presence folds into digital images that David Lynch’s cameras capture.

This performance even amps itself beyond Dennis Hopper’s brilliant turn in Blue Velvet. The only reason it has never been given similar credit is because of the often exasperating “lengths” to which Inland Empire stretches, bends, loops and merges to form and invert itself.

For various reasons, I’ve found myself spending time with this particular movie.

I have to confess I was relieved when viewings were no longer required. But with the arrival of this blu-ray, I jumped back into the surreal madness of Lynchian Vision. I did so without request or hesitation.

"So, you have a new role to play, I hear?" Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“So, you have a new role to play, I hear?”
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

In the end, for me Inland Empire is a complex exploration of human identity. The identity of an artist who finds her non-professional actor’s life begins to morph, twitch, mingle and merge with those of her roles. So vested in her performance, the complexity of a new film’s character splinters into creation of multiple versions and films. The ultimate artistic nightmare.

Forever chasing her selves through horrific and dismal set-ups. Just as she might be about to latch on to the core of herself she is sent running after another lost figment. A rambling psychological, visceral, emotional and dangerous trap. Her identity becomes so fragmented and polarized that the audience shares in her existential conundrum.

"This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it's tomorrow." Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

“This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it’s tomorrow.”
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

I could not help but feel slightly alarmed when a person on Twitter, known as The Movie Shrink,  sent me a link to a new viewpoint regarding a movie. The movie happened to be Inland Empire. @Plisskenboon’s translation of David Lynch’s strange epic is precise and self-assured.

I can’t state that I’m in full agreement, but it is an impressive deconstruction and evaluation of this Lynchian World that forever runs about within the confines of The Inland Empire. Um, yeah, it is a real place.

(You would be surprised how many people do not realize this.)

Splintered, fragmented and distorted... Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

Splintered, fragmented and distorted…
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

Check it out. …if you dare:

http://plisskensmovies.blogspot.co.nz/2015/03/inland-empire.html

A person, a woman, an actor, her character(s) and shared identities are forever trapped... Laura Dern INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch, 2006

A person, a woman, an actor, her character(s) and shared identities are forever trapped…
Laura Dern
INLAND EMPIRE
David Lynch, 2006

This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it’s tomorrow.”

Matty Stanfield, 11.20.15

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where would he go next?

What new strange world would he create for the cinema?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sour Face = problems with local authority awaits

Both Eyes Blinking = trouble with the higher-ups

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

Fist = there is a whole lotta beligerence

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

Dress Tailored To Fit = this is code for drugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura refuses James’ love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there lies the owl ring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matty Stanfield, 10.9.2015

 

 

 

 

 

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can, but with an elite and elegant level of restraint. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.” Sandy Dennis on the verge of something… That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out. Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015

Tastes being subjective, Film Theorist and Film Preservationists are and will always need to continually “re-assesing” the value and merit of the art form.

A good football coach can get away with murder. ...And, if the coach is a closeted movie star he can get away with even more!  Pretty Maids All in a Row Roger Vadim, 1971

A good football coach can get away with murder. …And, if the coach is a closeted movie star he can get away with even more!
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

Perhaps the most challenging sort of movie to asses are those cinematic oddities that simply refuse to go away. Cult Films are an essential part of the cultures that produced them. Some are worthy of their “cult” status and others require massive abuse of drugs to share in the “joy.”

However, just because something is “exploitive” or “tacky” does not immediately excuse if from being re-visted, restored and re-distributed. Very often it boils down to the fact that a movie is “exploitive” and “tacky” that ends up making it relevant. A movie might create a permanent stain on our cultural fabric. Sometimes it is better to cover the stain with a Ron Howard movie and hope no one ever notices it again. Other times we need to frame that “stain” and celebrate it.

I love all kinds of film. But I have a soft spot for misfits and movies so painfully “bad” they work themselves around to being “exceptionally fun” — such is the case of Berry Gordy’s horrifyingly funny 1975 cinematic error, Mahogany, in which poor Ms. Diana Ross must climb the depraved ladder of fashion to achieve superstar success.

Um, do you know where you're going to?  Miss. Ross is  Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975

Um, do you know where you’re going to?
Miss. Ross is
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975

We cringe as she is forced into awkward situations with Anthony Hopkins. Playing a celebrated fashion photographer, Hopkins is once again cast as a psycho in  jeans so tight they actually might have been sewn onto him. Equally uncomfortable is the fact that Diana Ross saw this movie as chance to show off her personal “fashion design” brilliance.

