Thursday, November 6, 2008


"I find that the actual shooting of a movie is a very painful agonizing process of constant minor disappointments. What you've imagined ideally frequently cannot be achieved with flesh and blood and with real circumstances, so you feel with each scene that you're losing something. And it's a heartbreaking process. Frequently, when I wind up with a thing I feel, 'My God, it's no good at all, it's terrible. It's so far away from what I thought it would be.' But, if you try hard enough, it comes out good enough, and exciting enough."

Rouben Mamoulian

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Calpernia Addams in: A Woman's Picture


Recently, I filmed a short here in Memphis, a week-long production with a cast of three and a crew of four. One of the actors was Calpernia Addams, whom I'd first seen on TV, subsequently contacted by email, and eventually met at Outfest in LA. Like many people who meet at film-related events in Los Angeles, we exchanged compliments and expressed what seemed like a genuine interest in working with each other. Following the template, it might have ended there.

I had hopes of including her in one of several possible upcoming projects, but planning those things can go on forever, and it could have been months if not a year before any of the things I had in mind went into production. I'd never written a short, and I don't think I intended to when I started the one we eventually worked on, but I wanted to work together sooner, to capitalize on an enthusiasm we both seemed to have for working in general. That kind of enthusiasm goes a long way on the kind of modestly budgeted films I make. It overcomes a lot of obstacles, placing them within a bigger picture so they seem smaller, less insurmountable. Whatever its genesis, writing the short was a totally freeing experience for me. I'd always begun whatever I wrote with some advance limitation or convoluted restriction meant to guide me. Instead it often ended up stumping me.

For novels, that meant coming in under a certain number of pages. For movies, it meant all kinds of things; that certain events should happen by certain page numbers, that characters should develop in specific ways. I resist the external influence of "how-to" manuals as much as possible, and grumble at conventional storytelling or the impositions of narrative guidelines, but I'm not immune to those pressures, and often end up imposing them myself in a roundabout way. The short had no rules because I went into it with no preconceived ideas or expectations. It could be however long felt right. Nothing had to happen. The characters could be as opaque as I wanted them to be. Consequently, I kept discovering them and learning from them after the script was finished.
The script was what I guess I'd call a vehicle for Calpernia. I openly thought of it that way. I wanted to play around with the old-fashioned, maybe outdated idea of a woman's picture, where the focus is on one woman's arc or movement through a story, and everything revolves around her in some thematic way. Gaslight, A Woman's Face, Mildred Pierce, et al. An added phenomenon of those films was that the personal life of the actresses often informed and augmented the characters they were playing. Calpernia fit the genre's requirements. She's recognized publicly in a way which makes people feel they know her, influencing the way they receive whatever work she does. Physically, she has the look of a classic Hollywood actress, with big, soulful eyes, graceful carriage, and an hourglass figure. She looks very much like pictures I've seen of Loretta Young, and has a similarly dignified air about her.
In some ways, those qualities put her out of step with contemporary fashion; in other ways, they make her seem timeless in a fascinating way. Ingrid, the character she played in our short, shares this dichotomous relationship to her environment: the story suggests that as a child Ingrid was consciously influenced by the women's pictures she watched with her grandmother, and has subsequently modeled herself on the actresses in them as a form of homage and resistance. But there's an inner quality to Calpernia which was equally appropriate to the material, suggesting reserves of strength and determination hidden under an apparently placid reserve. It's a spark she gives off.As an actress, her most interesting qualities are magnified by the camera. In the role of Ingrid, a woman who returns home after ten years to take care of unfinished business with her estranged mother, Calpernia made small adjustments and subtle expressive decisions, all of which paid huge dividends on screen. She has an uncanny sense for the economy of film work, how little is needed, how just a touch registers much more expansively than a wallop. Many actors give you wallops. They're trying to cover all the bases. You keep asking them to simplify. They keep getting broader. They have very little sense of scale, which is a tricky thing for the best performers. Calpernia measured things considerably, creating a complex, insular, intriguing characterization with precisely judged calibrations.

The first day of the shoot took place entirely in the back seat of a rented town car. We circled the neighborhood endlessly, trying to get the right light, the right sound. Finding roads without too many potholes was an afternoon-long endeavor, and by the end of the day, when it came to parked scenes, we had jets to contend with. We'd set up under the Fedex flight path at rush hour, meaning ceaseless interruptions and crazy-making re-takes. The first scene required Calpernia to be very focused. The car approaches Ingrid's childhood neighborhood, a source of panic and dread for her.Calpernia's performance felt too small to me at first. I have trouble gauging people I act beside in a scene, until I see the dailies for the first time and understand better what they're doing, if anything. The changes Calpernia's facial expressions went through were subtle enough I didn't even really see them until we watched the footage. When I did see them, I forgot about them; the shot was disembodied from the scene it will eventually be seamlessly pieced into, but totally compelling, and her face told an entire story on its own, I got so wrapped up in it I forgot about the one I was expecting. The performance was taking place on a more subterranean level, transmitted through the eyes from a place much deeper than her face.

Women's Pictures were often about suffering silently, a personality under duress which eventually transcends some limitation, whether by conquering it or simply persevering. Critic Molly Haskell characterized the genre as being about ordinary women who become extraordinary through sacrifice, choice, affliction, and competition. The story of Ingrid somewhat subverts that format, presenting a female character who is considered extraordinary in various ways from the outset, not least because of her beauty. Eventually, she disproves some of the assumptions leveled at her, proving to be not quite as different from those around her as they've chosen to believe.

In an essay about the woman's picture published in Jump Cut, Deborah H. Holdstein references Sartre's "perfect moment" as an aspiration held by the women of these women's pictures, a drive they have to fulfill society's expectations of them by arriving at a point which embodies their "potential" as ideal citizens of society. Sartre condemned people who sought only to fulfill society's ideal of them, Holdstein says. In doing so, they sacrifice their individuality.

In contrast, Ingrid's individuality was imposed on her in certain ways, and embracing this idea of "difference" and the scrutiny which has come with it has been a trial. She's endured it admirably, but the story hinges on her continual insistence on being ordinary, free from the pressure to conform to an idea of difference. Calpernia brought to the role a remarkably rich and adroit comprehension of how that difference operates beyond the person said to possess it, the effects so-called difference has on other people, how it modifies their behavior and conditions their thinking. Difference has as profound an effect on the people who impose it and come into contact with it. They often just don't see it, because the difference becomes a way for them not to look at themselves very closely. Calpernia expressed this delicate balance wonderfully, complicating the role in ways which would inevitably surprise the audience as much as the characters they were watching.

Ingrid's perfect moment is something she ultimately keeps very private, in direct contrast to the classic woman's picture storyline, where the perfect moment resolves the film like characters walking off into the sunset. Ingrid's moment is something outside of society, a vision she's held onto for herself, the consummation of a relationship she's imagined, not with a man, as was often the case in these movies, but with herself; the actualization of her desired self-image by accessing areas which were designated off limits to her. Her chief resistance involves refusing to be marginalized. There are no "Big Moments" in Calpernia's enactment of Ingrid's resolve and arguable victory. Rather than explaining her perfect moment for the audience she holds it close, behind her eyes, subverting not just the idea of total access to the women in those old films, but the sense that conveying emotion requires a recognizable pattern of transparency. It's a radical revision of the Loretta Young-era star figure, normalizing her character from the outside in, and a fascinating performance to watch, doing quietly, in the space of thirty to forty minutes, what most actors need several hours and a couple of big speeches to accomplish.

[Top photo and third down, Loretta Young; all other stills from the short "Woman's Picture", photography by Sean Davis.]

