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Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled


"I found him in the woods. Miss Harriet had given me permission to hunt for mushrooms as long as I promised not to go beyond the old Indian trail, which is just before the woods begin to slope down to the creek. Well all that land belongs to the Farnsworths but they never have used it for anything, I guess, which is fine with me. I prefer to have places like the woods kept just the way they are. Anyway, on that afternoon – during the first week of May it was – I didn’t find very many mushrooms, but I did find him.” – Thomas Cullinan, The Beguiled

At the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a girl picks mushrooms in the woods, happily humming to herself, grabbing the curious little fungi that peek out at you from above ground. Mushrooms are strange creations in nature – pretty and fleshy and always unique, they seem to just sit there innocently after they burst forth from the earth – but if you pick the wrong one (or the right one, depending on your intent) and eat the little thing, you could fall down a psychedelic rabbit hole filled with pleasurably mind expanding or terrifying (or both) sensations. Or, you could die. Their potential toxicity makes mushrooms a bit exciting and even dangerously alluring since, if you were of the mind to do so, you could use those strangely shaped buttons to deceive a person. Or mess with their life. Eat this side of the mushroom to grow larger, or the other side to grow smaller, says the caterpillar to Alice.While collecting the delectables, she stumbles across a mysterious man, and one who is deemed the enemy, all bloody and wounded and dirty, almost entangled with the trees and bramble and soil. It’s a beautifully poetic moment – simultaneously ominous and fairy-tale-like – and Coppola shoots it with a kind of intoxicating, frightening excitement. You needn’t know anything of this girl or her secluded life among only woman to feel the particular power of this scene. This is not just a man, this is an upset to order, positive or negative. Nature, sex, morality – it can be unruly and tough to untangle, no matter how hard you try to control it in yourself or others. And love? Good luck. As Katherine Mansfield wrote: “If only one could tell true love from false love as one can tell mushrooms from toadstools.”


The time is during the thick of the American Civil War, and the place is rural Virginia, dangerous territory for the man who is near-death, deeply wounded – Union Army Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell).  This man has deserted the battlefield (and admits it later, knowing he’ll be perceived a coward, but honesty seems a clever calculation), after he sold himself to the Army (and for $300). Selling himself more than suggests this man has done quite a few things to simply survive, and in that way, he’s sympathetic. But no one is so easy to read in Coppola’s hypnotic, eerie, at times swooningly erotic Southern gothic, an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan 1966 novel (first made into the excellent 1971 Don Siegel picture starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page). Wisely, and refreshingly, Coppola allows us to decipher how we feel about these people with mood, style, stolen glances, and movement, often very slow – even open wounds are something to ponder as they’re sewn up and busted open (like bodices), as is the melodrama that is, in brief, stark moments, vociferous and at other times, quiet and gorgeously muted. It’s a brilliant fever dream in Coppola’s hands – rooted in the messy emotions of desire, the interpersonal games we play, our longing for at least a break from loneliness and fear, and not necessarily through physical independence, but for a kind of psychic freedom.


Wonder and fear begin the picture – as McBurney is begging for help, and from a little girl one would think is merely skipping through the forest. She’s an easy target and his only hope. But don’t underestimate little girls who pick mushrooms. That girl is ever-curious pre-teen Amy (Oona Lawrence), who, after her initial shock, empathizes with the bleeding man and assists the soldier, no matter what side he is on (a “blue belly”), nearly dragging him with all of her little girl strength back to where she lives – The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. The house is a large, rambling plantation with white columns and overgrown foliage, a place once stately but still beautiful – like the man, it seems to be intertwining with nature. There are no men and their female slave who had once lived there has taken off as well. These are women and girls alone, cloistered, even, with their own unique personalities and opinions of one another, not all good. They’re trapped, but they’re also self-sufficient, and all seven of them help each other to keep up the grounds as best as they can, cook, do laundry, while continuing their schooling (only inside the house), conduct music recitals and lessons in good Southern manners. You can feel the war raging around their shaky sanctuary – canon fire can be heard in the distance so much that it sounds as expected as the weather. It also punctuates the powder keg of emotions these women have been stifling inside of themselves.


