Filibus (Re)Introduces Us to the Wild, Weird Women of 1910s Cinema

| Daniel Lawrence Aufmann |

Image courtesy of Milestone Films

Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, January 28 to Sunday, January 30. For more information, see the program notes at the bottom of this post. For tickets, scroll to the bottom of this page or visit trylon.org.


What images spring to mind when you think about silent cinema? Perhaps Charlie Chaplin sliding around in his cabin in The Gold Rush (1925), or waddling off into the sunset in Modern Times (1936). Or maybe Brigitte Helm’s dynamic performance as the angelic Maria and her vampish robotic doppelgänger in Metropolis (1927), or the massacre on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925). And of course, who could forget Filibus, the cross-dressing lesbian master thief, descending from the sky to commit daring robberies before escaping in a zeppelin manned by a crew of loyal male subordinates.

Wait, what? That last one can’t be real, can it? Well, yes. Yes it can.

Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate has only recently been rediscovered and restored by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, and is finally receiving the love and acclaim it so richly deserves. Made in Italy in 1915, Filibus stars Valeria Creti as its title character, an energetic master thief engaged in a battle of wits with the steadfast and––let’s be honest––slightly boring detective Kutt-Hendy. Throughout the film, Filibus commits several daring robberies (for which she attempts to frame Kutt-Hendy), cases her targets in the guise of a rich baroness, and even disguises herself as a man in order to romance Kutt-Hendy’s sister. Clearly, Filibus stands out, for all the right reasons–especially when we look at it alongside the more well-known works of silent Italian cinema, most of which are grand historical epics or tearful melodramas centered on swooning divas. However, what might be the most remarkable thing about Filibus is that, within the landscape of 1910s cinema, it’s not quite as unusual as it sounds.

Image courtesy of Milestone Films

The 1910s were, in a few words, a wild ride, especially for the movies. And importantly for our story, women were at the forefront of cinema on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, female comedians like Sarah Duhamel and Lea Giunchi (and numerous others, as showcased by the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray set Cinema’s First Nasty Women) made prolific short comedies that pushed the boundaries of gender performance and of what was possible in terms of the cinematic art form itself. Films like the recently restored French comedy La pile électrique de Léontine (Léontine’s Battery, 1910), in which a young woman steals a battery and then spends the rest of the day electrocuting people in hilarious ways, are wildly innovative in both their use of film technology and their liberatingly chaotic portrayal of femininity. And in America, as the suffrage movement gained steam in the 1910s, adventurous action heroines, known as the “serial queens,” became some of the biggest stars in cinema as people returned to theaters week after week to watch them perform death-defying physical feats, unaided by nets, wires, or even stunt doubles. Many of these stunts boggle the mind even today, with Helen Gibson’s automobile fistfight with a sexual predator while speeding down a mountain road in The Open Track (1915) offering a particularly spectacular (and socially relevant) example.

I mention these two groups of performers–female comedians in Europe and female action heroes in America–because they provide crucial context for appreciating Filibus, which also takes its cues from Louis Feuillade’s male-led crime serial Fantômas (1913). Indeed, several scenes quote (almost verbatim) from Feuillade’s sensational serial. But Filibus’ joie de vivre, her puckish sense of humor, and relentless battle against social authority resonate more vividly with the short films made by Italian comedian Lea Giunchi, who shares Filibus’ love for disguise and subterfuge. Whether she is masquerading as an automaton to stop her lover from being forced to marry another woman in Lea bambola (Lea as a Doll, 1913), or evading her overbearing parents in order to go skating with her friends in Lea sui pattini (Lea on Rollerskates, 1911), Giunchi frequently performs some kind of disguise or trick in her films, and Filibus wholeheartedly embraces Giunchi’s spirit of mischief. The film’s choice of a woman thief, however, evokes the American serial queen Grace Cunard, who, in 1914, created and starred as the similarly puckish master thief Lady Raffles, and continued to make films about female criminals well into the late 1910s. Cunard may even have been inspired by Filibus in making The Purple Mask (1917), a 16-part serial in which she plays a disguised master thief who commands a gang of obedient male henchmen and frequently travels by airplane. While we cannot be sure if Cunard even saw Filibus, which may never have been released in the United States, the parallels are nevertheless striking–cross-dressing, queer, aviatrix banditry was in the air!

These parallels are not only fascinating but historically significant. They change the way we remember silent film history. As film historian David Bordwell recently observed, the 1910s are an underappreciated decade as far as cinema is concerned.[1] Much of canonical film history, if it deals with the 1910s at all, briefly waxes rhapsodic about the well-known films of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin before moving on to the 1920s as if no other worthwhile cinema was produced between the nickelodeon era and the end of World War I. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The 1910s were a time when creativity ran wild and free. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that anyone could make movies (film industries were still largely closed off to people of color, especially in the United States), it is true that film industries worldwide were considerably more open to women than they were in the 1920s and beyond. The ongoing Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University has identified hundreds of women who worked behind the camera in silent film industries worldwide, and continues to make new and fascinating discoveries. It was a time when filmmakers could devise weirder, more creative, and indeed, more political films than they could get away with under the commercially-minded studio systems of the 1920s onward. And Filibus is a perfect example of this exuberant creativity.

As unique as it is, Filibus shares many defining characteristics with other 1910s films: it’s fast-paced, feminist, wildly (sometimes outlandishly) inventive, and, tragically, not nearly as well-remembered as it deserves to be. Its recent rediscovery, therefore, is not only a gift to cinema fans, but also a reminder of how much more remains to be discovered. Although a massive portion of silent films (anywhere from 60-95%, depending on who you ask) has been lost due to the ravages of time and the intentional destruction of prints, new discoveries and restorations remind us that one thing is never lost: hope! But to realize that hope, we need to look beyond the established canons of silent film and seek out a greater understanding of what’s actually out there. Filibus is an amazing film that fully deserves all the attention it can get. That it is not completely one-of-a-kind is all the more reason to celebrate it. A truly enjoyable film with an irrepressible spirit of feminist liberation, Filibus serves as a valuable reminder that no matter how much we think we know about cinema, there’s always something new waiting for us to discover.

NOTES

[1] David Bordwell, “Thrills and Melodrama from the 1910s,” Observations on Film Art (blog). January 19, 2022. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2022/01/19/thrills-and-melodrama-from-the-1910s/

Edited by Maggie Hennefeld and Michelle Baroody

These screenings are made possible by the University of Minnesota’s Imagine Fund as part of the Twin Cities Silent Film Project, organized by Maggie Hennefeld, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. With live piano accompaniment by Katie Condon and a video introduction by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi (EYE Film Museum).


Attend the Tale: Storytelling and Storytellers in I Know Where I’m Going!

| Nick Kouhi |

I Know Where I’m Going! screens at the Trylon from Friday, January 21 to Sunday, January 23. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this screen.


Throughout the nearly twenty films they made together through their production company, The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s heroes and villains tell stories to each other and themselves that elicit meaning from the psychologically entrenched yearnings governing their lives. Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), the heroine of their winsome fairy tale romance I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), is no exception. Made at the end of the Second World War, the film situates its industrious, middle-class English woman within a Scotland which is affectionately, if ethnographically, transformed into an amalgam of disappearing indigenous customs and influences from other, multinational fables.

For Powell, Scotland was a site of Edenic fascination, its rolling hills and seaside cliffs previously rendered in mythic monochrome for his 1937 feature The Edge of the World. Powell’s return to the Scottish Highlands with Pressburger shifted further away from realism to heighten the mystical topography of the Hebrides. I Know Where I’m Going! (IKWIG!)[1], anticipates the theistic dimensions of their succeeding feature, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), with wry wit in its opening credits of an omniscient narrator guiding us through the first quarter-century of Joan’s life in less than two minutes of screen time. With diegetic props featuring the names of the film’s cast and crew, the contrast of a male narrator recounting an ambitious girl’s growth into womanhood playfully signals a conflict which is both distinctly gendered and more broadly existential.

Another conflict, one between modernity and tradition, characterizes the Archers movies made during WWII. In IKWIG!, the specter of combat is relegated to the occasional reference, like the remarks by Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), the Scottish naval officer on his eight-day shore leave. Torquil acts as Joan’s guide while she waits for safe passage to the (fictitious) island of Kiloran. Her fiancée, the wealthy industrialist Sir Robert Bellinger, awaits her on the island he rents from the impecunious Laird, who is none other than Torquil himself. Joan’s plans inevitably dovetail as her adventures draw her and Torquil closer together.

