Two Dollar Movie, Part 1
China Doll (1958)
Filmpiece for Sunshine (1968)
The Final Programme (1973)
Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1976)
The Illinois Parables (2016)
Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Starting Out in the Evening (2007)
Blood Ties (1991)
Escape from the Planet of the Tapes (2003)
Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
‘Toes’ (date unknown)
Straight Time (1978)
Renegade Girl (1946)
Corridor of Mirrors (1948)
We Live in Public (2009)
My Little Princess (2011)
The Chess Game of the Wind (1976)
During the opening credits of China Doll, a US army plane floats in the cloudy skies as if dancing in Heaven. This idyllic view will soon be counterpointed: inside the war machine, coffee is spilled and soldiers get dizzy due to the terrible turbulences, the landscapes of the rocky Himalayas seem ready to devour the plane, and the threat of death is introduced by the captain who tells his men: ‘When your dog tags get back to the States, it’s my job to see that you are with them’. Despite its several action scenes using stock footage of airplanes, China Doll is less a film about war than about American soldiers in a foreign country, rejoicing in the affirmation of conviviality between nations with very diverse cultural backgrounds and traditions.
Its premise arises, precisely, from a cultural misunderstanding: captain Cliff Brandon (Victor Mature) pays for a night with Shu-Jen (Hi Lua Hi) without realising that, according to the Chinese stock market, he has bought himself a housewife for a three-month period. Most of the film deals with the consequences of this mistaken transaction, as it develops into a slow-burning romantic relationship between this couple at odds. If these are clichés, they are handled with the outmost charm and conviction, with a touch of humour and an overwhelming humanity. China Doll grows by contrasting the all-giving gestures of a submissive Shu-Jen with Cliff’s persistent resistance to what she has to offer him. Victor Mature seems born to play the part of this tough man with a big heart who, almost inadvertently, starts to feel moved by the loving actions of this Chinese girl and, little by little, begins to eat her meals, to comply to her domestic rules, and to enjoy the home she has built around him. However, he’s stubborn as a rock and will need a fierce stormy night filled with malaria delirium to drop the guard and admit (even if semi-unconsciously) his feelings for her. The unexpected outcome of this fever and its resulting innuendo will be a wonderful baby that makes the film come full circle.
The final section of China Doll is utterly extraordinary in the way it handles its burst of emotion. War, always in the backdground, takes over and spreads death everywhere. Amidst the tragedy that devastates the film, amidst the ruins and the corpses, Cliff is able to find his baby miraculously alive. He holds her little body with his enormous hands and finds shelter for her (as, earlier, Shun-Jen had sheltered him). He takes off his dog tag and puts it around her neck. They look at each other and it feels as if theirsis the first gaze between father and daughter ever captured by cinema. Cliff’s attempts to bring down the Japanese airplanes are intercut with images of the baby taking the dog tag with her little fingers and bringing it to her mouth. An explosion fills the screen with smoke and, afterward, we only can hear the cry of the baby.
Cut to the last scene where an unforgettable image seals the chain of love displayed by the film: a delicate, young teenager with Chinese traits descends from a plane in America; when she touches soil she offers us a disarming smile as she identifies herself by holding, tight and proudly, the dog tag that hangs around her neck.
In the summer of 1986, I was involved in putting together the Austin Film Society with Rick Linklater, Lee Daniel and George Morris. I’d become roommates with Rick and Lee in the house with the giant hand painted on its turret that later featured in Slacker. Lee had an antechamber adjoined to his bedroom containing a shiny Steenbeck, on which he and Rick were creating their first collaboration, Woodshock. On a shelf were two film cans containing prints of films from the latter half of the ‘60s by John Luther Schofill that had somehow fallen into the room’s possession. We hadn’t seen them, but they had very nice write-ups in the Canyon Cinema catalogue, so we checked out the first that came to hand, X-Film, and programmed it for a ‘Psychedelic Cinema’ show. X-Film was a work of intricate, layered, symbolic beauty which floated our boat. The other film was longer, and had a dauntingly hippie-esque title, Filmpiece for Sunshine. ‘Who wants to watch a film about goats and granola?’, thought us. We let it lie.
Then, one afternoon, when I was pulling a solo monitoring the home front, I got a call from our friend Teresa Taylor of the Butthole Surfers. Might we have some psychedelic movies we could project for their July 4th show at the Ritz? I looked over at the shelf. Hmm … As a matter of fact, we did.
It was with some pride that I assembled with the Buttholes that 4th outside the theatre. They were demi-gods on the scene, and I revered their every decibel. (Still do, especially from that amazing period.) That night, X-Film hit the screen over the Buttholes and, to coin a phrase, the crowd went wild. It was a perfect match. The Butthole’s usual film projections were apposite, but the Schofill, with its symbolic depth, brought out extra, rich, latent layers of ironic meaning. Then the ‘hippie’ movie, Filmpiece for Sunshine, went on and, wow, was that packed house peaking! The bitter-yet-ecstatic psychedelic truth-tellers of the ‘80s were propelled by, and subsumed within, a vision from our parents’ generation. One not of peace and love and all the usual hippie goodies promised by the title, but rather of Eros partnered with Mars. I couldn’t quite tell what the film was all about, but there were late ‘60s youths portrayed engaged in Kodachrome-beswathed quest for soul and sex. A sexy naked girl reclined in a dreamscape, as black-and-white images were projected onto her, à la Goldfinger. Hints of cinematic influences, from Brakhage to Man with a Movie Camera, made themselves felt, not in the box-checking manner of so many postmoderns, but organically enmeshed. I loved what was bewitching my eyes and assaulting my ears, but was nonetheless disturbed. Cinema was the ultimate art for me, and I’d evidently delivered one of its major works to masters of an alien (however beloved) form for this occasion.
As soon as I’d recovered from the show, and had 23 minutes to spare, I threw Filmpiece on the Kodak Pageant 16mm projector for a proper viewing and hearing, and was duly blown away. Shot in a mixture of 16 and Regular-8, Schofill’s 1968 film essays the very essence of late adolescent, male heterosexual being, in all its infinite frustration, confusion and meaning-drenched complexity. With a soundtrack loaded with some of the best pop-rock hits of its time, Filmpiece poetically documents young college student (and future pornography exhibitor) Steven Sunshine, as he makes his way through (and possibly out of) the Bay Area of my infancy. Thus this work, evoking a collaboration between Bruce Baillie and the Scorsese of the ‘70s, tapped right into the fabric of my 19-year-old psyche. I’ve taken apart many a movie with the apparatus of intellectual analysis, but Filmpiece hits me in a place beyond, and deeper than, thought. A place of pure feeling, reached through a type of now-lost intuitive artistry, and rendered with extraordinary beauty. Filmpiece has become all the more potent by becoming a work in every way against the current grain, and hence profoundly unsettling and subversive.