With the approval of the strict, intelligent and subtly scary matriarch (scary, so far, in that she is the one who wields all of the power), Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), McBurney is dragged in and tended to. His arrival is reasoned as the good Christian thing to do, but we already sense other motivations, one being the curiosity and excitement of this exceedingly handsome, clearly charismatic intruder/guest. Martha sews his wound (it’s a strangely lovely scene – matter of fact more than maternal) and in one of the film’s most erotic moments, she carefully bathes him while he lies in bed at her mercy. Watching Martha rub down his chest and nearing his pelvis, her usual flintiness now clouded with allowed intimacy and the thrilling act of looking at this man’s body (something she’s not done in quite some time) is intriguing – Kidman’s inner emotions are not only sexy but oddly tense and fascinating to observe. They’re even a little sad. She must repress.


When McBurney is more ambulatory and able to talk (and flirt, Farrell does so with charm and sensitivity, it’s easy to see why the women take a shine), he’s clearly caught the idea that manipulation will keep him alive. It’s not predatory, necessarily; after all he’s helpless to his injury and to the fact that he could be turned over to confederate soldiers. He works Amy as the one he likes best (she saved him, so why wouldn’t she believe it? And why wouldn’t we for that matter?) but sets his adoring (or manipulative) eyes on Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the teacher whom he sizes up as different (this pleases her – everyone wants to be the special one). Edwina is a delicate beauty but her vague desolation and lonesomeness seem to have made her sag a bit, like she’s slumping through this stifling mansion one day after the other, life is just passing her by. Dunst portrays this with a complicated mixture of world-weariness (of a world she misses) and dreamy ennui. But McBurney’s attention makes her sparkle, causes her to dress a little prettier, wear certain pieces of jewelry and think about attraction – and those around her start to notice.  But then, all of the females have been energized by the visitor and start to adorn themselves, pay him room visits and flirt, chiefly Elle Fanning’s teenage Alicia, whom some could consider a tempestuous brat, but … have you ever been a bored, teenage girl? She’s curious and basking in her youthful force because, that’s what living and learning is about. Many girls would act just as she does. And many can be really powerfully good at it.


Once McBurney is sitting at candlelight dinners with the females dressed so fetchingly, watching their recitals and with his leg healing nicely, helping out on the grounds, the women begin to compete more openly (there’s a humorous scene about all of those involved with the creation of a pie he likes – and making sure McBurney knows who contributed what to that pie). Farrell sits pleased as the charming, delighted wolf – he knows he’s got them under his spell – and is able to start playing them. This is also when things begin to get extra-thorny and sinister, for all involved. Shot with a gossamer beauty (by Philippe Le Sourd), where warm, candlelit interiors are picturesque and slightly scary; where the outside world has a smoky, gauzy pastoral beauty but feels dangerous (it is dangerous), The Beguiled is positioned inside an alternate universe that’s not too far removed from the reality of the time. From the women’s dresses, to the moss on the trees, to Farrell’s wounds, these are photographed with totemic import – these things mean something to all involved.


And Coppola never heightens any of this meaning or drama toward the ridiculous, even as disastrous and spectacular as it all gets: lust and spurned lust causing a push-down-the-staircase rage, literal, re-opened wounds (this is not a movie about healing), and then, a loss of something quite important to a man (or anyone, but it seems more symbolic here, in understatement), with Martha demanding, “Bring me the anatomy book!” I loved the slow burn of the picture how, even with characters acting with such dubious intent, Coppola refuses to simply demonize either side of the gender divide. When McBurney professes his love to Edwina, you feel the danger in this statement, and worry for her, but you are just waiting for this outburst of passion. God, even if it’s a lie. Let Edwina feel something. And Farrell is so compelling, so convincing, you believe it, for a moment, and you don’t fault him for such machinations. He’s got to save himself too, and he’s using his masculine wiles the way femme fatales stereotypically do. Coppola positions the movie from the female’s point of view, yes, but it’s inherently humanistic and emotionally honest. It’s also droll and witty. She’s not afraid to be funny and recognize the humor of this predicament, and how awful we all can be. We recognize how far some will go, men and women, within this trapped, highly symbolic milieu.  The Beguiled isn’t really asking us to take sides – it’s allowing us to figure that out for ourselves – or take no sides. Why do sides need to be taken?


Returning to the fairy tale aspect of Beguiled, I feel this in all of Coppola’s superb, stunning pictures, distinctly her own – the fracture and heart of the fairy tale (The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette especially, but even the castle of the Chateau Marmont in Somewhere or the kids breaking into the fantasy life they’re not a part of in The Bling Ring). Like many girls (and boys), when I read fairy tales, particularly about princesses, I didn’t really think too long about the happy endings (unless they were weird and complicated, like when you read the real Brother’s Grimm) or the morals of the stories – I was instead intrigued by their ideas and images, often of isolation and imprisonment: a woman put to sleep in a glass casket for being too fair, or Rapunzel shuttered away in a tower. These locked-up woman who terrify, yes, jealous women, but more than that, they terrify because they possess a kind of dominance that must be stopped (Maid Maleen is another example – she was locked away for disobeying her father, shades of The Virgin Suicides).