"Give it to me, baby!" Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross Mahogany  Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Give it to me, baby!”
Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

Yes, she designs her own clothing. And it hurts. But Mahogany goes about everything just a bit too hard and too much to make it worthy of trying to save. It will always offer fun to some, but not enough to warrant a restoration. Don’t flame me if you disagree. I’m just stating an opinion.

Richard Elfman’s one directorial effort is insane, offensive, profane and an incredibly bad movie. Yet, The Forbidden Zone, is so strange and brimming over the top with creativity, ideas, talent and sheer force of will — It will never go away!

"Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?" Susan Tyrrell & Hervé Villechaize The Forbidden Zone Richard Elfman, 1980 Cinematography | Gregory Sandor

“Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?”
Susan Tyrrell & Hervé Villechaize
The Forbidden Zone
Richard Elfman, 1980
Cinematography | Gregory Sandor

And it shouldn’t. In addition, TFZ is a musical staring Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell and Danny Elfman! Danny is Richard’s little brother. The Forbidden Zone demanded a revisit! It was restored and re-distributed. It is just as bad as Mahogany, but what it offers is so unique, entertaining and odd that it’s horrible glory can’t be ignored or forgotten. In it’s own way, The Forbidden Zone is a brilliant off-kilter work of art.

I thought I’d briefly mention some movies that have recently been revisited/restored and a couple that I feel deserve to have a re-visit or reconsideration.

Warner Brothers often makes odd choices regarding what films within their massive achieve are deemed to be of value for restoration and redistribution. They continue to release Ken Russell’s controversial The Devils. They also refuse to allow Irvin Kershner’s Up The Sandbox to be properly re-stored and issued to HD/Blu-ray quality and format. Yet, they are more than eager to restore the Bette Davis & Robert Montgomery contractual obligation of 1948, June Bride. They have also allowed the forgettable Herbert Ross George Burns and Walter Matthau vehicle, The Sunshine Boys, to be restored.

Angie Dickinson as Miss Betty Smith, well versed in grammar, murder and free sexual guidance to her more advanced students.  Pretty Maids All in a Row Roger Vadim, 1971 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Angie Dickinson as Miss Betty Smith, well versed in grammar, murder and free sexual guidance to her more advanced students.
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Roger Vadim, 1971
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

It took Warner Brothers decades to decide to offer a “clean-up” but not fully restored DVD/VOD of Roger Vadim’s infamous exploration film, Pretty Maids all in a Row. This nasty little 1971 movie features an unforgettable cast of actors — almost all of whom appear to be a little uncomfortable for the duration of the movie. The idea in 1970 was to allow Roger Vadim free-reign to create a satirical and perverse sex comedy to bring in the big bucks and to revitalize Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinsons’ respective careers.

Interestingly, it would go on to inspire a major network to create a classic iconic TV series for Telly Savalas called Kojack. Yes, kids. We have this amazingly twisted and so-bad-it’s-good Cult Film to blame (or thank) for the 1970’s Kojack. The film didn’t do much for anyone else. If anything it killed a few potential careers as casually as it kills cheerleaders. Joy Bangs, anyone? With a name and body like that she was expected to go far, but this would be one of her last bids of fame.

But rest easy, plans are lurking to fully restore and redistribute this cinematic oddity to HD/Blu-ray. But keep your fingers crossed just to be safe. But within the next 6 to 8 months!

Check out Todd Gaines review of this film on LetterBoxd. He sums this film up better than I ever could:

http://letterboxd.com/todd_gaines/film/pretty-maids-all-in-a-row/

Warner Brothers has also finally surrendered and agreed to “restore” Tony Scott’s infamous, iconic, controversial and much admired cult classic of Vampiric-Cool, The Hunger. Sadly, WB has taken it upon themselves to do this. The Blu-Ray will be released next Tuesday, 8.18.15! The transfer looks good and the sound is improved from the DVD release. It could have been better, but it is still worthy improvement.

Nothing loves forever. Especially Catherine Deneuve.  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983

Nothing loves forever. Especially Catherine Deneuve.
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983

Very loosely based on Whitley Strieber’s novel, Tony Scott was far more interested in style and the hopelessly cool cast he managed to assemble in this very entertaining Art-Horror Film. It often seems like we are seeing only the coolest of the early 1980’s NYC Art Scene hiding around the corners as Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie pursue their blood-lust. One of their first victims is Eternal Hipster, Ann Magnuson. Not to mention the fact that movie opens with Peter Murphy and the legendary British Goth Rock band, Bauhaus – crooning their seminal hit, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

"undead. undead. undead" Peter Murphy / Bauhaus The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“undead. undead. undead”
Peter Murphy / Bauhaus
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

It is an artfully and darkly shot bit of early 1980’s stylistic chic. It is also one of the most erotic vampire films you will ever see. Man, woman, gay, straight, trans or any existence between — you’re bound to find Catherine Deneuve’s seduction and love-making to Susan Sarandon hot. …hot as well as kind of funny and still a bit surprising.

