Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Friday, May 12, 2017

Burnt Persona Jessica Drives Again (to Death, Sister): SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016)


Rolling through the ghostly corridors of small town 70s America, via director A.D. Calvo, rides SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016), a retrosomely intertextual homage to those young girl-sunk-to-madness horror films of auld (by which I mean, the ones from the 1970s that float between the drive-in and the after-school special). Calvo's feature debut, it's a film that exudes such a confidently lyrical, intertextual, and retro-pastorale poetry over its nicely brief running time (78 minutes) one can forgive it for not really having anything new (or even coherent) to say. What it has in place of those proclivities however is something far rarer in the retro-homage horror genre: a nice slow but inexorable build of unease, genuine corner-of-the-eye scares and moments of quiet beauty, photographed in a style eerily reminiscent of early Vilmos Zsigmond.

Sent by her weary bitch of a mother to work as a helper for a secretive (and wealthy) shut-in aunt, vacant but sweet Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is soon packed off to a strange, big, desolate and very eerie Victorian house (left). A friendless, taciturn bookworm who's never without her anachronistic 'walkman', Adele adjusts easily to the job's long stretches of lonely tedium. Following the shut-in aunt's written notes, Adele does the shopping, makes meals and leaves them on a tray by the aunt's locked door, etc. We never even see the aunt at all except in occasional millisecond glimpses through the mirror. Is the woman in that room even her aunt? Maybe she's some creepy monster lady who killed the aunt and took her place! If you've seen any 'paranoid chick' movie made in the 70s, you'll naturally be suspicious, too. There's not much else to be. The house is big and very still and lonesome, quiet enough to make the suffocating tick-tocking of the clock in Bergman's Cries and Whispers seem like a swingin' sock hop. Though Adele seems to take it all in stride, the Gothic gloom gets to us almost immediately. Adele just bops along listening to lit FM pop songs, shopping for auntie's sardines. And... wait, who's that chick?



It's Beth (Quinn Shepherd), rocking a welcomely 70s midriff, holding a tell-tale apple and the gaze of a long-haired shop clerk. Naturally she's intrigued. Soon Beth is dropping by the aunt's Victorian mansion and bad-influencing Adele into all sorts of things (stealing from the aunt's petty cash, etc.), until it's too late for Adele to extract her old persona from the vortex. Not that we want her to, but what's the deal? Who's leading who down what kind of path?

Stars Erin Wilhelmi and Quinn Shepherd are subtly captivating as the leads in what's essentially a two-hander character study and lord there's been a lot of them, these "which is one is crazy or a figment of the other's imagination or going to kill the other, etc" sagas. But this one, this one follows its own little whispering shadow up the attic stairs.


I also shouldn't neglect referencing  how the combination of new formatting (it's 'exclusive' to Shudder, a curated horror streaming service) and old style (digital recreations of retro-analog celluloid familiarity) so eloquently sums up the easy death of 'currency.' Today, any new movie can choose to look older, like a tween at Forever 21, or worse. No one from 20 years ago would want to deliberately evoke bygone eras of filmmaking (except for confirmed horror fan Mel Brooks) but now there's just too much 'present' to go around. I, for one, am glad the the 'everything available all the time' post-modern paralysis has reaped at least one benefit, the ability to make things made before our time. If that makes no sense, you understand it perfectly: the past is perhaps the one place we can still look forward to. Anything lucky enough to have been shot on 35mm film stock now seems bumped up a star in our esteem. Loving restoration Blu-rays by Scorpion, Shout, Code Red, Blue Underground, make the lamest 80s slasher film glow like a priceless artifact in comparison to the washed-out flatness of most HD video.

In short, everything is topsy. If it will ever turvy again, well.... there's always the movies. We can make turvies today that make the topsies wince in shame.

GIRL is one such turvy.








Don't think about it, I won't tell if you just enjoy the eerie vibe Calvo generates using little more than the odd deep shadow--such as the dark, empty nearly Edward Hopper-esque chasm space of the local watering hole.




WHOM DOES IT ALL MEAN:

Calvo is taking a lot of variants on "the opposite female personas melting into one another" artsy subgenre of the 60s-70s (3 WOMEN, PERSONA) and seeing how many can fit. There's: the 'wild free spirit helps alienated young wallflower open than tries to kill her and take her place' lesbian thriller (POISON IVY, THE BLACK SWAN); the cautionary mental breakdown after-school 70s special episode ( GO ASK ALICE); the 'is this all a dream of Jane Eyre's crazy attic dweller post-Lewton Victorian Gothic' descent to the underworld; and the cracker factory "distortedly loud ambient sound" am I alive or dead genre (REPULSIONCARNIVAL OF SOULS, ), all deftly blended with Satanic supernatural subdivisions. Fans of 60s-70s feminine psyche horror mind-fuckery like BURNT OFFERINGS, the "A Drop of Water" segment from Bava's BLACK SABBATH, and of course the 1970-72 lesbian vampire 'Carmilla-wave.' and THE SENTINEL will love, as I did, mostly, scenes like the girls' dallying through the graveyard with their brass rubbing materials (LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), peeking in at dead child coffins (HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY!), their long sapphic gazes as they try on Victorian attic clothes, they're sneaking a peak into the invalid aunt's room, etc. Calvo touches the touchstones of 70s paranoid feminist horror like he's rounding bases after a grand slam.

