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I’ve been moving from coast to coast since I graduated university. No matter how many times I’ve moved over the course of my adult life, my journals have followed. Last time I moved they accounted for 4 boxes. Now I suspect it would take up to 8. After some soul searching, I rid myself of all those hand written documents. But I did take a last look at my 25 years of existential scrawling. Over the course of 6 months I reviewed all of my self-reflections. I came to the conclusion that my life took a positive but harrowing turn when I was 8 years old. This turn took place in 1975. My 8 year old self took a determined stand against my father and everything changed. I find it interesting that such a powerful moment in my assertion of self is so eclipsed by art and one profound realization about the world.

"Love will keep us together..." Captain & Tennille, 1975

“Love will keep us together…”
Captain & Tennille, 1975

I guess I should have known better.  I was eight years old, but I was still somehow too innocent. I can remember waiting with anticipation for the arrival of  The Sea-Monkey Aquarium package. I know I was eight because I had been working out my plan to get myself into the cinema to see Tommy which was due to open in our town before summer had even begun. It was 1975.  Jaws was playing at the movies and Captain & Tennilles’ Love Will Keep Us Together was always on the radio. My Grandmother had helped me place my Sea Monkeys order shortly after Christmas.

"Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia" But no one pointed out the fine print to me!

“Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia”
But no one pointed out the fine print to me! By the way, this image is dated 1978, but I got mine in 1975.

I had carefully cleaned a pickle jar, filled it with water and emptied the contents of my Sea Monkey “seeds” expecting to watch whole families of Amazing Life swimming about. They would me my pets! Not like my father’s mean little poodle that had once upon a time been intended for me. These Sea Monkeys would be my friends and my amazing pets!

Oh, for the promise of Sea Monkeys...

Oh, for the promise of Sea Monkeys…

I did eventually notice little specs moving about the jar. My Grandmother’s magnifying glass revealed surprisingly little of these highly uninteresting floating things. There was nothing amazing to be seen.

I think these are brine shrimp.

I was far too embarrassed to admit that I had expected to see multiple happy families just like the advert promised.

You didn’t think they were going to look like the cartoon, did you?

I wanted to say, “Yes, I did.” Instead I said something to the effect that I thought that Sea Monkeys would at least be fun to watch. These lifeless brine shrimp seemed to just float on the top of the water.

Artemia captured in motion for YouTube. The image seems magnified to what I saw in my pickle jar.

Artemia captured in motion for YouTube. The image seems magnified to what I saw in my pickle jar.

I had followed the directions very carefully, but it seemed like the very un-Amazing and practically microscopic brine shrimp were far from being Sea Monkeys.  I was also fairly certain they were already dead. A knotted feeling gripped my stomach as I poured the contents of my pickle jar into the toilet and flushed. Sea Monkeys had only yielded disappointment. Yet there were far darker realizations that took place in my 8th year of life. However the true realizations were  obscured by memories of movies and music.

My father was crazy. I am sure some who read this will think I’m exaggerating but the dude was nuts.

The man who put me through hell was buried six feet under a long while ago. I always thought his absence would bring me peace, but the truth is there are only more things I wish I could say to him. Only more questions I would like to ask. I doubt I would, but it would be nice to have the opportunity.

I do miss him. It would be a massive understatement to write that he had a twisted sense of humor. He was a complete character and a mound of eccentricities balanced on cowboy boots. While almost everything he left me has caused pain, he did gift me with the love of movies. It was a gift delivered in a sadistic manner, but I credit him all the same.

"Take a trip into terror!" One of many amazing films I saw on the adult side of our town's Drive-In. I saw this there in 1975. SISTERS Brian De Palma, 1973

“Take a trip into terror!”
One of many amazing films I saw on the adult side of our town’s Drive-In. I saw this there in 1975.
SISTERS
Brian De Palma, 1973

 

My father had no true sense of the appropriate. Not too long after I drew my line in the sand, he began to take me with him to the movies. He either had no sense or did not care about the content of a movie being inappropriate for a child and movie rating restrictions were always ignored. My mother did not like going to movies much and he did not like going alone. I think I became his movie pal. I sometimes wonder if this all wasn’t possibly an intentional toe over my blood marked line.

It was made clear that I was never to discuss the movies we saw with my mother or Grandmother. Most of these screenings were framed within the context of a shared secret. I did not mind. In fact, I loved going to the movies. Like any kid, I especially loved being able to see the movies that were forbidden to my school friends. My mother would have never allowed me to see most of these movies. However by the time I was 10 years old, she wasn’t too restrictive with me regarding movies. Her concern regarding the warning of the movie rating system seemed to only flare when a film contained a lot of sex. However if I articulated the desire to see a movie I could usually secure her buy in.

"Take her to the prom. I dare you!" Released in 1976, but I saw it in 1977. CARRIE Brian De Palma, 1976

“Take her to the prom. I dare you!”
Released in 1976, but I saw it in 1977.
CARRIE
Brian De Palma, 1976

By 1977 my mother’s own situation had become quite complex. I suspect it was a bit of a relief to drop me off to see Saturday Night Fever or The Rose.  I would usually end up alone at the two screened cinema and would end up sneaking in to see the move playing in the other cinema. This was how I saw Carrie in addition to Network. I know that my mother would have been very concerned had she been aware. Most especially when I was 8 or 9. Actually she would have been very concerned when I was 10. I just don’t think she had the time or the emotional ability to be to actually question or be aware. However, that is another topic. The only self-aware problem I encountered with our Father/Son movie outings was that I quite often did not understand much of what we saw. And he was never interested in explaining anything.

Back in the 1970’s movies never really seemed to have gone out of distribution. It is my impression that distributors just kept a lot of them in circulation to not only Grindhouse cinemas and Drive-In’s, but in pretty much all movie houses outside of major cities across the Americas. I remember thinking that the poster for the other two movies on the first screen looked more interesting, but we were not seeing those. My father considered the two that interested me to be dull. I usually fell asleep by the time the second feature began anyway. I remember Sisters fairly well. The whole movie confused me from beginning to end. It would be years later before I finally saw it as a young teen on VHS.

Like many of the movies we saw, they drifted through my head in confusing ways. Did that really happen in the movie? Why was she taking her clothes off in front of a guy? Was she blind? Were there two of her? Why did the other lady seem to be one of them? It would be well into the 80’s before these questions were answered.