Years later, I became fast friends with the great experimental filmmaker Timoleon Wilkins – partially out of a shared love of Filmpiece for Sunshine. In recent years, I was able to program it for a show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the intensity of its saturated colour ensorcelled the screen. In preparation for this show, I was lucky enough to engage in a couple of phone conversations with maestro Schofill himself. The rewards continue to unfold and multiply, but nothing compares to the initial discovery: not for even a dollar, but for free, I’d discovered one of the great masterworks of cinema sitting unassumingly on our editing-room shelf.
By 2009 or 2010, I was quite obsessed with the films of Georges Franju. I knew by then that Jean-Pierre Mocky, who starred in La Tête contre les murs (1959), had also directed some features, such as Solo (1969) and that, in fact, La Tête contre les murs was originally to be directed by him, but the producers preferred an older filmmaker for the task. At any rate, what I did not know is that Litan, a film by Mocky made in 1982, owes a lot to Franju.
I bought the DVD in France in 2013 when I went to Paris to attend the press junket of The Hangover 3. The hotel was not far from the Quartier Latin and, as I always do when I travel to Paris, I decided to take a walk around the sales shops of books and DVDS at the Boulevard Saint Michel. I found the DVD of Litan there, although I have to admit I paid more than 2 euros for it. If I’m not wrong, it cost me 5 – a price, however, quite competitive for a DVD that originally cost around 13.
What kind of movie did I discover when I could finally see Litan at home? The plot follows a geologist who arrives at the town of Litan the very day of the Feast of the Dead. This was a surprise, because I did not expect to recognise in this movie some of the Franju’s visuals, as well as his rhetoric of the uncanny: an oppressive and mysterious environment, characters wearing numerous masks, macabre dances and conspiracies of secret societies.
I would not say Litan is a masterpiece, but it is a intriguing feature which has very beautiful frames (some of them quite risky, so to speak) and still not very well known today. So, those interested in the European fantasy film genre should include it in their ‘to watch’ list.
Fuest is probably best known for his work on the British TV series The Avengers in the ‘60s and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) with Vincent Price. The Final Programme had – until its UK release on DVD by Network Distributing – been out-of-print in the English-language market for a decade, available only at prices around the £100 mark. The film itself is a retro ‘60s sci-fi parody, with Jenny Runacre (who also appeared in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, 1977) as ‘Miss Brunner’ and Jon Finch, who had just appeared in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), as ‘Jerry Cornelius’ (supposedly the role was first offered to Mick Jagger, who turned it down on the grounds the script was too weird).
The blurb on the Studio Canal edition goes: ‘How to fabricate a new Messiah, harbinger of a new era? A gigantic computer, augmenting the brains of illustrious scientists, gives birth to a hermaphroditic monster capable of reproducing itself’. The brains concerned, of course, are suspended in vats, wired up to a giant mainframe designed by Cornelius’ dear old dad, lately defunct: in fact, the film opens with the scene of Professor Cornelius’ funeral pyre in Lapland, attended by hoary Laplanders in animal furs as son Jerry circles in a helicopter to make a dramatic entrance – the Prof’s former colleagues, also in attendance, look like characters from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). The camerawork, from the outset, is quite stunning, and the entire opening sequence could easily have led to something more in the vein of Northern Gothic were it not for the fact that Fuest overlays it with an upbeat ‘jazzy’ (read, ‘satirical’) soundtrack (Moorcock reportedly wanted space-rock band Hawkwind for the job).
A great deal of tongue-in-cheek kitsch follows, a blend of House of Hammer, Barbarella (1967), Modesty Blaise (1966) and the original Casino Royale (1967), ending with Finch and Runacre screwing under a giant sunlamp in the late Prof’s secret lab in Lapland (where the brains are bubbling away in their vats) and, with the aid of the eponymous ‘final programme’, thereby evolve to a new evolutionary plane: a hunchbacked, hermaphroditic ape, who, emerging from the de rigueur spontaneously combusting lab, winks at the camera, salutes, says ‘so long, sweatheart’ and heads out into the great unknown as the credits begin to scroll. The intervening action is like an LSD trip in a giant, inflatable, pinball machine.
My initial reason for watching Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (Omar Amiralay, 1976) was in hope of expanding the field of my current research on the cinema of Alevis – a topic that turned out to be irrelevant. This documentary was unavailable to me until the second visit to a tiny, hidden DVD shop in Istanbul. Listed among the top 100 best-known Arab films by the Dubai Film Festival 2013, the film offers a critical take on the wilful Westernisation of rural society in Syria. The villagers, who live under severe poverty, are being forced to become ‘civilised’, as their daily struggles for medical care and working in the fields to earn bread and tea continue.
The binary opposition between state authorities and villagers are bridged by close-ups on machinery, or the choreography of women picking the soil, somehow reminiscent of Soviet montage. The repetitive tone of everyday life in this Syrian village is made to look enchanting, rhythmic and almost ritualistic, with scenes of skulls or soil thrown at the camera, as if it is being buried. The sound design also makes it a sensory experience for the audience, as the characters’ silence during lunch is accompanied by the sound of eating bread and drinking tea, making it feel like you are in the room with them in this village.
The ‘tribal spirit’, as verbalised by one of the village authorities in a condescending manner, is celebrated by a folkloric aesthetic without, however, exoticising the subject matter. My recent encounter with the film was made possible by an interest that, indeed, was not met by it - yet it has been an intriguing introduction to the cinema of a culture that, more than ever, deserves attention.
My Videoezy in Potts Point, Sydney, was rapidly clearing its VHS collection to make room for DVDs. Thick cardboard bins strained with boxy stacks of faded blockbusters and rom-coms at $2-$4 a piece – but there were also a couple of weirder offerings ready to be snaffled up. I bought The Human Vapour, an intriguing sounding Japanese SF movie from 1960 (unplayable on my dying VHS player as it turned out – the image riddled with interference and corruption), and the innocuously named Kissed (Lynne Stopkewich, 1996). I was intrigued by the combination of things it promised: the darkest of taboo content (necrophilia!) with a delicate story of a girl’s coming of age, discovering sensuality and romance – all soberly packaged in shades of brown and cream, as if to reassure that this was no crazy exploitation film.
I have not owned a VHS player for eight years now, so I write from perhaps unreliable memory of watching it, and the feelings and sensations bound up in the film’s world and its main character: a young girl fascinated by death and unable to relate to the living, who finds a job in a funeral parlour and trains to be an embalmer. There is Molly Parker’s quiet, indie, freckled prettiness, her tentative fingers touching and stroking dead things and people, her voice high and airy as if she is about to float away, and a whole bunch of weird, sensory ghostings in my own flesh – soft, wiry and cool fur and hair, golden and backlit, firm bodies on embalming slabs, icy skin like marble. In flashbacks to our gentle, loving, necrophiliac’s childhood, we see her first encounter with a dead bird or a roadkill raccoon of some kind; she performs a ritual in an autumnal wood, stroking the corpse as if to ease the last remaining life force out of the stiffening body, lest it be trapped.
