THERE ARE THOSE IN DODGE CITY who claim that Blut Branson has, after a lifetime of struggle, at last reached the distant shores of the Criterion Collection.
There are many among them who maintain that this has been his life’s sole ambition. “Getting a film into the Criterion Collection is,” they claim, “for Blut Branson literally synonymous with entering heaven.”
There is fear that he’ll die as soon as it happens.
When the email arrives that two of Branson’s films have made the cut, the police have to put the town square on lockdown to keep us from rioting with joy. “Criterion’s gonna turn Blut Branson into DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s!” we scream, juddering with excitement until tear gas blacks us out.
When we come to, we’ve been transferred to a medical tent where Professor Dalton sits behind a laptop, writing the official Criterion introduction to THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA, the first Branson film to cross over.
“Shh,” says Dalton, looking up from his screen. “Don’t make me shush you again.”
We crowd in as quietly as we can to watch him write the following text:
THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA tells the devastatingly simple story of an ordinary man whose only calling is to murder a child.
Cannily, this is all that Blut Branson, in what I maintain is his most daring and original film, conceived when the director was only twenty-eight but not realized until his mid-forties, allows us to know about his central figure, whom he terms Dan, a name we learn from a single shot of his prison intake file more than thirty minutes into the film. So, if you will, he begins his screen-life as an unnamed everyman and only upon incarceration does he receive the nearly-meaningless moniker he’ll casually bear for the rest of our time with him. He has no last name, as Branson characters — except those either too saintly or too demonic to figure into the moral vortexes at the center of his work — never do.
The child he dreams of murdering is named, famously, Nicky Teensma, after Branson’s first and, according to a press statement from Cannes ’89 upon the film’s tempestuous release, “last best friend.”
“I have made the film. I will say nothing more about what happened between us,” his statement concluded.
It is telling that this name belongs to the director’s — not the character’s — childhood best friend, though the childhood resentment is expiated strictly through the director’s work, never in his life. (Dodge City residents with young children will recognize the real-life Nicky Teensma as a substitute third-grade math teacher and occasional youth soccer coach.)
In the film’s opening scenes, we see the-man-not-yet-named-Dan going quietly insane in an unremarkable southern California apartment, picking things up and putting them down, staring at the clock, grazing from the refrigerator … all while drawing picture after picture with the caption THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA. These are beautiful in their way, but more disturbed than disturbing, a mess of mutilated child bodies that never achieve the aesthetic cohesion.
These early scenes present an unadorned but absolutely convincing portrait of fantasy wearing itself down, as our man approaches the point at which he will be irresistibly compelled to do the thing he has for so long nursed in ideation, shunting his compulsion into the symbolic.
“NO!” the thing inside him will soon shout. “No. Now you must make me real.”
The first of several decisive moments comes when his neighbor, an elderly lady with whom we’ve seen him interacting once before, dies and leaves him her modest fortune.
He quits his soul-numbing office job, where we’ve seen him sitting at his desk, slowly cutting his upper thigh with a piece of paper, and spends the next ten minutes of screen time in an excruciating funk, deep in the darkness of the one room that is not his bedroom, fully untethered from the normalizing routine of work.
In a shot that is quintessential Branson, a ray of light glints off his left eye in such a way that it remains unclear whether he has generated this light or is reflecting it from some inexplicable, perhaps trans-dimensional source. To any viewer who’s already seen a Branson film, there can be no question that a grave decision has been made.
He stands up and walks to the courthouse.
In the next shot, he is seen sitting down with the county judge — in Branson’s universe, all business is meted out on the county level — and explains his proposition:
“I am willing to spend the majority of my remaining life in prison for the privilege of murdering a child with impunity upon my release.”
“So,” the judge replies, in what has become a catchphrase among Bransonphiles all over the world, “you are in a sense conflating the child’s death with you own, insofar as you are sacrificing your own life at this relatively early stage in order to efficaciously sacrifice another life when yours has already been squandered, and thereby renew yourself through the child, hoping to be reborn as him in the moment of killing, and thereby live on purged of what you yourself will never manage to purge yourself of.”
“Yes,” says our man. I can hear audiences in revival cinemas from New York to Tokyo to Capetown sighing in apprehension as this word is uttered.
