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Director: Antonio Campos
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a reporter at a small TV station in Sarasota, Fla., became a national news story when she shot herself on camera. I was in college at the time and must have heard about her suicide, yet I have no memory of it, and despite its purported influence on Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Chubbuck’s story has all but faded away. Strange then, that in 2016, we have not one, but two movies about her. Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about Kate Lyn Shiel preparing to play Chubbuck in an unspecified production, continues its writer/director Robert Greene’s fascination with people who play roles (e.g., Actress , about a housewife planning to return to acting, and Fake It So Real , about pro wrestling). Christine, the film under consideration here, is a fictionalized version of the last couple of weeks of her life.
Christine was an attractive, intelligent, ambitious woman with a seriousness of purpose about her profession and a history of chronic, sometimes acute, depression. She died just before her 30th birthday, still a virgin whose chances of having much-wanted children of her own were dimmed by the loss of a cystic ovary and her seeming inability to get a date, let alone form a lasting relationship with a man. Thwarted in love, dismayed by the trend toward “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism, her live-broadcasted suicide was, as she said when she “signed off,” “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color.”
Christine, like its subject, seems oddly subdued and awkward, a slice of a life that has no real drama to it until Christine’s final act. Straight-laced Christine argues with her live-in mother, Peg (J. Smith Cameron), whom she scornfully calls a hippie for smoking dope, mooching off her, and bringing home men. Christine argues with her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her public affairs pieces and favoring sensationalism and her pretty coworker, Andrea (Kim Shaw), for on-camera assignments. Christine turns down offers to hang out from her best friend at the station, Jean (Maria Dizzia), and Steve (Timothy Simons), the weatherman. Christine interviews a strawberry grower and hosts a chicken breeder on her show, “Suncoast Digest.”
True to Christine’s dedication to serious news, the film eschews sensationalism in favor of helping us get under the skin of a troubled woman through the accumulation of detail in a way that doesn’t condescend to her or turn her into a caricature. The immersive performance of Rebecca Hall, whose Christine is physically gawky and emotionally guileless, withdrawn, and argumentative all at once, is, of course, key to the success of the film. Her Christine monitors her movements on camera for ways to improve. She buys a police scanner so she can get the sensational stories Michael wants, but when she gets a hot lead, films the owner of a home destroyed by fire instead of capturing the blaze itself. She just doesn’t seem to understand her visual medium, nor the cues she gets from others that could help her achieve her personal and professional goals. In sweet, but sad scenes, Christine writes and presents puppet shows at a children’s hospital that teach children life lessons that she herself seems to be discovering along with them. If not magnetic and compelling, at least she is painfully real.
Hall gets extraordinary support from the rest of the cast. Tracy Letts does nothing to hide Michael’s contempt for Christine, making her repeated confrontations and attempts to sell him on her ideas wince-inducing acts of courage. Her crush on George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchorman, seems to be rewarded one night when he suggests they go out for dinner, that is, until he maneuvers her into a group transactional analysis (TA) meeting. Even small parts that would be throwaways in other films, like Peg’s boyfriend, Mitch (Jayson Warner Smith), add substance to how Christine is perceived.
The period costuming by Emma Potter and set design by Jess Royal couldn’t be better, recreating a context for the action without seeming to gawk at its otherness; if these women don’t each garner an Oscar nomination for their work on this film, they will have been seriously robbed. The script, contrary to director Campos’ assertion in an interview that it is very accurate, gets everything about TA wrong—screenwriter Craig Shilowich seems to have confused it with EST or deliberately misrepresented games theory to create some deadpan comedy as Christine is encouraged to, rather than discouraged from, playing “Why Don’t You, Yes But.” I also think it would have helped if the real Christine’s interviews with the police about suicide were dramatized rather than have her investigate a somewhat seedy dealer of guns, a slightly political angle that I felt was misleading.
What motivated director Antonio Campos (Afterschool , Simon Killer ) to make the film, he says, is that he liked the script Shilowich wrote and thought Christine as a character was interesting. Campos has been quoted as saying, “I think dark characters are fun to explore in films. And the reality is we want to make these movies. We’re having fun making them. Some scenes are fucking hard and uncomfortable, but most of the time between we’re having a really good time making them. It’s interesting exploring scary characters, they’re so far away from you, but they’re still human. Trying to find monsters among us in that kind of way, but people that are seemingly normal. We’re all kind of drawn to that kind of character.” Now I can’t say for sure that Campos thought of Christine as a monster, but I certainly don’t. Her sad life is not really a byproduct of existential angst, but rather the result of an illness that left her overwhelmingly vulnerable to the hard knocks life metes out to us all.
I’ve grappled with why Chubbuck’s story is resonating at the moment, and I really don’t have an answer. Christine was a woman who, like many of us, couldn’t have it all, but was told by commercials and media that she could, and should. The film ends with Jean sitting at home doing what she told Christine she always does when she’s down—eating ice cream and singing along to whatever song is on the TV or radio. The song?
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Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A young man in a suit and tie walks up a tree-lined path. Passing through a gate marked Poplar Lodge, the man emerges on a green dotted with Adirondack chairs and fountains as a dreamy musical refrain scores his movements. A great house stands before him at the end of a wide plaisance. He descends a short, stone staircase and passes by the benches where the odd person sits reading. A long-haired woman watches him through a grated window in the great house as he approaches.
The young man is ex-GI Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty), and he tells Bea Brice (Kim Hunter), the administrator with whom he has a job interview, that he has always been curious about Poplar Lodge, an exclusive mental hospital for the rich that has stood in his home town for as long as he can remember. Brice shows him around the facility, starting with the worst patients, so locked inside their own heads that they probably don’t need to be locked in the rooms that contain them. She then brings him to the day room, where the more socialized patients play games, read, and converse. Warning him the work is hard and ill-paid, Brice hires him on the spot to train as an occupational therapist.