She is forever drawn to the cool, inanimate and unyielding skin of corpses, but flinches from a warm touch, which (surprise!) is a problem when she is pursued romantically by a med student: they can only ‘do’ it if he plays dead with a bucketful of ice cubes, trying not to shiver or respond – but he senses that he can never be enough for her as long as he remains alive.
The film is about this line where people become things, truly: the ultimate in objectification and non-consent. So there is a repelled fascination, pulling me in and pushing me out. I recall barking in horrified laughter at several points, such as when she strips and sensually grinds herself on a strapping, young, male corpse. But as if to compensate for the freaky content, the film wraps its character and her world in a mise en scène of golden light, dark rooms, dowdy clothes, brown corduroy and wool.
A generation beyond the movie bargain bin, my closest brush with this form of lottery is beavering through festival sidebars, gambling on films buried deep within a program. The 2016 Berlinale Forum Expanded: I suppose a Guggenheim Fellow cannot be called ‘under the radar’, and yet the advance press screening for Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables was near empty, and it seemed to slip through Berlin unnoticed.
Stratman’s essay film transforms the fifth-largest US state into a teeming, mythopoetic palimpsest. ‘The anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space,’ Foucault said, almost a half-century ago – and yet Stratman’s film urgently explores such questions, sensitive to the layers of history, the displacement and violence, that haunts contemporary Illinois. Gorgeous and moody in 16mm, the eleven-vignette collage of Parables journeys through rivers and prairies, corrupt courtrooms and spontaneously combusting living-room walls. Under Stratman’s rigorous composition, the meaning of ‘Illinois’ shudders and expands as it sparks onto events from the seventh century onwards, non-hierarchically combining folklore, archival footage, re-enactment and more. Though Stratman is a Chicagoan, we encounter more exodus than homecoming. Her thesis, that place is a lived site and a lesson in morality, is thrilling for those ready to work with her.
I found this unpretentious RKO title in a tiny and sympathetic but unfortunately closing down DVD shop in Avignon about ten yours ago. For every item purchased, I received a bigger discount, so as the pile grew bigger, the DVDs got cheaper. Mon dieu, was I ecstatic! I eagerly got my hands on a couple of RKO titles from the 1940s. The translated French titles were often confusing, but that made them just a tad more exotique. While Rachel and the Stranger (Norman Foster, US, 1948) is a run-of-the-mill Western with touches of comedy and romance, it has one big, gigantic asset: Robert Mitchum. And he sings!
Most of you will probably remember Mitchum singing sinisterly in The Night of the Hunter (1955), and some may even be familiar with his fun-loving record from 1957 Calypso is like so … but Mitchum was already bursting into song at every opportunity in this 1948 film and, in so doing, he effortlessly stole the scenes from under the noses of his hard-working, top-billed co-stars, Loretta Young and William Holden. How ironic that Young, whose star pull changed the movie’s title from A Tall Dark Stranger to Rachel and the Stranger to emphasise her narrative importance, and Holden, who is stuck with the part of the righteous, brooding type (he does get extra points for taking off his shirt, but he doesn’t electrify the air as he would in Picnic) are both eclipsed by a drowsy Mitchum, an actor so unambitious and, well, lazy, that he is absent from almost two thirds of the movie. (He didn’t even mind it one bit that he doesn’t get the girl!)
Norman Foster, the film’s director, who had been known as Mr. Claudette Colbert in his days as an actor and who was probably not unfamiliar with being upstaged himself, is smart enough to let Mitchum enjoy himself, and so saves the movie from becoming a forgettable yarn. In fact, it is worth its while just for Mitchum strolling into the opening credits while singing ‘Oh-he, Oh-hi, Oh-ho’. It could be a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavour, the moment is that good (and gone before you know it).
So this is how I became a Mitchum droolette. As I was paying for my guilty treasures, the friendly shop owner looked at my pile of DVDs, pointed at Mitchum, and whispered in a deliciously thick French accent: ‘I loves that guy’.
Starting out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner, US, 2007) is a film about a writer. How many of those have there been? It’s even a film about an elderly male writer who has an affair with an attractive female post-graduate who wants to write her thesis on him. How many of those have there been? Just about every story about a writer on film. It seems to be the only one you can tell about them.
Indeed, it’s the classic old chestnut: late in life, the once-famous New York novelist Leonard Schiller (played by Frank Langella) is stuck writing his fifth book. It’s already taken him 10 years and counting. Enter the attractive red-haired Brown graduate Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) who, of course, shows him that since the death of his wife many years ago he’s stopped living. His prose has suffered, although he doesn’t realise it. In Heather’s words, he’s been ‘hiding from temptation’. And in his own words, uttered late in the film, he hasn’t been able to get his characters to live because he hasn’t given them their ‘freedom’.
Intertwined with this is the story of Ariel, his 40-year old daughter (Lili Taylor), who has broken up with her partner Casey (Adrian Lester) because at one point she wanted a child and he didn’t. By the end of the film, Ariel and Casey have decided to give it another go. It’s not certain that Casey has agreed to be the father of Ariel’s child, but it’s under discussion. In fact, it was Leonard who helped get them back together again, when Casey assisted him after he suffers a stroke and he forgives him after rejecting him for wasting his daughter’s time during her child-bearing years the first time around.
So far, so clichéd. And why would you not just read the great Philip Roth Zuckerman novels if you wanted to know all about a student or anybody else writing about a writer? But what saves Starting out in the Evening is the beautiful conceit – which doesn’t really hit you until the final shot where we see Leonard sitting at the typewriter, back at his novel again after suffering a stroke and Heather’s telling critique of both him and his work for being afraid to live – that the movie we are watching is the very novel he ended up finishing. (A conceit that’s even clearer in the wonderful Brian Morton book on which the film is based.) It’s a shot that repeats the opening shot of the film, in which we also see Leonard at the typewriter, and what we come to realise is that the whole film is, as it were, this second draft. That what we have been looking is all of Leonard’s characters, including Leonard himself, slowly coming to life after being set free.
Heather’s criticism, in a way, came too late because all of the characters, including Heather herself (who is making the criticism) are already shown living their lives beyond any authorial control. Or, to put it another way, everything we are watching arises as a result of this criticism, which must be understood to come not at the end but at the beginning of the film. It’s probably too much to describe Starting Out in the Evening as a meta-fiction, but it’s important to realise that the whole film – and indeed our whole lives – are a kind of starting out in the evening, and that evening is not just something that begins at the end of the film, after the credits roll.
Film enthusiasts know the work of Jim McBride, and indeed I knew his name, at least, when I picked up Blood Ties (1991) on VHS as part of a discounted package deal ($3 for five tapes). Some of McBride’s weirder, less successful, or otherwise overlooked efforts, however, remain parts unknown to all but the more intrepid completists of genre and auteurism. This made-for-television piece, a vampire thriller set mostly in Long Beach, California, might be passed over as simply a low-value product of its era. The racial and sexual metaphors are clumsily written. The film’s production design and its sometimes hammy acting might prompt some viewers to choose camp as the most charitable way to inhabit this stylistic universe.