Scottish indigeneity is most celebrated (and exoticized) in the film’s centerpiece, a cèilidh commemorating the diamond anniversary of two of the community’s oldest members. Taking from his firsthand account of a cèilidh he attended, Alexander Carmichael describes it as a forum “where stories and tales, poems and ballads, are rehearsed and recited, and songs are sung, conundrums are put, proverbs are quoted, and many other literary matters are related and discussed.”[2]

The music recited in the cèilidh set piece was arranged by Scottish actor John Laurie, a member of the Archers’ stock company who appears in IKWIG! as the son of the couple marking their anniversary. The songs in this scene are significant for both the film’s narrative and thematic thrust. When Torquil translates the lyrics of Ho ro My Nut Brown Maiden from Gaelic to English, ostensibly making clear his romantic affections for Joan, the intrusion of a musical narrative on Powell and Pressburger’s veneer of rustic naturalism is emphasized by the diegetic sound of bagpipes swelling to a crescendo in the background. While this dramatic revelation is most important for the plot, Powell & Pressburger emphasize another, seemingly incidental musical moment in this sequence; a performance of a melancholic tune sung a cappella by the partygoers, filmed in a long tracking shot. Much like the vanishing island community of Hirta in The Edge of the World, the Scottish traditions in IKWIG! are, as Pam Cook writes, “consigned to the past and retrievable only through memory.”[3] Significant to this is how, time and again, Powell and Pressburger conjoin memory and storytelling in their fabulist cinema.

These twinning strands abound in Col. Blimp, most poignantly in a sequence where Wynne-Candy’s former nemesis turned lifelong friend, German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), recounts to British customs officers the loss of his family and country to Nazism. In a long take, the camera dollies slowly in on Theo’s face as he verbally sketches an image of his late British wife’s country envisioned while he was on the outskirts of Berlin. Wes Anderson emulates this homesickness in his paean to storytelling, The French Dispatch of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun, when Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) summarizes the loneliness of being an immigrant in a foreign country with the maxim, “Seeking something missing. Missing something left behind.” Cook argues the multinational composition of The Archers (Pressburger, for instance, was a Hungarian Jew who fled the Nazis) complements the contemporary diaspora of Scots from their homeland to the United States during the war. In that respect, it’s tempting to read IKWIG!’s Scotland as occupying the liminal and deeply personalized space between “fiction and reality”[4], much in the way the Himalayas do in The Archers’ adaptation of Black Narcissus (1947).[5]

The latter’s dynamic between civilization and nature is emblematized in IKWIG!’s spectacular climax where Joan’s mounting desperation to reach Kiloran leads her, Torquil, and a young man (Murdo Morrison) into the maw of the Corryvreckan whirlpool. The tale of Breacan, a Norse prince who drowned due to his beloved’s disloyalty, gives this fusion of on-location footage and special effects its name. Yet the sequence was also influenced by one of Powell’s favorite short stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström.[6] In it, the lone survivor of a shipwreck recounts to an anonymous listener how he escaped the titular whirlpool, his encounter with death moving from feelings of fear to awe. With these influences in mind, I would argue that the lauded climax of IKWIG! remains gripping because, like Poe, Powell and Pressburger understand the function of narrative in helping us make sense of, and ultimately confront, our impending mortality, all in the context of a Europe itself finally emerging from the maelstrom of war.

Another narrative of love conquering brutal death guides the film’s closing passage when Torquil crosses the threshold of Castle Moy under threat of a curse put upon his family name by the MacLaine clan. The curse, influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s reliable use of the trope[7], resolves the violent retribution Torquil’s ancestor enacted on his (un)true love by leaving him “chained to a woman”, propitiously signaled by Joan’s triumphant return. Yet Joan choosing Torquil once he’s fulfilled the matriarchal curse is riven with ambivalence. Marie-Alix Thouaille argues that Torquil’s “deliberate[…] triggering [of] the curse in a desperate bid to reclaim Joan before she crosses to Kiloran” ultimately privileges a heteropatriarchal conservatism.[8] “Taming a woman must be worse than taming an eagle,” Torquil muses to his falconer friend, Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight) evoking Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. While Joan remains a compelling heroine, her taming by Torquil does little to challenge Thouaille’s argument that her love interest ultimately works to “exercise control over [her] mobility,” containing her like Petruchio contains Katherina.[9]

Social anxieties over the role of upwardly mobile women in Britain are filtered through an anti-materialist attitude borne out of wartime scarcity. Despite his assurance to Joan that “You’re all right as you are,” Torquil’s transformation is comparatively slight compared weighed against Joan’s rejection of the “soulless empowerment” of consumerist affluence.[10] Throughout The Archers’ corpus, the gulf between men and women is acknowledged with ironic melancholy, as in Col. Blimp when Wynne-Candy attempts to remake the image of his unrequited love into two nearly identical redheads (all played by Deborah Kerr). Yet it is most often the women who are humiliated into admitting their mistakes (as in IKWIG! or Black Narcissus) or, at worst, destroyed, even when their paternalistic destroyers are targets of criticism by Powell and Pressburger.

These critiques don’t necessarily nullify the proto feminist elements of I Know Where I’m Going!, yet I do suggest we take heed of the slippery nature of storytelling here and in the rest of the Powell and Pressburger canon. We can still view Wendy Hiller as the co-author of Joan Webster without ignoring the regressive attitudes which informed her character, or celebrate the cosmopolitanism of The Archers even as we examine their progressive limitations. This bewitching, often propulsive feat of imaginative filmmaking shows us how the finest of fables can help us discover where we’re going by showing us, for good and ill, where we’ve been.


[1] This acronym has been used previously by Pam Cook and Marie-Alix Thouaille, among others.

[2] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1: Hymns and Incantations, 1900, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg1/cg1002.htm

[3] Pam Cook, I Know Where I’m Going (London: BFI Classics, 2021), 70  

[4] Ibid., 49.

[5] For more on the depictions of India and Scotland in these films, see David Hanley’s “Strangers in Strange Lands: Encountering the Exotic in I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus,” January 19, 2012, https://offscreen.com/view/strangers_in_strange_lands#:~:text=Gunning%2C%20Tom.,Ian%20Christie%20and%20Andrew%20Moor.

[6] Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (New York, NY: Knopf, 1987), 465

[7] Powell, A Life in Movies, 468

[8] Marie-Alix Thouaille, “‘Intelligent Female Nonsense’: Pastoral, National Identity, and Shakespearean Misrule in A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945),” eSharp, no. 23 (2015): 14, https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/Media_404378_smxx.pdf

[9] Thouaille, “‘Intelligent Female Nonsense,'” 14.

[10] Ibid., 12.


Edited by Brad Stiffler

Swipe Right on Possession

| Finn Odum |

Possession screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 31 to Sunday, January 2. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.

Several weeks ago, I attempted to watch Possession so I could prepare for this piece. The vast majority of the film passed in a caffeine-fueled blur; my well-intentioned notes dissolved into aimless questions like, “Why is this homoerotic?” and “DILF Sam Neill?” My remaining shreds of sanity vanished into the ether during the convoluted final act. By the time the credits were rolling, I could only think of one thing: Going to see Possession would be a killer first date.

Listen. I know that Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 thriller isn’t the pinnacle of romantic media. It’s quite the opposite: the root of all conflicts in Possession is the deterioration of Mark and Anna’s relationship, born out of his absence and her infidelity. That’s exactly what makes it such a great first-date adventure! Possession is like Red Flags: The Movie. It explores how unhealthy coping mechanisms and poor communication between partners can lead to the death of a once-great relationship. It also examines what happens when your partner replaces you with someone else–albeit through an extraterrestrial lens.

Possession follows Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) as their marriage crumbles beneath their feet. After returning home from a year of espionage and war crimes, Mark discovers that Anna wants a divorce. His physical and emotional distance led her to cheat while he was away. Their separation is instantly fraught, as Mark falls into a drunken spiral and spends several scenes in the first act attacking Anna. He’s violent and volatile. A villain played with Neill’s classic manic mannerisms, Mark’s stalker-like behavior sets him up to be the film’s real antagonist. Then Anna feeds a detective to a tentacle alien she’s been keeping in a beat-up apartment, and the audience is left wondering if her personal safety is enough to justify manslaughter.

Anna’s mental decline doesn’t come out of nowhere; there are hints throughout the first act, including that kitchen scene with the electric knife. However, it’s not until our first glimpse of the tentacle-thing that we really know how bad things are. From that scene on, Anna’s sanity decays. She feeds a second man to her alien lover, and eventually has sex with the mass of tentacles (right in front of Mark, no less). The alien is never explained; nor is Anna’s downfall. Though one can infer it had something to do with a violent miscarriage she had in a subterranean subway tunnel. Perhaps it was a combination of her trauma and her husband’s absence that led to Anna’s cheating. Again, neither of those things explain why or how she found her cosmic companion.

