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THE GLUT OF NEWBORNS following the arrival of the Criterion Truck bearing the first official Blut Branson Criterion DVD sends Paul Broth back to the tree he hangs himself from once a year.

 

Nothing spooks him more than newborns and nothing calms him more than hanging himself from this tree.

 

The original myth, as I’ve received it, is that Paul Broth founded Dodge City as a community of deserters from some inland war that’s no longer on the books and hung himself when that war caught up with him, remaining in the air for several months until the branch broke and he fell back to earth, into what was by then a semi-functional, if isolated, community.

 

Now he’s known only for the periodicity of his going up into and coming back down from the tree, neither state a permanent antidote to the other. There’s some debate as to whether he dies and returns from the dead each time, or if he’s found a means of hanging by his neck without turning all the way off. Either way, the observable fact is that he takes to the tree and depends from it once a year, coming down a few months later to resume his quiet, private life among the living in town.

 

Over the course of the months he spends hanging, Paul Broth makes a series of pronouncements about life in Dodge City, ever more finely delineating its innermost nature, rewriting our laws, our history, our religion in a stream-of-consciousness which a rotating crew of stenographers is on hand to record, until the branch breaks, returning him to the land of the living and the same blindness as to the true order of things that the rest of us live in year-round.

 

EACH TIME HE HEADS for the tree, which looms above a swamp at the edge of town — the only structure in sight is the Welcome Center, at the far edge — a procession that includes the hangman and a few spectators follows behind.

 

This year, the procession includes three of the newborns who’ve occasioned his flight, crawling through the swamp, growing indistinguishable as the mud covers them, as well as me, Big Pharmakos, and the hangman, who has nothing to do but hold the rope until Broth is ready for it. He wears his hood, though we all know who he is.

 

When we reach the tree, we stand back, reminding ourselves to see Broth’s hanging as a predictable natural phenomenon, no stranger than the reopening of a century plant or the return of an errant bird population after a winter away. He climbs with the rope already around his neck, creeping out onto the branch that has grown in place of the branch that broke after he hung himself from it last time. This is the most precarious moment, as he’s still mortal here, subject to the normal laws of physics: if he falls without the rope to catch him, he could easily break a leg.

 

I can’t watch. I close my eyes and think, If only I could climb that high, maybe I could hang myself with impunity too.

 

*****

I DON’T OPEN MY EYES until I hear the loud crack of the rope breaking his fall. He hangs with his hands in his pockets, gagging, kicking his feet.

 

When he’s recovered from the shock and entered whatever state of equilibrium he enters, he looks down at the newborns and begins to speak: “There are several of you down there, I know. But, to me, there is only one. One of me up here, one of you down there. All things being equal.”

 

He continues: “Yours is to be a grave and tremendous fate. A life’s work that very few in this town, or in any town, even any city, any country, will come anywhere close to realizing. Since it is well known that he doesn’t fly, under any circumstances, and will thus never visit us here in our place of exile, I hereby dub you the Dodge City Lars Von Trier. The entire filmography of that august world figure is hereby commuted onto you, as a birthright. Whatever else you may do in the years ahead, in all the time you still have, it will be in excess of the vast accomplishment already behind you.”

 

He gags, kicking his legs, spittle running away from his chin like a strand of wet dental floss.

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“To think of having made all the films of Lars Von Trier, as well as the legendary television series The Kingdom, at three days old … the mind boggles.” With this, Paul Broth coughs and goes silent. He hangs like an actual hung man, urine streaming down one pant leg and onto his shoe, and we turn away fearing that, perhaps this time, he has died in earnest. Every year, we remind ourselves, feels like the year when he’ll finally die for good, and we’ll never again have occasion to believe in the invincibility of our founder.

 

Naturally, this freights his pronouncement with considerable gravity. Though there’s no consensus as to which newborn he anointed — assuming we are incapable of seeing all three as a single being — the fact that the Dodge City Lars Von Trier is among us now, crawling at our feet, is no small thing. The significance of having fleshed out that body of work, at so young an age, with so little self-awareness and next to no resources, makes us feel we are in the presence of a saint.

 

A saint, though, with an awful burden on his shoulders, a lifetime of asking himself Where, after having created the life’s work of Lars Von Trier in three days, do I go in the years and decades to come?

 

A saint who, perhaps, ought to have been martyred in his moment of greatest potency, already receding into the past as we crawl through the swamp away from the hanging tree. We look down at the newborns and think I wouldn’t wish that fate on any of them, while, at the same time, trying to decide which of the three to venerate, casting the other two into the same mediocrity we have cast ourselves into, never to emerge except vicariously through the one we vest with our yearning for the divine.

 

*****

AS WE CROSS THE SWAMP, three official stenographers hurry to take our places at the foot of the tree, where, for the time being, Paul Broth hangs silent and listless. We refrain from sharing his pronouncement with them, so as to keep the revelation private, if only for tonight.