Yet I think the most interesting thing about Blood Ties is less the datedness of its early ‘90s TV-movie stylings, and more its summoning of much older representational strategies. Performances are anchored to actors’ physiognomies in a way that resembles silent cinema. Patrick Bachau mugs for the camera like a villainous Lon Chaney. Michelle Johnson’s vampiric Celia, all dark hair and big eyes, recalls the visages of Musidora or Louise Brooks. Orgiastic scenes of group choreography, designed by Bill and Jacqui Landrum, hint at Feuilladish tableaux.
At one moment, a group of younger vampires writhe and dance in wide shot before a graffiti mural they have just spray-painted. The bacchanalian image is not quite a dance number, yet goes beyond naturalism. The bodily movements are coordinated, in fact pulsating, and therein lies a logic of figural expression that underscores the whole movie: here is a ‘tribe’ connected by and to blood, attentive to a ‘pulse’. Without ever becoming a formal concept, this aesthetic aspect is a fairly strong idea, and it is the sort of thing one may find from this moment of low-budget, earnest genre cinema of the period. (In my mind, Blood Ties exists not so far from David Marconi’s The Harvest  or Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers .) It is also the kind of implicit inventiveness that often falls by the wayside as canons solidify.
I was an Argentinean girl on a cinephile trip when a nice Australian colleague took me to Andrew´s shop Trash Video in Brisbane, and gave me a copy of the TV documentary Escape from the Planet of the Tapes (2003), featuring Andrew, and co-directed by Anthony Mullins & Krissy Kneen. (It is viewable online.) As soon as I returned to Buenos Aires I watched it: it mixes quotes and testimonies, while Andrew complains about the imminent loss of Trash Video. The date is significant: the film starts in 2001 (however much it looks like a ‘70 film), the first year of the New Century when digital technology was a blessing yet at the same time a menace for various people and gadgets.
The truth is, I do not understand all the words Andrew says (the film doesn´t have Spanish subtitles, and the Australian accent is far different from the American one). But I understood completely his love for his movies and tapes. Andrew’s passion for trash films was so big that he knew the existence of the controversial Argentinean filmmaker Emilio Vieyra, the films by Olmedo and Porcel, and Los Superagentes: Tiburón, Mojarrita y Delfín. I do not know what happened to Andrew´s tapes after Trash Video closed in 2010, but I hope his material has been preserved.
When I bought the Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) DVD from a Salvation Army store in rural Victoria, I had never heard of it. It is not a film, unlike some from the 1980s (John Hughes comes to mind) that has enjoyed cult status, or makes a strong case, at least at face value, for revival. In fact, it has more or less disappeared off the radar (along with much of Paul Mazursky’s oeuvre, which includes films like Next Stop, Greenwich Village , An Unmarried Woman  and the better-known Moscow on the Hudson ).
I chose Down and Out initially because of my perverse love of Bette Midler’s acting style; however, my interest was also piqued by the fact that the film is a remake of Jean Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux (René Fauchois’ play, on which Renoir based his 1932 film, is credited, however it is likely that Mazursky came to the play by way of Renoir). Despite transporting the setting from 1930s Paris to LA in the 1980s, and the catalytic drowning scene from the Seine to a backyard swimming pool, the narrative follows Renoir’s film somewhat faithfully – with the exception of the ending, in which a typical Hollywood reversal takes place: whereas Boudu rejects the life of wealth and luxury offered him, his Hollywood counterpart (played by Nick Nolte) ultimately turns his back on the transient lifestyle he formerly embraced, to be welcomed into the bosom of a wealthy LA family (with the inference that he will take up a position in the family business and potentially marry the daughter). In this, Mazursky’s film is actually faithful to the ending of the play, an ending Renoir disliked, and more suitable to a 1980s American audience (its possible irony aside).
All this is of minor interest to the film scholar or buff; however, Mazursky’s film offers a deeper – and not, as I since discovered, undocumented – reference to another cinema classic, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). In a sense, it can be argued that Down and Out is as much a remake of Teorema as it is of Boudu. The Nolte character functions in an analogous way to the Terrence Stamp character in Teorema: an angel of mercy who comes to fulfil each family member’s respective fantasy (the entrepreneurial patriarch who suffers guilt over the exploitation of his workers, the neglected wife, the repressed homosexual artist son, the pretty daughter with a father complex). His work done, the family is left to contemplate life without their messiah. In this, too, Down and Out departs from its precursor: unlike the Nolte character, the Stamp character leaves the family to contemplate the emptiness of its bourgeois life. Another thing Mazursky’s film has to recommend it is the opening and closing credit sequences featuring the Talking Heads classic ‘Once in a Lifetime’, into which the whole meaning of the film is distilled.
Footage. The store where I found my two-dollar movie, some two decades ago during an altogether different life, was a solitary shopfront glimmering like a trader’s outpost in a remote cul-de-sac off the shaggily wretched suburban wilderness of Hobart: a tiny barque afloat in the stagnant social pool that the meandering road and its occasional melancholy traffic dribbled into, and that was forever immersed in the gloom under a mountain’s portentous cold shadow.
The place was far enough off the commercial track to be visited as a pilgrimage only on lonely grey weekend afternoons by its coterie of retarded aficionados (gore-fest and horror freaks), and thus it had doom written onto it like a prophecy that only the owner couldn’t acknowledge. When the bell conclusively tolled for him, there were bins of his strangely eclectic stock marked down but scenically overflowing with the decadence of piratical booty. Along with the other vultures, I shamelessly dived onto the carrion.
‘Today’, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann famously declared upon unearthing a grave at Mycenae in 1876, ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon’. (Not really; that’s an apocryphal story. His telegram was instead prosaically cautious: ‘This corpse very much resembles the image which my imagination formed long ago of wide-ruling Agamemnon.’) When I disinterred a naked VHS cassette with the mysteriously hand-written label ‘toes’, perhaps I too had gazed on something legendary; and when the vendor couldn’t explain its origin (or just denied trafficking in that sort of thing), this confirmed the suspicion that there was some kind of magic to this relic.
Black magic: a few years later in the Japanese horror movie Ringu (1998) I saw – on the faces of those characters obliged by a fateful curiosity to play the cursed videocassette of the evil ghost’s contaminating psychic projections – an expression that must have matched my creepy misgiving when I first loaded my find in the machine. The tape turned out to be about 25 minutes long. Black and white, silent, and a transfer from very grainy 16mm (or maybe even standard 8mm), with the frames rolling in the gate and fleeting exposure flares as if the editing was in-camera. It had probably gone through countless video versions, but that didn’t diminish the impression of uncovering something starkly bizarre, something that was reaching out through a long and decayed corridor of time, or rising up from a pit.
