Wednesday, September 14, 2022

It's Called Scissoring: IN FABRIC

I heard about Flux Gourmet being totally weird. Well, a new Peter Strickland film is a time for nervous celebration! 'Celebration' because anything by old Strick-9 (his cool nickname, I just decided) guaranteed a totally original, multi-genre-exploding work of art; 'nervous' because original multi-genre-exploding works of art don't always 'land' --especially when stretched to feature length. You may gaze in awe at his always-beautiful imagery, thrill at being able to recognize all the embedded references, savor the alienation of Antonioni-esque post-structuralism, and yet when you pick a time to go to the bathroom, you don't feel the need to 'pause' or hurry back to your seat You can be pretty sure you're not going to miss any detail of plot or lose the narrative unction - as there is nothing to lose. 

The cost of experimental eccentricity, alas, is stasis, the pre-Raphaelite fairie bower. We gaze in rapt awe like Hylas at the beauty of our own reflection, wondering when the nymphs will drag us under into rapt cinematic hypnosis. In Strickland's pond, they never come!

But Strickland may yet find a way around this edging. With each film he gets closer to making a real normal movie. He came closest with his last film In Fabric (2018) and so to celebrate the serving of Flux Gourmet, let me dust off this unfinished gem of a review I started after watching it a few months or years ago. 

PS- Dig my prolonged urine metaphor opener. Shout out to the Yellow River Boys! 

(2018) Dir. Peter Strickland

Wise cine-urologists say: When a director aims the golden arc of his film in three directions at once, he better be on his toes, lest he be left with piss-sprayed shoes. 

Peter Strickland is just such a reckless streamer. His films are homages to the golden shower of 70s 'Eurosleaze,' splashing beautifully into a shiny, serpentine urinal of experimentalist meta-satire, dusky cinematography, and vivid collapsing, ever-shifting signifiers.. The signposts by which we recognize all the tics and tricks of the era's erotic 'dream/nightmare'-makers (Franco, Rollin, especially) are--in le universe Strickland--twisted around to leave us with that strange, alienated feeling where we kind of step out of the narrative, and it's as if we're waking from the dream of our own lives, the dream where time stops, the clocks melt, and the illusion that dreams and waking life are mutually exclusive evaporates in the cold heat of a blazing moon.

That's why it comes as no surprise that Strickland's In Fabric (2018), wiggles that stream of consciousness into three different streams, hoping one at least will hit the mark. We get: (a) a dark 70s-set period piece surrealist dystopian satire of England's Tony Richardson-style 'kitchen sink' (i.e. working class yabbo) character dramas; (b) a high-fashion updated or Tales of Manhattan-cum-decadent-capitalist horror satire equating fashion retail with kinky sex and black magic, and c) a work of détourned experimentalist fashion decollage, exploring the way the concept of "objectification" refuses to hold still and have its picture taken. In short, rather than leaning on Franco, Kümel, and Rollin, you can feel influences from Antonioni (modernist alienation), Bunuel (surreal deadpan satire), Argento (wild vivid colors and sudden violence you can feel in your nervous system like a cold shock), Fulci (gore as high art), Gilliam (dystopia!) and Kubrick (glacial gliding) all coalescing around a kind of Stan Brakhage / Tony Richardson collaboration for a Situationist detourned Sears catalogue from the mid-70s. Sure, technically it's about a red dress that kills its owners, sold by a Satanic department store, in an outskirt of 70s London. But that's like saying Psycho is about the difficulties of juggling a failing business with caregiving for an invalid parent.

What does it say about this film that the idea of the dress itself as a sentient, relentlessly destructive garment is perhaps the least interesting thing about it? The 'enigmatic uncanny object destroying everyday people' motif is soooo last season. We've already had Rubber (a tire), Christine (a car) or The Car (a different car), Maximum Overdrive (many cars) or Killdozer (take a guess)--or--probably the films Fabric most closely resembles as far as adhering to the 'possessed object killing a series of folk' narrative structure--Death Bed - the Bed that Eats and The Mangler (a laundry press).  As is often the case, there's no origin story to Fabric's monster dress - no flashback to a satanic dress designer whose soul moves into the dress as he's killed by an angry mob; no meteor crashing through a boutique window and infusing the dress with an unholy glow; no shamanic child laborer in Malaysia weaving curses into the fabric as an act of anti-capitalism vengeance, or anything like that, but that's ok. What matters is that Strickland never misses a chance to run the camera's scissor gaze up and down on the crushed velvet curtain of a scene.  The end spends lots of time showing us the blazing hypnosis of the devilish TV commercial, implying that if we ever die while watching TV, it's conceivable we would never even notice the program had changed. The image would just catch on fire and melt into our dispersing attention locus. 