But maybe we don’t need to know where the alien came from. In the grand scheme of the film, the creature is only the backdrop for Mark and Anna’s decay. A demonstration of how they allow their red flag behaviors to unravel their lives. Anna feeds the alien with the flesh of other men and eventually uses it to replace her husband—literally, as the creature turns into Mark’s unsettling doppelgänger at the end of the film. Mark, upon discovering the alien, falls into a murderous rage as he tries to win his wife back. He kills her first lover to ensure that he has no competition, and ends his and Anna’s lives in a violent confrontation with his doppelgänger.

They return to their coping mechanisms—infidelity and violence—in order to try and preserve what their perception of a healthy relationship is. Mark’s ideal life is with Anna, and Anna’s ideal life is with a Mark devoid of his volatility. And okay, they both die and get replaced by an idyllic couple of pasty, green-eyed doubles. The doppelgängers are the first bright-spot in an otherwise muted film, representing what Anna and Mark could’ve been if they’d taken a different route with their relationship.

Possession occupies a special space in the horror genre. It can stand on its slimy alien legs as a paranormal thriller, while also being a word to the wise about red flags in relationships. It’s up there with the likes of The Shining and Midsommar, the latter of which I consider one of the best break-up movies of the last few years. Horror movies like these present real-world lessons wrapped up in the guise of an inexplicable flesh-monster or a Scandinavian cult.

So go text that Hinge match you weren’t completely sold on and ask them to come see Possession with you at the Trylon. Buy a large popcorn to share (with butter, obviously) and get cozy in the back row of the theater. The protagonist’s relationship will be a great conversation starter for the dinner you have afterwards. And if your date doesn’t get the point, or for some reason thinks that Mark didn’t deserve what was coming to him? You can always ditch them for another round of Isabelle Adjani acting her ass off, or follow it up with Don’t Look Now (dir. Nicholas Roeg, 1973). Just do yourself a favor and don’t follow your date into any decrepit apartment buildings. You never know who—or what—awaits you.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Disturbing Sincerity: Street Musicians, Serial Killers, and the American Spirit

| Jeremy Meckler |

Stroszek screens at the Trylon from Friday, November 26 to Sunday, November 28. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


Werner Herzog is one of those directors whose persona is sometimes more extravagant than his films. There’s the time he ate his shoe or jumped into a cactus patch; the time he pulled Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck, or when he was shot by a sniper mid-interview and continued it anyway. Indeed, some of his films seem to get swept up in the Herzog myth, becoming more interesting as artifacts of a mad filmmaker than as films in their own right. Stroszek, Herzog’s meandering 1976 German-American road movie, has its fair share of legendary Herzog lore, but it also stands as an exceptional example of his unique cinematic vision. Balanced on the border between documentary and fiction Stroszek is perhaps the purest demonstration of Herzog’s experimental production approach, his devotion to stylized documentary as a way to access a deeper level of truth, and his consistent focus on characters at the margins of modern society. For my money, it’s also the most coherent articulation of the midwestern American spirit ever put on celluloid.

Stroszek is the result of a few creative and intellectual collaborations. The first is with Bruno S., the film’s star and direct inspiration. Bruno was a self-taught musician who played eighteenth-century ballads on accordion in Berlin streets and alleys. Herzog’s first encounter with Bruno was as the subject of a 1970 documentary and he was so immediately smitten that he sought out Bruno and cast him as the lead in his 1972 historical drama The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Bruno plays Kaspar Hauser, a (perhaps apocryphal) wild child teenager who wandered into Nuremberg in May 1828, repeating the phrase “I would like to be a rider, the way my father was” and bursting into tears when asked any question.[1] Through a series of interviews with the mayor, Hauser told a bizarre story: he had never seen another human being before and had spent his first sixteen years in isolation in a 3’ by 6’ cell in Bavaria where he would wake up to bread and water every morning. Hauser was the subject of inquiry and rumors, including that he was actually a prince, although his often contradictory stories also led many to believe he was a compulsive fabricator. He died at 21 from a stabbing in a park, either self-inflicted or by a stranger, and has remained an intriguing and mysterious figure ever since. Bruno, who had never acted before, was 42 when he played the teenaged Hauser, but he brought an innocence and sincerity to the role that somehow bridged their age gap, partially because his personal life bore uncanny resemblances to Hauser’s. Bruno spent age three through twenty-six in mental asylums and prisons after he was beaten so severely as a child that he lost the ability to speak. Per Herzog, “Bruno was very aware that the film was just as much about how society had destroyed him as it was about how society had killed Kaspar Hauser.”[2] Herzog even considered calling the film The Story of Bruno Hauser to highlight their resonances. The German title for the film, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, literally Every Man for Himself and God Against All, sidesteps the dilemma by focusing on the guiding languor at the heart of both Bruno and Hauser.

After Kaspar Hauser, Herzog planned to work with Bruno again on Woyzeck, an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished stage play about the suffering of a working-class soldier in a nineteenth-century German town. But, as production took shape, Herzog changed his mind, finding his long-time muse/foil/fiend Klaus Kinski a better fit for the role. Bruno, whose life had been transformed by his stint as a movie star, was heartbroken. As a consolation, Herzog offered Bruno a role in a new movie that he made up on the spot. Herzog chose a title that sounded similar to Woyzeck, Stroszek, and dashed out the screenplay over the next four days, basing the concept even more directly on Bruno’s life than their previous collaboration.

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), the film’s central figure, is a Berlin street musician released from prison who, contrary the advice of the prison Warden, wanders directly into a seedy Berlin bar and gets in trouble with some German drug dealers. Along with his elderly neighbor Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) and his friend Eva (Eva Mattes), a sex worker looking to escape the same gang, Stroszek flees to rural Wisconsin where the three are taken in by Scheitz’s nephew, an auto mechanic who gives Stroszek a job in his repair shop. They move into a double-wide mobile home and are swept up into an American midwestern culture that is just as callous as the Berlin underworld. Stroszek is a meek and accommodating weirdo with a depressive streak caught in a cruel, though often darkly funny, world. Like Bruno S., Bruno Stroszek seems somehow completely artless, able through his naïveté to reveal uncomfortable truths about the world around him. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of Stroszek, “he looks as if he has long been expecting the worst to happen…. [H]e projects a kind of sincerity that is almost disturbing, and you realize that there is no corner anywhere within Bruno for a lie to take hold.”[3] Stroszek represents the culmination of Herzog and Bruno S.’s partnership, and even more than Kaspar Hauser, it relies on Bruno’s disturbing sincerity to give the film its raw emotional impact.

But Stroszek is also the result of an earlier collaboration, evident only in the opening credits, where Herzog thanks Errol Morris. Errol Morris is an Oscar-winning documentary maker and the inventor of the confrontational camera setup he calls the Interrotron. In 1976, however, he was a disaffected graduate student in UC Berkeley’s philosophy program, yet to embark on his first film. When he met Herzog, Morris was already on the outs from academia which he called “a world of pedants” and was knee-deep into independent research on the phenomenon of American serial killers. One of Herzog’s and Morris’s first collaborations was to collectively interview notorious serial murderer Ed Kemper in the state prison in Vacaville, California. This shared fascination also led them to Plainfield, Wisconsin, the birthplace (and scene of the crime) for Ed Gein. Gein was the real-world basis for Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill. Herzog and Morris’s interest in Gein focused on a morbid psychoanalytic question, directly prompted by Hitchcock’s film: Ed Gein was a grave robber with a severe Oedipus complex, but no one could tell them whether he had ever dug up his own mother’s grave as Bates does in Psycho. Herzog and Morris decided to find the answer the old-fashioned way, by digging up her grave themselves. They picked a date and planned to meet in Plainfield with shovels in hand, but Morris chickened out and stayed in California. Herzog made it, but his car broke down and was towed to a small auto shop in Plainfield where he hit it off with an unassuming local mechanic.

A couple of years later, searching for a film topic after promising Bruno S. the script for Stroszek, Herzog remembered this rural Wisconsin town and decided that Bruno Stroszek’s wanderings would bring him to Plainfield, renamed “Railroad Flats” in the film. Stroszek works in the same auto shop where Herzog’s car was towed, and that real-world mechanic, Clayton Szalpinski, plays Herr Scheitz’s mechanic nephew. Herzog would later say that Plainfield had a particular kind of menace:

There was something very gloomy and evil about Plainfield, and even during filming two bodies were found only ten miles from where we were filming. I certainly felt it was one of those places that are focal points where every thread converges and is tied in a knot. You have these points in the United States — for example, Las Vegas, or the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, or San Quentin prison — where the dreams and nightmares all come together. And I count Plainfield, Wisconsin to be among them.[4]

So, from a morbid obsession with the most American psychosis, serial killing, and a collaboration with another filmmaker with an obsessive revelatory drive, Herzog stumbled into a film about an abused, disturbingly sincere German ex-con searching for a new life in a spooky site of power in the upper Midwest.