Even though they were all filmed in close-up, the toes evidently belonged to numerous women. Some were stockinged (with the sort of seams and gussets that evoked post-WWII glamour), some were naked; some with nail polish, some with dirt under the nails. They curl in delight; arch conceitedly; they coquettishly peek into the shot or duck below the frame; they flex and slip in and out of high heels and ballet pumps. It’s possible – well, let’s say philosophically preferable – that every separate shot is of a different individual, as manically serial as Leporello’s list of his master Don Juan’s conquests; there’s no doubt, however, that it would have been shot by one person. That delirious succession of evanescent glimpses and transfixed stares had an unambiguous directorial command, not quite amateur nor that of an outsider let alone an artist but of a technical professional using their skill and equipment to enjoy accessing their fetish, on the side.
I figure its author might have been Elmer Batters, the putative US maestro of so-called ‘foot art’ who published his private photographic opus through the 1950s and ‘60s in specialist magazines that had ludicrously ingenuous names such as Leg-O-Rama. (He was, in the later 1990s, rediscovered and championed in equivalently ludicrous but lavish volumes published by Benedikt Taschen.) Batters had a particular muse, Caruska, and favoured wider shots to accommodate the body’s acrobatic, balletic or contortionist cheesecake posturing; so if the footage was Batters’, then it was unusual – and a bit of a nerdy treasure – for its unswervingly abstract focus.
The funeral mask of Agamemnon that Schliemann dug up (allegedly dated around 1500 BCE) has the residue of the eerily abstract facial features of Cycladic figures – blank, almond eyes and tapered chin – which became popularly identified with extraterrestrials (the ‘grey’ aliens) described in abduction narratives, such as Whitney Streiber’s Communion. My two-dollar artefact seemed just as alien: a sort of death mask of the fetishist’s gaze. But Schliemann’s mask is possibly a forgery, and my videocassette has since disappeared in one of my successive relocations, compacted into landfill. Along with Schliemann’s telegram, my own narrative of discovery ought to be treated as apocryphal.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, my two brothers were in the rental video business; every so often, they would shower me with VHS freebies. That’s how I came to know Ulu Grosbard’s hauntingly de-glamourised crime drama, Straight Time (1978). Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman), a small–time thief, is released from prison and inexorably (in keeping with film noir tropes), because he can’t make it in the everyday straight world, is sucked back into his past life-world of crime. Hoffman was originally going to direct this unsung gem of Los Angeles as the ‘Great Wrong Place’ (W.H. Auden). It is existentially such an honest, absurd, poignant portrayal of Dembo’s tragic misfortunes in adjusting to his new life; things go awry in a Beckettian fashion. After robbing a Chinese grocery store and planning a series of bigger heists with his old friend, Jerry (played by the great Harry Dean Stanton with characteristic, iconic perfection), he ends upping the ante by robbing a Beverly Hills jewellery store.
The film sings with appealing noir grit and style, from its low-life domestic suburban mise en scène, to the in-depth rendition of Dembo’s interiority as a hard-bitten criminal who knows in his craw that the world is, contra to Dr. Pangloss’ mantric assertion that this is the best of possible worlds (ha!), not too welcoming to the more unfortunate and hapless amongst us – and not forgetting the entrancing, botched jewellery store robbery. The film’s quality is mainly attributable to Hoffman’s deftly-crafted, resonant performance; as well as, of course, the inimitably hard-boiled hand of Edward Bunker, a criminal-turned-screenwriter/novelist and actor.
One of the essential release conditions of Max’s parole is, predictably enough, to find employment. He meets Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell) at the employment agency, and she finds him a job at a can factory. She becomes infatuated with the gentle, worldly ex-jailbird. The other condition is that he must report to a sadistic, humiliating parole officer, Earl (the ubiquitous M. Emmet Walsh, no less). He is a despicable reminder to Max of how mundanely cruel the straight world can be. One of the most truthful and engaging aspects of the drama is its underlying moral order, in which Max’s world (in all of its Luc Sante-like sociocultural depiction) has more honour, generosity and empathy to it than the straight world. In Straight Time there is a certain, lingering thematic/formal sympatico with Jean-Pierre Melville’s elegantly poetic cinema of honourable gangsters and their not-too-honourable law-and-order counterparts.
Straight Time is a film that richly invites repeated viewings for its manifold textual and performative pleasures. Like one of my childhood pigeons, it quietly keeps homing back to the fore of my consciousness. Two final things: that spectacularly botched jewellery robbery, where the goggled Max, armed with thick gloves and a very active claw hammer, is seen going along the store’s display units, smashing them into smithereens of broken glass shards as he grabs the loot – thus reminding me of the hero of Chris Marker’s post-war nuclear/time travel science fiction featurette, La jetée (1963). It is a masterfully orchestrated sequence. And then there is Jerry’s elegiac, absurd death, shot by a pursuing police officer as he scales over a suburban fence and dies in its backyard. As he quietly passes away, he looks at Max, speechless, and the latter helplessly returns his comradely, unspoken gaze … then keeps on running. It is a death scene that, for me, evokes the tragic quality of Slim Pickens’ death in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), where we see Pickens shot in the stomach and sitting up (with Bob Dylan’s mytho-poetic, hymn-like ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ playing in the background), thinking how he never got to build his boat in the middle of nowhere. Dreaming of a day when he would somehow sail toward a more inviting horizon.
A surprising revelation is demonstrated by the subset of forgotten Westerns featuring (not just including) female characters: one of the genre’s crucial actions is changing clothes. For every extraordinary woman-centred Western like Johnny Guitar (1954) or Forty Guns (1957), there are many more films maudits such as Frontier Gal (1945), Belle Starr’s Daughter (1947) and Two-Gun Lady (1955): there’s also Renegade Girl, a cheap present that opened on Christmas day in 1946 produced and directed by the prolific but perhaps deservedly unknown William Berke for the low-budget independent Affiliated Productions. The film compelled me to retrieve it from a bargain bin of VHS tapes for two reasons: I’m interested in viewing emphatically average Westerns rather than the masterpieces that critics have allowed to define the genre; and the film stars Ann Savage, best-known for her indelible performance in Edgar G. Ulmer’s (now) classic film noir Detour, made a year earlier.
I can’t rescue the film or its director, even if it moves along at a nice clip in an efficient 65 minutes. Savage, now platinum blonde, is again a hard-boiled dame, even though she’s now in Missouri at the end of the Civil War, torn between avenging her family and the chance for love with a Union Captain. ‘Everything I touch dies’, her best line in Renegade Girl, could have easily come from the script of Detour. For the first half of the film, Savage wears a standard Hollywood cowgirl outfit: black hat, black blouse, a gun belt, split riding skirt and boots. After a long recovery from injury, her ‘return to life’ is marked by lighter, feminine clothing, but renewed desire for revenge returns her to the earlier outfit. Soon, seeking to quell growing dissert among her band of scruffy outlaws, she dons an elegant dress that her loyal sidekick has purchased for her. In the most elaborately staged and edited sequence, the divided gang slaughters one another just after her appearance as a lady rather than a renegade has briefly stunned them. Savage is literally dressed to kill.
