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The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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Twenty Personal Favorites

“Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.  During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than to write my autobiography”-from the preface of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections On The Ontology Of Film

I believe it’s true of anyone who feels passionately about the cinema that, as Cavell puts it, “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories” of one’s life.  Every time people even talk about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight I think of my first girlfriend and the man in the theater who overdosed and prompted the theater manager to empty the theater we were in.  Similarly, Ringo Lam’s City On Fire always makes me think of my walk to work at The Video Store when I was a Junior in High School (Sunday mornings my brother and I always watched a Hong Kong action film before I went to work).  I have found that the films that I have the strongest memory attachments or the most memories with tend to be my favorites; I suppose that is true of most people.

Yet conditions of viewership have changed drastically since Stanley Cavell first wrote those words in 1971.  The cinema is more a part of our homes than our nightlife, more of a private affair than a communal reverie.  Home Video formats of any type (even streaming) take the cinema from the cinemas and bring it home to us.  In addition the vast repertoire of titles available for the home far out number the annual re-releases.  

The audience owns the cinema now more than ever.  And as you read on it will become apparent that these are the recollections of a singular cinema.  It’s a series of highlights from the Robert Curry program of films that have played the Robert Curry theater at the Robert Curry film festival for only Robert Curry.  It may be disconcerting, but it is true.  The cinema has vastly diverged from the stage.  It is a private affair.  You are alone and the film you are watching is the only other sign of life in the room.  One might say that it is intimacy at its most convenient.

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Bathing Beauty (1944)

Dir. George Sidney, cast: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone

I have no clue when I first saw Bathing Beauty.  It had to have been after Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon but around the same time as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate.  Though I probably enjoyed The Crimson Pirate more as a kid, Bathing Beauty has managed to endure more potently in my mind.  I directly credit this film and a slew of other Esther Williams’ films for instilling in me a love for swimming as well as photographing swimming (something I only got to do once in Boy+Girl, Girl+Boy).

Bathing Beauty is concerned, as so many old Hollywood comedy-musicals are, with the battle of the sexes.  Yet Red Skelton isn’t exactly the manifestation of macho idealism.  And Esther Williams comes across as tough, assertive, intellectual.  Psychologically it is a role reversal, with a focus on the physical of the sexes in Skelton’s comedy sketches.  This odd pastiche is probably why the film, intentionally or not, remains fresh even today for me.

But back when I was four years old and first becoming acquainted with Red and Esther what really got me was the music.  The songs still play my emotions today as effectively as they did then, to give you an idea of how much this film has endeared itself to me.  The Harry James numbers are especially enthralling, sometimes ironic, sometimes playful, but always shot with that trademark MGM dreaminess.

In 2012 when I was shooting a musical with Caroline Boyd (titled Michael’s Match; never released), I revisited Bathing Beauty for the first time in years.  It gave me two essential ideas which I used on my film.  The first I mentioned above, the psychological role reversal.  The second was to capture the numbers in as few shots as possible.  George Sidney does this better than any of the other MGM directors whose work I have seen (which is a lot, trust me).  His shot progression of Anne Miller’s first big number in Kiss Me Kate is a virtuoso exercise in cinematographic minimalism that is remarkably effective.

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The Strange Woman (1946)

Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward

I didn’t really immerse myself in the work of Edgar G. Ulmer till late in 2012 after reading Todd McCarthy’s indispensable The Kings Of The Bs.  This was the fourth film by Ulmer I saw, and I immediately fell in love with it.  Admittedly Bluebeard is more visually arresting, but Heddy Lamarr’s performance in The Strange Woman is simply staggering.  She is the epitome of sex-soaked camp enticing men to their doom.  George Sanders, cast against type, brings a sophistication unique unto himself to a role better suited to Edward Arnold.

Typically of Ulmer, he’s utilized his budget constraints on The Strange Woman to formulate a pseudo-expressionistic American frontier, parts Fritz Lang and parts Merian C. Cooper.  Yet, from a director’s perspective, the most inventive quality to The Strange Woman’s direction is how intimate the film feels without ever becoming claustrophobic.  More than any other Ulmer film The Strange Woman is overflowing with close-ups.  One scene in particular, when Sanders finally calls out Lamarr for what she is, features a close-up on Lamarr that is sustained just a beat too long which is devastatingly effective.  This moment in The Strange Woman inspired how I cut together the sequence where Jessica Mockrish murders Robin Friend-Stift in An Atrocious Woman.

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Bill & Coo (1948)

Dir. Dean Riesner, cast: George Burton’s Birds

“What the fuck is this!?!” was Thomas Lampion’s first response to when I showed him Bill & Coo back in 2010 as Julie Lovely was born.  It seems to be the reaction most people have to this film.  On an intellectual level, I agree, “what is this?  It won an honorary Oscar?”  Still, it’s closer to my heart than I should probably admit.  

I don’t know when I saw it first, but I had to have been very young.  In 2004 I remember going to Movies Unlimited in the Great North East when they were selling off all of their VHS.  That’s when I saw a copy of Bill & Coo.  Looking at it’s cover (I still own this copy) I remembered it somehow.  Needless to say I bought it, along with To Sleep With Anger, The Cars That Ate Paris and Blank Generation (I got some looks at the register).  Once I was home I watched it.  It was like a flood gate had burst.  I had seen this weird bird movie before.  I was transported to a safe and loving place of innocence.  That hasn’t changed no matter how many viewings later.  But I still have no clue as to why?  Maybe I am one of those damn birds reincarnated?

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Vengeance Valley (1951)

Dir. Richard Thorpe, cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru

“The Skipper” was how I knew Burt Lancaster as a kid.  His real name was unmanageable to a three year old.  He was just “The Skipper” because that’s what his crew of pirates with hearts of gold called him in The Crimson Pirate.  I watched so much Burt Lancaster when I was three or four (who’s kidding, I still watch about two Burt Lancaster films a month even now).  

Still, when I put this challenge before the regular contributors to this blog and we all started working on our lists I surprised myself.  The Crimson Pirate, as beloved as it is, did not stay in my head the way Lancaster’s quickie B-Western Vengeance Valley did.  Being famous in my family for my love of “The Skipper” while also being somewhat surprised by this revelation I started second guessing myself.  I can vividly remember the Saturday afternoon I first watched the chase scene where Lancaster pursues Robert Walker, but that isn’t the image that remains vital in my mind.

There’s a scene right after Joanne Dru gives birth to Robert Walker’s illegitimate child.  Lancaster arrives, before his brother Robert Walker, to see the newborn child.  Lancaster looks rugged, dressed for the cold, unshaven, his large frame towering over Joanne Dru.  There’s hardly any dialogue.  Lancaster removes his gloves and takes his nephew in his arms.  The stoic features of Lancaster’s face give way to a vulnerability that is utterly disarming.  Dru looks at him, a face full of hurt, ambiguous.  Then Walker appears in soft focus behind Lancaster and Dru, who are now so close that if not for the baby it would be a love scene.  Walker’s appearance throws off the composition, casting a threatening presence into the tender moment.  That is what has stuck with me.