Lilith, Robert Rossen’s final film, represents quite a departure for him. Rossen, known for writing such gritty films as Edge of Darkness (1943) and Body and Soul (1947), and writing and directing the classic films All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), hadn’t made a film in three years. He was seriously ill when he started work on Lilith, and had nothing but trouble with Warren Beatty on the set. This time in film history belonged to a new generation with new, more inward-looking concerns, and Beatty was perhaps the king of the silver screen’s sensitive, troubled young men. Lilith can be seen as a veteran director trying to move with the times, and coming face to face not only with his own obsolescence and pending death, but also perhaps with some deep-seated regrets.
Vincent (suggesting the mad Vincent Van Gogh) has returned from the Korean War a changed man. Laura (Jessica Walter), his fiancée before he left, gave up on him when he stopped writing to her and married a rough salesman named Norman (Gene Hackman), someone she apparently never stops comparing to the handsome, sweet Vincent. Vincent doesn’t have a reason for why he stopped writing when they run into each other at a bus stop one rainy day. He simply wants to find a place and purpose again.
He makes a good start at Poplar Lodge, encouraging Yvonne (Anne Meacham), a nervous socialite, to leave her room, and befriending the shy and staid Stephen (Peter Fonda). Stephen is infatuated with Lilith (Jean Seberg), the blonde who watched Vincent from her room in the opening scene, praising her flute playing with admiration that she made the flute herself. Stephen longs to be as creative as Lilith, to win her favor, but the young woman only has eyes for Vincent. Seemingly miraculously to the healthcare workers who have been attending Lilith for some time, she comes out of her barred room and socializes freely, even going on a picnic with the group, with Vincent and Stephen her constant companions. Eventually, Lilith seduces Vincent, and they carry on a passionate affair behind the backs of everyone but Yvonne, Lilith’s other lover. Lilith, the ultimate hippie chick, wants to love everyone. Vincent’s possessiveness, however, is bound to lead to tragedy.
It is hard to imagine a more intimate film than Lilith, filled as it is with passion and cradling nature redolent of the Garden of Eden where the mythic Lilith stood as an equal with Adam. Sexuality becomes animalistic as Lilith makes love with Yvonne in a barn and then takes an enraged Vincent in her embrace, a further connection with the sexually defiant Lilith of lore. Rossen, a progressive Jew whose membership in the Communist Party in the 1930s would lead to a two-year blacklisting in the 1950s, must have identified with this defiance in a heroine who, like another strong heroine he created, Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), would be destroyed.
While water is a constant throughout the film, a standard metaphor for the unconscious, it is used with the utmost expression and specificity. The gentle rain through which Vincent and Laura catch up mirrors the too-temperate relationship that no longer interests a sensitive man exposed to the horrors of war. During the picnic, Lilith, Vincent, and Stephen wander near a river with cascading rapids. Intensely white and foaming, beautiful and dangerous, the rapids are the embodiment of Lilith’s allure for both men, contained by tangible borders but churning excitedly within them. Later, wading into a calm part of the river, Lilith dares to look directly at her reflection, an evocation of Narcissus, son of a river god and a nymph whose disdain for the love of others was his ruin.
Lilith is hardly a calculating seductress, but her disturbed mind fails to look very far outside of herself. She cannot recognize the depth of Stephen’s or Vincent’s feelings, and changes her affections as simple-mindedly as a child drops one toy for a new one. Vincent’s jealousy causes him to lie to Stephen, with deadly results. Perhaps Rossen was feeling pangs over naming names to the HUAC committee, and Vincent’s recognition of his own cankerous psyche forms the final piece of his personal puzzle.
Rossen is very good at directing his actors to maintain the fragile edge between sanity and madness. Peter Fonda plays Stephen with a childlike simplicity to suggest his delicate condition; this choice seems a little wrong-headed to me, but I felt an irritation with him that tracks with how it might be to spend time with someone who is not all there. Perhaps symptomatic of his conflicts with Rossen, Beatty doesn’t appear to be all that unstable. He does seem to be drifting until he finds purpose in helping the patients, but his growing obsession with Lilith seems more like genuine love, as the pair spends time alone riding horses and bicycles, flirting gently, and loving vigorously. That he is involved with a patient certainly signals a dangerous recklessness, but when the patient is the beautiful Jean Seberg, it doesn’t seem all that mad after all.
Seberg is luminous in this film, every bit the mythic muse of her character and her own legend. She plays to Rossen’s camera angles and lighting, looking at once angelic and then lunatic. Her sensuality burns the screen with its honesty, and she carries herself with a natural grace that adds to the elemental force of the film. It is possible to see the actual depth of her affections for Vincent, so well does she give and withhold simultaneously. Seberg acknowledged Lilith as her favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why from her complex and satisfying performance.
A Blu-ray of Lilith is supposed to be available in March, but early reports are that the transfer is a little soft. Because of the visual splendor of the film, something will be lost if you don’t get a chance to see it in a pristine print, as I did. Nonetheless, this film is well worth seeing in almost any condition for the interesting performances and as an excellent representation of 60s style filmmaking.
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Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.
Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to telling the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.
The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.
A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.
The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.
A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.
Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.
The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.
A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lars von Trier
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Melancholia, the film that garnered for its star, Kirsten Dunst, the award for best leading actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has been finding both appreciative praise for its beauty and depth and indifferent and openly hostile reactions from audiences and critics alike for being slow, impenetrable, and just another uninspired investigation into Lars von Trier’s depression. While Melancholia is a quieter and more ordinary film in many respects than much of von Trier’s output, it shows a certain maturity in the way the director treats his twin obsessions of depression and the sorry lot of women in this world. He seems finally to have been able to put his bag of cherry bombs away and find a narrative that deals with these problems realistically.