Costume in the Western is often thought to be basic and utilitarian, but female-centred Westerns, even when cheaply made, persistently affirm the social meaning of clothing, and dramatise the narrative implications of changing clothes. Renegade Girl, without footage or a minute to spare, nevertheless finds the time to stage its fashion show in the genre critics have misunderstood as the least interested in the sartorial.
The Looking-Glass Lovers. In the early 2000s, I did a brief stint at a video store that was still slowly making the transition from tapes to discs. Every now and then, titles in the old format would be sold off to make room for titles in the new. It was during one of these sales that I acquired, for only $1, a VHS copy of Terence Young’s first feature, Corridor of Mirrors (UK, 1948) – which, ironically, I recently purchased on DVD! It’s a film that easily, and wonderfully, satisfies my appetite for wildly ambitious cinematic chimaeras. A masterful instance of a work ‘reflecting’ its manifold inspirations without at the same time ‘shattering’ under the weight of its copious allusions (yes, maladroit puns intended), it references not only classic fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard), but also ancient myths (Orpheus and Eurydice), Shakespearean heroes and villains (Hamlet and Othello), as well as two of the 19th century’s most liminal monsters (Dorian Gray and Dracula).
Just as important, but perhaps more obvious to cinephiles, are its direct and indirect nods to a number of other films from the 1940s that feature obsessive – to the point of being twisted – romantic couplings. These include: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940, David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). For me, there is also a faint whiff of Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, but this was released in the same year and is therefore unlikely to have influenced either its conception or its making. On the other hand, it can hardly be a coincidence that its composer – Georges Auric – scored the aforementioned film by Cocteau. Also notable is how prominent mirrors and, more broadly, troubled self-images are in the stories, and to the figures, that inform its bizarre theatre of love, lust and death.
In fact, it is hard not to read Young’s oneiric, rapturous and uncanny concoction as an ode to a motif, rather than a genre: to a trope, rather than a style. A case of the real drama coming not from the story as a whole but from one of its ‘telling’ parts. For example, we speak of reflections as being in, rather than on, mirrors: just as we talk of projected images as being on, rather than in, screens. The reason for this, I suspect, is that we can always imagine an empty screen, but there really is no such thing as an empty mirror. This medial difference in the existential play of surface and depth, of substance and void, is something the cinema is very good at figuring – and, of course, at disrupting. What happens, for instance, when a mirror and whatever is reflected in it appear on a screen? Surely the image in the mirror is, now, also on a screen!
The resulting spatial and ontological ambiguity is one that Corridor of Mirrors explores, and exploits, with giddy pleasure. Behind a series of mirrored doors, the film’s ‘Beauty’ finds sumptuous clothes (on mannequins) and expensive jewels (arrayed in drawers), which have been placed there by the film’s ‘Beast’ in order to lure her into his necrotic fantasy. It works and, blissfully ensnared by his looking glass maze, she deliriously exchanges her wholesome dimensionality for the virtual dimensions of a perverse alter ego. When she finally comes to her senses and escapes his clutches, the ‘tissue of reflections’ in which she has been wrapped dissolves … as do its dubious enchantments.
‘Everything is free except the video that we capture of you – that we own’. Such was the agreement that, at the turn of the millennium, Josh Harris made with over one hundred people who decided to take part in his unbelievable experiment, Quiet: We Live in Public. They would have to spend one month in an underground bunker in downtown Manhattan, where everything needed to live was provided in return for a 24/7 camera exposure. Harris, who by then was the owner of Pseudo, one of the (if not the) first Internet television network(s), recruited a number of net-artists and professionals to basically translate the organising principle of online environments into real life.
The documentary film We Live in Public (2009) by independent American filmmaker Ondi Timoner reconstructs the experience and, in so doing, not only tells the story of a visionary man, but also cannot but encourage a reflection drawing on the fundamental role of images, (hyper-)visibility and connectivity, tangibility and consistency versus avatars – all of which are quite crucial aspects of our contemporary screen culture.
This is not a lecture on visual culture, its drifts and deviations, nor on surveillance and control society – but watching We Live in Public is indeed that sort of viewing experience, which immediately awakens the spectator’s reminiscences of a Big Brother-inspired world. Quite inevitably, then, Harris’ project – and by extension Timoner’s film – clearly speaks to Orwellian, dystopian fantasies: be they rooted in our imaginary by the compulsory high school summer reading of 1984, in one’s own personal passion for reality shows, or a cinematic background. It is worth noting that his experiment was almost simultaneous with the first season of the renowned TV show Big Brother, broadcast in Fall 1999 in the Netherlands. And there are countless films that brought to the big screen a fictionalised, often terrifying future society characterised by a vast array of unimaginable techno-futuristic forms of social engineering. Except that Quiet was not fiction at all. Better yet, it was so real that it seemed unreal.
The film opens with a brief introduction of the main character, Harris: according to a very traditional rhetoric, his background and story are depicted, some of his collaborators and family members are interviewed, and the profile of a quite introverted, very focused person with a huge ego is ultimately provided. Timoner also gives some context to Quiet; the project was born out of Harris’ idea and entirely financed by his company, hence it appears as an extension of his identity and issues in the public sphere. This is the reason why, on the one hand, We Live in Public definitely adheres to the classic features of the documentary genre but, at the same time, might well be seen as a biopic, where the person and his image, the man and the public personae always intermingle.
Inspired by the conviction that the Internet profoundly changes the human condition, Harris aimed at turning the structure of the online ‘chat room’ into a real, architectural one. This is what literally happened in his bunker. The heart of such extraordinary architecture was the ‘capsule hotel’, which was constructed ‘to find out what the Internet is going to look like when it takes over’. It was formed by several wired cells, disposed as a beehive; each cell was part of a network and each participant was given a pod. From there, people were filmed and had a monitor where videos of other people in the other pods were continuously broadcast – no less than a shared video experience ante litteram. In this panopticon-fashioned architecture, everybody had to have access to everybody else’s environment: the ‘citizens’ of Quiet sacrificed their privacy and freedom, but found Harris’ plan tantalising all the same. His way of depicting and ruling this parallel, totalitarian society was clearly provocative, though riveting. Probably his own involvement in it was enough to attract and engage other people.
Such first-person commitment turned out to be the most prominent feature of a subsequent experiment, which took place in 2000, after the Manhattan bunker was finally dismantled by the NYPD. Harris’ new challenge, which he saw as the ‘next logical step’ was even more centred on himself: it consisted of a live broadcasting of his and his girlfriend Tanya’s lives in their loft, ceaselessly streamed online for six months. Timoner delves into the technical details of the equipment (microphones and motion control surveillance cameras all over the place, bathroom included), as well as into the relational aspects of the experience, which started – by admission of Tanya herself – as ‘something cool and fun’ and finished with the complete loss of intimacy and thus the end of the romance, as well as Harris’ nervous breakdown.