I'm certain I was not the only child to be taken to see this. Swimming at the beach or even in pools would never be the same. JAWS Steven Spielberg, 1975

I’m certain I was not the only child to be taken to see this. Swimming at the beach or even in pools would never be the same.
JAWS
Steven Spielberg, 1975

 

We saw Jaws as a family unit. I saw the giant shark movie with my parents in our town’s nicer cinema. It was a shared terrifying experience. Unlike many of the movies I saw, most of my friends saw Jaws as well. It wasn’t just because I was a kid that this movie altered my perception of Fun-In-The-Sun. I think this film impacted culture ’round the world. Going for a swim would never be the same. The only fears that seemed to be unique to me was that I was convinced that my father had rigged our toilet and bathtub to drop me into The Gulf where sharks waited to kill me in the most painful ways possible.

Like a lot of kids, I was obsessed with Jaws and I taught myself to draw the iconic poster image. I don’t think I’m dreaming — we had a single of this movie’s theme song and I played that 45 rpm a lot! Unlike most of the kids I knew, my obsession came to end when I learned of another movie that was promoted as Coming Soon.

It was a movie that somehow captured my entire being.

 

"Your senses will never be the same..." TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975

“Your senses will never be the same…”
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975

 

I am fairly certain I become aware of Ken Russell’s Tommy because of preview I saw at the Drive-In and some odd photographs I noticed in my Grandmother’s copy of People Magazine. I remember knowing that it was Ann-Margret was on the cover. I am so certain of this that I would swear in a court of law. I recall a mention of it regarding Elton John on one of my Grandmother’s favorite talk shows. Did I see that on Dinah! or The Michael Douglas Show? Of this I am unsure, but one thing is solidly real: I had never seen or heard anything quite Tommy the movie. It just looked so incredibly cool and strange to me. And I knew the lyrics to Elton John’s version of Pinball Wizard within hours of having heard it on the radio.

"But I ain't seen nothing like him in any amusement hall. That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!" Note: I have never seen this particular single. I found it on The Internet! Elton John Pinball Wizard Limited Edition 7" single, 1975

“But I ain’t seen nothing like him in any amusement hall. That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!”
Note: I have never seen this particular single. I found it on The Internet!
Elton John
Pinball Wizard Limited Edition 7″ single, 1975

 

I immediately received push-back from all three of the adults in my life. Not even my father was willing to take me to see Tommy. And even though my mother had a couple of Elton John 8-Track Tapes and a Who LP, she was not interested and didn’t felt it unsuitable for a child to see. Initially she could not understand why I would even want to see it.

I just don’t understand why you like that Streisand lady, this weird movie or that ugly Patti Smith band!

My father dismissed my request because it looked like “hippie shit.” I attempted to lie and claimed that Ann-Margret was probably “totally naked!” in it. This did not change his opinion. What is interesting is that my longest pitch to my father was delivered as he parked his mammoth car in the field of the Drive-In to see one of the most notoriously shocking movies of the day.

We saw The Exorcist and a second “weird” movie called Beyond The Door. The lady inside the ticket booth saw me at me seated in the car. She asked my father if he knew that these were R-rated movies and not intended for children. He told her to calm down sell him the ticket. I was curious why we were seeing The Exorcist as I knew that he and Mom had seen it before. It had really bothered my mother and he hadn’t seemed all that impressed. The only answer I got was that he liked the movie. I remember being excited to see something I had heard so many people discuss. I had also been fascinated by the cover of my parents’ copy of the novel.

 

"Mother! Make it stop!" THE EXORCIST William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Mother! Make it stop!”
THE EXORCIST
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

I am not trying to defend my father’s taking me to see these two movies, but neither of these movie bothered or scared me as a childMy understanding of religion was somewhat limited. I had seen a crucifix, but at that time in my life I really did not fully understand what it was. My mother had given me a tiny bible when I was about 5 years old, but Jesus looked like a number of cool rock stars. I had been taught to say a prayer before I went to sleep, but this was a perfunctory requirement. I knew the story of Easter and Christmas, but neither meant anything to me. I just liked the candy and wished for certain gifts. Anyway, the only scene in The Exorcist that freaked me out was when Linda Blair began to spout profanity and repeatedly “stabbed” herself with a crucifix. I wasn’t sure what to call the cross with Jesus on it. I do not think I really understood what it was. While I  did have an understanding of human genitalia, I obviously did not fully grasp it.

What is she doing?

Why isn’t she dead?

“Is that the same kid?”

What is that she is stabbing herself with?

“How can she spin her head all the way around?” 

“Is it making the furniture move?”

I do not remember my father answering any of my questions. I do know that he was very quiet for the entirety of movie. As per usual he left the car a couple of times. Was he going to use a bathroom? He seemed like a zombie throughout both screenings.

"The most terrifying event in the history of mankind is about to occur!" Beyond The Door 1974

“The most terrifying event in the history of mankind is about to occur!”
Beyond The Door
1974

I remember thinking he was asleep during Beyond The Door. But he wasn’t snoring and when I poked him he turned to me and said I needed to shut up and leave him alone. The only thing I recall about Beyond The Door is the poster. I did think it looked promising. It still amuses me as an adult. The poster that is. I think the scariest aspect these two movies at that time was the music used in both and the way my father was acting throughout each of them. From an adult perspective the latter was easily the more worrying concern. And I do recall that it was a creepy drive home. It must have been because I still remember it so well.

My world began to open around this time. I had long been attempting to assert my own tastes, but it was 1975  I began to embrace mainstream culture as my own. When my older cousin introduced me to Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Grand Funk — I loved what I heard. It was at this time that the idea of a band being called Grand Funk seemed so grown-up and cool. I know it wasn’t a new song at the time, but I took great pride when I selected this single as my father purchased a Willie Nelson album. Upon reflection his purchase was wiser, but I still enjoy the groove of Grand Funk’s take on The Loco-Motion.