Lesbian Vampire Sex was never meant to be this hot!  Sarandon / Deneuve  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Lesbian Vampire Sex was never meant to be this hot!
Sarandon / Deneuve
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Tony Scott loses his way with the story. As the film sleeks casually and oh-so-cool toward it’s end, you realize that it may not make any logical sense whereas in the novel the ending was truly disturbing and unforgettable. With this awesome movie, the ending is not so important as how neat it all looks! Seriously. This graphic film of obsession, lust, fear of aging and AIDS metaphor is amazing.

Uber-Cool Ann Magnuson is about to get more from David Bowie than she probably anticipated.  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Uber-Cool Ann Magnuson is about to get more from David Bowie than she probably anticipated.
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

The Hunger even manages to be creepy. Oh, and be sure to play this film really loud. Crank that sound up! 

Sandy Dennis does her unique Sandy Denis-thing as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Sandy Dennis does her unique Sandy Denis-thing as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

We have Olive Films to thank for rescuing Robert Altman’s deeply odd / disturbing 1969 psycho-sexual thriller, That Cold Day in the Park, back from the land of the forgotten. While Olive Films restoration abilities are severely limited, they do a decent job. It is a far cry better than allowing this classic film from rotting somewhere at Paramount.

Initially, this Canadian movie was brought back to life by Bruce LaBruce’s 1991 super-lo-fi film, “No Skin Off My Ass.” LaBruce’s framed that entire film off a distorted VHS copy of Altman’s movie.  Altman’s 1969 film was dismissed and quickly faded into obscurity. Thanks to LaBruce’s underground film and Altman fans this film has returned from its imposed exile. It would take two decades but Olive Films brought the original film back to life!

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors.  That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors.
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

Now, we'll just play a little game.  Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Now, we’ll just play a little game.
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in “Images” — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in “TCDITP” Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche. Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis.  The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

"I'm not going to get under the covers or anything. I'll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it's all right. I want you to make love to me. Please." Sandy Dennis on the verge of something... That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography |  László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one. After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie.  The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick:

The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing.

Just because it says "Exit" doesn't mean it is a way out.  Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

A long neglected bit of cinematic magic has been saved by Olive Films. Do not miss it. Unlike the above mentioned films, this one is truly outstanding. There are really no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect.

Like Olive Films, Shout Factory has also done an amazing job of saving, restoring and re-distributing forgotten cinematic history. Unlike Olive Films, Shout Factory has a been more of a budget and access to more fully restore film. While far from being able to achieve what The Criterion Collection can, Shout Factory does great work. Perhaps their most important gift to Film Restoration is it’s recent release of Werner Herzog: The Collection. The set features 15 of the brilliant director’s best work. Thus far, Shout Factory has released 3 of those individually.

Their collection continue to grow. Thus far the films that they have restored and distributed that meant the most to me have been Cat People, Audition and The Herzog Collection. That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed other re-discoveries. Perhaps my most personal favorite film that Shout Factory rescued would be Lewis John Carlino’s much neglected and forgotten pretty mess of a movie, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.

Kris Kristofferson / Sarah Miles The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Kris Kristofferson / Sarah Miles
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Yukio Mishima’s exceptionally interesting, disturbing and thematic novel lost almost all of what makes it so brilliant when Lewis John Carlino adapted it for the screen in the mid-1970’s. It would be wrong to state that this film starring Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson is good. But it would be equally unfair to say that it holds no interest or merit. Carlino’s film is just strange enough to make it all interesting. Carlino’s interest in bringing Mishima’s book to the screen is limited to the perverse eroticism and sociopathic tendencies of the stepson. And, get ready. This is one of those “WTF” 1970’s Cinematic Moments.

Jonathan Kahn as the son and stepson to The Sailor has a few issues... The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Jonathan Kahn as the son and stepson to The Sailor has a few issues…
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Filmed in a “Vasoline Gauzed Haze” a loney and sex-starved widow/mother sits in isolation. She is unaware that her seemingly sweet son has drilled a peephole into her bedroom so that he can watch her. The son watches her masturbate as well as cry. Now, one would assume that the son is “getting-off” on this. But that is not necessarily the case. It is never clear.