It is perhaps no surprise that Herzog and Morris would hit it off—both have shown long fascinations with the irrational margins of modern life, and both have a demonstrated knack for revealing uncomfortable and contradictory truths in a darkly comic mode. Morris’s films are often marked by long direct-to-camera monologues—interviews in which his subjects reveal something deep and earthshaking, often without knowing that they are doing it. As Morris put it in a 1989 New Yorker profile, “I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory.”[5] Herzog, in both his off-kilter, often poetic documentaries and his distanciating fiction films, is driven by a similar tendency toward finding a deeper truth beyond the limits of factual rationality. As he put it incisively in his 1999 Minnesota Declaration—delivered at the Walker Art Center—“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”[6] Stroszek is itself the focal point of a variety of Herzog’s career-long interests—madness, absurdity, the incapacity of rationality, and a dark humor that sees something sublime and universal in ignorance and suffering. But the film’s specificity, its earnest connection to its setting and characters (most of whom are non-actors playing themselves) gives it a gentle, personal, and profound ability to distill the American Midwest down to its essence. This isn’t some snide, heartless sendup of flyover country, nor is it a romantic glorification of a lost American past. Instead Stroszek is a nuanced and loving portrayal of a spooky little town on the edge of the prairie. It’s one of Herzog’s strangest and most uncompromising films. (Ebert again: “Stroszek is not a comedy, but I don’t know how to describe it. Perhaps as a peculiarity.”[7]) But somehow, in its fusion of fiction and documentary, of improvised comedy and experimental amalgam, it finds its way to the soul of America, located somewhere between a professional auctioneer’s drawl and a dancing chicken.


NOTES

[1] Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason, Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. (London: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 5.

[2] Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog. (New York: Faber and Faber, 2002), 119.

[3] Roger Ebert, “Stroszek Movie Review & Film Summary (1977): Roger Ebert,” movie review & film summary (1977) | Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times, July 7, 2002), https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-stroszek-1977.

[4] Herzog and Cronin, Herzog on Herzog, 147.

[5] Mark Singer, “PREDILECTIONS,” The New Yorker, January 29, 1989, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1989/02/06/predilections

[6] Werner Herzog, “Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema,” Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema (Walker Art Center, April 30, 1999), https://walkerart.org/magazine/minnesota-declaration-truth-documentary-cinema-1999.

[7] Ebert, “Stroszek Movie Review & Film Summary (1977): Roger Ebert.”

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody


Making Films, Taking Lives: How the Present Looms Large in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo

| Chris Polley |

Fitzcarraldo screens at the Trylon from Friday, November 19 to Sunday, November 21. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


In Werner Herzog’s stirring 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, the director inserts himself carefully into the narrative as he contemplates the tragic and preventable death of grizzly-bear enthusiast and environmentalist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell was mauled to death by the animals he was attempting to protect and film in 2003, all while letting his camcorder record (with the lens cap on) the audio of his demise. “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder,” Herzog narrates as he concludes his journey toward understanding Treadwell’s life and its end.

These words, forever imprinted in my mind, feel particularly apropos in the world of film news recently, with the tragic on-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins last month. While the camera wasn’t yet rolling when Hutchins was shot and killed by a prop gun handled by actor Alec Baldwin, the incident has already been replayed, picked apart, and documented by press outlets and amateur online commentators worldwide.

This parallel causes me to wonder if, while making Grizzly Man, and especially while writing and recording those chilling voiceovers, Herzog was thinking at all about the unfortunate events that occurred while filming Fitzcarraldo, his 1982 dramatization of the life and exploits of Carlos Fitzcarrald, a European rubber baron that brings a deranged vision to the jungle of Peru. The historical epic centers on this monster with a slight name-change—Bryan Sweeney Fitzgerald––played with manic precision by Klaus Kinski. Fitzgerald is an imperialist businessman looking to bring art to a people that never asked for it, and the film follows his trek into Peru and down the Amazon in an attempt to excavate and sell enough rubber to raise funds for constructing and opening an opera house in the South American jungle. The locals redub him “Fitzcarraldo” for easier pronunciation, not unlike how foreign names become Americanized for immigrants in this country, thus making the film’s title a nod to the idea of how someone’s identity can so easily become subsumed by their immediate surroundings.

Like Fitzgerald, Herzog seemed to lose control of his own attempt to bring Western art to an alien environment. The on-location production of Fitzcarraldo in Peru was beset with tragedy and injury, although it wasn’t considered newsworthy at the time (whether because of the remote filming location, lack of an American movie star at the center of it, a less whirlwind film production news cycle, or some combination of the three). Film editor Catherine Shoard looks back in her primer about on-set accidents for The Guardian, specifying that the 1981 shoot “resulted in numerous injuries and the deaths of several indigenous extras. One Peruvian logger was forced to amputate his own foot after being bitten by a venomous snake.”[1]

While this is hardly surprising considering all the clues both textual and subtextual in the finished product, it’s not something I explicitly knew about until researching the film in advance of writing this piece. In my previous watches and fumbling around on the internet as the credits rolled, I learned plenty of other things: how Jason Robards was originally the lead, that it took some coaxing for Herzog to secure longtime mercurial collaborator Kinski to be his replacement (who famously walked off mid-shoot during the filming of another of the duo’s iconic works, Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even that the tension between Herzog, Kinski, and the locals led to a particularly pervasive story fed by the auteur’s mythical status that a local tribal chief offered to have Kinski murdered as a favor to the filmmaker. To learn this new information just days after the internet’s onslaught of reporting and editorializing on Hutchins’s accidental death was unsettling, to say the least.

What has become of this beloved work of art to me now? I started factoring in the imperialism of Fitzcarraldo’s narrative compared to what happened last month. My stomach turned. I knew Hutchins’s name, but nobody seemed to even care to write down the names of the people maimed and killed on Herzog’s set—probably because they were local indigenous people to Peru, essentially nameless to the Western world.

And for all the newfound clarity regarding on-set safety brought to the forefront in the wake of Hutchins’s death, criticism of Herzog’s epic upon its release in 1982 was not hard to find now that I was looking for it. In fact, Washington Post critic Gary Arnold seemed to particularly see through the grandeur that many (myself included for over a decade) could not, writing, “To remain intrigued with this movie you are obliged to go along with the pretense that Herzog’s continuing elaboration of a cherished personal myth––the impossible dreamer, the director attracted to primitive locales and dangerous circumstances in his quest for elusive, visionary images ––is a theme of surpassing interest.”[2]

Now, I admittedly do still value dissecting this theme so many years later, especially considering today’s landscape of an enduring ego-obsessed patriarchal hegemony. Ironically, the sheer audacity and singularity of Herzog’s understanding and conveyance of the human spirit as a filmmaker, artist, and thinker remains unparalleled. This story is still, nearly 40 years later, one that resonates, especially in a world that repeatedly wrestles with the concept of a white devil disguised as a white savior (even down to the white linen suit and shock of strangely styled hair). Yet, I still ask myself: is it worth it in the face of such catastrophe, such literal loss of life?

In an interview for the Directors Guild of America, Herzog himself said of the scope of the infamous central event of the film (a 340-ton ship pulled across a mountain using an elaborate system of pulleys and winches sans special effects/movie magic of any kind), “I had staged a huge mechanical event, which is out of proportion for a film, and then I just covered it the best I could.”[3] This is not just an admittance of how art, when in the hands of someone with an unrelenting vision, can become just as unwieldy as Fitzgerald’s plans for getting rubber out of an inaccessible part of the Peruvian jungle—it’s perhaps a confession that playing with cameras, actors, and king-size props is, yes, akin to the old theological warning about playing God.


NOTES

  1. Catherine Shoard, “‘No one should be killed on set’: tragic history of fatalities during filming,” The Guardian, October 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/oct/22/on-set-fatalities-halyna-hutchins-alec-baldwin

2. Gary Arnold, “Visions of Vanity,” The Washington Post, November 9, 1982, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1982/11/09/visions-of-vanity/821978fa-3843-4fc1-9c2b-2da7de9cc0db

3. Jeffrey Resner, “Werner Herzog: Mountain Climbing,” DGA Quarterly, Fall 2007, https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0703-Fall-2007/Shot-To-Remember-Fitzcarraldo.aspx

Edited by Brad Stiffler and Michelle Baroody

Accounts from the Journal of Count Dracula, Voivode of Transylvania, b. 1428

| Matt Levine |

Nosferatu The Vampyre screens at the Trylon from Sunday, October 31 to Tuesday, November 2. Scroll to the bottom of this page for tickets and more information.