"Everybody's doing a brand-new dance, now..." My first cool 45 rpm single! The Loco Motion Grand Funk, 1974

“Everybody’s doing a brand-new dance, now…”
My first 45 rpm single!
The Loco Motion
Grand Funk, 1974

My mother liked popular music and she was already leaning into what seems like disco. I liked that stuff as well. I don’t know if it was actually called disco, but ABBA and The O’Jays seemed cool to me. Though, when I compared LP or 8-Track Tape covers, ABBA, The O’Jays and The Captain & Tennille did not look or sound nearly as cool as Grand Funk, Led Zeppelin or The Who.

Our neighbor had a daughter who was 4 years my senior. I thought her the ultimate in cool for a long time. I drove her crazy, but I suspect I also made her feel important. She would “borrow” record albums from her older siblings. One afternoon I was boasting of owning the Grand Funk single when she told me to wait a few minutes. She left me leaning on a tree, but she returned with an album that totally zapped me into a whole new universe.

"It's only teenage wasteland." The Who Who's Next? 1971

“It’s only teenage wasteland.”
The Who
Who’s Next? 1971

 

Who’s Next sounded completely alien to anything I had ever heard at that point. The music felt like hard rock but it had a booming sort of wired sound. The lead singer sang as if every lyric meant everything to him. And the cover seemed so “dirty” that I agreed with my neighbor.

The Who were far cooler than Grand Funk. In fact they were even cooler than Queen who I had only just discovered. It would be a while before I actually owned the Who’s Next album.

 

"Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters..." Queen Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975

“Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters…”
Queen
Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975

It was also my cool neighbor who saw Tommy on its opening night. She explained the movie to me scene by scene. I was mesmerized by the idea of Elton John in giant shoes, a TV that spewed Pork & Beans and Tina Turner injecting Tommy with new blood.

(this was how she explained it)

I put my campaign to see Tommy into full running force. It was literally all I talked about when I was around my family unit. My father ignored me. My mother begged me to stop. My Grandmother said that she would take me if only my mother would allow her. (Um, my Grandmother’s comment was not true. She just liked to blame all bad things on my poor, confused and often unplugged mother)

The following weekend after my 12 year old neighbor had laid out the entire plot of Tommy I found myself alone in the car at the Drive-In.

When my father returned to the car he handed me a soda. I had been plugging away with my “I must see Tommy!” assault. I started into it again as the previews began.

That is not the kind of movie that a son of mine should see!

A different kind of X... Iisa: She Wolf of the SS 1975

A different kind of X…
Iisa: She Wolf of the SS
1975

 

 

Cue the first reel of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. I was not frightened by what I saw but I was most certainly shocked. I am not positive that this was an X-rated movie, but it should have been. I had seen violent films, but this one took things to a whole new level. I knew more about Nazis than a crucifix. Nazis were more than just bad, they were evil. And Ilsa was really bad!

I should point out that I have never been able to look away from anything on a screen once a scene starts. I am compelled to watch.

I would not have known the words “fetish” or “grindhouse” but this was most certainly Nazi Torture Porn playing to the lowest human denominator. I don’t know, maybe it would seem camp to me now, but back then I was shocked. I’ve avoided ever seeing this movie again.

My father’s eyes never left the screen except for when he would leave the car. It is probably better that I never figured out what he was doing when he left our car. But he was once again like a zombie. I remember thinking that I should point out that I didn’t think Tommy was as dirty as Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS but my gut warned me not to speak as we drove home.

 

You know, I'd swear her copy was on an orange tape... "Well you came and you gave without taking." Barry Manilow II

You know, I’d swear her copy was on an orange tape…
“Well you came and you gave without taking.”
Barry Manilow II

 

By this time Tommy had been playing for close to 3 weeks. It was a hit. Back then movies seldom played in my town for more than two weeks. It had been held over for 4 weeks!  My mother was wearing down. She agreed to buy me the soundtrack album – a 2 LP set with a gate fold cover!!!

We drove to a record store. I roamed all over looking for my 2 LP set. I was having no luck. Mom approached carrying her planned purchase: an 8 Track Tape of a Barry Manilow album that contained a song she liked. She consulted with the guy at the counter: they only had the Tommy soundtrack on 8 Track Tape. That was not going to work. I had to have the album in LP format with the gate fold art!

 

Inside the gate fold... TOMMY: The Movie Soundtrack, 1975

Inside the gate fold…
TOMMY: The Movie Soundtrack, 1975

 

Exasperated she called me a spoiled brat, bought her tape and didn’t speak to me until Barry had finished crooning “Mandy” which amazingly was not broken apart by one of the 4 channels of the tape. (8-Track-Tapes were really strange!)

We were already almost home when she told me that we would go to the mall the next day if I would stop talking about the movie.

Maybe I was a spoiled brat. I told her that she had to take me to get the record and that I couldn’t stop talking about the movie unless she took me to see it.  She gave in and turned the car around bound for K-Mart. They had the album. At least the first part of the battle was won!

"Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste." Don Johnson and his talking dog A Boy and His Dog L.Q. Jones, 1975 Cinematography | John Arthur Morrill

“Well, I’d certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste.”
Don Johnson and his talking dog
A Boy and His Dog
L.Q. Jones, 1975
Cinematography | John Arthur Morrill

 

I was not taken to see Benji like my other friends. For that matter I didn’t get to see The Apple Dumpling Gang. However I was always the coolest kid at school because I got to see the movies that the other kids could only think about! The downside was that some of these movies were simply unknown to the other kids and I couldn’t even articulate what I had seen. I did get to see a movie that featured a cute dog, but  A Man and His Dog was one of those movies that made no sense to my child brain. I had a hard time following this film. My father did point something out to me what I didn’t catch on my own: the boy and his dog ate the girl.

The second feature on this double bill was the only movie that actually upset me:  The Last House on the Left.

I should have been too young to understand much of what was going down on the screen, but this time I did understand. As per usual, my father was dazed out — but this time I was terrified.

I do not remember the ride home. It would take me a couple of decades to revisit Wes Craven’s notorious film.

 

"I thought you were supposed to be the love generation." The Last House on the Left Wes Craven, 1972 Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

“I thought you were supposed to be the love generation.”
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, 1972
Cinematography | Victor Hurwitz

It would be a long time before I made any connection to why Tommy and the respective soundtrack album resonated so deeply for me. It was all I listened to at this time in my life. I loved side 2 on record 1 the most. By this time we were headed to summer. It was getting really hot. My father took me to a twin cinema instead of the Drive-In. We saw Hal Ashby’s Shampoo.

