American Fable (2017)

Anne Hamilton’s directorial debut is a film that floats between several recognizable, marketable genres without firmly landing on any single one in particular. American Fable is an 80s-set kids-on-bikes supernatural adventure film, except without any of the overt Amblin nostalgia that made Stranger Things a hot topic last winter. It feels like a Southern Gothic supernatural thriller at its edges, but its Midwest farmland setting & fairy tale tone distance it from that genre’s hallmarks. It flirts with the fairy tale horror tones defined by filmmakers like Terry Gilliam & Guillermo del Too, but never fully commits to the darkness of either influence. This genre-defiant, difficult to pin down quality is fascinating to watch unfold, because its various destinations are left wholly unpredictable. At the same time, its loopy dream logic paths through its own fantasy space can also be frustrating, since they never decisively choose a tonal direction to command its overall aesthetic. It’s easy to leave American Fable both vaguely let down by its ultimate effect, yet gleefully enthusiastic over the power Hamilton already wields behind the camera so early in her career.

In its experiments with a wide sampling of genres & tones, American Fable‘s one consistency is in sticking with the storytelling focus indicated by its title. Parables, fairy tales, bedtime stories, and even straightforward lies shape the logic & the narrative of its farmland tale of a young girl in crisis. Early on in American Fable, our young protagonist requests a bedtime story from her father that’s scary, but ultimately has a happy ending. As her own story unfolds, it becomes increasingly unlikely that it will meet both of those requirements itself, though it certainly follows the rhythms of a bedtime story as a narrative anchor. Suffering the shitty end of Reaganomics, the girl’s family is on the verge of losing its farm, its livelihood, to mythically greedy real estate developers who have been eating up the region. This leads to a version of the parable “The Lion and the Mouse,” except reimagined as “The Farmer and the Real Estate Mogul.” Our protagonist is asked to keep the secret that a wealthy man is being imprisoned in her farm’s empty silo, knowing that he’s likely to buy the land from under them if he’s ever freed. The imprisoned man is sweet to her. He buys her time & sympathy with the currency of well-told stories, but he’s still a potential danger if she grants him freedom, due to his basic nature as a wealthy businessman. Themes of power, control, and economics, as well as the negotiation & mechanism of the wealthy man’s imprisonment, are filtered through the dream logic rhythms of films like Paperhouse or MirrorMask. American Fable crumbles under any literal interpretation of its seemingly simplistic plot, but leaves behind an impressive impact in its wake.

The most immediately impressive aspect of American Fable is the way it captures an imaginative child’s POV. The film is often shot as if it were a child peering from under a table or through a cracked door while adults passionately, but quietly discuss a world they’ve been locked out of. The film also has the sweeping, breathless pacing of an 80min montage that, while undercutting the in-the-moment emotional impact of a few potentially powerful scenes, plays directly into a child’s eccentric view of the world. This perspective allows for the film’s haunted carnival imagery & its long stares at a horned witch on horseback who guards the silo-turned-prison to feel just as natural to its farmland setting as children catching fireflies in Mason jars at dusk. In an early scene an injured baby deer’s hospice is lit with the drastic dream world colors of a giallo film; the detail feels no more or less out of place than any of its outright fantasy spaces. This is likely a film made for an adult audience (not necessarily because of any “adult” content), but because of the tones & perspective Hamilton chooses to work with I feel like I might have been much more in tune with its headspace as a young child.

American Fable is an often exciting film, even it’s not a wholly satisfying one. Much like the recent Netflix-distributed indie Dig Two Graves, it reaches for an ambitious sense of otherworldly mystery & awe that sometimes outsizes its means, but it’s consistently impressive for reaching that far at all. Anne Hamilton undeniably shows promise in the potency her imagery. I also very much respect her confident looseness in narrative & genre constriction, even if I ultimately was left scratching my head over the totality of its effect. I didn’t especially love the film, but I was constantly fascinated by it, recalling the feeling of listening to an improvised bedtime story with no clear destination, but strange enough details to entertain along the way. I’m not sure this is the kind of film that’s going to attract big studio attention on its own merits, but I’d love to see what Hamilton could do in the future with the kinds of budgets del Toro & Gilliam have been afforded in the past. I’m sure it’d be a dream.

