By Christopher Sharrett.
My subtitle is taken from a moment in Rick Alverson’s film The Mountain, where we see a black-and-white, furniture-bound TV, the type representative of the 1950s, showing Perry Como singing “Home on the Range,” a song that is close to a national anthem, and is referred to as an “anthem of the West.” It is used effectively in a number of films to enhance social criticism and debunk constant American utopianism, such as a fine scene in Max Ophuls’ masterpiece, The Reckless Moment (1949), where it is hummed by a pawnbroker. In Alverson’s film, the song is torn apart at least twice; first, the song is juxtaposed with one of those fake (and very bad) landscapes, the faux Albert Bierstadt or Frederick Church knock-offs (they are far more degraded than that) that one could buy in a dime store – and still can, although the dime stores are now dollar stores. Second, the song appears at the end, almost as a eulogy for the two young, lobotomized young people who try to escape the doctor and the crazed father. But as they make their way up a snowy mountain road, we find that they are going nowhere, this last stab at the American utopia denied.
I’ve thought that last year’s Wild Life is one of the most effective films of recent times in transforming the common image of the 1950s, at least as offered to us since the Reagan era, the image that renders the 50s in bright Pop Art colors, with the hobbies and pop stars of the decade always in the forefront. The Mountain goes several steps further by using mise-en-scene to make a caustic statement about the period; we see grays, browns, dark greens, and a little beige, with hardly a single bright primary color swatch to lighten the mood. Alverson also uses long takes of his rigorous, geometric compositions of hallways, a corner of a room, the aforementioned TV, a dirty storeroom, a skating rink, and a filthy men’s toilet whose walls are covered with images of nude women (a common thing as I recall), at the center of which is an apparent hermaphrodite – this transgender phenomenon is important to the film, certainly in defiance of everything that was the 1950s culture of repression.
Against this grim décor is the story of Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a traveling lobotomist, and his young, perpetually depressed (so it seems) photographer, Andy (Tye Sheridan). For a moment Fiennes seems a rescuer, taking Andy out of his ugly clapboard house, and his oppressive father (Udo Kier). But swiftly the doctor, with his smooth, unruffled manner (Goldblum dispenses with most of his eccentric mannerisms), becomes a representative mental health worker of the era, one whose goal is to shut up and render comatose people with any sort of mental illness – be it depression or paranoid schizophrenia – with lobotomy, a surgical lance hammered through an eye socket into the brain. The film – and mass culture – has given the impression, not altogether wrong, I think, that the central victims (there is no other word) were women. Frances Farmer and Rosemary Kennedy will forever stand out as examples of this particular barbarism visited upon the female. I recall how the Kennedy clan used to say they were “much saddened” by what happened to their daughter – of course the patriarch Joe called all the shots here, but was there no one able to resist? One of the major problems that would subject women to this horror was “promiscuity.” Now, as then, the sexual hunger of the female is taboo, and men claim their right to control it.
The Mountain is superb in its survey of a dead world, although I think those who complain about “slow cinema” (meaning any film not based on rapid editing and lots of effects) will run for the door. There is also the rather common notion of the horror film that the Other is hard to discern; the “normal” people are at least as crazy as the patients, and sanity becomes difficult to define.
We are taken into the corridors of a mental hospital that seems much too clean, but my point of reference here will always be Frederick Wiseman’s masterpiece Titicut Follies (1967), where the filmmaker takes us into the asylum-as-inferno, creating a picture of American medicine belonging to the seventeenth century. But this film is a rare achievement, an uncompromising indictment of psychiatric medicine and its monstrous caregivers. I still find this movie – a genuine horror film – difficult to watch. The hospital of The Mountain is nevertheless threatening for its barrenness, and the sense of the utter helplessness of its victims. The patients/victims would no doubt be helpless even with an advocate, such was the deference with which medicine was treated during the era.
Andy takes a liking to a young female patient named Susan (Hannah Gross) and has his first sex act with her, raising the ire of Fiennes and Susan’s seeming lunatic father Jack (Denis Lavant, a regular for Leos Carax, and unforgettable as the correlate for the repressed Claggart in Claire Denis’ adaptation of Billy Budd, Beau Travail ). Fiennes abandons Andy to Jack, who seems to represent other forms of the crackpot shrink of the era such as Arthur Janov, known for his Primal Scream therapy. But Jack could also be an avant-garde theater practitioner like Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski or Julian Beck; he gyrates about, striking grotesque poses, speaking a mash-up of French and English. His is one of the most fascinating screen performances of recent memory – but the character seems to me another monster of this narrative, nonetheless.
The denouement contains more comments on America as (anti-) utopia; we hear “Home on the Range” again, but I won’t give away anything else. The film owes much to David Lynch, who made a generation of filmmakers comfortable with images of furniture, broken plates, paint peeling on a wall, all rendered very deliberately, in a way that transforms cinema into art installation. There is a very Lynchian moment in The Mountain, when the camera cuts to two xylophone players, male and female, perfectly matched in wardrobe, standing in front of a closed theater curtain as Jack goes through his antics.
But how long will an audience raised on Spiderman tolerate this? The question is rhetorical, and that audience won’t see this or any experimental or foreign film. With all the industry talk about getting rid of cinemas and “physical” media, can we expect that the industry will continue paying attention to “niche” audiences, and will any interest in serious cinema remain?
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.