Realistically? The film invents a planet called Melancholia that moves cometlike through our solar system and threatens to collide with Earth; it and its “dance of death” are “authenticated” by coming up in a Google search. However, if you accept von Trier’s statement that this is not really a scifi film about the end of the world, but rather a film about a state of mind, it’s easier to see this as a sensitive gestalt exercise by the director to locate the sources of his problems and attempt to exorcise them.
For von Trier, the bond between mother and child is the most beautiful and sacred, and disruptions to that bond have catastrophic consequences, often as the result of that love. We all know what happened to the children of Medea (1988) as a result of the ruthlessness of her husband Jason. In The Kingdom (1994/1997), Judith’s love for her bizarre baby, the product of impregnation by the devil, displaces any fear she might have of her baby’s physical repulsiveness and supernatural growth. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), a mother sacrifices her life for her son, perhaps without needing to.
And now we have Melancholia, which shows us both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood, and tellingly, of fatherhood as well, and how painful they each can be for children. In Part 1: Justine, the stunningly beautiful Justine (Dunst) has just gotten married. She is late getting to her wedding reception at her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) massive estate because the stretch limo that carries her and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is having trouble navigating the snaking approach road. With this symbol of a difficult birth at the outset, we are then confronted at the reception by Justine’s feckless father Dexter (John Hurt) and her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a version of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked witch who basically lays a curse on the marriage in her crazed hatred of her ex-husband and the institution of marriage. Justine starts to unravel, her father takes a powder, and by the end of the evening, her union with Michael is over.
Part 2: Claire focuses on the approach of Melancholia in its “fly-by” of Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is thrilled by this celestial phenomenon and shares his excitement with his young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Claire is frightened that the planet will strike the Earth, a notion John dismisses with the full weight of scientific calculations behind him. Into this tenuous situation comes Justine, dull-eyed, mousey, and so depressed she can barely walk. She hopes that Melancholia destroys the “evil” Earth, thus wiping out all life in the universe—Justine claims she “knows” things and that Earth alone is inhabited. Claire, trembling with fright, buys pills she can use to overdose the entire family, while at the same time wondering where Leo will grow up if their planet is pulverized. When it does indeed appear that Melancholia is not “friendly,” which Claire first thought of the planet when the crisis appeared to be over, she discovers that John has taken all the pills, leaving nothing for her and Leo. She frightens Leo by saying there is no escape, but Justine gives him back a ray of hope by building with him a magic cave of tree branches under which she, Leo, and Claire sit holding hands, waiting for their heavenly kiss.
What, then, is Melancholia? Von Trier offers a hallucinatory synopsis of the film to come with an ultra-slo-mo preamble of Claire holding Leo and sinking into the golf course their home overlooks, of Justine tangled in heavy yarn and skimming the surface of water in her wedding gown, of birds falling from the sky, of worlds crashing. It is as though the director were offering up a dream he had at the very beginning of the film, and then presenting us with his corporealization of his unconscious material—the gestalt of his anxieties and preoccupations. As such, both halves of his film constellate his concerns about families, showing the damage inadequate parents do to their children, and both the terrorizing and seductive aspects of depression itself.
For example, when Michael leaves the estate, Justine sends him off coldly with, “What did you expect?” Indeed, what did he expect from someone whose parents never gave her a positive image of marriage and who actively worked to destroy her happiness on this day? Her fragile ego was absolutely no match for them, and Michael wisely packed it in before he got caught in the maelstrom of their messed-up lives. Justine identifies with Leo, an only child in a house so large and isolated that he could be lost in it for days; there don’t seem to be more than a couple of servants to tend to the vast estate or the lives inside it. In dream psychology, the house is the symbol for the self, and this self is beautiful, but largely empty of life.
Claire is a loving mother, but she, too, came from the same damaged family as Justine. It is entirely possible that the approach of Melancholia is, in fact, her plunge into a soul-crushing depression. Notice that as she walks across one of the greens of the golf course, the pin flag reads “19,” a telling detail that picks up John’s repeated questioning of Justine about how many holes are on his golf course—18. Thus, we can’t take the events of Part 2 at face value even if we were to see this film as science fiction. And so, the Justine who tells Claire that her plan to go out nicely with a glass of wine on the terrace is shit could very well be a projection, and the horses who were nervously bucking in the stable suddenly going quiet as Melancholia looms at its largest in the sky could be Claire deciding to let go and fall down the rabbit hole. In a previous scene, she saw a naked Justine laying in a beautiful, forested area, looking at Melancholia in erotic bliss; could depression really be this beautiful and fulfilling? Most reviewers of this film have commented on the use of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde throughout the film. The music is mournful, in keeping with the tragic love of the title characters, and Wagner preferred to refer to the prelude as the “liebestod,” or love-death. It’s certain that love and death are intimately connected in this film, whether of the body or the spirit, and Claire is flirting dangerously with it.
Von Trier isn’t the subtlest of filmmakers, but some people’s dreams are fairly straightforward (mine, for example). To prevent his vision from seeming trite, he surrounds himself with the best actors and knows how to get them to inhabit their roles with preternatural ferocity. I honestly don’t know what or how Kirsten Dunst made Justine breathe with the kind of magnetism mentally ill people generate, but she is astonishing and mesmerizing, by turns hateful, pitiable, sweet, and morose. It was interesting to see the father-son team of Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård fight for Justine’s attention, the former as her overbearing boss, the latter as her hunky, simple husband, but it did add a dimension of familial dysfunction to the proceedings. Gainsbourg did a nice job of falling to pieces, her more controlled facade to Justine’s angry intemperance an easily breachable wall, her anger limited to a simple “sometimes I really hate you, Justine.”
Melancholia is a long day’s journey into night that merges the beauty and horror of depression through its committed point of view, full-bodied performances, and precise visual sensibility. In backing away from his usual histrionics, Lars von Trier shows his serious and sincere desire to engage thoughtfully with his subject. My hat’s off to him.