IN A CHARACTERISTIC ELISION, we never see the judge’s deliberation. The second act opens on Dan in prison (after his name has been revealed on his intake form).
With the stylized inscrutability of many a Branson protagonist, Dan refuses to answer when the other inmates ask what he’s in for, and there’s something just menacing enough in his bearing that they leave him alone. We never even learn if the guards are aware of the peculiarity of his sentence.
We know only that he has been sentenced to forty-seven years, the exact age that Branson was when the film was finally released, only to lose the Palme D’or to the much more easily assimilated, but, I maintain, more easily forgotten sex, lies, and videotape.
Dan spends the decades aging before our eyes in near-silence, praying to a hand-carved soap statue of the child he will kill upon his release, having already named him NICKY TEENSMA, in a kind of divine soul-congress straight from Blut Branson himself.
As twenty years served become thirty, Dan enters an almost mystical state as his worldly concerns recede into the deep past and he is kept company only by the promise of what he will do when the time comes.
Forty years into his sentence, with seven to go, Dan celebrates a quiet birthday alone in his cell. He dances in a slow circle and whispers, kissing the the soap statue, “Today, Nicky Teensma is born. When I am released, he will be seven. Today my life begins in earnest as well.”
WHEN THE DAY of his release arrives, the film can be said to properly begin, though the preceding forty-seven minutes have of course been one of the most riveting prologues in Branson’s prologue-heavy oeuvre.
Dan walks into the blazing sunshine of a world he barely recognizes, a man of seventy-five, played by B. Sanford, father of G. Sanford, who’s played Dan until now.
The look on B. Sanford’s face was wisely chosen by Criterion as the cover image for their deluxe, fully-restored edition: relief to be freed undergirded with something closer to terror at what he’s consigned himself to do. It is through this look — not through any dialogue or narrative cue — that it begins to dawn on us that Dan is no longer driven to murder a child in the way he was as a young man.
A kind of despair comes over him as he realizes that it is now only his duty to his younger self that spurs him forward … in the film’s only instance of voiceover, we hear him think, “And I figured, since I’d invested my life in it, I’d better follow through, though I sure wished I could’ve taken a pass, or even that I’d died in prison.”
He stares deep into the camera as he walks uncertainly down a hill. I read his expression here as one of tempting fate, profoundly wondering what might become of him if he didn’t follow through on the thing to which his life has been consecrated.
The next ten minutes are, in my opinion, the most excruciating and unforgettable that Branson has ever committed to film. In near-silence, we watch Dan wander through the suburban Los Angeles he’s been released into, perhaps objectively not much changed since his incarceration, but we know something is irreparable in his relation to it. The combination of the toll the years have taken and the awful duty that he must now fulfill is enough to freight Dan’s steps with a sluggishness that threatens to drag the film to a halt.
We watch him wander from one drab location to another — a tire shop, a fast food window, a secondhand clothing store — for no apparent reason other than to look people over, holding their gaze too long, daring them to look back at him. Anyone who’s seen the film will have an interpretation of this sequence — some claim it’s superfluous and should simply have been cut — but I believe that here Dan is trying to warn the people of Greater Los Angeles, through a sort of telepathy, to keep their seven-year-olds far away.
Don’t let me get what I want, he thinks at everyone he passes, in what amounts to his final attempt at Grace.
And it is as if these people have received the message: no children at all are seen in this sequence, not even in the background, where, on repeat viewings of the film, one notices they have always been before, seemingly oblivious of the camera.
ONCE DAN’S WANDERINGS have taken him as far into the San Fernando Valley as he (and we) can bear to go, he discovers a seven-year-old completely alone, sitting on the bench of what appears to be an unused bus stop.
Of course, as viewers of a film, we are aware that the boy has been posed like this, but, immersed as we are in Dan’s perspective, stumbling across this boy with no adults around and no agenda of his own is significantly uncanny. To this day, I cannot watch this sequence without stopping to watch it again and then taking a fifteen-minute break before continuing into what I know is coming.
Without a word, the boy slides off the bench and follows Dan into the dusty afternoon, deepening toward the west, preparing to set over an ocean neither of them will see.