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Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Dir. Douglas Sirk, cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

I don’t believe this is Douglas Sirk’s best film.  Still, it’s my favorite.  It probably has something to do with my background in Catholicism (CCD every Tuesday night).  Films that address an affirmation of faith or a crisis of faith tend to affect me in unusual ways.  Magnificent Obsession is never explicit in what matter of faith Rock Hudson finds after killing Jane Wyman’s husband and blinding her, but from the music cues and Sirk’s camera placement which clearly recall DeMille’s Biblical epics it has to be some form of Christianity.  And with Douglas Sirk being Douglas Sirk he subtly scrutinizes and evaluates man’s relation to faith.  When I first saw this film I interpreted its message being something along the lines of “faith in a higher power is stronger than faith in a master”.  Though that sophomoric interpretation at that time is probably some sort of subconscious projection.  Honestly I always thought that Magnificent Obsession would make a good double feature with Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

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Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955)

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, cast: Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Sô Yamamura

I was in ninth grade when I first saw this film.  It was late Spring, the second week in a row that my father, brother, and I all drove down to Movies Unlimited together.  The fruits of the previous trip yielded Bill & Coo and an assortment of other cult classics, but this trip was all about Japan.  This is when I first became familiar with New Yorker Video with whom I would have dealings with some nine years later working for my friend Amber at CIP.  New Yorker Video put out this series, Japanese Masters, that collected major works by Ozu, Oshima, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa all in beautifully letterboxed editions.  These were gorgeous VHS, I couldn’t believe I was getting so many amazing films so cheaply.  I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s van (a huge van that my brother and I often compared to the shuttles in Star Trek: The Next Generation) gazing over the titles I had purchased; Equinox Flower, Cruel Story Of Youth, Enjo, and of course Princess Yang Kwei Fei.

Strangely, I only watched Princess Yang Kwei Fei once early on a Sunday morning.  I never watched that VHS again.  But those images, those dreamlike pastel colored images remained etched into my mind’s eye for years.  There really was no reason to rewatch it when I was reliving it again at the most spontaneous of times daily.  So I gave it to my friend Josh.  

Yet, once I was working for Amber, I began to desire to see Princess Yang Kwei Fei again.  I thought it would be a great if somewhat unexpected representation of Mizoguchi for a program I was developing.  Nothing ever came of that.  Then three years later my collaborator Thomas got me really into Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor and the flames of desire were fanned again.  The spectre of what Princess Yang Kwei Fei had become obsessed me.  I had to see it again.

Finally, I ordered the Masters Of Cinema release a month or more back.  It was spectacular.  Mizoguchi weaves such a delicate fantasy out of such concise compositions and designs that the film transcends folklore and opera, achieving a symbiotic fusion of the two as flawless as a Mazarin stone.  Anyone invested in the lyricism of artifice, Kenneth Anger fans, fans of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T., and appreciators of technicolor will find this film indispensable.

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Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955)

Dir. Norman Foster, cast: Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conried

I have few vivid memories of my grandfather.  One of them is of going to a small carnival in the woods out near his home in Mt. Carmel.  I rode a wooden roller coaster with my dad that day which scarred me for life.  But I also got my first and only coonskin cap.

I had just discovered Davy Crockett, I watched this film so many times back then.  I read everything that was at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School library on the man and even gave a presentation in second grade as Davy Crockett relating the life of Davy Crockett.  Davy Crockett meant so much to me.  I wanted to be like him.  I wanted to end conflicts with good ole common sense, grin down bears, and give my life for something I believed in (not America, more like an endangered species such as Bison or for Captain Kirk)!  Not much has changed.

It’s so rare to find a film for children that actually follows a child’s logic in terms of narrative structure.  And when Davy Crockett can’t do that during the original episode breaks, there is an informative and catchy song ripe with puns.  It is easy to resent or harbor hostility for the Disney Corporation with all of the shady things they do.  Still, now and then, something a little more artful, meaningful can occur.

The day Fess Parker died when I was entering my Junior year of college was extraordinarily tough.  He had never been the “cinematic best friend” that Burt Lancaster was, but I still felt somehow close to him.  So my dear friend Lauren and I shared a bottle of Fess Parker wine and watched Davy Crockett.  I memorialized Fess Parker and Davy Crockett further a few months later when I made a video on the shift of American morality post-WWII and took all of my images from Davy Crockett (the audio came from all over the place).  My teacher, Pete Rose, said my piece, titled Davy Crockett & The Fall Of The American Dream, was “obsessive”.  

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The Red Balloon (1956)

Dir. Albert Lamorisse, cast: Pascal Lamorisse

When you are a little boy like I was when I saw The Red Balloon for the first time it has an indescribable effect on you.  Sure a film like Davy Crockett can instill a child with some moral values just as The Crimson Pirate can ignite one’s sense of adventure, but The Red Balloon poses a question that only a child might ask.  “What makes make-believe make-believe?”

Lamorisse is not interested in an answer.  The Red Balloon simply asks its audience to accept, to feel without thinking.  It isn’t one of those obnoxious children’s films that pretends to do that with talking animals or a superficial visual perfection.  The streets in The Red Balloon are real streets.  The faces of the people on those streets are just like anywhere in the world.  The only fantastic element to the film is the balloon.  It is in this contrast that the film finds its success.

It’s difficult for me to discuss the aesthetic virtues of The Red Balloon.  It’s a film that is just too close to me.  When I turned twenty-five a few years ago and my mother gave me the Janus Films restoration of The Red Balloon on DVD I’m sure she didn’t think I was grateful.  I just don’t have the words to really talk about this film.  Of all of the films on this list, this one has been the most important to me.  

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Marnie (1964)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel

Personally I find that this film conveys Hitchcock the person more clearly than any of the master’s films.  His chauvinism has been well documented by his countless biographers just as critics have so often cited his voyeurism and his fetishization of blonde haired women.  All those things are found in ample abundance in Marnie.  Though in the instance of Marnie these components become  a frenzied whirlwind of a nightmare equal parts Freudian and, in terms of design, heavily indebted to the films of Fritz Lang, a one-time mentor to Hitchcock early in the latter’s career.

Marnie is as disturbing as it is irresistible, the current of sadism wraps the viewer up in a setting as familiar as it is subversive.  The Birds prepared audiences for the spectacle of Tippi Hedren in jeopardy and pain, Dr. No established Sean Connery as a womanizing masculine ideal of heterosexual impulses bordering on the violent, but Marnie delivers both in extremes.  Gradually, over the course of the film, both attributes of these celebrity signifiers are amplified, culminating in the most degrading exploitation of someone with PTSD that I have ever seen in film.