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Director: Errol Morris
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In a press release for Sundance Selects, which has picked up his latest film for exhibition, Errol Morris is quoted as saying, “Tabloid is a return to my favorite genre—sick, sad, and funny—but of course, it’s more than that. It is a meditation on how we are shaped by the media and even more powerfully, by ourselves. Joyce is a woman profoundly influenced by her dreams and, in a sense, she was living in a movie long before she came to star in my film.”
I certainly think Morris conceptualizes his films with the intent of ascribing a larger sociological meaning to them, but I’m not always sure he does it before the fact. It seems to me that Morris is irresistibly attracted to self-justifying creeps and sideshow acts, intentionally looking for the oddities and monsters in society like a Diane Arbus crossed with P. T. Barnum. Like an actor who develops sympathy for an unlikeable character he must play, Morris assumes an emotional largesse toward his films’ stars that creates a self-justification for what he is doing. There was really no need for him to help Robert McNamara on his image-rehabilitation tour—anyone who saw the interview Charlie Rose did with McNamara shortly before the release of Morris’ Oscar-winning film The Fog of War (2003) saw the same act by the former Secretary of Defense as the one he put on for Morris. Perhaps the righting of a wrong he accomplished with his early film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), has been more of an albatross to him than anyone would care to think. Otherwise, he might feel free simply to indulge his curiosity without trying to ascribe more significance to it than that.
His latest found object is Joyce McKinney, who transfixed the British public in 1977 when her obsessive love for a Mormon named Kirk Anderson led her into trouble with the law and tabloid stardom. McKinney, a former beauty pageant contestant from North Carolina and a drama student, met Anderson in Salt Lake City when they were both 19 and says they fell deeply in love and wanted to marry. His parents disapproved of her, and one day, Kirk vanished into thin air, according to Joyce—she seemingly insists that he literally became a wisp of smoke, implying the evil cult powers of the Mormon Church. She moved to Los Angeles to make some money as a model so she could afford to hire a private detective. The P.I. traced Kirk to London, where he was doing his obligatory two-year missionary work. Plucky Joyce cajoled three men—one by wearing a see-through blouse without a bra—to come with her to find Kirk and deprogram him so that she could have her happy ending. Instead, Kirk accused her of kidnapping him, shackling him to a bed, and raping him repeatedly in a small cottage in Devonshire.
Despite the great many innovations Morris has brought to documentary filmmaking, including reenactments, the interrotron, and the perfection of the g-roll, he falls back heavily on talking heads to tell this story. He interviews two British journalists who were working on the story for rival newspapers—Peter Tory from the Daily Express and photojournalist Kent Gavin of the Daily Mirror—who approached the story once McKinney had jumped bail and fled back to the United States in quite different ways. Tory recounted McKinney’s various escape disguises, from dressing like a nun to pretending to be a deaf-mute, and pictured her as a lovably crazy woman in love, the woman who would “ski down Mt. Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose” if Anderson had asked her to. Gavin, on the other hand, got to Angeleno Steve Moskowitz, a man carrying a torch for McKinney, who revealed how Joyce allegedly made all the money she needed—pornography and prostitution. The rivalry certainly made for some interesting insights, but by now, revelations of ever-present paparazzi, nude photos in British tabloids, paying people for information, and such, isn’t exactly earthshaking information.
Visually, Morris enlivens the proceedings with animations that show McKinney’s movements in England. He bring in a young former Mormon who tries to give a psychological profile of Anderson and what he would have been feeling if he had, indeed, had premarital sex, but this is like offering an expert witness in a trial who has never met the victim. Morris inserts footage from old TV shows and movies, for example, showing Celia Johnson seeing Trevor Howard off from a train platform in Brief Encounter (1945) to parallel McKinney’s story of seeing Anderson off, expecting to meet him in London to be married, only to be arrested instead. These devices seem to be used for comic effect and to try to make a parallel between staged drama and McKinney’s real-life and largely self-created drama.
Of course, the star, Joyce McKinney is interviewed extensively. She has a flair for telling a story and knows how to turn a phrase. Referring to Anderson’s impotence (typed out in bold letters across the screen as she talks) at first, she says it’s like trying to “insert a marshmallow into a parking meter.” Her manic energy starts off charming and ends up making one want to bash one’s head against a wall; I imagine this is how the pretty, young Joyce had so many men running at her heels. The combination of pretty, sexy, and crazy is a potent aphrodisiac. It’s also extremely unpleasant to experience for any length of time, and despite Joyce’s apparent willingness to have anyone pay attention to her, consummate narcissist that she appears to be, the film borders on exploitation.
That Joyce is telling a string of lies, or maybe a lot of self-delusions mixed with lies, is almost certain, particularly when she denies the Mirror’s story on her L.A. past when it was in possession of almost 1,000 photos of her. Her hopeless romanticism seems a bit tragic, but her willingness to act on it is pretty scary. She claims to have remained celibate since her Devonshire “honeymoon” with Anderson. When the only love in her life after Kirk—her pit bull Booger—dies, she pays a South Korean scientist $150,000 to have him cloned. She briefly moves back into the spotlight for this action, but it does truly seem that she’ll be happiest on her own playing with Booger-McKinney, Booger-Lee, Booger-Ra, Booger-Hong, and Booger-Park, out of the public eye. Let’s hope she stays there.
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Director/Screenwriter/Animator: Jérémy Clapin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
To be “beside oneself” is a turn of phrase we’ve all heard or used at one time or another. It usually refers to someone experiencing something very emotionally charged. Of course, the part of that phrase that most people don’t think much about is that the emotion literally drives one out of one’s body. If you’ve ever witnessed a car wreck or been threatened with serious physical harm, as I have, you’ll be able to testify that it is possible for your mind to disconnect and float away from your body.