Yet another film I failed to understand. It is funny thinking back to this as Shampoo a movie with which I’ve had to spend a good deal of time. I love it now, but at 8 years old I just wanted to be sure I understood what a “cock” was and why did the pretty lady want to suck one. My question caused a spasm of laughter throughout the cinema. It also led to a well-intentioned woman attempting to lecture my father for having taken a “little boy” to “such a movie.”

What is that and why does she want to suck it? Julie Christie and Warren Beatty Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975 Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

What is that and why does she want to suck it?
Julie Christie and Warren Beatty
Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975
Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

He had to stop and let her correct him. He was a polite, “Well Lady, you are here seeing it so I guess it can’t be that bad?

As for me I had moved to the other side of the cinema’s lobby. I was studying the poster for movie that was playing in Cinema One. The strange doubled image of Roger Daltrey wearing the Blind Deaf & Dumb contraption was like a beacon to me. I could hear Jack Nicholson attempting to sing as I looked. Before we had even reached the car I was advised I would not be seeing “that fucking movie!

Just two days before it closed I did get to see Tommy.

"Gather your wits and hold on fast, Your mind must learn to roam." Tina Turner is The Acid Queen TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Gather your wits and hold on fast,
Your mind must learn to roam.”
Tina Turner is The Acid Queen
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

Drugs as a way to escape the pain. "I'll tear your soul apart..." Roger Daltrey TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Drugs as a way to escape the pain.
“I’ll tear your soul apart…”
Roger Daltrey
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

The coolest platform shoes on record... Elton John is The Pinball Wizard TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

The coolest platform shoes on record…
Elton John is The Pinball Wizard
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

Tommy studies his splintered selves as his mother worries and his step father calculates things to his advantage. Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey and Oliver Reed TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Tommy studies his splintered selves as his mother worries and his step father calculates things to his advantage.
Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey and Oliver Reed
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

I finally got to see the movie thanks to my mother. I didn’t really understand all that I saw.

Why was his mother working with all those women? What is a “Holiday Camp?” Is that like a Marilyn Monroe church? Why is Tina Turner taking out blood and shooting more in? What is a “Pinball Wizard” anyway? Why do all those people want to be “Blind, Deaf and Dumb?”

I did understand a couple of things. I understood that Tommy was trapped. I understood that he was trying to escape pain. I understood what Uncle Ernie was doing — and I was relieved it was treated comically. Interestingly, I did not  connect the film to myself. That understanding would dawn much later.  But the great music, camera work and consistently strange set designs took hold of me from first image and sound until the end credit cards hit the screen.

Tommy was completely unique to anything I had ever seen. The same was true for the rest of the audience.

Even in a small Texas town, the kids were totally into what Ken Russell was showing. My neighbor pointed out that her boyfriend had gotten stoned and watched it four times. I wasn’t sure I understood what she was talking about, but there was a strange aroma coming from a few odd cigarettes being shared in the audience.

But all of this aside, it is interesting how strongly this move held me in its grip. This was my Star Wars. This film was speaking to me.

"It out-Tommy's TOMMY!" Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975

“It out-Tommy’s TOMMY!”
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975

 

Not too long after I finally saw Tommy, my father took me to another movie. There was a big movie theatre in our town to which we seldom went. It was not in the best part of our town though it was fairly close to the college. It tended to get older movies that were probably too sophisticated for my father’s taste. He would end up taking me to see three movies there. The first movie we saw there was in 1975. The other two we would see there would be during the period my parents were divorced. Those two movies were also wildly inappropriate for a child to see: Dressed To Kill and Cruising.

But in 1975 my father was swayed to another rock musical staring The Who’s Roger Daltrey: Lisztomania.

 

Franz Liszt becomes "inspired." Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Franz Liszt becomes “inspired.”
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

 

The reason he was swayed? A Playboy Magazine pictorial promoting the movie as an erotic filled fantasy. Of course this would propel my father to take his 8 year old child to see it. I was thrilled and excited to see Lisztomania. I was already becoming a bit of cinephile. I recognized Ken Russell’s name. I saw that the movie poster referenced Tommy. And I also recognized Ringo Starr and Rick Wakemans’ names.

 

Ringo Starr is The Pope Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Ringo Starr is The Pope
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

 

I doubt I would have even known about this movie if my father had not taken me to see it. I had seen the soundtrack LP, but had not been able to get near enough to understand what it was. I had recognized Roger Daltrey on its cover, but I don’t think I was aware that it was a movie soundtrack.

"The Soundtrack Album of the Ken Russell Film" Lisztomania 1975

“The Soundtrack Album of the Ken Russell Film”
Lisztomania
1975

I used to study the movie section of the city newspaper. I remember that Lisztomania closed after 3 days. I didn’t understand it was based on historical facts. I had not heard of Franz Liszt. I knew of the Pope, but I didn’t really understand what he did. I was fascinated by the film’s visuals and the strange mix of music. I knew who Hitler was, but I didn’t understand why he showed up. The whole movie was like a dirty cartoon. I loved it. And I wanted Roger Daltrey’s boots.

As we left the theater my father was not zombie like at all. He was annoyed. I tried to ask him some questions, but all he wanted to do was complain about “hippie bullshit” and that there “was no sexy stuff” in it. As he drove onto the highway I did ask him something that was bothering me:

Why was it OK for me to see that but not OK for me to see Tommy?

To my surprise he actually answered me.

I didn’t want to see Tommy.

"That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball." Elton John TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.”
Elton John
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

 

I owe my knowledge and love of cinema to my father, but it was at this moment that I realized it was never about me. These were not movies we were seeing together — these were movies he wanted to see and I was being taken along for the ride. Ten years later he asked me to go to Houston with him to see a movie. I agreed. Turned out it was a foreign film I had wanted to see. He slept through the entire film. I found it somehow touching that he was attempting to somehow connect with me by taking me to see a movie I wanted to see. As we left the cinema I was about to thank him when it turned out we were actually in Houston so he could meet up with a seller regarding some guns he wanted to buy. I was needed to load the car and figured a movie was a good way to kill time and avoid rush hour traffic.

Glad you wanted to see it, though. I didn’t much care for it.