Friday, October 31, 2008

More on Buster Keaton


"Steamboat Bill, Jr. was his last really fine feature. His face is older and sadder, but he still exhibits humid romanticism, sniffing a girl's hair as if in a trance. The gags play with expectations and build suspense; in one perfect moment, though knocked out and stuffed upside down in a car, Buster still manages to cross his legs jauntily.

These last few films are the most refined expression of his art, unafraid to draw out situations to the point of, and even past, tedium. They are something like Beethoven's last string quartets: heaven for the specialist, alienating for the casual viewer..."

"...In many ways, Buster was the Godard of the twenties, the Rossellini of slapstick—he needed to improvise. He was unable to come up with a cut-and-dried script—that just wasn't the way he worked...."

"...Like Chaplin, he had a native gift for movement, but, unlike the Little Tramp, he had very modern instincts that propelled him far ahead of any of his contemporaries. For so long, he was thought of as just a forgotten pie-thrower with stone face and porkpie hat. Today he is revered for that stream of pure movies from the twenties, a sequence of work that has improved with age and speaks to us all from the viewpoint of an artist who is both burned and purified, numb and serene, hopeful but cynical..."

From a profile by Dan Callahan on Senses of Cinema:

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/keaton.html

Real Escapism: Kentucker Audley and Team Picture


You can't really talk about Team Picture without mentioning Mumblecore at this point, which is unfortunate, considering how many things the film does as you watch it, and what an accomplished stylist the director clearly is. Mumblecore might have died a slow death as a conversational seque into a group of films and filmmakers Kentucker Audley has fallen in with, the most active verb of which has been Cassavettes, but Audley's Team Picture has a much wider array of precedents, and Audley especially seems too full of ideas and idiosyncratic talent to pitch his tent for very long in anyone's camp...

See the rest of this essay at Fanzine

Wednesday, October 29, 2008



Jared Leto as Jake LaMotta


Discussing his preparation for the role of Mark David Chapman in the film Chapter 27, Jared Leto talks almost exclusively about the weight he gained, and the toll this took on him physically. Chapman, you'll recall, murdered John Lennon outside the Dakota Building in December of 1980. He wasn't a small guy, or even apparently in any condition approaching "fit"; nor does he seem, in the pictures I've seen, strikingly obese. In the making-of featurette which accompanies the Chapter 27 DVD, Leto says that the weight gain affected him completely; the way he moved, the way he thought and felt. It was horrible. He'd stretched out his stomach to such an extent, he said, that if ever he bent over during the shoot, bile would start to flow back up his throat. His feet ached unbearably on the walk from his trailer to the set. He took to using a wheelchair. It's something you couldn't pay him to do again, and yet the role, he understands, required it of him, as if it were something of a calling.

Just how ridiculous this is becomes apparent when you consult the film again and see that Leto, as Chapman, looks no more hideous than half the people you know, none of whom you consider horribly out of shape, some of whom you might even find slightly or more than a little attractive. To hear Leto talk, you would think the actor gained hundreds of pounds to portray his subject faithfully. Reportedly, he gained 67 pounds for the role, by drinking microwaved pints of ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil every night. His body doesn't seem to have lost its muscle tone altogether; in various scenes depicting Chapman in his hotel room, the actor wanders around in underwear, the lamplight moving over a still fairly structured physique. You can see Leto's mind working feverishly in these shots, trying to run through his rolodex of fatso behavioral attitudes. He puffs out his cheeks, retracts his chin, allows his body to double over, creating vaguely pendulous silhouettes. It's as if Leto is noticing his body for the first time, as though the role gave him an excuse to enjoy his physicality as something corporeal and sensuous, rather than a vessel whose sole purpose is to make money and maintain a competitive edge through various systems of deprivation and abstinence.

According to Jared, being that heavy was depressing, and because he couldn't think of anything else, he apparently can't believe that Chapman would have been able to either. Ergo, Chapman killed Lennon because he was unhappy, which is to say because he was wretchedly fat. The director subscribes to this kind of reductionism as well, promoting the idea that Chapman had very little on his mind beyond "kill" and Catcher in the Rye, from which the movie quotes shamelessly and copiously. While Chapman might have inscribed a copy of Salinger's novel with his signature and a paragraph indicating his conviction that the book would explain his behavior, he has also acknowledged that he was directed and judged by a committee of imaginary "little people", and that he was equally fascinated with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. No such complexity here. The voice-over narration of Chapter 27 presents a rambling, wimpy caricature, closer in spirit to the feeble but grumpy public persona of Bette Davis succumbing to late stage Alzheimers than a man who, however mentally unbalanced, managed to travel around the country on money he talked his wife into borrowing from her mother.

Chapter 27 is interested only in Salinger and Catcher. Everything in the narrative must be explained by this connection, reducing Chapman to a simplistic notion of obsessional insanity. It chooses to focus on Chapman's last three days in Manhattan, but not how he funded his stay, or the circumstances of his life in Hawaii, including lost jobs, a short fuse, an extra-marital affair which consumed him with guilt, and a desire to kill himself which brought him there in the first place. Many conspiracy theories have evolved concerning his murder of Lennon, the most persistent of which asserts that he was a mind-controlled assassin, trained by the FBI and the CIA. Such is the movie's particular accomplishment that even after driving home its singular theory for an hour an a half, it succeeds in failing to make Catcher in the Rye feel very compelling or even believable as the engine of a mental disorder, and renders the idea that Chapman would have killed anyone in anything but a momentary pique of irritability highly implausible. The mind-control conspiracy makes much more sense.

Leto isn't horrible, and I wonder what he might have done with more intelligent direction, or writing. The most poignant thing about Chapter 27 is the sense it gives you that this, the first opportunity for its lead actor to dig into a character with any depth who doesn't happen to be peripheral or supporting, might also be his last.

Sunday, October 26, 2008




Polanski: A Biography


Books on Roman Polanski, even critical studies, tend to regard the events of his life and the movies he's made as somehow interchangeable on some perhaps Jungian level, as if the two realms informed each other in readily identifiable, quantifiable ways. Within that system of logic, Rosemary's Baby ties directly into the murder of Sharon Tate, and Tess becomes a response to the incident at Jack Nicholson's house involving sodomy with an underage girl.

Following that line of thought inevitably involves viewing Polanski's films through a tightly constricted, inevitably distorted lens, allowing for heightened experiences of them in some respects, if a limited appreciation overall. Surely Hitchcock, another director whose culturally defined psychological profile is read outside his films, carried back into them, and seeps back out again, was processing some sort of issue with blond actresses, dressing Tippie and Grace as if they were his dolls, but Marnie and Rear Window can hardly be described as chapters out of his autobiography, or therapy sessions, especially once you consider that, however extensively he plotted his films in advance, the stories typically began as someone else's script.

Compared to its predecessors, the latest biography on Polanski shows remarkable restraint. Christopher Sandford does a more admirable job keeping everything straight; certainly he does better than Denis Meikle, whose Odd Man Out reads more like a USA Today article than a biography. Polanski's autobiography was more of an entertainment and an evasion than an illumination, serving as a reaction to the continual and intentional confusion between his life and his work. A book by a man as reviled in the press as Polanski has often been might be expected to come across defensively, but as a result, you learn more about the worldliness of young girls who look older than they are and horrible journalists who refuse to discuss anything but murder and rape than you do about the films themselves in any detail approaching critical acuity.