French animator Jérémy Clapin took his experience of being in an earthquake and some odd perspectives in some drawings he was rendering and conceived a story of a man whose encounter with a 150-ton meteorite crashing toward him sends him exactly 91 centimeters beside himself. “Skhizein” is from the Greek for “split” and is the root for the word “schizophrenia.” Whether you think Clapin’s protagonist Henri (Julien Boisselier) has literally been cleaved from his body by a quasi-supernatural event or has had a mental health crisis may depend on whether or not you are a fan of The Twilight Zone.
The muted animation, moody music, and flat affect of Henri make Skhizein a disturbing chamber piece that is open to various interpretations, and Clapin is more than happy to confuse the issue. The film starts with Henri visiting a psychiatrist. Although his body is hovering in the air, he is at exactly the height he would be if he were laying on the examination couch. The nonchalance of the psychiatrist indicates that he sees Henri’s body right where it should be. The dissonance between what we see and must imagine, what we believe could have happened, and the boundary-free world of animation create tension in the viewer. Like a proper audience, we want to believe the person Clapin has set us up to identify with, and Clapin’s meticulous creation of Henri’s altered world—one in which he is able to calculate and diagram in chalk precisely where he must put his hand to flush the toilet or pick up the phone—lends logic and veracity to Henri’s predicament despite its patent absurdity.
When Henri realizes that the psychiatrist is of no use to him, he takes matters into his own hands. When his television goes snowy with static as it did when the meteorite “struck” him, he looks out the window and spies it again. His pursuit of it—sitting outside his car as he races haphazardly through the streets—is an elegantly crafted chase sequence. At land’s end, we see the outline of Mont St. Michel in the distance—a mountainous island periodically cleaved from France when the tide washes over a land bridge and the only part of France that has never been conquered by invading armies. This landscape detail cannot be a coincidence. Henri plants himself on the sandy beach, draws a quick calculation of where he must be for the meteorite to strike him again, and holds his arms wide.
Did it work? Clapin says, “Henri is alright now, he doesn’t need to get organized anymore.”
The animation, a combination of traditional drawings by Clapin and models rendered by Jean-François Sarazin, Loli Irala, and Raphael Bot-Gartner, is both rather quirky and quite poignant, particularly at the end. The sound design by Marc Piera is almost hyperrealistic; I recommend viewing this short film with a good pair of headphones for maximum effect.
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Directors: Karen Gehres
Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Begging Naked, like its subject, artist Elise Bainbridge Hill, has had a bumpy road. While the film has been shown at numerous film festivals, even winning some awards, no distributor has touched it. Gehres, at a low point, got the boost of validation she needed when Roger Ebert, having pulled her screener off a tall pile and watched it, sent her an email inviting her and the film to Ebertfest. She, understandably, was thrilled, and now a theatre full of Champaign festival goers, including yours truly, are, too.
Gehres, a painter who always wanted to make films, talked to her friend Elise Hill about a videography internship she got and her need to learn to use video equipment. Hill wanted to tell the story of her life as a teen runaway to New York City but knew she’d never write it. She invited Gehres to come by early and often to film her, and a shoot that ended up spanning some 9 years began. Hill’s story was indeed worth filming, and it took some turns that neither she nor Gehres could have predicted.
When we first meet Hill, she talks about how, after an argument she had with her mother, her father punched her and said he was going to kill her. She took off out of the house and never stopped running, eventually crossing a bridge from New Jersey into New York. Her feeling, even as she was making the crossing, was that she would find a pimp and become a hooker. She had just finished reading Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker and thought her life could be just like that, too. She thought that if she just got to 14th Street, she’d be able to find a friend of hers who lived there. “That’s a long street. “I thought if I just stood on the street, my friend would eventually walk by.” That’s how green she was. She did find a pimp, Maurice, who she says did her more good than harm. He taught her how to survive on the streets, managed to leave very few scars on her body, and kept her away from heroin. Almost offhandedly, she mentions times she would have liked to cut short sex sessions with him: “They hurt.” Eventually she left him and developed a heroin habit. When her teeth got so bad “they almost fell out of my skull,” she kicked and saved her teeth with “vitamin C, massive doses.” She went on to strip at a 42nd St. club called Show World.
Hill always wanted to be an artist, and during her Show World time, she created a stir (“some customers liked it, it was something new, and some complained”) by sitting on stage and painting her fellow strippers doing their thing. She described some of the activities, including butt stuffing, in which the emcee encouraged patrons to shove a dollar bill into a stripper’s rectum. A painting showing this occurring accompanies her narration. Eventually, she left the club, only to return several years later at the age of 30. By this time, Mayor Giuliani was determined to clean up 42nd Street, and eventually closed down all the peep shows, adult bookstores, and strip joints, putting Elise out of work. At around this time, Hill started showing signs of mental illness.
Hill lived in a “converted” air shaft and paid rent on a space that had a hot plate and portable oven, a bent hose for water, and not much else. Hill spent months making it livable enough for her, though I would die of claustrophobia in a place like that. When she couldn’t pay the rent on a space it’s hard to imagine anyone else wanting, her landlord booted her out. Her comfortably situated downstairs neighbor, Sally Roth, whom Gehres interviewed for the film, sounds like a matron from Kansas half the time, but the pair seems to have gotten on fairly well. Gehres shoots the homeless Hill arriving at Sally’s door to shower and wash her clothes; she hates being dirty and smelly. She’s not unaware or incompetent, something she would have to allow herself to be labeled to go into an institution. She has steadfastly refused to come out of the cold.