When I re-read these stories as an adult, I think of how much these themes permeate the real lives of women. I think, in more current examples, of brilliant women who lived creative, later secluded existences, far too close to their mothers – elusive Dare Wright, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. They are fascinating and full of questions. Who can blame them for being either scared of the outside world or wanting, really, nothing to do with it (and we don’t really don’t know what they wanted)? Dare Wright worked through her obsessions via ingenious pictures of dolls and bears. The Beales became mythic.


The women of The Beguiled feel mythic too. They may be bored and stifled in that house, but will they ever leave? They certainly adored men, and fell in love with men, but even as they desire, and in the case of Edwina, desire to run away, it’s not surprising they should feel, at first, fear, and then such extreme betrayal and distrust of a man – and finally decree revenge. If they’ve internalized society’s (and particularly during this time period) moralizing of the sexual female, that’s terribly sad, but the ending, both horrific and tragic, is simultaneously haunting and darkly droll. Coppola’s last shot is a twisting of the fairy tale heroine; only, it’s a man, wrapped and supine. There will be no princess to kiss him awake.

From my piece published at the New Beverly.

The Mirrors of Fassbinder: World on a Wire


"There is a very beautiful story named World on a Wire. It talks about a world where you can create projections of people with a computer. And this brings about the question to what degree we are all merely projections, because according to this thought model; the projections are equal to reality. Maybe another, larger body has created us as a thought model? We are looking at an old philosophical model that produces a certain horror. With this movie I have attempted to work as perfectly and orderly as possible, using all available technical means.”  – Rainer Werner Fassbinder


In Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman, lonely, separated from her “inappropriate” lover Rock Hudson, sits at a Christmas gathering, heartbroken and unhappy with her life. Her daughter, finally realizing her mother actually loves the soulful, younger gardener (finally?), feels for her mother, while her imperious, smug son settles on the couch and blithely talks of both going to Europe and selling the house. Her house. He makes a point to say “one person” doesn’t need such a big house with the word “one” stabbing Wyman right in her heart. The kids will be gone, and the widow is now looking at a life truly alone – love be damned. She breaks down and says to her daughter: “The whole thing’s been so pointless.” And then … her son presents mother with her Christmas present. It’s a television set. A man enters carrying the unit and “sells” her on this box of entertainment, this replacement human being. Wyman looks into the unplugged screen, despairing and even a bit frightened (this is her future?) and sees her reflection. The man proclaims: “All you have to do is turn that dial and you have all the company you want, right there on the screen. Drama, comedy, life’s parade at your fingertips.”


Shot from the perspective of Wyman’s distressed reflection in the television screen, we see her visage trapped in a frame, peering at herself and the prospective imitation of life, unplugged but waiting, like the horrifying company a solitary pill-popping Ellen Burstyn will keep in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. The expectation of sinking into the void of replacement reality to human life is not only one of the most heartbreaking moments within Sirk’s oeuvre, it’s one of the most horrifying as well. It’s also, intriguingly, an early disavowal of the alienating aspects of technology, Sirk using his famous replication mirror shots to emphasize the fear of simulated existence. Once that TV is turned on, her disturbed replicant face will be blurred by life’s “parade,” and she will likely succumb to its numbing, anesthetizing comfort.  We never do see that TV turned on and based on the film’s ending, we assume Wyman will shove it out the door like Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist. But with World on a Wire, I feel like Sirk disciple, young Rainier Werner Fassbinder, sneaked into that gorgeous Alexander Golitzen-designed room when no one was looking, plugged that life-sucker in, and turned the nob to “on” – and with a hard click.