Anne's son likes to watch.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Anne’s son likes to watch.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

When a tired and weary sailor meets “Mummy,” Sarah Miles falls immediately in love as does Kristofferson. At the time of the film’s release much to do was made over some infamous sex scenes between the two actors. Though, most of those scenes failed to make it into the movie, but went straight to Playboy Magazine for marketing.

The Sailor falls... Kris Kristoffers getting very personal with Sarah Miles The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The Sailor falls…
Kris Kristoffers getting very personal with Sarah Miles
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

But what a campaign it was! Interestingly, the eroticism remains running between Miles and Kristofferson, but their on-screen eroticism is not as bold as the following snaps from the movie that went to the cutting room floor to avoid an “X-Rating” — they served to promote the movie even today.

“Mummy’s” sweet son is troubled by the Sailor’s decision to abandon his life at sea to live with he and his mother. His level of cruelty as “the leader” of his band of fellow “enfant terrible” begins to even make his followers a bit nervous.

This is one poor little kitty who should make a run for it!  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

This is one poor little kitty who should make a run for it!
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The Sailor catches the sun watching him make love to his wife and the boy’s mother. Well, things just take a very twisted turn after this.

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson made the news with this infamous scene.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson made the news with this infamous scene.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The movie is a cinematic error. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work so well that it offers a sort of interesting appeal that almost slips into “camp” but instead loops itself into a decidedly sick and twisted cult movie. The sad thing about this film is that Yukio Mishima’s novel would make for an amazing film if the filmmaker were talented enough to translate/adapt it for the screen. The book is so dark and the themes so complex, it is doubtful any will attempt it.

AVCO Embassy Pictures did a great deal of cutting to secure an already-pushed R-Rating The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

AVCO Embassy Pictures did a great deal of cutting to secure an already-pushed R-Rating
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

As silly as the movie is, be warned that the depictions of animal cruelty and sexuality are fairly realistic/graphic. The actors do a fairly decent job. For most of us, however, the movie will neither shock or disturb us as much as it causes pause.

How in the world did this movie ever get made?!?!?

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson serve as specimens for voyeuristic interest and psychotic interests. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson serve as specimens for voyeuristic interest and psychotic interests.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

If we didn’t need further proof that 1970’s decade was truly odd era, Carlino’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel actually fit right into the cinematic syntax of it’s day.

I am currently working “covertly” and “off the grid” to help find another flawed but interestingly potent b-grade mishap from the World of Grind House Cinema.

I first saw this strange drive-in / grind house movie in 2005. I had been asked to view it as a potential for a film festival. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. The festival passed and last night I discovered that my “screening” DVD had died. Bummer. This movie is awesome and strange. The date of 1977 is incorrect. This film was actually shot in The Bay Area in the very early 70’s. It has been released under a number of times with different names. The original title was “The Seducers Deadly Game.” It found it’s way on double bills in NYC and LA between 1974 and 1975.

An odd venture into "Feminist" Fury is as flawed as it is interestingly brilliant.  Seymour Cassel, Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp  Death Game / The Seducers Deadly Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977/1974 Cinematography | David Worth

An odd venture into “Feminist” Fury is as flawed as it is interestingly brilliant.
Seymour Cassel, Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp
Death Game / The Seducers Deadly Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977/1974
Cinematography | David Worth

Eventually thanks to Sondre Locke’s fame as Clint Eastwood’s leading lady, it was released again in 1977 as Death Game. This is the name that stuck and it’s 1977 release was wide at drive-in’s across the nation. There are also several versions floating around out there. One is an edited 91 minutes in length. The other is the one I owned which runs at about 105 minutes.

You realize that this might be a strange movie as it begins with a title card warning that everything shows is completely true. But then the screen fills with some children’s artwork of family that feels a little “off” from the get-go. And a purposely annoying little sing-a-along song accompanies the credits.

The film stars Seymour Cassel as a father/husband/business man who has the house for the long weekend. All to himself, he decides to have a bit of fun. He lets it to “post-hippie-love-children” sex vixens played by the infamous Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp. Rule #1: if it is 1971/1972 and two hippie chicks knock at your door after sunset, don’t let them in.

Sadly, nobody taught Mr. Cassell Rule #1 for the early 1970’s.

Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

“Sorry to bother you, really. But we’re lost!”

It is important to point out that this screen caps are deeply lacking in value because the current copies available all suck. Amazon sells one, but it is shorter in length and fairly poor quality.

They seduce poor Seymour Cassel in hazy 3-way and then the sick/twisted games begin. Turns out our hot hippie vixens have more in common with Charles Manson than Rod McKuen. They also each have a bone to pick with men. And for better or worse Seymour Cassel comes to represent “Daddy” to both of them. Though, clearly adult women both claim to be minors and that he has raped them.

They quickly began calling him “Daddy.” They are out for sex, blood and major home invasion wreckage. They also decide to put “Daddy” on trial for all the horrible things men have done to not only them, but for all of woman kind. Their mock trail is as comically bad as it is rather disturbing. And much like The Sailor, Seymour’s cat attracts some very unwanted attention from these two crazy sisters with a grudge.

This sick movie is just wrong, but infectious. If you’re like me you will be hooked to the screen until you come to the movie’s equally odd thud of an ending.

The Official 1977 Movie Poster Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

The Official 1977 Movie Poster
Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

This movie was shot in 13 days with very limited audio-recording capabilities. The entire film had to be re-dubbed. The great Jack Fisk served as set designer and his wife, Sissy Spacek, is said to have had a hand in the costuming. She apparently declined to be in the movie. Seymour Cassel hated making this movie so much that he refused to show up and dub his lines. His lines are actually spoken by a member of the crew. The dubbing impact is annoying at first but it starts to take on a sort of Surrealistic vibe as the movie progresses. It is sort of like being dropped into a total nightmare.

The thing about “Death Game” / “The Seducers” is that it is impossible not to watch. It just keeps “one-up’ing” itself scene after scene. The movie is completely insane. If you get the opportunity, see it. Be warned, as silly as it all is — this is not a movie for all tastes. Heaps of inappropriate nudity, cruelty and violence. But seriously, this movie is so bad it becomes brilliant! I’d put it one notch above Roger Vadim’s also odd but big-budget “Pretty Maids all in A Row.” ...this is a major compliment.

"We find you Guilty!" Sondra Locke  Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

“We find you Guilty!”
Sondra Locke
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

I had the pleasure of asking Mr. Cassel if he would be willing to attend a screening and a have a “Q&A” with the midnight audience for a 2004 film festival. He was nice, but he quickly turned the offer down.

From my brief conversation with the great film actor, I gathered that Fisk/Spacek were involved in the production to raise some funds for a David Lynch project. Cassel could not remember, but I’ve always wondered if this was “Eraserhead‘ — much of which was actually shot in Fisk/Spaceks’ garage.

At any rate he also told me that he had been informed he would receive a script, but when he showed up the plan had been changed. The entire film was to be improvised by both Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp!  Improvising all of their lines under the guidance of the director, Mr. Cassel was to improvise toward their lead only. When it became clear that “sound” was not a logical expectation of this “off the grid” movie project, Mr. Cassel lost his patience. And who can blame him?

Clearly there was no love lost between this great actor and his two leading ladies and the film’s director. Mr. Cassel preferred to talk about Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek and David Lynch. Though, he couldn’t remember if Lynch was ever present at the messy shot in which an entire home was essentially destroyed. However I did push him a bit.

He was genuinely shocked to discover that the screening was expected to sell out and that this little film has a following as well as having served as the subject of more than a few Doctoral Theses.

What more evil things can we do?  Sondra Locke Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

What more evil things can we do?
Sondra Locke
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

The last thing he said to me was, “I don’t know, Kid. Go figure. Shocks the shit out of me.”  And then he just laughed.

The truth is we never really know how a work of art — no matter it’s intention or motivation — will age.

But Film Art is far too important for us individually as well as a culturally.

We should never dismiss anything too quickly.

Like Mr. Cassel, it may shock us, but we never really know — for 20 years at least.

Catherine Deneuve is watching, hunting and smoking hot The Hunger Tony Scott, 1973 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Catherine Deneuve is watching, hunting and smoking hot
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1973
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Matty Stanfield, 8.13.2015

Adversity’s sweet milk: philosophy.

"You want me to take you someplace dark?" Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“You want me to take you someplace dark?”
Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Abel Ferrara’s attempt at the vampire genre is blended with a surprisingly effective mix of visceral horror and philosophical meditation of humanity. Ferrara did not write the script for this film. It was written by Nicholas St. John, but it is easy to see what attracted him to the screenplay. Abel Ferrara’s approach to filmmaking as always been tied to his provocateur. If ever someone else’s words would lend them toward his cinematic motivation, it would be in St. John’s controversial re-visit to one of cinema’s most tired genres: The Vampire Movie.