Oddly, it is the familiarity of these celebrity players and what they signify within a narrative context that enables the viewer to invest in the film.  For a filmmaker that is no easy accomplishment and testifies to Hitchcock’s powers as a director.  Add to that the sensual set design, the sharp tweed suits, the lure of the American upper class, and the sexuality of Tippi Hedren and the film becomes almost as enjoyable as North By Northwest.  

When I first became acquainted with Marnie I had been reading Norman Mailer’s essays collected in Existential Errands.  Mailer, for a large part of this anthology, sought to tangle with the relationship between the binary sexes in the context of feminism and the sexual revolution during the sixties.  The rape that opens Mailer’s An American Dream serves as a precursor to his perspective of “conservative” masculinity as outlined in Existential Errands.  Needless to say, this brand of “manliness” shared by the protagonist of An American Dream and the authorship of Alfred Hitchcock provide a reflection of masculine identity at a major shift in sexual politics within American society.

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Flesh (1968)

dir. Paul Morrissey, cast: Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D’Arbanville

Kenny used to manage TLA video back before it shut its doors forever in 2010.  In 2006 he held onto copies of Flesh, Trash and Heat for me, for about two weeks, till I could purchase them.  The Image DVD release of Paul Morrissey’s films was such a big deal for me.  I had wanted to see these films ever since I had gotten Andy Warhol’s Bad a couple of years before.   I love all of Paul Morrissey’s oddball films, but Flesh in particular.  At one point I was so enamored of Joe Dallesandro in this film that I painted three portraits of him, one in color, two in black and white.

Flesh, much like Trash, isn’t a film where narrative is particularly important.  The films Morrissey made before relocating to Europe in the mid-seventies are characterized by their emphasis on interactions in the form of brief encounters.  As Joe hustles his way from client to client in episodic form each interaction becomes a piece in a larger tableaux.  The overall achievement of the film is that, in this loose form, it still manages to say so much about how people not only relate to one another but also accomplishes a comic critique of American life in 1968.

When I had the chance to speak with Paul Morrissey at length about his career in 2012 I was surprised that he didn’t seem to realize the extent to which his films still matter to so many young people today.  The free spirit and subversive sexuality of Women In Revolt and Flesh in particular represent some of the few truly articulate commentaries on non-binary sexual relations and kink lifestyles.  Though, I suppose, it would be nice if these films were indeed more popular than they already are.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog, cast: Helmut Döring, Gisela Hertwig, Gerhard Maerz

This is another of those films I purchased on a trip to Movies Unlimited.  It swept through my consciousness again and again all through the summer of 2003 after I first saw it.  I credit it with sparking some of the more cruel images that appear in my first films shot on VHS.  There are few films as cruel as Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The excess of its cruelty, its absurdity, its sheer volume often give way to comedy, which is perhaps why this is still one of the least popular of Werner Herzog’s films.

I have heard Even Dwarfs Started Small compared to Jodorowsky’s El Topo, though I find all they really have in common is their multitude of dwarfs.  Herzog’s film, as with much of New German Cinema, is a distinctly German in its execution of allegory.  The notion of having a dozen psychotic dwarfs stand-in for the whole of society in an anti-fascist tale is very much in line with a German’s sense of humor.  To go further, the degree of artifice it conveyed by performance and framing in Herzog’s film recalled Brecht.  

Now imagine the effect all of this must have had on me as a teenager.  It was completely inspiring.  I clearly remember showing some of Even Dwarfs Started Small to my friend Dan and can recall how it inspired him as well.  Then, some years later, I can remember my one girlfriend’s reaction to the film, “How can you like this?”.  She was mortified by the chickens fighting and the blind dwarfs flailing their sticks.  I was watching it for a paper I was writing for class while she was working on her own paper concerning Madame Bovary.  A couple of strange kids I suppose.

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Husbands (1970)

Dir. John Cassavetes, cast: Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes

For a long time this film was nearly impossible to see.  John Cassavetes is my favorite filmmaker and for a long while this title eluded me.  My friend Dan had a bootleg of which I was insanely envious, largely due to the fact that it came with the BBC documentary on the production of the film.  Then in my sophomore year of college I was able to persuade my friend Jennifer to rent a VHS of Husbands from TLA video.  I quickly made a DVD copy of that VHS.

Immediately it surpassed all of Cassavetes’ other films I had seen to that point (which was all of them except Love Streams, which Jennifer kindly rented for me the following week).  It’s not as emotional as A Woman Under The Influence or as poignant and timeless as Love Streams, yet Husbands spoke to me in a very specific and personal way.

Unlike Cassavetes’ other films Husbands is focused on friendship, the very nature of that relationship, as opposed to romantic, sexual, or career oriented relationships.  To put an even finer point on it, Husbands is about the friendship between men, linking it thematicly with Elaine May’s masterpiece Mikey & Nicky (in which John Cassavetes and Peter Falk also star).  The theme of friendship amongst men is so very often relegated to the War and Western genre films that seeing a straight contemporary narrative with such a focus executed in Cassavetes’ brutally honest realist style is a revelation.  So many filmmakers would have opted to make every character redemptive within the narrative, but not Cassavetes.  Like all of his works Husbands is about truth.

To attempt a comparison, the literary equivalent of a John Cassavetes’ film, Husbands in particular, I believe would be the works of Richard Hugo.  Hugo and Cassavetes both seek to reveal the truth of their own inner emotional lives tirelessly.  The truths they find often being so undesirable that their work, be it a poem in Hugo’s case or a film in Cassavetes’, is often interpreted as controversial at best and chauvinistic at worst.  Hence the debate that Kathleen Hanna articulated so well in her Le Tigre song What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes; “genius or chauvinist”?

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The American Dreamer (1971)

dir. Lawrence Schiller & L.M. Kit Carson, cast: Dennis Hopper, Lois Ursone,

My copy of this film was procured from a gentleman out in Colorado in 2008 by mailing him a check for thirty dollars with a slip of paper attached with the titles I desired written inside.  I requested The American Dreamer, My Hustler, and The Connection.  All three arrived roughly a month later in the mail; three DVDs of 16mm prints.  It was an unorthodox transaction, but at the time none of these films could be found in any other way and certainly not in their entirety.  My friend Dan had turned me on to this reclusive cinephile gentleman when he began tracking down and collecting obscure films as well.  