With that fantasy click, Fassbinder wasn’t just thinking science fiction when he made his one and only sci-fi epic, World on a Wire, he was likely, in part anyway, thinking of Sirk. Fassbinder and Sirk are often thematically and stylistically linked by critics, World on a Wire is no exception (and Fassbinder, serious devotee and student that he was, discussed Sirk himself). Jane Wyman could be inadvertently gazing towards another kind of future when thinking of the Fassbinder’s mirror shots – World on a Wire is a movie so crammed with mirrors and reflections, that the picture takes Sirk’s idea of a mirror’s view of a warped or opposite reality, and transplants its ophthalmic impersonations into science fiction; and most specifically, and fittingly, into a movie about virtual reality. Replacement humans. Fassbinder works with science fiction ingeniously, layering his prescient story and characters with themes many of his other picture’s explore — power dynamics in relationships, identity, societal perceptions, how we observe from inside a film as characters and outside of a film as voyeurs, how we style our lives, and how we inhabit the style around us.


And, again, style. This picture is mad with style – as chic as Petra von Kant’s designs and her artfully crafted bedroom/set, it often looks like a work of installation art, in which characters at pool parties stand like mannequins or float like ghosts, shimmering blue water lighting faces, gleaming plastic surfaces, white statuary adorning 70s sci-fi/mid century modern rooms with pops of color from telephones, TV screens looking back at us, and of course, mirrors everywhere, sometimes as many as three or more in one shot. Women traipse around sexily, listlessly in gowns for day attire, men don fedoras and sharply tailored suits, our hero drives a white corvette, looking more like a noir hero or a suave super spy than his job title – technical director of the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology.


That hero is played by Klaus Löwitsch – handsome and charming, with a wry expression and a unique, subtle sense of humor – he’s a 70’s-styled noir protagonist (he’s been compared to Bogart, but I find him more of a cross between Dana Andrews and Ralph Meeker). Fassbinder uses Löwitsch’s physicality to wonderful effect here, even having the actor dive out of a cabin before it explodes (which is highly amusing). Or making him climb, simian like, over a wired fence (also amusing.) Much in this movie is satirical or strangely humorous while telling its story sincerely and chillingly, and in ways that bend what we perceive as homage or dead serious – it’s everything at once. We see Kubrick (2001), we see Godard (Alphaville, and with its star, Eddie Constantine, making an appearance), we see simulated Marlene Dietrich (twice, via Ingrid Caven, and once acting out the famous death in Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored) and, as I said, we see Sirk. But this is a Fassbinder picture through and through.


Largely unseen in the United States until 2010 after a dazzling digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, World on a Wire originally aired, not in theaters, but on German television in 1973 as a two-part tele-movie. And this is most certainly a TV movie made by Fassbinder – art directed like crazy (by Kurt Raab, who also acts in the movie), gorgeous 16mm, the film is shot by Fassbinder regular, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, with such artful meticulousness, the camera moves and zooms and follows extended takes with fluid grace; the movie alternately waltzes and lurches in this gorgeous dystopian delirium. It’s weirdly hypnotic, and uncomfortably soothing, if those sensations can be possibly felt simultaneously. With World on Wire, they are.


Adapted from the 1964 novel “Simulacron-3,” the three and a half hour series features Löwitsch as a scientist, Dr. Fred Stiller, who takes over for a mysteriously deceased Professor Volmer (Adrian Hoven) as the Institute director to a simulation program featuring over 9,000 “identity units.” The simulated humans live in the world unaware of their mirrored existence, playing humans, thinking they’re human and going about their business in what they perceive as one world – actually it’s split world, or existing in a hierarchy of real and perception – a top world and a bottom world. Stiller has already inherited a position under mysterious circumstances, but his existence becomes even more warped, stranger and sinister: mysterious disappearances, glitches in the identity units, corporate corruption and control, perceived madness on the part of Stiller, his terrifying, mind-bleeding headaches, assassination attempts, he’s even accused of two murders he didn’t commit. Stiller spends a good portion of the film’s third act fleeing, searching for an important contact to make sense of this real world and the simulated one. And he keeps running. He runs so much that he nearly gives up – once when the men with the white jackets (two extraordinarily creepy looking actors) come to capture him, he slowly dresses, and after enough time, jumps out of his room, exhausted (observing him barely make it out due to his own fatigue is disturbing and humorous). And another time when Vollmer’s daughter, Eva (an intriguingly somnambulant Mascha Rabben), pulls a gun on him; she hands it to him to reassure Stiller, and so he slowly aims it towards his head, distraught, but also as if he’s trying it out. It’s an act. With that, it’s played like how we’re watching someone think about the idea of this chunk of metal to their head, how it could blow out their brains, but … that’s too real? It’s not just as much as Stiller’s will to live that he thinks twice about it, but that it’s too much of a life or death choice, and within his own control. He does not pull the trigger.