Perhaps I owe more credit to my love of film and my endless pursuit to understand the whole “picture” to Ken Russell. It was Lisztomania that propelled me to look into classical music and history. Tommy had also led me to find more of his films once the age of VHS began. I read interviews with Mr. Russell that pointed me toward other filmmakers like John Ford, Nicolas Roeg and others. But I would have never been connected to the world of movies had it not been for my insane father.

Do you think it's alright? Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margret search for saving grace... TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Do you think it’s alright?
Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margret search for saving grace…
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

I destroyed the last of my journals yesterday. As I watched them denigrate I was brought back to the moment I flushed the disappointment of Sea Monkeys away. After the water had pushed the brine shrimp from my life, I took the empty pickle jar for a walk past our back yard. I raced down and up the other side of the ditch to the railroad tracks. I sat the pickle jar on a track. I ran down and back up to return to our side of the ditch. I crouched down and waited for the train. When is sped by the pickle jar was smashed into thousands of glass pieces.

A dream was crushed that would require me to wear my flip-flops instead of going barefoot for a long while.  The promise of Sea Monkeys was hollow, but the idea of them was still pretty fucking cool.

Matty Stanfield, 5.21.2016

When I hear or read “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” I want to curl myself into a cataclysmic ball of rage and explode. No. The horrors and challenges in life that do not kill you do not really make you stronger. In reality they make you cynical, confused, damaged and tired. When discussing the survival of child abuse trauma we enter a whole new realm of fresh Hell.

Jean-Luc Godard Editing "Weekend" Paris, 1967 Photographer | Unknown to me

Jean-Luc Godard
Editing “Weekend”
Paris, 1967
Photographer | Unknown to me

For me this saga continues. It isn’t like I’m not fighting like hell to resolve it. But as I’m so tired of hearing: “There is no time limit on these things.” or “Let’s just take it day by day and further develop coping skills” or worse yet, “But you are getting better!” But I push onward and forward as best I can. I don’t know, maybe I am stronger because of what I endured or survived. However, I can’t help but thing I’d be more effective had I not had to survive such things. I suspect I’d still be strong. Who knows? It is hardly worth considering. As much as I hate this phrase, it does hold true: “It is what it is.

And sometimes we just don’t have the ability to change “it.” The “it” just sits on us as we try to understand exactly what “it” needs or wants so that we can be free of the weight. Damage is impossible to avoid. If you are 30 and have not been seriously damaged in one way or another – you are most likely not actually living life. You are probably avoiding it. Sadly, some damage is more significant than other types.

And this brings me to Film Art.

And chaos reigns. Surrealistically, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are working through some of life's cruelest turns. Antichrist Lars von Trier, 2009 Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

And chaos reigns. Surrealistically, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are working through some of life’s cruelest turns.
Antichrist
Lars von Trier, 2009
Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

Much to the bewilderment of my love, my family and my friends — I often find “comfort” in the darkest of film. Steve McQueen’s Shame is especially important to me. As is Christophe Honre’s Ma Mere or Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream or Lars von Trier’s Anitichrist.

These are very bleak and almost apocalyptic movies. Yet, each one seems to offer me a chance to escape into someone else’s personal horrors and remind me that not only am I not alone — but it could be ever so much more worse. These films also offer resonation and catharsis.

Sugar-sweet brain candy cinematic manipulations tend to annoy me. I find no means of escape within them. If one is particularly good, such as Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein — if I’m in the right mood I will love watching it over and over again.

Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Persona
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

But if one of those toxic waves crash into me I’d much prefer to watch Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or David Lynch’s Earaserhead. Another couple of films that provide me with escape is Luis Bunuel’s Belle de jour, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Ki-duk Kim’s Pieta. As well as David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Godard’s Weekend. All of these movies project complex ideas and themes that require the mind to focus and think about what is being shown (or often not shown) — therefore, I find a way to temporarily escape my problems.

I jump into the problems and horrors examined in these dark films.

A serial killer roaming through the canals of Venice are the least worries facing Julie Christie as she and her husband face the despair, grief, isolation, guilt and tragedy of loss. Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

A serial killer roaming through the canals of Venice are the least worries facing Julie Christie as she and her husband face the despair, grief, isolation, guilt and tragedy of loss.
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

The resonation most likely comes from the one actual gift of survival: The ability to understand. While I do not suffer with Sex Addiction or an inability to connect beyond the sexual, I do feel an understanding and empathy for those who suffer with it. When life teaches one that his/her’s worth is tied to sexuality, it leaves that individual with every limited abilities to connect and encage. If ever mankind is haunted by demons, they are manifestations of Self-Loathing, Isolation and Loneliness. The two characters in Shame roam about a blue-toned Manhattan lost, unsure, impotent and desperate.

"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Michael Fassbender Crushing under the weight of human damages SHAME Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
Michael Fassbender
Crushing under the weight of human damages
SHAME
Steve McQueen, 2011
Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

Neither knows how to escape their respective prisons. The actors, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan do not even need much dialogue. So strong are these talents, they can convey more with a glance, a gesture or most powerfully for Mulligan — in the singing of a song. Mulligan’s deconstruction of the standard, New York, New York, belongs on a pristine shelf of the perfect actor moment.

"If I can make it there..." Carey Mulligan SHAME Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

“If I can make it there…”
Carey Mulligan
SHAME
Steve McQueen, 2011
Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

In her hands and voice, the infamous anthem becomes a defeatist glimpse into grief and regret.

In Ki-duk Kim’s dark and angry, Pieta, we are stolen into a world of injustice, cruelty, betrayal and vengeance. Min-so Jo plays “the mother” to Jung-jin Lee’s “son.” Both navigate with minimal use of words. Contrary to what one might expect from the often soap-opreaish work one normally sees these two actors in, here they are both given the freedom to fully explore the veins under the skins of their characters.

Ki-duk Kim’s film is a set-up for both the viewers and the two leading characters. There is nothing holy to be found in this Pieta. The catharsis of vengeance comes with a price that I can only believe is absolute truth. While one might fantasize of extracting vengeance, the reality is far removed from the pleasure we might expect.