At the time I was just becoming aware of L.M. Kit Carson’s work, which is as eclectic as it is fascinating; I have nothing but admiration where Kit is concerned.  But in that moment it was Lawrence Schiller who fascinated me more.  I knew of Schiller from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  Schiller researched that book and packaged the project for Mailer, as he did with Mailer’s Marilyn (Schiller also directed the film of The Executioner’s Song as scripted by Norman Mailer).  What was really chilling was that the project that was eventually published as Marilyn got its start because Schiller was the last photographer to do a photo session with Monroe before she died (all of this celebrity fetishization and morbidity definitely informs The American Dreamer).

The American Dreamer is part documentary and part performance piece, but it is wholly hypnotic.  The film focuses on Hopper at his home in Taos New Mexico where he is completing post-production on his film The Last Movie in 1971.  And Dennis Hopper has never played Dennis Hopper better than this.  Anyone fascinated with 1970s culture is sure to revel in this crackpot film which has more to say about the “New Hollywood” than Hopper’s own masterpiece The Last Movie (a film which almost made this list).  Hearing Hopper espouse on subjects such as why he is really a lesbian, Orson Welles, and burning all of his possessions is the closest most people should get to the kind of serious drug abuse Hopper was indulging in at the time.

In 2011 when Thomas was staying with me, sometime between watching Bill & Coo and The Jolson Story, we watched The American Dreamer.  We quickly became obsessed with the Hello People song Pass Me By used in the film.  In fact, I believe we were singing it in a pool one night and, if memory serves, Lertch might also have been there.

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Agoniya (1975)

dir. Elem Klimov, cast: Aleksey Petrenko, Anatoliy Romashin, Velta Line

There is a surprising lack of literature in English on Elem Klimov.  His films are neither the fantasies of Tarkovsky nor the character portraits of his wife Larisa Shepitko’s films, but meet somewhere elusive in the middle.  Much of Bela Tarr’s latter works remind me of Klimov’s Come & See in their expert blocking and fluid long takes.  Come & See is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films I have ever seen, but not my favorite.  Agoniya, the first of Klimov’s films I ever saw, tells the story of Rasputin and his power over the last Tsar of Russia; this is my favorite.

A series of experiences as a child sparked a fascination with Russian history which was only encouraged further by my mother.  In fact Agoniya was a Christmas present from her and my father.  Unlike many other Russian films I have seen on the history of their national identity, Agoniya beautifully slips from “fantastique” expressionism to an almost Peter Watkins-esque factual account.  The overall experience is thusly as informative as it is overwhelming to the senses.

I would now like to clarify that it was not Don Bluth’s Anastasia that introduced me to Rasputin, nor was it Hammer Horror with their free Rasputin Beards!  In fact it was Richard Boleslavsky’s Rasputin & The Empress, released in 1932 and starring John, Ethel, and of course Lionel Barrymore at his best (post Tod Browning’s West Of Zanzibar) as Rasputin.  I rented this film from the library as a little kid, probably when I had run out of new Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes mysteries to watch.  Anyway, it was my love of Russian history and of Rasputin that probably prompted my parents to turn me onto Klimov’s beautiful film, and I’m glad they did.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made dramatic films that convey more emotional desperation and philosophical nihilism than any other filmmaker and this is his Magnum Opus.  My relationship with this film is one of obsession.  Despite its running time of over twelve hours I must have seen it at least six or seven times.  Recently I showed three excerpts to my students who were stupefied by this film’s brilliance.  I think Jonathan Rosenbaum has summed up Fassbinder’s legacy best when he said that Fassbinder’s films had become “ever fresher” with the passing of time.  The reaction of my students clearly supports this thesis.

I could easily write about Berlin Alexanderplatz again here.  Yet, having already written about this film roughly three times for this blog, I think that I will just simply recommend that if you want to know more, please just search this site for either the film’s title or its director.  Thanks.

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Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

dir. Nagisa Oshima, cast: David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti

Guilt and regret are two emotions that I have personally always found overwhelming, primarily because they are responsible for so much of my character.  It is those two emotions that are at the heart of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence uses these two emotional experiences to explore the nature of war; the way war distorts and perverts the mind and the soul, how violent conditions can propel, strengthen and shatter human beings.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is by no means a violent film.  It often comes off as placid till an eruption occurs.

Nagisa Oshima is, in my mind, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, at least equal to Godard.  And given the stylization of so many of his films it is always surprising to me how fragile Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence feels.  Oshima’s delicately lit close-ups, his slow panoramas through the prison compound, the gentility of movement in his tracking shots all work in coordination to convey an existence that is hardly truly there, always on the brink of collapsing.  

As if to accentuate Oshima’s visual dialect in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie was cast as Major Jack Celliers, the primary point of contention between the British POWs and their Japanese captors.  As with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie utilizes his inherent alien qualities to create a distance between himself and his fellow characters in the film.  Though in this instance that “outsider” quality is not indicative of a literal other-worldliness, but rather of a character so bereaved with guilt that he simply cannot emote as other people do.

The greatest strength of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is that it never addresses these concepts head-on.  The film is ambiguous.  It conveys all of these emotions with the faintest clues as to their cause and effect.  So one can imagine what an intense experience this was for me in 7th grade.  I had never been moved by a film in such a way before.  I believe it is also responsible for solidifying my love of David Bowie.

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Rendez-vous (1985)

dir. André Téchiné, cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Wadeck Stanczak

I bought this film on DVD six years ago when I was at the Princeton Record exchange with my friend Josh.  There were three reasons for my purchase.  The first is that Josh and I both love the Princeton Record Exchange.  But being that we only get out there every couple of months and they are an independent business one is likely to feel terribly guilty if one does not buy something.  The second reason is that I had always wanted to see an André Téchiné film.  I had read about him and read about him in numerous books at the UArts library but had not seen one of his films (I’ve seen ten of them now and they are all excellent).  The final motivating factor was that Rendez-vous stars Juliette Binoche.  Binoche’s performances are always revealing and captivating, I will at least see any of the films she is in once because it is absolutely worth it.

Rendez-vous is relatively early in both Juliette Binoche and Téchiné’s careers.  Binoche had yet to develop the kind of kinetic energy she would while working with Leos Carax (another favorite filmmaker of mine) while Téchiné is in transition between the more formal approaches exhibited in his films The Bronte Sisters and Hotel America and the visual stylization and cinematic improvisation of I Don’t Kiss.  I could go on and on about the aesthetics of Rendez-vous but I won’t since I have written about this film three times already for this very blog!  What I am willing to elaborate on is how Rendez-vous taught me a very valuable lesson.  

Unlike most reflexive narrative films (Jean-Luc Godard is a good example of such a filmmaker), Rendez-vous is less concerned with its commentaries on the cinema and more concerned with the lives and world of its characters.  This gives the film a density, a sophistication.  The revelations concerning the very notions of cinematic performance within the film are tucked beneath the surface of the drama.  This opens Rendez-vous up for multiple viewings very easily.  For the combinations of dramatically diegetic and the abstract reflexive components of the film are layered so densely that the dialogue they create feels different during any and every viewing.