The topic of vampires is metaphor and allegory from any vantage point. Ferrara was at the top of his game and obviously inspired when his 1995 film, The Addiction, slipped into Art Cinemas across the world. He had some major assistance in bringing the film to life. Ken Kelsch’s black and white cinematography is ideally-suited to what Ferrara is exploring. And the movie offers Lili Taylor, Annabella Sciorra, Christopher Walken and a pre-Sopranos/Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco with ample opportunities to display their individual skills.

"Dependency is a marvelous thing. It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctoral material." Lili Taylor The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“Dependency is a marvelous thing. It does more for the soul than any formulation of doctoral material.”
Lili Taylor
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Lili Taylor plays a profoundly dedicated and serious NYU Philosophy Major. She seems almost lost in her world of study save for one friend with whom she continually challenges her own ideas. She may have some connections to this person and her professors, but she is a loner. Even more than that, she is an intellectual alone in her complicated theories and thoughts.

She makes what appears to be a tragic mistake of running into Annabella Sciorra’s “Casanova” one night on a dark Manhattan street. This strange woman seems to emanate an erotic allure for Kathleen. When Casanova advices Kathleen to “order” her to go away, Kathleen, while clearly frightened, is far too intrigued is follow this beautiful Femme Fatale’s advice. Casanova attacks her. This attack is executed with a sort of clumsy, messy and animalistic attack of a feral vampire.

"We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we're sinners." Annabella Sciorra "feeds" on Lili Taylor  The Addiction Able Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners.”
Annabella Sciorra “feeds” on Lili Taylor
The Addiction
Able Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

But this is only temporary. Casanova may not be quite as deep as the other characters in this morbidly fascinating film, but she is not stupid. She offers Kathleen advice, but this is one victim who is far too pre-occupied with the application of philosophy and her own personal theoretical ideas to actually accept guidance freely.

Thus Abel Ferrara pulls us into his odd, unsettling and controversial Vampire Movie. Kathleen begins to turn into what we can only determine is a vampire.

Turning into a vampire within the limitations and endless theories of academic philosophy The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Turning into a vampire within the limitations and endless theories of academic philosophy
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Repulsive acts of horror begin and culminate to an orchestrated “event” in which academics and fellow students gather together to celebrate a graduation quickly turns into an orgiastic vampire’s delight. It isn’t so much that the violence is particularly any more graphic than what one would expect, but via the careful manipulation of post-production sound and editing — it all takes on a disturbing turn toward gore.

But we have a great deal to sort though as we follow Kathleen toward her academic graduation and her ultimate transformation into The Un-human Vampire she seems destined to become.

As Kathleen and her one pal, Jean, approach the end of their academic careers — they are immersed in studying devastating acts of human cruelty and atrocity. Naturally, this sort of study leads them into a dense study of The Holocaust.

Kathleen is already slipping toward the edge of subversive theory when she attempts to encage Jean in a disturbing viewpoint of Hitler, his Nazis, Germany and the many who fell victim to his insane manipulation of an ailing culture and economy into a personification of genocide and hate.

Kathleen offers ideology in the form of debate to her friend. An ideology that is not just subversive - it borders on the insane.  Lili Taylor / Edie Falco The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Kathleen offers ideology in the form of debate to her friend. An ideology that is not just subversive – it borders on the insane.
Lili Taylor / Edie Falco
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Kathleen pushes a discussion of War Criminals into the form of debate.

It was the whole country. They were all guilty. How can you single out one man?

Jean, played by Edie Falco, tries to apply logic and reason to her friend, “Well, you can’t jail a whole country, you know. They needed a scapegoat. He was the unlucky one who got caught.

No, I don’t think luck had anything to do with it. I mean, how did he get over there? Who put the gun in his hand? They say that he was guilty of killing women and babies. How many bombs were dropped that did the exact same thing? How many homes were destroyed? And who’s in, who’s in jail for that?

Jean shakes off Kathleen’s ideology with a shrug of frustration and indifference.

As Kathleen’s wounds from her attack begin to “re-shape” and transform her from human — She does not seem to view Jean as a walking blood sack. Instead, she continues to rationalize the unrationable. Is she attempting to gain insight into her physiological destiny or is she trying to hold on to her one truly human contact?