Jung-jin Lee opens the door to the parent, Min-so Jo, who abandoned him with a knife at the ready... Pieta Ki-duk Kim, 2012 Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

Jung-jin Lee opens the door to the parent, Min-so Jo, who abandoned him with a knife at the ready…
Pieta
Ki-duk Kim, 2012
Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

Being a survivor, I often find myself imagining what I would do to my attacker if I could and how very happy it would make me. However, being a survivor has also taught me how to examine the tragedy from all sides.

There would be no happiness or pleasure in securing vengeance even if I could. My attacker has long since died. The bitter truth is that we humans are complicated animals. The reality is a child not only needs the love of his parent, he requires it. No matter how cruel a parent might be, there is something in us that needs to be able to love that person who gave us life. And while I have no children, I’m mature enough to know that a parent can feel great love for a child and still manage to deeply harm him/her.

It is a set-up. Despair, Grief & Anger turn to Vengeance.  Min-so Jo Pieta Ki-duk Kim, 2012 Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

It is a set-up. Despair, Grief & Anger turn to Vengeance.
Min-so Jo
Pieta
Ki-duk Kim, 2012
Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

The insanity that drives the parent to such acts in many ways has nothing to do with the love they might feel for the child. It is a tricky proposition to understand and requires a great deal of emotional logic to place this in the appropriate context, but often a victimizing parent is a victim themselves. The strange and very twisted truth is I know my father loved me. I know this to my core. I also know that he damaged me in ways beyond repair. Despite this, when he died I felt no relief. I only felt grief. A grief far deeper than I had ever felt before or since. So much unresolved and so much confusion. As the characters in Pieta secure their “need” for revenge — there is no turning back. They reduce themselves to the level of the victimizer. The “victory” comes at a price too strong to bear.

It is interesting and very telling that I seem to avoid films which tackle the subject of fathers raping, harming and emotionally abusing their sons. Perhaps this is too dark for even me. When I see a film addressing this it rings too close to my own horrors and confusions related to my late father. It is as if I need a bit of distance. These kind of conflicts involving a mother and a son are distanced enough from my life that I’m able to find something to gain.

Perhaps the most confusing film in which I find escape is Christophe Honre’s controversial and often banned film, Ma Mere.

"Wrong isn't what we're about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it." Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Wrong isn’t what we’re about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it.”
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Very loosely adapted from the infamous and posthumously published George Bataille novel which intended to shock as a way of both societal and cultural commentary — Christophe Honre had something a bit different in mind. Honre is very intellectual filmmaker. He is almost cliched French. He will stubbornly create a grim musical that refuses denial by a culture which seems to hold little value or appreciation of film musicals. He likes to force his hand. With the great Isabelle Huppert as his leading lady, Bataille’s novel is transferred to the modern day Canary Islands. We are expected to already know that this beautiful place has long succumbed itself to serve as both a tourist destination and a location for anything goes morality. Public sex, sex workers and fringe-dwellers litter the beaches and fill the after hours bar-hopping mall where the characters wonder about in the film’s first  act. Honre does not care to focus his attention to that.

"The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit." Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit.”
Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

In the film version of Ma Mere, he seeks to tell the very complex, grim and perverse relationship of damaged mother to her damaged son. This is not a sexy movie, but it is very much about sexual experimentation, humiliation and a vexingly profane philosophy that the mother is hellbent on searing into the mind of her barely adult child. Louis Garrel has been raised by his strict Catholic grandmother — a family decision to “protect” him from his depraved parents who have long been exiled to The Canary Islands far from their families. We learn a great deal about the family history in the most casual of ways. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is a below the belt gut punch of realism over what must have appeared as absurd in script form.

Yet as Isabelle Huppert delivers a stream of profane and almost comical ideas, it is never funny. It feels real.

As Garrel’s “son” grapples with his own torn feelings about the loss of his Grandmother and her faith, he is also pulled toward this cruel version of a mother. While he may be technically adult, he is an innocent. He desperately craves the love and acceptance of his mother. He is unable to filter this need.

As she leads him into her confused and brutal world of psychological cruelty, BDSM and most certainly sadomasochistic rituals, the son becomes a sort of pawn with which his mother cannot decide to crush or love.

Victim turned Victimizer Isabelle Huppert and "Friend"  Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Victim turned Victimizer
Isabelle Huppert and “Friend”
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

We learn that her marriage to his father was born of statutory rape. Most likely he himself is the result of this rape. The film goes farther than it needs, but it is clear that the mother’s abuse is a conflicted result of anger, insanity and love.

As I watch these two almost surrealist characters perform their tragic dance, I do feel a worrying reality to it all. And of course this is the point of Ma Mere. We love our mothers. Our mothers love us. It does not mean they are not capable of inflicting cruelty beyond measure. The mother could just as easily be replaced with a father and a daughter for the son. But Mon Pere would be even more controversial and serve the idea of the film in an even more complex way.

Even his early childhood nanny can't seem to stop the son from desperately seeking the love of his mother... Dominique Reymond and Louis Garrel  Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Even his early childhood nanny can’t seem to stop the son from desperately seeking the love of his mother…
Dominique Reymond and Louis Garrel
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Most importantly, Christophe Honre’s film never seeks to eroticize or celebrate the profane actions of its characters. It also  does not seek to judge them. It doesn’t need to. As Ma Mere grinds into its abrupt and deeply disturbing end, the tragic implications of human damage are clear. Worst yet, they seem to be on-going.

"Maybe now you know desire reduces us to weakness." Isabelle Huppert Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Maybe now you know desire reduces us to weakness.”
Isabelle Huppert
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

While none of the above is my experience, I relate enough to feel the resonation of the art. It acts as a catharsis. I take a great deal of solace in knowing that I caught and understood what I “survived” soon enough to ensure that the abuse stops here with me. But in an all too clear way, what I survived has not made me stronger. The tragedy of what happened to me follows me constantly. And like the son in Christophe Honre’s tragically forgotten film, the implications seem on-going.

Matt Stanfield, 9.20.2015

An Adam Sandler

By 1995 Communist Poland was long gone. The state no longer restricted the artist or oppressed it’s people. Capitalism was to be embraced. Along with this sudden shift in economy and freedom came many challenges. For the Film Artist, there seemed to be a freedom. A cinema without restriction.