I attempted this a little bit myself on Bitches, then I made this aesthetic the stylistic crux of A Debauched Little Rogue without too much success.  I eventually accomplished maybe 15% of what Téchiné had done aesthetically in Rendez-vous on The Blasphemy Of Owen Barnes, but I am still going to try again some day.  As a filmmaker there is nothing more delightful than a film that pushes and shoves your own aesthetic possibilities and understandings, even if it does become endlessly frustrating.

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Mélo (1986)

dir. Alain Resnais, cast: Fanny Ardant, André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi

In many ways Mélo feels like Resnais’ homage to Josef von Sternberg.  Josef von Sternberg’s films are noted for their theatricality, expressionist lighting, romantic melodrama and, above all, their sensuality.  Nicolas Roeg is the only filmmaker I can think of who rivals von Sternberg’s cinema for sensuality.  When one thinks of Resnais’ films, one does not usually associate them with any of these elements.  Mélo, however, is ripe with tragedy, romance, theatricality, and sensuality.  In many respects Mélo may be Resnais’ best film because, not only is it a master class in cinematic technique, it is brimming over with authentic human emotion.

Mélo exists in another world, a Paris exclusive to the cinema, found in the works of Minnelli, Carné, and Demy.  This is a world of Romanticism.   Mélo functions as a fairytale for adults, extending Life Is A Bed Of Roses that much further conceptually.  It warns of love pursued at all costs, of love given beyond selflessness, and it does so in a space of fantasy so closely tied with a sense of secure escapism in its audience’s mind that as Mélo descends its characters further and further to their fates the emotional impact is quadrupled.  

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The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

dir. Hal Hartley, cast: Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke, Chris Cooke

When Hal Hartley first emerged on the American Independent Film scene with The Unbelievable Truth it was like nothing else.  The fusion of the literate with the plastic, his long takes, the off-beat blocking, and his own signature style soundtracks stood out from the pack, announcing a new and wholly unique voice in American cinema.

When I discuss low-budget and independent filmmaking with my students I assign them an interview with Hartley that was originally published in Sight & Sound to read; they all end up loving him if not his films.  When we work with blocking I often screen a scene from The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Surviving Desire, one scene apiece.  Again, most of the students fall in love with his style.  Which is no surprise since his influence can be felt in both Noah Baumbach’s and Wes Anderson’s films.

I saw No Such Thing before I saw The Unbelievable Truth.  Dan lent me his copy of The Unbelievable Truth in the summer of 2011 so I came into Hartley’s early films rather late.  The impact of this film on my own work is rather considerable and certainly more obvious on the shorts I made back in the summer of 2011.  I would recommend that anyone interested in making a film on their own should invest some time in studying Hartley’s works.

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Beyond The Clouds (1995)

dir. Michelangelo Antonioni & Wim Wenders, cast: Chiara Caselli, Irène Jacob, Vincent Perez

In my adolescence I had acne, I was at least 8” taller than any other kid my age and I had the face of someone four years older than I actually was.  I was an outcast, just like everyone else.  That’s how I felt when I saw Beyond The Clouds.  I had seen The American Friend so I knew who Wim Wenders was but I had not seen any of Antonioni’s films.

What struck me was how Beyond The Clouds so delicately recreated so many emotions, both familiar and unfamiliar.  So seamlessly do these narratives intwine and accent one another that one might miss the dialogue occurring between each separate vignette.  This was Antonioni’s last film and I think he finally said everything he ever wanted to say about how our contemporary existential quandary subverts human romantic impulses.  He takes an existentialist’s view on questions like “is there just one special person for all of us?”, “is love eternal?”, “would things be different if I had told her how I felt?”; that answer is always “no”.  And yet, despite these cold realizations each character still remains somewhat hopeful.  The hope that the Romantic could be the truth is what sustains, that is what Beyond The Clouds is about.

When I was fourteen or fifteen that meant something to me, it sustained me I suppose, in a way.  Today it represents a bittersweet truth.  Having been in some relationships, having experienced the euphorias and the suffering life has to give that are just incomprehensible when you are twelve, I have to admit my perspective on Antonioni’s last film has changed.  You realize that the only way one can remain hopeful in the face of the existential machinations of our society and our relationships is to learn to live with regret.  Regret is what unites all of the narratives, all of the characters in Beyond The Clouds.

Afterward

Pandora's Box

When I first thought of having the Zimbo Films’ staff write about their “twenty favorite films” I was thinking that it would help demonstrate our collective aesthetic interests and sensibilities in preparation for fundraising for Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  The experience of actually writing this piece and reading Thomas’ contribution for the first time a month ago was one of both catharsis and renewal.  Renewal in the sense of rekindling a thought process surrounding the cinema that is more subjective than say the academic realm in which I often find myself and ground my own works as a filmmaker.  Though I honestly doubt that the casual reader will take away the same emotional responses as the authors of these posts will, I do hope that they, the readers, do find a renewed interest in avenues of cinematic expression that they may have though they out grew.

Lastly I would like to pay my respects to the films and filmmakers that did not make my final list.  The journey to the list you have just read was a long one; sometimes it was excruciating.  Different iterations of this list were born out of two motivating factors, mood and ego.  Regardless as to why the following films did not make the list in the end I believe that their inclusion here will serve as an appendix that will illuminate and accent the twenty films listed above.  Without further delay those films are Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009), Histoire de Marie et Julien (dir. Jacques Rivette, 2003), Pola X (dir. Leos Carax, 1999), Naked (dir. Mike Leigh, 1993), The Last Bolshevik (dir. Chris Marker, 1992), Wild At Heart (dir. David Lynch, 1990), Bad Timing (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1980), In A Year With 13 Moons (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), Mikey & Nicky (dir. Elaine May, 1976), Der Tod der Maria Malibran (dir. Werner Schroeter, 1972), Goodbye, Columbus (dir. Larry Peerce, 1969), The Swimmer (dir. Frank Perry, 1968), Faces (dir. John Cassavetes, 1968), Reflections In A Golden Eye (dir. John Huston, 1967), Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963), The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (dir. Fritz Lang, 1959), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), Earth (dir. Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930), Pandora’s Box (dir. G.W. Pabst, 1929), and lastly The Dying Swan (dir. Evgeni Bauer, 1917).

by Robert Curry

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Lynch & Gifford’s American Dreams

Wednesday was David Lynch’s 70th birthday.  Popular culture’s favorite scary oddball is a senior citizen and hipper than ever.  Due to popular demand, more than anything else, Lynch and original co-creator Mark Frost will be reviving Twin Peaks as a new series in the 21st century.  This highly anticipated event, along with Lynch’s birthday last Wednesday, have spurred an abundance of write-ups about Lynch’s films, focusing predominantly upon the show Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and his films Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001).  But in all of this Lynchmania there has yet to be any considerable recognition of his collaboration with author Barry Gifford; a collaboration that, for David Lynch, dominated the mid-1990s.