It isn’t clear, but Jean is clearly not interested in this insanely cruel level of engagement. While worried for her friend’s health, she is equally concerned about her use of ideology.

The old adage from Santayana, that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is a lie. There is no history. Everything we are is eternally with us." Shady theories from what increasingly seems like a creepy version of her friend. Jean simply focuses on her own work.  Lili Taylor / Edie Falco The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

The old adage from Santayana, that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is a lie. There is no history. Everything we are is eternally with us.”
Shady theories from what increasingly seems like a creepy version of her friend. Jean simply focuses on her own work.
Lili Taylor / Edie Falco
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

This is not your traditional “horror film” by any standard. And it is certainly not your typical vampire genre movie. In Able Ferrara’s film the vampiric attacks are animalistic, cold and methodical. There are very few “boo” moments. Actually, there really are none of those to be found.

The film’s true concern is the ways in which Kathleen (and maybe Ferrara) apply philosophy, history and intellectualism upon her own victims. These ideas are grounded in a skewed sort of logic that offers Ferrara’s provocative movie an “out.” One could state that Ferrara is offering his own screwed-up ideologies or defend the film’s subversive rationale as a manifestation of Kathleen’s insanely animal-like urge for blood and torture. But as the film leads us to it’s almost depraved operatic crescendo of vampire sadism, it would be difficult to accept any of these off-skewed pseudo-intellectual theories as serious. However, it is difficult to forgive even the articulation of these “self-intended victims” theoretical ramblings. They are so artfully presented that it is worrying.

"You think hell shuts down after a couple of years? You think what you've done isn't, isn't floating around somewhere in space? What makes you think you've been forgiven for lying to your mother as a child, huh? Or of having slept with married men in adultery or paying taxes that turn Central America into a mud puddle, huh?" Lili Taylor ideas are relegated to her spectre-like appearance. No one is really listening. The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

“You think hell shuts down after a couple of years? You think what you’ve done isn’t, isn’t floating around somewhere in space? What makes you think you’ve been forgiven for lying to your mother as a child, huh? Or of having slept with married men in adultery or paying taxes that turn Central America into a mud puddle, huh?”
Lili Taylor ideas are relegated to her spectre-like appearance. No one is really listening.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Wether or not Ferrara’s vampires are immortal is never fully discussed. But we know that they are essentially “dead” as they began to prey upon victims. It is actually more of moral and ethical degradation to vampirism than a traditional “rebirth” to immortality. For these vampires blood is less a desire or requirement than it is an addiction. Could these monsters stop preying on human blood if they tried? Or is the “fix” more desirable than rehabilitation. This question is addressed when Christopher Walken’s character enters Kathleen’s world.

You know how long I’ve been fasting? Forty years. The last time I shot up, I had a dozen and a half in one night. They fall like flies before the hunger, don’t they? You can never get enough, can you? But you learn to control it. You learn, like the Tibetans, to survive on a little.

Peina offers an alternative to Kathleen. She does not have to be a cruel animal. She can be saved from the evil of nothing to the possibility of creating an existence which offers more than depending upon the blood of “innocents.”  Pena has turned his back on blood lust and cruelty. He abstains and claims that he is almost once again human. He attempts to persuade Kathleen to let him help her overcome her addiction.

It is a wasted effort.

I'm not like you. You're nothing. That's something you ought not to forget. You're not a person. You're nothing."  Christopher Walken as Peina, A Vampire Redeemed and Recovering from his addiction to blood. His choice to abstain repulses Kathleen.  The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

I’m not like you. You’re nothing. That’s something you ought not to forget. You’re not a person. You’re nothing.”
Christopher Walken as Peina, A Vampire Redeemed and Recovering from his addiction to blood. His choice to abstain repulses Kathleen.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Before Kathleen abandons all possibility of what she views as Peina’s denial of true identity, purpose and superiority, he offers her words of warning. “The entire world’s a graveyard, and we, the birds of prey picking at the bones. That’s all we are. We’re the ones who let the dying know the hour has come.” She is merely curious about this viewpoint than concerned with applying it. To the “recovering” vampire, Kathleen and all the others are nothing. They are evil and pointless. To Peina this is the same as being nothing of importance. But to Kathleen this is just “assimilation” to a lower order.