These written testimonies were discovered in the personal journal of Count Dracula in the city of Wismar, Germany, circa 1897.

June 12 –

I am the descendant of an old family.

When young, I was told that family lineage could transform one’s life into heaven or hell. Luckily, my family’s wealth and power was such that my immediate existence was heavenly. From our castle in the shadow of the Carpathians, I could roam the plateaus and forests. The sun would warm me, the rain drench me, the snow caress me; they were all my playthings.

My father called our castle a fortress, and he was proud of its dense stone armor. This is the mighty building in which I still live, habiting its frigid hallways at night. When I was a boy, years and years ago (centuries ago, it pains me to say), armies attacked with dreams of conquest. They slit throats and sliced through necks, all for the distant glimmer of power. At five, I watched the woman who raised me—not my mother, who was rarely present—run through with a large, curved blade as she shielded me from marauders who had stormed our walls. I felt love and grief, I know, but what I remember, eons later, is the sight of bright red blood flowing, warm tributaries creating a new topography on my bedroom’s granite floor. Not all was heavenly, I suppose, but even the barbaric moments are tinged with happiness in my recollection.

I am the only one left of my family. The others have died through murder, starvation, guillotine, suicide, plague, and—in a few lucky instances—the calm of old age. There were powerful dynasties formed from marriage between two clans, then more dynasties and more clans, domestic empires. But my whole family was lost, at some point, to the violence of time. We fell into disrepute; we raped, looted, and pillaged; we were overtaken by the peasants we terrorized, who, it turns out, could wield an axe themselves. We could find no more families to marry into, so we stayed within our own, cousins wedding one another, brothers and sisters having children, mother father aunt uncle. This I saw over centuries, till the last one died—a great-great-great-great… (who remembers the generation?) granddaughter taking her last breath. And in her final moment, as she looked past the ceiling and her eyes clouded over, I know now her last sigh was one of peace, not horror.

I am the last descendant of an old family. I was not the only one who was turned; there were both dead and undead on our rotting family tree. But now there is only the dead and me. How I long to join my kin, who once took solace in our family name, though now it can only elicit a momentary shudder, for it is the sound of doom.

June 17 –

Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights.

Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. After all this time, I know that there is nothing left to see, nothing left to think. There is a finite number of behaviors, actions, events in human existence. These things roil together, echoes of the past, variations on a theme—a theme which after so many years can only seem like plagiarism.

Once upon a time there were things that surprised me, delighted me. Even once I became the undead, the endlessness of time gave me a giddy thrill. Whatever is new and anticipated becomes a supreme love, once attained. But after its attainment, where else is there to go? The new is a laughable concept: nothing on Earth is new anymore. The anticipated is dashed from the beginning, with foreknowledge of its meaninglessness.

The meaning of endlessness is right there in the word, but stupidly we avoid its meaning. Endless love, endless time, endless joy—these things without end are nothing to savor. Only by knowing the end will come may we enjoy such transient pleasures.

Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing the same futility each day? The living cynic will say they can imagine it, not understanding what futility means. Nothing is futile about a human life, precisely because something must be done during the living interval of several decades.

To sink sharp teeth into pliant flesh, to feel a warm gush of blood on my tongue, to feel a body writhe as I take its life into mine—futile, futile. Repeated endlessly. Each soul I meet I know is an imminent victim, but there’s nothing bold in the conquest, no triumph in victory. I close my eyes as I drink their blood and wish I was anywhere, anyone else.

June 30 –

Listen. Listen. The children of the night make their music.

I was wrong, perhaps. I do take joy in some things—the animals. The wolves, the bats, the worms, the rats. Nocturnal creatures that howl, squirm, shriek, or flap their wings, because that’s all they know how to do. I am like them, living without deeper reason, surviving only because I have to do; the difference is, I am aware of my incompleteness.

There are many—the meek villagers, the untold thousands who will be claimed by my plague—who cannot place themselves in the soul of a hunter. They see me, they tremble, they know I must die, but they do not have the courage to plant the tip of a stake over my once-beating heart and drive it through my body. Even the ones who know what I am, they comfort themselves with superstition but don’t take the gruesome steps they know they must take. In this way, we are both incomplete: me in my perpetual shroud, them in their cowardice. Someday, a true soul will finally kill me, the first real human that’s existed in the centuries of my undead life.

July 2 –

I don’t attach importance to the sunshine anymore.

Or to glittering fountains, which youth is so fond of. I love the darkness and the shadows, where I can be alone with my thoughts. Sunshine, light, beauty, they’re all unfaithful to the true nature of the world I know.

This castle I call my own, the shadows which move of their own volition, the rays of the moon cutting through blackness—this is a truer illustration of the world, of living things, of nature’s mad workings.

But to be alone with my thoughts—as I am now, writing words which no one will ever read—is its own kind of torture. Here, too, there is nothing new. Every thought has already been conjured, by me or by someone else. I’ve remembered the infinite moments of my life, its four-hundred-some years, over and over again; my greatest fears and pleasures have been driven down into stale cliché. As if I’m reading an intimate biography of myself, written by a bland and detached author.

I attach importance to the sunshine only because it may kill me. What sweet salvation awaits. And yet, I cannot simply stand in an open window and wait for the dawn to relieve me of my torment. The beast in me insists on self-preservation; this ancient, brittle body won’t let me die.

Once, painters depicted God, the heavens, the apostles, all that is holy; then, the Romanticists turned their brushes to mountains and oceans and deserts, a different sublime. I know that all of this is absurd, that divinity is a comforting myth. And yet (maybe a new thought after all) there might be a God—wicked, cunning, tricking us to disobey our greatest desires. Why else would I want nothing more than the end, though my thirst keeps me going till I may suck down my next meal?

July 11 –

The absence of love is the most abject pain.

Did I ever love when I was living? Perhaps in the way that humans do. But that is nothing, a candle dancing in a typhoon.

When love becomes impossible, the need for it becomes dire. This is no news to anyone who’s loved painfully, desperately, something or someone who detests them, or even worse, doesn’t know they exist.

Sometimes my heart hurts so much, I beat it with my fists. I try to run. But you cannot run from this. It waits for you, like an object of desire that lures you to your downfall. I long for this desire, which will consume me until I feel the rising sunlight upon my face as it flakes into fire and ash.

Can someone love a corpse? No, of course not—whether living or undead, no heart beats within. There is an absence of love within me for this reason. I convince myself that I crave human touch, that I’m driven by ardor, but deep down I know it’s untrue; if a loving soul stood next to me and whispered kindness in my ear, I would bend down and drive my fangs into her carotid sheath.

The absence of love from me, from the world, from everyone—it sounds absurd, but it’s the only logical conclusion. In place of love, there is death—an army of rats, a parade of black coffins, the birth of a new era in which the monstrous is mistaken for the sublime.

Edited by Michelle Baroody


Marking Time: The Human Body in the films of Tsai Ming-Liang

| Nick Kouhi |

Still from Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2020)

Days screens as part of the Slow Cinema series at the Trylon. This series, programmed by the Moving Image, Media, and Sound Studies Graduate Group at the University of Minnesota, is presented in collaboration with the Trylon Cinema. Tickets are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Scroll to the bottom of this page for more information about this series and ticket availability.


The body is no longer exactly what moves; neither subject of movement or the instrument of action, it becomes rather the developer of time…

Gilles Deleuze[1]

[A]s soon as an image or a face is captured on film, it will no longer age. I am looking for a face that is chosen by the film to live in its reality….

Tsai Ming-Liang[2]

In the 2015 documentary Afternoon (Na ri xia wu), filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang begins his conversation with actor and longtime muse Lee Kang-Sheng by remarking on the latter’s toes. They’ve turned a yellowish color, Lee explains, from the sulfur he uses to “stop [them] from rotting.” Decay permeates the urban environments which house Tsai’s lonely figures; their human fragility typically conveyed through long takes with a static camera. While Tsai’s inimitable brand of Slow Cinema can make for discomfiting, even grim, viewing, it asks us to regard the multivalent value of the human body through poignantly recognizable visions of labor, sex, and aging.