It isn't that the events in Polanski's life are avoided in the Sandford book, or even skimmed over. They're written about at length. But no effort is made to connect said events in any conclusive way to the movies preceding or following them. And the films themselves are discussed on a variety of levels, including circumstances of production, financing, critical reception, and artistic intention. Hearing about events surrounding the production of Tess, you learn that the director's personal affections at the time were for young women and lots of them, that he was particularly interested in Natassia Kinski, that he appeared with Kinski at Cannes to promote the film ahead of its release, declaring, "I've never hidden the fact that I like young girls. I will say again, once and for all, I like very young girls," after which he rolled his eyes in ecstasy and covered his crotch with his hand.

You also learn that the production of Tess was fraught with complications which beset cast and crew from the very first day of filming, when a scene meant to be sunny was scheduled on a day pouring with rain. Natassia was German and hadn't acted much if any, requiring voice lessons and the better part of Polanki's already compromised focus on set. Eleven weeks into production, the film's director of photography took ill and died the same day. The production extended through summer and autumn and into the worst winter France had experienced in the preceding sixty years. Blizzards were involved. Production was incessantly interrupted by the noise of French air force jets and nearby traffic. Stonehenge was rebuilt from scratch. There were myriad delays, stoppages, and distractions. At one point, "Natassia Kinski repeated one short speech twenty-seven times before the sound crew deemed it technically passable." The budget went from 8 million to 12. Add to this the fact that Polanski jumped into the film immediately after arriving in France, a welcome diversion from his recent troubles in America. He'd lost his homes in America and in England. The rape charges were unquestionably on his mind. Being human, and a film director, plenty else besides was, as well.

Reading all this, it's difficult to narrow down the focus of the film to a straightforward commentary relating directly to Polanski's fateful experience at Jack Nicholson's. But the book doesn't join the cult of apologists for its subject either, many of whom excuse some of his more spectacularly shitty behavior as an understandable side effect of genius. Unlike the documentary Wanted and Desired, which approaches Polanski's behavior in LA as more of an indiscretion than a crime, portraying the director as a victim of a publicity-hungry judge, Sandford makes it clear that Ritterband, the judge in question, never in fact promised Polanski would be placed on probation rather than be sentenced to a term if only he confessed guilt and served time at the Chino State Prison for an evaluation period. To the contrary, court documents show Roman saying he fully understood exactly that, whatever he says now. Besides which, one might expect particularly tenacious rancor in cases involving sex with minors and quaaludes. Seeing the director in the kind of detail provided by Sandford, without the excessive bias typically involved, opens the films up to wider interpretation, allowing the reader to review them more comprehensively with a broader spectrum of reference points. Ultimately, the filmmaker and his work are served better by this kind of scrutiny than by the fog-like layers of mysticism which often cling to all things Polanski, obscuring anything but the most reductive analogies.

That kind of diplomacy works in Polanski's favor in other ways. Tate has long been regarded by many as the victim not just of Manson's creepy-crawlies but of her husband's philandering as well. Even when biographers and critics have conceded that the couple had some sort of understanding about Polanski's extra-marital affairs, they seem to imply that Tate was weak and didn't feel she had much of a choice in the matter, that each affair damaged her irreparably, that she was fragile, pining, and needy, all stereotypes applied to women which further served to excoriate Polanski by devaluing Tate. Sandford gives ample enough reason to see Tate as more independent and self-contained. The fact that she made far more than Polanski did at the time of her death has remained relatively unknown. Of the two, she had far more pull in Hollywood. For a Hollywood couple, that means more power in the relationship, not just out of it. Sandford argues that Tate knew about Polanski's affairs and made certain resolutions about them, not all of which were conducted in private or under duress. If anything, she had far more choices than her husband, which isn't to say his affairs didn't sometimes or even often irritate or even deeply upset her; rather, she made whatever decisions she did from a more informed and empowered position than anyone wishes to give women they choose to dismiss as helpless blond bimbos credit for.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

JT Leroy: Autobiography As Set Piece


JT Leroy, the subject of the book GIRLBOYGIRL, was a literary phenomenon who turned out never to have existed beyond the imagination of Laura Albert, a middle-aged San Franciscan. A small time James Frey, Leroy began his brief existence through phone calls to various writers whose work might be said to have been sympathetic, if not catalytic, creating imaginative back-story and relationships which provided legitimate worker bees for the propagation of the JT storyline. Writers got JT published. Publication got JT celebrity friends. A movie adaptation of his story followed, with trips to Cannes and Italy and the offices of several producers eager as ever to visualize the emperor's new clothes. Ultimately, JT was exposed in a series of magazine and newspaper articles, the most interesting of them written by Stephen Beachy. Until now, Laura and crew had been relatively silent.

GIRLBOYGIRL is ostensibly the story of Savannah Knoop, Albert's sister-in-law,who was commissioned by Laura to impersonate JT after journalists and others grew impatient with the photo Dennis Cooper had loaned to Leroy for use as himself. The first autobiography to emerge from the JT Leroy conglomerate, GIRLBOYGIRL makes for a nice extension of the JT mythos, showing how adaptable the basic story is, even now that JT Leroy has been exposed as the creation of Laura Albert.

It isn't a bad book. The JT novels themselves weren't either, though many people changed their minds about them once the scam was exposed. GIRLBOYGIRL operates within the same format as SARAH and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, trading in tell-all vernacular. Like JT, who was said to have been pimped out by his mother to her johns until a therapist saved him by encouraging him to write, Savannah essentially "finds herself" through the course of the story. Like JT, she arranges events like a film, presenting a collection of cinematic vignettes which eschew the mundane in favor of the memorable. These involve her acquaintance with various celebrities: dinner with Gus Van Sant and Mike Pitt, girlboygirl crush on Asia Argento, residence in Carrie Fisher's guest house.

The JT story was something of an ad-lib. Readers completed it using a subtext provided by magazine articles, interviews, and the recommendations and endorsements of other authors and a motley assortment of public figures. The novels were essentially sets upon which JT's fans could play out their fantasies of him; they were endlessly adaptable this way, and their merit was based on the extent of imagination brought to them by their audience and by an awareness of the work their texts evoked: Dennis Cooper, Bruce Benderson, Mary Gaitskill, and others did more than half of JT's work for Albert, providing dimension to an otherwise fairly dimensionless narrative. JT was a familiar character, if one with no real-life analog, recognizable from the figures who populated other novels and stories. The subtext provided texture, reinforcing the idea that Sarah and Heart were poetic representations of a much more complicated, inarticulate universe. They lent a sort of credence and cohesion to the work of the authors they borrowed from as well, encouraging readers to see them as a bigger picture.

GIRLBOYGIRL presents Savannah as a repentant transgressor. Like JT, who hid behind sunglasses and wigs to protect his true identity, Knoop lived vicariously through the disguise. She played out a fantasy of herself, allowing for projection. Like JT, she got lost in the performance, felt trapped, was debased, controlled, and now, freed through writing, might be saved and start over. The book characterizes her situation as an addiction: she suffers not just from the impersonation, but from an eating disorder and aggressive self-hatred. Fittingly, she has body issues to go with her persona dysmorphia. Both are out of her control. The last line of the book compares well against those in other, better known autobiographical tell-alls: I will survive, I have learned, I have been to hell and back, etc.