Whether or not it's attempting to be some caustic lower berth satiric response to the gushy texture-and-privilege fabric worship of PTA's Phantom Thread (1), no one man may know. I don't think so, but Thread did come out the year before this. And it's all connected by a... But this ain't no portrait of an oh-so sensitive famous guy tortured by his own rich fame and a doting fan/wife/personal assistant with a streak of Munchausen by-proxy, this is about Dentley and Soper, a fashion oasis that really put the 'tore' in 'store.' The mannequins loom like aliens moving to a century-long circadian rhythm (we never see them move, but they do, like plants). The vampiric alien department store sales staff are all statuesque mannequin-like black-haired pale skinned women who speak in a kind of philosophical sales-pitchin' English, never addressing questions or people directly, speaking only in (masterfully-written) commerce-bent aphorisms. The store has an old time chute for the payments, where the money goes up and the change comes back along a ceiling tube (bringing another chill of 'bored child of the 70s' recognition from the check-cashing drive-through at the pre-ATM bank). And an old timey elevator runs through the middle of the place like a steampunk serpent. And if you think you know what floor it's getting off on, you're mistaken, it goes down, down, down, to where souls and skin and cloth stitch together in a 'Cronenberg meets Barker at the 70s fashion outlet'-style shock tableaux. 

There can be no doubt, In Fabric succeeds at whatever it's trying to do. It's always lovely to look at, sumptuous in a way that makes one wonder "where's all this money coming from?" because "who is the audience for something this esoteric?" The wonder is that the level of cinematography and craftsmanship is so high, as films this weird are usually low-budget shoot-from-the-hip affairs. Not so In Fabric!  The dream sequences are special highlights. Witness the lovely color and surreal composition of the below, the demon newborn beckoning! I could watch this film forever... but would I have really ever seen it?

It doesn't pay to tell you too much about what's going on, so I'll just elaborate on random moments and the general framework which is a kind of Damien Thorn parable, with an evil red dress in place of a Satanic changeling, and a vampiric sales staff instead of shady nursemaids and big dogs. 

First, a divorced black middle-aged bank teller named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys a dress for her blind date (i.e. to wow the eyes of her unseen suitors), and second, a geeky ectomorph trapped in a working class yobbo hell with a fiancee wife who spends most of her time on the phone with her family. To go into all the hows and whys would do much to ruin the WTF progression of the film. For watching a guy dance at a pub in a red dress with some guys twice his size all rapey or not as they get hammered is to wonder what the hell is going on and that wonderment is the best part of Strickland.

Since this is all set in the 70s-80s (Strickland's and my childhood era, tellingly), she's going on and pre-internet date, this being when you answered personal ads in the newspaper and they leave messages on your gigantic answering machine. And you don't even get to see a picture before meeting them. As I can assure you from my internet dating during the early wild west dial-up modem days, that's not a good idea. But she gets lucky, and maybe it's the magic of the becoming red dress she's bought from aver Satanic department store. The guy turns out to be a salt-and-pepper middle aged knight in shining sweater armor. A guy any middle=aged black bank teller would be glad to grab, and he's into her! Thanks, red dress.

And man she needs a break. Her artist/slacker son treats her like a servant, passive-aggressively lobbing his ever-present girlfriend's vagina in her face via his bizarre but very cool art.  At the bank, her grinning identical twin bosses give her a carefully HR-approved talking-to after she takes five extra minutes in the bathroom, and surreal Bunuelian/Brazilian digressions ensue. They also ask to hear and then analyze her dreams--which are then depicted and presented as key portents towards maximum work efficiency (these dream elements will recur and are are like a welcome tide that keeps drifting the film outside its kitchen sink harbor). 

But the dress may be just setting her up for a fall, for demons like to prop you up higher before knocking you down, like an angry kid building a tower out of blocks. During a walk through the park a pit bull attacks her sleeve and she gets blood all over the dress! The washing machine in the basement goes rogue when she throws it in, and tears itself out of the wall leaving a deep gash in her hand. Even in remote cornfields, mannequins seem to watch her every move. What does it mean and why her? Is it because she tries to take the dress back? 