 

We make our way to the Welcome Center, where there’s a midnight breakfast on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all the pancakes served on paper plates printed with Paul Broth’s face, the syrup dispensed from pitchers in the shape of his head, and a life-size plastic hanging tree in the center of the concourse, its branches ever full of crawling children, their mothers stuffing down pancakes with one eye on them, ready to pounce the moment they crawl too close to the noose.

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IT’S TAKEN A MONTH TO PRODUCE THE FIRST BLUT BRANSON CRITERION DVD, but now it’s spring and the Release Party is upon us .

 

What’s more, two of his most celebrated shorts have been included as special features — 2 Old Ppl, about two best friends who, upon growing old, discover that one of them has turned into two old people while the other has turned into none; and Our Beloved Carefree Child Was Murdered, about a man whose profession it is to accept responsibility for having murdered teenagers that actually committed suicide, so their parents don’t have to feel guilty about not having been there for them.

 

In advance of the Release Party, the entire downtown is converted into an Anything-goes Zone. Professor Dalton has been on the prowl with Big Pharmakos since last night, drinking, finalizing his speech, and fending off paparazzi demanding to know whether the rumor that Branson himself might appear has any basis in fact.

 

THEN, BECAUSE WE CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER, THE RELEASE PARTY BEGINS. We’re tearing half-naked through the streets, eating fresh-killed hocks of goat and lamb, crushing boxes of wine on our faces and lapping it off one another, bellowing at the smoggy sky as the Criterion Truck pulls in. We hurl ourselves upon it, tearing open the back before it’s stopped moving, burying ourselves in DVD’s, basking in the canonization of our first genuine saint.

 

The Truck opens beneath us, spewing boxes like confetti. We’re buried, writhing in glory, heedless of suffocation.

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It’s all good until a slimy bursting overrides our glee and we fall silent as hundreds of repressed babies tear through the women among us. They rise from their mothers’ shoulders, armpits, faces, and scalps, crawling out of the afterbirth to push aside DVD’s and howl at the lights of Dodge City, the first they’ve ever seen.

 

SOME CONTEXT: 17 years ago, Professor Dalton pioneered a non-abortive family planning technique whereby fertilized embryos could be shifted out of the mother’s womb and into another part of her body — the shoulder, the armpit, the face, the scalp — and sit there, inert as benign tumors, until such time as the mother was ready to birth them, when the embryo would simply be pushed back into the womb with a pool cue and allowed to the develop there as normal.

 

Dodge City women have been availing themselves of this treatment since then without incident, until now, when, it appears, the absurd excitement surrounding Branson’s Criterion Release has caused the embryos to develop and hatch all at once, exploding from the places they’d been stored, emerging fully-formed from the wreckage of their mothers.

 

I’m no expert, but they look larger than newborns should: more like two-year-olds, standing up and yelling to announce their arrival.

 

*****

AS WE STRUGGLE TO EXTRICATE OURSELVES, Blut Branson himself appears from on high, camera out and ready, barking: “Test them for the fear of death! Test them for the fear of death!”

 

He’s shooting frantically, wading barefoot through the destroyed mothers among his pile of DVD’s. There’s a full crew behind him, people I’ve never seen before, and I start to wonder how much of this has been preordained for the sake of producing his next film, and how elated I ought to feel if it has been, given that I’m here to witness it, perhaps even to partake.

 

He is everywhere at once, swirling among the newborns, attaching mics to their bare chests, making sure their voices can be heard in his headphones.

 

Then he turns to us and says, “Your job is to rank how scared of death these newborns are. On a scale of 1 to 10.”

 

No one moves.

 

“Now!” he shouts. “Do you want to be part of the next Blut Branson film or not?”

 

Still no one moves.

 

“How are we supposed to find out?” someone finally asks.

 

“Ask them!!” he shrieks. “How do you think? Look at that pile of corrupted flesh … that is their mothers. Show them that. Say, One day that will be you. What do you think about that? How does that make you feel?”

 

Aware that my chance to have a hand in a Branson film is now or never, I run up to the nearest newborn and ask it these exact words. It doesn’t respond. I try the next one, and likewise get no response.

 

“What do we do if we get no response?” someone else asks, sparing me the indignity.

 

Branson pauses, checking his rage before replying. “Speechlessness is a 10. Highest possible fear of death. They’re all 10’s! They’re all 10’s, aren’t they!” he shouts, standing outside the Criterion Truck, crushing the DVD’s, indifferent to his old work, focused utterly on the new.

 

“Perfect! Every Newborn’s a 10! That’s the title of my next film!!”

 

If there is such a thing as a God, it never addressed its Creation with more conviction than this.

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.

nickyteensma

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.

NB:

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.