In his essay Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema’s Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer, Karl Schoonover writes extensively on what he calls the “slow art film” and the labor often practiced by both the subjects onscreen and the viewers in the audience. He argues that Slow Cinema “speaks to a larger system of tethering value to time, labor to bodies, and productivity to particular modes and forms of cultural reproduction.”[3] The desire of the spectator, he reasons, is primarily “to clarify the value of wasted time and uneconomical temporalities” when watching films designed for “broadening what counts as productive human labor.”[4] Watching as work is a cultural practice long associated with the intelligentsia of the art world, which raises the question: if labor is practiced by an affluent audience when watching slow films largely about the working class, does that labor culminate in empathetic identification with the subjects on screen? Or does it result in self-satisfaction at engaging with “high art”? It’s impossible to ascribe a definitive answer to something as polymorphous as audiences, but it is worth considering how a filmmaker’s aesthetic decisions affect the viewer’s relationship to a cinematic avatar.

This preamble is meant to consider the ways Tsai Ming-Liang portrays the human body as a symbolic vessel for both social critique and audience identification. When it comes to physical labor, his characters are frequently seen cooking, washing, and cleaning in both the private and public sphere with the same degree of unceremonious habitude. While the function of routine within our lives aims to provide order, it can also constrict us within increasingly isolated social roles. The most despairing realization of that anxiety in Tsai’s filmography is arguably found in 1997’s The River (He liu), whose central family barely shares any screen time together. When they do, they’re united by pain, specifically the kind afflicting Hsiao-Kang (Lee) in his neck following a dip in the Tamsui River as an extra for a film shoot. The extended shot of Hsiao-Kang floating in water while the dummy he’s replaced lies in the bottom of the frame subtly foregrounds the ethical question of a filmmaker’s responsibility toward their subjects and collaborators.

Still from The River (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1997)

Tsai’s films rarely answer this question in a didactic manner, instead letting the audience sit with the disquieting ambivalence symptomatic of late-stage capitalism. While I wouldn’t reduce Tsai’s convictions to mere Marxist dogma, his transition toward more esoteric media installations has been attributed, in part, to a dissatisfaction with traditional sources of film funding. His 24-minute short Walker (2014) tracks Lee dressed as a modern incarnation of the 7th century scholar and monk Xuanzang slowly walking barefoot across Hong Kong. The dialogue-free film acts, in Tsai’s words, as “a conscious act of rebellion against the way cinema is perceived in today’s society.”[5] It does so by beckoning our attention to Lee’s protracted gait through real crowds, reacting either with indifference or bemused puzzlement.

Yet Tsai’s recusant impulses find their most transgressive output in The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun, 2005). Tsai reunites the characters from 2001’s What Time Is It There? (Ni na bian ji dian) for an oddball musical romantic comedy where a woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) discovers that Hsiao-Kang (Lee’s moniker in most of Tsai’s features) has professionally transitioned from watch salesman to porn actor. Tsai’s aesthetic strategy in the film adopts an atypically florid visual grammar, particularly during the musical numbers that further the fantastic surrealism of similar song sequences from 1998’s The Hole (Dong). But shot duration is characteristically protracted during a grotesque moment of (literal) climax. Shiang-chyi discovers Hsiao-Kang’s profession shortly before witnessing him rape his unconscious co-star at the behest of the film crew. While a visceral variation on the aforementioned shot from The River, the results couldn’t be more different; when Shiang-Chyi moans in simulated pleasure, Hsiao-Kang leaps up from the bed to ejaculate in her mouth, holding his member there for an uncomfortably long time.

Sex in Tsai’s films usually operates as a perfunctory act for his characters. At worst, as in The Wayward Cloud and The River, it starkly allegorizes the dehumanizing conditions of Taiwan’s rapid industrialization following decades of martial law under Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Party.[6] Yet subtlety is not exclusive from sensationalism, as is the case in the climactic shot of The River where Hsiao-Kang performs oral sex on a stranger in a sauna, a stranger we gradually realize is his father (Miao Tien). This moment unspools in a single, unbroken take where faint flickers of light slowly bring clarity to what we’re watching, and nearly identical placement of both actors within the frame reifies a moribund element to the disturbing encounter.

Tsai’s own status as a gay man doesn’t neatly couch his work under the label of Queer Cinema, though it does reinforce his sympathy, if not empathy, for these intimate same-sex male encounters. In I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan, 2006), Lee plays a vagrant who is attacked in Tsai’s native Malaysia by a gang of hoodlums. He’s nursed back to health by a Bangladeshi migrant worker (Norman Atun), who helps him urinate in a striking shot devoid of sentimentality. In Tsai’s latest feature Days (Rizi, 2020), a climactic sex scene between Hsiao- Kang and a Thai masseuse (Anong Houngheuangsy) in Bangkok provides a cathartic release for the former, who seeks to alleviate his resurgent chronic neck pain. These shots could be deemed excessive, either in terms of their content or duration. Yet as Schoonover argues, “dickering over the use-value of the excessive image” makes us as viewers run the risk of “taking a referendum on queerness, questioning the validity of queer lives.”[7] By refusing to conform to a singular expression of queerness, Tsai’s camera privileges us with unadorned images of frank vulnerability.

Still from Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2020)

That vulnerability is contingent upon the temporal transformation of Lee’s body throughout Tsai’s own corpus. “I am using the body of Lee to have a conversation with the world,” Tsai told Cineaste in 2019. In August of this year, Tsai told Film Comment

I suddenly realized that because of the aging process, the body is ever-evolving. I can see that inevitable evolution in Lee’s exterior, and that also prompted me to see myself as part of this aging process. He almost served as a mirror.[8]

The use of an actor for a filmmaker to remark on their own mortality is most explicitly linked to Tsai’s cinema through the collaboration between François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud.[9] More pertinent to slow cinema is David Lynch’s depiction of his alter ego in Kyle Maclachlan in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Watching the aged Dale Cooper in a stupor for most of the show’s eighteen episodes, the spectator begins to ponder their own relationship to nostalgia for Machlachlan’s dashing hero and subsequently contends with larger questions of mortality in an alien, amoral America.

Still from Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, 2017)

The darkness of Tsai Ming-Liang’s slow cinema is equally exacting. Yet his most moving tribute to the human body occurs near the end of Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san, 2003) as the nameless ticket-seller (Chiang, once again) limps up and down the steps of the theater she’s sweeping for the last time. As she slowly hobbles on a lame foot with broom in hand, Tsai’s unbroken wide shot compels us to watch from a respectful distance with total attention. Her work as a character mirrors ours as spectators, aiding us in recognizing the labor we put into the thing which give our lives meaning. Tsai Ming-Liang’s generous cinema transcends a capitalist metric of valuing time and labor to transform the political into the deeply personal.

Still from Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Edited by Michelle Baroody


NOTES

1 Deleuze, “Preface” in Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. xi. 2 Tsai Ming-Liang. Interview with Erik Morse. “Time & Again.” Frieze no. 137. March 1, 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/time-again.
3 Schoonover, Karl. “Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema’s Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53, no. 1 (2012): 68. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41552300.

4 Schoonover, 65.
5 Tsai. Interview with Maria Giovanna Vagenas. “Filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang says his work should be appreciated slowly.” South China Morning Post. August 27, 2013. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts- culture/article/1299497/filmmaker-tsai-ming-liang-says-his-work-should-be-appreciated.
6 Indeed, a statue of Chiang is seen several times in The Wayward Cloud, drawing an explicitly historical reference point for Tsai’s otherwise relatively subtle sociopolitical critiques.
7 Schoonover, 73.
8 Tsai. Interview with Devika Girish. “Interview: Tsai Ming-liang.” Film Comment. August 16, 2021. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-tsai-ming-liang-days/
9 Tsai has frequently cited Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Le Quatre Cents Coups) as a major influence, referencing it explicitly in What Time Is It There? and even featuring Léaud in his 2009 film Visage.


She’s Not Monstrous, She’s My Sister: Sisterhood in Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body

| Celia Mattison |

Still from Ginger Snaps

Watch Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body at the Trylon from Friday, October 15 to Sunday, October 17. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.


Name some famous brothers. Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, the Grimms, the Wrights, the Marxs. In modern filmmaking you can take your pick of Coens, Safdies, Russos. Sister pairs are rarer in the Western canon—especially as creators—and if women are underrepresented in Hollywood than sisterhood is also underseen. Draw a line from the seventeenth-century murder ballad “The Two Sisters” to any set of fairytale stepsisters to the last line of White Christmas’s “Sisters” duet (“And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man”) and see what men think sisterhood looks like: a tangle of violent jealousy, vanity, and sexual competition. But films written or directed by women portray a sisterhood that is more intimate and nuanced, although just as potentially sinister.