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart

Barry Gifford’s first forray into the “world” of David Lynch came when Lynch adapted Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart into a feature film in 1990.  Though Gifford did not participate in Lynch’s adaptation of Wild At Heart, there is a clear syncopation of preoccupations between these two artists.  If Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a synthesis of “coming-of-age” story with noir thriller then Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart similarly transplants the Romeo & Juliet archetypes into a post-modernist Beat context.  Lynch and Gifford’s works both thrive on their mutual insistence that their narratives take place in a timeless America; an America that is both All That Heaven Allows (1955) and the nihilist present, whilst neither being truly here nor there.   What is in my mind the most significant of the numerous similarities between these artists is their desire to subvert every expectation established by the genres from which they draw upon.  Blue Velvet clearly gives evidence to this, but in Gifford’s case I would site Night People or Sailor’s Holiday over Wild At Heart.

Oddly enough, the trends cited above as being the defining aesthetic concerns of Gifford and Lynch do not actually apply to Lynch’s version of the climax to Wild At Heart.  It has become one of those famous anecdotes about the director considering that it flies in the face of his usually morbid sadomasochistic sex operas that he should rewrite the ending as a happy one.  In Gifford’s novel Sailor and Lula do not come together in the end, rather they diverge paths, each too unfamiliar with the other to truly confront their would-be status as a family unit.  However Lynch’s “happy ending” is not derived from the filmmakers own personal desire for narrative closure or reassurance.  Instead it seems to originate in the film’s concern with the mythology of mid-twentieth century American popular culture and coinciding signifiers born out of Hollywood in the form of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley (a pantheon of Gods and legends not dissimilar to that of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith or Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train).  This subtext of Lynch’s Wild At Heart exists in the novel, though the legends that formulate Gifford’s allusions are almost exclusively literary, born out of the works of Kerouac, Burroughs and Mailer.  For each artist this retrospective catalogue of America’s shared consciousness provides a historical context into which Sailor and Lula are thrust forward, sensual monoliths of late 80s culture.

This mutual desire to employ their aesthetics as a means of contextualizing a fictional interpretation of the present through the guise of mass culture American history is at the heart of Hotel Room, a three episode miniseries Lynch and Gifford collaborated on that aired on HBO in 1993 (in actuality Gifford only wrote two episodes, the same two Lynch directed).   The premise of the show is born out of No Exit, restricting all of the episodes to the confines of a single hotel room.  Gifford’s off the wall idea of narrative reflexivity as well as the premise’s inherent necessities of space all seem to have influenced Lynch’s much later web-series Rabbits (2002).   Like Hotel Room, Rabbits again finds Lynch jettisoning contextual signifiers into the “world” of his fantasy, though without the contemporary dressings of Hotel Room, preferring a Dadaist sensibility manifest in unorthodox lighting, blocking, and gigantic humanoid bunnies.  Gifford’s contribution is almost singular to his career if the influence of these teleplays weren’t to be found in his novel Perdita Durango.  As is often the case with self-aware stage/television writing (remember Paddy Chayefsky?) the author often finds themselves emboldened by the physical restrictions of the medium to explore more subtle, if not existential, qualities in human nature.  In turn, this direction in Gifford’s writing of Hotel Room returns Lynch to the singular “nightmare” spaces of his earlier The Alphabet (1968), The Amputee (1974), and Henry’s bedroom sequences in Eraserhead, though with an intentional coloring of post-modernist irony.

The personal artistic innovations of Hotel Room marks a departure for Gifford in that, unlike Sailor and Lula, these characters exist in a single space, abandoning Gifford’s Romantic metaphor of car travel along American highways.  In fact the forward motion of Hotel Room is one of time.  The presence at the heart of the series is one hotel room, but this room’s journey through time serves as the testament of a silent observer, an observer that remains within the confines of Gifford’s two episodes apparently objective.  This complicates things immeasurably for Lynch in terms of the histrionic signifiers discussed above which he employs so readily in his visual designs, whose very use is born out of the filmmaker’s highly stylized and subjective world view.  Remarkably it would be this particular anomaly that marks the “tormented genius” of Lost Highway (1997).

pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Lost Highway: pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Could it be more telling that Lost Highway should open with David Bowie’s ferociously schizophrenic song I’m Deranged?  Or that the song should be married to an image that is the absolute visual summation of Gifford’s literary stylings?  I think not.  Nor should it be surprising that Barry Gifford and David Lynch’s only outing as co-screenwriters should also be the most brazen celebration of American Film Noir’s hyper-hetero culture.

And yet Lost Highway suggests the unorthodox narratives to come in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2007).  It presages a subtlety of characterization, a sort of minimalism, that would flavor Gifford’s Night People.  But superficially, if one were to watch Lost Highway for the first time, one would invariably be struck by the film’s obvious preoccupation with other filmic devices, primarily those best represented by Brian DePalma and Jacques Rivette.  In the case of Brian DePalma one finds the duality of the film’s female protagonist, once brunette and then blonde, or should I say housewife and then femme fatale.  From Dressed To Kill (1980) to Snake Eyes (1998) DePalma has been dramatizing the incongruities and polarities of the female as signifier in his often Freudian world of masculinity in jeopardy.  This device is implemented by Gifford and Lynch within the Balthazar Getty portion of Lost Highway to color the audience’s reading of the Fred/Pete character and the duality it represents as opposed to dwelling on the female duality which, to DePalma, functions as a potential means for masculine castration.

Jacques Rivette’s influence is, like Depalma’s, entirely conceptual as well as totally focused again upon the duality of two psychoses in the process of a merger (Fred/Pete).  But where Rivette is concerned with the philosophical from a similar vein as Robert Bresson, Lynch and Gifford implement a strategy that moves the device into the reflexive world of heightened genre mechanics (Film Noir).  Where Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) tackles the breadth of cinematic humanism in all of its potential Lost Highway prefers a harrowing journey into a genre familiar to mass audiences with the intention of exploring why it is audiences feel comfortable, if not fulfilled, by the sexual politics of Film Noir.

That is not to say that Lynch and Gifford are at all plagiarists, on the contrary, the addition of these motifs or concepts to the amalgamation of interests and devices that already compromise their recognizable style serve to better equip Lost Highway.  Consider Lost Highway as the polar opposite of Wild At Heart.  Wild At Heart championed a visual language of allusions that drew upon the Hollywood of Lynch and Gifford’s youth to articulate their own nightmare version of the American Dream.  Wild At Heart is akin to Norman Mailer’s An American Dream in this fashion.  But if this referential dialect represents a chic nihilism that has remained in constant vogue, then Lost Highway is most certainly a singular case for Lynch and Gifford.  The dialect of Lost Highway reprises the voyeurism of Blue Velvet, but thrusts it into the wider popular consumer context of the still taboo porn industry.  Wild At Heart had it’s yellow brick road, Lost Highway has its back room casting couch.