The reception of We Live in Public was apparently very positive: appearing in early 2009, it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize award in the US documentary category at Sundance Film Festival that same year, and the critics were enthusiastic. Yet, to my knowledge, it did not circulate widely thereafter, and less than 10 years later, it does not seem to have kept a place in audience memory, nor in the top-film lists compiled by cinephiles. That is perhaps how I was able to buy a copy of the DVD for only a few pounds in a London bookshop. Surely, We Live in Public does not entail any aesthetic choice, nor provide any gimmick designed to entice the viewer for particular reasons – except that it is prophetic.
Postscript. As I write this text [29 June 2016], I learn from my Instagram feed that today is the [American] ‘National Camera Day,’ and I cannot but recall that, according to the Oxford Dictionary, in ‘selfie’ was the word of the year 2014. Also, I quite nostalgically remember the time when one could easily find paper tissues and lighters sold in the streets, while now my hay fever and smoking habit are clearly left to me alone to be resolved, for the only goods that seem to be in vogue are portable batteries, cell chargers and selfie-sticks. Despite my full respect to Niépce & Co., and my admiration for the tons of portable-batteries and selfie-stick users who comfortably extract their always 100% charged phone to take a picture of themselves in front of Francesco Hayez’ Kiss to post on Facebook, it seems to me that the image industry has long found a way into our most basic modes of interaction and representation. It is not news, but now it is not simply ‘cool and fun’; rather, it talks to us so subtly that it is completely naturalised, absorbed and therefore quite implicitly accepted as a fundamental part of our social and intimate experience.
The image we produce and share
is what people see of us and, consequently, very often becomes us. No matter if it is a bit posed or completely fake, if it
reports events or instead invents them; no matter if it replaces human
consistency – albeit imperfect – with intangible pixels, or if the referent
ends up not counting as much as the index does: it is the world of open yet
pretended, shared yet detached intimacy. Josh Harris had somehow envisaged it, even
if We Live in Public is now almost forgotten. Oddly enough, I guess I am
calling for some sort of visibility for a feature on exhibitionism and
over-exposure – so am I part of the dystopian fiction, too?
When I got to Network Video, their sale had already been on for a few days but there were still thousands of DVDs in boxes, on shelves, on tables and on the floor, and prices of precious films were dropping as closure was looming. As with all visits to video stores, browsing the shelves led me to films I hadn’t seen and was curious about, so I bought copies of I, Anna (Barnaby Southcombe, 2012), Drool (Nancy Kissam, 2010), Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004), Nice Girls Don’t Explode (Chuck Martinez, 1987) and My Little Princess (Eva Ionesco, 2011). It was bittersweet to know that this was the last time I was going to be able to peruse these films in this way, though the video-shop owner was less sentimental as she told me that the people who were sad she was closing down were the same people who hadn’t borrowed DVDs for more than a year.
Of all my purchases that day, My Little Princess was the film that surprised me the most, in part because I didn’t even know this film existed – even though I’m always interested in films about photographers and photography. It is the first film directed by Eva Ionesco – the daughter of French-Romanian photographer Irina Ionesco, who courted controversy by photographing her daughter Eva from the age of five in increasingly erotic poses. She even exhibited these photographs in art galleries and published them in magazines. Eva has the infamous reputation of being the youngest model to appear nude in a Playboy pictorial at the age of 11.
My Little Princess is Eva’s story – a semi-autobiographical account told from the memories and perspective of a photographer’s muse. In this film, Eva is not just returning to the story of her childhood and the scandal that she was unhappily part of; she is also trying to reclaim her story by remaking it. As she moves from the object being photographed to the filmmaker retelling that story, there is some fictionalisation, but the evocation of Eva’s own life is always present. In the filmed story, a young girl, Violetta, lives with her great–grandmother, while Hannah, her nomadic artist-mother, appears and disappears. When Hannah’s artist-friend Ernst gifts her a Nikon camera, she starts obsessively photographing elaborately staged gothic tableaux with dolls, skulls, decaying flower arrangements, mirrors, masks and fetishistic costumes, including feather boas and fishnet stockings that she dresses Violetta in – the restaging of Ionesco’s infamous photographs is explicit.
While My Little Princess has been described by Ionesco as a ‘dark fairy tale’, the film itself is an impressive collaboration, with a script written by Marc Cholodenko and Philippe Le Guay, costumes designed by Catherine Baba, and a cast that includes Isabelle Huppert, Anamaria Vartolomei and Denis Lavant. It premiered at the Cannes 2011 film festival and was screened at the Palais des Festival on the occasion of the 50th celebration of Cannes Critics’ Week. It was also nominated for the Camera d’or and went on to win the Golden Gateway award for best film at the 13th Mumbai Film Festival. Yet, in spite of this promising beginning, it was critically maligned and then just seemed to disappear. So why look at it now?
On the one hand, the reason is to see Eva’s retelling and restaging of a story that was widely known. It is surely the first film made by a woman who was the subject of controversial erotic photographs taken by her mother. (In a curious footnote, Eva’s teenage son Lukas later became the star of Larry Clark’s The Smell of Us , sparking yet another alleged exploitation controversy.) Violetta’s shifting emotions are confronting, from initial enchantment and an eagerness to please her mother, to utter contempt and refusal to remove her clothes. As her mother remakes Violetta’s pre-pubescent identity into an eroticised fetish figure, Violetta increasingly struggles to find her own place in the world. One of the things that the film does incredibly well, through costume, makeup and gesture, is to portray this mother and daughter as being ‘out of time’ and ‘out of place’ in the world that they inhabit. Hannah suddenly appears, late at night, wearing floor-length satin dresses and jewelled bird-cage veils, looking like an actress from a 1920s silent film. At school, Violetta’s newly crimped blonde hair is poked and stroked by other school children who see her as a curious object. Screen legends Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Temple are mentioned as figures to emulate.
But another reason to look at this film is to consider it as part of a larger conversation about films concerning photography, and how they invite us to think about the function and affect of images. The characters at the centre of this world are possessed, empowered and destroyed by images. The great grandmother worships iconic images. Hannah creates gothic fairy-tale photographs of her daughter. Hannah’s artist friend Ernst paints massive, abstract canvases. The film even establishes a lineage to Ionesco’s work, including a book of photographs by Bellocq, while Hannah’s mention of Lewis Carroll and Balthus suggests she is aware of a tradition of artists’ portraits of children.
Early in the film, there is a moment when the great grandmother says to Hannah, ‘If only you worked’, to which Hannah replies: ‘As if expression through images wasn’t work. It’s the most beautiful, sacred thing’. This richly suggestive claim also questions art’s identity and complicity: Is art beyond ethics? Is the creative imperative essentially amoral? Does the artistic outcome always justify its means? Can exploitation be a creative act? These are questions that the film compels us to consider.