I hope you didn't consider all that a massive web of spoilers. Am I just showing off my vast 70s feminist horror acumen again, Hannah? 

That said, being able to predict future scares doesn't make them less enjoyable when they come. Rather, there's an almost Godard-esque cross-referencing between disparate sources that made me, for one, yell out the names of referenced films like I was recording a footnote commentary (in ways I hadn't done since SUBMARINE) and annoying my fellow viewer/s. The erotic story of a beach tryst Beth tells Adele during their getaway is lifted wholesale from PERSONA (1966), which is then seen, briefly, very very briefly, on TV, and further checked via some 'was their lesbian tryst / psychic merge a dream or real?' facial merging (the way it is referenced too in Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE). Things start to get really real when... well, I've said too much.

Beth in bed at the cabin (Note Pazuzu on night table at left)




While these references are really all the film has under its sleeve, SWEET fits nicely next to recent work discussed elsewhere in this site, like AMER, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and IT FOLLOWSKISS OF THE DAMNED, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and Ann Biller's THE LOVE WITCH. These retro-modernists operate on the principle you've already seen the movies they love, and rather than remaking them or working around them, they incorporate their direct thematic tropes like colors on a palette or a song in the hands of a jazz improviser. Their retro-analog stylistics intensify the melancholy of half-remembered small town suburban isolation, the giddy feeling of renting movies for Halloween parties as kids coupled to the dreamy mixture of after-school special and women's lib with sexual awakening pastorales in all the best female-centered horror. In other words, not just the tropes but the love, what drew them to these films, is very much in evidence. These are labors of love and the sincerest form of flattery, even if in the end, little else besides (in some cases).

The trying on old clothes in the Victorian attic with a possibly ageless vampire lesbian bit was, I thought, basically over in indie film since all that great Victorian stuff finally fell apart (it lasted much longer than our modern pre-fab shit, which is why there was so much of it still around in the 70s when it would surface in films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death)
If there's not a lot else to add except to once again cite the excellent cinematography by Ryan Parker, who cares? I'll confess, for awhile this seemed more like a cinematographer's demo reel or film school thesis, a kind of Terence Malick of horror, rather than vice versa due to the continued emphasis on gorgeous composition and fading light indoors lit by a single multi-colored lamp, or a rotting pomegranate on a table at night in a thunderstorm, all twisty and alive like a rotting old Dutch master's still-life. Seriously, perhaps it's thanks to a new generation of DPs and ever-evolving tech in the HD world that underlit shots only the ballsiest of cinematographers (like Zsigmond) would dare make in the days of 35mm film (to risk wasting a day's shooting on the hopes the dailies wouldn't be too dark to see).


Those who know all the films I've mentioned here should have no problem respecting Calvo's homage as a real film as, for the most part, Calvo quotes his sources like a man, a man who's not afraid of dipping his unmoored eye down into the split-feminine psyche (even the tale of the beach tryst lifted wholesale from PERSONA has an echo--in Godard's lifting Batailles' Story of the Eye for a similar part of WEEKEND). People can argue about men doing split-subject female movies but I think it's natural --they're effectively imagining themselves trying to endure the harassment and unreasonable and contradictory social expectations forced on women and realizing they'd never be able to handle it without snapping their pea brains.) It's too bad more women don't do the same with men. As of late there's only Kathryn Bigelow, whose HURT LOCKER is still probably the most profound movie about the split-masculine psyche since RED RIVER.

As per Jung, the unconscious ego/anima of every sane man is an insane woman; all demons are haunted by their inner angel or vice versa. The nature of the universe consists of a weird balancing act of gravitational, everything spinning everything madly around itself on both sub-atomic and macro-galaxial reality level, everything interlocked and reflected so that every Rochester has a madwoman in the attic. Thus, as the enigmatic Beth, Shepherd is both alive/seductive and zombie-like/terrifying -- her motives stay shadowy, she's a composite - is she even there? She not only lifts that sexy beach narrative in Persona but notes the Jane Eyre reference herself. Don't ask questions or you become guilty of listening, but to whom?

If, as a man, you get your anima to even talk to you at all, you must be either crazy or lucky. Lock her away behind thick Victorian wood and she still passes you empty notes and whispers unintelligible secrets. You'd wish she'd either speak clearer or not at all. These constant meaningless notes and phrases only distract and derail a man.