It is the porn industry that ultimately unites the dissimilar narratives and dual identities of Lost Highway.  Likewise, the pornographers are the villains (Mr. Eddy, a surrogate Frank Booth) as well as the whores with the heart of gold (femme fatale Alice Wakefield).  Here is perhaps where Lost Highway loses a good percent of its audience.  The cinema has proven time and again that an audience uncomfortable with the narrative environment cannot see the forest from the trees, so to speak.  For Lynch and Gifford this is clearly intentional.  Once the pornographic element of the narrative reaches its fever pitch the film breaks into a reprisal of the Fred narrative, a narrative that has, at this point, lost all tangible relation to how the audience understood it at the films outset.

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles in Lost Highway

The sum of all of these disparate elements couched in the familiar facade of Film Noir bring a closure to Lynch’s recent work.  1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me sought in vain to define the paradox of a girl like Laura Palmer in a town like Twin Peaks.  However Lost Highway gives the worlds of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet their antithesis which is no less than the dramatized duality of our ability to order and recognize images within a ready-made context whose aesthetic divisions are so intertwined, along with the narrative, that they contradict one another.  Lost Highway brings us the first Lynch film that works as a cycle, ending as it began.  This narrative trope clearly comes from Gifford’s early novels, offering audiences an ambiguous understanding of Film Noir precisely because Lost Highway contradicts every other mandate of the genre’s narrative conventions.  Therefore Lost Highway represents a maturity of the aesthetics that popularized Blue Velvet as well as a more sophisticated approach to surrealist narrative represented by Eraserhead and suggested by Hotel Room.

The first time I saw Lost Highway I was fourteen.  I had not read any of Gifford’s novels, but I had seen Wild At Heart, The Elephant Man (1980), Eraserhead, Dune (1984), Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.  I remember being struck that Lost Highway did not feel very much like Lynch’s other works.  Upon reflection this is perhaps due to the fact that Lost Highway was photographed by Peter Deming and not Frederick Elmes or Freddie Francis.  Lost Highway, more than any other Lynch film in my mind, makes better use of wide tracking shots and blocking.  Overall the visuals are more formal, more like something by Michael Mann.  It was at a time that I was very much impressed by long takes with subtle camera moves, which explains my passion for Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979).  The opposite was true about my interest in Barry Gifford.  It was two years later that I finally got around to reading him, and it wasn’t even Wild At Heart, it was Sailor’s Holiday.  The novel is composed of three parts, each moving quickly with a vicious gallows humor and a strong penchant for sexual violence.  Yet, for my angst ridden teenage self, Sailor’s Holiday was reassuring, if not hopeful.  In my mind Sailor and Lula represented a classical manifestation of “true love”.  And it was this love that they shared that saw them through the violence and sleaze that is Gifford’s American dream.

This is what both David Lynch and Barry Gifford are about; the American dream.  They see its pitfalls, its contradictions and its ugliness for what it is (no matter in what genre it is expressed).  They know that the dream cannot survive without the good nor the bad.  The American dream is just a good narrative after all, with all of the grandeur, posturing and truth of fairy tales and myths.

-Robert Curry

 

 

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“I’m a fraud and you’re a cock sucker.”

1969, Norman Mailer runs for mayor of New York City and loses.  A few months later, Mailer journeys to the Hamptons with a film crew and entourage to produce his film Maidstone.  Unseen till 1970, Maidstone represents one man’s vision of a nation in chaos, but it also presents its audience with Norman Mailer, warts and all.  Of all the personal films made by the Underground in the sixties, none was as honest a portrait of its maker as Maidstone.

In 1968 Norman Mailer covered the Republican and Democratic conventions (Miami & The Siege Of Chicago), published his experimental novel Why Are We In Vietnam? And directed his first two features Wild 90 and Beyond The Law.  The themes in his work quickly evolved beyond the pulpy prose of An American Dream (1965) and the political idealism of The Presidential Papers (1963).  His book on the Pentagon demonstration, Armies Of The Night (1968), had jettisoned Norman Mailer into the liberal upheaval of the late sixties, which became the focus of his creative output in 1968, and the basis of his film Maidstone.

The violence and energy of the Pentagon peace rally and the Chicago demonstrations fascinated Mailer.  The power, both physical as well as abstract, that could be derived from politics became an obsession that, when coupled with his fatalistic Romanticism with regards to Kennedy’s assassination, provided the ground work for Maidstone’s narrative.  Unlike his first two features, Maidstone was to be about the urgent problems that were tearing America apart, designed to probe and explore the mechanics of politics and violence.

Maidstone focuses on Norman T. Kingsley (Norman Mailer), an art-house film director with ties to organized crime and high society who is running for president.  A secret society meets and decides that Kingsley is “ripe for assassination”, and this is the basis of the rest of the film.  From shooting a whore house drama to hosting a political convention, Norman T. Kingsley is at the center of the film, exerting his influence over all those he has gathered around himself, a patriarch in every possible way.

The patriarchal attitudes of Kingsley, as well as his passion for boxing, suspicion of women, his desire to be president and his delusions as a filmmaker are all exaggerated aspects of Mailer’s own persona.  The political stance of Kingsley is a direct response to Mailer’s own The Idol and The Octopus (1968), in which he outlines possible solutions to the problems that arose from the Johnson administration.  There is a lengthy scene in Maidstone where Kingsley addresses the Black Power movement that represents Mailer’s perspective as outlined in the White Negro (1957), that is in turn manifest in Kingsley’s proposal to eliminate ghettos and establish a stronger black presence in the senate.  There is a naïveté in how simple Kingsley’s solutions and ideas are, a distance so far from the reality facing America in 1969 that it soon becomes apparent that Mailer’s own understanding of the more radical political movements is inhibited by a conservativism, of which both Mailer and Kingsley seem unable to address.  In the context of Maidstone, it is necessary to assume that Kingsley’s partial understanding of the liberal movement and the naïveté of his ideals are precisely why there is a plot to kill him.  After all, Kingsley is a respected, popular filmmaker, often compared to Fellini and Bunuel in the film, who reaches a very wide audience.

The issue of filmmaking is also addressed.  The sex scenes Kingsley photographs for his “whore house drama” parody the Joe Dallesandro scenes in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), but also indicate the presence of Mailer’s long term desire to shock his audience, as he did in the misogynistic celebration that is An American Dream and the vulgar encapsulation of misdirected youth in Why Are We In Vietnam?  In Maidstone, Mailer describes his tactics as a means to reach some sort of truth.  This extends beyond the mere desire to shock to the very style in which Mailer creates his films.