That Fassbinder was exploring the virtual world, and before The Matrix, Blade Runner, Tron, Videodrome, eXistenZ and other later pictures (Philip K. Dick was writing about these ideas early on) is another fascinating corner of the young, absurdly prolific genius’s mind. His interests and imagination were boundless (I’m not going to list all of the films he made before dying at age 37, but there were 40 features, not counting TV, shorts and plays) and so the idea of looking at reality through an alternate reality likely merged with the filmmaking process itself. Fassbinder was 27 when he made this series, and in a year that would produce three other works: Nina Helmer, Martha and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. He assembled many of his recurring actors: Löwitsch, Barbara Valenin, Raab, Margit Carstensen, Ulli Lommel, etc., mixed with older German actors and interesting cameos – one from Rainer Langhans, which struck me as curious. Famous for being a member of Kommune 1, Langhans is almost known in rock lore for dosing Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green during an infamous Munich trip that would reportedly warp Green’s mind and send him into madness. That Fassbinder chose Peter Green’s popular, soothing beautifully trippy  1969 Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross” to not only fade out the first and second part of the series but to also score Stiller fleeing in his car, seems a intriguing coincidence, or perhaps he knew the story (maybe Langhams told him about it – I feel like Fassbinder would know this particular detail).


Whatever the case, life, lore, Fassbinder’s methods of madness with actors, his real life chaos and precision, it all swirls together perfectly in Fassbinder’s mind-bending fantasia. (Fassbinder also had excellent taste in music, and all of the music in World on a Wire is used effectively, often unexpectedly or referentially, from Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” to Anton Karas’ The Third Man score, to Marlene Dietrich’s “The Boys in the Backroom,” to Elvis Presley’s “Trouble,” and Gottfried Hüngsberg score is effectively portentous.)

Alongside the prophetic ideas presented, the music, the look, the acting, the framing of shots, the inventive, stylized mise-en-scene – everything here – World on a Wire does not feel dated – even the old school synthesizer special effect sound punctuating a dramatic moment (or moments that aren’t dramatic – Fassbinder uses the resonance at times seemingly randomly) feels ironic and, yet, post irony. It’s funny and creepy, a B-movie effect and, yet, unsettling, as if just a sound can summon cinematic memories of childhood. Space aliens and flying saucers hovering overhead and the fears of being abducted or probed, which is not just a childhood fear.


And, again, there are all of those Sirkian mirrors, reflecting another version of ourselves, a simulated reality that’s intermingled into our own perception so much that we don’t realize how bent that perception actually is.  The word “delete” is used in World on a Wire, the act of ridding a simulation, which struck me as entirely of the now. We delete social media accounts, comments and people, as entire relationships are conducted solely via computer; relationships that often seem as real and as messy as physical connections. Meanwhile, we frequently feel lonelier and more depressed as we scroll newsfeeds, observe other people’s lives while observing our own selves as presented online, real or not so real. Or what does that mean anyway? It becomes confusing. We are constantly plugged in but recurrently physically disconnected (Oliver Assayas also explores this in his brilliant Personal Shopper), and we find ourselves even questioning how much we would even exist without our curated online life.

Sirk said: “The mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are; it shows you your own opposite.” Presumably, like simulated humans, Sirk meant that we don’t know we’re seeing an opposite of ourselves, and that is either terrifying to consider, or another mysterious facet of our unfathomable selves. Does the idea of a splintered psyche have to be considered in an entirely negative light? I’m not sure, not in every instance, but that those shards of differences are crouching inside, that is unsettling, something that would blow our minds on a bad Peter Green-style acid trip. Who are you? Go away! (The Doors of Perception sometimes shut behind you.)


The Jane Wyman television “Who are you” reflection, trapped in a screen, is especially disconcerting to consider when thinking of today. And her heartbreak of losing love and her own sense of identity; her freedom to live as she desires, brings us to the disquiet and alarmingly calming dreamscapes of World on a Wire. As I dreamed up earlier, Fassbinder turned that TV set on, and then in, a fit of All That Heaven Allows anger in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, sits next to the character who kicks that TV set in the face. But by that point the television is an ubiquitous fixture in a living room, not a strange new world. After all, World on a Wire was made for TV. So, there’s another level of projections to consider, beyond the tube. You’re staring into it now. You can probably see your reflection in the glass. “Life’s parade at your fingertips.”

From my piece published at the New Beverly

June 1: Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe



From a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s -- Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend":

"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."