Now Branson tries for the first time a technique he will use throughout the rest of his career: he freezes the screen on the road just after Dan and the boy have disappeared around its only bend, and holds the image for a full minute.
Then he cuts to Dan and the boy in a motel room so sparse the set looks undecorated: there’s a mattress with no bedding, a linoleum floor with no carpet, a wall with a single window and a single ratty curtain blocking out the twilight. They’re sitting on the mattress surrounded by groceries in bags.
We don’t want to see what we know is coming, but we can’t help feeling grateful that the minute-long hold on the previous image is finally over. At least, we think, we’re back to watching a movie.
As they go on sitting there, about a foot apart, snatches of a grocery store force their way in, like the two of them — independently or together — are processing their memories of shopping in lieu of facing the future.
We see Dan picking up packaged cakes and brownies and holding them out to the boy, enticingly, almost begging him to accept these treats in a reversal of the typical interaction wherein the child demands what the parent insists he cannot have.
The boy simply nods, holding the packaged cakes like the inanimate objects they are, responding with neither relish nor disgust.
Then, intercut with the increasingly painful image of the two of them sitting in the motel room as nights falls behind the curtain, we see them at the checkout counter. The girl scanning the treats smiles at the boy and says, “Your grandfather must really love you.”
Without meeting her eyes, the boy mumbles, “He’s my father, not my grandfather.”
WHEN WE CUT back to the motel room, Dan is crying, perhaps remembering the moment we’ve just seen, or perhaps he has finally, fully arrived in the present, and knows he can delay no longer.
Dan looks at the boy, turning his back on the camera, as if to shield him from us, demanding a moment of privacy that we are more than inclined to grant.
Then, with one of the great tragic grimaces in Branson’s filmography, Dan reaches under the mattress and pulls out a long, curved boning knife. The film offers no explanation of how it came to be here; it knows that by now we are past the point of expecting realism to spare us what’s coming.
Dan holds it up, waving it through the air, trying to get the boy’s attention. The boy stares downward, seeing the knife when it passes through his line of sight but making no effort to follow it. We watch as he gets increasingly livid, waving the knife like it’s on fire and he’s trying to put it out.
“Look at me!” Dan finally shouts, revealing how very long it’s been since any word has been uttered. “You are Nicky Teensma. I’m sorry, but you are. And for that, you have to take what’s coming. You did something to me. Now I do this thing to you.”
His voice falls to a whisper, as if he’s trying not to hear himself.
“Nicky, all I did I did for you. I sacrificed my life for you. What happened when we were kids would have been repeated on and on through ages, to both of us in every form we ever took, if I didn’t do what I’m about to do.”
THEN, for the second and final time, the frame freezes on Dan and Nicky Teensma on the bed, the knife stretched between their bellies like a placenta.
A HOWLING CREEPS under the frozen image and then we cut to paramedics kicking down the door of the motel room at dawn.
Inside, the devastation is so complete it remains indescribable for several seconds, a kind of phantasmagoria of the type that Branson would stage with increasing fervor — some would say to the point of derangement — throughout his later career.
When we’re finally able to make sense of the room’s interior, what we see is the boy drenched in blood, leaning on the long knife like a cane. There is something old about him, but, no matter how many times I watch the film, I’ve never been able to explain what it is. I’ve attempted to ask Branson, to which he’s replied only, “We are all heading in that direction.”
The paramedics approach warily at first, but Nicky Teensma is beyond violence now.
There is no sign of a second body and there is no sound until one of the paramedics clears his throat.
Without blinking, the boy says, “My name is Nicky Teensma and I’m ready to spend my life in jail.”
The screen freezes again, but this time the credits roll, the boy’s face slowly turning into that of Dan as a young man, which we remember from the film’s beginning, as though some awful cycle whose nature we will never comprehend has just completed a revolution.
By the time the screen goes black, the man staring at us, drenched in blood and ready for jail, is unmistakably the young man whose face the film opened on, his eyes aflame with the compulsion to murder a child.
If you watch the forthcoming Criterion disc on repeat, you will be treated to a fully, insidiously seamless experience. Soon, you’ll forget how many times you’ve seen the film, or even where its beginning and ending points are. Just don’t indulge too many times or what happened to me will happen to you.