Not only will the store not give a refund, they refuse to even take it back. The staff do not look kindly on this attempt at abandonment of decisive and initially admirable lifestyle upgrades. The saleswoman Ms. Luckmoore (Fatima Mohammed) did warn Sheila that the girl who modeled in the catalogue died in a "zebra crossing," on a catalogue shoot in Africa, but then she assures Sheila that the dress was washed "throughly" before putting it back on the rack. There's only one like it, one size fits all, and it has the habit of trying to strangle you or floating above your son's lover while she's having an orgasm and freaking everybody out.

So it finally finds it's way to a thrift store where it's grabbed almost sight unseen by a passing lorry driver who make washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Tony Bill) wear it for his bachelor party, which consists mainly of getting roiling drunk and dancing and drinking to the point of puking with his fiancee's macho-charged brother and their yobbo co-workers. Their crazed boozy mania, howling in the streets and circling Red in the dress like a Ned Beatty in dem woods. At home his fiancee/wife, Babs (Haley Squires).  His boss is so tough that he expresses his hurt at not getting invited by a long angry stare. Meanwhile a bored housewife tries to seduce him when he comes over to fix her 'ahem' machine, and he diffuses the situation by giving a monotone recitation of all that might go wrong with a washing machine and how each issue would be repaired. Apparently this is like a hypnotic turn-on, even thrilling those banker twins, to whom Reg applies for a loan to open his own repair shop after he's fired for not writing up an invoice when repairing his own washing machine. The boss doesn't say a word, just eats Reg's time card while the crazy synths of Cavern of Anti-Matter's strange clangy score drones to a head. 

It's only when Babs drops by Dentley & Soper's for an exchange of the red dress (which she just throws on a rack after they refuse to accept it, oh Sheila why didn't you think of that?) that someone is able to fire back enough retail savvy to make an impression on the vampiric staff, out-aphorism-ing them at their own game and rattling their implacability. Too bad the dress has evil plans for her whether she effectively got 'rid' of it or not, which includes burning the store down during a riot over a place in line while she ends up hiding out in a changing room. Is the whole message of the film that one small altercation over who was before who in line can lead to looting and rioting to the point film itself may spring its thread in the sewing machine projector and wind up unspooling down around your projectionist/seamstresses' feet like an amok and endless serpent? 


So what 'ave we then? Gorgeously photographed and stylized imagery that plays on childhood memories boys have of first arousals poring over Sears (or in this case, Harrod's?) catalogues; deep tissue social satire that sometimes tips over into the obvious (oopsy!); genuinely dark and unrelenting comedic horror about the imperfections and oily parts of the human body vs. the bald wild-eyed perfection of the department store mannequin? All this and body horror galore can be found IN the endlessly perverse and fascinating-- if a trifle obvious around the gills--FABRIC, a movie so weird the producers or whomever had to rename it, adding "Dressed to Kill" at the end in re-release (just so folks know it counts as a horror film as well as a Bunuel-ish surrealist satire). 

There can be no doubt, it succeeds at one or two of its chosen artsy arcs, but when there's no 'normal' to rush back to, no 'home base' from which to get our bearings (as we could, for example, in the knotty-legged sanity of Sellers' Group Captain Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove, or Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup), we can't find a 'whole cloth' from which to start all the ripping. We can only judge it as a collection of surrealist remnants, half-off at Harrod's, one-day-only; they don't add up to a cumulative effect, but taken as weird vignettes they look like a million bucks.

At this level, In Fabric is a sporadic triumph, a genuine 'going out of existence sale' wherein if one row of cast-off ideas and satiric notions doesn't grab you, keep shopping as every corner's bound to hold an object you just have to try on to lift your dull little life into some kind of dystopian delight. 

So what if the clothes don't fit? They're literally unlike anything you've seen before, with so many startlingly dark moments of satire that any random 20 minute chunk is the wildest feature I've seen all year. As a whole though - one wonders what Strickland wants out of us, other than to maybe 'wake up' to our programming? Are the Duntley & Soper commercials that are always on TV-- all strange color bleeds and cryptic 'come here' gestures from the frozen smile sales staff - meant to evoke hypnotic triggers for consumer society mind control? Are we being dared to find all this trenchant, or is Strickland taking the piss? 