From the outset of Ginger Snaps (2000), death is in the air. Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are two sisters as obsessed with suicide as they are disgusted by their vapid Canadian suburb. Had these girls been born a bit later they would’ve been the absolute queens of MySpace, posting Christina Rossetti poetry underneath staged photoshoots of gory homemade crime scenes. The two have little use for the world outside their friendship and resist adulthood at every turn; it seems like it’s by sheer force of will alone that both Ginger and Brigitte have yet to start their periods even though they’re in their mid-teens.

Ginger as the older sister is quite protective of Brigitte, but when Ginger is bitten by a wolf and her sudden puberty takes a dark turn, Brigitte takes on the guardian role. There’s a matter-of-factness to Brigitte’s new position. Her sister’s survival and happiness is a given; she will do anything she can to protect her. Although it’s foreshadowed, Ginger’s death is devastating because we know what it means for Brigitte. These are two sisters so intermeshed that they have sworn not just to die for each other but to die with each other. How does one exist without the other? It’s a question at the center of many movies but almost always reserved for romantic, not sisterly, relationships.

Jennifer’s Body depicts a similar relationship, although Needy and Jennifer are emphatically not biological sisters, just intimate childhood friends. The phrase “female friendship” has become a kind of placeholder expression to slap on the cover of any work that interrogates two women interacting meaningfully but Jennifer’s Body deals with the true thorniness of girlhood relationships.

Still from Jennifer’s Body

Like the sisters in Ginger Snaps, Needy and Jennifer live in a world they’ve created to resist the dullness of their small town, but it’s clear even before Jennifer’s transformation that this relationship has an expiration date. Jennifer has zero interest in anyone outside of Needy—she has relationships with men, but they’re transactional and superficial—while Needy has a boyfriend and is friendly to other students. Jennifer might talk shit about Devil’s Kettle but this “State Fair Butter Princess,” as demon worshipper/aspiring rock star Nikolai Wolf (played by Adam Brody) puts it, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of interest or ambition that would take her elsewhere. It seems certain that next year Needy will go off to college while Jennifer sticks around Devil’s Kettle, half-assing some job, borrowing her mother’s car, and fucking police cadet Chris Pratt. Jennifer is about to lose her grip on her soulmate.

What else but jealousy motivates Jennifer’s choice of victim? It’s reiterated multiple times that Jennifer can have whoever she wants, for sex or for feeding, and yet she picks three men who Needy cares about. Jennifer’s first attack is the exchange student Needy says hello to at the bar. You see Jennifer’s face change when Needy says that she thinks goth guy Colin is cool. Suddenly Jennifer is threatened by Colin, a boy she just moments ago was calling a no-dick loser. And of course Jennifer’s final act, seducing and killing Chip, is her last ditch attempt to possess Needy. There’s a sapphic angle—perhaps Jennifer seduces men close to Needy because she can’t express her attraction to her best friend. But her kiss with Needy is not romantic, it’s manipulative. It’s the tactic she’s used to procure things from men but it doesn’t work on Needy because Needy knows her. They have their own oh-so-Diablo-Cody language, “Jennifer-Speak.” At times they seem almost telepathic—Needy can sense when Jennifer is attacking Chip, almost as if she knows Jennifer is being “unfaithful” to her. Jennifer’s tricks are powerless against her.

The irony is, of course, that Jennifer doesn’t have to fight to keep Needy. Needy adores her. She recognizes the wit in Jennifer’s cruelty, she admires Jennifer’s confidence. There’s a world where Jennifer grows up: learns to express vulnerability, dials back her meanness, and stays friends with Needy. But as we’re reminded when Jennifer is starstruck over some Minneapolis C-grade hipsters, Jennifer is still a child and not particularly emotionally mature. And we see no other female pairs, we rarely see anyone’s parents or family. There are no models for their friendship or even for well-adjusted adult women in their world.

In a role reversal from traditional horror films where female sexuality is intended for male consumption, these films grant women a visceral power over their sexuality. Ginger and Jennifer have learned to reverse the predatory male behavior inflicted on them in order to satiate their own desires. Tying magical, and often horrible, powers to female puberty is well-trod ground. The idea that along with a period and pubic hair one could also receive a power that protects you from male desire is a deeply alluring female fantasy. But sex is also a threat to sisterhood. A male lover is an interruption to an established sisterly dynamic. Their power comes with devastating costs.

The unique brutality of sisters is on display in these films in equal parts viscera and play. The pairs of Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body are harsh to each other because they know each other. They are the only ones who know each other. They oscillate between tenderness and cruelty, their slights cutting deeper while also healing faster. They’ve spent their lives preparing for the psychic warfare that only occurs between people who know each other intimately.

It’s hard to grow alongside another person. It’s not surprising that these pairs don’t make it out together on the other side. People change, childhoods end, sisters part. Someone who knew you when you were a girl might not know you when you become a woman. Perhaps there is a world where even the most monstrous girls can survive together, but this one isn’t it.

More from the sisterhood canon:

The Lure (2015)

Raw (2017)

Little Woods (2018)

Blow the Man Down (2019)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)


Edited by Brad Stiffler

Where Art Thou, Mr. Beardsley?

| Alisha Robberstad |

Artwork by Alisha Robberstad

Squirm screens at the Trylon from Sunday, October 3 to Tuesday, October 5. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this page.


I watched a lot of network television as a kid, including Fear Factor, where contestants were made to eat a variety of bugs and ballsacks. Besides being forced to ingest slimy invertebrates, players were made to lie in coffin baths of nightcrawlers, snakes, or cockroaches. Even with this viewing history, I was not totally desensitized to the worms in Squirm. My first time watching it was in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I rewatched that episode for this review trying to ignore the commentary from the Gizmonics employee and his bots of spare parts, when I noticed the movie’s charming flaws. That particular episode also includes a pretty funny riff track of an informational video titled “A Case of Spring Fever” in which a man temporarily lives in a Twilight Zone world without springs with a cartoon mascot named Coily. As a fan of MST3K, I highly recommend this episode and pretty much all the others. 

Deeper meanings to films tend to go far over my head in most cases, so it isn’t exactly clear if there is an environmental lesson here or if it’s just a creature feature,something akin to Night of the Leapus but without all the miniatures. Do the worms revolt from years of abuse by humans—years of being skewered on tackle and used as bait? Or are they just kinda gross, so it makes for an entertaining premise? I’ve been baiting my own hooks since I was a young kid and worms never bothered me as badly as leeches. Those blood sucking bastards can rot on a hot tin roof. Apparently so many worms were required for the filming of this movie that New England’s supply of bloodworms was nearly wiped out. 

The movie opens with scrolling text setting the time and place of Fly Creek, Georgia, 1975. An extreme thunderstorm downs some power lines which electrically charge the soil and the worms that live down below. In the days after the wild storm, southern belle Geri eagerly awaits the arrival of her New York City slickin’ boyfriend Mick. Geri’s widowed mother and younger sister Alma are hesitant about Mick’s arrival, her mother had been hoping that she would’ve settled with Roger instead. Roger is the Lawnmower Man-like simple country boy who has unrequited feelings for Geri and who begrudgingly works for his father’s worm farm next door. This love triangle between Geri, Roger, and Mick is very weak and doesn’t do much to help establish any character motivations other than Roger’s. In fact, the characters in this movie are lacking personality in general, with the exception of Alma and her giant glam rock platform shoes and patched pants. The worms are the true stars. 

Mick arrives in Fly Creek by bus with his luggage, tennis racket, and fishing pole, reunited in the middle of the woods with Geri. They ride into town together in Roger’s borrowed Willie’s Worm Farm truck to buy some ice for the fridge since the electricity is still out. Mick orders an egg cream at a cafe and… Egad! A fat screaming worm falls from the spoiled spilled soda. The sheriff is there and refuses to believe Mick when he defends himself by saying he wasn’t playing a prank. In typical small town fashion, the cop lets it be known that outsiders aren’t so welcomed ‘round there and accuses him of straight up tomfoolery. 

Finishing their errands, the couple move on to check in on Mr. Beardsley, a beautiful old man who lives nearby. Calling for him outloud proves to be futile until they find skeletal remains in some dirt in the backyard. The remainder of the film is dedicated to discovering who the skeleton is, Rogers’ increasingly strange behavior, and battling the skepticism of the asshole sheriff. Downed power lines drag back and forth in the dirt, presumably growing the army of sentient flesh-hungry worms into numbers large enough to release an onslaught of mucusy aggression onto the people of Fly Creek. 