The hell in question, of course, remains an attractive one, which is, after all, the book's reason for being. Savannah is no less enamored with the celebrities JT met than JT himself was. Whatever the stresses of a double life, she was able to travel, see the world, make some cash, and feel the love, if only for a while. A while is more than most people get, and the accomplishment of the book is its ability to make mountains out of these molehills. Toward this end, it uses the same language JT's own story did: Knoop is humble, she accepts responsibility, she knows what she did was wrong, she can't believe little ole her is actually sitting across from the one and only Gus Van Sant! Her simpleminded adoration of Asia Argento reads as endearing aw-shucks naivete, and Asia's eventual exposure as a selfish, ego-maniacal princess with feelings for no one save herself actually elicits sympathy, as if this would come as a big surprise to anyone who has watched TV in the last twenty years and knows how this very predictable plot operates. Like JT, Savannah is able to present herself as a simple soul so removed from her element, class-wise and otherwise, that the reader would have to be cold-hearted not to pardon her obvious gullibility.

To her credit, she resists the temptation and pressure to demonize Albert, with whom she seems to have remained friends. She touches on some of Albert's controlling qualities, as well as her own personal issues with weight and a chronic sense of inadequacy. Such is the book's achievement that even after reading it you could be excused for failing to see Laura as the manipulator she would truly have to be. The book is reasonably successful in making the whole thing seem more like an ordeal that was over its participants' heads than a juggling act single-handedly kept air borne by Albert for a number of years, through careful, even obsessive plotting, fanatical strategic advances and retreats, hours and hours of phone calls wherein she portrayed another person for hours and months on end, total, tireless vigilance over an assortment of related media, contract negotiations which required, given her assumed name, all kinds of subterfuge and, one would think, legal counsel, a sustained charade with a therapist who never met JT in person. This wasn't something which happened to Albert or Knoop. It was something they worked at. Consider a day in the life of Albert at the time: chocolates to Dennis Cooper, emails to various writers who'd received press and might be able to hook JT up, phone calls to Mary Gaitskill and Bruce Benderson, solicitation of blurbs and endorsements, coaching Savannah on voice and gesture and back story, and the writing, which, given such necessary distractions, must certainly have been like wrestling with a pit bull, as JT once said.

Once you consider how much was left out, you start looking at where room might have been made, and you see that what mattered to Savannah, the celebrities and the attention, matters even more so now. They fuel the book, reactivating the story in alternate combinations. They remain useful magnets, as ever. Had she wanted you to understand, she might have written an account detailing how all this worked and was sustained; a sort of technical manual for a specific kind of publicity machine. Doing so would have sacrificed her bid for sympathy, in which case there would be little point in writing her story in the first place. You begin to see her position only if you break the pattern of imaginative participation and suspended disbelief required by the JT novels themselves. What interests Savannah is continuing the story. This is the next chapter in the franchise, to be followed by documents from Albert and Knoop's half brother and Albert's one-time romantic partner, Geoff Knoop. JT's narrative was always a series, an interactive soap, with installments which didn't always fit but were made to. The characters were and still are Albert, Geoff, Asia, Gus, Cooper, Benderson, Ira Silverberg, et al. The possibilities for elaboration are endless.

The above photo shows Laura Albert (left) after various surgical procedures, and Savannah Knoop (right) as JT Leroy.

The article by Stephen Beachy detailing the "hoax" can be found here:
http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/people/features/14718/

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Auteur Weary

At one time, I basically thought that if my first movie was ever seen, and people appreciated it, I would stop hearing all the things you need, everything you "must have", before you can make one. I didn't understand how anyone would be able to appreciate what we'd done--with practically nothing, with a crew of three, with no gear, no lighting, no catering, no budget--and persist in that line of thought.

Stupidly, I'd imagined never having to deal with that kind of thinking again, having disproved it. So I was pretty surprised at my first festival, where The Way I See Things was spotlighted as a sort of singular accomplishment, and I heard so many directors talking about the Sisyphean struggle they'd had with their very limited budgets of 200, 000 or 500,000--for seven to twenty minute films.

Making the movie, I was determined to keep things simple and flexible. As much as possible, I wanted to create that environment Lynda Barry talks about, that really pure place for creative exploration. All the gear and the people running around and into each other on movie sets seemed so extraneous to me.

How could you be vulnerable, how could you concentrate, with so many strangers ogling at you? When I worked on Forty Shades of Blue in the prop department and I was needed on set, I was instructed not to look the actors in the eye. But it seemed so silly to me. Why should we all have been there in the first place? So a glass needed refilling between scenes; so a lemon needed to be extracted from the glass so that someone in the scene could again squeeze a fresh one. So lights needed to be adjusted or sound needed to be monitored and faces needed to be powdered. That was understandable, given the scale of the production. But why not scale it down?

All of those technical intrusions force the mind into distracting little dead end alleys, and after a while it's hard to get back on track. Why not have your friend hold the boom? An actor can powder his own face. Get all the people off set and you'll hear the sound better, because fewer people will be chattering and it will take no one to keep reminding them to be quiet. Find a setting where you can use natural light. Why do you need a lemon, exactly?

Suggestions like this are heresy among people who consider themselves filmmakers. An image exists in the mind of the auteur and that image has to be cultivated, whatever the obstacle. Anything less is regarded as near to total artistic compromise, as if compromise were the sign of deficient vision.

One of things I enjoyed most was finding places we could walk into and use with very little embellishment, fantasy worlds we could hijack and play-act in. I built the story around those places, rather than look for places which fit some specific, preconceived idea. When we walked into these places they imposed various considerations, presenting us with individual obstacles.

The compromises were liberating because we weren't beholden and could rethink and stay in whatever moment we were inhabiting, responding genuinely to genuinely surprising prompts and challenges, thinking in that moment instead of outside it. Each place determined the tone and direction of the scene at hand in ways which created a strangely compelling sense of authenticity.

This m.o. requires spontaneity and intuition, and I understand how nerve-wracking and fear-inducing those things can be. I spent my own money making The Way I See Things, and I don't have a lot of money to throw around. I understood better than anyone else on set what was at stake and the weight each decision carried. But who better to take those risks?

That's why to some extent the filmmaking process is inherently fucked. You go to other people for money and they want to know what their money is buying them. They want to know they'll get what they're paying for. If they paid for a love story that's what they want. It doesn't matter if a weird chemistry develops between the actors playing the lovers which, if explored, might go in more interesting directions. It doesn't matter what kind of beautiful serendipity might occur on set if you allow it to. If it isn't in the script they approved, it won't happen. Everyone agreed it wouldn't.

That's fine. A movie should have a subject. But there's a lot of room for discovery within any given subject and most of those vistas don't open up until you get to the set and face your limitations. Seizing those limitations as opportunities is a pretty wondrous thing, a specialized kind of high. It keeps the mind working. 300, 000 is so irrelevant in that context. Thinking you need it, then relinquishing that sense of need is totally freeing.

Maya Deren talked about the mindset I experienced at that film festival. If you listen to everything you'll need you'll never make the film, she essentially said. There is no perfect time or place, and the canvas is always wet. You need nothing but a camera. If you think you need tons of money and you don't have it and therefore believe you can't move ahead, what you really don't have enough of is imagination.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Motion Picture as Way Station

Paul Schrader: As we get older - particularly as the whole process of movies and film storytelling gets older - people have different notions of what's necessary dramatically. They start to see a lot of the melodramatic machinery of the past as outdated. Reality television isn't popular for no reason. It's popular because we're tiring of artificial drama, and reality TV seems less artificial.

George Kouvaros: But it also conforms to quite traditional narrative and character arcs. The process of transformation that drives your work seems to be something quite different. I don't know if you could call it melodramatic, but it does seem to be an attempt to represent change - a change in someone's sense of who they are.

Paul Schrader: Like everyone else, I'm becoming less and less interested in the heavy machinery of movies that strike me as being a remnant of the nineteenth century. But that's a whole other subject, one I've been thinking about a lot and trying to write about.