In reality, the entire Polish infrastructure was unstable. The state no longer funded the arts. Film had to be funded privately. However, there was no real film studio or film producers wiling to fund much beyond silly comedies, biographies and other projects that criticized the former Communist regime. When Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland to film Szamanka (She-Shaman), he had to secure funding from France and Switzerland in order to bring his vision to the screen.

Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Art | Jean-Philippe Guigou

Those of you reading this most likely know who Andrzej Zulawski is, but despite his genius and success he remains a largely marginalized film artist. Best known and accepted in France, he obtained some degree of success there. In the US and the UK he is best known for leading Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil into the dark, disturbing, twisted and innovative cult film, Possession. If that controversial and infamous 1981 film is his most personal work, where does that place Szamanka?

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This might be one of his more philosophical films, but it is unquestionably his most sexually obsessed film. Looking at the movie from a strictly surface perspective (a mistake when it comes to the films of Andrzej Zulawski) this could be interpreted as a frantically impulsive sexual relationship between a wounded and angry Anthropologist and a clearly disturbed young woman. A sort of demented take on the battle of the sexes. However, this is far too simplistic a way to watch or understand this erotic film that hinges on apocalyptic horror.

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Passion, love, madness or taming evil?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

If you’ve not heard of Szamanka or seen it, it is likely due to the fact that upon its release it faced an incredible amount of rage from the Polish Catholic Church. Censorship by the State of Poland may have ended, but a new form of repression had sprung up in the form of Post-Communist Catholic Poland. This tale derived from the ideas of Polish writer, Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his controversial coining of the phrase, Naked Soul and Zulawskis’s desire to wake up the Polish masses with his own sort of “Santanic Antidote” to his two contemporaries of Polish Cinema. While both Kieslowski Krzysztof and Zanussi Krzysztof were both brilliant filmmakers, from the ideology of Zulawski were playing into some spiritual idea to which he took exception.

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?  Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Who is the Sadist? Who is the Masochist? Or, is this demonic possession?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Filled with contradictory ideas around Catholicism, good, evil, sexuality and love this film faced a whole new level of censorship that Zulawski had never faced. Communist Rule was tough, but the unbridled adherence of Religion truly knows no bounds. The film is so graphic sexually that it probably would have been banned anyway, but the controversial ideas of this philosophical, mystical and erotic journey remain blasphemous. The Polish community almost immediately began to call this film The Last Tango in Warsaw. Even though they had not seen it, this was and remains the oft-mentioned joke about Szamanka.

The film has been compared to Lars von Trier’s controversial, Antichrist, in that it depicts a male who suffers the wrath and sexual rage of his female wife. Antichrist plays with ideas around cultural misogyny and grief in equal measure. Like Lars von Trier, Zulawski has been accused of misogyny. The problem with this accusation is that it doesn’t hold up when one watches Szamanka with some knowledge of where it’s maker is coming from and where the film ultimately takes us. It is also important to note that the screenplay was written by Manuela Gretkowska, a young Feminist and acclaimed writer who played a key role in founding The Polish Women’s Party. Certainly Andrzej Zulawski pushes forward his own agenda, but he never veered far from Gretkowska’s script.

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of "The Last Tango in Warsaw" Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Rumors that this was real and not simulated sex has earned the film the nickname of “The Last Tango in Warsaw”
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda was an established Polish movie star when he was cast as Michal, the unhappy and profoundly conflicted anthropologist who has just come into the job of investigating the rarest of anthropological finds. There are more than a few stories about the casting of the female lead. Zulawski was not known to work with “unknowns” or “untrained” actors, but something about Iwona Petry’s beauty and presence deeply fascinated Zulawski. She was just barely twenty years of age when he saw her ordering a cup of coffee. Described as a bit eccentric and a strict vegetarian, Zulawski convinced her that she was meant to be his star and to play the role of Wloszka / The Italian.

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras. Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA "The Italian" Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

An unforgettable cinematic presence and debut which would be her final turn in front of film cameras.
Iwona Petry as Wloszka AKA “The Italian”
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

While Szamanka was a huge critical and commercial failure in Poland — largely because the Polish Catholic Church. Honestly, the film was never even given a chance to screen much at all due to protests and the ultimate banning of the film. However the film scored incredibly well in Italy and France. It was expected that Petry would be a major and perhaps first true Polish female movie star. She didn’t. In fact she has become a huge part of this movie’s infamy. During production the Polish media had a frenzy in reporting that Zulawski was manipulating, forcing and abusing the young woman. Rumors ranged from beatings to forced sex to psychological torture.

Looking back at the situation, it would seem that Zulawski’s dark sense of humor had some fun playing with what were clearly rumors. When the film finally screened to great acclaim at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, Zulawski answered the charges with his typical blunt intellect. There was no truth to any of it. Yet another ploy to set the film up by the oppressive Polish Catholic Church.

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Religious symbology and Mysticism loom constantly around these two rage-filled lovers.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

However, Iwona Petry failed to show up for the premiere. She actually went missing for a short while. Apparently exhausted from the tough shoot and terrified by the media attention she took her money and ran off to India. In 1998 she gave a few interviews and admitted that the sudden brush with fame was far more than she had bargained. A roll of eyes to the rumors that continue in Poland to present day. She returned to university and is now a published fiction writer. She has no interest in returning to the world of acting.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

This is a shame as her performance in the film is quite impressive. Iwona Petry had the presence of a movie star and she played the role of the She-Shamen with an almost insane level of erotic energy. One hardly has time to notice the well-trained middle-aged Boguslaw Linda. When Petry is on screen, it is she you watch. And, no. She is not nude the entire time. It is an interesting and terrifying performance. Once you see this odd film, you will never forget her.

Most importantly, you will never forget Szamanka.

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman  covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The anthropological find of a lifetime: a nude mummified Shaman covered in mystical tattoos and a pouch of ancient hallucinogenic mushrooms
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Boguslaw Linda’s Michal is a frustrated scientist about to marry a woman for whom he feels no love or passion. During an unseen excavation with his students, a mummy is discovered. It is determined that this mummy is close to 2,000 years old. Michal’s interest in this mummy goes far beyond the academic or scientific when he discovers this is the body of a Shaman.