So put a pot of boiling water on the stove and ready your spaghetti noodles because you’ll be craving them by the finish. While it could have had more gory-worm action instead of dentistry records searching, the climax will still impress with an avalanche of love worms. This movie entertains a little more with the help of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, but is still enjoyable nonetheless.

Edited by Brad Stiffler

Mikey and Nicky: The Life of a Film

| Daniel Eckman-Thomas |

Artwork by Daniel Eckman-Thomas

Mickey and Nickey screens at the Trylon from Sunday, September 26 to Tuesday, September 28. For tickets and more informationscroll to the bottom of this page.

On the third floor of the Minneapolis Central Library, in the American Literature block (more precisely, PS3573.I455.2011, for those in the know) there was, until very recently, a play entitled Mikey and Nicky: The Life of a Film, a theatrical retelling of  Elaine May’s heroic battle against Paramount Pictures to retain creative control of her third feature film. Due to collection maintenance guidelines, my colleagues and I were forced to withdraw the title from the system because it had failed to find a reader in ten years. The posture of the book’s spine was tall and stiff, so solidly at attention, and yet also sun-worn – the usual signs of having been forgotten. But before casting it into the recycling bin for its final handling, I decided to crack the spine, and thumb my way through a piece of theater that was soon to be lost forever. 

I will admit that the experience of reading this play was mostly awful, and I felt pretty good about the book’s bright future of being recycled into something else. The playwright, whose name I’ll compassionately keep from the page, had most likely never attended a play and believed the magic of theater to be a free and unlimited resource. In fact, it is often hauled in on the backs of cranky and underpaid theater technicians, and you’d need an entire fleet to make this play possible. The dialogue is clunky, the stage directions are far too specific, and the structure is strange, but overall the play means well. Hollywood has swept a lot of secrets under the rug they made out of Leo the Lion (a former employee of MGM) and this play aims to expose a very specific clod of truth beneath that hide. If it had ever been performed, it would surely have proven to be a hellish bit of theater, but maybe, if summarized in the broadest of strokes, it could be more entertaining than reading factoids on the subject found easily online, and can, in a sense, live another day. So if you’re brave and willing, I’ll ask you now to take your seat. The lights are just dimming now.

Behold! The curtain lifts and the stage lights rise above a garage in Connecticut. Elaine May sits center stage in a folding chair with her head in her hands. On either side of her is a 35mm projector, aimed upstage toward the closed white garage door. She sits in silence. Suddenly, one of the projectors activates itself, as if possessed, and begins to spin a foot of film through its mechanism, projecting John Cassavetes’ Nicky onto the garage door saying, “I’m going to die!” before promptly shutting back down. Elaine May lifts herself from her hands, and with her eyes still closed, yells, “You’re Fine! We’re Fine!” And so begins her tale. She addresses the audience: she has stolen two reels of film and hidden them here in her husband’s friend’s garage in order to gain leverage against Paramount in her fight for creative control. But the reels of film have gone paranoid on her, and believe it’s only a matter of time before she sells them out and ships them back to Paramount’s butcher block. The scene runs like a one-woman show with technical difficulties. Each projector takes turns interrupting May by illuminating the garage door with Nicky’s desperate exclamations. A superfluous bit of stage direction reads: “giving the effect of a servant pleading to its master for life with the words that she has gifted it.” Anyway, after far too many pages and a couple of shortcuts taken by the playwright in the emotional development of our protagonist, it becomes clear that the two reels of film aren’t unnecessarily paranoid. May, tired and out of options, intends to give them up to the studio, and does exactly that at the scene’s climax. She takes the garage door opener in her hand, and with the dramatic weight of launching a nuclear weapon, pushes the button. The garage door groans and begins to heave its way upward. But before it can fully rise, a projector comes to life one last time. It lights the garage door with a frame of Ned Beaty’s character firing his gun – played in slow motion. The image stays there on the door until it’s lost to the darkness of the outside world. The projector shuts down. End of Scene.

Scene Two. Editing Room. Before we begin, theater technicians are advised to do a quick buddy check and keep to their toes; this one’s a doozy. Elaine May famously shot 1.4 million feet of film for Mikey and Nicky, and in this scene we are to see every foot of that descend from the theater’s ceiling to the stage below, which has been swept of its previous set and been given little else: an ancient stump for a chopping block planted front and center. The sole character of the scene is a new one: ostensibly an editor, but more likely a symbol of the Hollywood system as a whole. This man is described in the character list as a “W.C. Fields type. Where he isn’t pockmarked and pale, he is red—candy apple—at his heaviest gleams of sweat.” He enters wielding an axe and takes up his post at the chopping block. After rolling his starched white sleeves to the elbows, he yells upwards to the catwalk, “Send it down!” Seconds later, a black ribbon of celluloid appears in the air above the stage. It descends gently from the ceiling to The Editor’s outstretched hand where it flashes a bit. He examines several feet of it with the help of the stage lights, places his target on the stump, and chops it in two. This action is repeated over and over again for the first several thousand feet of film, until, in a kind of blood lust, he screams upward for “More! More!” The command is understood as a doubling of speed—indefinitely and exponentially. The film crashes all around The Editor, coiling in large heaps. Surrounded, he throws himself at the film, biting it, tearing it, wrestling it—and still the speed doubles. The film falls in waves on its rapid descent, until finally the ceiling looses the last several thousand feet of film, and The Editor is lost. A silence comes over the stage. Nothing moves (though I could imagine a hell of a draft blowing around the place, due to the audience breathing a sigh of relief in unison at the thought of the scene being over). But before the scene can end we must first watch the giant mass of film collapse inward and drain through the stage’s trap door, taking with it The Editor and his stump. And so we do, and for our patience we are granted passage to the next and final scene. 

Scene Three. Graveyard. Before the audience knows they have been transported to a funeral setting, or that the stage’s trap door has been piled with earth and spiked with a headstone, they are introduced to the first half of a chorus of critics: The Downers of 1977, featuring William Bernard of Films in Review, Time Magazine’s Jay Cocks, and Judith Crist from Saturday Review. They appear one at a time in a sequence of spotlights across the stage with nothing nice to say about the production company’s cut of the film. Judith Crist ends her review and this segment by saying, “Her long night’s tale is as dull, dreary, and unlikable as her stars.” And after a moment of darkness on stage, a soft light shines on the grave. Elaine May is there. She is working: attaching a crank to an empty film reel, which she then hooks to a hip-height tripod. Then she gets to the ground and works at the dirt of the grave. She pushes what is loose to all sides and digs down to her elbows. Then, a shift in her face, a sudden freeze of all struggle. The newly airborne sands of dirt twist in the spotlight as she begins excavating something upward. The audience can recognize the black ribbon of film as she pulls it up to the surface with a gentle pincer grip. It is as if all 1.4 million feet of film were perfectly coiled beneath the ground, repaired by death and willing to rise in one long piece. She pulls enough of it up to thread it into the empty film reel of her mechanism, and begins to turn the crank. Rewinding her film from the grave, she says, 

“Y’know, the beautiful thing about film is that it lives many lives. I mean, some don’t even begin to live until long after they’ve rolled their last credits in a discount theater in Omaha. Movies are constantly being re-discovered, re-evaluated, and recycled into a new and current mainstream. And at each showtime, a film is capable of being rewarded an afterlife in the head of some schlub who got it and can’t shake the magic of it. It lives on in that person’s head for as long as it means something to them. They’ll take it to work, to dinner, to bed. And that is the ultimate reward for both the filmmaker and the film. We all know what Hollywood is: an industry that hunts the creative spirit for sport… and yet we write a script, we choreograph 90 pairs of legs in a sound studio, we wrangle poisonous snakes for B-roll footage—and we do it so someone will take us to bed!” 

A strange landing at the end there, but about as good as a monologue gets in this play. As she continues to twist the crank, a second chorus of critics begins to light up around the stage—those of new and different times, Peter Bradshaw, Marjorie Baumgarten, Gene Siskel, and more—so many, it seems they must be standing shoulder to shoulder and heels to toes in the darkness around the grave, each waiting for their golden moment to deliver fresh and glowing praise. The word “masterpiece” is used, Peter Bradshaw considers the film “a neglected 1976 gem, from a neglected Hollywood genius.” They are all passionately piling praise upon praise and interrupting each other at such speed that the spotlight has to strobe itself all over the stage, with many agreeing in their own best words that it’s one of the greatest American movies of the 1970s. Now the lights begin to show the first signs of dimming as the voices of the critics fall away. Elaine continues her work, only marginally moved by the words of this chorus. The critics are in agreement, that is obvious, but not the point. Will you, dear viewer, give it a life inside your head?

Curtain. 

Edited by Brad Stiffler