George Kouvaros: This is something that you've spoken about before: the idea that cinema is at a point of change where the kinds of characters that interest you, the existential characters, no longer have a place.

Paul Schrader: Well, I think the point of change is even greater than I thought before. I've been doing a fair amount of research because I agreed to write this book for Faber on the film canon, and I found myself thrown into all this work about the history of the notion of the canon and why it went out of fashion. Film itself, in fact, is one of the things that destroyed the notion of the canon. When people talk about a film canon, it's kind of a contradictory phrase. So, how can you have a film canon? I've been thinking about an argument put forward by Dudley Andrew concerning the transitional nature of cinema. It comes from a seed idea by Walter Benjamin. Andrew's contention is that motion pictures are a way-station in the cavalcade of art history, a stopover en route from nineteenth century written narrative to the twenty-first century world of synthetic images and sound. While this is perhaps a little extreme, it's also very much to the point.

from "Pretending that Life has no Meaning", an interview with Paul Schrader, Sept. 19, 2006

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dream Cast for an Imaginary Movie: Shelley Duvall

Her performance as Millie in Three Women is brilliantly strange and touching, and after seeing behind the scenes footage of the Shining, you know she isn't just playing herself. Now, people like Stephen Soderbergh seem to revere her. If so, how come she gets these trifling little walk ons? See The Underneath: a nurse whose screen time lasts as long as it takes to administer a shot? What a phenomenal, inexcusable waste. Might as well not use her. At least not using her at all doesn't imply an intrinsic ambivalence regarding her abilities.

See Nashville, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Popeye, The Shining, Bernice Bobs her Hair. See the "Making of" documentary on The Shining DVD, where Kubrick and Nicholson act like school boys on set. They get along swimmingly, while Kubrick has nothing but palpable disdain for Duvall, reducing her to a sniveling, painfully insecure mess, as if that were the only way to get a performance out of a woman. A man you can just drink with. A woman you have to terrorize. And yet in the documentary's interviews Duvall's so smart and engaged, totally aware of the game and her part in it, above it in a fascinating way, that Kubrick ends up looking like the ridiculous one.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cut Up: Editing as Sculpture

Whenever I talk to people about the making of my first film, The Way I See Things, I'm amazed at how they think movies come together. If a scene is done well they seem to generally assume it was filmed by multiple cameras from various angles simultaneously. It rarely occurs to them that on a small film like the ones I make there's often only one camera, practically no crew, seemingly insurmountable sound interference, and a dearth of good takes from which to choose.

Editing is the most interesting part of production to me, much more so than the actual shoot itself, which always feels like a disaster and a failure to me in the moment, no matter how good the dailies might end up looking later. Editing can be impossible, or feel that way. You very quickly start to understand why people film on sound stages, where everything but the performance can be controlled or at least regulated.

Planes pass in the middle of sentences, leaf blowers speak to each other throughout the neighborhood. The sun passes or the weather more drastically changes by the time you move on to close-ups which must be made to match the master shot. The broom closet you're shooting in allows one set-up, making close-ups a matter of artful fudging.

I enjoy the challenges imposed by these considerations, and appreciate the trade-off of serendipity in place of predictability, but the challenges are most challenging in the editing room, and that's truly where the film comes together. To truly appreciate any film you would need to have a grasp on how editing factors in.

You can literally make or break a performance through editing. You can make an actor more empathetic or less so by your choices, the ones you make and the ones available to you. I've done it. Say an actor can't remember his lines--ever--and he has long monologues through which his character is understood to be brilliant in a practically useless esoteric way. Say the actor can't get these lines right, even when they're read to him from off-camera.

Say you resort to having him put a book in front of his face so that he will appear to be reading, and dub in his lines later so that he can read them from the script, hoping to assemble this material in such a way as to suggest he is reading and talking at the same time. Say he starts to hate you for requiring the sort of professionalism out of him that typically goes without saying or detects how much you loathe him no matter how you try to conceal it in the name of finishing the thing.

What you might be left with is something very different from what you originally conceived. It might even seem counter-intuitive in almost every conceivable way. You study what you have for months, looking for the right juxtapositions. You can't create the actor's character as indicated in the script. You'll have to do it through more expressive means, more abstractly, with the imposition of a subtlety you hadn't anticipated.

Maybe you've heard of the experiment done with a man's face and various insert shots, an exercise meant to illustrate the power of suggestion through editorial inter-cutting. You put a knife after the shot of the man's expressionless mug and the audience perceives homicidal intent. You substitute a puppy, and it's sadness or affection. Throw in bread and it's extreme hunger on the man's mind.

There's truth in that example but the trick is figuring out what to put in: which expression and which insert, not to mention exactly where. The actor in question has given you tone more than technical precision, and more often than not he isn't the exclusive focus of the scene at hand, so not one shot but many must be considered if you intend to achieve any kind of persuasive harmony.

Acting is so sloppy, so random, and so difficult to modulate and get a proper sense of scale on. Editing has its own moments of unexpected serendipity, but it's much more of a science, however intuitive that might be. You can shave and refine with editing. With acting, at least in my experience, everything you do feels so much bigger or smaller than it will ultimately read. The camera conveys the space so much differently than you canpossibly experience it. Editing is hands on, very sculptural, whereas acting, no matter how technically proficient you might be, is much more liquid, a lot more free form.

People seem to believe that a scene, no matter how many cuts, proceeds with the pace of the original shoot, and that's rarely the case. Part of the editing challenge is to figure out what that pace should be. It's very rarely the pace of the scene as you filmed it. You inevitably cut to close-ups for punctuation, poetic and otherwise, and to either abbreviate or expand.

An actor didn't give you the pause you think a line needs. Or the actor with whom he was performing doesn't say the line very convincingly. You can make it more convincing, to some degree, by cutting to an apparently reflective pause, which might in truth simply be a shot of the actor staring off camera between takes, caught unaware. That's another thing about editing. You use whatever you have; whatever it takes.

Editing is so intentional and so integral a part of the filmmaking process, and yet very few people give it the kind of credit it warrants. Even people who understand how essential its contribution is are at a loss when pressed to say exactly how it works or what contribution a specific series of choices makes within an individual film. Editing awards seem weird to me, partly because of that ambiguity, but also because, more specifically, how can you possibly know how good an edit is unless you've seen the raw material?

A horrible movie can be made pretty good with an imaginative editor and a director who knows how to stay out of the way. An excellent script can be shot well and edited so poorly that the script seems to be the source of the problem. An actor can give you everything you need, and yet you don't know how to use it. Ultimately, it will register as the actor's fault, not yours. It's virtually impossible to give a good editor his due, but a better understanding of how he puts together a scene would go a long way.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dream Cast for an Imaginary Movie: Julie Christie

See Shampoo, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Darling, Away from Her. She's such an accomplished stylist you don't realize how hard she probably works at it, until you see something like Memoirs of a Survivor, where the direction failed her and she didn't seem to get the swing of things.

Supposedly, she's not as interested in working as some of her contemporaries, and though she admits to surgical enhancement over the years, she looks very much like a real person, compared to the perhaps much more ambitious Faye Dunaway, who looks less and less recognizably human as time goes on.

Warren Beatty called her "the most beautiful and at the same time the most nervous person" he ever knew, which is an interesting declaration of neurosis from an actor who has famously aggravated directors with his arguably pathological insistence on "getting it right".

Christie's best roles exploit the tension between her surface capriciousness and inner reserves of empathic gravitas. This quality was maybe most evident in her earliest roles (see Billy Liar, Darling, Petulia), but it took on more interesting shades of pathos later, when her features started to exude melancholy.