These are the bare facts of Hill’s life, and they’re juicy on their own. But that’s not why anyone should see this film. It is through the eyes of genuine friendship and love that Gehres portrays her, and we come to care about her, too. Elise Hill is a wonderfully creative, genuinely sweet person. She’s funny and honest, strong in many ways, but also fragile. When we see her descend into delusions and paranoia, it’s not revulsion, but concern we feel. Her art is as unflinchingly honest as she is, but it’s not confined strictly to Show World girls. She made beautiful dolls that were shown in a Soho gallery, but didn’t sell. (I’d buy one in a minute, they’re magnificent.) She made jewelry. She sculpted. And she still paints, using whatever money she can put together to buy supplies.
The scenes of Hill being evicted brought tears to my eyes, as the doorman refuses to allow her back into her apartment to get her belongings, her paintings, or her cat. She starts to bargain for her coat. Eventually, she is allowed up. We watch as she bundles her belongings and cat carrier onto a luggage stand and wheels them to an open space against a wall dotted every few feet with homeless men. Her first cold, dark night outside is terrible to watch; she looks so scared and alone.
The only part of this film that gave me trouble is the nostalgia for the vanished sex shops of 42nd Street, a nostalgia that is voiced in the film by a man. Later, Hill expresses her sympathy for the repressed, cornfed boys from the heartland who need to come to the clubs just to unspool a little. She felt the streets were more alive then. But then out comes what I would call the real reason she regrets the loss of the strip—a lot of people who were making ends meet were pushed out of the way for Disney. “I regret those happy hours I spent as a child watching Disney,” she says under a large, neon Disney sign. As a feminist, I loathe the porn industry, and think the loss of the clubs is no loss at all except for the economically needy for whom society has made no other provisions. Despite Hill’s assertion that she liked to dance nude, she’d only do it at a club that paid her. “I’m not begging naked,” she says. “Most of the women who work in these clubs have children to support.” The economic necessity that drives vulnerable, naive teens like Hill was into sex work amounts to nothing more than exploitation.
Even after filming, it seems the manipulation of Hill was not to end. During the Q&A, Gehres mentioned that she had four editors on the film. The third editor, whom Gehres hoped would give the film a professional polish, worked with her for one week and had very different ideas about how to cut the film. He wanted to take out the pauses in Hill’s speech to make the film smoother; he wanted to cut out her sexually explicit artwork because he edits in his living room and didn’t want his young son to see the material. Not surprisingly, he was fired, despite several attempts to guilt Gehres into keeping him by saying he had turned down some work for PBS to do this film. All his work was scrapped.
Gehres ends the film with a montage of photos of Hill in her younger, happier days. It’s a little corny, yes, but it seals this film as a love letter to her dear friend. l
Take a look at a clip from this remarkable film.
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Producer/Director: Eric Steel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I read the synopsis of The Bridge in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival program guide, I experienced an instant revulsion. “More people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world,” it said. There would be actual footage of people jumping into the swift, deep waters below. The hubby went to see it. I did not. Yet, yesterday, when it showed up on IFC, I found myself sampling it, then really watching it—all the way to the bitter end.
My reluctance had to do with wanting to respect the privacy I think a person’s last moments deserve, as well as a sensitivity because I have had a suicide in my family that was very traumatic for me. I am also aware of feeling a certain distaste for the ghoulish aspects of capturing an actual suicide on film, while at the same time finding such footage riveting. It’s like slowing down on the road to look at a crashed car; something in us wants to have an encounter with death. Maybe we really do have a death instinct, as Freud suggested. There is no doubt that as surely as we are given life, that life will end, and we have the dubious advantage of knowing this inevitable fact. Most of us contemplate death, try to understand it and come to terms with our own mortality. Some of us have suicidal thoughts in times of desperation. Most of us want to live, fight to live when death is near. How is it that people—many of them in the prime of life—choose, finally, to give up that fight? And why do so many of them choose to do it in broad daylight on a very populated bridge?
Producer/director Eric Steel was inspired to make this film after reading Tad Friend’s The New Yorker article, “Jumpers.” He lied to the Bridge District authorities about the purpose of his project—supposedly to capture stock footage of one of the great wonders of the world—and spent all of 2004 filming the bridge. He set up fixed cameras on either side of the bridge for panoramic views and used DV handheld cameras with telephoto lenses to film activity on the bridge. Film crews were equipped with cellphones that had the Bridge Patrol number entered into speed dial. Whenever they observed the warning signs described in Friend’s article that someone might be ready to jump, they hit that speed dial. Some people were saved this way, but some people moved too swiftly or defied their powers of detection. A total of 24 people made the jump: 23 were captured on film.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a mesmerizing sight at any time, its seemingly delicate lines contrasted with strong vertical towers, and set in a breathtaking natural landscape. When the frequent fogs that visit San Francisco roll in, the bridge seems to float like a heavenly structure in Mount Olympus. There is a romance to the bridge; indeed, San Francisco is considered one of the most romantic destinations in the United States and is a favorite among honeymooners. Thousands of tourists and residents alike walk the bridge each year, admiring its marvelous form and gazing out to the surrounding vistas of water and hillsides. It is not farfetched to believe that jumpers choose the bridge because of the physical beauty that will be their last sight, the desire to make their deaths somewhat poetic, and, of course, the knowledge that their suicide attempt will almost certainly succeed.
The idea of the romance of the bridge fills a friend of a jumper nicknamed Ruby with rage. Photographed in an identity-protecting shadow, she speaks through tears of her attempts to help her severely depressed friend cope. She speaks of giving him some antidepressants she couldn’t finish taking because they kept her awake. Expressing a thought she finds shameful and that she clearly has obsessed about in the months following Ruby’s death, she says she didn’t want anyone to find her name on the prescription bottle if they came snooping around his apartment—already she feels his death may be inevitable—and she therefore put the pills in a plain, white envelope. She speaks of her last night with Ruby, an outing to a movie during which he sobbed uncontrollably; a conversation about suicide and his various options, which she tried logically to dismiss as “being unfair to the landlord” and other subterfuges; and finally, a refusal to let him come home with her to talk in order to respect his space and his free will as an adult. This “respect” will haunt her the rest of her life, and she vows she will never do it again if a similar situation should face her.
