The Supernatural Threat and Splendor of “Strawberry Mansion”
American films drown in fantasy, but far more terrible than its quantity is its quality. The sheer power of CGI has been harnessed primarily by corporate producers who have turned cinematic fantasies into dominant forms of mind-numbing, global propaganda. Yet at its best, fantasy is both a way of depicting realities too huge to be grasped at ground level and an imaginative release from everyday constraints. A new independent film directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, ‘Strawberry Mansion’, made on a budget, takes a wide range of cinematic techniques and deploys them in visibly practical ways to create a wild sci-fi world that satirizes dark tendencies of modern life while tapping into a haunted realm of frustrations and desires.
Audley and Birney joined forces a few years ago for another DIY fantasy, “Sylvio”, in which Birney plays the lead role – a gorilla who aspires to fame as a puppeteer – and Audley plays a talk show host. -show that made Sylvio famous. Although centered around an unreal character, created with costume and mime, set in a realistic context, the film contains a visionary effects-driven sequence that anticipates the extravagance that “Strawberry Mansion” is unleashing. The new film (out this Friday in theaters and next Friday online) is set in the year 2035 and stars Audley as James Preble, a ‘dream auditor’ for the US government, which established taxes on dreams. (Items that appear there are assigned values, a small percentage of which is calculated as tax.) Preble shows up in a lonely house in a green field to audit the dreams of an elderly widow, Annabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), aka Bella, who hasn’t filed in years and whose dreams are stored on over two thousand VHS tapes (not the new obligatory “airstick” format). Preble moves into her house (she insists he stays in a nearly empty bedroom, which he would share with his pet turtle) and gets to work, using some alluring retro updates of late-stage analog gear: a top-loading video deck connected by a hose-like cable to an observation headset the size of a shipping crate. (Preble is a throwback himself – he drives an early sixties Chevy Corvair and dresses in a hipster turn of the millennium version of early sixties detective clothing, complete with a tweed jacket, thin tie and fedora.)
The future, as sketched in colorful decorative detail by Audley and Birney, resembles the recent and outdated pre-digital past. Rather, the filmmakers’ apparent nostalgia sketches, with ironic charm, a dire vision of 2035, when the digital tools for creating and distributing images will be taken out of the hands of the public, even the hands of the government, and reserved for the ubiquitous commercial and dominant. forces. A symbolic clue to these forces appears in a recurring set of Preble’s dreams, in which he is stuck in a dull pink room (even the metal light fixtures and food containers are all the same white color) where a friend (Linas Phillips ) watch wearing popular brands of fast food and soft drinks – which Preble, shortly after, consumes in his car en route to the audit. It turns out that dreams are subjected by advertisers to product placement, and the federal tax on them is like a sales tax on imposed wishes.
However, in the house with Bella, who is an artist, Preble begins to notice flaws in the system that unites fantasy and reality, cracks in the window that separates them: in the house, a fly speaks to him and gives him a terrible warning. , and , in the first dream he audits, from 1985, a young Bella (Grace Glowicki) puffs on a dandelion — at his desk, taking off his headphones, he finds one of her puffs in his teacup. Inside the hyper-realistic and vivid dreams, Preble is a monochrome observer with spectral outlines and a halo, but he soon finds that Bella’s dreams and her realities intersect, and vice versa. When some of the products placed in her dreams end up in hers, she lends a helping hand by gifting him a homemade, chrome-plated, and shiny jeweled helmet that she had used as a dream shield. Freed by this device, Preble’s imagination takes him on ever freer, ever stranger adventures, which definitively break the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
Even describing the spooky wonders that Audley and Birney exude, with a combination of techniques, is to risk spoiling the clash of their inspirations. Bella’s adult son, Peter (played by Reed Birney, Albert’s uncle), shows up and, as if in free association with his name, transforms into a wolf. (Peter’s wife, Martha, and their son, Brian, also show up, and they’re played by Reed Birney’s real-life wife, Constance Shulman, and their son, Ephraim Birney.) After being seen by the talking fly in prismatic fly-vision, Preble sees his own face in a mirror like a writhing swarm of maggots; Bella and Preble’s recurring dreams at a restaurant feature a waiter who is a saxophone-playing frog (Albert Birney is in this costume); Bella and Preble are turned into beets and find themselves on a plate, observing their own dinner from the inside. The fly’s warning comes true, and in the film’s most wondrous moment, an escape route from a beleaguered closet leads to a fall from the sky into the ocean and then to a deserted island paradise. There’s a sailboat with a pair of friendly rats in sailors’ uniforms, and a monster with a ram’s skull and glowing blue eyes (Birney is also in this costume), which holds young Bella captive; a Bigfoot-like man covered head to toe in foliage finds himself shaggy with strips of videotape. Some effects are achieved with elaborate costumes and sets (including the fancifully decorated house where Birney’s mother and stepfather actually live); others, with CGI; even more, with stop-motion animation; and the last with thumbnails, stock footage, and a mix of video and film formats.
As Preble, Audley brings paper irony to the role of an ordinary man who, as he awakens to the strangeness of his ordinary life, remains something of an observer within it. Audley is one of the hidden protagonists of the last fifteen years of independent American cinema. As a director and actor, he was there at the start of the self-involving first-person realism movement that has been dubbed mumblecore, with his feature debut, “Team Picture,” which he also starred in. (He followed that up with a similar trio of quietly rambunctious romantic dramas, “Holy Land,” “Open Five,” and “Open Five 2.”) Audley has also starred in other directors’ films, and his screen presence is among the exemplars of the era and movement, including in films by young directors who have extended mumblecore to broader genre explorations (Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine”), theatrical rages ( “Bad Fever” by Dustin Guy Defa) and classically styled melodrama (“Christmas, Again” by Charles Poekel). There’s an inherent theatricality to his sense of reality – to his very presence – that curls up in his own films and is unleashed with shattering energy in those of others. (He also founded the NoBudge website, to showcase independent films that haven’t found other commercial outlets.) performance, which his own film concentrates in an impactful energy that emerges, in “Strawberry Mansion”, in the form of a serenely fervent lyricism.
Just as mumblecore more or less conquered mainstream cinema, thanks to the work of actors and filmmakers such as Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Barry Jenkins, the artifices of cinema cultured away from the genre’s personal moods and methods are come under his sway. The shift towards distant genres and tones is partly generational – as filmmakers age, confession becomes more difficult and drama becomes more abstract – and partly evolutionary, found in the simple need to expand one’s own ideas and to advance the art. (Between “Sylvio” and “Strawberry Mansion,” Birney made an animated film, “Tux and Fanny,” which brings a practical, lo-fi sensibility similar to an over-professional genre.) Although the pivot to fantasy in ‘Strawberry Mansion’ lacks the invigorating immediacy of Audley’s previous films as director and actor – and, indeed, it lacks the musings on art and life that energize ‘Sylvio’ – he takes up the most powerful cinematic challenge of the time: the poisoned media environment in which filmmakers like Audley and Birney work. He largely succeeds.
The outlandish and playful methods by which Audley and Birney conjure up the audacious but cohesive story of supernatural menace and splendor are the main achievement of the film. Its critical drama of corporate minds and its romantic drama of gothic reverberations remain somewhat superficial; his fantasies fall short of the furies of hidden desires that Buñuel’s cinematic surrealism brought to life, with simpler methods and riskier clarity. Rather, the film’s low-budget virtuosity stands as an end in itself – as a vital example of untapped possibilities, as an act of resistance to the recuperation of fantasy for independent cinema, for an imagination that pays no rent to the lords of intellectual property and owe no loyalty to the moralizing propaganda of their addictive fandom.