The tragic undercurrents of Away From Her derive primarily from the popular image of Christie's hubristic youth, which superimposes itself over her middle-aged face and her character's struggle with space and time in ill-fitting, dichotomous flourishes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Word is Out

Last night, Outfest screened their newly restored version of Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, a documentary originally released in 1977. The restoration took a year or more and is the second film in festival's ambitious project to preserve key films of the GLTB canon, such that it is. Word is Out was directed by The Mariposa Film Group, a team of filmmakers led by the late Peter Adair. The viewing at the Director's Guild of America on Sunset was packed, and the emotional response to the film (an intimate mix of humor, detachment, identification, and pathos) was palpable.

Clearly, of over 128 applicants, a handful of the most articulate were chosen, and the impression created by this particular group of interviews wasn't just a sense of lost life (some of these people, like Adair, succumbed to AIDS) but of lost intelligence and awareness, too. The subjects in Word is Out knew themselves in unexpected ways. They understood society and social dynamics in general. They understood themselves and the contexts they transacted in. They were achingly aware: smart, literate, complicated. For all our bluster about growing up early now and being in touch with our feelings, most of us are deeply, maybe perversely emotionally stunted by comparison. The humor was sharp, sparkling bright; the wit often literary in its savvy interplay between serious and silly, context and subtext, overstatement and artful indirection. The editing highlights these conversations in a way that understands their wit, extending it through smart associative strategies.

The stories were so poignant at times, the camera so intently studious of its subjects, that the names escape. Isolated moments and overall tone remain. The awareness of the subjects made their stories even more heartbreaking. To be subjected to shock treatment as a teenager or to lose your children due to a lesbian relationship which made you feel happy and necessary and needed for the first time in your life is bad enough. To understand what's happening to you without being able to stop it is unbearable. These were engaged people who knew themselves and the people who hated them with a kind of empathic discernment which is practically extinct in contemporary discourse. Much was made last night of the kitsch value of various outfits and song numbers, but the intelligence was more dated than anything else. And sorely missed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On the Restlessness of Gena Rowlands

The stage in Opening Night is not a comfortable place, a place that allows one to stay in touch. "[Q]uite the contrary," writes Jousse, "it is a fluid space, subject to variations of mood, the feeling of the moment, the unpredictability of the present moment, when a moment of madness could at any time cause the scene to shift and jeopardize the performance and the very idea of performance itself." In Opening Night the stage does funny things to actions and bodies. Every time Myrtle leaves the stage, even if only for a few seconds, we are never sure to what point in the play she will return when she passes or, as it sometimes seems, is propelled back through the door. The stage is a place where time flows in all directions, and actions, gestures, and sounds eat away at its very stability."



-Where Does It Happen/John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point by George Kouvaros


Opening Night feels in some ways like the quintessential Gena Rowlands movie. It isn't just that she's playing an actress and happens to be one, although that creates interesting inter-textual layers within the narrative. It isn't just that Myrtle, this actress, has witnessed something tragic and loses her possibly already tenuous grip on things, a pespective Rowlands has specialized in. The role is suited to Rowlands more than anything because it caters to the impression she's always given of being impatient with straight lines of action and rigidly conceived roles, with staying in character. The fluidity of the stage in Opening Night, the scripted and unscripted collisions between Myrtle's life and the fiction she's portraying, the ambiguous, open-ended exchange between fantasy and reality, sobriety and derangement, all lend themselves well to the kinds of mercurial, sometimes volte face decisions Rowlands has made as an actress. In Cassavetes' movies she's a restless force, constantly moving. Every Cassavetes movie presents her with a series of stages and a selection of doors, and she's constantly bursting through them, storming forward, swinging around, retreating, hesitating, resenting the hesitation gradually or suddenly, then storming off again.

In Woman Under the Influence, this restlessness is presented as neurosis, even psychosis. The doors don't seem to exist or are flush with the walls, Mabel can't see them or has no access to them, or she can't open them. She's reduced to pacing wildly in her mind, swinging her arms in the air. She storms around standing still, her eyes bursting through doors of memory as if looking for the right one. It's Rowlands' most masochistic role under Cassavetes, because her character is given no way out, and no one else has the trouble moving around she does. To them it's a house; to her, a labyrinth. Her housewife is marooned in the suburbs with Peter Falk, her alleged husband. Like Myrtle, she's ended up on a stage she thought was her life but now seems to be a role. She looks to the other actors for some indication how well she's performing. They all seem to be improvising so she does the same, but they're ultimately in very different productions (reality, fantasy) and once she's been thrust through the door out onto this stage she turns around to leave and it's gone.

Rowlands' characters make a lot of mistakes. They have hardened philosophical outlooks about the choices they've made. Some of those choices were forced upon them; some they ran headlong into, without thinking. It's a consequence of all that restless movement. You fling a few doors open and rush right through without looking. You can walk into a real mess. She walks into a big one as Gloria. Gloria was once involved in some shady stuff (time in prison, ties to the mob) and she put it all behind her. She figured out where the messes were and chalked it up to youth; she closed the doors on that part of her life. Who needs the hassle.

Then the kid comes along. His parents are killed (his dad made poor choices of his own) and he's her neighbor; their apartments are practically connected. She hears the gunshots through the wall, the sound of memories in an adjoining room. She feels responsible. She's made to feel responsible and she takes the kid under her care. Gloria presents a character opening all those doors all over again, trying to remember where they led to, trying to use them with some sort of strategy toward very different ends than the ones they served back when she first stumbled through them. The problem is she can't remember where those doors were and opening them is as full of surprises as ever. Gloria is Rowlands' most combustive performance. Every time she bursts through a door there's some goon there with a gun and a leering expression. They just want the kid, they keep saying. They all know her. She was a fixture, then she disappeared. Now she shows up again, on the wrong side of things. You can tell she isn't the woman she was back when they knew her. You can tell she's trying to remember how that woman worked, the role she played and the way she got the men around her to function in certain ways. Unlike Mabel in Woman Under the Influence, Gloria's patience for all the improvisation runs thin. Ultimately, she says to hell with it, and the gun comes out. Then they're all speaking the same language.

Why don't you play the woman, she seems to be saying, and I'll play the gun. Throughout the movie she has a wizened "Geez, guys, you again?" slant to her face, a visual sight gag which gives the movie much of its comic edge. Isn't this awkward, she shrugs: you, me, here we are, here we go again, let's pretend I still don't know what it is you all do and the part I play in it. Myrtle stumbles through doors half drunk. One place becomes another, past and present superimpose. She's resigned to that. Gloria wings it, staying on top of things. Whatever they throw at her she uses. The men around Mabel are bewildered by her unexpected moves,but there's no intentionality behind her behavior, she's not in control of herself. It leaves her powerless and somewhat acquiescent. Gloria behaves unexpectedly too, and uses the bewilderment this creates to her own own advantage, whether she knows off hand what exactly to do with it or not. She'll shoot her way through. Let the bullet set the course.