An extremely poignant interview, held in full view for the cameras, is of a couple talking about the suicide of their son. They are plain-spoken about his difficulties and the events on the day of his death. Their words and voices are calm, but they look stunned, like deer caught in headlights. The mother wonders what she did to make him so unhappy, repeating the wrong and misogynistic notion that mothers are to blame for their children’s unhappiness. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her.
Various survivors express anger, exasperation at the “cry wolf” aspects of their friends’ frequent and lifelong threats, and helplessness. One woman, aware of the enormous pain her loved one was in, admonished him to promise to say good-bye and to put her name and phone number in a plastic bag and carry it on his person so that she would at least know what had happened. Others, remembering how their friend was always upbeat and the life of the party, mused that if it could happen to him, it could happen to just about anyone.
One miracle man who survived his jump talked about his mental instability and about his attempt. He said he stood on the bridge for some time, crying uncontrollably. Some people stopped to see if he was all right, but most walked by without a word, which he might have perceived as uncaring but probably stemmed more from embarrassment and a desire not to intrude. The last straw for him was a woman with an accent, “German, I think,” asking him to take her picture. He did, and thinking about how she hadn’t even noticed his tears, thought “nobody cares” and jumped. This is the kind of impulsiveness that often causes an ill person to attempt suicide even when he or she may still feel uncertain. “As soon as I let go, I knew I didn’t want to die.” He talked about what he thought might save him—going in feet first. In the four seconds it took for him to hit the water, he turned and landed in a half-sitting position. He shattered two lower vertebrae, but the bone fragments missed his heart. He now has to stick to a rigid routine of meds, meals, and sleep. “It’s a hard life for a 24 year old,” his father says.
This survivor provides a valuable window into what “happened” to these sad people—mental illness. Seriously suicidal people are physically ill—very ill. They can’t just snap out of it. They frequently become marginal individuals, unable to sustain loving relationships, hold down a job, or perform day-to-day tasks. As one jumper wrote (and we see the actual scribblings), “I was voted ‘most likely to success.’ What the fuck happened?” and “I’m a fuck-up. I’m a loser.” I used to see people like him on my bus ride home from work loitering outside of nursing homes and halfway houses, a somewhat scary-looking lot who actually didn’t do much of anything, let alone harm anyone. They are the people who well-meaning, but misguided liberals concerned about individual rights had released from these community institutions to mainstream into society during the 1970s. They’re the people the insurance companies had refused for decades to insure and that mentally well individuals scorn, apparently not viewing one’s brain as a part of one’s body. Lacking the funds for proper treatment, many self-medicate with alcohol or cheap drugs like crack cocaine.
The pain of the surviving families is difficult to watch. But it is the actual, filmed suicides that are so hypnotic and haunting. We see one man in a gray sweatsuit and white running shoes pace energetically, talking animatedly on his cellphone. Before you know it, he has climbed up and sat down on the wide rail, crossed himself, and let go. Another man bolts quickly over the rail and runs off the side, as though he didn’t want to think about it in case he might change his mind. One woman climbs down onto a platform. A man with a camera starts photographing her, aware that she’s probably going to jump but distanced from her by the camera. He compares his actions to what war photographers go through, witnessing horror but somehow unable to intervene. Fortunately he “woke up.” Steel’s cameras capture him reaching over the rail, grabbing the slightly built woman by her hoody, and dragging her back to safety and the waiting Bridge Patrol vehicle.
Cut in throughout the film is a man with beautiful, waist-length, black hair blowing in the wind as he walks up and back across the span. He stops frequently, gazes out, lays his hands on the rail. The crew said he looked like someone just appreciating the beauty of the bridge and the scenery. He got off the bridge at one point and sat in a park at one end. The film crew was completely fooled. We, however, watch this man, fairly certain that he will jump because he’s in the film. I found myself both waiting expectantly for it to happen and dreading it. When he finally does it, the image is as beautiful and haunting as the bridge itself, a perfect symbol for the lost souls who fly to their doom.
The deadly seduction of the bridge affects not only the jumpers but, apparently, the Bridge District as well. For years they have fought putting up a suicide barrier, though they have set up barriers to prevent head-on collisions and pedestrian traffic accidents. These, according to Steel, were almost nonexistent problems before the barriers were erected. By contrast, an average of 20 people a year jump to their deaths from the easily breachable bridge. Why is the Bridge District so recalcitrant about suicide barriers? Cost was mentioned, but the other barriers cost as much to erect. I think it has to do with not wanting to mar the aesthetics of the bridge. Announcement that The Bridge was going to screen in several cities finally forced the Bridge District to get serious about doing a feasibility study, but it may still be years before barriers go up.
The Bridge takes a brutally unblinking look at suicide and the plight of the mentally ill that our society must grapple with. The beautiful shooting by San Francisco DP Peter McCandless and the sensitive direction of Steel make this the perfect vehicle for beginning this conversation.
The official website for The Bridge contains much useful information. I recommend a visit.
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Director: William Friedkin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I was going through the comments on IMDb about Bug, I was amused to read that one “reviewer” considers director Bill Friedkin a one-hit wonder. That hit, of course, would be The Exorcist (1973). Ah, how quickly they forget. Friedkin’s early career contained his biggest bangs (The Thin Blue Line , The Night They Raided Minsky’s , The Boys in the Band , The French Connection ). He uncorked another great one, To Live and Die in L.A., in 1983, and recently directed the respectable Rules of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003). I remember reading someone ask when Chicago was going to build a monument to this talented and active native son. (Perhaps when it decides it doesn’t need someone named Daley in the mayor’s office—in other words, not soon.)