It's one thing to insult us, but when you insult our first world consumer entitlement you better be armed with a sense of forgiving catharsis or warmth by the end. Otherwise, your movie smacks of sophomore film student self-righteous preachiness, like a trust-fund Marxist lecturing his dad on socialism over winter break. Don't expect applause if you depict your audience as clapping seals, especially if you don't throw them any fish. The fish may be plentiful, but they're too far away, and the lashing talons of social satiric harpies wait for any outstretched hand. Oh how you mock blind King Phineas with the sound of your dazzling stitchwork feasts! 

ORIGIN STORIES - or "Why Erich breaks out in an uncontrollable rage if a girl drags him into a fabric store"

I think I can explain the origins for In Fabric, as well as the whole homosexual or metrosexual or bisexual male's yen for fabric texture and fashion on film vs. the straight male's terror and loathing of it. Strickland cleary. has the same formative year memories as I do of being a child dragged around to fabric stores and fashion outlets in the 70s by mom (according to Wiki, it was mainly the now-closed Jackson's in Wiltshire) bored for what seemed like torturous hours in women's fashion stores, getting reprimanded by the sales staff for crawling up the mannequin's skirts or hiding under the racks. As a (straight) boy, my sole source of pleasure at these stores came from ogling under the mannequin skirts and staring qua-lustfully at the provocative pictures on the nylon labels. That only lasted a few minutes though, then you're back to being bored beyond endurance. If you're a boy dragged to such places, it's impossible to be neutral about them as adults. 

Kids today got cell phones so are never bored on that excruciating level. But we of Gen-X. We knew boredom. Stuck for hours in these stores we either snapped from the strain, resulting in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome / personality split leading to a career in fashion--or developed a vivid imagination to lose themselves in fantasy; and when they grow up they have a rich escapist streak plastering over a lifelong fear of being bored. That's me. I still get insanely claustrophobic if I'm in a fabric store or ladies' fashion outlet for more than fifteen seconds. Just be a girl I'm shopping with and tell me what you want to try something on, I'll either leave instantly or start a huge in-store fight. It's automatic. I can't control it. Mother!! Mother, why!?

I ended up saving my sanity by getting mom to buy me those three-in-a-bag $1.29 Gold Key horror comic book packs--I can still see the covers in my mind's eye now, especially Boris Karloff -Tales of Mystery--which the now-closed Wannamaker's had hanging on a child's eye rack by the cashier, as if sensing the need for my escape. Thank you whoever thought of that!  Today, I can't walk past a display for ladies pantyhose without imagining Karloff's dapper mustache (above left). Gold Key you are aptly named. To paraphrase TS Eliot, thinking of you confirms a prison!

Strickland meanwhile must have developed far differently than either from those experiences, with the result is that In Fabric blurs the line between the store and the comic's contents. His film is even structured like an issue of Karloff Tales of Mystery replete with multiple stories connected by a thread (literally in this case), harnessed to consumerist critique and clear reverence for the sexual allure of glossy red fabric when beautifully filmed against dark backgrounds in 35mm. With In Fabric, Strickland escapes to the 70s fabric store for his horror fix. I want to shout at him as the Gold Key lights the path through the darkness, Strickland, you're going the wrong way!"

I'll never quite feel it, but I understand it. 

Stuck in the zone of the gigantic maternal Other, looming over your small stature--and being neither the focus of her loving attention (she's looking at clothes, so just stay close by and don't break anything or annoy her) nor freed from her presence (i.e. allowed to escape to your den of toys, wherein YOU are the giant), you are stuck in a Spenserian fairy bower built for someone else, destined only to watch the process of slow materialist seduction from the outside. Your young imagination is so desperately bored and alienated you either have that split personality break--i.e. fall into the enchantment of another gender's fashion scene and become determined to make mom's clothes for her (thus restoring yourself to the center of her attention, i.e. her Lacanian phallus)--OR you become withdrawn into your own interiority, shutting out the maternal altogether, losing yourself in the all-male world of dragons, dinosaurs, and advancing German tanks (i.e. the realm of the absent father, taking the hero's journey of differentiation from the mother). 

In short, dragging your son to the fashion store too many times will either make him a dress designer, filmmaker or master escapist, using his Gold Key to open the door out of the dusty sales-tag maternal sphere. Follow Boris Karloff, he does not steer amiss. 

And one final question: when you die alone in front of the TV, does it really keep playing? Or does the commercial beckoning you forward melt away, like a mannequin in the flames of a black-out riot, the dripping plastic of the sales force entwined with malfunctioning cathode rays adhering to your wiggly soul and dragging it down into the abyss of paying the full price in a world of knock-offs?
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