Rowlands was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the movie. On working almost exclusively with Cassavetes, she remarked, "I'd be happy to work for other directors if they made films with good parts for women. I like a hard part, a part in which I can work something out, find out things about myself."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Last week, Criterion issued a DVD version of Paul Schrader's Mishima. The restoration is crystal clear and the extras, typical of Criterion, are fantastic. Watching Mishima you wonder how it ever got made. A Japanese cast in a subtitled art movie about a conflicted gay writer who ends his life by ritual suicide isn't the most commercial proposition. It couldn't have been at the time the movie was released, either, over two decades ago. And yet it feels completely new. A kinetic sculpture of identity in flux, it feels more future than past. Schrader has always had an interesting take on biography:

"You have an obligation to history and you have an obligation to drama," he said in an interview with Salon (2002), "and you've got to find a way to serve both masters. If you have to cheat history to tell a story, you shouldn't make that movie, And if you have to tell a boring story to be true to history, you shouldn't make that movie. So when you achieve a situation where both drama and history are being served, the line between fact and fiction then blurs because your protagonist is a factual character who has the power of fiction."

Like Todd Haynes, who must have seen and been influenced by Mishima, Schrader presents biographies which are more about the popular conceptions of their subjects and their histories than close-minded, airtight assertions of fact. Both filmmakers employ a visual syntax which mimics the media used to create the myths they depict. Mishima includes segments which tell the story of Yukio Mishima through his writing, establishing his character through the fictions he created. Like any writer's self, Mishima's was a fiction to some extent to begin with, a matter of projection and accretion; like his pen name, assumed. Other segments use Ozu-like black and white to tell the story of the writer's childhood. Various actors play Mishima in these iterations, and eventually they all start to resemble each other, so that you're never sure at any given time whether you're watching an actor from one segment or another, the "real" Mishima, the "fictional", or something in between. It doesn't matter: all conflate, canceling each other out to create yet another presence, an absent figure residing somewhere in the mind. Haynes does similar things by different means in I'm Not There, where different conceptions of Dylan are played by different actors, in totally different milieus. Dylan exists somewhere in the blank spaces like a trace image on a white wall.

Mishima's homosexuality is all subtext in the movie, which seems odd at first, then perfectly apt. It isn't just that his estate (wife and children) forbid depiction of the more salacious aspects of his life. Mishima forbade himself. Raised in a strict, even punitive environment, he carried this as a convoluted form of masochism into his adult life. His relationship to his body was intensely intimate and simultaneously detached. His body--but also an object, to be sculpted as a raw material. His mind, but a weakness taking root in the form of thought and emotion, to be mastered, denied, banished, transformed. He had a following of young men he possibly never touched, and yet their relationship to him was excessively erotic. As novelist Susanna Moore commented to Schrader when discussing the relationship between Bob Crane, the subject of Schrader's bio-pic, Auto Focus, and his male cohort in hardcore video-making, "You know, whenever there's more than one penis in the room, any sexual act is a homosexual act." There's plenty of ass in Mishima, it's just that the subject doesn't allow himself or the story to enjoy it.

Add to this Schrader's own Calvinist upbringing and his admiration of Robert Bresson and you begin to see why he was the ideal biographer for Mishima. Who understands the mindset of disavowal better?

The score for Mishima was composed by Phillip Glass and might be the best work he's ever done.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Scream to Scream: Inside the Really Unreal


Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, 2008

When people say a movie like Inside is really, really gory, they generally mean that the horror has been conceived and executed convincingly, as opposed to merely expertly, substituting for the typical reassurances of irony and self-conscious, endearing ineptitude, a fatalistic remorselessness borrowed from real life. Inside is the antithesis of the American vogue for horror best represented by Wes Craven’s Scream. Its brutality is never leavened with comic effect, its mise en scene neither highly keyed nor brightly colored. The producers of this French slasher wanted a story by someone who not only liked the genre but understood it, and sought in a director someone who could pull it off with some amount of credulity. Given the laughably clich├ęd confluence linking the film’s two heroines, credulity in the case of Inside would appear to indicate a commitment to seeing the various conceits of the film’s artistic ethos to their foregone conclusions.

The movie has a slightly anemic, unsaturated look reminiscent of vintage television news footage, a persuasive verite realism. The villain’s face first appears as if captured by Zapruder’s camera, her features grainy, hollowed out suggestion. It sometimes feels as if things are happening without recourse to a script. Typical of the closed set mentality of a film shoot, the actors, interviewed off camera, were in complete denial. They didn’t seem to think they were making a comedy, but they prickled at the suggestion they were doing anything with, say, the gravity of real time tragedy. Asked about the violence of the story, Beatrice Dalle, the movie’s killer, remarked that anyone who turns on the news will see a much more horrific arrangement of events than Inside presents. A woman like Inside’s final girl “could stumble on scissors,” Dalle shrugged, “or she hits a wall, or her baby falls when she wasn’t expecting it.” Dalle’s naive rationalization for the film’s brutality misses the point. Inside borrows meticulously from real-life, inexplicably theatrical atrocities, confronting rather than avoiding them. The horror isn’t mediated by its existence in some parallel universe of fantasy. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which traded in panic by evoking Ed Gein, Inside burrows out of the filmic and into the unthinkable everyday, recreating the murder of Sharon Tate.

The film dispenses quickly with expository detail. What possible reason could anyone have to kill pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis, sister of Vanessa)? You won’t find any clues in the set-up. Nor does this protagonist seem particularly vulnerable. Inside presents a victim isolated by the unhappy removal of her husband, much like the situation at Cielo Drive, where Polanski was an absent presence, palpable but removed. Sarah rejects her mother’s attempts to dramatize her situation or state of mind, avoiding conversation, pity, or character development with a derisive shrug. Polanski was in Europe the night of Tate’s death, putting together a movie deal. Sarah’s husband has died in a car wreck which very nearly killed her unborn baby as well. Outside her house, Paris is rioting. It’s Christmas Eve. Sarah is scheduled to induce labor the following day. Her editor has agreed to pick her up at six a.m. Her mother might stop by to check on her. She shuts herself in for the night. Like her, the house lacks distinguishing psychological features. No effort is made to establish setting. Simply put, it’s a location where things take place. White couch, beige walls, empty bedside table. Settling down for the evening, Sarah falls asleep in a rocking chair and dreams of a violent birth, the baby forcing its way out of her mouth. She wakes to the sound of the doorbell.

Linda Kasabian described seeing victim Wojtek Frykowski on the porch at Cielo Drive. He’d stumbled out after being shot, beaten, and stabbed, and stood there uncertainly, a dimly outlined figure, before falling into the hedge. Moments like that, evocative details which persist from accounts of the Manson murders, find their way into the film. When Sarah peers out the peephole and sees Dalle’s vague silhouette, the image registers on a variety of levels as something you've seen somewhere before. At one point, looking out the kitchen window, Sarah sees a string of lights arranged on a neighboring house. This point-of-view shot could be Tate’s, confirming various reports regarding the Christmas lights strung along the fence at Cielo Drive, left there by the former occupants, Candice Bergen and Terry Melcher. The movie continually insinuates itself into collective ideas of the murders this way, subtly and not so subtly referencing real events and half-remembered public record.

Through the closed door, Sarah tells Dalle, as yet unidentified, to go away. Her husband is asleep and has to get up early, she lies. Dalle knows Sarah’s name, and the truth, but she relents, vanishing. Sarah moves into the living room, calling the police on her cell phone. I'm pregant, she informs the operator. Dalle materializes at the sliding glass door. Though she looks, especially in this movie, like an unhappy genetic truce between Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bernhard, Dalle’s scowling, bogeyman expressions and dark hair and dress also visually name-check Susan (aka Sadie) Atkins, one of the more notoriously brutal and conscienceless Family killers, so famously brutal, her remorselessness so photogenic, that after years of parole hearings her incarceration is still, even now that she’s afflicted with cancer and more arguably a victim herself, regarded as lenient. The directors’ insistence that Dalle brought humanity to the character, inspiring compassion in the audience, is a bit like Atkins finding Jesus in jail.