Then I started to ponder Chicago’s contributions to world art and entertainment. The city has sent hundreds of influential comedians into the world via The Second City, the city’s famous improv troupe and its offshoots. I’ve found fans of the Blues Brothers (Second City alum John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) all over the world.
And then there’s the theatre company that made the term “Chicago actor” instantly and enduringly hot—Steppenwolf Theatre. John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Tom Irwin, Laurie Metcalf, and many other Steppenwolf ensemble members have gone on to great success in the movies, on television, and in the theatre. Their physical, in-your-face theatrical style went with them, in the process, helping to popularize their favorite playwright, Sam Shepard.
The original ensemble members rarely show up in Chicago anymore to shine their light on early fans such as myself. That’s all right. Steppenwolf keeps the flame alive by nurturing new generations of actors, directors, and playwrights and sending them out into the world. One of them, an Oklahoman who has made the Steppenwolf Theatre an exciting place today, is playwright/actor/director Tracy Letts. Letts has written one hit play after another for Steppenwolf, including August: Osage Country and Killer Joe, the latter of which transferred to New York and wild success. After I saw a knockout performance of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser at Steppenwolf in which Letts had the title role, I was more excited to approach Letts on the street to thank him for a riveting performance than I was to greet the man he was talking to—Oscar winner Adrien Brody. As you can imagine, when I learned that Bug was adapted from a play by Letts, I was more than eager to see it.
Bug was marketed as a horror movie, but its audiences got something both more complex and more basic than today’s horror movies deliver. Letts understands that psychological terror is the worst kind, and that it’s better not to show the monster if you really want your audience to scare itself to pieces. He uses this trick of the unseen threat to terrorize his female protagonist, Agnes White (Ashley Judd), and furiously spin this story of insanity and obsession.
Agnes lives in a seedy motel room with kitchenette in Oklahoma. She smokes, drinks too much, snorts cocaine, and works a deadly dull job at a lesbian tavern. Her days are spent sleeping off the night before, which generally involves partying with her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). One night, R.C., trying to convince Agnes to come to a party after work, says she has a man for Agnes to meet. The episodic film skips the introductions. We next see Agnes in her room, getting drunk and high with R.C., while the man spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. R.C. leaves. When Agnes learns that the man has no place to go, she invites him to sleep on the couch. He promises not to get funny with her, saying he has sworn off sex.
In the morning, Agnes wakes to the smell of coffee and an empty room. The shower is going. She thinks this is rather strange, but gets up to pour herself a cup from the coffee pot. When she goes to the bathroom to thank her guest, she is greeted by the tattooed, threatening figure of her ex-husband Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), only weeks out of prison. He has been calling her—we witnessed her answer the phone, hearing nothing, over and over to an unnerving degree at the start of the film. Without explicitly learning why he was in prison, we already guess that Jerry was incarcerated for spousal abuse.
Just then, Agnes’ guest returns with breakfast in hand. Jerry confronts him, slaps Agnes, and leaves. Before doing so, he learns that the man’s name is Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). This is the first time we’ve heard it, too. Agnes sits down to a bran muffin and vodka and coke with Peter, feeling protected and cared for.
Her contentment is shattered when Peter announces that people are after him and that he has to leave to protect her. She smashes her drink against the wall, slams into the bathroom, and weeps uncontrollably. Peter returns to the room and speaking through the door, tells her that he was a guinea pig for the military in its biological experiments. He ran away, but is still being hunted. Agnes, moved by his desperate story, opens the door and runs into his arms. They make love in a psychedelic scene, interspersing naked bodies with microscopic views of blood flowing through veins and arteries. When Agnes gets up to use the bathroom, Peter says he has been bitten by an insect. He shows her red marks on his arm. She thinks it might be a spider bite. He examines her sheets with a table lamp and finds a tiny bug, an aphid. He instructs her about the power of this tiny bug. We will see exactly how powerful as the film moves through Peter’s paranoia and Agnes’ dependency to a chilling, almost apocalyptic end.
Agnes is a borderline personality dealing with a tragedy and hopelessly lonely, perfect prey for a parasite like Peter. Because of the episodic nature of the film, we don’t watch Agnes move slowly into Peter’s delusions, and this creates the shock Friedkin mined so effectively in The Exorcist. But the shock is more like meeting someone you haven’t seen for a while and finding them skeletally thin or filthy and deranged. Letts is adept in the mania of American conspiracy theories, tapping into some ideas many audience members may wholeheartedly believe or at least find somewhat plausible. Thus, he shines a table light on the sheet of our own gullibility and distrust.
Ashley Judd gives this role her all. She looks extremely unglamorous in the beginning, softening upon meeting up with some kindness from Peter, and descending into self-loathing and delusion by the film’s climax. Having said that, Letts clearly wrote an actors’ showcase piece; at times, I felt lost in the zeal with which she strutted her stuff. Michael Shannon originated the part of Peter when it was workshopped at his home theatre, A Red Orchid, in Chicago, and premiered the play in London. He’s clearly an oddball from the word go, but modulates his descent into madness at an even pace. His focus on Agnes is total and mesmerizing, a Svengali for the self-destructive. Lynn Collins and Harry Connick, Jr. are both wonderful, creating fully fleshed supporting characters who seem more in control than Agnes, but are in way over their heads when dealing with Peter.
And what about us? The ride Bug takes us on is as exhilarating as it is absurd. Watching Peter and Agnes examine their blood for bugs using a toy microscope is ridiculous, but we can’t stop them from seeing what they want to see. Reduced to almost a primitive state at the end, Peter and Agnes horrify us as much as they sadden us. I don’t think there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is a certain cynicism, even fatalism, in every ball of energy Steppenwolf ensemble members toss into the world. That’s Chicago, all right. l