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Touching, connecting and trying to merge with God
Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The body is incredibly well preserved. Covered in mystical tattoos, they also find a pouch full of what turns out to be  hallucinogenic mushrooms. While Michal and his team try desperately to understand the cause of the Shaman’s death, there is only one clue: the back of the Shaman’s skull is crushed. This does not signal the cause of death but an ancient pagan ritual in which after death, the Shaman’s skull is opened to release the potent spirit free.

Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s camera seems to be drawn to offering us views of the Shaman’s rather pronounced penis. And Michal is unable to hold back. He breaks protocol and touches the Shaman with his bare hands. Clearly there is a sense of connection for Michal, but the reason for this is not entirely clear to us or him. It is as if he wants to find a way to truly connect with this ancient dead being. This need verges toward the sexual.

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?  Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

What secrets and powers are hidden in the Shaman mummy?
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

The Anthropologist and his mummy are a a constant subplot of the film. The main interest is on the strange young woman who captures the lustful attentions of the scientist almost as strongly as the mystical-pull of the Shaman. A rude and socially inept, but beautiful woman. We first see Petry’s The Italian as she lunges and plunges her way along a buffet of food which she shovels into her mouth and down her throat as if her hunger can never be satisfied.

Erotic desire beyond reason... Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Erotic desire beyond reason…
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

She is to rent an apartment owned by Michal. The modest flat was formerly occupied by his brother. The Italian wants the apartment. The deal is done, but signed with a frantic and brutal sort of sex that feels as angry as lust-driven. Like the mummy, Michal seems to want to somehow merge more into this beautiful girl than sexual penetration will allow. And like with her food, The Italian’s erotic desire seems to be unhinged and impossible to satisfy.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Between the ever-mounting frenzied levels of brute force, kink, domination, submission, pain and pleasure, Michal attempts to communicate with this woman of his sexual dreams. She, however, seems more concerned with her consuming passion and seeks more to “commune” than communicate. She is obsessed with him and seems to ache to form a possession of his desires. Not articulate, but psychical in her nature.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal is becoming more and more obsessed with her. He attempts to discuss philosophy with her but to not ready interest. He discusses religion with disdain. Here she seems a bit more interested, but it always comes down to sex. Our Anthropologist suspects his fever-pitched lover might be no more than a beautiful idiot. The Italian seems unable to offer him nothing more than hot sex. He wants more.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

You see, that’s why there are common saints, just God’s morons with a soul. No brains.

This sort of comment seems to cause a pulse within the ever-sexually-rabid woman. And as hard as Michal seems to want to walk away from her, he simply can’t. She mystifies him. Occupies his thoughts. Drives him to rage-fueled sexual encounters. The sex becomes desperate. Yet for her, the sex is almost magical. A sort of erotic ritual.

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more? Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Michal watches his sleeping lover. Or is she something less or more?
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

He finds himself more miserable with her than he had been with his loveless marriage potential. The mummy no longer holds the power over him. This crude, intolerant, polymorphously perverse, tyrannical and hysterical woman seems to offer an inexplicable power over him.

This is not just unrestrained passion, this is something sinister.

Or is it possibly something that offers our Anthropologist a meaning to his existentially challenged existence. He no longer fits in. Poland offers opportunity, but it seems a false promise. His mummy holds no answers. But there seems to be something bleakly powerful in these cruel sexual encounters. The Italian becomes transformed. Already beautiful, during sex she seems to become transformed to the level of sexual goddess. But the orgasm appears to be more like gasoline tossed on some spiritual fire.

There is no pay off or hope in this sex.

Defile. Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Defile.
Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And as this deeply odd but impossibly fascinating Art House film pulls us deep into this mire of confusion, identity crisis, sexual obsessions, perversions and religious conflict. It is also as the film enters it’s third and final act that Zulawski and Manuela Gretkowska push us into the dark theatrical thinking of Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his outright Satanic symbolism.

For Przybyszewski there is no such thing as “love,” it is nothing but a magical illusion. When Michal meets The Italian he his helpless. There can be no free will here. Michal cannot turn away from his She-Shamen even when he seems to realize this girl’s insanity is something of a mystical and most-likely demonic nature. He is rendered to the state of the somnambulistic when it comes to this darkly magik lover who seems to have access to fully influence him to the very core of his being. This “love” is truly apocalyptic. It does not seem to matter if the She-Shaman influences for good or evil. If her ritualistic sex is served for healing or wounding. For Michal has no choice in the matter.

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

And, here is the clear separation from the Nihilistic turn of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Unlike the husband in that film, Michal is not meeting a mere symbol of angry female energy oppressed by centuries of human cruelty, Michal has fallen prey to a demonic sort of force. He is nothing more than a sort of life-force for the She-Shaman. He is one of those common saints. He has been deceived. His nothing more than brains for the She-Shaman‘s food.

As Stanislaw Przybyszewski might have appraised it, for this man survival is not an option. He must submit to the illusion and power of love. In a strange way, this intellectual is taking part in a consensual murder. In this odd bit of socially conscious cinema, everything is fucked.

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Without love. Without hope. Szamanka must be satisfied.

Even to write about this true cinematic anomaly makes one feel a little loopy. By the time Andrzej Zulawski’s grim film comes to it’s conclusion the viewer is left spent and more than a little dazed.

The folks at Mondo Vision have done an outstanding job at restoring this deeply weird but exceptional film. Sadly, there are no plans to issue it to VOD or Blu-Ray format. It is only available from them on region free DVD. But they have loaded it with extras. If you’ve an interest in Eastern European cinema or the work of Andrzej Zulawski, you really can’t afford to miss it.

You can find it, and several of Zulawski’s titles here: http://www.mondo-vision.com/szamanka.php

Matty Stanfield, 9.15.2015

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Iwona Petry & Boguslaw Linda
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down... Szamanka Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

God, Faith, Spirituality, and Hope looks down…
Szamanka
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Oprah Winfrey Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved
Oprah Winfrey
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Cincinnati Gazette.  June 29, 1856

From the Cincinnati Gazette.
June 29, 1856

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Oprah Winfrey  on set of Beloved Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey
on set of Beloved
Photograph | Ken Regan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

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

Icepick Rage Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Icepick Rage
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where can we find hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing can diminish that.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Oprah Winfrey Hollywood, 2015 Photograph | Mark Seliger

Oprah Winfrey
Hollywood, 2015
Photograph | Mark Seliger

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