By acting out the glamour and corruption Mailer witnessed in Miami, Chicago and Washington DC in a series of long improvisations, Mailer is attempting to present his audience with several views of the truth.  Maidstone opens with a fake news report that further solidifies the film as an extension of the search for truth that Mailer began in his journalism and prose.  That all the characters in Maidstone collapse into a decadent and corrupt free for all at Kingsley’s rally must then be interpreted as a signifier of the corruption of truth.  That there is no one truth, just various perversions of an idea or event, which is, in short, the message of MaidstoneMaidstone is then a logical conclusion to the exploration of paranoia Mailer began in An American Dream that found its foothold in reality with The Armies Of The Night.

The crossing over of themes between Mailer’s writing and his films has been the major obstacle in any critical evaluation of Maidstone.    To discuss Maidstone in the film vernacular is a mistake.  One must evaluate Maidstone as a continuation of Mailer’s literary pursuits; it’s even broken up into chapters.  During production Mailer has admitted that the final shape of the film was unclear to him, that he had no finished product in mind.  The assembly of all the parts in post-production of Maidstone is where the narrative is made.  Before hand Mailer has only ideas for scenes and a vague sense of linear direction, “I know where I’m going, more or less.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get there” (see page 62 of Joseph Gelmis’ The Film Director As Superstar, copyright 1970).  The manifestation of traditional film techniques is reserved for the cutting room.  So it becomes pointless to analyze shots for their significance, which is why Mailer’s films are so far removed from the films of John Cassavetes, Paul Morrissey or any of the major Underground filmmakers.  Norman Mailer is essentially making his films backwards.

The lack of traditional directing during the production of Maidstone left the film open ended when Mailer called cut for the last time.  The first ninety minutes of the film follow Kingsley and his entourage as they debate, argue, fight, make a movie, and have a party.  The tension slowly builds towards an assassination promised at the outset of the film, yet never appears.  After Kingsley’s rally, the film cuts to Mailer addressing the cast out of character.  As reflexive as the inclusion of this scene is, it does more to stress further the likeness between Mailer and Kingsley.  However, this scene is brief, and gives way to a long sequence of Mailer strolling with his wife and kids through a field on the estate where the film was shot.  What happens next is the most famous scene in the film and the reason for the film’s infamy.  Actor Rip Torn describes it in Peter Manso’s book Mailer: His Life & Times– “Everyone was saying to me, ‘You gotta save this film, you gotta do something.’ …”The film was supposed to be over and I was supposed to be in Stockbridge.”

Torn returned to the set to deliver Kingsley’s assassination.  Torn attacked Mailer with a hammer, hitting his head.  The fight was brief, but entirely real.  Mailer’s head was bleeding when the two men were separated; Rip Torn had had a piece of his ear bitten off.  The horror captured in this scene, Mailer’s screaming children, provides Maidstone with an unexpectedly haunting conclusion.  There is no assassination, but something more poignant, real violence.  1968 had been a year of political assassinations, whose terror and shock were perfectly captured in the conclusion of Maidstone.

I have tried to contextualize as much of Maidstone as possible above, but now it is time to place Maidstone into the larger context of the Underground Film movement.  Critic Parker Tyler has described the Underground film of the sixties as a “peepshow”.  Tyler is referring to the introspective nature of Underground films.  The mechanics by which this is achieved involve cinema verite’ camera movements, insular sets/locations, non-actor friends, and a personal subject.  The implication of voyeurism is too vague and abstract to justly dissect the modes by which Underground films function.  However, “peepshows” will do.  Considering Maidstone as a peepshow at first seems ridiculous.  On a superficial level there is nothing claustrophobic about the Hamptons.  So the application of Tyler’s term must be metaphorical.  The alignment of parts in Maidstone present perhaps a series of vignettes, each vignette is in turn a miniature window into the mind of Norman Mailer.

Like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, scenes unravel at a natural pace in the hands of non-actors and hand held cameras.  Both films focus upon one central character whose journey through the narrative brings him into contact with a variety of characters.  Each encounter is designed to explore a singular theme or idea, maybe not until its end, but to some sort of mutual understanding.  It’s interesting that Jonas Mekas, in his book Movie Journal, attributes Mailer’s interest in the cinema to the films of Andy Warhol.  Morrissey made countless films for and with Warhol before Flesh, but like Mailer, has sought to expound upon the devices of Warhol’s aesthetic in a strictly narrative form.  In comparison to Empire (1964) or Blow Job (1964), Maidstone and Flesh are strikingly narrative driven.  Yet, neither film strays too far from Warhol’s use of long takes or his preoccupation with natural human behavior.

Though Morrissey scripted Flesh, he allowed a certain amount of improvisation with his actors, just as Mailer relied only upon improvisation.  The concept of “high brow” art films utilizing improvisation began with John Cassavetes’ first version of Shadows in 1959.  Cassavetes implemented more control over the improvisation in his film than either Mailer or Morrissey, but his film does not capture the “real-time” behavioral responses that make Mailer’s film so compelling and Morrissey’s narrative believable.

The effect in Maidstone is almost surreal.  Mailer’s players are extremely self-conscious about the validity of their improvised dialogue, yet maintain a naturalism exclusively because not a single expression or facial tic is manufactured.  Flesh cannot escape the campy artifice of its hammy players, which is precisely Morrissey’s point.  Mailer on the other hand perceives this anomaly as a means through which his films can reach a wider audience.  The associative powers of human experience and understanding lend Beyond The Law, Wild 90 and Maidstone an earthy credibility that is absent in Morrissey’s film.

Despite the positive and innovative tactics at work in Mailer’s films critics were unable to excuse the lack of mise en scene or the abrasive cuts in the films.  The cinema of Norman Mailer was all but dismissed before Maidstone had its release in 1970.  This prompted Mailer to withdraw from his cinematic pursuits.  Having self financed all three of his films; he had made a large investment with almost no pay off.  Even Mailer’s celebrity as an author could not draw the audience or the serious criticism he desired.  It wasn’t until 1987 that Mailer directed again when he adapted his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance into a film for Golan-Globus.  Tough Guys Don’t Dance was a Hollywood production, not the self financed “peepshow” that Maidstone was.

By the time Mailer published Existential Errands in 1971, the hey day of Underground films had passed.  Yet, in Existential Errands (an anthology of personal essays), Mailer tries very hard to justify Maidstone.  The financial problems in the wake of Maidstone and the critical beating of the film prompted Mailer’s essay.  The tone of Existential Errands is one of sorrowful defeat.  Again and again, Mailer attempts to persuade his reader to reevaluate his film.  Sadly, this would be the recourse of many an Underground filmmaker.

-Robert Curry

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