It is the early 2000s, and I am a young cinephile devouring any movie I can find, from 1970s and ‘80s horror films to classics, modern classics, and any European movies. It is hard to slake my thirst since, in the times of no broadband Internet – and in Iran where almost no foreign movie hits the screens, and the selling of movies is illegal – my only source is bootlegs. Finding Iranian movies made before the 1978 Islamic Revolution is also an odyssey; we know many movies, as if we had seen them, only through reading articles about them.
One of these Iranian films is The Chess Game of the Wind (1976) by Mohammad Reza Aslani, a Holy Grail of Iranian cinema. So when you came across a bad copy of the film by mere chance for $0.5USD, you watch it – without considering the blurry, horrible VHS quality of the version available, forgetting that the film is really in colour, and that what you are seeing is a black-and-white film with French subtitles. After the first viewing, you envy anyone who saw it in cinema years ago, even though it was, even then, not screened properly. You boast of having seen the film to your friends – but it takes almost 15 years to find a good quality version of the film, in another semi-bootleg on DVD, and paying less than $2USD for it.
This time, you really see the film and appreciate all it has achieved. From marvelous camera movements, to every tiny prop purposefully set in the corners of the frame. You understand how important mise en scène is for this director who loves Max Ophüls. The story is very simple: the decadence of a family in the Qajar dynasty of Iran. Aslani is one of the most neglected Iranian filmmakers – not only outside Iran, but also in his homeland. A prolific documentarist who has made only two fiction films (the second, Green Fire , was bashed by critics, which is hardly surprising), Aslani is a filmmaker who tells the most Iranian stories with the elegant technique of Ophüls or Visconti. His movies are eloquent, hard to digest.
However, it takes only 15 minutes to succumb to The Chess Game of the Wind. With the first dinner gathering of the family of the deceased mother (crippled daughter, her step father, her uncle, her maid), through mise en scène, the power dynamic of the story unfolds. You grasp that this story of fighting over a great deal of money is only a pretext for deeper social and cultural comment. The film foretells the Iranian Revolution and remains riveting – not only because of its story and hidden layers, but also because it is one of the rarest Iranian films that, while in debt to German Expressionism and Visconti’s operatic, narrative tools, is rooted in Iranian painting and frame composition. That’s why the film is truly the Holy Grail of Iranian cinephiles – and a mesmerising one.
Wandering into my small, densely packed local Sydney video store one night around 1990, I found myself looking through the science-fiction section. On a heaving shelf touching the floor was an especially dusty, very old-looking VHS cover. What was this film that had sat there un-hired for likely years, with a cover featuring an indistinct, icy world? I laid down my 50c (I think it was) weekly hire charge and took home Quintet (US, 1979). Still a fairly casual, untutored movie fan, Robert Altman’s name would have been familiar to me (I recall recently seeing The Player , which seemed a well-made but overrated and very soft Hollywood satire), but likely either didn't notice it on the box or especially care. With my flat-mate out for the evening, a few seconds after pressing play, I was hooked.
Quintet was science-fiction through being set in the future, but there was no fetishising of technology or aliens. The opaque ‘death game’ narrative form was slightly irritating. Yet the source of this post-apocalyptic dystopia seemed the result of environmental disregard and the competition-at-all-costs ideology that I was more than familiar with. That the film had copious late-‘70s world cinema stars along with Paul Newman didn't mean much to me (I was, however, delighted to see Bibi Andersson outside Bergman’s work). What dominated everything, and why I became an instant fan, was the immediate aesthetic rush.
The conventional-on-paper, large, Hollywood soundtrack orchestra played very tonally challenging music (by Tom Pierson). And never before or since have I seen such gigantic, desolate zoom shots (even in Altman’s other, much more celebrated work). Seemingly endless, they operate totally at one with the desolate note clusters and occasional amplified ‘ice-sounds’. Being a 1980s VHS, I was watching a mutilated pan-and-scan image, yet the sublime compositional effects were still very much alive. Upon finally seeing a widescreen version many years later, I realised Altman had shot Quintet in 1.85:1 (his usual preference was 2.35:1), but in many shots the legible part of the frame is effectively an old ‘Academy’ 1.33:1 shape, thanks to the use of custom filters making it appear as if the sides of the camera lens had ‘frozen’, resulting in smudged colour and total lack of clarity. Such were the vagaries of pan-and-scan techniques, in some shots this effect had crept into the VHS edition, making the film even stranger!
Its beautifully sustained mise en scène, combining slowly ‘moving’ shots of the icy terrain with interior sequences featuring fabulous production design (a circa 1979 modernist vision in debris form crossed with more organic, indigenous-appropriated materials), the film is a unique, aesthetic marvel. Unsurprisingly, Fox’s hopes of cashing in further on the Star Wars craze were dashed: Quintet was a financial disaster (if anything, it is closer to Tarkovsky’s Stalker, made the same year), and has found few committed defenders. One oft-cited reason is its relentlessly grim vision, as ‘depressing’ as the bleakest European art cinema. Already friends with abyss-confronting movies, that initial VHS encounter with Quintet was a key moment in what soon became a diversifying cinematic obsession.
But the reaction is not surprising, because most mainstream male film critics do not know what they are talking about – especially when it comes to women on screen. Say what you will about its subject matter, but Tideland is a wonderful movie because it never victimises or exploits Jeliza-Rose, like so many films involving young children do. When she cooks heroin for her parents, she does so innocently, because she does not know that what they are doing is ‘bad’. At what age do we learn that certain things are ‘good’ and others ‘bad’? Whatever age that is, Jeliza-Rose has not yet reached it. She watches her parents shooting up and thinks they are taking their medicine. By preparing the dose, she believes she is being a kind, helpful daughter. Tideland boldly and bravely places Jeliza-Rose in several dangerous and downright scary situations – and has enough confidence in her common sense and intuition to back off and let her fend for herself.
As odd as it may sound, the movie is also a lot of fun. Gilliam’s trusty DP, Nicola Pecorini, embraces the film’s madness, and has a ball showing Jeliza-Rose frolicking through her valley of death and decay as if it were a field of daisies. In typical Gilliam fashion, he shoots everything using wide angle lenses, so we can always watch and see everything – every action, movement and Hunter Thompson-inspired gesture – happening on screen. This makes the movie, which largely takes place inside an old, dilapidated farmhouse, feel like it is occurring in one of those split dollhouses where you can see into every room. It is truly enjoyable to watch Jeliza-Rose play with her doll heads, put on costumes and make-believe her way through her kooky life. She has a terrific giggle.
Tideland is one of only two movies to which I can really relate. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) is the other. As the daughter of drug addicts and ex-cons, I am grateful to Terry Gilliam for having the balls to make this movie. I didn’t turn out to be a statistic and I don’t think Jeliza-Rose did, either. No matter what happens, we can always count on ourselves.
© the authors, 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.