The police arrive and Dalle again vanishes, but when Sarah falls asleep on the couch, her cat senses a presence she doesn’t. Like High Tension, Inside deals with body horror--the premise here is fetal theft--the vulnerability of a person's temple to outside attack, but revolves more specifically around the fear of boundary failure overall. How could Dalle gain entry, when all the doors are locked, and the police have been called, when order’s been restored? It’s as if she’s walked through walls; like a wall is an open doorway. Similarly, what seemed to shock people most about the Tate LaBianca murders was the idea that you couldn’t leave your doors unlocked anymore: people couldn’t be expected not to cross the line. The Family understood that the biggest transgression, the supreme unthinkable, could be as simple as the invasion of personal space, a bogus construct most people took as a given. At the time, personal space was something you were born with, rather than allowed.

“Wherever you go,” Polanski once said, “the seed of evil is within the way the human being thinks, the way he takes things for granted. Certainty, I would say, is the seed of evil.” Having lost his mother to the concentration camps, hostile takeover was something the director understood innately by then. The essential unease of Rosemary's Baby has to do with the permeability of Rosemary’s body, her home, her entire world and way of life. Rosemary’s flat is attached to the Castavetts’ by a linen closet, the door of which had been blocked by a wardrobe when Rosemary and Guy were first shown the place. The former tenant, now dead, had pushed it there in an obviously futile effort to keep her neighbors out. Polanski has Rosemary understand on a basic level that even Minnie Castavetts’ apparently harmless chatter has an insidious persuasiveness to it, rooting inside her head, so that whatever Rosemary thinks is only thought in some relation to what Minnie wants her to. Polanski’s early films possess the same preoccupation with this sort of inexorable seepage. The couple of Knife in the Water invites a hitchhiker into their lives and onto their boat, resulting in a disharmony they’d previously managed to keep under wraps. In Cul-de-Sac, Donald Pleasance and Francoise Deloreac, another unhappy if not miserable Polanski duo, discover, when a gangster happens upon their allegedly idyllic solitude, that their treatment of each other is far more brutal than anything he might do. For Polanski, anyone can take you over at anytime, and a partnership, far from a security measure, is the ultimate form of invasion. Under such circumstances, what’s the use of a locked door?

Going into the LaBianca house was practice for Cielo Drive, yet a natural extension of what the Family had been doing up to then. On creepy-crawly missions, they snuck into people’s homes, just to cross that line, just to freak them out and show how imaginary that line really is. While the homeowners slept the Family moved things around, ate their food, made a mess or cleaned up. Part of living comfortably in the world is security in the belief that in here is safe from out there, that walls and locks and windows and dogs keep danger at bay, that our homes are impermeable to compensate for the fact that our bodies can’t be. True, as Dalle says, you could trip on scissors in your own living room, but you might also wake up one night with a pillow over your face and someone stabbing you with a steak knife from your own kitchen drawer, like the LaBiancas. The movie compounds this lack of separation by making the entertainment you’re watching feel profoundly unstable. Rather than the screen representing an out there which can’t reach you, the action of Inside insinuates itself into your safety zone, collapsing some of the distinction between screen and audience.

The Manson Family scoped out their targets, including Cielo, before breaking in. Witnesses reported seeing them in broad daylight on Cielo the week of the murders, a group of them stuffed into a van. Manson had been to the place before, when Melcher lived there. Melcher, a friend of Dennis Wilson and producer of his record label, Brother Records, had listened to some of Charlie’s songs. They’d cut some demos. Many of the girls were crashing for a time at Wilson’s home. They were like cockroaches. Once you let them in, you couldn’t get them out. They'd passed on to Wilson and others an allegedly pernicious case of crabs. Recognizing the instability of this scene, Melcher eventually tried to distance himself. He drew a line. Stopped taking Manson’s calls, probably. Stopped sleeping with the girls, possibly.

In Hollywood, especially, a gatekeeper relies on your cooperation to some degree. He has what you want, and you have to pretend that your access to him is something he controls entirely, rather than figuratively. Manson was expected to go away, though he knew where Melcher and Wilson lived and likely how to get in. Instead, Charlie went up to Cielo—only Melcher had already leased the place to Polanski. Sharon stood in the doorway as a guest asked Manson what he was doing there. He was treated unkindly. Someone made a derogatory comment about his appearance, slighting him in some way. Presumably, he sent the Family back to stake out the household’s habits with the intention of payback. When did the maid come, when did she leave, who was likely to be visiting at any given time. The motivation of Inside’s killer is just as arbitrary, involving an unfortunate chain of events beyond the heroine’s control: even if you believe that homes are secure and life can be managed to minimize injury or misfortune, you have to admit you’ll run into someone, somewhere, at some point, finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dalle has watched Sarah’s house before the movie’s action begins, and the film speaks to that fear of having been observed without knowing it; the nightmare of being pursued and controlled for mysterious reasons, by unknown forces, so surreptitiously that you're oblivious to the invasion of privacy.

Once inside the house, Dalle allows Sarah to get in bed and go to sleep without declaring her presence. She goes into the nursery, rips a stuffed animal out of its cellophane, does some violence to it. Dalle, a la the Family, is dressed in black, a form of camouflage which preserves the fallacy of boundaries. The rest of the movie takes place in the house, replicating the night of Tate’s murder through various visual and thematic motifs. Dalle will eventually bring her shearing scissors into Sarah’s bedroom and start to puncture her belly button, intent on cutting the baby out, and though Sarah wakes immediately and struggles free, she makes it only as far as the bathroom, where she’ll spend most of the running time, recalling another popular image, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical entrapment in The Shining. In place of a knife Sarah has a broken shard of glass. Early on, Sarah breaks the mirror, puncturing another kind of screen. At one point, like Nicholson with his axe, Dalle will hack away at the door with her scissors.

Much of the story is taken up with other people’s fateful attempts to rescue Sarah. Various people interrupt Dalle’s efforts to get at Sarah and Sarah’s efforts to keep her out. Sarah’s editor visits, thinking Dalle to be her mother. Sarah’s real mother arrives, followed by the police. None make it out of the house. These virtuosic set pieces recall the murders of Jay Sebring, Frykowski, and Abigail Folger, all visting Cielo Drive the night of the murders. Like Sarah’s visitors, Sebring is said to have played hero, attempting to protect Sharon from Tex Watson and the others. He was hanged, stabbed, and kicked about the head so violently that his face was unrecognizable. Later, back at Spahn Ranch, Atkins told another Family member that Tate “was the last to go because she had to watch the others die.” Sarah’s visitors are killed as viciously as Tate’s guests were, with a mercenary disregard for human life and a reckless abandon for the sanctity of the human body and the viewer's customary detachment.

Sarah’s white bathroom is smeared in blood, as is her face and nightshirt. She has a gash on her mouth which is strikingly similar to the one on Tate's face, a diphthong from mouth to cheek, apparent in the autopsy photos which can now be found on the internet. There’s also a photo of Tate’s body at the scene of the crime, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Inside‘s final image of Sarah. Krenwinkel and others say Tate’s baby was never cut out, but in the mind of the popular imagination the fetus is there on the floor beside her body. Sarah eventually leaves the bathroom. She attacks Dalle, disfiguring her. For a while it looks like she might prevail. That would be the version of a movie which draws a line. Inside makes final attempts to endow Dalle’s character with some amount of pathos, as well, indicating her compulsion is fueled by a form of temporary possession. One of the movie’s strengths is Dalle’s performance, which is both emotionally charged and maniacally detached, re-enforcing the central incomprehension of her behavior.