The gay or lesbian pair-bond if taken at face value in this way--(i.e. without the presence of any feminine image on which to screen the anima)-- confounds traditional Jungian dialectics, however, like electric guitar feedback, the creative inner voice looping on itself and drowning out the male ego altogether. This may be a simplistic reason but it illuminates one of my pet theses, that the reason men are so drawn to the subject of lesbians in films hinges on this aspect (even more than --as pop culture presumes--some kinky three-way fantasy) in reverse. The lack of a male to project the animus onto leads to a kind of death-drive freedom in the male viewer--we are left to imagine the complete lack of our own presence in the fantasy - the result is like snuffing out an oil fire that's been scorching our brains since we were first cockblocked (after a fashion) by our own father in infancy. Since we can't get jealous with, or compare ourselves to, a woman - we can withdraw our ideal ego from the scenario without feeling any sense of personal rejection. Put a man in there and we wince- now we have competition right when our Anima was finally beginning to talk above a whisper. Now it goes slinking back into the shadows.



Exiting the film, the Shudder, the TV, it's the truly unnerving work by Wilhelmi that lingers in the mind. With a face that seems at times very old and others like a child, she has a homeschool Heather Graham-ish vulnerable good cheer that contrasts starkly with the shocking ambivalence she receives from both mom and aunt. We come to admire her pluck, even if it's a little strange, smacking almost of psychotic disconnect. We wonder how quickly we'd lapse into morose depression in similar circumstances (or maybe already have) so her ability to keep trying, her can-do spirit, however wan, wins us over and then--when she gets slightly bonkers--we realize we're already in too deep to escape. We thought we were escaping via this movie, escaping maybe from other, less-captivating, retro-genre pastiches, like THE VOID. But now, well, we're stuck deep.



Alas, a few things stop me loving this film: there's yet another of our decade's apparently inexhaustible supply of cliche'd 'dehumanizing sex' scenes, one of those joyless HBO-brand rutting smash-cut that signifies a kind of depressed ambivalence (you know the type: a girl and guy make eye contact and we suddenly smash cut to the girl's expressionless face as the dude mechanically ruts at her from behind like some spastic dog); the Lite FM 70s hits by the likes of Classic IV, Bread (cover), Lobo, and the unfortunately-named Starbuck ("Moonlight Feels Right") are so ROTM it feels kind of like a missed opportunity. Music is so integral to doing these retro films right, and one dreads to imagine similar pop music burdening the amazing analog synth scores of Disasterpiece (IT FOLLOWS), Tom Raybould (THE MACHINE), Dixon and Stein (STRANGER THINGS), Sinoa Caves (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW), The Gifted (SOUTHBOUND) and so forth. And while composer Joe Carrano often conjures a retro TVM mood from the use of familiar eerie string sustains and scales, bongos and rattles, we can't help but wonder if they weren't secretly culled from some 70s PD cue library. The Sound mixing is sometimes totally psychedelic (indulging in that
aural tapesty' hallucinatory quality), but there's enough missed opportunities (the tinkling bell the aunt uses to ring for Adele could have had a big well-earned scare moment, and instead it's buried under such a cascade of piano mashes, stuttering drums, and Beth whispering her name close into the mike, "Adele..." that I wanted to circle it with a red pen.

But I'll forgive this final product a lack of point or logic or analog synthesizer with the same generosity as I appreciate the lack of torture porn, imprisonment, MISERY-style sadism, progressive isolation (i.e abuse) or moping, and I do love that it's short (78 minutes or so) and that the photography and the splitting feminine psyche thematics fit the film's pastiche nature. Because Calvo understands that narrative linear 'sense' is a prison, a phallic male construct.

One of the key '?' in Hithcock's VERTIGO is that we never know for sure, how Scotty got off that ledge, or if he's still there, or if this whole story has existed in the span of time between his grip giving way and his skull smashing open on the pavement (like the breaking chimney in Cocteau's BLOOD OF A POET). There is no right answer, instead we're left with the difference between a 'twist' like in THE SIXTH SENSE and 'art' like in POINT-BLANK --if you need an answer as to whether Walker is alive or dead at the end of BLANK then man you're a square! He who complains is not artsy - and he who is artsy 'gets' the lack of anything like a concrete twist one can 'get' in the Rod Serling sense.

I don't mind, man, that even unto the last frame we're never quite sure--anymore--what is real, and at the very end, one more final reference, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, below) brings the Val Lewton savvy full fore.


Shudder being worth getting at $4.99 a month is thus affirmed. One wonders just where GIRL might have wound up without it. So often these films get either ignored at the festivals (by distributors who aren't quite sure how to market them), or bought up and then relegated to the shelves for years or changed by studios who demand it make sense or have a point before sinking advertising into it. Shudder is there to do a rare and important job in unearthing the near-gems from the vast fields of shiite, not to say there ain't a shair fare of that at Shudder too. But I take odd comfort in their existence. In our sweet sweet loneliness and despair, the devil sent classic horror fans a friend. Whether or not this friend is real or just a homicidal amalgam of past images, reflections and hazy memories, riffs on photos both still and in motion, we'll never know... but that's just how it's gonna have to be. Times change either way. We've never gotten anything without losing something else. That's just progress, and whatever other names you'd care to call the ceaseless diligence of gravity, weather, and worms.



1. for my curated list of cool retro-analog synth scores from 2015-16, have Spotify and go here.

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