As she “de-evolves” to a blood-addict vampire, she begins to see the cruelty of human history as a tool to explain away her own guilt. Like the other vampires we see and meet, Kathleen begins to blame her victims rather herself. She seems to reject that idea that there was any supernatural aura or erotic allure projected by Casanova. She actualizes herself and her attacker as her destiny. Also due to the way in which Ferrara films it, it may not have been a spell or aura at all. It very well might have been Kathleen’s latent homosexual desire that prevented her from ordering her vampire to leave.

In one key scene Kathleen watches one of her victims, an Anthropology Major, accessing the damage Kathleen has inflicted. The young woman is in torment, pain and fear, she searches for words. “Look what you’ve done to me! How could you do this? Doesn’t this affect you at all?

Lili Taylor ponders her latest victim's fear as she examines the first bit of damage Kathleen has done.  The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Lili Taylor ponders her latest victim’s fear as she examines the first bit of damage Kathleen has done.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

In a brilliant turn of acting, Lili Taylor’s Kathleen re-asses her vile attack along with her victim. With a cold, icey and superior tone she tells the soon to be dead victim, “No. It was your decision. Your friend Feuerbach wrote that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It’s your astonishment that needs studying.”

And as Kathleen fully succumbs to her new found identity of a Vampire, she is a last able to apply her perverse theories regarding human cruelty to a logical conclusion: The “Victims” are no more than stupid beings too dim-witted to fight back or simply order their “Victimizers” away. Kathleen has found an excuse for her bad behavior. Her unforgiving acts of atrocities are “essential” and she is now free to fall into a full-on self-deception of her addiction.

Kathleen's ghoulish appearance is fully covered in make-up as she prepares to thank her teachers and colleagues at a graduating gathering.  The Addiction Able Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Kathleen’s ghoulish appearance is fully covered in make-up as she prepares to thank her teachers and colleagues at a graduating gathering.
The Addiction
Able Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Our astutely deluded vampire will admit that her addiction might be considered “evil” by some.  But she theorizes a forgiving ideology for drug of choice, blood. “The propensity for this ‘evil’ lies in our weakness before it. Kierkegaard was right – there is an awful precipice before us. But he was wrong about the leap – there’s a difference between jumping and being pushed. You reach a point where you are forced to face your own needs, and the fact that you can’t terminate the situation settles on you with full force.”

A junkie with a theory for her practice, Kathleen is confident in her pursuit of victims and their blood. She presents a newly re-freshed, sexy and confident young woman. Her ghoulish and deathly-appearance is gone. She only pauses for a few seconds to look at her once true friend, Jean. She is willing to accept compliments and credit “make-up” and “healing” for her new and improved look.

Once again to Lili Taylor’s credit, she doesn’t need dialog to inform us that it is not “make-up” or “medicine” that have given her a sensual and beautiful glow. It is the blood of her pitiful victims. Just before Kathleen and her fellow vampires turn a human celebration into an act of unbridled carnage and horror, she teasingly informs her “friends” and “esteemed professors” that she would like to share a bit of what she has learned.

Esteemed professors, my fellow colleagues and friends -- Thank you for what you are about to give us. The Addiction Abel Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

Esteemed professors, my fellow colleagues and friends — Thank you for what you are about to give us.
The Addiction
Abel Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

A blood-soaked orgy of Biblical proportions sets fourth. It is a relief that Ken Kelsch has shot the film in black and white.

At the end of the day, Able Ferrara’s The Addiction forms a disturbing nihilistic viewpoint of human history and defeating the cravings of addictions. This viewpoint is clearly an act of provocation. Ferrara is far too smart to not understand the implications and deeply problematic ideas that spring forth from this perverse ideology.

I would not want to know a person who isn’t offended by aspects of this film, but I would be equally bored by an individual who would casually dismiss the film itself.

This is a masterfully crafted and intended provocation. The intent is not clear, but the viewer is left to think about what has been shown. It is The Addiction‘s intentional vibe that haunts and worries long after the film has ended.

A victim attempts to hide in a chimney as The Vampires quench their far more than their need. She is about to supply the fix that is required.  The Addiction Able Ferrara, 1995 Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

A victim attempts to hide in a chimney as The Vampires quench their far more than their need. She is about to supply the fix that is required.
The Addiction
Able Ferrara, 1995
Cinematography | Ken Kelsch

The closing line of this incredibly disturbing film is:

To face what we are in the end, we stand before the light and our true nature is revealed. Self-revelation is annihilation of self.”

One part Vampire Movie, one part Intellectualism and two parts examinations of how addictions form and alter us, The Addiction refuses to slink away into the dark corner of cinema. It demands your attention and requires your thoughts.

Matty Stanfield, 8.2.2015

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.