-Brandon Ledet

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Girl Asleep (2016)

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There’s only so much twee preciousness some people can handle, so I’m just going to throw out a few cultural references up front to send the haters running: Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Miranda July. I can say with total confidence that the surrealist coming of age comedy Girl Asleep is not a by-the-books exercise in twee whimsy that closely resembles any of those particular cultural markers, but I do believe you need to have an enthusiasm for that thematic territory to take delight in its many charms. Romantic awkwardness, paper mache costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape, but I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. After championing little-loved titles like The Future, Mood Indigo, and Gentlemen Broncos in the past I may not have the best track record in distinguishing which twee movies are going to delight or annoy general audiences, but I found that Girl Asleep easily fit in the upper tier of that genre, as divisive as it is.

A young teenager (Bethany Whitmore, who provided some voice work for the excellent forgotten gem Mary and Max), suffers a perfect storm of coming of age anxieties on the cusp of her 15th birthday. She moves to a new town. Her parents bicker loudly over their dwindling passion. Her older sister acts out in a way that makes her invisible. The popular girls at her new school bully her into acting the way they see fit and the only boy who’s nice to her wants to become “more than just friends.” All of this culminates in the disastrous pressure put on her when her parents invite the entire school to a birthday celebration she does not want to attend, especially not in the homemade dress they pick out for her. Unable to ease her anxiety entirely through her stress origami, she naps a large chunk of the party away & works through her inner turmoil in a surrealist dreamscape where she turns the journey from girlhood to adulthood into a literal trek across a physical threshold. In her dreamworld her dad takes the form of a grotesque booger monster who wants to “protect” her & make corny jokes into infinity. Her mother is a frigid ice queen. Her romantic stirrings take on overwhelming nightmare vibes. She fights the popular girls with physical force instead of verbal sparring (not unlike in the ludicrous Jane Austen bastardization Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Girl Asleep filters the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm and the results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged. It’s a simple story with a familiar tone that could have easily been mishandled (*cough* Me and Earl and the Dying Girl *cough*), but the film somehow pulls through to make for a delightful, idiosyncratic experience.

Something I greatly respect Girl Asleep for is its disinterest in establishing a hard dividing line between its reality & its fantasy. The film traffics in a disco era psychedelia, complete with Soul Train dance breaks and earth tone sprites hiding in its brown stone walls & wood paneling, long before its protagonist indulges in an angry party nap. I occasionally found its squared-off television format aspect ratio to be a distraction that undercut the expansiveness of some of its individual shots, but my initial expectation of that choice differentiating between “reality” and a wider aspect ratio for the dreamworld thankfully never came to be. Instead, the whole film worked as one long fantasy piece where the rules of its loose grasp on what’s “really” happening were constantly shifted to fit the mood & intent of the moment. Often, when films choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama and the result is a thorough delight & a constant surprise.

Again, this film is going to be a love it or hate it experience depending on the audience’s stomach for twee whimsy & sweetness. Personally, I was eating out of its hand for the entire runtime and left the theater smiling, fully sated. I’m trying to think of other titles from this year that came across this imaginative & this aggressively feminine, and the only two that immediately came to mind were Nerve & The Dressmaker, two films I absolutely adored. Coming of age comedies are a dime a dozen & many will likely claim that the whimsical surrealism on display here is nothing too new or too inventive, but I found Girl Asleep to be a wildly anarchic & imaginative fairy tale despite its familiar framework. I’m admittedly a huge sucker for dream logic in my film narratives & have a high tolerance for twee as an aesthetic, but I honestly found it to be one of the most memorably uplifting and surprisingly adventurous cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. Girl Asleep is likely to find the right audience once enough people can get the chance to latch onto its dog whistle charms and I sincerely hope it earns the longevity it deserves.

-Brandon Ledet